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||Jaan Kross (1920-2007)|
Estonian poet, essayist, and
novelist, who was especially
his historical novels, although he started as a renewer of poetic form
and content. Jaan Kross's central characters are generally outsiders,
sharp observers, or strong-willed idealists, who face a difficult
choice between compromising their values and beliefs or colliding with
the broader realities of history and politics. Kross was often
mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Itb has
been often said, that Kross gave the Estonians back their history,
"Strange, how people try to improve things by simply insisting that they are, or will be, better than they really are. I am guilty of that myself; no doubt about it. One might say that it is a professional habit of mine..." (from Professor Martens' Departure, 1984)
Jaan Kross was born in Tallinn. His father, also Jaan, was a machine-tool foreman, and mother, Pauline Kristine (Uhlberg) Kross, the daughter of a blacksmith. After attending the Jakob Westholm Grammar School, Kross entered in 1938 the University of Tartu, where he studied law, and then, in 1944-46, worked as a lecturer of international law. He also wrote poems which were published in magazines and decades later in Voog ja kolmpii (1971). In 1940 he married Helga Pedussaa, a philology student; the marriage ended in divorce.
During WW II, Estonia was first occupied by the Red Army and then by Germany. For a period Kross was employed as a translator for the newspaper Postimees. He managed to avoid military service, but eventually he was assigned to work as a German interpreter. In 1944 he was arrested by the Nazis. Kross spent about five months in jail before he was released. In 1944 Estonia was incorporated into the USSR as the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. A number of writers and intellectuals, including Marie Under, Henrik Visnapuu, Artur Adson, Karl Ristikivi, Valev Uibopuu, and Bernard Kangro, chose emigration over life under Soviet occupation, but Kross decided to return to Tartu.
Kross's father was sent to the Gulag in Mordva in 1945; he died a year later. Kross himself was arrested in 1946 by the NKVD. He spent about eight years in exile and hard labour camps in the Komi and Krasnoyarsk regions. Considered too thin and tall, he was not put to work in the mines; instead he worked, among others, as a log transporter, territory cleaner, felt drier, coal enricher and occasionally as a snow shoveler during the winter times. In 1953, Kross married Helga Roos, a translator, whom he had met in the Gulag; they had one daughter.
Most of the prisoners there were Russians, but in Inta his Gulag inmates included a German doctor of history and a Viennese masseur. Kross returned to this period of his life in the playful short stories 'Halleluuja' (1990, Hallelujah) and 'Vürst' (1994, The Perince), narrated by Peeter Mirk, and in Kallid kaasteelised (2003), a book of memoir. In addition, the exploits of Kross's alter egos, Peeter Mirk and Jaak Sirkel, were featured in Wikmani poisid (1988), Silmade avamise päev (1988), and Väljakaevamised (1990).
Before returning from his forced exile in
Aban, Krasnoyarsk Krai, Kross had bought a house there. While at university, he had tried
to write a novel and but in exile Kross took up poetry. He began to translate the work of Aleksander Blok, but did not get these translations published.
Following "the thaw" after Stalin's death, Kross was pardoned. In 1954, against all odds, he was back in Tallinn, where he devoted himself entirely to writing, first as a poet and translator of such classics Shakespeare, Balzac, and Lewis Carroll.
During the post-war decades in Estonia, writers played cat and mouse with the censor. The restrictions on free expression were not so effective as Moscow expected them to be, and the ideology of Socialist realism never gained a mandatory control of literature in the country. As a reaction to the ideological straitjacket, writers experimented from the 1960s with new techniques and adopted absurdist, surrealist or existentialist approach to the tension between art and the Soviet reality. Occasionally censors turned a blind eye when writers ignored the directions they were given. "Some of my work obviously got published only thanks to such occurrences," Kross has said. However, before the international breakthrough of such writers as Kross, Mati Unt, and poet Jaan Kaplinski, its was ofted claimed that the quality and quantity of literary production in exile surpassed that in Estonia.
