A speech by Mati Sirkel on Jaan Kross’s 80th birthday celebration at the Estonian Drama Theater, 2000

Honorable Jaan!

If you would allow me to employ a metaphor while representing the Estonian Writers’ Union, then I’d like to say a couple words about Kross as a cognac.
You were given the opportunity to grow and mature on a relatively sunny slope for twenty years. Then came the violent harvest; the winepress. Let us not mention the juice that was maliciously dumped and spoiled. Depending on the variety of grape, as well as the weather conditions and other circumstances ranging from chance to fortune, the outcome was to be either wine, vinegar, grappa made from pomace, or the ingredients needed for cognac spirits. The latter then passed through copper pipes and was distilled, giving it strength. And what strength it achieved! Next, the distilled product was transferred to oak casks to age. This phrasing also contains an historical and biographical reference: Kross’s first “test blend” in 1958 was titled SöerikastajaThe Coal Enricher. And it had a fine taste. The oaky sublimation continued and from a certain blend, it became clear that the writing was of V.S.O.P. class. Through the year 1991, your writing helped us Estonians counter particular woes regarding our spirit and self-preservation.

The end result is a fully matured, high-grade product that you have bottled for us. Thanks to the translators in this auditorium, it has also spread to the rest of the world in so many vintages, with so many V.S.O.P. nuances, which Estonia has taken to capture a strong position on the world stage in the field of literary cognacs. Honorable Jaan, in the name of your union, allow me to thank you for all you have done and wish you continued delicacy in your true field.

What you have created is timeless.

Memories of Jaan Kross by Maima Grīnberga

I have to admit that we could still use a few more translations of Kross’s works in Latvian. Close to a dozen poems (translated by Astrid Ivask and Laimonis Kamara), the short-story collection Under Clio’s Gaze (1978, translated by Džuljeta Plakidis and Anna Žīgure), a couple of novellas (translated by Rūta Karma for a periodical), and an excerpt from the story Skystone (1981) have been published in Latvian translation. Not one of Kross’s novels could be read in the language until 1999 – thus, I had the joy and demanding task of translating four of his works: The Czar’s Madman (1999), Treading Air (2002), Professor Martens’ Departure (2011), and Between Three Plagues (2012). I was unbelievably fortunate to have the opportunity to undertake these works as a translator, though I still regret the fact that Kross’s novels were not translated immediately after they were published in Estonian. They were long overdue. I can only imagine the effect a Latvian translation of The Czar’s Madman would have had in 1980, for example, and how it would have accelerated the translation of his other works, in addition to amplifying his fame and foreign reception. Without a doubt, there wouldn’t be a single work by Kross still to be translated today. Only now, in the early 20th century, has Kross been made available for the enjoyment of a scant few readers in Latvian translation – just like most truly high-grade literature.

My acquaintanceship with Kross was neither long nor extensive. I can remember neither how nor when we first met (probably while translating The Czar’s Madman), but I do know I interviewed him in Tallinn’s Old Town in 1999. I also enjoyed Kross’s and his wife Ellen Niit’s hospitality at their house in Kassari on the island of Hiiumaa, and spoke at his academic seminars. Our final meeting took place in 2006 – probably in March – when I visited him with the Latvian author Inese Zander, who was conducting an extensive interview for the magazine Rīgas Laiks. It was published in June of that year as “The Third Cognac”. 

I recently translated Kross’s poetry collection The Discovery of the World into Latvian to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth. It will be published in the 1/2020 issue of Domuzīme.

Remembering Jaan by Tiina Ann Kirss

In 1989 – late spring, if I remember correctly – my Toronto friends mentioned in passing that when visiting Ellen Niit, one should bring her ground cinnamon for the apple pie you’ll get to enjoy. When I asked what to bring Jaan Kross, my friends were silent. I didn’t even expect to meet Kross on that first trip: he already hosted so many foreign guests that Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who would become Estonia’s president only seven years later, called them “safari Estonians” in a since extinct Estonian-diaspora publication titled ‘Põrp!’. So, I packed two jars of ground cinnamon in my suitcase.

I’d written a long essay during a seminar on Kross’s masterpiece Between Three Plagues during the first semester of my doctorate in comparative literature, in January 1985. Teaching the seminar was a University of Michigan Ann Arbor professor, who had been exiled from Poland in 1968, and for whom the topic of “literature and history” was conceptually broad and theoretically fascinating. The trajectory of the professor’s research had led to the oldest known piece of literature – to the epic of Gilgamesh. Clay and stylus. It didn’t take much convincing for an Eastern European to understand the phenomenon that was Kross, and that professor later became my doctoral advisor. 

