Nobel laureates grace the stage

  • 2000-10-12
  • Darius James Ross
VILNIUS - Three Nobel prize-winning writers plus an eminent man of letters took part in a panel discussion on "The Role of Memory in Eastern and Western European Literature" at the Vilnius Town Hall on Oct 2. Several hundred students, academics and lovers of literature crowded the large hall, some arriving well in advance of the 5 p.m. start, to see this historic event.

The three Nobel laureates were Wislawa Szymborska (1996), Czeslaw Milosz (1980) and Gunter Grass (1999). Szymborska, from Krakow, Poland is an internationally recognized poet. Czeslaw Milosz, now 89, is a Lithuanian poet who writes in Polish. For many years he was a professor of Slavic literature in the United States and now divides his time between Krakow and Berkeley, California. Grass, of course, is best known for his novel The Tin Drum, that was made into a controversial film by Volker Schlorndorff.

The fourth participant, Tomas Venclova, although not a Nobel prize winner, is no literary slouch. Born in Lithuania in 1937, he was one of Lithuania's literary lights until a 1979 open letter to Lithuania's Communist Party earned him a one-way ticket out of the Soviet Union. He is presently a professor of Russian literature at Yale University and has been published in leading international literary publications.

Grass, Milosz and Venclova all read from prepared texts at the opening of the session while Szymborska preferred to join in the pursuing discussion. The writers were invited to discuss the role that memories play in literature, with an emphasis on their own personal experiences. "(For an author), memory is equally a treasure trove, a junkyard and archive," said Grass, a German who grew up in Gdansk when it was still known as Danzig and fled the city during World War II.

He talked about the pain he felt due to the dislocation from the city he was born in and also addressed nationalism and the tragic misunderstandings that it can cause.

Grass drew a healthy round of applause and laughs when he chose to illustrate this by describing a return visit to Gdansk a few years ago. He entered a restaurant where two groups of Polish and German businessmen were arguing as to whether the famous Renaissance astronomer, Copernicus, was a German or Pole. "I realized that this was an absurd discussion and that the only way to fight stupidity is with humor," said Grass.

He then pulled up a chair and joined their discussion. "I realized that I am a fiction writer, so I have a right to tell lies. I told them that they were both wrong and that Copernicus was really a Kashubian. I then invented a completely fictitious family tree stretching back several centuries to support my argument. By then, both groups had forgotten their previous quarrel and were jointly attacking me. I felt I had achieved something," said Grass.

Venclova focused on contemporary issues around memory. He said that while memory was the object of systematic destruction under the Soviets, today the risk is one of the erosion of memory. The culprits: Hollywood, globalization and Internet culture. "Writers and intellectuals must be today's guardians of culture, just as bards and shamans were once upon a time," he said.

Szymborska was less pessimistic. "I do not wish to be a Cassandra. The future is different from what we imagine." She said that she noticed many young people in the audience who, she believes, would not allow new technologies "to steal our soul."

Milosz has always been an enigma. He is undoubtedly Poland's most famous poet but has steadfastly maintained that he is a Lithuanian. He is descended from a long line of Lithuania nobles who were Polonized many generations ago. He offered a concise and very personal history of Vilnius. "Unfortunately, when I come to Vilnius, I always feel like I need to step softly, as if I were walking on thin ice and that it is not enough to be a human being here. Everyone is immediately asked who he is - Lithuanian, Pole, Jew, German - as if the sad era of twentieth century ethnic division were still continuing," he said. Despite his criticism, Milosz maintained that he has always been more supportive of the interests of independent Lithuania than those of Poland as they make more sense to him.