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Vizma Belševica (1931-2005)


Latvian poet, essayist, translator and novelist, called in her own country "the conscience of her time and her nation." Belševica was frequently mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature.

"Rome like a jealous wife demands
That love be sworn to her in public
At every step... With spying eyes she
Between my lines, that she owns not
This heart, once so naive and yielding."
(from 'The Notations of Henricus de Lettis in the Margins of the Livonian Chronicle', translated by Baiba Kaugara)

Vizma Belševica was born in Riga of working-class parents. She grew up in Riga and Ogale, where she became intrested in writing. In her memoirs Belševica told that her father was an alcoholic and her mother emotionally cold. During her adolescent years, Belševica was an active member of the Komsomol  (Communist Youth League). Latvia was incorporated as a constituent republic of the USSR in 1940. Germany occupied the country from 1941 but the USSR regained control 1944.

After vocational school and technicum, Belševica entered in 1955 the Gorky Institute in Moscow, finishing her literary studies in 1961. Her debut as a poet Belševica made in the 1940s. In some of her early poems, she praised the Soviet Union, willingly, believing in its ideals. Belševica's world view was shattered in 1956 by Khrushchev's famous speech, in which he denounced Stalinism and "the cult of personality". She took luminal pills and wanted to die.

Belševica's first collection, Visu ziemu šogad pavasaris, was published in 1955, but it was not until Jura deg (1966), when she started to find her own inner form of expression after inner struggles and reflections. In the Soviet Latvia, Belševica was among those writers who did not glorify the Soviet regime and follow the rules of the socialist realism. With such poets as Ojárs Vácietis, Imants Ziedonis, Máris Caklais, and Mára Zalite, she constantly tested the limits of censorship. The literary journal Karogs (Flag), which publisher many of their early poems, was known for its struggle with the authorities, who allowed some formal experimentation after Stalin's death. However, all signs of national thought were suppressed.

Although Belševica's criticism was veiled, she was often prohibited from publishing her work. In 1969 her Gadu Gredzeni sold within hours 16,000 copies when it appeared in the bookshops. In the poem 'Indrika Latvieša piezimes uz Livonijas hronikas malam' (1969) Belševica suggested similarities between the imperialism of Rome and the Soviet policies. Accused of pseudomonernist tendencies and false interpretation of historical  facts, she was silenced for almost ten years. The only official institution interested her work was the KGB. Belševica's politically outspoken son Klavs Elsbergs, also a poet and translator, died in 1987 under suspicious circumstances by falling out of a Soviet Writers' Union building. His younger brother Janis, born in 1969, gained fame as a poet under the pen-name Janis Ramba.

Belševica's poems, which managed to pass the censorship, were widely translated in the Soviet Union. In 1983 a special concert was arranged in her honor. Belševica uses simple images and contrast – fire and water, trees and bird, silence and scream, but they have rich symbolic meanings. "Winds rage. Winds howl. Riga is silent. / Silent are the naked stone women." (from 'A Latvian History Motif: Old Riga', translated by Astrida B. Stahnke) In the collections Madaras (1976) and Dzeltu laiks (1987) Belševica identified womanhood with nature and the earth, and found harmony in family life and altruism. Some of these themes she had also dealt in short stories. They often center on strong women and have the form of monologue.

In 1995 Belševica published the first part of her autobiographical work, Bille, dealing with her childhood in the 1930s. It was followed by Bille dzivo talak (1996), about the German and Russian occupation of Latvia seen through the eyes of a child, and Billes skaista jauniba (1999), about the post-war years and the first great love of a young girl.

"Vizma Belševica is a love poet, capable of seeing what is typical and universal in what is unique and personal. The aim of her demanding love is the same as that of the Renaissance masters  a love that remains unappeased  not only that but it can only be expressed in imagery which is laconically harsh and concrete." (from History of European Literature by Annick Benoit-Dusausoy, 2000)

Belševica also wrote screenplays and translated English (Hemingway, Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, A.A. Milne), Russian (Pushkin) and Ukrainian literature into Latvian. In 1990 she was appointed honorary member of the Latvian Academy of Sciences. Belševica received several awards for her work, including the Swedish Irma and Einar Forseth Foundation Literary Prize in 1992 and Tomas Tranströmer prize in 1998. Belševica died in Riga on August 6, 2005, after a long illness, which had kept her wheelchair-bound for the last years of her life. Her poems have been set to music by the well-known composer and piano player Raimond Pauls, who also had a prominent career in politics.

For further reading: History of European Literature by Annick Benoit-Dusausoy, et al. (2000); Dictionary of Literary Biography: Twentieth-Century Eastern European Writers, ed. by Stephen R. Serafin (2000);  'Some notes on Vizma Belsevica', in World Literature Today, by Rolfs Ekmanis (volume 72, issue 2, 1998);  'Efterskrift' by Juris Kronbergs, in Kärlek, helt enkelt by Vizma Belševica (1992); Porträtt by Birgitta Trotzig (1993); Dainojen henki, ed. by Urpo Vento (1990)

Selected works:

  • Visu ziemu šogad pavasaris, 1955 (poetry)
  • Zemes siltums, 1959 (poetry)
  • Kikuraga stasti, 1965 (prose)
  • Jura deg, 1966 (poetry)
  • Gadu gredzeni, 1969 (poetry)
  • Madaras, 1976 (poetry)
  • Nelaime majas (prose)
  • Kamola tineja, 1981
  • Dzeltu laiks, 1987 (poetry)
  • Ievzieduaukstums,1988
  • Bille, 1995 (prose;  film in production, director Inara Kolmane)
  • Bille dzivo talak, 1996 (prose)
  • Par saknem but: Dzejas izlase, 1996
  • Lauzta sirds uz goda dela: Stasti, 1997
  • Raksti, 1999-2002 (4 vols.)
  • Billes skaista jauniba, 1999 (prose)
  • Views from the Bridge of Europe (with others), 1999
  • Lirika, 2003 (poetry)
  • Bille: trilogija, 2004 (prose)
  • Atdzeja, 2004
  • Patiess stasts par Cingo Babu, Lielo Gliemezi un Juras Karala bedam, 2007

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