Three Women in Quest of Narrative

by Tiina Kirss

In a recent conversation, a student of Estonian literature at Tartu University perceptively remarked that she thought Estonian writers were restless with postmodernism and reaching beyond it.  The fictions of three younger Estonian women writers illustrate this suggestive possibility, as well as the student’s hunch: going ‘beyond’ postmodernism is taking place in narrative fiction as it encounters strata of folklore and traditional tales.

Epp Annus’ evocative novel You, Matilda, published in summer 2007 broaches new thresholds in the story of Beauty and the Beast. Subtly bending and pleating the traditional tale, she gives equal voice to both characters, who encounter one another most intimately in writing, exchanges of letters and confession. Psychological in focus, the novel begins from Beauty’s angle, and explores the risks of longing and transformation, the outer reaches of inner distance. In its outline, the problem in the Beauty and the Beast story is akin to that of the Frog Prince—the male character, concealed in foreign flesh because of a curse needs the kiss of a pretty woman to be released. The young girl who ‘kisses the frog’ must overcome her initial revulsion to an unlikely suitor, and gamble on the possibility that there is more to a man than a handsome exterior. When Beauty meets the Beast there is the darker frisson of external confinement and erotic threat:  the heroine stumbles onto alien territory on a stormy night, and the grounds of the haunted castle echo with the history of many beauties who have died or been destroyed trying to overcome the Beast`s deeper ugliness and predatory rage. As time runs out, and the petals fall one-by-one from the enchanted rose, Beauty must overcome her fear and work strong, soft magic to overcome the Beast`s boorishness. Her consent to her own vulnerability and the power of her ‘humanizing’ love are the key to the Beast`s transformation. The prize is mutual love. 

The Disney version of Beauty and the Beast recasts (or recostumes) Beauty as a smart, plucky woman instead of a passive princess, but the result is rather a brainier, more stubborn Snow White. Epp Annus` imagination sees compelling shadows in the lining of the story, refusing the road of the double romantic myth and doubling the valence of transformation. Beauty (whose real name is Teresa), a brash innocent at the beginning of the novel, is allowed her own quest and transformation; the Beast is given the recalcitrant pain of isolation and self-contempt, as well as his own dying. What is the price of the Beast’s transformation? Could the shape imposed by his curse be something other than a trap, and, the new skin a passage to a new self? Might returning to the human be a loss?  In what shape do we give others leave to love us?  Where does love lead and leave us in the shedding of our skins?

The protagonist (Beauty) finds herself in a dark wood on a stormy night, running from wolves, where is saved by the Beast. To this point the narrative shoe fits. The implications of the dramatic memory of her arrival surfaces only gradually as Beauty adjusts to the cool, spacious, but consistent hospitality of the castle, the fresh croissant served to her taste every morning by room service, later on in the sunny breakfast room. Teresa is a spunky, modern woman, not an old-fashioned princess with her head stuffed with dashing heroes riding white horses.  She thinks she knows the script of the story she has walked into, a forest full of other castles and other Beasts. Since nothing is happening besides her walks in the castle garden, where she sees a deer drinking at the spring, and discovers that there is a breach in the castle wall (thus she is not locked in and free to leave) she decides to take initiative and write a letter to her unseen benefactor. The response, signed ‘Beast’, informs ‘Beauty’ that she is an interloper, but that she is a welcome agent in the suffering to which he has been sentenced, a suffering connected with love. In a declaration of independence reminiscent of Jane Austen’s novels, Teresa writes to the Beast that she is not looking for a prince: there is also no question that ‘loving a Beast and loving a prince’ have nothing to do with each other.  Furthermore, ‘what could be more tragic than to start loving a Beast and to find him replaced one day by a smooth prince?’

