Julija Beniuševičiūtė-Žymantienė, better known by her pen name Žemaitė, is the mother of Lithuanian realism. In her novellas and short stories Žemaitė often describes peasants, poverty and family feuds in a vivid and rich vernacular.
Žemaitė’s best-known story, Daughter-in-law (Marti), is a worthy piece of feminist writing. The heroine, Katrė, is married off to a lazy and abhorrent husband and is forced to serve him and his equally obnoxious parents, who are indulgent to their son but vicious to their daughter-in-law. The story inspires more indignation with the waste of human potential and the unfairness of Katrė’s predicament than would volumes on the situation of women in late nineteenth-century Lithuania.
Žemaitė also holds the honour of having been the only woman to have been put on the litas bills.
Sigitas Parulskis (b. 1965)
Provocative does not even begin to cover Parulskis. Poet, novelist, playwright and essayist, he is the closest thing Lithuanian literature has to a Baudelairian figure. Parulskis’ modern poetry and prose oscillates between the sacred and the profane to great effect. In his first novel, “Three Seconds of Heaven” (Trys sekundės dangaus), Parulskis delves into his experience of serving in the Soviet army, baring the absurdities and debilitating effects of the system. Nor has he shied away from painful issues of historical memory like the Holocaust, which is the subject of his later novel “Darkness and Partners” (Tamsa ir partneriai).
Kristijonas Donelaitis (1714-1780)
Kristijonas Donelaitis, an eighteenth-century Lutheran priest from East Prussia, made claim to immortality by penning the first piece of fiction in the Lithuanian vernacular – the classical poem The Seasons (Metai, in Lithuanian).
Depicting the seasonal cycle of the lives and labours of Lithuanian peasants, the poem (epic in scope if not subject matter) is written in iambic hexameter, a meter often used in classical Greek and Roman poetry. However, it does not shy away from the sometimes coarse and boorish details of the lives of serfs – much to the delight of Lithuanian school students who all have to learn extracts from the poem by heart.
The Seasons was first published in 1818, well after Donelaitis’ death in 1780, and has been translated into 17 languages, including English.
Jonas Mačiulis, known universally by his pen name Maironis, is what most Lithuanians think about when they hear “poetry”. Everyone knows at least a stanza from Maironis melodic and well-rhymed poems.
With his contemplative reflections on the beauty of Lithuania’s nature and romantic laments over its glorious past (he wrote when Lithuania was under the rule of the Russian Empire), Maironis was one of the authors who helped construct the Lithuanian national identity. He is also to blame for most of the strengths and weaknesses of Lithuanian writing: lyricism and sentimentality, reflexivity and inaction, romanticism and disengagement from social issues.
Ričardas Gavelis (1950-2002)
Gavelis’ 1989 “Vilnius Poker” (Vilniaus Pokeris) is considered the first postmodern Lithuanian novel. In it, Gavelis conjures up a disturbing dystopia in which the protagonists wander through the streets of Vilnius as they come to embody the grotesque chimeras of his slightly deranged mind. For example, Gediminas Castle, the emaciated phallus of the once royal city, stands in, of course, for the narrator’s own shaky identity, crushed by the debilitating absurdities of the late Soviet period.
Henrikas Radauskas (1910-1970)
The most un-Lithuanian of Lithuanian writers, Radauskas wrote poetry that breaks with the lyrical and emotional streak of most of the Lithuanian poetry. His poems, written in Lithuania in the 1930s and in emigration in the US after the Second World War, are precise, thought-out and beautiful. “I don’t believe in the world, but I believe in fairy tales”, reads the last line in one of Radauskas’ poems, an aesthetic manifesto that sums up his oeuvre by pondering the meaning of beauty and art and the “fairy tales” that people tell themselves to escape the world.
Jurga Ivanauskaitė (1961-2007)
Remember the last time a piece of fiction could cause a scandal? In Lithuania, that was when Jurga Ivanauskaitė published her novel “Witch and the Rain” (Ragana ir lietus) in 1993. It included graphic descriptions of sex between the story’s female protagonist and a catholic priest, which almost had the book banned from book stores. It became, quite predictably, a best-seller and has been translated into several languages. Ivanauskaitė’s later oeuvre drew from her journeys in India and Tibet, a subject of several travelogues, which infused her fiction writing with Oriental themes and topics.
Antanas Škėma (1910-1961)
Škėma was one of many who fled Lithuania during World War Two to escape Soviet persecution. He ended up in the United States, where at one point he worked as an elevator operator – and hated it. The protagonist of Škėma’s best-known work, “The White Shroud” (Balta drobulė), is an expatriate poet in New York, recalling his life before the war and expressing frustration with his current situation. Written in experimental prose, the novel deals with existential issues and has earned Škėma the name of “Lithuanian Albert Camus”.
Balys Sruoga (1896-1947)
Sruoga’s best known work is the novel “The Forest of the Gods” (Dievų miškas). This novel is based on his own experiences as a prisoner in the Nazi-operated Stutthof Concentration Camp, where he was sent in March 1943 together with forty-seven other Lithuanian intellectuals for anti-Nazi agitation in occupied Lithuania.
In the novel, Sruoga describes life in the concentration camp through the eyes of a man whose only way to save his life and sanity was to view everything through a veil of irony and humour and where torturers and their victims are exposed as imperfect human beings, far removed from the false ideals of their political leaders. Describing a guard beating a prisoner, Sruoga observes: “A human being is not a machine. He gets tired.”
Giedra Radvilavičiūtė (b. 1960)
Radvilavičiūtė is a prime example of modern Lithuanian essay and autobiographical writing. Having entered the Lithuanian literary scene with several essays in the 2002 collection “I suggest we shoot the plot”, she has published several books, one of which, “Tonight I Shall Sleep by the Wall” (Šiąnakt aš miegosiu prie sienos), earned her the EU Prize for Literature.