Writing, Reading, and Administration

My newest novel makes slow progress as other matters overwhelm my schedule, but each of them shares its own delights, so I’ll content myself with slow progress for the moment.

The new novel’s working title is Fear no Fall, a quote from a passage in Bunyan He that is down need fear no fall / He that is low, no pride. It’s a slightly awkward title but it helps me to keep my theme in mind. I am interested in characters who create themselves after the old order dies and the new one arises. In this case, I mean particularly the collapse of the old order after WWI that followed the destruction of ancient empires and the subsequent growth of many, problematic small states.

In our own time, we saw leaders such as Vaclav Havel, Vytautas Landsbergis, and Lech Walesa step put of the theatre, out of the academy, and out of the factory to become, even for relatively short times, leaders of their people. This type of process happens again and again in history, and not just to the leaders of nations.

I have set this new novel in Kaunas, from 1921 – 1923 and based it loosely on the life of Jonas Budrys, who ran Lithuanian counter intelligence at a time when the new country had no money, no resources, and no friends. I am particularly interested in his spirited defense of the small nation, and his subsequent seizure of Klaipeda (Memel) in 1923. Does a patriot become an imperialist in the blink of an eye? Do political imperatives ever really change? How does one create new morality when the old order has fallen? Is it even possible to be moral, and what does morality mean in both the personal and political arena? Budrys is a rich source, and I’ve blogged about him before.

This time, I am returning to the humour of my earlier writings, because although I want to engage in big themes, I also want to have some lightness for a change. After years writing of the brutal partisan resistance, (and returning to it soon for another project I’ll post about in the future) I need something of a break form the horror of that episode in history.

A useful source for my new novel is a book I reviewed on Shelagh Rogers’s CBC radio show, The Next Chapter. It is Modris Eksteins’s Solar Dance, Genius, Forgery, and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age.

Eksteins is a brilliant and popular historian who writes about the spasm of modernity that typifies the era after WW1. In this particular book, he traces the story of Vincent Van Gogh and his rise to adulation in the Weimar period in Germany after the war. Eksteins’s thesis is that after the war, the age of enlightenment gave way further to the age of romanticism, leading to zeitgeist that values eccentricity, madness, emotion, novelty and emancipation over reason and moderation. He also believes that we are living in Weimar-type zeitgeist at present, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Having lost the last utopian project, we are left with nothing but the market, which has made us rich, but left us hungry for transcendence and subject to novelty and emotionalism.

Eksteins helps to set the tone for the decade I am writing about in the new novel, but he is well worth reading in and of himself. He earlier book, The Rites of Spring, deals with similar themes and was important to me for background when I wrote Woman in Bronze, about artists in Paris in the twenties.

I am also devouring Tony Judt’s posthumous book, a conversation with historian Timothy Snyder called Thinking the Twentieth Century. I can barely put that book down, and will report on it more fully once I am done.

What looms over me this spring is preparing for the big Creative Writing conference in Toronto, being held at my institution, Humber College, and co-hosted with York University and most other writing schools in Toronto. This conference unites the creative writing teachers and students from across the country and will have, I believe, close to two hundred participants. The logistics concerns alone are enormous, so this event is eating up much of my workday and the vast majority my spare time.

Writers complain that they never have enough time to write, and this is certainly true of me too, but the mix of conferences, reading, and writing and a few other developments I’ll talk about later make for a rich life. I’m not complaining.

The Return of Buying on Time

I was working through galleys of one of my books last weekend, and while this is not so unusual an activity for a writer, what is unusual is that the galleys were for a book that came out in 1997.

Porcupine’s Quill is doing another printing of that collection of stories, which has never ben out of print, I might add.  But the films were so old the proces had to be done again.  There is also an ebook of Buying on Time now available at the Porcupine’s Quill site.

I hadn’t read this material for fifteen years and it was a delight to read it again. I had even forgotten some of the jokes and laughed anew (I don’t usually laugh at my own jokes).  Publisher Tim Inkster warned me to resist the urge to rewrite. That was very hard to do because I am a rewriter by nature.

