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The extraordinary life and times of Lithuania’s greatest poet

17 March 2018

9:00 AM

17 March 2018

9:00 AM

The first book that Tomas Venclova read in English was Nineteen Eighty-Four. Not a bad start in the language, given his future career. Venclova is less well-known in the West than his late friends Joseph Brodsky and Czesław Miłosz, but he’s something like their Baltic equivalent: a dissident poet of international standing, who spent many of the years of his home country’s Soviet occupation in exile in the US.

He describes Nineteen Eighty-Four as ‘a very important book in my life, and the one that taught me the most about the Soviet system’. A passage he says made ‘a very strong impression on me’ comes in an exchange between Winston Smith and his interrogator O’Brien. Winston asks O’Brien: ‘Does Big Brother exist?’ ‘Of course he exists. The Party exists. Big Brother is the embodiment of the Party.’ Winston presses: ‘Does he exist in the same way as I exist?’ O’Brien replies: ‘You do not exist.’

The story chimes with a sense of erasure in many of Venclova’s poems. ‘Henkus Hapenckus, In Memoriam’, for instance — a poem inspired by the memorial notice to an imaginary person, attached to impossible birth and death dates, in the window of a funeral parlour in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas — opens in the English translation: ‘Only a true nobody can manage/ to shoulder the weight of non-existence.’

‘I invented this person, Henkus Hapenckus, who never existed, and an entire universe for him,’ Venclova says. ‘He could be anybody. Because almost every kind of existence in the Soviet Union amounted to non-existence.’

Venclova’s artful, frequently formal verse plays in that area where the metaphysical and political overlap — the nothings of Wallace Stevens’s ‘The Snow Man’, perhaps, meeting the nothings of O’Brien. ‘Those things — those kinds of non-existence — they are in a sense overlaying each other and having something in common,’ he says. ‘More than one of my poems is about those overlapping sorts of non-existence.’

Venclova himself is nothing of a nobody. His country’s most celebrated literary figure, he has translated Eliot, Frost and Auden into Lithuanian as well as Mandelstam, Rilke, Cavafy, Pasternak, Baudelaire and others. He’s an emeritus professor in Russian literature at Yale, and in a new book of conversations, Magnetic North, he sets out his own story, including friendships with Brodsky, Miłosz, Anna Akhmatova, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Alexander Ginzburg and Boris Pasternak.


Lithuania, 100 years old this year, had a particularly grisly 20th century — occupation by the Soviets, then the Nazis, then the Soviets again — and, having been born in 1937, Venclova lived it. His fellow-travelling father was nomenklatura under the Soviet occupation; his mother was temporarily imprisoned by the Nazis when Venclova was just four. ‘My childhood,’ he says, ‘was in a sense corresponding to the historical changes in Lithuania.’

As a 19-year-old student, he became involved with dissident writers’ groups. ‘For us,’ he says, ‘the 1956 uprising was the formative experience of our lives.’ The earliest poems he keeps in print date from 1956, and concerned that experience, and his first samizdat pamphlet was called ‘Pontos Axenos’ (‘A Sea of Troubles’). ‘It was pretty obvious that if you wrote for ordinary publication, the poetry would not be poetry: full of compromises, full of lies — a fake poetry. So you wrote whatever you wanted to, just to keep it in your desk. Then samizdat started.’

He refused to deny being a disciple of Pasternak when denounced at a meeting of the Lithuanian Writers’ Union and went on to wage what he’s called a ‘private war’ with Soviet totalitarianism. There followed two decades of bans, purges, interrogations and blacklistings until in 1977, with the sponsorship in the US of Czesław Miłosz, Venclova was allowed to emigrate to the States. Andropov is now known to have supervised the order personally, ordering that his fate ‘in the long term will be determined by his behaviour while abroad’. He had no expectation of returning to his homeland.

One of the quirks of eastern European culture is that it is poets and artists who have often been the public faces of resistance to totalitarianism. Brodsky, as Venclova recalls, said that had he sneaked back into St Petersburg incognito, the façade of the Hermitage would have jumped off the building and scurried to dob him in to the KGB. Venclova said much the same of Vilnius.

The Anglophone world (at least since the days of Milton) has been a place where ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ (as Auden wrote in his elegy for Yeats — a poem Venclova translated into Lithuanian).Venclova says, ‘Poetry always means more in eastern Europe or Russia than it means in England or France. I wrote once that in the West, poetry mainly survives on the university campus, and in our countries it survives mainly in the prison camps. This is the difference. They managed to establish such an unshakeable system that every living word — not only but especially the poetical word — worked against it. Every-thing else was false.”

He says the fuss over the publication of Dr Zhivago would be unimaginable in the West: it was ‘not a counter-revolutionary novel — it’s partly about religion, partly about love, partly about the October Revolution, and Pasternak was not entirely an enemy of the October Revolution’. But it was intolerable because ‘it was something alive, something written according to someone’s individual understanding of things’.

Venclova met Pasternak: ‘He was very young, seemed very alive. He was 70 and had terminal cancer, but nobody knew it at the time. We left his dacha, and I told my friend: “He will live to 100. He’s so young, so active, so lively, so witty and so on.” He died half a year after that.’ He adds: ‘I was and still am in love with his early poetry. It’s inimitable. I translated some of it into Lithuanian. My female friend told Pasternak, “Here’s a young fellow who has translated some of your poetry.” “Don’t do it!” said Pasternak. “It’s nonsense! Very pretentious. If I wrote something valuable, it is Dr Zhivago.” I liked this poetry much more than Dr Zhivago. I was too shy of course to say it.’

He recalls Akhmatova as ‘very reserved, very proud, a difficult sort of person’; Brodsky as ‘extremely charismatic, incredibly witty’ scattering good jokes; Miłosz ‘a bit like Pasternak: youthful, active, but he had something Pasternak never had. Pasternak was a man of the city and Miłosz was a man of the village, an agrarian — he always insisted he was just a Polish-speaking Lithuanian’.

As a Yale professor, and someone who’s lived through regimes of actual censorship, how does Venclova see the free-speech wars playing themselves out on American university campuses? ‘I am strongly for one sort of worldview and strongly against another. But I don’t believe in censorship. Half of my life I lived in a country that has very strong censorship, and the other half I lived in countries that had almost no censorship. And I can tell you for sure that this type of country is much preferable. The truth and liberal worldview will always win, even if you are not promoting it in any way. From a pragmatic point of view it is always better.’

I ask Venclova too — as a national of a country that was as keen to join the EU as mine is to leave it — how he reacts to the rise of populist nationalism and Brexit. He says, ‘That is terrible and very dangerous, especially for such countries as Lithuania. The big countries could survive — but Lithuania is small. We have lots of so-called Eurosceptical people who would like to destroy the EU. For Lithuania that would be the end. That means coming back to the pre-war situation, and everybody knows how it ended.’

How does Venclova, gloomy over Trumpism, Putinism and nationalisms, see the future? ‘I am a historical optimist,’ he says. ‘Which means I think everything will end well, but I will not live to see it. This is the difference between the usual optimist and the historical optimist.’ He pauses: ‘My Ukrainian friend says he is an apocalyptic optimist. He thinks everything will end well — but nobody will live to see it.’

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