You are an essayist and a poet at the same time. How can you distinguish between these two identities, if these are two different identities for you at all?
Generally yes, I have two identities, but probably I have even more, because I am also a literary scholar, a philologist of the very strict type: I follow Roman Jakobson and Yuri Lotman. It is my third identity. As a poet I am interested in the individual elements of speech, in my life, in the life of other people, in the life of nature. As an essayist I am interested in universal questions. This is a big difference. As a poet, of course, I confine myself to my native language. Poetry is the art of language, and I think a person can write well only in his or her mother tongue. As an essayist I can write in various languages because the content is much less individual and much more common and universal.
Is the essay the art of thinking?
Yes. I can write essays in English, in Polish, in Russian and in Lithuanian. But I never write poetry in any language except my mother tongue, Lithuanian.
You wrote a book about Vilnius. What is the very first picture or image that occurs to you when you say Vilnius?
Probably the banks of the river Neris and the view of the hills from the banks. Vilnius is a very strange city because there is wild nature inside the city, there are hills even in the very centre. They could be somewhere in the forest, not in the centre of the city. There is a close relationship between wild nature and a very cultivated architecture.
We Central Europeans may say that we all live in the same area or region, a transitional field between east and west. I wonder if our social and political problems are also similar.
Yes, we definitely have similar problems that arise from our position between two great powers, Russia and Germany. Also, we were on the verge of two different civilizations: Rome and Byzantium, which involves religious variety; there are Catholics and Lutherans, Calvinists and Orthodox in both countries. And both Hungary and Lithuania had a very big Jewish community which was largely destroyed in World War II. Another great problem we have in common is nationalism and isolationism. These are long-lived attitudes that determine Central Europe.
People in this region tend to be afraid of democracy, autonomy and freedom. It seems that people can’t enjoy and use the advantages of it. Why?
We in this region had very short periods of democratic rule, and had no time to get used to it. We have no experience. And democracy is a plant that needs time to grow up and develop. Real democracy can only be established after several generations. Generally people are frustrated. In Lithuania we have very strong groups of people who would like to have a stronger, dictatorial government. They believe that the state should give everything to a person, whereas people should care about themselves. The state should provide some framework for the citizens, but otherwise it should just let them work and be.
Facing the past—World War II, the holocaust, communism—is a very hard procedure both for Hungary and Lithuania, and for our whole cultural-political region. How far have you got on this path?
We are trying to do our best to understand those difficult periods of our past. But we have to talk about it much more. In Lithuania, just like in Hungary, there is also the problem of the lost territories. In Lithuania a group has territorial ambitions for Königsberg, or some parts of Belarus or Poland. But the borders in the European Union are fixed. They should not be changed; they should be opened.
Is the fact of the Lithuanian holocaust included in the narrative of the national history of Lithuania?
In Lithuania the official history speaks only in general terms, and has a theory of two holocausts, the second being our Lithuanian holocaust, where we were the victims. This is wrong in my opinion. The Jews were killed because they were Jews, and historians tend to remain silent about the Lithuanian participation in the crimes. In Lithuania the past is still veiled in silence.
You have been living in the United States since 1977. How did you manage to adapt to such a completely different cultural enviroment? Doesn’t an emigrant remain an emigrant for the rest of his or her life?
Well, I managed to establish my life in America rather successfully as a professor. I was able to write, to speak and to publish my books, which were even read. But generally I am a very lonely person. Internal emigration is a very correct form of life for a writer. A writer should be a bit lonely to describe the society. For that reason it was easy for me in the United States. As a matter of fact, emigration has a great tradition in Lithuanian culture and history. In the 16th century our very first books were written and printed not in Lithuania, but in Eastern Prussia, the German-speaking Königsberg. The first Lithuanian translation of the Bible, the first Lithuanian folklore collection and the first Lithuanian grammar were also printed in Königsberg. This was repeated in the last century: during communist times Lithuanian intellectuals and writers emigrated to the west, and founded publishing houses there. So emigration is typical in Lithuania. But you also have a great emigrant: Sándor Márai.
How would you define home?
For me home is a small region, not a whole country. A place that is closer to you than anything else. It is first of all Vilnius which is an untypical city in Lithuania, multilingual and more European. But when I utter the word home or Heimat I think of another town, too: Kaunas, where I was born.
Do you follow Hungarian culture and politics?
I follow Hungarian politics mainly by reading newspapers in Polish (mainly the Gazeta Wyborcza). They give me some ideas. I can read Hungarian literature only in translation. Recently I read Sándor Márai which I liked. He wrote books that are essential in the Central-Eastern European context. I read his diaries and his Confessions of a Bourgeois in Polish translation. I also know Sándor Petőfi from my childhood, because Boris Pasternak translated some of his poems. And I know Mihály Vörösmarty and Endre Ady. And Mór (Maurus) Jókai was a very popular author in Lithuania in the 19th century, maybe because the Hungarian and Lithuanian social milieu were similar at that time.
One of your most famous poems, "Tell Fortinbras" (available in English e.g. here), is considered a very important poem in Hungary. It seems that Hamlet has a special meaning in Central-Eastern Europe. Ten years ago I saw a marvellous Lithuanian Hamlet, directed by Eimuntas Nekrošius. Why Hamlet?
I think one dialogue explains it. When Hamlet says "Denmark is a prison," Rosenkrantz answers that the entire world is a prison, and Hamlet answers: yes, and Denmark is one of the worst parts of it. Our countries understood this sentence.
And we had a lot of Hamlets in this region who could have become good kings, but finally did not.
But, speaking in more general terms, Hamlet is the metaphor of hesitation. If you do something it might be a good or a wrong decision. This insecurity and heightened responsibility is typical for our region, with the unstable historical and structural conditions.
Tags: Tomas Venclova