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    Estonia Karl Ristikivi

    Karl Ristikivi

    Before I run out of steam, and actually have to start translating stories intensively, I'd like to add another author to the Estonian ones that I have been examining in detail, such as Jaan Kross, Mats Traat and Toomas Vint.

    This time, it's the turn of Karl Ristikivi (1912-1977). Back in 1994, I started collating information and writing a few odds and ends about this author who, unlike Kross, Traat and Vint, escaped from Estonia, just before it became a Soviet republic, and spent last 33 years of his 65-year life living in exile in Sweden. I revised my essay in 2003 and published it (I'm sorry to say I can't remember where). But Ristikivi remains almost as forgotten internationally as he was then.

    Karl Ristikivi is remembered especially for his novel Hingede ?? (Night of Souls), first published in 1953. I tried to interest a British publisher in this book years ago, but was told it was "dated". So, that was that.

    Anyway, here's my "essay", which is not at all original, as it is based on the work of the Estonian scholars Endel Nirk, Arvo M?gi, Reet Neithal and others, who have studied the author in much more depth than I ever have.

    As for Eric's surname, it is real, and was something I didn't choose.

    KARL RISTIKIVI - an introduction to an untranslated author

    by Eric Dickens

    While the works of a number of (mainly Soviet) Estonian authors have been translated into several Western European languages, those of many exile authors, including the substantial oeuvre of Karl Ristikivi, remain untranslated into major languages. In the case of Ristikivi this is hardly surprising, since virtually none of his works have been translated into any language at all, including Swedish, the language of the country where he spent the last 33 years of his life!

    While authors living in Estonia such as Jaan Kross, Viivi Luik, Arvo Valton, Mati Unt, Jaan Kaplinski, Heino Kiik, Doris Kareva and others have enjoyed translations in Germany, France, Britain and especially Finland, where interest in Estonia is perhaps keenest, Karl Ristikivi (1912-1977) remains perhaps the most significant Estonian author who has, quite unjustifiably, been neglected by that small corpus of translators from the Estonian who tend to be greatly influential when it comes to deciding which authors the world gets to hear about. I will try here make a modest attempt to redress the balance.

    Karl Ristikivi was born in Varbla, Western Estonia, an isolated parish near the sea; he spent the latter half of his life in the urban environment of Greater Stockholm, the capital of Sweden. The contrast could not have been greater. In between, he worked as a columnist for a newspaper, as a sales assistant in a wallpaper shop and, during his exile in Sweden, as a clerk in the Stockholm Health Benefits Office.

    His life was that of a recluse, and quite undramatic on the surface. And yet Ristikivi wrote 17 novels (plus two others serialised in newspapers), two collections of short-stories, two books of literary criticism, one collection of poetry and even a whodunnit, written in Swedish. Fourteen of these novels were written and published in Sweden by the Estonian language publishing house Eesti Kirjanike Kooperatiiv in Lund, run by Bernard Kangro, a friend of Ristikivi's, who died in the spring of 1994.

    How did Karl Ristikivi end up living in Sweden? In 1943, in order to avoid being conscripted into the Wehrmacht during the German Occupation which lasted from 1941-44, Ristikivi, by now the author of some three well-received, though rather conventional, novels, plus some children's literature and journalistic texts fled to Finland and from there to safer neutral Sweden. By the following year when Soviet forces had "liberated" Estonia from the Germans, it became clear that to return to his native land had become an impossibility. Never again was Karl Ristikivi to set foot on Estonian soil.

    The author had become an author-in-exile. This fact was to become the theme, or at least undertone, of many of his works. Ristikivi shares this fate with the author of his favourite novel Der Zauberberg - Thomas Mann - who spent the years of World War II in the United States. But for Ristikivi, exiled in Sweden, the alienation, the loneliness, the nostalgia which can often distort the past, and the pathetically futile hope of return, coupled with the dread of finding his native land changed beyond recognition even if he should succeed, are all themes of his collection of poetry Inimese teekond (A Man's Journey; 1972), the only one he ever published, but which is regarded by some as one of the highlights of Estonian poetry.

