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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

Liudas Parulskis, Gates of Dawn/Lazdynai, 2015. Photomanipulation, 30 x 42. From the MO museum collection.

by Virginija Cibarauskė


Even though all rules have their exceptions, contemporary criticism still emphasizes that the strength of Lithuanian prose lies in metaphors and poetic qualities and not in developed plots and carefully crafted intrigues, which, nevertheless, have been gaining prominence in the last few decades. It is this type of prose that I call literary prose. Its literary aspects are not tied to the theme, as poetic prose can cover any topic in any genre (novels, essays, short stories, or even letters). Below, I will discuss a few examples of this phenomenon.


The Fragmented Novel

In recent years, novels have not been the only form of writing to become more fragmented. Increasingly often, literary, biographical, and even scientific works feature subtitles with terms like fragments, notes, etc. Perhaps this structural aspect can be linked to an attempt to break free from the main narrative and to draw attention to the beauty of classification, as well as imperfection and crudeness. However, recent novels that take this type of structural direction show an atmosphere of desperation, paranoia, and even morbidity as opposed to that of being joyfully immersed in the moment: the characters totter at the point of making a decision yet are unable to choose. It is also interesting that the novels of both Kęstutis Navakas and Tomas Vaiseta share the fundamentals of the Faustian and the Orphean narratives.

The Book of 2016, Vyno kopija (A Copy of Wine), is the first novel by the poet and essayist Kęstutis Navakas that contains the dramas of both Faust and Orpheus. It is a story of a man to whom mysterious and, no doubt, dark forces have granted the power to travel in time and space, and to expand his consciousness to infinity. However, unlike Doctor Faustus, the traveler in question has no concrete goal or direction: even the end of the novel does not reveal if he was travelling from the realm of death or to it.

The narrative starts with K. being brought back for one day to what the reader assumes to be life—heretofore, the protagonist was either dead or dreaming. The first page greets the reader with Charles Baudelaire’s quote on the necessity of intoxication. As the novel progresses, the intertextual references become more frequent: for example, K. is met and brought back by Maria Casares, who played Death in Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus. The main character’s name is an allusion to Kafka’s work.

On the other hand, the novel contains numerous autobiographical references. Even the protagonist’s name has a double meaning: it points both to Kafka’s character and to Navakas himself. The autobiographical details are easy to spot even through the thick veil of cultural context as the author is a colorful bohemian persona with no qualms about sharing the twists and turns of his private affairs with the public via social media, fiction, and, most prominently, personal essays.

Part of the novel is set in Kaunas, the city where Navakas lives and which he mythologizes. It is a relative Kaunas, however: one can take but a moment to get from Laisvės alėja (the main street of Kaunas) to a car speeding down a serpentine in Crete or to a laundromat in Barcelona.

If the variety of intertextual references and the changing space-time were not enough to give the reader vertigo, the polyphony of styles adds to this effect. Poetic fragments are followed by transcripts of absurd conversations, recipes, and episodes of mundane dramas. The narrative lacks an ending that reveals the “truth”: there are multiple endings nested within each other like Russian matryoshka dolls. Thus, Vyno kopija is open to interpretation. Furthermore, the essence of the novel contradicts the idea of a linear narrative: one may choose to start reading from the beginning, the end, the middle, or even from a random page, and stop when the story starts to bore.

The poet and essayist Sigitas Parulskis also aimed to achieve a similar open structure and stylistic heterogeneity in his novel Nutylėtų lelijų miestas (The Town of Unspoken Lillies, 2016). The text is graphically split into two parts: the top half of the page tells the story of a failing writer who gets drawn into a perverse love triangle and a crime. The lower half is a poetic narrative about a boy and his father living in a small town. Here we find many references to Parulskis’s poetry of the 1990s: the novel expands on the plots and imagery of the poems, explains them, and turns them into short stories. The tone is also typical of Parulskis’s poetry of that period as it hangs in the balance between a longing for sanctity and the aesthetics of ugliness. However, where Navakas’s novel maintains its open polyphony to the end, Parulskis chooses a more formal approach and expands on the plotlines until they reach a logical, and therefore predictable and superficial, conclusion.

The writer and historian Tomas Vaiseta, who made his literary debut in 2014 with the collection of short stories Paukščių miegas (Sleep of the Birds), also uses the structure of two intertwining narratives in his 2016 novel Orfėjas, kelionė pirmyn ir atgal (Orpheus: A Journey Back and Forth). The titular journey forth is a drama of self-discovery hidden behind the motif of a love triangle. Interestingly, this novel also has autobiographical elements. For example, the main character’s biography is reminiscent of that of the author (a PhD student at the History Faculty of Vilnius University struggling to complete his thesis). The love triangle motif explores the relationship between the protagonist and an older woman, as well as the fear of intimacy that is at the forefront of the affair: “The only thing more terrifying than intimacy was the weight it placed on my shoulders” (p. 32). In the meantime, the journey back deconstructs the first narrative and reveals it to be a fantasy of a sick, bedridden man completely dependent on his lover who tends to him. The journey forth is written as a psychological novel with precise metaphors relating the atmosphere, whereas the journey back is more like an impressionist painting: the text is fragmented, the protagonist sometimes becomes overwhelmed by it until only the senses—especially sight—remain.

