Scrims between worlds
What a delight to chance upon American-Latvian author and literary critic Sven Birkerts’ recent essay collection just before 2011 ended. The discovery of a contemplative and passionate thinker who gives voice to thoughts large and small - just as most measured steps in life lead to memories of the past, meditations on the things in life that truly matter during our journey.
Birkerts is the first author of Baltic heritage that I have come across who places his Americanness first, Latvianness second. And so it should be. Born in Pontiac, Michigan, in 1951, Birkerts was shaped by the - in many ways navel-gazing - 50’s and 60’s, when Americans revelled in both post WW II prosperity and Cold War paranoia, leading to an expressive generation that made love, not war, enjoyed nature, returned to the days of Thoreau in spirit if not in practice, and experimented with the arts, philosophy, free will and the rather narcissistic mirage of the individual. The Latvian influences, as the reader discovers in this collection, were significant, yet secondary.
Birkerts is perhaps known for his book The Gutenberg Elegies, which as Wikipedia notes “posits a decline in reading due to the overwhelming advances of the Internet and other technologies of the ‘electronic culture.’” The essays in this new collection are carefully wrapped treasures, short but intense in meaning and enjoyment.
For Estonian readers the Latvian-influenced essays – about names, visits to Soviet era Riga, the concept of a Baltic culture mothered and perhaps little understood in melting-pot America are bound to provide notes of recognition. We encounter Birkerts’ grandfather, an artist, whose Michigan-era paintings reflected a Latvian youth, while continuing themes began behind easels in Russia, Latvia and post-war Germany.
Birkerts’ mother’s maiden name was Zvirbulis – Latvian for sparrow. While Birkerts is a German name, both sides of the essayist’s family are Latvian, “all the way back.” The sparrow gains recognition in the essay Zvirbulis, when Sven Birkerts visits occupied Riga and notes the importance of his totemic name. Indeed, he is presented, not ironically at all but as a reminder of his roots, with a children’s book before returning to America, Sarezgitais Zvirbulens, which could be translated as “mixed up little sparrow.” That bird is part of Birkerts’ conjecturing in his essays about his roots, about a time that has disappeared, of the Latvian countryside of his parents’ youth, a land and reality that he never saw. His generation, the baby boomers, are not as much mixed up as dislocated at times on this side of the Atlantic. Birkerts’ musings about Latvianness will strike a chord among many.
These essays are but a fragment of a much larger walk by the author, one, as he notes in the title essay where, “going against all convention, I turned right instead of left.” I fear if I reveal too much here by unwrapping the pleasures to be found in Birkerts small volume then I will fail the author. His meditations, “dense with anecdote,” provide an oasis, a refuge of thought in our hurried life. Birkerts emerges on these pages as an attentive individual, understanding the nuances, solitary and social, that make us human.
This is certainly not unique to Balts, but rarely have I found it expressed better by a member of the generation born abroad, whose parents lost their native land. Sven Birkerts is a very gifted English language essayist, who while having a command of the ancestral tongue lives shadowed by the scrims between two worlds. When the curtain opens for a brief flash - as for Birkerts it does with reference to Latvian people or events – the familiarity of a wink is present, adding sense to what is perceived. The part of our world that we all have in common is the ancestral one of belonging, and Sven Birkerts’ marvellous essays bring one closer, page by extraordinary page.