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by Bamber Gascoigne

Anton Tammsaare (1878-1940) - originally Anton Hansen


Estonian writer, whose novel Tõde ja õigus I-V (1926-33, Truth and Justice) is considered one of the major works of Estonian literature. Tammsaare's social epic captured the evolution of Estonia from tsarist province to independent state. It was based partly on the author's own life and centered on the contrast between the urban bourgeoisie and hard-working peasantry. The protagonist, Indrek Paas, moves from a farm to a city, witnesses revolutionary upheavals, tries to find peace in marriage and the bourgeois life-style, but returns disappointed to his roots for a new start. Although a realist at heart, Tammsaare also wrote artistic fairy tales and used allegorical fantasy in his stories. In his popular novel The Misadventures of the New Satan (1939) he combined rural Estonian life with Biblical themes, mythology and folklore. Unable to define Tammsaare as a proletarian writer the Soviet literary history placed emphasis on his atheism.

"... The very first spring, when the prison was built, a nightingale began to sing in an alder-tree in front of the prison-house.
This was at once reported to the King by his faithful henchmen.
"What is the burden of the song?" the King asked.
"Love and freedom, Your Majesty," answered the henchmen, bowing to the ground.
For a moment the wise King was deep in thought. They they heard him say:
"Life is captivity, and it would be wrong to sing of freedom. Life is vengeance, and it would be a crime to glorify love. I, your king, do not know what freedom is, for I am a slave of slaves. I, your master, do not know what love is, for I have only obligations. Therefore, take my fiercest falcon and set it on the nightingale."
(from Miniatures, translated by Melania Rauk, 1977)

Anton Tammsaare was born in Albu, the son of Peeter Hansen (1841-1920), a farmer, and Ann Hansen (née Backhoff). Anton was  was the fourth child of a family on twelve children. His father had bought on hire purchase a stony and swampy farm, and decided to make it prosper, in spite of an ongoing quarrel with his neighbor, Jakob Sikenberg. Moreover, its fields were stony and marshy. 

With the help of his family and by working in different jobs, Tammsaare managed to collect enough money for his education in at the Hugo Treffner Gymnasium in Tartu. He graduated at the age of 23. Tammsaare's first stories were published in the newspaper Postimees in 1900 under the name A. Hansen. A few years later he changed his name into A.H. Tammsaare.

Tammsaare was never a member of the Noor-Eesti, but he participated in its activities and contributed to its publications. After working as a journalist in Tallinn, where he made the acquaintance of such cultural and political figures as Konstantin Päts, Mihkel Martna, Eduard Vilder and Hans Pöögelman, he entered the University of Tartu, where he studied law. Tammsaare's studies were interrupted by tuberculosis in 1911.  Moreover, at that time he lacked the motivation to complete his studies.

Tammsaare spent over a year in a sanatorium in the Caucasus – his only journey abroad – and the following six years in his brother's farm in Koitjärve, reading works of Cervantes, Shakespeare and Homer. From Koitjärve he found the name vargamäe, central in his novel Tõde ja õigus.  In 1914, Tammsaare underwent a stomach operation. For the rest of his life, he followed a strict diet  and rested an hour and a half after every meal.

In 1918, when Estonia became independent, Tammsaare had moved to Tallinn. He lived the next 20 years with his family in a house situated between Köhler Street and Koidula Street. Käthe Weltman, whom he married, was a determined woman. She, before the writer knew about it, had announced their marriage in a newspaper advertisement. Käthe was eighteen years his junior. On Tamsaare's insistence, she devoted herself to being a housewife.

In Tallinn Tammsaare wrote the works which have gained a permanent place in Estonian literature. Although he took his subjects from the history and life of the Estonian people, his novels have deep connections with the ideas of Henri Bergson, Jung and Freud, and such writers as Knut Hamsun, André Gide, D.H. Lawrence and F.E. Sillanpää.

Tammsaare's early works are characterized by rural "poetic" realism. He continued the literary tradition of Vilde and Kitzberg, but he was interested as well in the psychology of his characters. Some of his stories also reflected the atmosphere of the revolutionary year of 1905. During his second period from 1908 to 1919, he wrote several short urban novels and collections of miniatures. In Poiss ja liblik (1915, The Boy and the Butterfly) Tammsaare was clearly influenced by Oscar Wilde.