Navakas set his novel in Kaunas, the temporary capitol of Lithuania, whereas Vaiseta’s work is situated in Vilnius. The reader can easily recognize the streets, cafés, bars, galleries, and bookshops. Even the characters are typical representatives of their generation. Orfėjas, kelionė pirmyn ir atgal can be seen as a tale of contemporary thirty-year-olds, much like Trys sekundės dangaus (Three Seconds of Heaven, 2002), the famous novel by Parulskis, is a study of the mind of a fifty-year-old. Parulskis’s protagonist, typically for his generation, suffers from a longing for a pure, unattainable romance, free from physicality and domestic boredom, whereas the main problem Vaiseta’s main character faces is the fear of making a connection; he fears intimacy, especially psychological intimacy. To avoid it, he chooses the route of infidelity. However, just like in the case of Parulskis, a person’s greatest fears are unavoidable.


Small Prose: Variations on the Essay and the Elegance of the Short Story

The Lithuanian essay, a genre that surged in popularity after independence was reinstated, has always granted priority to eloquent expression, which is why it is more often compared to literary prose and even poetry as opposed to journalism. Literary critics favor literary essays, which feature intertwined layers of autobiographical and cultural details as well as intertextuality and allusion.

A representative example is Empedoklio batas (Empedocles’ Shoe, 2016) by Eugenijus Ališanka. Much like that of Vyno kopija, the artistic axis of the work is the vertigo caused by the interaction of different contexts and a reaction to them. The essays are driven by associative logic: a seemingly unimportant object, event, or phrase initiates an unbroken chain of thoughts and connections in the narrator’s telling. The effect is that of fever, anxiety, and confusion; the best essay to illustrate it in this collection is “Karštis Vienoje” (Heat in Vienna).

On the other hand, the collision of contexts not only intoxicates but is also reflected on and analyzed. For example, “Hakuna Matata” shows the intersection of two different images of reality: the literary one and the “actual” one. Travelling through Africa, the narrator constantly compares his own experiences with Ernest Hemingway’s autobiographical novels Green Hills of Africa and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. However, he learns that literary truth no longer has anything in common with the truth experienced first-hand.

A flaw of this collection of essays is that Ališanka chose to include both works of great artistic merit and those of lesser value. In my opinion, such a decision was made in order to publish a book of a length attractive to the reader. In a sense, by prioritizing brick-sized tomes over functional, small format paperbacks, Lithuanian publishers are taking the fast-food approach in the hope that the size of the product (or in this case, the number of pages) will work as a bait to the consumers. In literature, however, taking this strategy is obviously a mistake because a good text needs space to be appreciated.

The cultural essays in Uosto fuga (The Fugue of the Port, 2016) by Mindaugas Kvietkauskas have received loads of positive attention. The titular fugue is an allusion to the artist and composer Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, and in the first essay the narrator is trying to locate his flat. The fugue is a polyphonic composition in which separate voices intertwine and seemingly chase after one another. Similarly, Kvietkauskas’s narrator, a contemporary literary scholar, is constantly chasing after past states, situations, and experiences of Lithuanian and European culture. Uniquely in the context of Lithuanian essays, the narrator does not analyze his own intellectual or other experiences, but looks into and formulates relevant cultural problems instead.

In a way, Grožio mašina (The Beauty Machine, 2016) by the poet and essay writer Sara Poisson is the polar opposite of the Kvietkauskas’s work. Where the later shows Vilnius to be full of symbols of high culture, Poisson sees a city accessed “through the back door”: abandoned parks and untidy back yards with drying laundry and flower beds tended by apathetic neighbors. Where Kvietkauskas’s protagonist is walking at the front, sees and understands more than others and is leaning against teaching and explaining, Poisson chooses a narrator who lacks ambition and talent, is unattractive, and a failure in general. It is unfortunate that the author could not resist the Lithuanian cliché of connecting failure with the writer’s calling and using it as a sign of uniqueness. At times the author failed to remain in control of the structure of her work and used too much verbiage and arbitrary quotations.

On the other hand, the seemingly ungraceful, crude sentences manage to convey the authentic experiences of the ordinary human. I would pick the essay “Istorija” (A Story) as the best in the collection. It is about the strange act of a teenage girl: trying to attract her history teacher’s attention, she hides under her desk before the lesson. This would appear to be a comical experience because the girl soon realizes that no one cares about her silly deed and the teacher does not even notice it. However, shame and ambition to “endure through to the end” bar her from coming out of her hiding place. She experiences claustrophobia, shame, obstinacy, guilt, pride, and the feelings of both of her uniqueness and insignificance. There is but one conclusion: a pathetic deed in life can come alive in its own right in literature.