But Tim did permit me a few corrections – oddball things. The book had already been through four reprints, but I still found a couple of details we had all missed. I called sandwich meat “baloney” for 150 pages, and then somewhere around page 180 I elevated it to “bologna”.

Most writers do not reread their works, and I never do once they are in print, so this was instructive. The lesson is that a work of fiction is never finished to the writer – one could keep on writing forever, but editors and publishers wisely forbid us to do that.

Partisan Attack

Just as I thought I was moving on to a new page in literary subject matter, the postwar partisan story has taken another turn with the launch of a fresh polemic against these underground resisters of Soviet occupation in Lithuania.

A Sharp Attack on the Postwar Anti-Soviet Partisans

A contentious new book has appeared in Lithuania, called A Memorial Book of the Victims of Partisan Terror (Partizanu Teroro Auku Atminimo Knyga).

The book has a trilingual introduction by Povilas Masilionis in which he attacks the partisans as murderers and terrorists. Most of the book consists of a list of civilians killed by partisans.

This book comes on the heels of an article by Jurgis Jurgelis comparing civilian killings carried out by pro-Soviet collaborators and anti-Soviet partisans (even my choice of words is fraught here – unavoidably so). Jurgelis suggests a sort of moral equivalency between the two.

On the other hand, Arvydas Anusauskas, member of the Seimas and former head of the Genocide Museum, says that the book is old propaganda reheated by Masiulionis, who, in the Soviet period, worked for the Central Committee of the Communist Party as a propaganda instructor and assistant director of the journal “The Comunist”.

Does pedigree matter? I think it must.

The introduction does reek of a polemic of the lowest sort, but even so, I have to sympathize with the numerous dead listed in the pages. For example, Donatas Glodenis is a thoughtful blogger in Lithuania, a man whose grandfather was killed by partisans (perhaps for agreeing to work in a position of responsibility in a state farm.) To see one’s grandfather memorialized must be moving and important (see his comments on the book launch).

Twenty years after Lithuania’s independence, the battle over history is not going away – it is heating up.

Dramatic Biographies Part Four – Jonas Zemaitis

Partisan Leader Posthumously Named Lithuania’s Fourth President

Postage Stamp Commemorating Jonas Zemaitis

If the generation of Americans who fought in WW2 is considered the “The Greatest Generation” for its sense of sacrifice and courage, the same can be said out east, on the far side of Europe, where the suffering was far broader than it ever was in the west. In the west some died and others returned to the developing suburban dream, but in the east, some died, some kept on fighting, and the rest were hammered into dust for the mortar used to build the house of Communism.

One of Lithuania’s most famous members of this generation is Jonas Zemaitis, an anti-Soviet partisan fighter from 1944 to his execution in Moscow in ten years later. Zemaitis and many of his generation stayed behind when the Soviets returned for a new round of terror. Some were simply unlucky, a few may have been collaborators, but most were like Zemaitis – patriots who refused to leave their homes. Astonishingly, Moscow seemed on the verge of naming this underground opponent the new leader of Soviet Lithuania in 1953.

Son of a happy-go-lucky father in independent Lithuania, Jonas Zemaitis sought structure and stability by entering the Kaunas officers’ academy in 1926. He was a solid student who trained in the artillery, working his way up to the rank of captain and eventually being talented enough to be sent to France in the late thirties.

Zemaitis remained behind in Lithuania when the Soviets returned in 1944. The anti-Soviet partisan movement was glad to have him because many officers had been taken in the first wave of Soviet deportations and most of those who remained fled before the second Soviet occupation. The resistance needed men who knew military tactics, and they found their champion in Zemaitis.

Early partisan resistance was military in a traditional sense – the partisans took land and defended it. Zemaitis fought in pitched battles from fortified positions with dozens of partisans in the early stages of the fight in 1944 and 1945. But this was a losing proposition against vastly larger forces, and it became worse when the Soviets defeated Germany and could turn back to concentrate on pacifying their captured territories.