    But it was with his novels that Karl Ristikivi made his mark, first as a young man in Estonia and later in Sweden. Between 1938 and 1942, while still living in Tallinn, the author published his Tallinn Trilogy - Tuli ja raud (Fire and Iron; 1938), ?ige mehe koda (The House of the Just; 1940) and Rohuaed (The Herb Garden; 1942). The first novel deals in a realistic way with the lives of working-class people in Tallinn. Ristikivi wanted to avoid two extremes: the glorification of working life which had become the vogue in independent Estonia, and naturalist gloom of ?mile Zola. Ristikivi's second novel deals with the merchant classes of te 20th century and with a the difficulties of earning enough to keep the family of the protagonist. But by the third novel, Ristikivi has moved towards a kind of poetic realism, and this time he describes the educated classes of society, starting with the life of a teacher of Latin and his family. His style has now matured and the book shows glimpses of the author's humanism and humour which were to accompany him throughout the rest of his career as a writer. During the late 1930s, Ristikivi was encouraged and admired by the then grand old man of Estonian literature Anton Hansen Tammsaare.

    Ristikivi's second "trilogy" remained incomplete. In 1946, he published K?ik, mis kunagi oli (All That Ever Existed) and the year after Ei juhtunud midagi (Nothing Has Happened). The first novel covers the reactions of a Protestant minister to the time between 23rd June and 23rd August 1939. These are the last two months of the clergyman's life. Both dates are of symbolic significance. The first was a festival dating back to 1934, when President Konstantin P?ts had prevented the fascistoid Vapsid from seizing power but was himself forced to adopt authoritarian methods to keep them at bay. The second date is when the notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was announced, a pact where Stalin and Hitler in effect divided Europe into two spheres of influence, the Baltic states falling to Stalin. The second novel of this incomplete "trilogy" describes the reactions of ordinary people to what is known in Britain as the "Phoney War", the first year of the Second World War where nothing really happened - hence the title. The novel begins on 1st September 1939 and ends in June 1940. Ristikivi is already experimenting with the so-called "puppet-theatre" technique of narration where the various points of views of the main characters occur in consecutive chapters, a technique which the Russian literary theorist Bakhtin would have appreciated. This is a technique that Ristikivi was to continue to use in several later novels. Both of the above novels had already been sketched out while Ristikivi was still living in Estonia.

    Karl Ristikivi was hoping for a happy ending for the trilogy and for Estonia itself, although the books are in fact more of a metaphysical examination of categories such as "memory" and "experience" than a chronicle of events. But when first the Soviets (1940-41), and then the Nazis (1941-44) invaded Estonia, and Ristikivi himself was forced to flee his native land in November 1943, he abandoned the last novel of the trilogy.

    But his following novel, perhaps his most important, was written ten years later after a long pause, and can in some ways be regarded as a sequel to the other two:



    This novel, Ristikivi's perhaps most remarkable one, is Hingede ?? (Night of Souls; 1953) and appeared after the author had spent almost ten years in exile. It is a cross between Kafka (Das Schlo? and Der Proze?), Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland), John Bunyan (The Pilgrim's Progress) and Hermann Hesse (Der Steppenwolf) with elements of Dante's Purgatorio and is set in a labyrinthine house in central Stockholm around which the protagonist wanders on New Year's Eve. As in the magical-realist works of the Flemings Hubert Lampo and Johan Daisne, time is distorted and although the main character enters the house at about a quarter to midnight, and emerges at five past the hour, the scenes, the dialogues and the "hearing" he witnesses, last far longer than the statutory twenty minutes of clock time. Another magical realist aspect is that nothing supernatural seems to occur, it is just the atmosphere created which is unreal.

    The novel is divided into three sections. In the first, entitled "The House of the Dead Man", the hero wanders from room to room, speaking to strangers and enters into futile conversations. He meets people whom he thinks he recognises, makes social blunders and is never sure whether he "belongs" or not. The building itself seems to contain a theatre auditorium and numerous rooms of different sizes but is constructed in a strange fashion so that floors and levels are not self-evident. A great admirer of literature written in English, Ristikivi, like one of his favourite detective novel authors (and translator of Dante's "Purgatorio"!), Dorothy L. Sayers, heads each chapter of this first section of the book with epigraphs by T.S. Eliot, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, John Bunyan, A.E. Housman, Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe.

    The middle section of this novel is an alienation device, typical of certain types of modern literature and not unlike the technique which Ingmar Bergman used at the beginning of his film Persona where a piece of the film reel is shown to remind the audience that all is but a fiction. In this case, Ristikivi replies to a letter from a reader, the fictional Mrs Agnes Rahumaa, and discusses the novel Night of Souls which he is in the process of writing.

    The third section, The Seven Witnesses, is a hearing where the hero is implicitly accused of the Seven Deadly Sins as each witness relates some episode of his or her life which somehow exemplifies one of the sins, the gravest of which being acedia (from the Greek) i.e. Sloth. Estonian critics maintain this is a criticism of intellectual, rather than physical, laziness. The scene is reminiscent of one in the earlier Bergman film Wild Strawberries which was produced in 1957, five years after this novel was published. During this time, Bergman knew the Estonian exile pianist, K?bi Laretei, whom he later married, so the film could well have been indirectly inspired by Night of Souls, though this remains pure speculation since the Zeitgeist can do wondrous things..

