Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Looming, 1934 - still relevant

What interests me about issues of a literary and cultural magazine from almost three-quarters of a century ago is not the exact geo-political situation of the day along with passing fashions and fads. I leave that to the cultural historian or ethnologist. What interest me are the questions they asked then in Looming which are still relevant today.

So, when Linde, Treiberg and Suits were asked those three questions, as in my previous posting on Looming, some of the issues have never gone away. Not even after a World War, a Cold War and regained independence for Estonia. Foreign languages feature a great deal in the three replies, something that rarely gets discussed in a country like Britain, which happens to speak the "world language" English.

Bernhard Linde mentions, for instance how, when the somewhat nationalist poetic movement "Noor Eesti" (Young Estonia) first got off the ground between about 1908 and 1915, the young generation invited Estonia to reorient from a Russian-German axis to an Anglo-French one. They were mocked for upsetting the status quo. But by 1934, there was what Linde describes as Anglomania. And he continues that he is firmly committed to an orientation towards Britain, when it comes to Estonia's political choices. However, he feels that a broader orientation should be possible culturally. He lists a few countries where this has taken place, such as Czechoslovakia which, while Anglo-French politically, remains culturally in the Russo-German sphere. He mentions the French influence on Turkey, the Italian one on Slovenia, and so on.

These questions are still relevant today, especially for the countries of Eastern & Central Europe, with their often fragile economies. The very discussion of political versus cultural orientation shows that a good literary magazine (nowadays also a blog) can go beyond literature and book reviews, and examine cultural issues in their national and international context.

Linde also says that they could stop teaching foreign languages altogether at primary school level and try to give children a broader education instead.

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Peeter Treiberg was very pro-French. In his opinion, more French should be introduced at secondary school level. Nor should a knowledge of German and Russian be neglected, otherwise, he says a large part of Estonian libraries would become "dead capital". He gave a whole list of reasons why France is the bee's knees. Nowadays, French and its promotion are rather popular in Estonia.

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Gustav Suits' reply is a whole history lesson, much of which is a grumble at the Baltic Germans. But he too mentions the value and importance of knowing the Russian language. He says that during independence (i.e. from about 1920), Estonian schools rather threw the baby out with the bathwater when, in dumping the language of Lenin, they inadvertently got rid of the language of Pushkin and Tolstoy as well. This same tendency is happening right now, anno 2009, in Estonian schools, where a whole generation are growing up with little or no knowledge of Russian. Estonia cannot shift its geographical position.

One irritation that bothered Suits is no longer there at all today. In 1934, the upper classes in Estonia were Baltic barons, all of whom had German as their mother-tongue. These people were called "back" to a Reich they had never lived in, during the late 1930s by Adolf Hitler. So, nowadays, German is a popular foreign language alongside English and French. But in 1934, the role of German was a fraught issue. Suits thought that at university level, they should teach more French in the humanities, English coming second in this, whilst in the sciences, the orientation should be the other way round.

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So in 1934, even just looking at the first issue of twelve, this literary magazine discussed and displayed history, philosophy and actual literature. Less than a decade later it had become a showcase for Soviet literature and Socialist realism.

But the story has a happy ending. In the early 1950s, the magazine sank to its lowest ebb, but after that started climbing back, and one very interesting development was the Looming Library series of, originally in weekly or fortnightly supplements in small book format, where, for instance, Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich", some Kafka, Borges and lots of other "decadent Western" authors were published in Soviet times in Estonian translation. And the magazine Looming itself, and the Looming Library supplements, now less frequent, exist to this day.

But even back in 1934, they were busy presenting an article about contemporary Scottish literature, reviewing a recent German book about Danish literature, books about Eino Leino and L. Onerva, an international philosophical congress in Prague, a book about Freud, a mention of D.H. Lawrence, and, most interestingly, a list of the numbers of works in translation appearing in various European countries for the previous year, 1933:

Italy - 930
France - 662
Soviet Union - 659
Germany - 536
Poland - 534
Spain - 461
Czechoslovakia - 431
Britain - 346
Hungary - 309
Sweden - 304
USA - 298
Denmark - 240
Norway - 147

I will occasionally, when there are lulls in our flow of postings, revisit Looming 1934, to afford more insights, linking material found there to the issues of our day.

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