Saturday, 28 March 2009

Friedebert Tuglas - excerpts

Friedebert Tuglas (1886-1971) was a major 20th century Estonian author, and something of an unwilling cosmopolitan. Born in the countryside, he embraced left-wing politics when Estonia was still part of the Russian Empire, and fell foul of the Czarist authorities. After a short time in gaol in 1905, he fled abroad and would not return to Estonia until the Russian Revolution in 1917.

But this long sojourn abroad was the making of him as an author. Many of his best stories, written in what I have termed Gothic Symbolist style, were written either in Finland or Paris. Indeed, Tuglas spent time living with the Ålander family in Åggelby (Oulunkylä) outside Helsinki and lived with a painters colony, including Estonian painters, at Önningeby, Åland. Later in life, he travelled extensive in Europe and the Maghreb, this time voluntarily.

As far as I know, there are only two collections of Tuglas' work translated into English. In 1982, the translator Oleg Mutt, who had lived in New York as a child, but was now trapped in Soviet Estonia, translated five stories and a novella as
Riders in the Sky. In 2007, a collection of a further eight stories, an essay and a novella were published with the Central European University Press in Budapest, in my own English translation: The Poet and the Idiot and other stories.

As the former book has been out of print for many years, and the distribution of the latter book in Britain has been sporadic, I shall here give a few excerpts from my own translations (I am the copyright holder) from some of these works.

The first story is about the desperate plight of a petty thief, Rannus, trying escape prison:

Freedom and Death



Daybreak. In the green sky a faint mist could be seen wafting in large patches, here and there pinks and reds were beginning to spread across the clouds. In the chilly sunrise stood the dark green trunks of trees, as if coated with the greenish mists of the dawn.

The sky grew more and more flushed. And all at once sunrays fell on the clouds. Light wispy ones hovered like towers above the still, dark blue curve of the sea, from which mist rose in long swathes like watery hair.

Then black columns of smoke rose from the factory chimneys into the clean air, and then hooters blew, long and low, like the first heavy stroke of the bow against the double-bass of the day, throwing into the air watery grey spirals of steam.

The day was awakening once more, a new day with people, horses and waggons on all the roads, with strings of carts, trains and ships. A new day over the factories, railway stations and ports, over the blazing chimneys, the thundering rails and the blood-red cranes in the soot-filled harbours.

How Rannus had longed for this day! How much he had imagined his freedom! He had imagined himself emerging in a meadow outside the city, surrounded by dew and a frolicking herd of horses. Or on the beach, where the gentle waves rolled onto the sand between the fishing boats. Or even in the dark of the forest, with cold stars winking through the treetops.

Instead of all this he was still in the prison grounds. In several hours he had done no more that wander around in the prison cellar. And there were bars across the windows and a guard on the rampart – he was almost as much a prisoner as before. In prison, where he would have to stay and to die – within sight of boundless freedom!

He sat is the mouth of the passage, took hold of one bar and started to file another, taking advantage of the growing noise from the street. He had a small three-faceted file used to sharpen saws. But the bars were thick and he would have to file through at least four of them. It was not going to be that easy to escape from here, and the work would take the whole day!

He filed away and at the same time watched everything happening outside. He watched the guard pacing the rampart. He knew this guard, he was number 13. He could imagine his mood from his posture. He followed him walking there and empathised with his boredom, as he put his hand across his mouth and yawned.

As if the filing tired him, or he could not for some reason carry on, so he sat cross-legged like a Turk at the mouth of the passage and watched life before him. It was a long time since he had observed it: those people, vehicles and trees out there on the boulevard!

For him, someone used to tedium and stillness, the bustle out on the street seem to go on for ever and was wearying to him. Weeks and months between four walls with the same routine and the same people had passed unnoticed. How long the hours seemed now!

He noticed of the smallest things and became like a sleuth. He guessed at the nature of passers-by and their professions. He carried on his investigations into them even when they were out of sight. He attributed jobs, friends, wives and children to them. And he sat at the table which had been laid, eating lunch with them.

