The Latvian language belongs to the Baltic family of Indo-European languages. It characteristically places the emphasis on the first syllable of the word and encompasses an extensive declensional system. 1.7 million people speak Latvian over the world today. The Latvian language is the official State language of Latvia.
To the south of Latvia is Lithuania, in which another living Baltic language is spoken - Lithuanian. The Estonian language is used to the north of Latvia, which belongs to the family of Finno-Ugrian languages. The Liv language, which is related to Estonian, and was spoken by inhabitants of the Baltic Sea cost in the territory of contemporary Latvia, has practically died out. Only in the last few decades have books been published again in the Liv language and attempts have been made to revive colloquial Liv speech.
The Latvian language is divided into three separate dialects: the Liv, Middle and Latgalian dialects. The Latvian literary language has been created based on the Middle dialect, while the Latgalian dialect is a basis for the Latgalian literary language.
Literature in Latvia is currently published in two languages: in the Latvian and Latgalian literary languages. Alongside Latvian language literature works have also been written in German, Russian, Ukrainian and other languages.
The history of Latvian literature ranges over a four hundred year time span. The history of folklore and traditional culture is much older. The period of development of modern Latvian literature began with the emancipation of the people in the second half of the 19th century.
Literature in the Latvian Language in the 16Th and 17Th Centuries
The ideas of enlightenment were disseminated amongst Latvian farming folk by German priests, who had studied at universities in Western Europe. They published secular literary and didactic compositions in the Latvian language. Encouraged by the ideas of rationalism, Gothard Friedrich Stender (Old Stender) (1714-1796), became an encyclopaedist of the 18th century: he wrote grammar of the Latvian language, ABC books, compiled a dictionary, and adapted texts from the bible for the education of the peasantry. A popular scientific publication ‘Augsta gudrības grāmata no pasaules un dabas’ (The Book of High Wisdom of the World and Nature) (1774) systematically presented information about nature, geography, history, physics and astronomy in an accessible format for rural folk for the first time. Stender’s stories and popular songs occupy a special place in Latvian culture, and were preserved in the memories of Latvian readers throughout the entire 19th century. Stender’s written Latvian grammar and dictionary became the basis for the further study of the Latvian language. Alongside rationalism in the late 17th century, another variation of Lutheranism began to spread - pietism, from which the Hernhut movement developed, which was significant in the dissemination of the ideas of Christianity among rural folk, particularly in Vidzeme. The first brethren congregations were formed as early as the 1720s, where alongside the orthodox Lutheran church, farmers cultivated their own world of religious feeling, gaining a personal understanding of God. The Hernhut movement therefore developed a literature of the ‘emotions’ as opposed to rationalist ‘intellectual’ poetry. In these brethren congregations, peasants themselves became involved in the creation of their own spiritual life for the first time, becoming involved in re-writing and composing religious works, in this way assigning importance to the skills of reading and writing. The handwritten literature of the brethren congregations has preserved the names of Latvian farmers who took part in the process of re-writing (Jūrmalas Andrejs, Podiņa Mārtiņš, Skangaļu Jēkabs and Spāriņa Anna). Ķikuļu Jēkabs came from the brethren congregations (whose handwritten songs have been preserved from 1777), as did Jānis Peitāns, who staged Schiller’s play ‘Laupītāji’ (The Robbers) at Dikļi in 1818.
In the late 18th century, the Baltic German publicist Garlieb Merkel (1769-1850), influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, wrote an ethnographic work ‘Die Vorzeit Lieflands’ (The Antiquity of Livonia) (1798-99) and ‘Vanems Imanta’ (1802), as well as ‘Die Letten, vorzüglich in Liefland, am Ende des Philosophischen Jahrhunderts’ (The Latvians, Mainly in Livonia, at the End of the Philosophical Century) (1796), which informed the European community of the lack of rights of the Latvian peasants and called for serfdom to be abolished. Merkel’s works significantly influenced the ideology of the New Latvians: his characters and plotlines were used by poets of the national awakening.
In the late 18th century Alexander Johann Stender (1744-1819) translated the first play into the Latvian language ‘Lustesspēle no zemnieka, kas par muižnieku pārvērsts tape’ (Charade by a peasant in a noble’s guise) (Žūpu Bērtulis), which is a local version of the beginnings of Danish/Norwegian drama. Ludvig Holberg’s ‘Jeppe paa Bierget’ (Jeppe of the Hill), while the first play written in the Latvian language was ‘Tā dzimšanas diena’ (That Birthday), by Apriķi priest Carl Gothard Elferfeld (1756-1819), the plot of which teaches the advantages of immunising against smallpox. Kristaps Reinolds Girgensons translated into Latvian Joachim Heinrich Campe’s reworking of Daniel Defoe’s ‘Robinson Crusoe’.
Latvian Literature in the 19th Century
Almost all of the progress of Latvian literature in the first half of the 19th century was influenced by German priests and writers, who gradually made way for Latvian authors, while maintaining dominance in linguistics, ethnography and folklore for an extended period. Baltic German writers created the scientific association ‘Lettisch-Literarische Gesellschaft’ (1824/1827) which in 1828 began to issue a series of scientific papers ‘Magazin’, the last volume of which was issued in 1936. The first poetry collection by a Latvian author was by Neredzīgais Indriķis (1783-1828), ‘The Songs of Neredzīgais Indriķis’ (1806). In 1822 the ‘Latviešu Avīzes’ began to be published, managed by K.F. Watson, publishing informative, popular scientific and religious articles. Sentimental works were published in the newspaper by German authors and the first Latvian poets - Neredzīgais Indriķis, Kārlis Kraukliņš (later the secretary of the Royal Library of Dresden), Ansis Leitāns (1815-1874), Ansis Līventāls (1803-1878), Ernests Dinsbergs(1816-1902). Leitāns, the scribe of a manor house and of a local county court, became the first Latvian editor for the newspaper ‘Mājas Viesis’ which began publication in 1856. He also translated Christoph von Schmid’s ‘Geneviève de Brabant’ (1845), which was the beginning of the tradition of popular books. Līventāls and Dinsbergs began writing patriotic and love poetry (songs and popular songs) of an individualized nature. Teacher Jānis Ruģēns (1817-1876) occupies an unusual role in the early 19th century, who wrote a philosophical long poem according to the German model: ‘Ījaba stāsti, dziesmu vīzē sarakstīti’ (Job’s tales written in musical form) (1859).
In the mid-19th century Latvians began to become more actively involved in the course of literary life, themselves beginning to popularise knowledge in their own community. The collection of folkloric material which had begun to be collected by Baltic Germans began to gain importance (folk songs, stories, riddles). Literature that had been written in or translated into the Latvian language, combined with high literacy levels suggested a need for national literature.
The New Latvians
The national awakening was influenced by the national and revolutionary movements in Europe and reforms in Russia, which prescribed greater economic independence and rights for peasants. The first educated sons of Latvian peasantry began the process of consolidating the nation, in an aspiration to neutralise the economic and spiritual leadership of the Baltic German aristocracy. One of the ideologues of the New Latvian movement was Krišjānis Valdemārs (1825-1891). Having achieved Russian-scale authority in seafaring matters, Valdemārs gained permission to publish the newspaper ‘Pēterburgas Avīzes’, in which Juris Alunāns (1832-1864) and Krišjānis Barons (1835-1923) also worked. Influenced by the ideas of the New Latvians, writers became interested in the use of folklore and the ancient history of the Latvian people. Juris Alunāns wrote ‘Dziesmiņas’ (Songlets) (1856), a compilation of poetic reproductions in order to demonstrate that it was possible to express the same thoughts in Latvian as were expressed in ancient (Greek, Latin) and modern (German, Russian) languages. Fricis Brīvzemnieks and Barons began the systematisation of Latvian folk songs, which was concluded with the publication of the monumental ‘Latvju Dainas’ (1-6, 1894-1915), a compilation and systematisation of 219 996 song texts and their variations.