Unlike some of the other authors mentioned previously, Valdas Papievis is a true master of form—his works have no unnecessary details and every word is thought out and vital. The collection Žiebtuvėliai anarchistai (The Anarchist Lighters, 2017) has only three short stories, which is particularly laudable in the aforementioned context of artificially bloated books. If Vaiseta’s novel has fragments of literary impressionism, Žiebtuvėliai anarchistai is impressionist in its essence. The psychological changes within the characters are explained through the details of the outside world. The analogies are precise; the changes in mood and motivation are subtle yet unavoidable, like a ray of sun sliding over a wall or the changing seasons. Papievis likes writing about the in-between states: “One page has already been turned, but the next is not yet open—it is the feeling between the end and the beginning, when you would like to stay a little longer, but you must move forwards. You skip over the jump-rope, you spin it with all your might until it seems that you’re no longer skipping, but hanging in the air—the moment of weightlessness is so sweet, others will be spicier” (p. 42). Even though these states are marginal, they are not pathetic. The characters become especially sensitive to their surroundings and every action shakes them to their core, whereas the elegant sentences of Papievis convey their experiences to the point of turning them into poetry: “I think it was your hair: when I jumped up and touched it with my fingertips and felt as if I were leaning over the endless abyss of time. Suddenly, just one wish – to sink my fingers deep. To the roots” (p. 33).


Hybrids: Between Reality and Fiction

Another aspect of contemporary literature worth mentioning is the tendency to combine a variety of genres as well as a variety of media. Thus, unique works are produced, whereas the position of books which are easily classified remains unclear. One of the most impressive texts of this type is Giedanti gaidžio galva (A Rooster’s Cock-a-doodling Head, 2016), the second book by the writer and graphic artist Stasys Eidrigevičius. The main body of the text is a poem written in the dialect of Panevėžys about a vanished homeland and ancestors long deceased. The author himself calls his text “an anthem to his childhood years.” The work also contains his minimalist drawings and photographs that feature Eidrigevičius’s parents and relatives, who are characters in his poem, and authentic objects like a Singer sewing machine and an accordion. The book concludes with a peculiar set of prose texts referred to as open letters: hand-written letters to a desk, to a pencil, and to a blank wall.

The characteristic feature of all the texts is that the author suspends his own personality in order to focus fully on the objects he is depicting. By reconstructing the histories of these objects, he creates a second chance at life, yet simultaneously they are re-created and their original, authentic form is warped. Therefore, the main theme of the book is memory and creativity as factors in the process of reconstruction, preservation, and deformation.

The subtitle of Kasdienynas (Daily Records, 2016) by the poet Aidas Marčėnas indicates it is a book of essays. Yet the texts are closer to a diary or just notes rather than to essays. These notes act as a sequel to a book of the same genre, Sakiniai (Sentences, 2013) and are associated with the thematic content of the poetry collection Viename (All in One, 2015). The key moment is the poet’s situation that Marčėnas perceives as permanent dramatic tension. The poet both believes in his vocation as a poet and doubts it at the same time, which results in a constant uncertainty about the point of writing poetry. Such questions as whether poetry exists, whether it is telling the truth, how it can tell the truth if the poet is lying are put on par with a priest’s uncertainties and the unconquerable faith in the existence of God. Therefore, faith in literature is inevitable: “The main premise for the rise of good literature: inevitability. Genuine is what you cannot escape, like love or death, and—once it has happened—life. You try running away from it, but you will be stuck. All the same, according to Krishna, you will have to do what you must do, you fool. All the rest is unnecessary. And what is unnecessary does not interest me anymore.”

This dramatic register is not the only one. The book records the realities and personalities of the literary life of Lithuania from 2012 to 2014 and contains much irony and commentaries, some of which are very apt. Others miss the point yet are quite intriguing nonetheless. Clarification of relations and establishment of poetic hierarchies have not been avoided in the book.  Therefore it can be read both as the poet’s meditation and as the chuckles of a discerning member of the literary field.

Kęstutis Navakas’s Lorelei. 50 meilės laiškų + 50 meilės eilėraščių (Lorelei. 50 Love Letters + 50 Love Poems, 2017) fluctuates between biography and fiction, between poetry and prose. The book consists of love letters and translations of love poetry. There are a number of reasons why Lorelei is exceptional. First of all, the annotation of the book indicates that the letters are authentic, and although the addressee is not named, Navakas mentioned on a number of occasions that it is the prose writer Akvilė Žilionytė. In 2012, Navakas and Žilionytė published the book of letters Visi laiškai–žirafos (All Letters are Giraffe’s***). The character of the girl called Giraffe appears in Navakas’s essays, for example, in the texts of his essay collection Begarsis skambutis (A Soundless Bell, 2015). Thus here we are dealing with a specific phenomenon of the building of a personal mythology.

On the other hand, Navakas’s letters are the setting of a radically poetic and extremely abstract love story. Unlike Marčėnas in his diaries, Navakas does not mention particular individuals, locations, or the like. The loving subject is an ephemeral being living in the world of art and literature. The lover does not as much desire his beloved as revels in her absence and the ensuing melancholy and poetical inspiration. What matters is not the feelings but the poetic forms that are achieved. Therefore, despite all else, Navakas’s lover is first and foremost a poet. Translations of love poetry perform a similar function, that of poetical inspiration.
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