Then he turned his eyes to the street again. He saw large numbers of horses moving along: chestnut, mouse grey and fawn ones. Waggoners, brewery dray horse drivers in leather aprons on with carts stacked up with beer barrels, and a whole string of carts, where blood red girders made an ear-splitting din.


The next excerpts are from my personal favourite among the stories, one based on a folk tale and embroidered to create a tragic story about the neurasthenic pharmacist Jürgens:

The Golden Hoop


Jürgens stepped out through the cemetery portal. He stopped by the gates as if unsure in which direction to proceed.

The evening street was deserted. No one stirred. All was still. Only the faint patter of rain on the sickly foliage of the avenue could be heard. Dusk had fallen.

At the gate two beggars were sitting. On the one side a blind woman, a shawl around her lemon-yellow face, deep depressions where her eyes should have been. On the other, an old man with no legs whatsoever sitting in a low-sided crate like a trough with small wooden wheels underneath. In the hands of the old man, which touched the ground, were a couple of leather- covered wooden rings with whose assistance he could move along.

Jürgens thrust his hand into his pocket as if about to give the beggars something. But he found his gloves and started pulling them on. The gloves were damp. He brought both hands up to his face simultaneously: the gloves smelt of carbolic.

It could be smelt everywhere. The pharmacy had poisoned him through and through. If he had a soul, even that would smell of medicaments.

With great effort he succeeded in sliding the gloves on over his emaciated fingers. He then turned up the collar of his overcoat and started walking. The ground was wet and soft. The drizzle seemed denser than before. Along both sides of the avenue stood houses of one or two storeys. It was almost completely dark now, yet no lights could be seen in any of the windows.

Along the way stood one or two undertaker's and stonemason's. In the window tiny children's coffins glinted along with the one or two silver tassels, wire wreaths, or an angel holding a palm branch.

The doors of the shops were still open, though inside it was dark and not a soul could be seen.
At the bend in the street Jürgens glanced back: both beggars sat motionless in the rain, the old man had sunk back down onto his hands. He resembled a sitting dog.

The pavement consisted of large round flagstones and Jürgens stumbled at nearly every step. This only increased his sullen mood.

He felt that an injustice had been done to him, bringing him needlessly to this wretched place where he had no reason to come.

Naturally, the death of his mother had shaken him. He had admittedly left home twenty years before and had not seen her for the last seven. And he had rarely had the time to spare her a thought. But she had been his mother, after all.

Now it was all over. Death had crossed out the past, as if with a black stroke of the pen.

He had received word of her illness when it was already too late. He found a short letter from his sister, an empty house and his mother's grave. He sent a postcard to his sister, bought a wreath for his mother's grave and intended staying no longer than it took him to sell the house or at least rent it out at a good price.

This thought brought his feelings on an even keel again. Death - it was inevitable, yet always made him anxious. He was not used to such thoughts, nor did he wish to become so. Life was, after all, something quite different.

He turned into the street which led down to the town. A small dark man zig-zagged from the one pavement to the other and lit the gas lanterns with a long pole. From some way off the clatter of a cart could be heard. And this clattering finally woke Jürgens.

His fate and that of his sister came to mind: himself standing behind the counter of the pharmacy from morn till night for twenty years in the stale air of medicaments, and she in a small faraway provincial town supporting her alcoholic husband and with her brood of children constantly growing. Such had been their lives.

One or two times a year they had written to their mother and to one another. He wrote about his salary increases, she about her latest child; and their mother wrote that everything was as it always had been.

Perhaps they too had once had other ambitions in life. But life had not fulfilled its promise. And Jürgens had finally accepted life for what it was.

No, life had not been easy. And he had begun foolishly. He had gone to the big city like so many others from the provinces and had found pleasure in his smart suit of clothes and cavorted with the women there.

But thank heavens that was soon over. He just did not have the passion, at least not for sin.
Women - they required money, health and time. And he did not possess too much of any of these.