Zemaitis was lucky for a time, escaping in close calls again and again –  even his wife managed to escape from captivity by the NKVD.

But luck was not enough against superior forces. By1948, the country had tired of resistance and partisan numbers were down dramatically, from 30,000 at the beginning to perhaps 2,000. Increasingly, locals were betraying the partisans and occasionally feeding them sleeping mixtures or poisons. Notwithstanding these difficulties, the partisans united themselves under a single command with Zemaitis as their leader.

In 1950 they were still managing to produce an underground press and even received modest funding of a few hundred dollars from the Americans through Juozas Luksa, a partisan who had made it out to the west and returned.

The end of the game was clearly in sight when in 1951, Zemaitis suffered a stroke which partially paralyzed him. Allies were few and resources stretched thin. He could not shelter in a hospital or even a house, so he spent over a year in a bunker being served and nursed by women sympathetic to the partisan cause. But by then the whole movement had been compromised. Too many captured partisans gave in either to torture or pressure against their families or arguments about the inevitable socialist future, and these men infiltrated their former bands. Such was the case with Zemaitis, whose bunker location was revealed in 1953 by his right-hand man soon after his capture.

Zemaitis and the others were taken alive when the bunker was filled with sleeping gas.

So far, this is a story that is broadly the same as hundreds of others in that place and time. Where it changes is at the end.

In 1953, the murderous and paranoid Joseph Stalin died and his right-hand man, Lavrenty Beria, took over the Soviet Union. Today, Beria has a reputation as the most heartless of Stalin’s henchmen, and some believe he would have continued Stalin’s style of terror had he survived. Yet his actions at this juncture hint at the opposite. Beria was looking for accommodation with nationalist forces in both Lithuania and Ukraine. There are some hints that he even intended to put the partisan leaders in positions of power and discard the old Central Committee leaders who had ruled under Stalin’s regime in Lithuania and Ukraine.

After his capture in1953, Zemaitis was interrogated in Vilnius, but not tortured. This fact was a novelty under Beria’s new rules. Then Zemaitis was flown to Moscow where he met in person with Beria for an hour.

What did they say to one another? What was supposed to happen next? We’ll never know. Beria was arrested the next day and executed before the end of the year.

Whatever good this meant for the Soviet Union (Beria was known as a hard liner and his elimination eventually led to a thaw), it meant the opposite, a return to the old ways in Soviet Lithuania. Antanas Snieckus, the head of the Communist Party in Lithuania, was now secure in his place as he had been under Stalin. Zemaitis was returned to Lithuania by train and interrogated, again, without torture. Under interrogation, he sketched out the entire system of partisan resistance in Lithuania, which had crumbled by then.  At least one historian believes he did so to ensure a record of the resistance survived in KGB archives.

In is final statement, Zemaitis insisted that he believed his resistance to be lawful and the Lithuanian Soviet regime the product of an invading force. He said he regretted nothing. Sentenced to death, he was returned to Moscow where the verdict was carried out in 1954.

In 2009, the Lithuanian government declared that he represented the lawful extension of independent Lithuania, and posthumously declared him as the fourth president of the country.

Dramatic Biographies Part Three – Kostas Kubilinskas

The story of Kostas Kubilinskas is something like an East European joke, and by that I mean it is a particularly gruesome story with tragicomic overtones.

Murderer and Children's Poet, Kostas Kubilinskas

Kostas Kulbilinskas died in 1962 and at the time he was one of the best-loved children’s writers in Lithuania. (I mentioned him in an earlier post about Lionginas Baliukevicius  – author of Diary of Partisan.) It turns out he is an excellent example of the type of writer described in Czeslaw Milosz’s Captive Mind, a writer who will do anything to get published. He was a man who became a murderer in order to earn the right to write children’s poetry.

Kubilinskas was born in 1923, one of four children in a poor family. Right from his youth he established himself as a poet of sorts by wining poetry prize at the age of fifteen. He was in high school during the first German occupation, and began to write satirical poems about Stalin and Jews (!). From the very first, it seems he tailored his writing to the current ruling regime. The problem would come when the regimes changed.