A new era in the New Latvian movement began in the late 1860s, when Rīga became the centre for Latvian social activity. The ‘Rīga Latvian Society’ was founded in 1868, and other societies using this as a template were also formed in Kurzeme and Vidzeme. The first theatre performances in Latvian were held in 1868, and in 1869 the Rīga Latvian Theatre was founded, which staged the first original plays by Ādolfs Alunāns(1848-1912). The seeds for various centres of science, libraries, etc. were sown by the Society. The first Song Festival was held in Rīga in 1873, in which singers from Vidzeme and Kurzeme participated, encouraging a notion of unified national identity and a development of self-awareness. In the 1870s many Latvian publishing houses were established.
Teacher Atis Kronvalds (1837-1875) continued the idea of the New Latvians, who in contradiction to attempts by Krišjānis Valdemārs to find allies in Russian society, oriented himself to members of the German society who were benevolent towards Latvian culture. Kronvalds believed that the foundation for national culture could be established in Latvian schools, where lessons in Latvian could occur from elementary to higher education. National culture during the era of national awakening was associated with recognition of the fatherland, the use of the Latvian language in all spheres of life and a sense of a unified past. 60 years later this gained the title of the ‘National Awakening’.
The ideals of the National Awakening were embodied by the poet Miķelis Krogzemis(1850-1879) (his pseudonym - Auseklis - means ‘morning star’), who created the legend of the sunken ‘castle of light’, which would rise up out of the depths of a lake, if it was remembered and its name spoken aloud. Poets of the era of National Awakening composed works about the legendary past, where before the invasion of German crusaders in the 13th century, Latvian (Baltic) tribes had been free. Ancient history and legends seemed more attractive to these poets than the present. Inspired by Latvian folkloric themes and examples of foreign epic poetry, Andrejs Pumpurs (1841-1902) wrote the epic poem ‘Lāčplēsis’ (1888), which included characters that were used in Latvian literature later on. Lāčplēsis, created as a fairytale hero, became a symbol of the nation’s strength. His battle with the black knight was symbolic of the struggle of the Latvian people for independence. The inclusion of the past and myths in the works of national romantic poets become a basis for the future.
Alongside the wish of the national romantics to immerse themselves in the nation’s past, writers began to look for inspiration for storylines in the everyday social life of the peasantry. The brothers Reinis Kaudzīte (1839-1920) and Matīss Kaudzīte (1848-1926) wrote the first Latvian novel ‘Mērnieku laiki’ (Surveyor Times) (1879), which depicted the process of buying a house in Vidzeme. The writers used people they themselves knew as prototypes for characters in the novel, and situations familiar to the reader.
The traditions of realistic tales and psychological portrayals were begun by Juris Neikens and Apsīšu Jēkabs (real name: Jānis Jaunzemis). The sentimentalist tradition in poetry was developed by Jānis Esenberģis and Vensku Edvards (real name: Eduards Skujenieks).
REINIS AND MATĪSS KAUDZĪTE
Additional information about writers Reinis and Matīss Kaudzīte by the Latvian Cultural Canon.
Dictionary of the Latvian Language (1923-1932) by KĀRLIS MĪLENBAHS AND JĀNIS ENDZELĪNS
Additional information about Dictionary of the Latvian Language (1923-1932) by the Latvian Cultural Canon.
The Beginnings of Modern Literature in the 1890S
Up until the early 20th century, the traditional living place for Latvians was the country: homesteads, set apart from one another in a peaceful natural landscape. Literature portrayed the country farmhouse and life in the household as the most stable and enduring lifestyle. Life was defined by the rhythm of the seasons, nature and work. The peasants’ yearning for their own land, ‘savs kaktiņš, savs stūrītis’ (‘My own little corner’, the title of Jānis Purapuķe’s novel) and hard farm work created the backdrop for literary works which were written at the turn of the 20th century. The most talented writer of the late 19th century was Rūdolfs Blaumanis (1863-1908) with his original characters and ethical problems portrayed in prose and drama. Gaining inspiration from German literature, Blaumanis became the founder of the genre of the ‘psychological’ short story, reflecting conflicts and situations amongst the farming community. Blaumanis’ comedy ‘Skroderdienas Silmačos’ (Tailor-days in Silmači) has become the most-often performed play in the history of Latvian theatre. The dramas ‘Pazudušais Dēls’ (The Prodigal Son), ‘Ugunī’ (In the Fire), and ‘Indrāni’ reflect archetypal conflicts in Latvian farming life. Anna Brigadere (1861-1933) continued the tradition of psychological realism, and called the first novel of her trilogy ‘Dievs, daba, darbs’ (God, Nature, Work). Later these three notions were used often to describe Latvian classical literature.Andrievs Niedra’s (1871-1942) novel ‘Līduma dūmos’ (The Smoke of Land Clearing) (1899) gave a broad view of Latvian farming life in the late 19th century, revealing contradictions between the Baltic German aristocracy and the developing Latvian intelligentsia.
In the late 19th century Rīga became one of the largest Russian imperial port cities. Along with the entry of workers to the city, a new generation also entered literature, which, educated in the universities of Russia and Germany, wished to liken themselves and their culture to the cultural progress in Europe. Inspiration for the expansion of their horizons was gleaned from German and Russian culture. Interest in social life and ideals was encouraged by the newspaper ‘Dienas Lapa’, which popularised social democratic ideas. The magazine ‘Māja Viesa Mēnešraksts’ in turn introduced the reader to classics and Europe’s modern cultural compositions. At the close of the 1890s the poet Rainis (real name: Janis Pliekšāns, 1865-1929) translated Goethe’s ‘Faust’ (1897) into Latvian, as well as plays by Shakespeare and Schiller.
The poet Eduards Veidenbaums (1867-1892) became the first tragic legend in Latvian literature. His poems, based on romantic dualism and social activity were published after the death of this gifted and promising lawyer and polyglot.
The tradition of romantic poetry was strengthened by Jānis Poruks (1871-1911), who studied composition for one year at the Dresden Conservatoire and who was influenced by the ideas of Richard Wagner and Friedrich Nietzsche. Influenced by classic German romanticism, Poruks wrote the long story ‘Pērļu zvejnieks’ (The Pearl Fisherman) (1895), which revealed a synthesis of the ideas of realism and romanticism, in which the spiritual personality is destroyed by a mercantile social environment. Poruks also composed many lyrical compositions. At the turn of the century, Vilis Plūdons (1874-1940) wrote richly phonetic lyrico-epic works - long poems and ballads. The central character of the long poem ‘Atraitnes dēls’ (The Widow’s Son) is a Latvian overachiever, whose attempts at gaining an education are tragically stopped short.
