In brief chapters, arranged according to the association of ideas, rather than the conventions of rhetoric, White Shroud (1958) is the best-known work and the only novel by Lithuanian artist Antanas Škėma (1910-1961). Through stream-of-consciousness interior monologue, journal entry, and omniscient third-person narration, it presents the life story of a poet named Antanas Garšva as he arrives at the threshold of maturity. If transience is Garšva’s element, and doggedness his modus operandi, then the spirit of his age is incidental to the contours of his life. In its eschewal of the pieties of the moment, no less than in its rigor, White Shroud becomes a befitting emblem of an art which lends enduring shape to adversity.
Garšva grows up in the town of Kaunas as the only child of two teachers, a mother “of noble birth” and a “charming liar” of a father. Neither of his parents is faithful to the other, and he witnesses the dissolution of their marriage, his mother’s descent into dementia and his father’s decision to place her in a sanitarium. As a young man he plans his suicide and backs out of it at the last moment, attends the university, works as a pool shark, kills a German soldier in hand-to-hand combat, operates a brothel out of the house he has inherited from his parents, digs trenches as an internee in labor camps in East Prussia and Czechoslovakia, survives an aerial bombardment in Weimar, and, following his arrest and torture by the NKVD, emigrates and settles in New York City, working as an elevator operator in a Manhattan hotel and fucking a Vilniusian named Elena who leaves her engineer husband for him in the closing pages. Garšva’s unreconstructed bohemianism earns him the amusement of the hotel guests (“You can always recognize a European”), the bonhomie of his coworkers (“We’re doubles who have just met”), the respect of a literary critic (“It’s not a bad poem”), the love of Elena (“I’ve been faithful to you these last two weeks”), the condemnation of the police (“A typical blend of decadence and bourgeois folklore”), the hatred of a state poet (“Intellectual neurasthenia and decadence are one and the same thing”), and the indulgent, if distant, scrutiny of author Antanas Škėma (“The ends of his professional cravat waved rhythmically on his unwashed shirtfront”). The mode most apt to such a character is certainly Modernist, the language Lithuanian, the stance, as it were, postglobal.
It is a sign of the times that Glasgow publisher Vagabond Voices’ ad copy for White Shroud describes the book as an immigrant refugee story. By contrast with the self-conscious protestations of virtue implicit in the plots and characters of the saleable topical novel, however, Antanas Škėma’s lack of interest in ideology, evident in Antanas Garšva’s ignorance of it—except insofar as he serves in a partisan unit fighting the Wehrmacht, and prays by asking Christ what it felt like when Magdalene fell at his feet—amounts to an aesthetic stance vis-à-vis existential imperatives, rather than a response to a climate of opinion. This demurral is of course also, more importantly, an attribute common to many works of literary Modernism, a fact that will resonate for the Anglophone reader who has had few opportunities to get to know Lithuanian creative writing. Published in 1958, White Shroud strikes one as perforce a late-style iteration of that body of methods and concerns: readers in this line from the Symbolistes onward will recognize the tropes and tones of Woolf, Rimbaud, Lawrence and Joyce, among others, in the narrative’s dreamlike stasis, its intertextuality and allusiveness, its irony, its recursive circling chronology, its telescopic shifts of perspective, and its interiority. These performances are inextricable from a Communist-era Eastern European tradition, one of whose set pieces is in evidence here, in the form of an interrogation scene taking place after the country has been delivered from one savage despot to another, as the Nazi occupation gives way to the Soviet. Moreover, Garšva is admitted to a mental hospital following a head injury granted to him courtesy of his interrogators, when he refuses to write a poem the way he is told, and with the onset of seizures, and the prescription of sedatives, the subject of madness enters the narrative, in a way that is far from Romantic.
We have so little Lithuanian literature available in English translation—only O.V. de L. Miłosz, Tomas Venclova and Ričardas Gavelis come to mind—that it’s important to note translator Karla Gruodis’s efforts as a creator of knowledge, and those of Vagabond Voices as a transmitter of knowledge, in increasing our store of literary techniques and pleasures. Gruodis has rendered the original into a prose that evokes no single precedent, but rather strikes us as partaking of the spirit of a movement, a body of assumptions, that surmounts national borders and ideological barricades, to assert the common cause of a literary imagination: “If we’re now talking about spiritual matters,” Garšva tells Elena in the backseat of her husband’s Studebaker, “I would hazard to say that details illuminate an atmosphere.”