Unfortunately, Tammsaare's fiction did not fit well into the aesthetics of the leading literature theorist Friedebert Tuglas, who reviewed his books as they appeared and  criticized his  narrative techniques, style and  structure of  the stories. "There is too little art in Tammsaare's work," he claimed. As a  result, it took some extra time before Tammsaare began to receive public recognition. Their debate went on in the Estonian press but also in Finland Aino Kallas, a member of the Young Estonia literary movement, said that Tammsaare's works are "thin" and "gray": "A.H. Tammsaaren pohjaväri on harmaa. Ei mikään harmaan lukuisista eri vivahduksista, ei keltaisen, punaisen eikä sinisen sekoittama, vaan yksinkertaisesti vesiharmaa, värittömyyden väri." (Nuori-Viro: muotokuvia ja suuntaviivoja by Aino Kallas, 1918, p. 174) Moreover, Kallas blamed him for cynicism and lack of imagination. To defend his artistic reputation Tammsaare published in the newspaper Vaba maa a wide article, 'Avalik kiri kirjanik A.H. Tammsaarele' (1927), in which he mocked the idea that literature should carry a message.

Tammsaare's works from the 1920s explore moral concerns. In his anti-religious drama Juudit (1921) the heroine kills Holofernes for selfish motives. Unlike the heroine in the Bible, Tammsaare's Judith hides her true motives under patriotic phrases – she takes a revenge on Holofernes when the famous general rejects her. Kõrboja peremees (1922, The Master of Kõrboja) was set in the rural milieu especially close to his heart. The love story of a young man, Villu of Katku, who has sat in prison, and an educated young woman, Anna of Kõrboja, ends tragically. Villu has been crippled in an accident. Anna wants him to become her husband and take over the running of her family farm. Her father is against the marriage. Much of the story revolves around the Estonian work ethic.

According to Tammsaare, the first volume of Tõde ja õigus (Truth and Justice) depicts man's struggle with the earth, the second with God, the third with society, the fourth with himself – the fifth ends with resignation. Tammsaare's view was skeptical, in general he saw things as a natural scientist would, his approach being biological rather than psychological. Although the work was deeply rooted in Estonian life, it dealt with many contemporary literary and philosophical issues. With Tõde ja õigus Tammsaare gained a reputation as one of the most original thinkers and novelists in northern Europe. The first volume has been translated into many languages, including French, German, English, and Russian. The last two volumes especially contained more reasoning on the struggle for truth and justice than autobiographical material.

In Tõde ja õigus Tammsaare draws an ironic portrait of urban intellectuals who have absorbed bourgeois mores and abandoned their moral principles. The novel was written in a time which saw the rise of dictators – Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini – and the decline of truth and justice. Indrek, the protagonist, is not a man of action, but through his life story Tammsaare examines the same humanistic ideals of the early 20th century as Romain Roland, Thomas Mann and John Galsworthy do in their works. In the first part, set in Vargamäe,  Indrek is actually a minor character, while the protagonist is his father, Andres Paas with his first wife Krõõt, who dies after giving birth to their first son. Anders, who wants to defend what he considers right, eventually loses his vision of right and wrong, and manages to cheat his archenemy, Pearu.

Indrek enters in the second part a private school in a town, actually Tartu, although Tammsaare doesn't mention its name. Indrek falls in love with Ramilda, the daughter of the school director. She dies of tuberculosis and Indrek is expelled from the school after writing an atheistic article. In the third part Indrek participates in the revolutionary events of 1905 but is terrified by its frenzy. The fourth part is set in independent Estonia. Indrek has married Karin; they have two children. After he finds out that Karin has been unfaithful, he nearly kills her. Indrek is released on probation. Karin dies in a traffic accident. In the fifth part Indrek returns to his native village.

In the 1930s, Tammsaare published such neo-realistic novels as Elu ja armastus (1934, Life and Love) and Ma armastasin sakslast (1935, I Loved a German), a love story between Erika, a German baroness, whose family has lost their fortune, and Oskar, a poor Estonian student. This variation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet has been said to be "firest and foremost  love novel à la Hamsun's Victoria". ('Varations on a Motive: Hamsun and Tammsaare' by Anneli Kõvamees, in Interlitteraria 23, no. 2, 2018, p. 357) Based on German sources, Hiina ja hiinlane (1938) introduced China, its history and people to Estonian readers. The play Kuningal on külm (1936, The King Feels Cold) was about an old king who suffered from cold, and warned, in the form of a religious idol (a double-headed calf ), of the threats posed by anti-democratic movements.

Tammsaare defined the main conflict in the first part of Tõde ja õigus as "man vs. the land". ('Foreword: A.H. Tammsaare and His Truth and Justice' by Maarja Vaino, in Truth and Justice: Andreas and Pearu, translated by Inna Feldback and Alan Peter Trei, 2014, p. 16) Another central theme is Andres' perception of God and meaning of life: he has a feeling that there is a secret link between the soil of Vargamäe and God.