The most talented poet of the 1890s was Elza Rozenberga (1865-1943), who chose the provocative pseudonym of Aspazija. With her, a strong and self-aware woman’s character entered Latvian poetry and drama. Aspazija’s romantic dramas ‘Vaidelote’ (The Priestess) and ‘Sidraba šķidrauts’ (The Silver Veil) and social drama ‘Zaudētās tiesības’ (The Lost Rights) were a challenge to public opinion. Aspazija became the founder of the movement to emancipate Latvian women. The works of the couple Rainis and Aspazija, combining experience derived from European classical culture with the tradition of Latvian literature, became points of reference for the next generations of poets. At the beginning of the century Rainis renewed the myth about the sunken castle in the symbolic drama ‘Uguns un nakts’ (Fire and Night) (1905), bringing back to life Pumpurs’ epic hero - Lāčplēsis, the son of a mythical person and a bear, who was created to triumph over an ancient enemy - the black knight - and to raise the sunken castle. Alongside Lāčplēsis, Rainis created the character of Spīdola, who invited the hero to constant spiritual development and improvement. After the revolutionary events of 1905 Rainis and Aspazija emigrated to Switzerland, where they lived until 1920. Rainis’ verse intertwines the experience of romanticism and symbolism, which is the most notable in his collection of poems ‘Gals un sākums’ (The End and the Beginning). In the plays ‘Zelta zirgs’ (The Golden Horse), ‘Pūt, vējiņi’ (Blow, Wind), ‘Krauklītis’ (The Little Raven), and ‘Spēlēju, dancoju’ (I Played, I Danced), Rainis uses motifs of Latvian folklore, addressing both the social and ethical problems of the time. The tragedy ‘Indulis and Ārija’ was based on a medieval Baltic legend. The creative peak of Rainis’ work is the tragedy ‘Jāzeps un viņa brāļi’ (Joseph and his Brothers), which is based on the Old Testament story of Joseph.JĀNIS RAINIS
Additional information about poet Jānis Rainis by the Latvian Cultural Canon.
Additional information about writer Rūdolfs Blaumanis by the Latvian Cultural Canon.
Additional information about poet and Writer Jānis Poruks by the Latvian Cultural Canon.
Latvian Literature in the Early 20th Century
European modernist ideas entered Latvian literature in the early 20th century. Viktors Eglītis (1877-1945) popularised the ideas of Russian and French symbolists. Haralds Eldgasts (1882-1926) announced modernist principles in the voluminous introduction to his novel ‘Zvaigžņotās naktis’ (Starry nights) (1905), integrating elements of naturalism, impressionism and symbolism. Edvards Virza’s anthology ‘Biķeris’ (The Goblet) (1907) contrasted romantic love poetry with sensuality and dark passion. New artistic experimentation was described as ‘decadent’, although new authors respected Latvian cultural tradition as well as principles of modern art. Many Latvian poets took part in the events of the 1905 Revolution and were later forced to emigrate. After 1906 a wide range of literature was published, offering various aesthetic perspectives.
The principles of naturalism and realism were embodied by Andrejs Upīts (1877-1970) in his series of novels, which reflected the social contradictions of rural life. Upīts portrayed the fate of the ‘small person’ in the city and the destructive processes caused by capitalism in his novels ‘Zelts’(Gold), ‘Sieviete’(The Woman) and ‘Pēdējais latvietis’(The Last Latvian). The tragedy of human life and the drama of fate were revealed in stories by Ernests Birznieks-Upītis (1871-1960) (‘Pelēkā akmens stāsti’ (Tales of the Grey Stone)).
In an attempt to integrate the modern person with the traditional lifestyle, Kārlis Skalbe(1879-1945) created a mystical combination of humans and nature, similar to Wilhelm Hauf, Hans Christian Andersen and Oscar Wilde, turning fairytales into an original literary genre. Skalbe solves ethical questions through metaphor and personification in the collection ‘Ziemas pasakas’ (Winter Tales) and in his following collections of stories. A special role in Latvian dramaturgy is occupied by Anna Brigadere’s fairytale plays ‘Sprīdītis’, ‘Maija and Paija’, ‘Princese Gundega un Karalis Brusubārda’ (Princess Gundega and King Brusubārda).
A synthesis of the ideas of symbolism and new romantic ideas allowed Latvian writers to link traditional Latvian farming life with a feel of the modern world. In the poetry anthology ‘Zemes dēls’ (Son of the Land) and ‘Dziesmas un lūgšanas Dzīvības kokam’ (Songs and Prayers to the Tree of Life), the poet Fricis Bārda (1880-1919), with a world view aligned with divine beings and pantheism, approximated the sprouting of grass with the movement of stars in the sky. Jānis Akuraters’ (1876-1937) story ‘Kalpa zēna vasara’ (The Young Farm-Worker’s Summer) portrayed a spiritually diverse identity on a pastoral backdrop. In a hundred scenes in ‘Baltā Grāmata’ (The White Book), Jānis Jaunsudrabiņš (1877-1962) paints a colourful picture of country life based on the cycle of the seasons, simultaneously employing the viewpoints of both adult and child characters. In turn, Jaunsudrabiņš’ tale ‘Vēja ziedi’ (Wind Blossoms) is the monologue of an impressionable young girl. Love as fatalism is at the basis of Jaunsudrabiņš’ novel ‘Aija’. Jaunsudrabiņš translated Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun’s works to Latvian, which influenced not just the translator, but also other Latvian writers.
The First World War changed Latvian culture. A large proportion of the Latvian people became refugees, leaving their farms, the traditional Latvian cultural space. Factories, along with their workers, were evacuated from Rīga to Russia. The Baltic territories were occupied by the German army. The creation of a regiment of Latvian riflemen within the Russian army also created patriotic fervour in literature. The location in ideologically opposing camps, losses on the war front and the dispersion of the Latvian people throughout Russia introduced themes related to expressionism in works by Pēteris Ērmanis, Jānis Sudrabkalns and Jānis Veselis. Patriotic enthusiasm, hope for the future and apocalyptic visions dominate the works of Rainis, Kārlis Skalbe, Jānis Akuraters and Edvards Virza.
Additional information about writer and artist Jānis Jaunsudrabiņš by the Latvian Cultural Canon.
Additional information about writer Kārlis Skalbe by the Latvian Cultural Canon.
Latvian Literature in An Independent State
With the collapse of imperial Russia and the change of various powers, the Latvian nation was proclaimed, combining three Latvian regions: Vidzeme, Kurzeme and Latgale. The independence battles from 1918-1920 created patriotic enthusiasm and began the process of creating the new state. Freedom of the press and speech was declared in the Republic of Latvia, and censorship was abolished, which in the 19th and early 20th centuries had influenced the development of Latvian literature, and cultural institutions were established - Latvian libraries, theatres, high schools, and a purposeful national cultural policy was created. In the early 1920s Rainis and Aspazija returned from exile in Switzerland, and Latvian writers and artists returned from exile. The Latvian intelligentsia which had received an academic education from Russian universities founded the first Latvian University - the University of Latvia. The largest Latvian publishing houses stabilised or were established - Ansis Gulbis, Valters un Rapa, Jānis Roze and the publishing house „Grāmatu Draugs’, established in late 1928, which issued a series of inexpensive books (the one-lat novel) . Later the publishing house ‘Zelta ābele’ (1935) became popular, which published quality literature with restrained and elegant design. Popular newspapers dedicated large spaces to poetry and prose. The newspaper ‘Jaunākās Ziņas’ and the weekly magazine ‘Atpūta’ published one translated novel and one original novel, fostering the formation of Latvian popular (mass) literature.
