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Jaan Kross (1920-2007)


Estonian poet, essayist, and novelist, who was especially known for his historical novels, although he started as a renewer of poetic form and content. Jaan Kross's central characters are generally outsiders, sharp observers, or strong-willed idealists, who face a difficult choice between compromising their values and beliefs or colliding with the broader realities of history and politics. Kross was often mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

"Strange, how people try to improve things by simply insisting that they are, or will be, better than they really are. I am guilty of that myself; no doubt about it. One might say that it is a professional habit of mine..." (from Professor Martens' Departure, 1984)

Jaan Kross was born in Tallinn. His father, also Jaan, was a machine-tool foreman, and mother, Pauline Kristine (Uhlberg) Kross, the daughter of a blacksmith. After attending the Jakob Westholm Grammar School, Kross entered in 1938 the University of Tartu, where he studied law, and then, in 1944-46, worked as a lecturer of international law. He also wrote poems which were published in magazines and decades later in Voog ja kolmpii (1971). In 1940 he married Helga Pedussaa, a philology studentr; the marriage ended in divorce.

During WW II, Estonia was first occupied by the Red Army and then by Germany. For a period Kross was employed as a translator for the newspaper Postimees. He managed to avoid military service, but eventually he was assigned to work as a German interpreter. In 1944 he was arrested by the Nazis. Kross spent about five months in jail before he was released. In 1944 Estonia was incorporated into the USSR as the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. A number of writers and intellectuals, including Marie Under, Henrik Visnapuu, Artur Adson, Karl Ristikivi, Valev Uibopuu, and Bernard Kangro, chose emigration over life under Soviet occupation, but Kross decided to return to Tartu.

Kross's father was sent to the Gulag in Mordva in 1945; he died a year later. Kross himself was arrested in 1946 by the NKVD. He spent about eight years in exile and hard labour camps in the Komi and Krasnoyarsk regions. Most of the prisoners there were Russians, but in Intan his Gulag inmates included a German doctor of history and a Viennese masseur. Later Kross returned to this period of his life in the short stories 'Halleluuja' (1990) and 'Vürst' (1994), and in Kallid kaasteelised (2003), a book of memoir.

In 1953, Kross married Helga Roos, a translator, whom he had met in the Gulag; they had one daughter. While at university, Kross had tried to write a novel and but in exile Kross took up poetry. He also translated poems by Aleksander Blok. Following "the thaw" after Stalin's death, Kross was pardoned. In 1954, against all odds, he was back in Tallinn, where he devoted himself entirely to writing, first as a poet and translator of such classics Shakespeare, Balzac, and Lewis Carroll.

During the post-war decades in Estonia, writers played cat and mouse with the censor. The restrictions on free expression were not so effective as Moscow expected them to be, and the ideology of Socialist realism never gained a mandatory control of literature in the country. As a reaction to the ideological straitjacket, writers experimented from the 1960s with new techniques and adopted absurdist, surrealist or existentialist approach to the tension between art and the Soviet reality. Occasionally censors turned a blind eye when writers ignored the directions they were given. "Some of my work obviously got published only thanks to such occurrences," Kross has said. However, before the international breakthrough of such writers as Kross, Mati Unt, and poet Jaan Kaplinski, its was ofted claimed that the quality and quantity of literary production in exile surpassed that in Estonia.

Kross has been credited for being the first to broke the Socialist Realism mode and introduced new themes to Estonian poetry. Some of the poems of his first collection, Söerikastaja (1958), Kross had composed while in exile. In the fablelike 'Irax', supposedly set in the ancient Middle East, Kross satirized a Shah's governor, who is flattered and praised ad nauseam. The poem, written before Stalin's death, was taken as a criticism of Stalinism. Söerikastaja was widely reviewed and most of the reviews were very favorable, though the most influential literary paper, Sirp ja Vasar (sickle and hammer), attacked it with the notorious label of "decadent". This collection was followed by Kivist viiulid (1964), Lauljad laevavööridel (1966) and Vihm teeb toredaid asju (1969).

With his third wife, the poet and translator Ellen Niit, whom he had married in 1958, Kross traveled in 1964 in Egypt and published with her a travel book, Muld ja marmor (1968). In 1962 Kross moved with his family to Tallinn's Writers House.

From the beginning, Kross fiction had included historical subjects, but it was not until in the 1970s, when Kross turned seriously his attention to the historical novel. Besides being a national memory, history offered a seemingly neutral way to explore national and ethical questions, the role of the intelligentsia and political opportunism, and the artistic freedom of expression. His first novel Kross published in 1970, at the age of 50. Neli monoloogi Püha Jüri asjus (1970) told about the Estonian renaissance artist Michel Sittow (1469-1525).

