Jaan Kross. Omaeluloolisus ja alltekst.
IN 1998 the grand old man of Estonian prose, Joan Kross, was invited to assume the position of professor of liberal arts at the University of Tartu. His lectures based on his own work have now been published under the intriguing title of Omaeluloolisus ja all tekst (Autobiographism and subtext).
In Kross's prose works, he has mainly discussed the fates of artists and intellectuals between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries who have undeservedly been left in the shadows or remained marginal in the cultural context of the time. Although his latest novels and some of his short stories are based on his own experience of historical events, the question arises of how the life stories of the sixteenth-century chronicler Balthasar Russow or some other characters of Kross's novels, who lived in earlier centuries, can be connected with Kross's own biography. This example is nut accidental, since Kross himself has named Russow as the closest to his heart among the gallery of his characters.
Kross conceives autobiographism both as an opportunity and an inevitability in literature, stating that "everything that a writer may write is actually his own story." For instance, he differentiates three levels of (or opportunities provided by) autobiographism: first, as a pulverized substance of memory that originates from the author's consciousness; second, as the weaving of suitable episodes of the author's life into the text he is creating; and third, as pure autobiography. In his lectures, Kross gives numerous examples of how, when writing the biographies of Russow as well as some other characters, he has filled the gaps in history with materials from his own biography. The result is much more convincing and offers surprising findings in the paradoxical intersections of parallel biographies, as the author has stated that the main method of his work is reincarnation and change. Kross is thus using poetic license, but he still remains within the limits of believability and historical truth. He does not allegorize in his historical works; rather, he finds analogues to his contemporary time and his own experiences in history.
The time of the chronicler Russow is marked by the Livonian War. In his youth, Kross experienced the downfall of the independent Republic of Estonia and the change of power. In addition, the chronicler of the sixteenth century wrote his chronicle under conditions of political pressure essentially similar to those Kross experienced when writing his novels. More or less intentionally, or simply to check the alertness of the censors, Kross masterfully inserted hints into his works that readers were able to understand as the criticism of alien powers. Among other things, the lectures describe some quite curious episodes in the activities of the Soviet censorship.
Having started his literary career as a poet in the 1950s, Kross has been shaping the Estonian literary reality for more than fifty years. His collection of lectures offers an overview of the background of his work, of the obstacles and inspirations he has met. In his essayistic way he mostly theorizes about his own prose but also provides examples from his poetry and his long practice as a translator, which started with the translations of the works of Heinrich Heine and Pierre Jean de Beranger. Besides the novel about Russow, he has devoted lectures to some of his best-known fictional work, such as The Keisri hull (The czar's madman), Paigallend (Treading air), Rakvere roman (A novel of Rakvere), Valjakaevamised (Excavations), and several others, as well as to a number of works of short prose. Considering the description of the times and the genesis of his novels as well as their relation to historical materials, Kross's lectures are extremely informative and as enjoyable as his novels.
University of Tartu