The short story gained popularity in the early 1920s. As well as the psychological short story, Jānis Ezeriņš (1891-1924) began the tradition of anecdotal short stories. With paradoxically changing viewpoints in his collection of short stories ‘Leijerkaste’ (The Barrel Organ), Ezeriņš used plots melding comedy and tragedy to demonstrate how human life is dependent on fateful coincidences. The genre of the short story, creating cycles, was used by Kārlis Zariņš, Pāvils Rozītis and Andrejs Upīts.
The 1920s was characterised by an active cultural life, and the formation of various writer’s groups. New newspapers and magazines appeared, representing the wide spectrum of political and aesthetic viewpoints. Left-leaning authors published works in the magazine ‘Domas’, a wider circle of authors was unified by ‘Ritums’, ‘Piesaule’, and ‘Daugava’ became the most influential literary magazine of the late 1920s. New authors began their own publications.
In 1925 the artists society ‘Zaļā Vārna’ was formed, whose members included artists as well as writers and actors. The slogan of the association was ‘To introduce more life to Latvian art and more art to Latvian life’. Exhibitions were organised, plays were rehearsed, unusually pompous poetry readings were held in Rīga and the provinces, in which marches with drums were organised, inviting listeners to the events. The call for the creation of new art was the catch cry which began the work of the magazine ‘Trauksme’. New authors gained inspiration from both Western European modernism and the Russian avant-garde — futurism and constructivism, although none of these directions was directly adopted by the authors. In contrast to traditional poetry, new authors began to use free verse and accented verse, which seemed appropriate to the dynamism of the era. Often the romantic anxiety and lyricism in poetry combined into a confirmation or rejection of social ideals (Austra Skujiņa, Jānis Grots, Jānis Plaudis). Variations on the tradition of romantic poetry were introduced by Jānis Ziemeļnieks and Valts Grēviņš. Linards Laicens published ideologically leftist and provocative poetry.
The most prominent representative of modernism in the 1920s was Aleksandrs Čaks(1901-1950), who through poetry tended to create a broadly associative, striking, sensitively perceptible image of the modern world, searching for an appropriately bold characters and form of expression. In contrast to Latvian tradition, Čaks portrayed the city in its dynamism and changeability, and the diversity of the inner world of modern city dwellers. In the collections ‘Mana paradīze’(My Paradise) and ‘Iedomu spoguļi’ (Mirrors of Imagination), juxtaposing classic syllabic verse with accentual verse and free verse, and by presenting sensuously flamboyant characters, the author strived to balance on the border between reality and fantasy, creating visionary characters which are called to consciousness by the impetus of reality. Through his prose, Čaks created an original world, in which all things, phenomena and creations are equal. The influence of Čaks’ poems are discernible in the poetry written by much later generations.
The experiences of the First World War were reflected in the major novels. Kārlis Štrāls’ ‘Karš’ (War), Andrejs Upīts’ ‘Zem naglota papēža’ (Under a Spiked Heel), and Jānis Jaunsudrabiņš’ ‘Nāves deja’ (The Dance of Death) depict the authors’ experiences of recent events. Later the actions of the riflemen were made legendary in Aleksandrs Grīns’ novel ‘Dvēseļu putenis’ (Blizzard of Souls), Edvards Virza’s and Jānis Medenis’ poetry and Čaks’ series of long poems ‘Mūžības skartie’ (Marked by Eternity). The contradictory events of the era and paradoxes inherent in forming the new nation were reflected in Pāvils Rozītis’ satirical novel ‘Ceplis’ (Oven), in Arnis Ernests’ ‘Andreja Salgala dzīve un nāve’ (The Life and Death of Andrejs Salgals), and Lūcija Zamaiča’s ‘Director Kazrags’. Cultural historical novels with ethnographically precise details were written by Jēkabs Janševskis (‘Dzimtene’ (Homeland), ‘Bandavā’ (In Bandava), ‘Mežvidus ļaudis’ (The People of Mežvidi Farm). The diversity of novel genres was enriched by Vilis Lācis’(1904-1966) impressive debut, a socially incisive depiction of the life of the ‘small people’ in the suburbs in the novel ‘Putni bez spārniem’(Birds Without Wings) and the life of fishermen in the novel ‘Zvejnieka dēls’ (The Fisherman’s Son). Becoming the author of magazine series novels, Lācis wrote the anti-utopian ‘Ceļojums uz Kalnu pilsētu’ (Journey to a Mountain City), and the family saga ‘Vecā jūrnieku ligzda’(The Old Fishermen’s Nest). His works characteristically had tense scenarios, with powerful and purposeful heroes.
In contradiction to the disharmonious outlook in the years of great crisis, a sense of positivism appeared - a current which was related to an attempt to create a unified national ideology. After the coup of 1934, positivism received state support. Positivists searched for stability in man’s connection with nature, family and everyday work. Similar to neoclassicism, writers used the ‘high’ genres and stately metres, with a tendency to deify the farmstead which had endured the cycles of nature and history. In his utopian novel ‘Tīruma ļaudis’ (People of the Field) Jānis Veselis (1896-1962) portrayed an educated farmer’s son returning to his father’s farm, to search for a connection between the modern person and the traditional farming lifestyle. A unique position is occupied by Edvards Virza’s long poem in prose, ‘Straumēni’. At the centre of the poem is a farmstead located in a mythical time and space. By combining paganism and motifs of Christianity, Virza sacralised the farmstead: depicting it as one with the rhythms of nature and work, and tried to restore mythical thinking, in which there is harmony between God and the world of humans.
In the second half of the 1930s the positivist ideological messages became planned, glorifying the proclamation of the nation and agrarian reform.
Modern short stories were written by Eriks Ādamsons, Anšlavs Eglītis ad Mirdza Bendrupe. Split personalities, paradoxical situations and a setting full of aestheticised ornamental objects created the world portrayed in Eriks Ādamsons’ (1907-1946) collection of short stories ‘Smalkās kaites’ (The Refined Vices). In his short stories, man becomes a sacrifice to the complexes in his own subconscious. Colourful characters from the art world were humorously portrayed by Anšlavs Eglītis (1906-1993) in his collection ‘Maestro’ and the novel ‘Līgavu mednieki’ (The Hunters of Brides).
In the late 1930s Veronika Strēlerte (1912-1995) and Zinaīda Lazda (real name: Zinaīda Zelma Šreibere, 1902-1957) refined poetry in its classical form, by writing emotional and intellectual poetry. Zenta Mauriņa (1897-1978) cultivated the genre of essays, examining international cultural celebrities and events. Mārtiņš Zīverts (1903-1990) made his debut as a playwright in the 1930s.
Until 1937, literary works with ideological tendencies were written by Latvian writers who had remained in Soviet Russia. Latvians in Russia constituted the largest Latvian community outside the Baltic States, where Latvian and Latgalian schools played a significant role, as did amateur theatre ensembles, Latvian publishing houses and periodical publications. Alongside ideologically biased depictions, the works of individual writers also integrated the experience of the Russian avant-garde. The most talented author in Russian Latvian literature was Roberts Eidemanis (1895-1937) (‘Ielenktie’ (The Surrounded), 1925). Lindards Laicens and Pēteris Ķikuts also emigrated to Soviet Russia. All cultural and educational activities were cut short during the Great Terror of 1937-1939, when a majority of the Latvian cultural figures were shot or died in concentration camps.
