The extraordinary life and times of Lithuania’s greatest poet: An interview with Tomas Venclova

Sam Leith in The Spectator:

ScreenHunter_3021 Mar. 29 19.25The first book that Tomas Venclova read in English was Nineteen Eighty-Four. Not a bad start in the language, given his future career. Venclova is less well-known in the West than his late friends Joseph Brodsky and Czesław Miłosz, but he’s something like their Baltic equivalent: a dissident poet of international standing, who spent many of the years of his home country’s Soviet occupation in exile in the US.

He describes Nineteen Eighty-Four as ‘a very important book in my life, and the one that taught me the most about the Soviet system’. A passage he says made ‘a very strong impression on me’ comes in an exchange between Winston Smith and his interrogator O’Brien. Winston asks O’Brien: ‘Does Big Brother exist?’ ‘Of course he exists. The Party exists. Big Brother is the embodiment of the Party.’ Winston presses: ‘Does he exist in the same way as I exist?’ O’Brien replies: ‘You do not exist.’

The story chimes with a sense of erasure in many of Venclova’s poems. ‘Henkus Hapenckus, In Memoriam’, for instance — a poem inspired by the memorial notice to an imaginary person, attached to impossible birth and death dates, in the window of a funeral parlour in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas — opens in the English translation: ‘Only a true nobody can manage/ to shoulder the weight of non-existence.’

‘I invented this person, Henkus Hapenckus, who never existed, and an entire universe for him,’ Venclova says. ‘He could be anybody. Because almost every kind of existence in the Soviet Union amounted to non-existence.’

More here.