The main sources for my seminar project were the first two volumes of Between Three Plagues, which had been published in the West and certainly had not been in my parents’ personal library (how, why, and to what extent Kross was respected among the Estonian diaspora in North America can be read about in the second volume of his memoirs, Dear Fellow Travelers, p. 250). The third and fourth volumes were harder to come by, as I lacked a stable connection to Estonia. I still have the bound photocopies I printed – with as narrow a margin as possible – for ten cents per page in a basement-level shop near the University of Toronto. The copies of Looming, the Estonian literary magazine I used, belonged to my friend Valli Naelapeal, from the Estonian Foundation of Canada’s Metsaülikool (“The Forest University”).

Kross, whom I did manage to meet in Tallinn, late in the summer of 1989, warmly invited me to participate in a German-language seminar on his novel The Czar’s Madman, which was held in Loccum, Northern Germany that November. The Berlin Wall fell just a couple days after I returned. The only memories more vivid than Kross’s 70th birthday celebrations in February 1990, are those of greeting Cornelius Hasselblatt at the Port of Tallinn after he arrived on the same ferry as I – barely able to tell day and night apart. Deep conversations and friendships formed with Kross and Niit.

After I’d defended my doctoral thesis, two chapters of which covered Kross’s works, I was still tempted to write something longer about him. As I wasn’t satisfied with the existing “Leben und Werk” models, and especially since the rings of reach expanded for Kross’s work with almost every year, I decided – consciously or not – to delay writing it until I could have another long-overdue and more in-depth conversation with Kross himself. I discussed the idea of a book with Kross and Niit in the summer of 2004. That same autumn, working as a visiting professor at the University of Tartu and co-instructing a course on the ethical dilemmas in Kross’s works together with professor Margit Sutrop, I was finally able to set the rhythm for a longer dialogue. By then, the first volume of Dear Fellow Travelers had already been published, as was a collection of lectures he had given as a liberal arts professor at the University of Tartu, titled Autobiographism and Subtext. I’d become intuitively familiar with the concept of subtext through my studies of literary theory, but I believe Kross brought “autobiographism” into discourse in Estonia through his generous and even self-evident use of the term when translating into Estonian the essays of the prominent Yale University literary theorist Paul de Man. I realized that with his memoirs and this collection of lectures, Kross had cleverly handed his readers (and particularly his researchers) a keychain holding several keys that fit no known lock.  

My weekly conversations with Jaan and Ellen during the 2004–2005 academic year evolved into a friendly ritual. I would bring along a digital recorder that sometimes didn’t work or simply hadn’t been charged well enough because of my forgetfulness. Hurrying across Tartu’s Town Hall Square one snowy day, I remembered to buy a pair of wool socks, as I’d forgotten mine at home and it was cold on the bus between Tallinn and Tartu. On the way, I managed to formulate a couple of questions that had crossed my mind during some intensive reading over the last week. Although Kross’s memoirs did have their unusual draw, I was much more interested in a quality of his works that, during the last couple times we met, he himself defined as “serendipitousness”. Once the idea had manifested and I knew what to ask a few good friends, the ensuing connections came together with astonishing confidence. This pattern repeated in spite of the very different topics that branched off historically. To this day, I can still remember that glint of audacity in Kross’s blue eyes. The corners of his eyes glittered all the more cunningly as he gently claimed that he hadn’t saved any correspondence… to which Ellen smartly added as should be done with every letter you receive.

After chatting for a couple of hours, I was invited to join them for lunch with a few close family members and some former students. As I can remember, they were all modest, red-cheeked youth. When lunch was over, I spent another hour or so in Jaan and Ellen’s company before boarding my bus and writing down notes for the next session in the dusky light. It could take a few more weeks for me to listen to the recordings.

My final memories from my conversations with Kross are mixed with the requests for obituaries that some Estonian publications asked for even weeks before he passed away. On the day he passed beneath Johann Köler’s incredible apse painting in Tallinn’s Kaarli kirik (Charles’s Church), embarking on his eternal journey, a wintery sun shone above the city.

Mati Sirkel is an Estonian man of letters and a translator. He was Chairman of the Board of the Estonian Writers’ Union in the period 1995–2004.

Maima Grīnberga is a Latvian translator who has translated the works of many Estonian authors into Latvian, including among others Jaan Kross, Andrus Kivirähk, Kristiina Ehin, Aidi Vallik, Sass Henno, Jaan Undusk and Maimu Berg. In 2013 she was awarded the Estonian-Latvian/Latvian-Estonian translation prize for her translation of the novel ‘Between Three Plagues’ by Jaan Kross.

Tiina Kirss is an internationally-acclaimed literary scholar who has taught at the University of Tartu, Tallinn University, and the University of Toronto. Her leisure activities include knitting and spinning wool, as well as tai chi.