Kross has been credited for being the first to broke the
Realism mode and introduced new themes to Estonian poetry. Some of the
poems of his first collection, Söerikastaja (1958, The Coal Enricher),
composed while in exile. When the book first appeared, it stirred
controversy. Juhan Smuul, the president of the Union of Soviet Estonian
Writers criticized it in speech at the Fourth Congress of Soviet
Estonian writers: ". . . the critics, who so deeply admire Kross's
intellectuality and refinement of taste, either cannot see the
brutality and naturalism of his images and depictions, or recognize the
fact that Kross, who attacks Mayakovsky's imitators, follows the very
same path as these imitators and that his choppy verse is sometimes as
poorly justified as theirs." ('Jaan Kross’s "On Mayakovsky and Those Others" as a Mirror of Soviet Urbanism' by Mikhail Trunin, in Urban Semiotics: The City as a Cultural-Historical Phenomenon, edited by Igor Pilschhikov, 2015, p. 89 )
In the fablelike 'Irax', supposedly set in the ancient Middle East, Kross satirized a Shah's governor, who is flattered and praised ad nauseam. The poem, written before Stalin's death, was taken as a criticism of Stalinism. Söerikastaja was widely reviewed and most of the reviews were very favorable, though the most influential literary paper, Sirp ja Vasar (Sickle and Hammer), attacked it with the notorious label of "decadent". This collection was followed by Kivist viiulid (1964), Lauljad laevavööridel (1966) and Vihm teeb toredaid asju (1969).
With his third wife, the poet and translator Ellen Niit, whom
married in 1958, Kross traveled in 1964 in Egypt and published with her
a travel book, Muld ja marmor
(1968). In 1962 Kross moved with
his family to Tallinn's Writers House. The summers they spent at their
summer house on the small island of Kassari, where he had the necessary
peace to write.
From the beginning, Kross fiction had included historical subjects, but it was not until in the 1970s, when Kross turned seriously his attention to the historical novel, which has always served as a vehicle to create and maintain national identity. Besides being a national memory, history offered a seemingly neutral way to explore national and ethical questions, the role of the intelligentsia and political opportunism, and the artistic freedom of expression. Basically Kross remained faithful to the spirit of the depicted times, and avoided using the past as a form of political commentary on the present. His first novel Kross published in 1970, at the age of 50. Neli monoloogi Püha Jüri asjus (1970) told about the Estonian renaissance artist Michel Sittow (1469-1525).
Kross's magnum opus, Kolme katku vahel (1970-1980, Between Three Plagues), originated from a shelved screenplay. The work was first published in the literary periodical Looming, then in separate volumes (1: 1970; II: 1972; III: 1977; IV: 1980). Set in the 16th century, the story focuses on Balthasar Russow, a Lutheran pastor and chronicler, whose Chronicle of Livonia is born under the pressure of Lutheran orthodoxy - an obvious parallel to Kross's own experiences as a writer more or less tolerated by the Soviet censorship. Kross himself admitted in Omaeluloolis ja alltekts (1998), that out of all of his fictional characters, he was most like Russow. It has been suggested that the chronicler might have been ethnically Estonian, the son of a teamster (voorimees) named Simon Rissa. ('Balthasar Russow at Koluvere: Peasant Rebellion in Jaan Kross' Between Three Plagues' by Tiina Ann Kirss, Novels, Histories, Novel Nations: Historical Fiction and Cultural Memory in Finland and Estonia, edited by Linda Kaljundi, Eneken Laanes & Ilona Pikkanen, 2015, p. 259)
Estonia declared its full independence in 1991 and in the same year Kross became the oldest member of the parliament, where he participated in the drafting of the new constitution. He was also appointed to head the commission for investigation into the KGB.
