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Literature From Lithuania: 18 Books to Get You Started

The 2018 book fair in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, is a true cause for celebration this year—Lithuania, and its neighboring Baltic countries, is celebrating its 100th anniversary, and in Lithuania’s case, its restoration as an independent state. It was first unified as the Kingdom of Lithuania in 1253; it then became the vast and cosmopolitan political entity of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania during the 14th century, its borders extending far beyond today’s periphery. In the 16th century and for the next two hundred years Lithuania united with Poland, sharing its history. Its recent historical past, like so many other countries in central and northeastern Europe, is dark and painful, with occupation and reoccupation by the Soviet Union as well as by Nazi Germany. There were Soviet deportations of Lithuanian civilians as well as partisans, and the near obliteration of the country’s Jewish population, still a subject of reflection and debate today. Lithuania has gone through many incarnations in its complicated history, and its literature, sometimes written in languages other than Lithuanian, is a reflection of this history.

Nobel Prize-winning Czeslaw Milosz, or Adam Mickiewic, although they wrote in Polish, are considered national poets. Vilnius-born Tadeusz Konwicki also wrote in Polish, while Romain Gary/Émil Ajar, born Roman Kacew in Vilnius in 1914, wrote in French. During post-World-War-II Soviet occupation, those who wrote in Lithuanian were sometimes in exile and inspired others at home such as Antanas Skema with his modernist novel, The White Shroud, published in 1958, which recounts a poet’s path towards madness. The influential poet Tomas Venclova also became a writer in exile, emigrating from Lithuania to the US in 1977 as a dissident of the Soviet regime. He remains active, however, in cultural life in Lithuania.

The late Ricardas Gavelis wrote about his city of Vilnius and about Lithuania at large and most notably life under the Soviet system. But he also chronicled the nation’s early years of independence, questioning patriotism, identity, and national myths. His book, Vilnius Poker, published on the eve of Lithuanian independence was described by its French publisher as “a book about all the great modern capital cities devoured by the apathy and the temptation of oblivion. It is a portrait of a people stripped of their history. This is Dostoyevsky. This is Kafka and Burroughs. This is Kundera. It's a trap.”

Another book that focuses on Vilnius during the Soviet era is Jurgis Kunčinas’ Tula, an experimental novel about love told through the alcohol-infused thoughts of a narrator who guides the reader through the impoverished and bohemian neighborhood of Uzupis.

There are also a number of memoirs and historical novels that are a good starting point for readers who want to find out more about the country’s history. Jonas Mekas, a poet and influential filmmaker based in the US published his I Had Nowhere to Goabout being a young man in Lithuania during World War II and his subsequent emigration to the US. Ichoccas Meras’ Stalemate, and Grigory Kanovich’s Shetl Love Song recount the experience being Jewish before and during World War II. Ruta Sepetys, an American author, retraces her Lithuanian family’s experiences during World War II in two historical novels that describe the traumatic experiences of refugees. In Lithuania, a recent historical trilogy has been an absolute best-seller: the UK-based Kristina Sabaliauskaite's series, Silva Rerum, take place in 17th and 18th century Lithuania, bringing to life the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

UK publishers such as Noir Press, Parthian Press, Vagabond Voices, Peirene Press, and Oneworld Publications have all recently published or will publish Lithuanian voices that are new to English-language readers.

The list of 18 books below seeks to give readers a little taste of the variety and richness of the literature produced or inspired by Lithuania.  


Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are the Market Focus countries at this year’s London Book Fair, 10-14 April 2018. Public author events around the UK are organised by the British Council Literature. 


Banner image of Vilnius in the 16th century

The Dedalus Book of Lithuanian Literature

The Dedalus Book of Lithuanian Literature attempts to reflect the transition of Lithuanian literature since the beginning of the twentieth century, when Lithuania was still an agrarian and colonized country on the margins of Europe, to its present modern and post-modernist phase. Lithuanian literature was suppressed in the nineteenth century by the Russians but by the eve of WWII was flourishing again. A new Russian occupation reversed this and led to a Soviet-style socialist realism in fiction. The last decades of the twentieth century saw the rise of a new generation of writers who dealt with Lithuania's history and the contemporary world. The Dedalus Book of Lithuanian Literature features the classic authors and the authors who have only recently come to prominence like Herkus Kuncius or Giedra Radvilaviciute. Translations by Jura Avizienis, Ada Mykole Valaitis, and Jayde Will.

The Issa Valley

Thomas, the child-protagonist of The Issa Valley, is subject to both the contradictions of nature in this severe northern setting and sometimes enchanting, sometimes brutal timbre of village life. There are the deep pine and spruce forests, the grouse and the deer, and the hunter's gun. There is Magdalena, the beautiful mistress of the village priest, whose suicide unleashes her ghost to haunt the parish. There are also the loving grandparents with whom Thomas lives, who provide a balance of the not-quite-Dostoevskian devils that visit the villagers. In the end, Thomas is severed from his childhood and the Issa River, and leaves prepared for adventures beyond his valley.  Translated by Louis Iribarne.

