Bird Droppings from Estonia: Jaan Kross (1920—2007)
Archived Articles 14 Mar 2008 Hilary BirdEWR
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2007 saw the death of two great Estonian writers. Readers living abroad – of one, Jaan Kross, you may have heard of. Of the other, Debora Vaarandi, the likelihood is that you have not. They lived through tumultuous times, were grounded in recognizable Estonian literary traditions and represented different strands of Estonian society and politics. In both instances the departure point for life, the world and the universe is Estonia and a moving message of tolerance and hope in a difficult world. This week a look at Kross’ legacy, next week at Vaarandi’s.

Jaan Kross is Estonia's most-translated writer (his books have been published in 23 languages and sold over a million copies) and his life and work is the epitome of an old wisdom. Euripides, who died ca 406 B.C., said, ‘the tongue is mightier than the blade’, William Shakespeare (in ‘Hamlet’, written 1600), opines that ‘many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose quills’ and Tom Jefferson, in 1796, advised the great libertarian Tom Paine ‘go on doing with your pen what in other times was done with the sword’. But most folk will know this sentiment from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s (author of ‘Ben-Hur’) 1839 play ‘Richelieu’ as ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’.

The pen-weapon is particularly important for small nations. It seldom has anything to do with the willful adoption of pacifism as a philosophy but is usually more to do with that fact that small nations have fewer material resources and fewer political choices. ‘ The greatest nations have all acted like gangsters’, said the American film director Stanley Kubrick, ‘and the smallest like prostitutes’. But this maxim does not necessarily apply to Art.

Jaan Kross was nominated several times for a Nobel Prize (and should have won it! HB) and is the recipient of many awards from Estonia and abroad. He was born in Tallinn. His father was a craftsman who served on Tallinn City Council and was, according to Kross, a society figure. Kross attended a progressive school. ‘I wouldn’t say that the Westholm school fostered elitism said Kross, (Estonian Literary Magazine, 2000) ‘ in my opinion, elitism means a certain feeling of life-long superiority - come what may, we can take I’. Memories of his school years at Westholm are the subject of Kross’ ‘The Wikman Boys’(1987) and ‘The Mesmer Circle’ (1996); ‘everything Estonian was our prime concern, this came naturally’.

In 1938 Kross went to the University of Tartu, specializing in the history of law, a subject that provided him with material for his later novels. He became a lecturer in 1944-46. He was arrested by the Germans in 1944 but released after feigning drunken incompetence. He was given work as an interpreter and could not believe his luck. ‘A glass of brandy probably saved me from death on the Eastern Front’. Two years later, the Russians arrested him. The ‘crime’ in both cases was loyalty to a self-governing Estonia. ‘Had I succeeded in escaping to the West in 1944 … perhaps I’d have stuck to academic work. Would I have been an Estonian writer abroad? To be a writer in a foreign language would probably not have been morally acceptable…’ Kross was sent to a Soviet prison camp in Siberia. He was released in 1954 after the death of Stalin and the ‘thaw’ that followed Khrushchev’s denunciation of ‘the cult of personality’. Kross’ first post exile collection of poems, Söerikastaja(1958), was a major work of a period of the ‘thaw’. It showed an interest in social problems, a keen sense of civic responsibility and social satire. It was not prudent, however, to relax too much. Although times had changed for the better, the USSR was never a libertarian regime and Kross set his subject in the neutral Ukraine.

The epic historical novel
Kross turned to the epic novel in the 1970s. The setting was Estonia but a different time . This device to dodge the censor had been used in 1880 by Eduard Bornhöhe, author of the influential Tasuja (The Avenger) based on Hoeneke’s 14c Chronicle. Tasuja is not a great literary work (more a ripping, tear jerking good yarn) but it is a great milestone in the political history of Estonian literature. Bornhöhe, by sneaking past the Tzarist censor, set a precedent in subversion that allowed Estonians to read a popular novel about their own history in their own language and read, between the lines, a message of hope. A landmark, indeed!