Kubilinskas had a knack for rhyme and wrote easily and quickly. Later in life, he was known as the kind of man who could compose rhymes at the printer’s if a magazine had an unexpected white space.

When the Soviets were approaching Lithuania for their second occupation, Kubilinskas decided to stay behind because he felt he was a poet above all and could not leave the land of his language. He imagined he might adapt to the regime by writing for its rulers.

At first this worked well. He joined the Communist Youth League and became one of the promising writers in the new writers’ union. But in 1946, he was identified as a German collaborator and removed from his post. He was unable to publish, and eventually ended up as a teacher in remote village in the south of Lithuania.

It must have felt like banishment to Kubilinskas, but it led to an interesting turn of events. Kubilinskas stood out as an intellectual in these surroundings, and intellectuals were rare and valuable in a land where one crop had been deported to Siberia, another died in the Holocaust, and a third fled before the invading Red Army in 1944. The local ant-Soviets could use a man like that because they lacked writers and intelligencia for their newspapers. Kubilinskas’s friend, Algirdas Skinkys, was in a similar position. Skinkys is almost a double of Kubilinskas, although a lesser double because less talented.

Kubilinskas had said to friends he would go to any lengths for the ability to publish poetry, and the contact with the partisans opened an opportunity for him to redeem himself. He wanted to leverage the partisan contact to gain bigger rewards than the resistance could offer him.

Not trusting the local MGB, Kubilinskas wrote to the chair of the Lithuanian Communist Party, Antanas Snieckus, and volunteered to infiltrate the anti-Soviet partisans. His file was handed over to a Vilnius MGB officer, and Kubilinskas was trained in firearms and deception.

His job was to find local partisan groups, infiltrate them, and assassinate the leaders or bring in troops to do the job if need be. Fearful for their safety, Kubilinskas and his friend Skinkys hesitated to commit murder until they were ordered to fulfill their tasks within the first weeks of 1949 or face the wrath of the MGB.

In a botch job that ended up turning out well for Kubilinskas, he and his friend shot a sleeping partisan in his bunker and then fled to Alytus, a provincial capital, where they summoned MGB soldiers to surround another bunker where several more partisans were killed in a firefight.

The botch occurred when Kubilinskas was identified while fleeing, and thus could no longer be used in other operations to infiltrate the partisans, who issued an execution order against him (which was never carried out).

The botch played to his advantage. Kubilinskas was free to publish as a poet, which he did, with great success. Although he never published much for adults, Kubilinskas became a roaring success as a children’s writer, producing many rhyming stories. He was the Doctor Seuss of Lithuania in the 1950’s.

But Kubilinskas was a drinker, whether because of a guilty conscience or natural tendency, and his alcoholism began to interfere with his work to such an extent that he was sent in 1962 to a sanitarium for alcoholics outside Moscow, where he died under mysterious circumstances, some say murdered by the KGB (the heir of the MGB) for being too talkative. He had lived only until the age of 39. His colleague in crime, Algirdas Skinkys, lived until 1970, reaching the age of 45. The latter, though, never achieved the fame of Kubilinskas.

It seems impossible to the modern western reader that a man so pliable to ruling regimes, and a murderer as well, should be capable of writing lasting poetry, all the less children’s poetry. Yet his choices reflect the reality of Eastern Europe where one had to select among bad choices. Kubilinskas made some of the worst of them.

This egotistical artist was the inspiration for the character called Rimantas in my novel, Underground, code-named Poe for his fondness for the American poet. I chose Poe as his code-name for the gruesome connotations we have for that writer.

What is the fate of the reputation of this murderer? For all his crimes, some readers in Lithuania continue to enjoy his children’s work. Public taste and public morality are two distinct realms, although there are few cases as extreme as that of Kostas Kubilinskas.

Eastern European jokes can be cruel indeed, and the life of Kostas Kubilinskas shows us a man who loved to write for children so very much that he helped murder to get the opportunity to do it.