Native Realm

After the Second World War, Czeslaw Milosz was exiled for many years from his home country of Lithunia. In Native Realm, he evokes that homeland and his years away from it; how it nurtured him and how its divisions and destruction shaped a generation. Exploring such diverse memories as a Soviet officer drinking tea with his little finger sticking out, or two Chinese girls passing, laughing, by a New York subway station, Milosz uses these to both 'bring Europe closer to the Europeans' and to capture the formative moments in his life, from his Catholic education to his time in Paris, all with his distinctive honesty, elegance and self-awareness.

Stalemate

In the Vilna Ghetto during World War II, Nazi Commandant Schoger demands that all children be sent to the death camp. When Abraham Lipman pleads with him to spare their lives, Schoger reconsiders, and tells Lipman there will be a chess match between himself and Lipman’s only surviving son, Isaac, a chess prodigy. If Isaac wins, the children will live, but Isaac will die. If Isaac loses, the children will die, but Isaac will live. Only a draw will save the ghetto from this terrible predicament. The chess game begins: a nightmarish contest played over the course of several evenings, witnessed by an audience impotent to act, staking the lives of their children on a stalemate. This is a moving story of a father and a son who shame their cruel perpetrator with their dignity, spirit, and extraordinary courage. Translated by Jonas Zdanys.

Shtetl Love Song

Shtetl Love Song is a requiem for the pre-war Jewish shtetl, for a people and a way of life that was destroyed. Set in the rural Lithuanian landscape on the eve of World War II, Shtetl Love Song is full of tender affection, soft irony, and sharp observations. Guided by the memory of his beloved mother, the masterful narrator takes us into the very midst of his enchanted family world, recreating the past that is irrevocably destroyed and yet fully alive in his memory. Kanovich, himself a child of a Lithuanian shtetl who survived the Holocaust almost by a miracle, made it his mission to serve, against all odds, as a custodian of the collective memory of generations of Litvaks, Lithuanian Jews. Translated by Yisrael Elliot Cohen. 

Salt to the Sea

Although born in the US, author Ruta Sepetys takes inspiration from her Lithuanian family's past and history. In Salt to the Sea it is winter, 1945. Four refugees, each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies, and war make their way along with thousands of others to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance. Their paths converge, as they struggle for a passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom. 

I Had Nowhere to Go

Lithuanian-born poet and filmmaker Jonas Mekas was a major influence on New American cinema. He currently lives and works in New York City. In 1944, he and his brother Adolfas were taken by the Nazis to a forced labor camp in Elmshorn, Germany. The Soviet occupation prevented him from returning to his native Lithuania after the war and, classified as a “displaced person”, he lived in DP camps in Wiesbaden and Kassel. Towards the end of 1949 he and his brother emigrated to New York. In his autobiography I Had Nowhere to Go he describes his survival in the camps and his arrival in New York. Mekas tells a universal story, that of an émigré who can never go back, whose loneliness in his new world is emblematic of human existence.

The Junction

Lithuania's Tomas Venclova is one of Europe's greatest living poets. His work speaks with a moral depth exceptional in contemporary poetry. Venclova's poetry addresses the desolate landscape of the aftermath of totalitarianism, as well as the ethical constants that allow for hope and perseverance. The Junction brings together entirely new translations of his most recent work as well as a selection of poems from his 1997 volume Winter Dialogue. Translated by Diana Senechal, Constantine Rusanov and Ellen Hinsey. 

Magnetic North

Magnetic North: Conversations with Tomas Venclova is a book in the European tradition of works such as Conversations with Czeslaw Milosz and Aleksander Wat's classic My Century. Taking the form of an extended interview with Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova, the book interweaves Eastern European postwar history, dissidence, and literature. Venclova, who personally knew Akhmatova, Pasternak, Milosz, Brodsky, and many others, was also one of the five founding members of the Lithuanian Helsinki Group, one of the first human rights organizations in Eastern Europe. Magnetic North provides an in-depth account of ethical choices and artistic resistance to totalitarianism over a half century. It also details Venclova's artistic work, expanding our understanding of the significance of this writer, whose books are central to contemporary European culture. 

Six Lithuanian Poets

The poets whose work is included in this anthology were born in the 1960s, when Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union, and mostly started publishing after the country achieved independence in 1991. Unlike their predecessors, the poets of this generation are not concerned with political themes but rather with issues of aesthetics and existential quests. While each follows his or her unique path, they all share a penchant for experimentation and an ironic, post-modern perspective, following European literary trends rather than domestic poetic traditions. Translations by Eugenijus Ališanka, Kerry Shawn Keys, Medeine Tribinevicius, Laima Vincė and Jonas Zdanys.

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Olivia is a Paris-based journalist and editor.

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