First of all he had discovered the value of money and time. And his yellowish consumptive face did not speak of the constitution of a lady-killer.

Then he understood what he needed to lead was a quiet life. A man had commitments and these commitments brought in the money. Everything beyond this was sheer futility.

He had buried himself in the dust of the pharmacy.


But once again the ringing of the golden hoop woke him. He saw it approaching, waiting for him round the next bend in the road. It seemed to be tired and resting on a rock by the roadside just as he was. One last effort and he would reach it.

His feet were cut, but he took no notice. He was deathly weary but kept on running!

The day drew to a close. He had run in one huge circle. The meadows were growing blue. He turned back in the direction of the town. Its windows gleamed.

He still could hear the sound of the hoop, faintly as if through a mist. There was no one around him any more. He limped at a half-run under the trees. The street seemed full of blue mist. Somewhere the hour struck. He felt a great weariness, as if he had been running for many years.
Then suddenly he realised he was back in a familiar street. Yes, here was the house of his parents.

He reached the gate and stood listening: somewhere in the distance the hoop still tinkled, but its ringing was becoming fainter and fainter, then sounding as if it were right above his head, quivered and stopped as if dissolving into the evening.

He stepped into the garden.

Through the line of tall trees on the other side of the street the low sun threw a broad swathe of light. The whole garden was full of its yellow glow.

He stopped in the middle of the garden and looked around him.

It seemed as if something had changed during the day:

The grass had grown long, wilted and was rotting in places. The trees which had been blossoming that morning were already full of apples which fell now and again all by themselves, bursting open and decaying in the lush grass. The whole garden was full of the odour of rotting trees and mouldering grass.

It was all so strange!

The door to the room stood wide open as before. He stepped inside. The room was empty. But in through the lace curtains streamed a melancholy light. Everything was yellow, too yellow!

And in the yellow light everything seemed that much more sad and abandoned. The simple furniture had aged, the portraits on the walls had grown old, as if they were living people.

He stayed a few moments in the room. All was silent. All was so ghastly! And full of fear, he flung open the door to the other room and leapt inside.


The room was black as pitch. It felt icy cold as the grave.

Jürgens was aghast. Then he remembered: he had left a candle on the table.

Groping he found the candlestick, but the candle had burnt down and the wax had congealed long ago.

He called for Malle but no one answered. He called out a second time, a third, but all was silent.
Muttering angrily to himself, he stumbled through into the kitchen. A couple of times, cobwebs touched his face, he waved around haphazardly trying to brush them aside.

He reached the kitchen, but here it was cold, as if no one had made a fire there in the hearth in ages. From the cold stove he could smell clay. In the darkness the narrow rectangle of the low window shone.

Jürgens listened. All was silent.

Fumbling his way forward, he approached the bed. His knees knocked against the bed board, he stretched out his hand and groped about among the heap of rags.

His fingers touched a human throat, but it was icy cold. He pulled the bedclothes aside and placed his palm on the old woman's chest but it did not stir.

The old woman was dead.


The following two excerpts are in a totally different vein. This comes from a commedia dell'arte story that Tuglas wrote in the 1920s, when established as the editor of a literary magazine. This story is the reverse of Virginia Woolf's Orlando - but preceded that novel by three years! Here the Androgyne starts out as a little girl and ages by the hour, ultimately becoming a cruel prince:

The Day of the Androgyne


And so: a summer’s morning, sunrise!

In the gardens the clumps of trees were stretching towards the radiant clouds. The rosebushes were bending to the ground, spreading their dew, their cool fragrance. The twitter of the tiniest birds could be heard in the trees and the rosebushes.

The Androgyne stirred at the warbling of a lark that was circling above the pavilion. Now the birdsong could be heard from one side, now from the other through the open windows, like a tiny wake-up call.

But the Androgyne did not open its eyes. It was still unawakened, unborn, still only an inkling of life, the first chord of being. All that it could hear was the twittering of the bird and perceive a quivering of light through its eyelids.