      Annus provides a sensuously delicate portrait of the castle’s interior, focusing more on the mise-en-abyme of the Beast’s life and love on the ceiling fresco of the library than on the ‘forbidden wing’ closed off to Beauty.  Some of the most significant scenes take place in this library--- in its cloistered calm Teresa experiences an intellectual awakening: she finally has time to read. As she climbs the ladder to reach the books arranged in several tiers from floor to ceiling, she slowly comes to understand the source of the flute music that accompanies her reading. But do the intellectual Beauty and the literate Beast fall in love? In Annus` novel, their discovery of one another after the initial epistolary ceremony of defiance is rather a gentle, gradual crossing of the frontiers of otherness, a blend of medieval courtoisie and the philosophy of Levinas. Beauty and the Beast walk together in the garden; the contiguity of cordiality warms to affection, and this grows deeper and weathers its crises. Annus’ Beast’s animal nature is neither a temporary guise nor a cipher for male erotic prowess, but a different incarnation; its ‘veiled strength’ comes from both his size and his secret; out of both grow the deepening complexes of his new flesh. Though she knows the story she is living, Teresa asks herself why she cannot feel the Beast’s tragedy: “Why does he not seem to me an unhappy, cursed being?”  In staging the Beast’s secret, Annus stays with the traditional story:  the red flower that symbolizes the Beast’s love, as well as the death sentence of that love. To keep himself for the red flower, Beauty must be evicted from the castle, compassionately allowed to return to human society. As he feels himself declining in strength, the Beast asks, in a second exchange of letters, “Why do you stay in this castle with a lonely monster who has lost his sense of reality instead of living a harmonious life among your own kind?” As the Beast takes to his bed, his rejection of Teresa intensifies, as does her persistence to stay by his side and watch with him as he waits for death. At the end of Part III of the novel, Beauty finds the Beast’s notebook on the bedside table, his story of the red flower. Here Teresa meets Matilda.

The last section of the novel is a lyrically intense investigation of the limits of love and the coils of the past. The red flower loses its last leaves, despite the Beast`s agonized gaze. There is no anesthetic for memory, and joy is not easily undone by self-inflicted cruelty. The Beast contradicts his earlier masochistic proclamation; confessing the authenticity of his burgeoning feelings for Teresa, he writes, “Happiness is never a naked illusion.” Would a love predicated on the appearance of Beast-hood evaporate once the lover wears human flesh? How much change can love tolerate and how much does it rely on recognition of familiarity? These questions are explored antiphonally in the closing pages of the novel. There is no balm for the confession: “You have loved me into loving myself. Of course, love is nothing but empty words.  It has simply been close to another. We have given each other joy.”  If the Beast experiences a shape-shifting deeper than death, the spunky staccato of Teresa modulates, as she changes voice. It is left to the reader to decide whether the recursion of the closing scene is repetition or a turn of a spiral, whether Teresa meets her freedom—or the wolves in the castle woods.

 Epp Annus follows trails of traditional stories with a psychological power and emotional charge similar to Margaret Atwood in her novel The Robber Groom. Her approach in You, Matilda may remind some readers of award-winning recent fictions in English for young (women) readers, in which a folk tale with a latently strong heroine is fleshed out into a full-length novel. More generally, ‘feminist’ rewriting of myths, calling strong female characters out of the background, already has its canon in contemporary fiction, not only in North America but in Europe. Kärt Hellerma`s collection of stories, I Loved David Copperfield includes two new, longer short stories and three shorter ones that were published in Estonian periodicals in the 1990s. The voices of her female protagonists are bold and defiant, often with a strong admixture of bitterness. Provocatively disturbing her reader`s peace with ‘nasty girl’ images, Hellerma takes her characters to the limits of social roles, and even across species boundaries. Two of the five stories engage the traditional shape-shifting archetype of the werewolf. Like her trenchant critical essays and reviews, two volumes of which were published in 2006 , Hellerma perceptively diagnoses the limitations of the „Estonian success story“-- glamour capitalism that is ultimately soulless, an aggressive beauty myth, a denial of darkness and death. Hellerma`s own inclination is toward the via negativa of the western mystics, though without any overt gesture toward Christianity. She is also unapologetically a feminist, though not of the ‘fighting’ kind, and not always insisting on the label.  Since the end of the Soviet era, the „feminist’ has been the target of vehement, insulted, and insulting criticism in the Estonian press, as in other eastern European countries, where raising women`s issues has evoked a range of passionate, submerged frustrations about rapid social change, particularly from male journalists and social commentators, whose (in)tolerance for uppity women may not, in fact, be representative of Estonian society as a whole. Thinking in feminist ways is quickly labeled as dangerous,  but the reaction often indicates that as such, this is not the issue; rather, it is (woman) thinking that poses a threat. Hellerma`s essays, particularly her film reviews, have affinities with the approaches of  Slavenka Drakulic (one of whose books was recently translated into Estonian in the Looming paperback series)  and Dubravka Ugresic take to the representation of women in society. Both are feminist thinkers and writers whose provocations have won them the title ‘witch’.