Doctor Juozas Markulis – Code Named Eagle – Soviet Agent and Provocateur

Lithuanian partisans captured by the MGB in the postwar period were sometimes turned into provocateurs or double agents – few could resist the intimidation and torture used against them in interrogations. Some collaborators were more thorough and enthusiastic in their work than others. Among them were Juozas Deksnys, described in earlier posts, and Algimantas Zaskevicius (reported to have contributed to the capture of 300 partisans).

Collaborator Markulis narrowly escaped execution by Juozas Luksa

But the most famous of them all was Dr. Juozas Markulis, who taught medicine at the university of Vilnius.

Markulis was born in the USA but returned to Lithuania to complete studies for the priesthood. He never took religious orders. He was handsome and attractive to women, and he shifted instead to officer training in the military and finally into medicine in 1940. He joined the LLA, an underground Lithuanian resistance organization in 1941.

The organization was smashed by the Soviets at the end of 1944, and its archives fell into their hands. Markulis may have been identified at this time – he certainly was turned at this time.

The partisan underground lacked intellectuals – many of the fighters were the children of farmers, and Markulis insinuated himself into a local regional partisan unit where he was much beloved and looked upon as a father figure.

Markulis had two strategies – to unify the partisans in the country and to convince them to move toward passive resistance, tactics that were beginning to work. He was convincing to the partisans and impressive to his MGB superiors, writing long and detailed reports that showed he had an excellent memory for detail.

Working under intense pressure, Markulis could not avoid making mistakes, and one of them was permitting the MGB to arrest Jonas Deksnys, who had been instructed by his brother to maintain ties with no one but Markulis.

Thus it became clear that Markulis was a collaborator and spy and Juozas Luksa himself went to Vilnius in 1947 to execute him, but Markulis escaped.

He lived in Leningrad until 1953, when the partisan movement had been destroyed, and then returned to teach at the University of Vilnius.

His motivations remain opaque. He died in 1988, just before Lithuania regained its independence. His legacy is a name synonymous with treachery – he is the Benedict Arnold of Lithuanian to those who know the story of the resistance to the Soviets.

New Review in the Literary Review of Canada

Anna Porter has written a thorough and informative review of Underground in the LRC. What a relief to have someone familiar with “the other Europe” doing the writing.

You ccan see the review in the LRC itself or buy an online copy of the journal, but here are a couple of highlights:

… In an uncompromising novel, post-war Lithuania receives its due.

As for Antanas Sileika,…, he has written a tough, uncompromising book and brought those forgotten stories back to life.

Four Dramatic Biographies – Part One

While I had intended to begin this season with an entry about Robert Heingartner and the shape of my novel in progress, I stumbled across some more partisan biographies while I was in Lithuania last summer and found them too good to remain unremarked upon.

The Source of Four Partisan Biographies

The four come from a book by Rokas Subačius called (in translation) Dramatic Biographies, detailing the lives of twenty-six Lithuanians during periods of first independence and three brutal occupations.

In a radio interview with Shelagh Rogers on CBC radio this fall, I said I keep going back to Lithuanian sources because the place has life stories with very high stakes.

Some of the four biographies provided source material for Underground.

The first life described is that of Juozas Vitkus, code-named Kazimieraitis, who was the head of the partisan region of southern Lithuania. Although he did not write about his own life, he was described in detail by Adolfas Ramanauskas, code-named Vanagas, whose biography inspired parts of Underground.

Before WW 1, Juozas Vitkus should have emigrated as a child to America where his father had gone to find work, but his mother became sick on the way and was held back in London and the children were sent to an orphanage. His father returned from America to round them all up and then went back to farm modestly in Lithuania instead of going on to the USA.

Delayed by the war, Vitkus entered high school in 1919 at the age of eighteen. Lithuania’s independence battles were still going on, and he joined the army and was trained as an officer, serving as a lieutenant in battles with the Poles. He trained as a military engineer in Belgium and visited the Paris World’s Fair of 1937. He was a lieutenant-colonel by 1940 during the first Soviet occupation, but was not deported to Siberia like so many officers at that time.