Theological and existential questions are also explored in the agrarian context in Tammsaare's last and most widely read work Põrgupõhja uus vanapagan (1939, The Misadventures of the New Satan). This satirical novel, a kind of Faust story, was about the Satan (Vanapagan), who becomes a farmer named Ants to win a bet with St. Peter. But even with his superhuman physical strength the Satan has problems with a world full of demagogy and hypocrisy. The cunning, deceitful Kaval-Ants, who destroys his good-natured neighbour Jürka and his family, has become an archetypal character in Estonia.

"Particularly in his two last w’orks — a play, "The King is Cold", and a novel which appeared last Christmas, "The New Devil of Hell’s Bottom" — he appears as a cultural critic who hides his sharp shafts under a veil of fantasy. In these works it becomes more and more evident that Tammsaare is for Estonia what Shaw and Huxley are for Great Britain. "The New Devil of Hell’s Bottom" is Tammsaare’s last work and puts a full stop to the author’s life work."
('The Work of Tammsaare. Anton Hansen Tammsaare 30. I 1878 — 1. 11l 1940' by Erna Tilleman in The Baltic Times, nr. 10, 7 märts 1940)

All his books Tammsaare wrote with an ink pen; he never learned to use a typewriter. He was able to read in six foreign languages; Shakespeare and Goethe in particular influenced him deeply. Tammsaare also translated works from writers such as Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, John Galsworthy, Joseph Conrad. He was not fluent in Norwegian, but he translated Hamsun's Sværmere (1904) into Estonian under the title Unistaja (1918). In addition to his work as a novelist, he was for many decades a prolific publicist and essayist.  Tammsaare died suddenly on March 1, 1940, at his desk, still holding his pen. His funeral was a national event and marked the end of an era:  during the same year Estonia, annexed to the Soviet Union, lost independece and did not gain it until 1991.

Devoted to his writing, Tammsaare avoided publicity, and when his 50th birthday was celebrated at the Estonia theatre, the author never appeared on the scene. The statue of Anton Tammsaare designed by Jaak Soans is situated in the center of Tallinn. A Russian translation of the first volume of Tõde ja õigus (Pravda i pravo) came out in 1953. Unable to define Tammsaare as a proletarian writer the Soviet literary history placed emphasis on his atheism.

For further reading: 'Varations on a Motive: Hamsun and Tammsaare' by Anneli Kõvamees, in Interlitteraria 23, no. 2 (2018); Nuoren Viron omatunto: kansalliskirjailija A.H. Tammsaare by Juhani Salokannel (2017); Tammsaare irratsionaalsuse poeetika by Maarja Vaino (2016); 'Foreword: A.H. Tammsaare and His Truth and Justice' by Maarja Vaino, in Truth and Justice: Andreas and Pearu, translated by Inna Feldback and Alan Peter Trei (2014); Dekadentlik modernsuskogemus A. H. Tammsaare ja nooreestlaste loomingus by Mirjam Hinrikus (2011);  Irratsionaalsuse poeetika A. H. Tammsaare loomingus by M. Vaino (2011); Tammsaare elu härra Hansenina: pühendatud A. H. Tammsaare 125. sünniaastapäevale, ed. Elem Treier (2002); Tammsaare maailmakirjanikuna: kolm välismaa Tammsaare-uurijat, ed. E. Treier (2001); A.H. Tammsaare, nagu teda tundsin by L. Trett (1998); Viron kirjallisuus by Endel Nirk (1986); Estonian Literature by E. Nirk (1987); 'Tammsaare ja Hemingway' by Jaan Kaplinski, in Olemisen avara hiljaisuus (1982); A. H. Tammsaare in Estonian Literature by Erna Siirak (1978); Lühike eesti kirjanduslugu I-II by Arvo Mägi (1965); Geschichte der estnischen Literatur by H. Jänes (1965); A. H. Tammsaare - lühimonograafia by Helene Siimisker (1962); Lühike eesti kirjanduslugu by Friedebert Tuglas (1934); A.H. Tammsaare. Kriitiline essee by Friedebert Tuglas (1918) - Note 1: Tammsaare's statue by sculptor Jaak Soans was unveiled in Tallin on January 1, 1978. Earlier in 1936 a statue by F. Sannamees was erected in Albu. Note 2: Tammsaare wrote in his article 'Culture and Democracy' (1933) that "as a matter of fact, few, very few people have been interested or are interested in culture. Culture involves hard, consistent and tedious work, but work has always been regarded as drudgery, and held in little respect."