The natural development of Latvian literature was severed by Soviet occupation. Literary activities which had been inhibited were renewed during the time of German occupation, when the romantic tradition became popular again. Authors turned to universal themes, the ideals of humanism, hardly referring to the reality of war time. Ilona Leimane wrote the ethnographically colourful novel ‘Vilkaču mantiniece’ (Heir of the Werewolf), and Mārtiņš Zīverts wrote ‘Minhauzena precības’ (Munchausen’s Wedding).
Additional information about writer Eriks Ādamsons by the Latvian Cultural Canon.
Additional information about poet Aleksandrs Čaks by the Latvian Cultural Canon.
Latvian Literature in the 1940S And1950S
During Soviet occupation, newspapers, magazines and printing houses were nationalised, and an information control mechanism was instated, which subjected literature also to the control of the state. According to the USSR model, a Writer’s Association was established in Latvia, which originally served to unite authors loyal to the Soviet regime. In the first year of Soviet power and later, library books which told of the past or a differing ideology were destroyed. In books written during the years of German occupation, authors tended to avoid a depiction of the destructive present. Poetry was dominated by existential problems and a sense of apprehension of man’s fatalistic fortunes. Some of the works which had been written during the time of German occupation was partly published in exile, although these were fully published in the 1990s (Aleksandrs Čaks, Eriks Ādamsons).
Soviet occupation and the Second World War interrupted the natural development of Latvian literature and split it into two.
Some of the writers who had been in German occupied Latvia fled to Germany as refugees in 1944-1945 (Jānis Jaunsudrabiņš, Anšlāvs Eglītis) or to Sweden (Kārlis Skalbe, Mārtiņš Zīverts, Veronika Strēlerte). Some authors who remained in Latvia were deported or tried (Jānis Medenis, Valts Grēviņš). The remaining writers were subjected to ideological pressure during the post-war era (Aleksandrs Čaks, Eriks Ādamsons), remained quiet (Kārlis Zariņš), or became the embodiment of socialist realist dogma through their literature (Jānis Sudrabkalns, Andrejs Upīts).
Until the death of Stalin in 1953, Latvian literature was strictly controlled by the communist party. Literature is a part of Soviet ideology; its purpose is to legitimise the ruling power and to help form „Soviet man’. Epics were dominated by a linear structure. Epic novels (epic poems) were awarded the Stalin Award in which writers, using the socialist realist canon as a basis, portrayed the creation of Soviet power (Vilis Lācis ‘Vētra’ (The Storm) ‘Uz jauno krastu’ (To a New Shore)), the formation of collective farms (Anna Sakse ‘Pret kalnu’(Against the Mountain)). One exception was Andrejs Upīts, who wrote the tragedy ‘Spartaks’ (Spartacus) and the novel ‘Zaļā zeme’ (The Green Earth), which incorporated stories based on antique Rome and 19th century farming life. Poetry was dominated by odes, praise of the symbols of Soviet power and songs which celebrated the prosaic side of Soviet power. Only between 1944 and 1946 were poems published in which authors’ portrayed individual experiences during the time of German occupation or in the front line of the Red Army. Drama was dominated by the new Soviet truth in contrast to heroes which embodied the past (Arvīds Grigulis ‘Māls un porcelāns’ (Clay and Porcelain)).
In the post war years the magazine ‘Karogs’ renewed operations (it was also issued 1940-1941), and the newspaper ‘Literature and Art’ began publication. These were the main literary publications until 1990, in which poetry, prose and drama were published. Periodical publications began to be issued only in the second half of the 1950s, which were aimed towards children and teenagers. (‘Zīlīte’, „Liesma’), introducing the opportunity to publish short works for children and teenagers. Continuations of novels were published by the popular magazine ‘Zvaigzne’, and the humour and satire magazine ‘Dadzis’.
Latvian Literature in Exile (1940S-1970S)
At the end of the war a majority of active authors left Latvia. After arriving in the Allied Occupation zones in Germany they were lodged in DP camps, where an animated cultural life began. The creation of plays was encouraged by companies of actors who staged performances. Literary activity was maintained through the organisation of literary events and periodical publications. The largest of these were the magazines ‘Laiks’, ‘Daugava’ and others. A succession of publishing houses began operation in both Germany and Sweden. The aim of DP camp-era literature was to maintain Latvian culture, to preserve and develop literature until there was the chance to return to the homeland. The works that were created mainly cultivated memories of that which had been experienced: plot lines were set during the time of independent Latvia or depicted experiences from the war years. Veronika Strēlerte’s poetry captures a feeling of alienation. Andrejs Eglītis cultivated nationally recognised symbolic characters, in this way maintaining the nation’s self-awareness in exile.
After the camps were closed, Latvian writers were dispersed throughout the globe. The largest groups of writers arrived in Great Britain, the USA, Canada and Australia. In the following years various camps and the Song Festival, which included Writers Days, became significant events. Each of the countries in which writers ended up began their own periodical publications and publishing houses. The biggest Latvian book publishers ‘Grāmatu Draugs’ was established in New York, where Helmārs Rudzītis began working again, also publishing the newspaper ‘Laiks’. Colourful characters and intriguing situations were used in novels by Anšlavs Eglītis. Novels which were based on memories of experiences in Latvia during the Second World War were written by Alfrēds Dziļums. Exile literature was enriched with intense plots in novels by Gunārs Janovskis, turning to fates of refugees after the ‘great dispersal’.
The new generation of writers chose a different approach to the national reserve cultivated in exile. Living in foreign lands and surrounded by other cultures, they strove to capture the influences of modernism. The collection ‘Trīs autori’ (Three Authors) (Velta Sniķere, Ojārs Jēgens, Dzintars Sodums) was published in 1950 in Sweden, which declared differing writing styles and poetics - based on surrealism and a distanced, ironic view of national mythology. Everyday spoken language entered the language of poetry: non-literary layers of language, which renewed a linguistic game. A prominent event in exiled life which created discussion was Sodums’ translation of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ (1960), as well as the partially published ‘Ķēves dēls Kurbads’ (Kurbads, Son of a Mare) by Jānis Turbads (real name: Valdis Zeps), published in ‘Jaunā Gaita’ (1955) a magazine issued by the new authors. Utilizing national myths, the group of new authors gathered around Gunars Saliņš (1924) and Linards Tauns (1922-1963), who lived in the New York Port district Hell’s Kitchen. The Hell’s Kitchen of the 1950s became a legend in Latvian literature. The brotherhood of new authors aspired to renew the creative spirit of the ‘Zaļā Vārna’, also not shying away from the influence of Western poetry, becoming a lot freer in their form and characterisations. Both traditions and experience gained from foreign cultures were incorporated in poetry. Inspiration for the poetry collections of Saliņš, ‘Miglas krogs’ (Tavern of the Fog) and Tauns’ ‘Mūžīgais mākonis’ (Eternal Cloud) were derived both from Aleksandrs Čaks and Eriks Ādamsons, the French symbolists and surrealists, as well as American imagist poetry. The work of the Hell’s Fire authors contains a sense of the ache you feel when living in a foreign country, scepticism and irony, a surreal combination of life’s characters and fantasy. Irony and philosophical contemplation helped create Roberts Mūks’ poetry in Ilze Šķipsna’s (1928-1981) novel ‘Aiz septītā tilta’ (Over the Seventh Bridge), an intermingling of the monologues of two characters, depicting the split nature of the personality created in exile. At the end of the novel both monologues meld into one, revealing that both the reserved Edīte and extroverted Solvita are two halves of the same person, who had been abbreviated to ES.
