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Eglė Frank is a prose writer and essayist, born in Vilnius. She graduated from Vilnius Pedagogical University and has worked in editorial offices and an advertisement agency. The Dead Also Dance is her first book. “Writing for me is a legal way to express my inner darkness, while peeking out of the corner of my eye into the beyond. I dare say, I know the price of this deal”.
The short stories of Eglė Frank are sensual, inventive, uncanny, with a certain Lynchian vibe, but still firmly rooted in everyday life. And in that life anything can happen.

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reflections on belonging

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Graphic Novels

Lina Buividavičiūtė

by
Neringa Butnoriūtė

Translated by Saulius Venclovas

 

Eglė Frank, Mirę irgi šoka. K.: Kitos knygos, 2022.

One of Eglė Frank’s characters asks: “It‘s always interesting, when everything is just starting out, isn’t it?“ Well, I thought the same about her debut book, The Dead Also Dance. Here, short pieces transmit an encrypted message that something will “finally happen”: when the doors open, something will happen – perhaps a prophetic dream will finally come true.

This change is exclusively promised to women in Frank’s short stories. They like to wander into the funerals of strangers, play with the feelings of others, and listen to the neighboring madwoman beyond the wall. They love other women and have no interest in starting a family. The characters themselves are first to intuitively sense the illicit nature of their actions and are then followed by the reader, who starts to recognize in their behavior the qualities of the femme fatale. However, Frank’s women never openly identify what leads them to get high on fringe emotions and look for them within themselves. They involuntarily strive to kill not themselves but their image: to feel the taste of blood and metal, to sever their long braid and tarnish their cultured renommée. The appearance of a tramp called Romka in the short story My Name Is Romka, one of the few men in the book, becomes important only so that a woman belonging to another social circle may assert: I am also Romka, that is, not simply positive and “well-adjusted,” but a person belonging to the periphery.

Should any of this be surprising? I doubt it. However, the literary world Frank has created whispers to us differently: yes, it still is surprising, while heavy moral shackles and social expectations continue to constrict the lives of women. Yes, if the person that falls under the gaze of the author is not a traipsing teenager but a mature mediocrity. Yes, if everyday life is overgrown by emptiness like a house overgrown by moss, and the urge to rupture its walls is great.

The most important qualities of Frank’s stories are invisible – they may only be implied. As often happens in Lithuanian fiction, a person’s inner state battles with the outside events. The Dead Also Dance provides descriptions of a femme fatale’s world through everyday details. The senses expand until the area of repressed desires and instincts – Carl Jung’s “shadow” archetype – like in a psychoanalysis session is unearthed. The writing is founded on the premise that essential answers may be found in the subconscious but are sometimes independent of it and may be explained irrationally. Perhaps that is why Frank’s short stories investigate at length the human capacity to understand more than what may be discerned at first glance. A strong bond with the outside world here also signifies a strong sense of lust and destruction. Life experiences are surrounded with self-referential associations, feelings, visions, prophetic symbols (e.g., the flat of my beloved was as eight as infinity; my friend foretold that I was living my ninth life). These associations seem celestial, drawing similarities to the fortune-telling of some old enchantress: a woman receives power, which at the same time does not override the importance of intuition or simply mystery, which infuses life with its vitality. In The Dead Also Dance, that which frightens also attracts, that which is eccentric emancipates. Thus, the encounter with the shadow is the encounter with the self.

Frank’s texts have a hint of the noir aesthetic. However, the reader may begin to feel a different, Lithuanian version of the noir because no specific features of the thriller genre is portrayed. It is instead influenced by metaphorical poverty (degradation, the aesthetics of ugliness), prominent in the Lithuanian art of the Soviet era and up until the end of the twentieth century. This period in Lithuania is characterized by oppression from all corners as well as material and spiritual poverty, often accompanied by boredom and bleakness. Compensation for actual poverty was sought by artists who developed the worlds of characters resisting meaninglessness and created situations where culture, sensitivity, and imagination would be preserved. In literature this phenomenon took the form of tension between social and individual being, which is often “absorbed” by an atmosphere full of decay, spiritual shadow, allegory, and psychologism. The initial intention, of course, was indirect resistance against a totalitarian ideology. However, as a result, this trope has entrenched itself in Lithuanian fiction. “Poverty” is utilized in different ways: in the deconstruction of myths (Ričardas Gavelis) or in the creation of gothic utopias (Jolita Skablauskaitė) but primarily in the search for humanism in the face of oppression and the exploration of the boundaries of good and evil (Juozas Aputis).

This literary feature of Lithuanian fiction is recognizable in Frank’s short stories. The writer also places emphasis on the individual’s inner world in an environment of "poverty.” However, she expands this notion by showing the “tainted” morality of her characters. They seem to have become naturally rooted in this environment: they are placed in unclean corners of the capital, under bridges, in rooms stuffed with the smell of senility, and in cold churchyards. The short stories emanate an obvious sympathy for the older generation, which in a culture of poverty, was able to maintain individuality and tradition due to its dignity, wisdom, and bond with nature. That might explain why the action seems so far removed from the sterile contemporary world. It may even seem that Frank’s prose is deceptively reminiscent of the black-and-white works of classic Lithuanian photographers (Antanas Sutkus, Romualdas Rakauskas). They often focus on everyday life, romantically portraying the connection between humans and nature (e.g., people next to blooming trees), traditions fading into the past (street markets, pilgrimages). A resemblance to such works is seen in Frank’s attempt to witness the inherent beauty of a single movement:

“Once, while waiting for the green light at the intersection, a bus stopped nearby. Through the window, I saw an old man – a birdlike profile with freckled, darkened skin – with a jasmine twig in his trembling hands. He was clutching and smelling it – wanting, greedy – as if trying to suck every last drop of life out of it.” (p. 45)

“Madonnas would appear to her in the form of seemingly simple women: a cleaning lady, a cashier, a vegetable seller in the street market, a prostitute near the station.” (p. 30)

Nevertheless, the essence of Frank’s short stories is not humanism, but provocation. By joining opposite elements – life and death, divinity and downfall, animus and anima – the writer reveals the clash between the sacred and chtonic worlds. The former is governed by conservative Christian ethics: perception of this order constrains the characters. The latter is guided by logic that disregards taboo and justifies eroticism and sensuality. Frank’s femme fatale balances between both worlds, but the chtonic one is correspondent with their actions. They are intoxicated by the illicit nature of a potential deed (to blasphemously see a saint in a prostitute, to suck the life out of a plant) and the possibility to cross real and superstitious boundaries (e.g., love for another woman is compensation for a lack of motherly love).

Due to such imagery, The Dead Also Dance as a book seems partly realistic, partly dreamlike. As in the works of Ingmar Bergman, confrontation with death signifies confrontation with life, while visiting visions and dreams provide depth to from a psychoanalytic perspective. The destructive inclinations Frank reveals belong to the sphere of pleasure: here everyday situations are imbued with the ambiguity of lustfulness or even obscenity, while rot and decay may prove to be beautiful. Sometimes emphasis of this notion only requires a symbolic gesture: sisters are given evangelical names, Martha and Mary, like the sisters of Lazarus; thyme is seen as “lizard-like growths smelling of small blossoms” (p. 67). Therefore, it is unsurprising that in The Dead Also Dance the inclination towards self-destruction and a character’s downfall leads to freedom. With such a relationship with the world, Frank’s work enters the Lithuanian literary context of the last decade, where a dominant feature is the tendency to fetishize darkness and subtly change the taboo-filled understanding of womanhood.

 

 

 

 

 

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