Selected works:

  • Mäetaguse vanad, 1901
  • Sõprus, 1902
  • Kaks paari ja üksainus. Äpardus, 1902
  • Lehekandja nr 17, 1904
  • Uurimisel, 1907
  • Raha-auk, 1907
  • Pikad sammud, 1908
  • Noored hinged,  1909
  • Üle piiri, 1910
  • Vanad ja noored, 1913
  • Poiss ja liblik, 1915
    - 'The Boy and the Butterfly' (in Miniatures, translated by Melania Rauk, 1977)
  • Keelest ja luulest, 1915
  • Kärbes, 1917
  • Varjundid, 1917
  • Sõjamõtted, 1919
  • Juudit, 1921
  • Kõrboja peremees, 1922 [The Master of Kõrboja]
    - Korpiojan isäntä (suom. Ida Grünthal, 1929; Juhani Salokannel, 2022)
    - film: Kõrboja peremees / The Master of Kõrboja (1979), prod. Tallinnfilm, dir. Villuna Leida Laius, screenplay by Leida Laius & Paul-Eerik Rummo, featuring Kaie Mihkelson, Lembit Peterson, Ants Eskola, Elo Tamul, Oskar Liigand
  • Pöialpoiss, 1923
  • Kaks paari ja üksainus, 1924
  • Sic Transit..., 1924
  • Tõde ja õigus I-V, 1926-33 [Truth and Justice]
    - Truth and Justice: Andres and Pearu (translated from the Estonian by Inna Feldbach and Alan Peter Trei, 2014)
    - Totuus ja oikeus 1 (suom. Erkki Reijonen, 1932), Totuus ja oikeus 5 (suom. Erkki Reijonen, 1935) / Totuus ja oikeus. 1: Maan lupaus (suom. Juhani Salokannel, 2002), Totuus ja oikeus. 2: Koulutie (suom. Juhani Salokannel, 2004), Totuus ja oikeus 3: Surmatulet (suom. Juhani Salokannel, 2007),  Totuus ja oikeus. 4: Kuolemantanssi (suom. Juhani Salokannel, 2011), Totuus ja oikeus. 5: Kotiinpaluu (suom. 2013)
    - film: Indrek (1975), prod. Tallinnfilm, dir. by Mikk Mikiver, featuring Harri Kõrvits, Ants Eskola, Maria Klenskaja, Kaljo Kiisk, Rein Aren, Jüri Järvet; film: Truth and Justice  (2019), directed byTanel Toom, starring Priit Loog (Andres), Priit Võigemast (Pearu), Ester Kuntu (Mari)
  • Meie rebane, 1932
  • Elu ja armastus, 1934 [Life and Love]
    - film 1924, directed by Helen Takkin, starring Mait Malmsten, Ursel Tilk, Tõnis Niinemets
  • Ma armastasin sakslast, 1935
    - I Loved a German (translated by Christopher Moseley, 2018)
  • Kuningal on külm, 1936 [The King Feels Cold]
    - Kuninkaalla on kylmä (näytelmä, suom. Irja Typpö, 1981)
  • Hiina ja hiinlane, 1938
  • Põrgupõhja uus vanapagan, 1939
    - The New Devil of Hellsbottom / The Misadventures of the New Satan (translated by Olga Shartze, 1978; revised translation by Christopher Moseley, 2009, published under the title The Misadventures of the New Satan: A Novel, 2018)
    - Hornanperän uusi paholainen (suom. Aino Kaasinen, 1964) / Hornanperän uusi paholainen (kuunnelma, suom. Anja Salokannel, 1978)
    - film 1964, prod. Tallinnfilm, dir. by Grigori Kromanov & Jüri Müür, screenplay by Gennadi Kaleda & Jüri Müür, featuring Elmar Salulaht, Ants Eskola, Astrid Lepa, Leida Rammo
  • Teosed 1-14, 1952-1976
  • Miniatuure, novelle, jutustusi, 1977
    - Miniatures (contains 'The King and the Nightingale,' 'The Boy and the Butterfly,' 'The Nightingale and the Flowers,' 'The Raven and Her Young Ones,' translated by Melania Rauk, 1977)
  • Kogutud teosed, 1977-1993 (18 vols., ed. by K Itra et al.)
  • Mõtteid ja mõtisklusi, 1978 (ed, by Elem Treier)
  • A.H. Tammsaare on öelnud, 1999 (ed. by Age-Li Liivak, 2nd ed.)
  • Inimesest elust armastusest, 2007 (ed. by Maarja Vaino)
  • Kirjad tütrele, 2008 (ed. by Toomas Haug)
  • Õnnelikest ja õnnetuist aegaest. Valik publitsistikat, 2010 (ed. by Maarja Vaino)
  • Armastusest ja lapselikkusest, 2011 (ed. by Maarja Vaino)

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