Mixing academia with literary fiction

  • 2013-10-31
  • Interview by Jonathan Brown

“Now, he finally stepped from the lurching boat onto the harbor dock, onto the slippery boards nailed onto logs that were rammed into the mud beneath the water, and peered hesitatingly at his surroundings. The wind flung drizzle into his face in bursts from the low sky, and he strove to understand what sort of land it was, to which he had arrived by his own free choice.”

The unexpected author of these lines is the Estonian Meelis Friedenthal. He was one of twelve writers awarded the prestigious European Union Prize for Literature this year. His winning novel, Mesilased (The Bees), describes the travails of Laurentius Hylas, a student travelling from the University of Leiden to the Academia Gustavo-Carolina in Tartu, Livonia. What sets Friedenthal apart is his distinguished academic record. Since 1992, Friedenthal has had various roles at University of Tartu: undergraduate student, doctoral candidate, and lecturer. His research interests are diverse. They range from the history of Estonian watermarks and paper, to the relationship between science and religion, medieval theology and philosophy.

Unlike most literary authors, you also maintain a distinguished academic career. What role does fiction play in your relationship with academic research, and vice versa?
Academic writing and literary fiction are not wholly different - the main question is actually about style and presentation. Both need a lot of preparatory work and thinking. Academic writing is supposed nowadays to be rigorously researched and in its entirety, provable. Thus, only a slight amount of speculation is allowed. As such, academic writing is, in a sense, following a set of pre-agreed rules, like there are certain rules that make end rhyme poetry, or whodunit crime fiction. When we look, for instance, at the philosophical or scientific writings of the early modern period, then the style of those writings appears very different from the academic writing of today. They are more colloquial, ironic, and often venomous, but nevertheless, we regard them seriously as scientific texts. Today, however, they would not pass the peer review, as they are too different from today’s academic taste. As such, I do not think that literary fiction is somehow in essence different from academic writing; the perceived difference comes foremost from the form of presentation. It is still all about how we relate to the world.

If it is the readers’ perception that generates the difference between academic writing and fiction, what about the writer’s perception? Do you perceive the problems or obstacles you encounter in research as different from fiction? Is your approach to solving these problems of fiction and research different?
In the end, the texts themselves are different. For example, the text that has footnotes, quotes, certain vocabulary, etc. generates a different reception than a story narrated in the first person. Thus, it is conceivable that I do research on one topic and write, based on that research, two separate texts - one that can be considered fiction and another that can be considered academic. Indeed, the problems and obstacles are not the same as these are usually very closely connected with the structure of the text. In academic writing, I’m always asking myself whether this or that statement is provable by sources or archaeological evidence, etc, but in fiction, I’m asking whether this is conceivable or believable in the given situation.

You call to attention the rules, or expectations of poetry, crime fiction, and indeed, of writing generally. The history of literary fiction seems to reflect a systematic breakdown of these rules or expectations. How do they influence you? Do you find them limiting or liberating?
We are always bound by some rules and limitations – beginning from linguistic boundaries, which affect the expression of our thoughts to our lack of knowledge in various subjects. In this way, we are always linked with our mental environment and this restricts our freedom. It is important to note that the recognition that we lack freedom thematizes freedom itself as a problem. The person who notices this is forced to be in a constant dialogue with their lack of freedom. When we notice that we are not free, we try to find ways of overcoming the restrictions and this creates new approaches. I think, therefore, that some (maybe even self-imposed) rules are necessary for any good fiction.

Is writing fiction a way to descend the Ivory Tower, or present your research interests in more, shall we say, accessible, or digestible terms?
There is an element of that, of course. At the same time I do not think that fiction is somehow tempered-down academic research – they simply have different interest areas and ways of presenting it. It is true that for academic writing you need to have schooled readers, but this happens also to be true for several types of literature. I do not think that hexametrical poetry or some modernist prose is somehow more accessible or digestible than typical academic history writing.

Your academic writing and research has a target audience. What about your fiction?
The so-called “target audience” in academic writing is usually people who have the same research interests. The “target audience” in fiction would be actually the same – people who are interested in those topics the book is about.

Understanding sense and perception - how truly trustworthy our senses are - is important to you. How is this treated throughout The Bees?
I have tried to depict the understanding of perception in the framework of Aristotelian philosophy, which is very different from the attitudes towards perception today. In general, this philosophical approach takes every kind of perception quite seriously and thus, it is very important what to watch, what to read and in which kind of environment to be. Every perception affects the person in a straightforward way, and there are, of course, persons who are more susceptible [like children, people who are weak and sick].

Laurentius Hylas, the name of The Bees’ protagonist, is a very etymologically symbolic name. Talk about the significance of this name and what it means for the story.
This name is indeed not an accidental choice. I tried to convey there a certain conflict or incompatibility of the philosophical attitudes of the 17th century. On one side, there is scholastic philosophy, ancient mythology and on the other, there is “new philosophy,” which explains the world in totally different way. There are connections with the legends of ancient Greek and Catholic saints, but also with a dialogue of Berkeley.

Aristotelian philosophy breaks down in The Bees as Laurentius succumbs to sickness and hallucinations. What takes its place?
One of my goals was to show how the non-Aristotelian, new philosophy, was inadequate for describing the events in the novel and Laurentius is unsure what kind of explanation he should give to his situation. Despite all the reasoning he hears about the superiority of new philosophy, he feels that the Aristotelian theories are better suited to describe his condition.

This is a story of dichotomies, between philosophies, between ways of understanding the world. What role do Tartu and Leiden play in this? What is this dichotomy of place representative of?
From one side there is a question of how we try to explain the world we live in and how much supernatural we agree to admit into it. From the other side there is the question about center and periphery, about cultured civilization and uneducated backwaters, about health and sickness. Tartu is here as a setting, a university town on the outskirts of Swedish Realm.

To what extent is The Bees autobiographical?
Like any story, it does contain a good amount of autobiographical elements, but generally the problems and situation of the protagonist are fictional. I have tried to depict a humanistically educated student at the end of the 17th century.

Although the book is set in the 17th century, how is The Bees a reflection of life today?
Perhaps the primacy of theory is the main connection with the life of today. This means that we try to give a meaning to our lives and find answers to our questions in the framework of the things we believe about the world.
This, of course, means that given different theories about the world, we have very different explanations for the things that happen in our lives. In spite the fact that for us the common beliefs about the world of the 17th century seem strange and odd, it will be very difficult to judge the explanations of those people wrong or false. When something gives explanations to our [existential] questions, it is never totally wrong. It is the same question as, are the myths wrong or right? They are not supposed to be scientific facts; they are explanations as how to relate to the world.

What should a reader understand about the book’s title?
I had in mind several passages from Georgics [book iv] of Virgil. Some central themes in the book are, albeit loosely, connected with the topics discussed there.

For a complete extract from Mesilased (The Bees), translated by Adam Cullen, and more information on Friedenthal and the European Union Prize for Literature, visit: http:www.euprizeliterature.eu