Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė was born  in 1976. Her first book of short stories was written while she was still at school. Černiauskaitė is the author of four novels, many novellas, some short stories collections, numerous plays and one collection of poetry. Her work has been translated into Slovenian, Bulgarian, Italian, English, Russian and other languages as well as included into various anthologies and collections. Her novel Kvėpavimas į marmurą (Breathing into Marble) was published recently in United Kingdom (Nottingham: Noir Press, 2017). She is the first Lithuanian to receive the European Union Prize for Literature.

Her prose is deeply psychological, and even Freudian. She portrays people in difficult and unusual emotional situations, and watches them disentangling themselves. She often analyses families, and relationships between men and women; more recently, children take a very prominent part in her cast of characters.

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reflections on belonging

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Graphic Novels

by Lina Buividavičiūtė


Giedra Radvilaviciute review 02

The fame of Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė, a writer, playwright, and poet, is not limited to the Lithuanian literary scene. For her novel Kvėpavimas į marmurą (Breathing into Marble, 2006) the author received the European Union Prize for Literature, while her play Liusė čiuožia (Lucy Goes Skating, 2004) was awarded the main prize at the Berlin Theatre Festival.  Černiauskaitė’s literary works have been translated into a number of foreign languages, and her plays have been staged in Lithuania and beyond.

I was first introduced to this author’s work in high school, when we went to see her play Lucy Goes Skating. What a strong impression it made on me. How deeply it touched me! Later, at university, I was “breathing into marble,” which was stifling, but not because of the novel itself. It was because of what, having read it, I saw inside myself and in the world. I admired the author for her wish and ability to tackle “uncomfortable” themes of womanhood, motherhood, a couple’s relationship, and the connection between parents and children. Before opening The Well, I felt concerned about several issues: does the author have new ways of presenting her characters? In other words, can she still surprise the reader, eleven books later? Also, I was intrigued, lured by and at the same time afraid of the axis of this book or at least what I presumed would be the axis—recent events in Lithuania when an allegedly mentally unstable mother threw her child into a well. However, this incident is delivered subtly in the novel; it acts as a starting point for the unraveling of other narrative lines. What I found most charming about this novel was not the artistic “freshness” of characters, but its theme, the masterful command of language, the style of writing, its sensitivity, the quality of connectivity. And, unavoidably, the mystery, deep as a well.

When I think about the symbol of the well, what first springs to mind are, of course, archetypes, Jung, and the ambivalent water symbolism actualized by Mircea Eliade. Water represents the source of life, the beginning, and at the same time a force of nature or chaos, and something unfamiliar or unknowable. Water both resurrects and destroys. It protects and frightens. It is a place of emergence and expiry. Water is a human body, the pierced side of Jesus, a cleanser of sins. Water is quagmires, marshlands, murky depths. For me, well water is most readily associated with a metaphor for the structures of the subconscious and other abstract mental structures (the “shadow aspect” of the personality, the “trickster”): the existence of what we unavoidably know, with what is difficult to reach, with what should never run dry, even if we draw water from it every day. The author herself provides a beautiful choice of the symbol of the well: “In the times before humans discovered the water supply system, the well was the source of life. Cold, dark, deep; necessary. To draw water from it, one had to lean above its icy throat and feel one’s fragility. [...] the black pupil of the well sometimes gleams from the depth of the subconscious, piercing, inviting a direct encounter: human, where have you gone, come to draw water from me, I’m keeping it for you.” It seems to me that the well in this novel indeed embodies/enforces the unknown and the end while at the same time somehow represents permanence. It is not the only water mentioned in the novel, though. Particularly archetypal, echoing each other, meanings of the beginning and the end are revealed in a dream: “The nightmare of my childhood was [...] I am sitting in class and looking out the window when I see a massive wave rising from behind the forest. Tall, as tall as Telšiai Cathedral, translucently green, terrible and beautiful. I hear the sound of its tongue ravishing the bones of trees. I realize that we have about sixteen seconds of life left [...] But the strangest thing is the joy that is mixed with terror: I simply know that something is awaiting beyond that wave, something out of this life.” (98 p.).

The thread of the novel is being reeled onto this spool: Enikė’s little brother dies, and her father is unfaithful to her mother and has a daughter born outside of wedlock. The mother of that daughter, (former) lover Judita, throws her little Raselė into a well in a fit of passion. The thread of the narrative is spun further, revealing the fates of Judita; Butvydas, who loved her in the past; Enikė; her father; and son Arnas. The author creates a malleable network of connections—characters meet, having changed, a dozen of years or decades later and new relationship perspectives open up.

What I found the novel speaking about most clearly has already been covered and depicted in literature. It is trauma that, constantly changing, reaches across several generations—transgenerational trauma. It is parents who grew up in the dark and pass the darkness onto their children. Parents who are trying to nurture the light. These are encounters, intersections, non-meetings between the shadow and the predominant aspects of the personality, the fragile balance between good and evil. It is a novel about motherhood and fatherhood, both the marginal and extreme (Amelytė), and an attempt to bring in an element of good (Enikė’s own family). It is about the madness of love—that is how Judita loves Enikė’s father, and Butvydas loves Judita. It is about the multifaceted quality of the personality and the inevitable maturity that comes from experiencing loss, existential angst, the fragility of being and mortality. In her novel, the author subtly draws a watershed between various types of feelings—from elements, passion, madness to faithful, patient love. It is love as obsession and ever-patient love. It is love as destruction and love as a blessing. Love that fades away and grows stale. Love that persists and grows. A man’s feelings for a woman. A mother’s feelings for her daughter. Understanding that carries fatherly love—it’s about that.

The Well offers plenty of food for thought: is it possible to free oneself from those collective burn marks, the enclaves of grandparents’ and parents’ history? What is a person overpowered by the shadow aspects of their personality capable of doing? What forms can motherhood take? What responsibility for horrific consequences falls onto the father? Is it possible to be redeemed from one’s most terrible sins? Ultimately, is it possible to live having disobeyed the fifth commandment?

As has been mentioned in the beginning of this review, the language that the author uses is incisive, captivating, able to convey the most profound meaning, her epithets and metaphors are artful and original (liepžiedėlis—sweet linden blossom, mažytė it pienė stalinė lempelė—tiny as a dandelion table lamp).  The very first chapter, filled with the foreboding of danger, engages and shocks: it is a certain point of encounter between tenderness, purity, and existential horror. The narrative angle varies from the second-person singular to the first person, and narration in the third person.

In this novel, the author offers (not too naive?) a perspective: in the end, there is plenty of space left for the light side of existence and for the hope that the circle of transgenerational traumas closes.  I would also like to believe that. Only, regretfully, I don’t know how anymore/yet.

I, too, have a well. How deep is yours?

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