Prominent among Hellerma`s characters are women alone, survivors and veterans of broken relationships, who have had time to sort out their illusions about men, romance, and partnership, or women artists treading water as single parents. The title story may initially trick the reader into thinking the narrator is a depressed, middle-aged woman; instead, it is  the confession of a brash teenager, Helena Bremer, who has shut herself into her urban apartment after her artist mother`s death, and who fantasizes about a pop singer named David Copperfield whom she first saw on a Finnish entertainment show on television.   As a child, the girl had three wishes—to fly, to be invisible, and to read other people´s thoughts. Self-inflicted enclosure in a Soviet high-rise may satisfy the wish to be invisible, but the opposite pull, the longing to fly, takes Helena to the brink. The pain of mourning her mother alternates with wry, feisty honesty about at the realities of her mother`s life, an honesty that is only available to the daughter who has seen her day to day,  struggling with money, men, and her creative impulses, obsessively painting winged figures, and consulting an array of healers. David Copperfield, with the given name David Seth Kotkin, is an ironic allusion to Dickens` self-made boy.  Helena has read the book and seen the film, dismissing it as ‘boy’s stuff,’ but her pop-star fantasy is not a generic adolescent romantic dream. Helena has also read Isak Dinesen`s Out of Africa (it is one of her favourite books)  and she is drawn to the independent woman alone in a wild landscape. However, the story turns away from any real options for adventure and self-fulfillment: getting to the open spaces of Africa is as unreal for this motherless heroine as riding a Harley Davidson across the sky. Yielding the floor to her narrator, Hellerma refrains from social analysis, but in the background is the question of why post-Soviet culture is blinded by the glamour of the western pop star, and why quick success as an Estonian woman is associated with the Barbie doll ‘beibe’ on his arm. As the story picks up speed and draws to a conclusion, it becomes clear that the real attraction for the narrator is Thanatos. If her mother´s death was suicide from an overdose, Helena`s  liberation is „flying with David Copperfield“---from the window ledge of her high rise.

The other new story in the collection, Wolf, is a post-human narrative: unlike Kafka`s Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning as a cockroach, the narrator finds herself gradually, over a period of days, metamorphosed into a wolf. Unlike the canonical figure of the werewolf-- well known to Estonian readers through August Kitzberg`s 1910 play with its opposition of peasant conservatism and the passionate heroine Tiina, whose mother was burned a the stake as a witch, and whose different temperament leads a jealous half-sister to spread the rumour that she is a shapeshifter—this transformation is willing and permanent. A harried single mother had longed for freedom, and the badge of her longing is a wolf`s pelt; her sons have the embarrassing task of hiding her in their apartment without letting on to the neighbours. The narrative, though it almost flashes humorous at moments, remains on a serious track, and at times reads like a script taken from Clarissa Pinkola Estes` Women Who Run With the Wolves.   The reader cannot help wondering what would happen if the character could laugh at herself and her situation: for this to happen, perhaps the primal longing for freedom would need some quenching in reality, rather than fantasy. To stay in her woman-skin, the she-wolf might ask instead for  the solace of time to herself, reliable, genial partnership, and more economic opportunity, all of which might go a long way to take her out of the slough of perma-fatigue and creative frustration.

If Kärt Hellerma`s stories and essays make uncomfortable journeys through existential despair, male-female power imbalances, and the illusions of the romance plot, their deeper concerns are with transformation and transcendence, and with Thanatos, which only partially eclipses its opposite, Eros. Letter from Lesbos, first published in the magazine Vikerkaar in 1989, Dawn and Dusk (1994), and Dream of the Silver Bullet (1995) engage the solar intensities of Eros,  not only in its search for an Other, but also in relation to the Self. Dream of the Silver Bullet parodies the quest for the perfect body, fiercely breaking through the superficiality of addiction to fashion shows and beauty treatments to celebrate a wicked woman`s body, wickedly. According to folklore, the only way to kill a werewolf is with a silver bullet. Hellerma`s stories leave the reader suspended, even stunned by the sudden shift from Eros to Thanatos as one pole calls to another. The stories` cruel logic nevertheless raises the question of whether the wicked woman has to die, at her own hand or another`s, and whether she could instead have found a way to celebrate. 

Of the three books, Kristiina. Ehin`s The Piper Woman and the Bomb-Throwing Woman paints most playfully and with the brightest colours, leaving spaces for laughter, wonder, and lyric joy. Though this is Ehin`s first book of prose, there is a close connection with her earlier work: the short narrative pieces, which incline toward Kunstmärchen, allegorical miniatures or parables, are best described as prose poems. Visually arranged on the page like poetry, they are interspersed with letters to different addressees, in different keys of intimacy, connected by the same writerly voice, thematically amplifying the concerns taken up in the prose poems. Altogether, the combination of letters and short lyric pieces is strongly reminiscent of the hybrid form Ehin used in her book Kaitseala (Zone of Protection) about the year she spent as lighthouse-keeper on Mohn Island off the north coast of Estonia,.