During the German occupation, unwilling to work in an army subservient to the Nazis, he went into civilian life, meanwhile helping to create the LLA, an underground military school in the resistance.

When the threat of Soviet return became real, the retreating Germans agreed to train and arm about a hundred potential underground resisters. While biographer Subacius does not go into detail on this point, one can see where the story of underground fighters as Nazi sympathizers arises. Some took training and weapons from the Germans (and some were undoubtedly collaborators). However, the majority of partisans, as we know, were simply young men, mostly from rural backgrounds, fearful of the returning Soviets and unwilling to join their army.

Vitkus could not easily withdraw before the approaching Soviets because he had five young children. But after their second arrival (the first was in 1940), he found it difficult to find work under the occupation itself because no one would give a former army officer a job. He finally found work in the remote southern countryside as a bookkeeper, apparently intending to stay legal but out of the spotlight and thus less liable to deportation from a provincial village.

However, the partisan resistance as forming around him, and he could see the lack of military training in these informal groups. Most of the higher officers had fled Lithuania or been imprisoned, and Vitkus joined the partisans with the intention of raising their military training. He was the highest ranking officer from the formerly independent army in the partisan movement.

At this moment it is worth standing back from the life for a moment and watching how history played havoc with the best-laid plans. Vitkus, who chose the code-name Kazimieraitis, had no intention of resisting at first, but he felt compelled to do something for the partisans in spite of the fact that his actions put his family and himself at risk.

One of his first tasks was to organize the resistance and to enforce discipline, in particular on some of the criminals who drifted into the partisan movement in the early days. At least seven of them received death sentences for excessive violence in the resistance.

Vitkus’s bunker was at the confluence of two small streams that did not freeze over the winter, and the only way to reach the bunker door without leaving footprints was to wade in the shallow waters with rubber boots on the way.

Vitkus met with Juozas Deksnys, a partisan stationed in Stockholm who came back into Lithuania to check out the local situation. With him, he hoped to set up ties to the international community and to get help for the resistance.

Vitkus also helped organize the seizure of the town of Merkine, dramatized in my novel. The intention was to assassinate local collaborators. In that action two hundred partisans attacked the town with great initial success, but significant losses as well. By 1948, incidentally, the 47 whose names Ramanauskas could remember were all dead.

Even in 1946, the noose was tightening. After the Merkine action, a captured partisan was tortured until he revealed Vitkus’s bunker. Although Vitkus was not caught, two other partisans were killed and their documents discovered, including Vitkus’s diary and a list of sixty supporters, who were subsequently arrested.

The partisans fought on, but the losses were great. Through 1945 through June of 1946, Vitkus lost 250 shot, 236 arrested, and 213 partisans who opted to take amnesty. Only 300 were left in his area.

After a massive partisan execution action against spies, the resulting MGB combing of the forests stumbled across Vitkus while he was washing his clothes by a stream. He defended himself with a pistol, wounding two soldiers, but was wounded in turn by a grenade and taken alive. The MGB did not know who they had. They beat him during interrogation, but he died of his wounds without giving out any information.

His body was dumped in the marketplace in village of Leipalingis and left there until the MGB discovered who they had killed. Then the body was taken away and buried in a place that remains unknown to this day.

When I was in Merkine again this summer, I visited the partisan monument where he and dozens of other fighters are commemorated. It lies very close to another monument to red partisans and Red Army soldiers, as well as the site of a holocaust massacre.

Underground is dedicated not only to men like Vitkus, but to all the others who died in the forests as well.

New Novel Progress – Last Entry for the Summer of 2011

When we think of the Versailles Peace Conference, we tend to think of President Wilson and the other big players, but among them were many smaller players as well, looking for independent nation status for former Russian provinces such as Poland, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, the Ukraine, Belarus, the Don and Kuban Cossacks as well as the Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Some would get what they wanted, but most would not.

