Friday, August 16, 2013


a--       Gloominess if it can be thought of as such would be easy to ascribe to a reading of the New York Times Book Review or any of the other book reviews in the country at the moment. 
            But not giving into the gloom yet writing into the sparsely populated steppes of this site.

a--       Yale University Press sent me Volume 4 of THE LETTERS OF T.S. Eliot… 1928-1929… but how should a reader describe such a book?  Naturally one reads the letters because Eliot wrote The Waste Land, the single most important poem to come out of the Twentieth Century and it will live on in that select company of The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, The Duino Elegies, Eugene Onegin.  Eliot’s letters are part of the background music to a  life that produced that poem and then had to live on and on in some way.  Of course there are the other poems:  Four Quartets, The Hollow Men, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

a--       Well, how to read a book of letters:  via the index, of course.  I remembered Eliot had published Hermann Hesse in The Criterion and when Anna and I were in Estonia we found the Hesse family plot in the Reopalu cemetery in Paide where Anna’s father’s mother was buried… 

a--       Hesse was in the index but the eye drifted down to the bottom of the page and there, ‘The Hollow Men’ (TSE): Estonian translation.  A Letter to Ants Oras was included in the book  and he did indeed translate The Hollow Men into Estonian and I have here in the house a book by him, in both Estonian and English, ESTONIAN LITERATURE IN EXILE, published in English by the Estonian PEN Club in Lund, Sweden in 1967 with a  bio-bibliographical appendix by Bernard Kangro.

a--       A footnote to the letter includes a quote from Oras’s original letter, “I am quite aware that any attempt to translate your verse is a daring enterprise but I hope some of its style and spirit can be retained in Estonian without deviating too much from the wording of the original poems.  Our language has attained to a considerable degree of flexibility and precision.” 
            The editor tells us that Oras had taken a B.Litt in English from Oxford  and was a lecturer, later a professor at the University of Tartu and wrote The Critical Ideas of T. S. Eliot.

a--       A few weeks after reading this letter we had lunch with Denis Donoghue who had reviewed the Eliot book for The Irish Times.  He had not mentioned Oras and I guess there was no reason for him to do so.  He had heard of Oras and mentioned that he had read a book by Oras in English on the pause patterns in Elizabethan drama.

a--       From Wikipedia one easily learns that Oras was a professor in Tartu from 1934-1943 when he left for Sweden and from where he went to England and then to the US becoming a professor of English at the University of Florida in Gainesville.  This leaving of Estonia was much ahead of both Anna’s mother and father who didn’t leave Estonia until well into 1944 when things had really turned…

a--       I had mentioned to Anna’s mother my discovery of Ants Oras and she said she remembered the name from her growing up in Tartu as she is 92 and had lived in the part of Tartu that housed many professors at the university and other prominent citizens.  Her own father had been a judge on the Estonian supreme court who was arrested and later murdered by the NKVD in the Gulag in 1941.  She had mentioned Oras’s book about Estonian literature in exile and that the family had it both in Estonian and in English. 

a--       The Critical Ideas of T. S. Eliot by Oras was originally published in German and Russian it seems and then translated into English.  There is a copy in the Hunter College library.

a--       So even in 1929 Eliot  was being read in Estonia.. reminding me that Solzhenitsyn once wrote that for Russians, Estonian was the first European country they came to when leaving the USSR:  the presence of Latin on buildings…

a--       But, but this map hints at what always lurks when the word Estonia is mentioned and while this is not the occasion for that discussion…  the single best book about Estonia and the murder of all of her Jews and gypsies by BOTH the Estonians and Germans see MURDER WITHOUT HATRED by the Estonian writer Anton Weiss-Wendt.

a--       Via the Wikipedia biography I discovered in addition to the two books of literary criticism by Oras another book, BALTIC ECLIPSE and it was also available at the Hunter College library and it is on my desk as I type this. 

a--       Oras born in 1900 was fluent as a result in Estonian, Russian, German and English.  Baltic Eclipse published by Gollancz in London in 1948, is Oras’s memoir of the life during both the Soviet and German occupations of Estonia.   

a--         Not read much, I fear, as it did not appear in the bibliography of Weiss-Wendt’s book it is however still a well written detaling of the life endured by Estonians first under the communism and then under the Nazis.  But I will save that report for another time. 

a--       BALTIC ECLIPSE  fully acknowledge the murder of the Estonian Jewish population though Oras does not  really come to grips with the fact that the main killers of the Estonian Jews were Estonians, with the full approval of their German masters, thus strangely duplicating Estonian history that had long been  a story of the Baltic German nobility telling the Estonians peasants what to do and the Estonians hat in hand sucking up to their German masters. 
a--            Oras understands the debilitating role, the destructive presence of the Baltic Germans in Estonian history but while mentioning a few of the Estonians collaborators the murder of the Jews is really only mentioned but not explained.  Oras is very good on just how vile and personally corrupt many of the German soldiers were and how this mirrored the long relationship between Estonians and Germans.

a--       I write of this as Estonia and our relationship with that country is always shadowed by that word: JUDENFREI.

a--       However BALTIC ECLIPSE is still a very important document for understanding what it was like to live in Estonia and has helped me understand a little better the life Anna’s mother and father during the two occupations.

a--       Oras begins his book:  “The lecture was over. Twelve girl students and one man--- the only male student of the English department who had not been forced by the German occupation authorities to enlist with a military or labour unit or had not gone into hiding to evade conscription—had been listening to an attempt to unravel the intricacies of Richard Crashaw’s mind and style, taking careful notes as usual.”
            It is that wonderful tone, detailed and suggestive which is the reality of the book.  Oras will continue on to mention that it is the last day of March 1943.  He will finish the class, go to the CafĂ© Werner--- where Anna and I had lunch four years ago--- and meet a friend who will tell him in a few days they are fleeing by boat to Sweden.
              Final thought:  at first I thought it was because Estonian was a small country that the revelations contained in MURDER WITHOUT HATRED had really changed our understanding of Estonia and had in some way made it very hard to think of going back to Estonia, even though Anna’s first language is Estonian and she thus has total access to that country right down to an Estonian passport, mirroring my own Irish passport. 
 b--           The smallness and the resulting intimacy of the Estonia and out coming from the vastness of the United States… and the detail about how after the Jewish children had been murdered in Tartu the Estonian killers had distributed their toys and clothing to deserving poor Estonian children… but I felt again the discomfort as I drove across Oklahoma a month or so ago as one passes a series of signs about entering and leaving the various Indian nations.        AGAIN, one of those uncomfortable reminders of the near genocidal campaign against the native peoples of what became the United States. 
b--            I would quickly tell myself well, the Irish part of my blood didn’t get to this country until after the closing of the frontier but the Whitney part of the family had been here since one boat after the Mayflower and what had they been doing, back then…  I am avoiding the Joycian word: nightmare

Final thought:  does any of this lurch to Estonia take anything away from Eliot?  I think not. 
b--            Reading is always a constant re-reading of one’e own history

Final thought:  The Critical Ideas of T. S. Eliot by Ants Oras is of interest as it does not avoid  Eliot’s long interest in the writings of Charles Maurras though to go into that can send the reader right to Action Francaise and what happened to Maurras in France at the end of World War Two…
b--            So I hope I have established the value of reading Volume 4 of THE LETTERS OF T.S. ELIOT while going to Estonia and discovering the Baltic Eclipse by Ants Aoras who died on 21 December 1982 in Gainesville, Florida.  My mother died on 21 December 1972 at Saugerties, New York.