Kross’ epic histories started with the four-part ‘Between the Three Plagues’ (1970-80), based on a chronicle by Balthasar Russow, (1536 –1600) written during the decline of German and the rise of Swedish hegemony. The author called these books ‘ psychological character novels’ . Once again, Kross’ literary antecedent is Estonian, Anton Hansen Tammsaare, Estonia’s BIG writer of Dostoievskian, long, self-consciously ‘literate’ novels. Tammsaare, however, was writing in a free Estonia, where he could express himself directly. One of Kross' great skills was to get his message over by stealth.

Major Kross motifs in ‘Plagues’ (and most of the work of the 1970s and 1980s) are the nature of power, the nature of truth and the fate of Estonians in a time of occupations and plagues. In ‘Plagues’ the power of the temporary, material power possessed by the German nobility and the Russian Empire, is contrasted to the power of enduring fame, represented by Russow the writer. Parallel to this runs a discourse on truth - both the Germans and the Swedes want Russow to reflect their version. A third important theme is examined in ‘The Tzar’s Madman’, set in 19c Estonia. Who, in a system that locks up dissenters, is mad and who sane? These themes reflect the author’s own experiences in occupied Estonia, his problems and his issues of conscience. The issues are so obviously contemporary that one wonders how our Jaan got away with it. One can only assume that the Soviet censor‘s grasp of Estonian was poor, not a difficult surmise! There is also the fact that these weighty tomes are remarkably likable. The author’s view that everyone’s life can be honourable, even if a person has to compromise, is attractive to all members of the human race.

Paradoxes, ambiguities, hints and ironies are legion. The main characters were famous Estonians (to Estonians) – they included the painter Johann Köhler (The Third Mountain, 1975), an optic and mechanic Bernard Schmidt (Sailor Against the Wind, 1987) and Nobel Prize candidate, Prof. Martens (Professor Martens’ Departure, 1985). If the real central characters in the novels were not Estonian (The Emperor’s Madman, 1978; The Rakvere Novel, 1982) they were accompanied by invented Estonians who tell the story in first person.

A social-democrat

Kross never stopped writing but, like many other writers in the ex-Soviet bloc, he became involved in politics in post Soviet Estonia and joined the social-democratic moderate party (Mõõdukad). ‘Parliament’ says Kross, ‘was quite an experience, but I don’t think my contribution had any particular value. I thought that work at my desk at home was probably worth more than being just one of a hundred MPs ... Still, I saw important things there that I could not have seen anywhere else.’ During his time as an MP Kross explained the connection between parliamentary reform and pissing: Estonia has a parliamentarian constitution, it seems, because of absence from the chamber, at a critical moment, of a supporter of presidential rule, who was then taking a leak.

Janika Kronberg of the Estonian Institute says ‘in the confident composition of his works, Kross has varied both form and narration, so that his works fit into the canons of classicism, modernism or even postmodernism’. But Kross himself was endearingly modest about his achievements: ‘all this talk about me as a classic gives me the creeps. But on the other hand - we have to find our classics somewhere, so it looks as if I’ll have to put up with it’.

Jaan Kross is a fine example of the marked Estonian tendency for solipsism. The solipsist sees himself or herself as the only individual in existence, assuming other people to be a reflection of his or her own consciousness. Kross comments, ‘I don’t perceive in myself any wishes that could be realized beyond myself… As for normal, unchanging circumstances. Are circumstances normal? Well, God knows, I wouldn’t want to waste too much time looking for an answer to that question, time would slip through your fingers’.

Let’s leave the last word to one of our great Western writers - Doris Lessing (b.1919, awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last year) who compared Jaan Kross to Thomas Mann - ‘ a marvelous writer … a great writer in the old, grand style’. Lessing visited Kross in Tallinn in 1993. ‘ don't think he knew me from Adam but I was terribly impressed by his charm and sensitivity, especially as he wasn't then very well.’ Lessing recalls that his fifth-floor flat was ‘pretty modest but books were everywhere - books were his furniture’. She noted that Kross wrote a species of novel unfamiliar to British readers. ‘His books were written to outwit censorship, but that's part of their fascination for us in the west’.
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