The White Russians insisted that the old Czarist Russia be recreated and all these upstart nations remain a part of the reformed empire. The great powers might have been happy with this solution except it seemed the Whites might not win, and thus it would be better to a cordon sanitaire around the Bolsheviks. As for the Germans, they wanted client states in the places where they had actually beaten the Russians in the East.

Piip, Meierovics & Voldemaras, Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania: Makers of the Modern World

Such a complicated place! But there’s a new book, part of series, Makers of the Modern World, examining the intricacies of Versailles 1919 – 1923, called, lugubriously, Antonius Piip, Zigfrids Meierovics and Augustinas Voldemaras, The Baltic States. Obviously, this text focuses on the Baltics and the three men at the conference who championed their cause for independence and succeeded where others did not.

The book is interesting as part of a trend of new histories about Eastern Europe, a place whose story, according to historian Timothy Snyder, was previously fractured into a mosaic of national histories. Now we are getting overviews in English.

Characteristic of this part of the world are the very high stakes involved in the game. The Baltic states had differing histories, but none had been independent for centuries, so what were the odds that they could get what they wanted while negotiating among large power interests?

Yet their unlikely project succeeded.

This small text give thumbnail sketches of the players, many of whom were distinctive, fractious, or eccentric. The Lithuanian Voldemaras, somewhat long-winded and professorial, thought Lithuania had the best chance because it had been a country in the middle ages in a way that the other two had not, but the allies thought the opposite, believing the historical German influence in Estonia an Latvia made them more reliable.

Meierovics died in a car accident in 1925, and the other two died in the gulag after Soviet occupation came in the forties, but their work was restored with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Since my new novel will be set in the espionage circles of 1921 – 1923, this text gives me excellent background material.

Activity at Humber where I run a summer writing workshop now heats up, and soon after that I will go to Lithuania for a few weeks to do more research on the next text, so this may be my last entry for the summer. When I return, I’ll describe a diary of a diplomat in Lithuania in the twenties, a man who did not much care for the place: Lithuania in the 1920s: A Diplomat’s Diary, by Robert W. Heingartner.

New Novel Coming Together with the Help of Tadas Ivanauskas

With my novel, Underground, launched into the world, it is time to think of the next novel, which I have been hankering to get to.

There will still be a lot of talking about Underground and the partisan war because I have media appearances and festivals to attend in the fall, but just now I can get into the research on the new novel and expand the pages of the new book that I have already written.

The new novel’s working title is Fear no Fall – this is a thematic guideline for me, taken from John Bunyan, although I am not sure I will want to keep the title in the end (I lean toward Things Fall Apart as well, but it has been used so often).

He that is down needs fear no fall,

He that is low no pride…

The novel will be set in in the murky world of espionage and counter-espionage among the Russians, Poles, Germans and Lithuanians from 1921 until 1923, when it still seemed like a determined man might seize a nation, or create an empire. After all, D’Annunzio was the poet who seized Trieste, Pilsudski the socialist bandit who became the father of Poland, and Lenin the failed seminarian (released from a German jail) who created the Soviet Union (with a little help from his friends).

My main character might open by saying something like this:

I was a self-made man who was building a self-made world without any of the hypocrisies of the past. After the old world collapsed, all we needed to do was hammer out the rules for a new one and play by them, and we’d build a better future. If our enemies would let us. If they didn’t, we’d have to outsmart them.

While I have done a lot of research and I have the story roughed out in my mind, I continue to read background in Lithuanian and I stumbled across a remarkable memoir by a writer who is entirely unknown outside Lithuania, and probably barely known within it.

The book is called Aš Apsisprendžiu, written by the late Tadas Ivanauskas (1882 – 1970), who came from the baronial ruling class of of Lithuania in the czarist period and lived through dispossession in the Lithuanian independence period and then repression in the Communist era.

The Memoir of Tadas Ivanauskas

Through all this, he managed to be one of the men who created Kaunas university and was  what can only be called an ecologist avant le mot, while at the same time a biologist, hunter, and prose stylist.

