Estonian literature in two cultural spheres

The Soviet occupation in 1940, plus subsequent events throughout the war, disrupted the natural development of Estonian literature and split it in two for almost half a century. The fates of writers were greatly determined by the simple fact whether they left the country with the Soviet troops in 1941, or stayed behind in German-occupied Estonia. A number of prominent writers who spent the war years in their homeland, fled to Germany in 1944 (Visnapuu) or to Sweden, either directly or via Finland (Suits, Under, Gailit, Kangro, Mälk, Ristikivi). Those who decided to remain suffered either death in Siberia (Talvik and playwright Hugo Raudsepp), or a combination of repression, a ban on publishing and interior exile (Tuglas, Alver, Masing).

Soviet power managed to lure into collaboration primarily left-wing and naïve writers. Literature as a tool of ideology was supposed to propagate the method of social realism and party politics. The Estonian Writers’ Union was closed down, publishing houses were nationalised and their activity underwent Communist Party inspection. Literature deemed unsuitable by the existing régime was forbidden, and books were removed from circulation or destroyed.

After the Second World War, he task of maintaining a tradition of Estonian literature to literature in exile. Despite the modest circumstances of the war and post-war years, creative activity and publishing started almost immediately, both in the temporary stopovers in Finland, and in the refugee camps in Sweden and Germany. In 1945, the Estonian Writers’ Union in Exile was founded in Stockholm. In 1950 Bernard Kangro began publishing cultural magazine Tulimuld in Lund (appeared until 1993). Eesti Kirjanike Kooperatiiv, the largest Estonian-language publishing house in exile was set up, and its method of book distribution secured the continuity of literary life, also at an institutional level. In 1957, another literary magazine, Mana, emerged, published by a younger group of people who had been educated abroad and thus possessed a broader concept of the world. Estonians abroad also did their best to introduce Estonian literature to the world reader. In the USA, poet and literary scholar Ivar Ivask (1927-1992) edited the prestigious magazine World Literature Today in which he published numerous articles and reviews about Estonian literature.

Although the exile of the Young Estonians had also constituted a period of learning and development, living away from one's homeland for such a long time after WW II aided the preservation in memory of everything that had already been achieved. First-hand war experiences and tragic losses greatly encouraged the spread of an existentialist way of thinking. With few exceptions, the national-conservative attitude in exile literature survived for a time without any Western influence or innovations of form, although opportunities for contact were there. The poetry collection by surrealist Ilmar Laaban (1921-2000), Ankruketi lõpp on laulu algus (The End of the Anchor Chain is the Beginning of Song) remained at first the only modernist work, until 1953 when Karl Ristikivi, essentially a conservative writer, published his novel Hingede öö (The Night of the Souls). This is a personal and yet a generalising work with surrealist elements, depicting the wandering in a Dead Man’s House and a court trial involving guilt for the Seven Deadly Sins, and which can be interpreted in various ways. Directly influenced by ‘The Night of the Souls’, Arved Viirlaid’s (1922) novel Seitse kohtupäeva (Seven Days of Trial, 1957) made a deviation into modernism. Viirlaid was previously known as the author of patriotic novels about the Forest Brethren. It was Ilmar Jaks (1923), however, who became a more consistent cultivator of the technique of the modern novel. The subject matter of literary output was greatly enriched by descriptions of the countries where various writers had settled, e.g. Karl Rumor (1886-1971) in Brazil, or Gert Helbemäe (1913-1974) in England.

Apart from Bernard Kangro, Kalju Lepik (1920-1999) became the central author with regard to poetry in exile during the second half of the 1950s. Lepik borrowed various forms both from folk poetry and Eliotesque modernism, also shaping a personal breakthrough with poetry of anthological dimensions. Kalju Lepik’s return to visit Estonia, and the publication of his last collections of poetry in his homeland, symbolise the end of the split, as does the fusion of the two Estonian Writers’ Unions in the year 2000.

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