If Kärt Hellerma`s story Koit ja Hämarik (Dawn and Dusk) ironically evokes one of the Kunstmärchen grafted into the Estonian literary canon by  F. R. Faehlmann ,  Kristiina Ehin opens her collection with a dialogue between Water and Fire about the meaning of ‘woman’. Hellerma exploits and explodes the romantic subtexts of the story about Dawn and Dusk, lovers, whose brief union is an emblem of white nights and the magic of  the summer solstice. For Ehin, the dialectic of fire and water erupts from a condition of primal contiguity, in which neither elementally cancels the other. Taking up the grammatical neutrality offered by Finno-Ugric languages, Ehin refuses the temptation, available through folklore, to confer gender on Fire and Water. However, their argument, charged with philosophical passion, is very much about gender:  the problem of the ‘good woman’, whose modesty is marked by her ability to blush. The two elements survive their mutual indignation, and the argument is resolved in a dynamic embrace of seemingly irreconcilable elements,:  „Into the room where they lay came the scent of pale rushes.  Ordinarily, Fire would want to set the chaff aflame immediately.  This time (S)he waited.  Outside, raindrops began to fall, a light modest rain, which quickly turned into a heavy shower.“  In these and several other pieces in the volume, the hazards of human relationship are navigated hopefully, without abrogating or muting pain, but always allowing for the emergence of space for deeper communication. Images and symbols are both the markers and the nudges toward these places of openness and synergy  (folkloric motifs of shap-shifting and transformation). In the title story, one woman`s holds music as dear as another woman her kettle of bombs, which is missing only one magical ingredient, the whisker of a white cat. Through a trick, the explosion shifts place and shape.  Some pieces, such as The Human Lizard and the Cat-Elephant are fairy-tale- like improvisations with a light-hearted allegorical intent. In others, such as Priceless Nest, folkloric motifs of shape-shifting and transformation combine in a urban-shamanic healing tale. Throughout, Ehin is carrying out a double inquiry into the energies of human emotion and traditional gender roles. The most stylized of the stories, A Totally Normal Man,  works through inversion: a man, four months pregnant, experiences the aftermath of his wife walking out on him, and goes to the clinic for an ultrasound of his unborn baby. By means of the ‘gender trick’, the text cleverly exposes the underside of the socially much more common, stereotypic situation of a man walking out on a woman.  The story functions as a parable rather than a fable: there is no moralizing message, only the situation, turned inside out before the reader`s eyes. The ironic title ‘totally normal man’ opens the larger problematic of men`s emotions, explored more thoroughly in Silent Man,  where a couple`s impasse in communicating provokes the woman to find her own fierce voice. She begins to write, while the man`s silence retains its own recalcitrant dignity. Looking behind the cliches of the ‘inexpressive Estonian man’, this piece, as well as Difficult Times, (Rasked ajad)  tests the valence of silence and distance in relationship, and weighs the difference between the absence of a man ‘at war’  on his laptop computer, playing an electronic game in which the only casualties are virtual white horses, and the literal, terminal 25 year term of a Russian conscript. 

    The last letter and the last prose poem of the collection, The River of Song, shift to the life-world of the aboriginal Mari people. In the letter, loud rock music clashes with a nature ritual: that the lyrics are in the native tongue does nothing to diminish the dissonance.. In the prose poem, the most ballad-like text in the collection The River of Song, the submerged afterlife of drowned kittens in the river is an evocative prelude to the drama of two maidens and a young man of the meadow people who encounter the mythical maiden-horse thief Tseber Ovdat, who has set her backwards footprints on the riverbank. The hinge between the two story lines of the piece is the place where fire meets water: for the attentive reader, this spins the spiral  back to the dialogue of Fire and Water with which the collection opened.  

    While Epp Annus`, Kärt Hellerma`s and Kristiina Ehin`s explorations of mythic and folkloric sources are highly individual, all three perhaps point to a shift on the compass needle of contemporary Estonian fiction—away from a fascination with collaged surfaces, the strobe lights of technology, and the temptation of cyber-text and toward the recesses of inner depth, the crevices and crevasses, and sustenances of story.