His ruling class was destroyed, so he is interesting as a representative of the Polish-Lithuanian rulers, (repressed under the czars) whose stories are not well known.

For example, in the period after the 1863 uprising, Catholics were forbidden to buy land. The regime hoped the Lithuanian/Polish ruling class would eventually have to sell to Russians (Orthodox Christians) and disappear. In Ivanasuksas’s family, the Lithuanian family manor lay near Lida, which was Polish between the wars and Belorussian after 1945. They dud not sell, but were driven by the reds during the revolution.

Ivanauskas describes his childhood in the manor with a richness of detail I have not read since Ceslaw Milosz’s Native Realm. With great charm, he describes the interior of the manor where they huddled around the ceramic stove while outside  the birds could be seen pecking dried seeds from the pods of tall grasses sticking out of the snow. He describes characters such as “the smoker” who lived in the smokehouse while the meat was being prepared and smelled of smoke all day long. Young Tadas wandered out into the fields like some kind or Wordsworth, all clean and curious in nature. Outdoors-men of the time were hunters, and he became one too, in particular looking to find birds to shoot and mount for the manor room devoted to stuffed animals.

He did not do well in high school in Warsaw because he missed his home so much and detested the forced religiosity of the place, but he prevailed in St Petersburg where he studied science and eventually created a thriving business in providing universities and museums with skeletons and various other specimens required for the study of biology.

Why does he matter?

First, the gorgeous detail in the work is not to be missed. But beyond that, he represents what was swept away by the revolution.

Furthermore, he is interesting because he represents a place and time where language did not determine nationality. Most locals considered themselves Lithuanians, but the upper classes spoke Polish (and Russian with the government) and the lower classes spoke Belorussian. There were some Lithuanian speakers, but one had to travel some distance to find their villages.

But why does he matter to my novel? Because his is the world that  existed before my spies try to make a new one. He is one of the ones who will lose (but arguably gain as well by adapting his skills to the new world.)

The prose is so good, that his story of the family boys travelling by cart with their uniformed driver and the dogs to a distant estate for a few days of hunting rivals the prose of Tolstoy’s hunt scene in War and Peace.

And yet the man was a biologist! So much talent to spare. So much beautiful writing hidden in the shadows. He’ll be a big help to me.

In the following weeks, I’ll talk about a few of the other books that I am using. The heart of the matter wil of course lie with Jonas Budrys, his espionage memoir called Lietuvos Kontrazvlagyba, but there are many other excellent sources.

Radio Review Link

I recently did a review of Anna Porter’s The Ghosts of Europe for Shelagh Rogers on CBC radio. It’s an excellent study of Central Europe and the dangers the region faces.

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Anna Porter won the $25000 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing for this book.

To hear the review, go to this link at The Next Chapter and advance toward the end of the May 23 show.

Afghanistan Meets Lithuania In Queen’s Quarterly.

The editor of Queen’s Quarterly posed a question of me at a time of great stress while my son was a soldier in Afghanistan. The editor wanted me to write about Lithuania.

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The Current Issue of Queen's Quarterly

Afghanistan and Lithuania? What’s the link? Here’s the opening of that essay. The rest can be found in the current issue:

Where I’m coming from; Where I’m Going to

For the fourth year in a row I’m standing at the crossroads of Pylimo and Traku Streets in Vilnius, Lithuania, worrying the place, trying to sift the stories that lie like dust between the cobblestones. I’m slightly sick of this baroque, labyrinthine city – the strangulated cries of the swallows at dusk make me think of the dead souls of forgotten citizens.

Nobody who lives in Vilnius now had great grandparents who lived here – most of the old inhabitants were killed during the war or shipped out after it. Vilnius is old, but the people who inhabit it are relatively new to this city.

They came here after the war, around the time I was born to immigrant parents in Toronto. Although I’ve spent my whole life in Canada, my clan, my people are new to it, and I’m not entirely comfortable in the country of my birth. I keep coming back to this melancholy city of Vilnius, mulling over the past and trying to determine the geography of my belonging.