    The novel is around 250 average book pages long and has been reprinted a number of times, first in what was just still Soviet Estonia in 1991 and later, in independent Estonia, as recently as the year 2000 and is often regarded as one of the five best Estonian novels of the 20th century.


    In the 1950s and early 1960s, Karl Ristikivi, a bachelor without family responsibilities (and as now is presumed - a closet gay), but with a steady income, started to travel a great deal, partly to see the setting for his novels for himself. As far back as 1955, he had visited Amsterdam as well as Switzerland and Italy. In 1957, he travelled to Mallorca and in 1958 was in Italy again. During 1959, he was to be found in Spain where he visited Malaga, Granada, Seville and C?rdoba. The next year he went to Greece. In 1963, he seems to have taken two longer trips, one to Egypt and the other to the Adriatic coast of Italy. In 1965, he visited the Middle East dropping in at Cairo, Beirut, Damascus and Jerusalem, among other places. In 1966, he visited Turkey and two years later, the USA.

    It was during the 1960s that the author produced his second complete trilogy which deals with the tragic fate of the medi?val Hohenstaufen dynasty. The leitmotif of these books, which have a chronicle-like narrative technique quite unlike Night of Souls, is struggling for a lost cause. But Ristikivi was also continuing to develop his interest in style and structure, now becoming interested in Bach - in a letter to a friend he said that, without getting any illusions of grandeur, he had read Bach's Die Kunst der Fuge with great interest, and drawn his own conclusions about the composer's mathematical exactitude.

    On 5th January 1964, Vatican Radio interviewed Karl Ristikivi on the publication of The Last City, the third of the Hohenstaufen novels. During this interview, Ristikivi made the observation that the Crusades had had their pluses and minuses, something which comes out in the trilogy. This is an interesting comment to be made in a decade which showed the rise of anti-imperialist and anti-interventionist thought. Ristikivi did not seem to be affected by the growing radicalism of the 1960s and was no doubt viewed at the time, even by some of his exile Estonian colleagues, as a mildly reactionary eccentric.

    After completing this trilogy, and presumably as light relief, Ristikivi published a grotesque allegory Isle of Miracles. This 280-page novel was even published in Estonia itself, a remarkable achievement during that decade for an exile author from what had become a Soviet republic. It is an anti-utopian satire, purportedly a translation of a work by the fictitious 14th century Genovese traveller, Niccol? Casarmana, who describes his voyage to Allotria, the Isle of Miracles, and is in the same vein as Swift's Gulliver's Travels, More's Utopia or Samuel Butler's Erewhon.

    Where alienation is the principle theme of Night of Souls, the novel M?rsjalinik (The Bridal Veil; 1965) forms its antipode. Here, in the first novel of Ristikivi's so-called "Biographical Trilogy", the author, who may have had private sympathies for certain aspects Roman Catholicism (most Estonians are staunchly Lutheran, with the exception of their autocratic interwar president P?ts, who was Russian Orthodox!), describes the life of the 14th century religious mystic, visionary and church politician Catherine of Siena. The novel, written in a lucid prose, describes her life, from her childhood in a large family of dyers right up to her death. Catherine was a remarkable woman. A tertiary of the Dominican order, she gained a reputation for her holiness and asceticism and yet became a powerful political figure. She sued for peace within the Church while arguing for a Crusade against the Muslims. She also tried to persuade Queen Joan of Naples, whom the Pope had excommunicated, to repent and also promoted the idea of the Papal See returning from Avignon to Rome. In many of her causes she remained unsuccessful. And yet she was canonised 80 years after her death, to become, in 1939, Patron Saint of Italy. The author uses an interesting narrative technique, alternating chapters of third-person narration which the reminiscences of various people who knew Catherine personally (a technique not unlike that used by Jaan Kross in his novel Ship Into the Wind).

    In 1966, Karl Ristikivi completed this second trilogy of his with the novel R??mulaul (Song of Joy) which is the story of the Welsh bard and composer, David of Wales, whose life consists of the struggle against the crushing forces of revenge in medieval France and Flanders.

    The final novel in the "Biographical Trilogy" is N?iduse ?pilane (The Sorcerer's Apprentice; 1967) which is the life of one Johannes Faber, a learned man and a doctor, who is sentenced to be burnt at the stake and relates his life to a Dominican father during the last few days of his captivity. The novel examines the struggle between religious free thinking and dogma.