In the new political situation, Kross published several works,
in which he analyzed the Soviet period, including Paigallend
(1998). The story, narrated by Jaak Sirkel, depicts the life of Ullo
Paerand, an intellectual, poet, polyglot, and the secretary of the
prime minister. He is also blessed with a brilliant memory, perhaps too
good for his own sake. Decided to stay in his home country, whatever
the costs are, Ullo chooses the life of a humble man and worker in a
suitcase factory. Through the tale runs a tragic undercurrent of
international politics: after WW II, Estonia was left alone by the
West. After the original manuscript of Tahtamaa (2001) disappeared,
it from his memory, which was exceptionally good. While finishing the
novel, Kross had a brain infarct. This work, set in modern-day Estonia,
received mixed reviews but sold well.
Kross's works have been published in about 20 languages and sold more than one million copies worldwide. "His life has encompassed Estonia's roller-coaster story to the point that he is seen as a representative and spokesman by his contemporaries," wrote Doris Lessing on the author in The Spectator (June 28, 2003). Kross's novels of Estonian history, set in a wider European context, have been compared to the old tradition of Tolstoy and Thomas Mann. History in Kross represents the immediate experience, inner events. Especially in the structure of his novels, a clear distinction is made between what is officially known and what were the real events.
Against the background of a thoroughly researched historical
Kross often relateed the account of a witness of his time, sometimes
employing the interior monologue. One of Kross's most sympathetic
figures is the legal scholar and statesman F.F. Martens in Professor
(1984), who on a train bound to St.Petersburg summarizes his life and
doings, the compromises he has made. At one point he admits that if he
could start his life over again, he would do everything the same way.
With the translation of The Czar's Madman (1978), Kross gained a wide audience in the English-speaking world. Written in the form of a secret diary, the narrator is the brother-in-law of Timotheus von Bock, a real historical figure, a visionary and hero, who opposed Tsar Alexander I, his boyhood friend, and was condemned insane. Berend Falck, the narrator of Rakvere romaan (1982), is a tutor, who works for the aristocracy but whose heart is on the side of the rising bourgeoisie. Again Kross depicted a character who tries balance between what he says and writes and what he really thinks.
Kross received several awards, including the Finnish Eeva Joenpelto Award in 1988, the French Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger in 1989, the Amnesty International Golden Flame Prize in 1990; the National Cultural award in 1998, annual award of the Estonian Cultural Endowment in 1998, and the Baltic Assembly prize for literature in 1999. Kross's final piece of fiction was 'Isand Järve käsikiri,' about remembering and forgetting. Published in the literary magazine Looming in 2004, the short story included such controversial figures of Estonian history as Artur Sirk, the head of the right-wing Estonian Veterans' League, President Konstantin Päts, and Prime Minister Kaarel Eenpalu. The second volume of his memoirs Kallid kaasteelised, which Kross finished before his death on December 27, 2007, came out in 2008.
For further reading: Viron kirjallisuus by Endel Nirk (1986); 'The Czar's Madman' by Juta Kovamees Kitching in World Literature Today, March 22, 1994; 'Nuoruuden tila ja aika Jaan Krossin tuotannossa' by Laura Visapää, in Runon silta - kielen silta (1997); Die historischen Romane von Jaan Kross by Kerttu Wagner (2001); Metamorfiline Kross: Sisevaateid Jaan Krossi loomingusse, ed. by Eneken Laanes (2005); Sivistystahto: Jaan Kross, hänen teoksensa ja virolaisuus by Juhani Salokannel (2008); Jaan Kross and Russian Culture, edited by L. Pild (2012); Novels, Histories, Novel Nations: Historical Fiction and Cultural Memory in Finland and Estonia, edited by Linda Kaljundi, Eneken Laanes & Ilona Pikkanen (2015); Countering Destruction with Spontaneity, Redescription, and Playfulness: a Philosophical Reading of Kross by Merily Salura (Master's thesis 2017); An Introduction to Estonian Literature, translated and edited by Hilary Bird (2018) - Suom. suomeksi on julkaistu myös novellivalikoima Sattumien summa: yhdeksän novellia, 2013 (valinnut ja suomentanut Jouko Vanhanen)