It marvelled, through its sleep, at the fact that it was waking here today in this room, this bed. Who had it been yesterday, where had it been yesterday? It had forgotten. What was the past? – pollen dispersed on the wind.

Only the lark trilled.

Who to wake up as today? The thought was dreamt. To be a young hunter clothed in green, a grey-headed old man or a wandering gypsy with his bells –? To be a shepherdess in green pastures, a swarthy Moor in a palm forest, or a soldier in a distant desert –?

All possibilities were open to the unawakened, unborn Androgyne.

Whether even to be at all this day –? To remain in a state of non-existence like an embryo in its sweet dreams –? To see visions, compared with which ordinary dreams were worldly and real –?
To doze in non-existence for a day, several days – centuries, and wake up in another era – or even on another planet –?

Someone unawakened and unborn has more opportunities than ever!

A thought shadow arose and fell. Only the billowing. Only the trill of the lark.
A pink light quivered through the eyelids of the Androgyne, spread in oval wise, in rings, mixed with the song of the lark. An inkling of light and sound awoke in an apprehension of being.

The moist fragrance of the soil wafted in, along with the smell of roses. From this sensation of soil a branch formed, leaves, a bud, the bud opened up into a bloom. A bumble bee flew around the bloom, landed on it, entered the calyx. It was a sweet thought of the earth!

An instant of deep sleep followed, dark, empty of sensations, like pitch-black night. Then the Androgyne awoke suddenly and opened its eyes. It was in a new world, in which all previous ones were forgotten.


She burst into laughter and jumped up like a panther. Treading carelessly over the cushions, the tea service and the Moors, she went off in the direction of the pavilion. Her movements were abrupt and manly, the outlines of her face hard as that of an eagle. She vanished in the dark of the pavilion.

Presently, Lord Byron rose. He watched the hermaphrodite figure and on his lips a cynical smile formed.

At the same moment, through the pillars of the Temple of Amor, the sound of a dulcian, a clarino and a theorbo could be heard. And at that same moment Pantalone emerged, accompanied by Brighella who was dressed like a shepherdess.

Pantalone danced with boundless enticement, while Brighella was unstoppable. She fled dancing through the pâcquerette rosebushes, on her face an expression of true love.

Simultaneously, life had returned to all the rest.

Flavio, Cinthio and Prospero came out dancing, along with Narzissa, Ironetta and Brambilla, some in masks, some without. Daphnis and Chloë were dancing with Arcadian grace and Lovelace and Clarissa were dancing with one another, an epistolary distance apart. From the cool of the trees came Leandro and Ardelia, dancing languidly, each on their own.

The turbans of the Turks were like winding instruments, serpents and rankets. The Moors leapt about striking huge gongs, in their hands fans and parasols. Even Pan joined in the dance, oblivious of his age and dress uniform.

The whole area was transformed into a dance floor. The groups came together in pantomime around Pantalone and Brighella, while developing their own individual themes. Here, a majestic sarabande was worked out, there, a solemn chaconne, elsewhere a subtle musette or a stormy bourrée. Even the music varied, covering various themes, coming from different places.

Only Pantalone was self-assured and unyielding. The tempo of his dancing increased to insanity. He brought into play all his material and manly charms, showing off his money pouch and other pouches. All in vain! This drove him into a frenzy and there was sheer madness in his dancing.
He harried Brighella from one edge of the lawn to the other and danced with the most fantastic leaps. Brighella fled with nimble pirouettes, feigning fear and despair.

Pantalone became ever more insistent, ever more obsessive in his movements. And Brighella fled in the direction of the temple of Amor – not knowing whether to submit or seek sanctuary.

But at that instant, on the threshold of the temple portal appeared the Androgyne, radiant as the young Apollo, surrounded by shouting and hand-clapping Moors.

He was wearing a short purple cloak and a Spanish hat with feathers. His carmine coat had a golden belt and his silver hose had been knit in such a wonderful way as to afford his legs a godly slenderness.


Translated from Estonian by Eric Dickens

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