Modern trends in the works of new authors were supported by the literature magazine ‘Jaunā Gaita’, in which articles were published which attempted to overcome spiritual distance from events in Latvia, while preserving ideological detachment. The magazine published works written in Latvia, and were subsequently reviewed. A broader essay about events in Latvia, ‘Latvian Literature under the Soviets’, was written by Rolfs Ekmanis as his doctoral thesis.
In an attempt to overcome the division caused by the ‘iron curtain’, Guntis Zariņš (1926-1965), living in Great Britain, intended to establish an English-language publication in which works written outside and within Latvia would be published together. In 1964 Zariņš arrived in Latvia, was acquainted with new authors, but the situation which occurred following this led Zariņš to commit suicide. In his novels ‘Apsūdzēts’ (Accused), ‘Dvēseļu bojā eja’ (The Death of Spirits) and short stories, themes dominate which reveal the influence of the French existentialists.
A new generation entered exiled literature in the 1960s, who had become poets in exile and in whose verse exile had become an existential condition. The past of the homeland and a foreign culture created unusual combinations in the poetry of Olafs Stumbrs, Astrīda Ivaska, Valdis Krāslavietis, and in the quasi-surrealist prose of Andrejs Irbe and Tālivaldis Ķiķauka. Juris Kronbergs in turn wrote in two languages at once - Latvian and Swedish - thus demonstrating his belonging to both the Latvian and Swedish cultural milieu.
Latvian Literature in Latvia 1950S-1980S
A new generation became active in the mid-1950s, alongside the generation of writers who had taken part in the formation of the socialist realist canon in the post-war years. This new generation was influenced by the literary activities of the 1950s in Russia. Renewing the link to the ‘trauksminieki’ (alarmists) of the 1920s, and being influenced by the leftist literature of the 1920s, which in turn was indirectly related to the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s, they refreshed the literary process. Firstly, thanks to subjective lyric poetry, readers renewed their interest in poetry. The novels published in the magazine ‘Karogs’ renewed interest in great prose, in which authors strove to address suppressed historical questions or contemporary problems. A portion of previously banned works reappeared in libraries, and the only fiction publishing house, the Latvian State publishing house (later ‘Liesma’), issued not only realist works, but also classics of romanticism. ‘Zaļā grāmata’ (The Green Book), written by Jānis Jaunsudrabiņš, living in exile, was published in Latvia, while Mārtiņš Zīverts’ play ‘Minhauzena precības’ (Munchausen’s Wedding) was performed at the Dailes theatre. With the publication of collected works, which included works written in the 1920s by Jānis Sudrabkalns, Arvīds Grigulis, and Linards Laicens, interest in literature and history which diverged from the officially accepted ‘Soviet history’ was stimulated.
The atmosphere of the Soviet ‘thaw’ of the 1950s allowed writers to participate in the partial deconstruction and transformation of the Soviet myth. With a change of view points through the experience of the new generation, the epic depicted more recent history, confronting the model created by Soviet literature and their own experiences. The years of the Second World War and the contradictory nature of post-war events allowed real psychological prose to be reborn. The dominance of realism and the traditions of literature saw a return to characters and conflicts based on life observations. The diverse inner world of people at the time was depicted in stories by Ēvalds Vilks and Miervaldis Birze and novels by Visvaldis Lāma (‘Baltā ūdensroze’ (The White Waterlily) and others). Humour and satire returned to periodicals.
The subheading of Ojārs Vācietis’ story ‘Tās dienas acīm’ (Through the Eyes of that Day): ‘almost a diary’, refers to the documentary experience which allowed the contradictory environment post-war to be discovered as an ‘eye witness’. The magazine ‘Karogs’ began to publish the novel by Visvaldis Lāma ‘Kāvu blāzmā’ (In the Glow of Northern Lights), although the publication of the novel was interrupted, which depicted the Latvian legion (a taboo subject in the years post-war) during the time of German occupation. In the following decade, besides searching for new forms of expression, writers strove to renew the varieties of traditional genres of prose (historical and biographical novels, crime novels). Zigmunds Skujiņš’ first novels contained dynamic story lines (‘Kolumba mazdēli’ (The Grandsons of Columbus), ‘Fornarīna’), in which the author combined scenes from ‘Soviet life’ with a humorous message. Thematic novelties and in the 1960s, also formal ones were introduced to the poetry of the ‘generation of the 1950s’.
Three poets - Ojārs Vācietis (1933-1983), IB (1933) and Vizma Belševica (1931-2005) - become authors, whose writings and public stance influenced the next generations of poets and also socio-political events. Each of the collections of the authors blazed changes in both form and content. Vācietis in his collection of poems ‘Elpa’ (The Breath), and collections following this, confronted the ideals dictated by ruling powers with the conscience of a lyrical hero, expressing a heightened personal attitude to global and historical events. At the root of Ziedonis’ world view is paradox and intellect, which analyses and strives to influence events. The hero of Ziedonis’ poetry is a rebel, who turns against everything which tries to dogmatise a truth or inhibit freedom of expression. In the collection ‘Es ieeju sevī’ (I Turn Within), comprehending everything through the opposites of thesis/antithesis, the opposite is explored as an opportunity for creativity, which is contrasted to the ideals of a consumer society. Belševica’s collection ‘Gadu gredzeni’ (Rings of the Years) grapples with the preservation of self-respect and self-awareness in a situation of captivity. Using historical allusions, the poet speaks about the responsibility of the creative personality. Belševica was banned from publication for a number of years in the early 1970s: it was forbidden to mention her name in the press.
Latvian dramaturgy was reborn in the 1950s. Addressing social problems and psychologically analysing changes in people, a trio of playwrights arose in the 1950s-1960s which dominated until the 1980s: Gunārs Priede, Harijs Gulbis and Pauls Putniņš. Pēteris Pētersons popularised an original form of poetic drama, with variations on the tradition of Rainis. Performances of poetic drama created by Pētersons became popular, which were modelled on Čaks’, Ziedonis’ and Vladimir Mayakovsky’s soviet-Russian poetry motifs. In the 1980s the tradition of poetic drama was continued by Māra Zālīte.
The influence of the ‘thaw’ made the literary model of perfection of the 1960s an ‘active’ person, who asked questions and searched for answers. Using the connection between literature and ideology, authors used their works to address the problems which could not be debated openly in public or during social events. In the 1960s literature became a battlefield for social conflict. Writers became ‘unofficial’ social workers, involved in solving various social problems. In contrast to the 1940s and 1950s, when the Writer’s Association was founded so that the Soviet ideological workers could control the literary process more easily, in the 1960s the Association became a writer’s union, in which more than literary issues were discussed. Many authors came in contact with censorship or banning of their literary works. The first Poetry Days were held on the centenary of Rainis’ birth in 1965, which later became an annual series of events in Rīga and the provinces, where poets appeared publicly in various auditoriums.
