The Fifties and Sixties

In the 1950s, the relaxation of the strictures of the Soviet régime had enabled various writers to bring a degree of innovation to Estonian literature. Mention should be made of Jaan Kross (born 1920) who started out as a poet, Artur Alliksaar (1923-1966), a great master of word play who was equally skilled at writing free verse as he was with fixed forms, and Ain Kaalep (born 1921), a devotee of classical literature. Communication with them constituted another, unofficial education for the generation of the 1960s, who were just arriving on the literary scene. The first timid attempts at making contact with Estonian writers abroad occurred in the late 1950s. It is possible to talk of a parallel development of two literatures during the next period. Contacts with world literature were considerably enhanced by ‘Loomingu Raamatukogu’, a small publishing house that still exists. Its first weekly publications appeared in 1957 and mostly consisted of relatively short works of literature in translation.

It was now time for a re-discovery of the world at large, symbolised by Kersti Merilaas’ (1913-1986) poem about calves about to be released into green pastures in spring; Jaan Kross’s first collection of poetry Söerikastaja (Coal Concentrator, 1958), and Ellen Niit’s (1928) Maa on täis leidmist (The Land is Full of Discoveries),which brought about a curious dispute regarding the suitability of free verse in Soviet literature. Against that background, a new, "Cassette Generation" emerged in 1962-1967. It was thus called because of small poetry chapbooks first appearing grouped together in small cardboard boxes - termed "kassett" in Estonian. The nucleus of the Cassette Generation was made up of poets still active today, e.g. Paul-Eerik Rummo (born 1942), with his somewhat naïve aspiration to discover the world beyond in his first collections of poetry; Jaan Kaplinski (born 1941) who was greatly inspired by Oriental religion and nature; Hando Runnel (born 1938), essentially an Estonia patriot, whose poems acquired huge popularity and were frequently turned into songs; Viivi Luik (born 1946) who started by writing nature poetry, and later described mostly urban landscapes; Mats Traat (born 1936), presenting himself as a rough country lad, and the other consistently surrealist poet alongside Laaban, Andres Ehin (born 1940). Their work displays contextual broadening and sensitivity to world culture, a faithfulness to earlier traditions in Estonian poetry, plus at the same time an eager acceptance of modernism and diversity of form.

From the late 1960s, especially due to political stagnation after the Prague Spring was crushed in 1968, this particular generation which had taken such joy in expanding the world to cosmic dimensions, was now slowly slipping into a mood of resignation. This mood can perhaps be best described by Rummo’s poetic image, “the impetus flows, yes, fades into a choking condom”.

As Soviet literature only acknowledged a realistic manner of expression, writers tried to justify their prose innovations with by a notion of boundless realism, borrowed from the French Marxist, Roger Garaudy. Arvo Valton (born 1935) wrote grotesque short stories depicting problems caused by alienation led to a good deal of polemics and official opposition, and Mati Unt (born 1944) short novels, borne along by a youthful spirit of protest. Enn Vetemaa’s work, which exposed widespread careerist attitudes also belongs to this period. Instead of producing huge panoramas of the epoch, innovative prose focused on the inner world of contemporary people, and this is especially evident in Vaino Vahing (born 1940) who wrote psychoanalytical prose and plays. An existentialist way of looking at life also took root in Estonian literature, e.g. in the travelogues of Juhan Smuul (1922-1971), Jäine raamat (Book of Ice) and Jaapani meri, detsember (The Sea of Japan, December).

In the 1960s, Estonian literature in exile too entered a period of innovation. This was mostly expressed in polemical protest by young authors against the dominant conservative world view and the concomitant traditional and realistic ways of writing. The generational conflict and a tackling of intimate matters in much more open a manner was clearly to be seen in the work of Elin Toona (born 1937) and of Enn Nõu (born 1933) and Helga Nõu (born 1934). The latter’s emphatic striving for conditionality and her search for identity made her Mati Unt’s kindred spirit.

A system of literary awards was established in the 1960s and 1970s and to some extent contributed to the enlivening of literary life, e.g. the annual prizes per genre, presented under a variety of names to this day.

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