    Karl Ristikivi was to produce one more trilogy before his untimely death in 1977. This last trilogy consists of novels whose action takes place in two different epochs. The most important of these novels is the ironical ?ilsad s?damed - ehk Kaks s?pra Firenzes (Noble Hearts - or Two Friends in Florence; 1970) which deals with the 1960s staging of a play by the fictitious 17th century author Richard Clifford, itself entitled Two Friends in Florence. To complicate matters even further, Clifford himself delves into history, describing the life of the dictatorial 15th century Italian church politician Savonarola, while he in fact wishes to maked a veiled criticism of the contemporary dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell. (This technique of analogous epochs is one which the Estonian non-exile writer Jaan Kross used when covertly criticising the Brezhnev r?gime by describing the life of Timo von Bock in the novel The Czar's Madman written a few years later.) The contemporary level of the plot consists of the description of the conflict between two of the actors, one of which comes from an intellectual Oxford background, while the other has worked in a sawmill.

    Finally, a few words about Ristikivi the short-story writer and Ristikivi the poet. As mentioned above, the author only produced a handful of poems. And yet these somewhat nostalgic elegiac poems are regarded very highly in Estonia. The poems translated at the end of this article all express the loneliness and alienation of the exile. They were all written in Sweden between 1950 and 1977. The Arcadian theme was first introduced by Ovid, Arcadia being the bucolic paradise of the ancients. The theme was picked up by Schiller (Auch ich war in Arkadien geboren...) whom Ristikivi echoes with his rhythms. And, in turn, the Estonian poet Paul-Eerik Rummo wrote a poem entitled Variation, directly inspired by Ristikivi. The other poems are, I feel, self-explanatory.

    Ristikivi's two collections of short-stories, Sigtuna v?ravad (The Gates of Sigtuna; 1968) and Klaassilmadega Kristus (Christ With Eyes of Glass; 1980) are proof of the author's skill as a writer of the cameo as well as the epic. While the former collection often revolves around the themes of morality and are of a historical nature, the latter collection is a posthumous anthology, but also a short epic, odd words indeed when used to describe a collection of stories! Notable stories from the latter collection are the symbolist stories Elu peegel (A Mirror on Life; written in 1975) in which a man sees another world through his hall mirror, Novell (Short-Story; written in 1949) which is a meta-story examining Ristikivi's attitude to short-story writing and the title story Klaassilmadega Kristus (Christ With Eyes of Glass; written in 1940) which also examines the problem of the metaphysics of art.

    Had Ristikivi been translated, foreign readers would have also seen the value of this erudite, yet modest, writer of novels, short-stories, and those few, but significant, poems. But although he wrote eleven of the novels, plus two collections of short-stories in Sweden, only one stray short-story has ever been translated into Swedish, thus barring the way to further recognition abroad. Ristikivi was never discovered even in Sweden, a fate shared by so many other Estonian authors living in that country such as Bernard Kangro, Arvo M?gi and Enn and Helga N?u, while at the same time he never made a literary name outside of his native land unlike other exiles in Sweden such as Kurt Tucholsky, Nelly Sachs and Peter Wei?. And since the Soviet authorities prevented all but a trickle of exile literature getting through to Estonian readers back home, the author had to content himself during his lifetime with only the tiny exile Estonian community as his readers.

    And so to this day, the recluse, writer of historical fuges in prose, twentieth century existentialist and humanist Karl Ristikivi remains the great untranslated Estonian.


    Since there is no detailed information on Karl Ristikivi in any other language but Estonian, I will list the four principle sources on which this article is based:

    * Arvo M?gi: Karl Ristikivi, pp 64, Eesti Kirjanike Kooperatiiv,
    Lund, 1962.
    * Karl Ristikivi 75 (Conference material on 75th birthday of the
    writer), 2 vols pp 128 + 116, Estonian Writers' Union,
    Tallinn, 1988.
    * Endel Nirk: Teeline ja t?hed (Wayfarer and Stars - a biography
    of Ristikivi), pp 288, Eesti Raamat, Tallinn, 1991.
    * Reet Neithal: Karl Ristikivi - Arengulooline essee (Karl
    Ristikivi - An Essay on Development), pp 72, Koolibri,
    Tallinn, 1994.

    A brief biography in French is available at:
    which gives leads to pages describing (also in French) the novels of the Hohenstaufen trilogy.


    Eric Dickens,
    October 1994 / January 2003
    Last edited by Eric; 21-Oct-2008 at 23:15.

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