Māris Čaklais made a brilliant debut in the early 1960s, through his poetry re-establishing the tie with the poetry of the 1920s and 1930s. The knowledge of history and self-awareness of the Latvian people was strengthened by Jānis Peters, Imants Auziņš and Vitauts Ļūdēns, making relevant the Latvian rural world view - based on folklore, a mythical perspective and the vitality of nature. Ārija Elksne, Lija Brīdaka, Olga Lisovska and Laima Līvena introduced a women's perspective to love poetry. Non-traditional poetry, in which the life of the city was depicted, was published by Monta Kroma. The poetry of the 1960s, which was oriented towards an intimate conversation with the reader, gave significant meaning to subtext, allusions to historical events and reminiscences of world culture. Latvian poets-polyglots Knuts Skujenieks and Uldis Bērziņš inspired a whole generation of poets-translators, who translated poetry not just from the languages of the great nations (English, German, French, Russian), but also reproduced poetry from Czech, Estonian, Lithuanian, Romanian, Polish, Tadzhik, Turkmen, Georgian, Finnish and other languages.
The presence of irony and distancing from the ruling powers increased in the generation of the 1960s, which was related to the late influences of modernism.Alberts Bels (1938) in his first novel ‘Izmeklētājs’ (The Investigator) outwardly utilised the structure of a detective novel, but the content was used to depict the inner explorations of the new generation of artists. The writer used internal monologues and montage techniques, changes of viewpoints, to reveal the human reality, full of historical events and contradictions. This search for inner freedom was continued in Bels’ subsequent novels. ‘Bezmiegs’ (Insomnia), written in 1967, was published in a revised edition for the first time only in 1987, and in its original form only in 2002. The writer was accused of having an anti-soviet attitude on account of this unpublished manuscript and was interrogated by Soviet security agencies a number of times. Bels created a metaphorically vast image of human existence in his novel ‘Būris’ (The Cage). Irony became the companion to his quest for strength in a socially limiting environment. In the novel Bels describes his ‘cage philosophy’: ‘He who is strong, breaks bars. He who has no strength speaks ironically about the bars. He who is strong, destroys the cage. He who has no strength composes a cage philosophy’. Utilising a historical scene - the attack on the secret police in January 1906 - in his novel ‘Saucēja balss’ (The Voice of a Herald) Bels depicted a person in a totalitarian society, creating references between Tsarist Russia from the beginning of the century and the 1960s in the USSR.
An ironic tone dominates Andris Jakubāns’ stories (‘Vakariņas ar klaunu’ (Dinner with a Clown)), which confronts the hero’s imagined world with reality, revealing alienation and moral relativity.
Diversity of genre and narrative is demonstrated in the fiction of Regīna Ezera (1930-2002). By using plot lines related to the traditional country environment, Ezera paints colourful and vital characters, which hint at the tragedy of events of the past. Diverging from a linear storyline, Ezera builds her works as individual monologues, series of stories, which are brought together by the character of the author, at times becoming one of the characters in the work. Her most expansive novel-phantasmagoria ‘Zemdegas’ (The Smouldering Fire) combines psychologically realistic prose with allusions to the postmodernist ‘death of the author’. The writer’s planned tetralogy ‘Pati ar savu vēju’ (By Her Own Wind) remained unfinished, in which the two completed parts (‘Varmācība’ (Violence) and ‘Nodevība’ (Treason)) placed the character of the author and the literary process itself at the centre of attention. Ezera's series of short stories - ‘Zoological Short Stories’ and „Crazy Tales’ - became popular, in which references to world events, reflecting on the crisis of humanism and ecology of the 20th century, were made through the use of allegories from the animal world. Along with Ezera, Zigmunds Skujiņš also worked in the genre of short stories, utilizing the paradoxical world view of the prose of Anšlavs Eglītis and Eriks Ādamsons.
A world related to the postmodernist era was revealed in prose by Marģers Zariņš(1910-1993). Zariņš debuted with short stories, which were based on mysterious letters by French composer Jacques Offenbach. Various levels of language and style grotesquely entwined in the novel ‘Viltotais Fausts jeb pārstrādāta un papildināta pavārgrāmata’ (The Mock Faustus or the Corrected and Complemented Cookbook), presenting a variation on the changing relationship between 20th century Faust and Mephistopheles, rich in reminiscence and references to international culture. Time and layers of culture freely intermingled in the long story ‘Mistērijas un hepeningi’ (Mysteries and Happenings). Zariņš synthesised techniques from film and theatre, and principles of musical composition with explorations of various eras. The writer’s ‘documentary fantasies’ are compiled in the books ‘Apgaismības laikmeta ēnā’ (In the Shadow of the Century of Enlightenment), ‘Kapelmeistara Kociņa kalendārs’ (The Calendar of Band Leader Kociņš), and ‘Trauksmainie trīsdesmit trīs’ (The Turbulent Thirty-Three).
Jānis Mauliņš and Aivars Kalve gave variation to the outlook of prose in the 1970s and analysed social processes, while the social environment of the genre of crime and detective novels was critically analysed by Andris Kolbergs. The contradictory course of history and the role of personality in these events was examined by Jānis Kalniņš in his biographical novels ‘Auseklis’, ‘Rainis’ and ‘Kalna Kaibēni’.
Latvian poetry in the 1970s and 1980s was marked by diversity in poetic style. In contrast to the rhetoric of the 1960s, the voice of poetry became more intimate and calmer. Philosophical depth was introduced to Latvian poetry by Imants Ziedonis’ poetry collections „Mana labvēlīgā tumsa’ (My Friendly Darkness), ‘Re, kā’ (See how), and ‘Taureņu uzbrukums’ (The Butterfly Attack), Ojārs Vācietis’ ‘Visāda garuma stundas’ (Hours of different lengths), „Antracīts’ (Anthracite) and the last collection of the poet „Si minors’ (B minor). The tradition of romantic poetry was continued by Egils Plaudis, Leons Briedis and Velga Krile. The reduction of social activity manifested itself in poetry through sadness and resignation, self analysis, searching for vitality in the inner world, and strength for further development. A feeling of internal exile and isolation from the surrounding reality was revealed in poetry by Māra Zālīte, Māra Misiņa, Klāvs Elsbergs, Anna Rancāne and Amanda Aizpuriete. Refined verse hidden behind a mask of ironic bravado and nihilism characterised the poetic world of Jānis Rokpelnis. The poetry of Māra Melgalva and Juris Kunnos typically combined the serious and ironic, and played on the paradoxical. On his return from incarceration, Knuts Skujenieks wrote focussed and lyrically intimate poetry with touches of self-irony. His works were fully published only in the 1990s. Uldis Bērziņš performed experiments with the language and structure of poetry, based on a study of Eastern culture. The first books for both poets were published only at the turn of the decade (1970s-1980s).