Kross's magnum opus was Kolme katku vahel (1970-1980), set in the 16th century, originated from a shelved screenplay. The central character is Balthasar Russow, a Lutheran pastor and chronicler, whose Chronicle of Livonia is born under the pressure of Lutheran orthodoxy - an obvious parallel to Kross's own experiences as a writer more or less tolerated by the Soviet censorship. Kross himself admitted in Omaeluloolis ja alltekts (1998), that out of all of his fictional characters, he was most like Russow.

Kross alter egos in his fiction were Peeter Mirk and Jaak Sirkel, whose experiences in the 1940s and 1950s the author depicted in his short stories and the books Wikmani poisid (1988), Silmade avamise päev (1988), and Väljakaevamised 1990.

Estonia declared its full independence in 1991 and in the same year Kross became the oldest member of the parliament, where he participated in the drafting of the new constitution. He was also appointed to head the commission for investigation into the KGB.

In the new political situation, Kross published several works, in which he analyzed the Soviet period, including Paigallend (1998). The story, narrated by Jaak Sirkel, depicts the life of Ullo Paerand, an intellectual, poet, polyglot, and the secretary of the prime minister. He is also blessed with a brilliant memory, perhaps too good for his own sake. Decided to stay in his home country, whatever the costs are, Ullo chooses the life of a humble man and worker in a suitcase factory. Through the tale runs a tragic undercurrent of international politics: after WW II, Estonia was left alone by the West. After the original manuscript of Tahtamaa (2001) disappeared, Kross reconstructed it from his memory, which was exceptionally good. While finishing the novel, Kross had a brain infarct. This work, set in modern-day Estonia, received mixed reviews but sold well.

Kross's works have been published in about 20 languages and sold more than one million copies worldwide. "His life has encompassed Estonia's roller-coaster story to the point that he is seen as a representative and spokesman by his contemporaries," wrote Doris Lessing on the author in The Spectator (June 28, 2003). Kross's novels of Estonian history, set in a wider European context, have been compared to the old tradition of Tolstoy and Thomas Mann. History in Kross represents the immediate experience, inner events. Especially in the structure of his novels, a clear distinction is made between what is officially known and what were the real events.

Against the background of a thoroughly researched historical period, Kross often relateed the account of a witness of his time, sometimes employing the interior monologue. One of Kross's most sympathetic figures is the legal scholar and statesman F.F. Martens in Professor Martens' Departure (1984), who on a train bound to St.Petersburg summarizes his life and doings, the compromises he has made. At one point he admits that if he could start his life over again, he would do everything the same way.

With the translation of The Czar's Madman (1978), Kross gained a wide audience in the English-speaking world. Written in the form of a secret diary, the narrator is the brother-in-law of Timotheus von Bock, a real historical figure, a visionary and hero, who opposed Tsar Alexander I, his boyhood friend, and was condemned insane. Berend Falck, the narrator of Rakvere romaan (1982), is a tutor, who works for the aristocracy but whose heart is on the side of the rising bourgeoisie. Again Kross depicted a character who tries balance between what he says and writes and what he really thinks.

Kross received several awards, including the Finnish Eeva Joenpelto Award in 1988, the French Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger in 1989, the Amnesty International Golden Flame Prize in 1990; the National Cultural award in 1998, annual award of the Estonian Cultural Endowment in 1998, and the Baltic Assembly prize for literature in 1999. The second volume of his memoirs Kallid kaasteelised, which Kross finished before his death on December 27, 2007, came out in 2008.

For further reading: Viron kirjallisuus by Endel Nirk (1986); 'The Czar's Madman' by Juta Kovamees Kitching in World Literature Today, March 22, 1994; 'Nuoruuden tila ja aika Jaan Krossin tuotannossa' by Laura Visapää, in Runon silta - kielen silta (1997); Die historischen Romane von Jaan Kross by Kerttu Wagner (2001); Metamorfiline Kross: Sisevaateid Jaan Krossi loomingusse, ed. by Eneken Laanes (2005)

Selected works:

  • Söerikastaja, 1958
  • Tuule-Juku, 1963
  • Kivist viiulid, 1964
  • Viimane korstnapühkija, 1964 (with Ellen Niit, animation prod. by Tallinnfilm, dir. by Elbert Tuganov)
  • Lauljad laevavööridel, 1966
  • Muld ja marmor, 1968 (with Ellen Niit)
  • Maine Hellus: Luuletusi ja aforisme, 1968 (translation of Elmer Diktonius' aphorisms)
  • Vihm teeb toredaid asju, 1969
  • Barbara von Tisenhusen, 1969 (opera libretto; composed by Eduard Tubin, based on the novel by Aino Kallas)
  • Kolme katku vahel I-IV, 1970-1980 [Between Three Plagues]
    - Uppiniskaisuuden kronikka (suom. Kaisu Lahikainen ja Jouko Vanhanen, 2003)
    - Film 1970, prod. Eesti Telefilm, dir. by Virve Aruoja, starring Ants Eskola, Ants Lauter, Raine Loo, Heino Mandri, Georg Ots 
  • Neli monoloogi Püha Jüri asjus, 1970 [Four Monologues on St George]
  • Michelsoni immatrikuleerimine, 1971 [Michelson's Matriculation]
  • Mardileib, 1971 (animation, 10 min., prod. Tallinnfilm, dir. Heino Pars)
  • Voog ja kolmpii, 1971
  • Klio silma all, 1972 [Under the Klio's Eyes]
    - Kleion silmien alla (suom. Jouko Vanhanen, 1987)
  • Mardileib, 1973
  • Vier Monologe Anno Domini 1506, 1974 (translator) 
  • Kolmandad mäed, 1975 [The Third Range of Hills]
    - Kolmannet vuoret (suom. Tauno Lähteenkorva, Irmeli Pääkkönen, 1985)
  • Taevakivi, 1975
    - The Rock from the Sky (translated from the Russian, 1983)
  • Cyrano de Bergerac, 1976 (opera libretto; composed by Eino Tamberg)
  • Keisri hull, 1978
    - The Czar's Madman (translated by Anselm Hollo, 1992)
    - Keisarin hullu (suom. Juhani Salokannel, 1982)
  • Leiva kodumaa: luulevalimik / Arvo Turtiainen, 1979 (translator, with others)
  • Reigi õpetaja, 1979 (opera libretto; composed by Eduard Tubina, based on a novel by Aino Kallas)
  • Kajalood, 1980
  • Ülesõidukohad, 1981
  • Vahelugemised, 1968-82
  • Rakvere romaan, 1982 [A Rakvere Romance]
    - Pietarin tiellä (suom. Juhani Salokannel, 1984)
  • Professor Martensi ärasõit, 1984
    - Professor Martens' Departure (translated by Anselm Hollo, 1994)
    - Professori Martensin lähtö (suom. Juhani Salokannel, 1986)
  • Vastutuulelaev: Bernhard Schmidti romaan, 1987 [Sailing into the Wind]
    - Vastatuulen laiva (suom. Eva Lille, 1990)
  • Wikmani poisid, 1988 [The Wikman Boys]
    - Wikmanin pojat (suom.Kalervo Mettala, 2001)
    - TV mini series 1995, prod. Teleteater, dir. Vilja Palm, with Mait Malmsten, Indrek Sammul, Meelis Muhu, Lauri-Kare Laos, Meelis Pai
  • Silmade avamise päev, 1988 [The Day Eyes Were Opened]
    - Silmien avaamisen päivä (suom. Juhani Salokannel, 1991)
  • Väljakaevamised, 1990 [Excavations]
    - Syvyydestä (suom. Jouko Vanhanen, 1989)
  • Tabamatus, 1993
    - Kuningasajatus (suom. Juhani Salokannel, 1994)
  • Järelehüüd, 1994
  • Mesmeri ring: romaniseeritud memuaarid nagu kõik memuaarid ja peaaegu iga romaan, 1995 [Mesmer's Circle]
    - Mesmerin piiri: romantisoidut muistelmat – kuten kaikki muistelmat ja miltei jokainen romaani (suom. Juhani Salokannel, 1997)
  • The Conspiracy & Other Stories, 1995 (translated by Eric Dickens)
  • Kogutud teosed, 1997- (22 vols. in 2010)
  • Kogutud teosed. 9. kd.: Wikmani poisid, 1998
  • Omaeluloolisus ja alltekst, 1998
  • Paigallend: Ullo Paeranna romaan, 1998
    - Treading Air (translated by Eric Dickens, 2003)
    - Paikallaanlento (suom. Jouko Vanhanen, 1999)
  • Tahtamaa, 2001 (ed. Linda Uustalu) [Tahtamaa Farm]
    - Tahtamaa (suom. Jouko Vanhanen, 2012)
  • Kallid kaasteelised. 1, 2003 [Dear Fellow Travellers]
    - Rakkaat kanssavaeltajat I (suom. Jouko Vanhanen, 2005)
  • Novellid I-II, 2004 (ed. Linda Uustalu)
  • Draama, 2005 (ed. Linda Uustalu)
  • Luule, 2005 (ed. Sirje Ratso)
  • Maailma avastamine, 2005
  • Kallid kaasteelised. 2, 2008
    - Rakkaat kanssavaeltajat II (suom. Jouko Vanhanen, 2010)

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