Literature From Lithuania: 18 Books to Get You Started
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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 Go, about 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