Journalism became a unique artistic phenomenon in the 1970s. The message of Imants Ziedonis’ two volume ‘Kurzemīte’ balances on the border of fiction and journalism, combining a view of the Latvian countryside with an analysis of the artistic world. Teaming together colloquial language, with characters and images derived from studies of folklore, Ziedonis transformed this traditional genre, writing the long poems ‘Poēma par pienu’ (A Poem about Milk) and ‘Viddivārpa’. Journalism, alongside fiction, became an area in which the renewal of the self-awareness of the people was searched for, highlighting various historical eras for the consciousness of the reader. In the 1970s literature and journalism both secretly and openly strove to create the ‘people’s ideology’, as opposed to the official Soviet ideology. The cultivation of ‘one’s own earth’ and ‘rooted feelings’ was at the basis of this ‘positivism’ of the 1970s. The attention of authors was trained both on mythological thinking and historical themes, making them return to linear novels, which sequentially revealed the relationship between man and the era , the tragedy of the fate of the people, stability and harmony in experiencing the cyclic events in nature and successive the generations, while simultaneously revealing the breakdown of the family and the alienation existing between people (Harijs Gulbis „Doņuleja’, Zigmunds Skujiņš ‘Gulta ar zelta kāju’ (The Bed with the Golden Leg), Alberts Bels ‘Saknes’(Roots), Ilze Indrāne ‘Zemsvēzi dzirdēt’(To Hear a Mole Cricket)). The ideological role of literature and simultaneously the everyday nonconformity to the ‘folk myth’ created a basis for the literature of the 1980s.
The social and aesthetic crisis of the early 1980s was marked by the appearance of the ‘new angry’ generation. Eva Rubene and Rudīte Kalpiņa published stories which directly portrayed the feelings of the younger generation in the stagnating Soviet reality, where hopelessness and desperation ruled. The presence of absurdist literature in the depiction of the absurd soviet reality could be discerned in prose by Artūrs Snips, Velta Spāre, Aivars Tarvids, early Gundega Repše, and Andra Neiburga. Postmodernist poetics inspired works by Valda Melgalve and Mārtiņš Zelmenis. Mistrust of authorised literary methods were examined alongside the grotesque and absurd. The appearance of the new generation of authors was most effectively reflected in the magazine ‘Avots’ (1987). An ironic attitude to the reality of their time and searching for inner freedom was expressed through poetry by Gundars Godiņš, Pēteris Brūvers and Egils Zirnis. Lelde Stumbre and Hermanis Paukšs worked in dramaturgy and Lauris Gundars and Egils Šnore wrote their first plays.
Latvia regained its independence as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s. Literature was no longer subjected to political censorship, and as a result subtext decreased, along with the role of the ‘indirect word’ in the process of understanding. For the first time readers had free access to works written in exile. A number of authors living in exile moved to live in Latvia (Roberts Mūks, Andrejs Eglītis, Margita Gūtmane). The works of authors who had been deported or imprisoned during the Soviet era were published. In 1990 Knuts Skujenieks’ poetry collection ‘Sēkla sniegā’ (Seed in the Snow) was published, which had been written in prison, and Broņislava Mārtuževa’s collection ‘Ceļu krusti’ (Roadside Crosses).
The only literary publication which survived this crisis was the magazine ‘Karogs’.
‘Literatūra un Māksla’ stopped publication, and in its place short-lived literary periodicals appeared. The activities of publishing houses expanded not only in Rīga but also in the provinces. In Rēzekne a publishing house of the Latgale cultural centre was established, which began to publish books in the Latgalian literary language.
ULDIS BĒRZIŅŠ'S POETRY
Latvian Literature in the 1990S and Early 21St Century
The renewal of Latvian independence created a different social and cultural context for literature (and in broader terms - for art). The intensity of political events and social problems decreased readership and circulation numbers. In the 1990s the myth about the social significance of literature and art collapsed. Fiction and articles about it were just peripheral interests of periodical publications; publishing houses did not find publishing original works profitable in the new free market conditions. Only in the 21st century did interest in the fictional periodicals reappear - literary pages and arts-related supplements were renewed in the largest daily newspapers (newspaper ‘Diena’). With the establishment of financial support from the State (The State Culture Capital Foundation), the numbers of publications and their circulation numbers stabilised.
Poetry has retained its strong dominance of the literary process. Poetry based on experiences in various cultures was published in the 1990s by poets and translators Uldis Bērziņš, Juris Kronbergs, Knuts Skujenieks, Jānis Rokpelnis, Leons Briedis and Pēters Brūveris. A unique position alongside these was occupied by the innovator in the language of poetry, Edvīns Raups. An ironic outlook is depicted in the poetry of Kārlis Vērdiņš. The women’s perspective is revealed in the poetry of Amanda Aizpuriete, Liana Langa, Inese Zandere and Inga Gaile.
Alongside the creation of a new informative space the younger generation of writers mainly experimented with the experience of Western postmodernism, by varying their message and paying special attention to the creative nature of language. Aivara Ozoliņš’ ‘Dukts’ (1990) became a manifesto of the postmodernist generation, as did Guntis Berelis’ literary theory compositions and prose collection ‘Mīnotaura medības’ (The Hunt for the Minotaur). The short prose of this period often includes post-modern coded games from various eras and cultures. In these, a metaphoric narrative style was created while striving to reject a linear narrative, for example, Jānis Einfelds’ prose, rich with linguistic experimentation, and the first collections of Nora Ikstena, in which the narrative, dreams and visions merge. In turn, features of new explorations are included in Ikstena’s novel ‘Dzīves svinēšana’ (Celebrating Life), where searches for identity appear within tales told by various narrators.
The scene of the 21st century demonstrates that Latvian literature is no longer unified; it has branched out into various types of writing. Literature is aimed at different readerships in different generations. Alongside experimental works and those searching for new forms of expression, realistic narratives have been preserved in the works of authors from the older generation (Andris Kolbergs’ detective novel trilogy ‘Klaunu maršs šausmu tirgū’ (March of the Clowns in the Market of Horrors), ‘Pulkstenis ar atpakaļgaitu’ (A Clock of Reverse Motion), ‘Sieviete melnā’ (Woman in Black)), and Vladimirs Kaijaks’ family saga ‘Likteņa līdumnieki’ (Pioneers of Fate). A broad view of the era and individual relationships was written by Roalds Dobrovenskis in his novel ‘Rainis un viņa brāļi’ (Rainis and His Brothers), using Rainis’ diaries, letters, and notes (originally published in Russian). The Latvian experience of guest working in Ireland gained a lively depiction in Laima Muktupāvela’s novel ‘Šampinjonu derība’ (The Mushroom Covenant).
Alongside fiction, documentary literature has gained popularity since the early 1990s, which depicts memories of deportation or incarceration during the years of occupation. The life stories of individual people, and the tragic fates of their families define the complicated history of the Latvian people in the 20th century, which could only be openly written about in exile. Sandra Kalniete’s book ‘Ar balles kurpēm Sibīrijas sniegos’ (With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows) has been translated into nine languages. Memories of childhood in 1930s and 1940s Latvia are recounted in the trilogy ‘Bille’ (1992-1999) by Vizma Belševica and in Imants Ziedonis' and Nora Ikstena’s collaborative work „Nenoteiktā bija’ (Indefinite Was).
A fusion of personal experience and modern narrative is employed in stories and novels by Gundega Repše, Pauls Bankovskis, Andra Neiburga and Inga Ābele. Familiarisation with postmodernist literature has allowed writers to return to their interest in the recent reality of the 1970s and 80s, using life stories, at the same time maintaining a stylistic distinction and diversity. An analysis of social processes is undertaken in plays by Jānis Jurkāns, Lelde Stumbre, Evita Sniedze and poetic dramas and librettos by Māra Zālīte.
Unique poetic explorations on the border between two cultures - Latvian and Russian - are undertaken by the group ‘Orbīta’, through their creation of various multimedia projects.
© Text: Dr. Raimonds Briedis, The Latvian Academy of Culture, 2007© The Latvian Institute
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