This review originally appeared in The Quarterly Conversation.
American readers should certainly welcome Dalkey Archive’s publication of Those Whom I Would Like to Meet Again, by the Lithuanian writer Giedra Radvilaviciute, but many of those readers surely will not entirely know how to take it. This uncertainty originates not from inherent difficulties in Radvilaviciute’s fiction (which in fact is often quite entertaining) but from a lack of context, the absence of which makes it difficult to assess the writer’s work with enough confidence we understand not only her artistic purposes and her success in achieving them, but also how her success or failure might be connected to national or cultural circumstances.
No doubt, most readers curious enough about current writing to pick up a book from Lithuania do so from a state of relative ignorance about that country. Is it not, after all, a primary ambition of translation to introduce uninitiated readers to worthy writers from less familiar countries and cultures? Unfortunately, economic circumstances (translated books have a hard time getting readers) have only reinforced a too-facile assumption that a translated work is, or should be, immediately and fully accessible on its own terms, without the need for the kind of context that might usefully bring us closer to the linguistic, literary, and cultural realities within which the work was written and originally received. Few translated works are accompanied by more than perfunctory information about the writer’s situation and important concerns (thematic or aesthetic), much less a formal introduction or annotations to the book that might remove obstacles to a satisfying reading experience.
Most publishers, especially already translation-friendly publishers such as Dalkey Archive, should of course be praised for bringing translated work to our attention at all, but the context-free publication that is more or less the norm for commercially translated books presumably hopes to avoid suggesting that books already at times perceived as too dauntingly different to be comfortable reading do indeed require the extra effort to assimilate this “outside” information. Better to simply offer the translated text without further marking it as “foreign” to the reader’s usual reading habits by emphasizing an apparent need for supplemental context. This reluctance to alienate potential readers may initially be a commercial decision, but it also does coincide with an otherwise perfectly respectable position that what is most important in our response to any literary work is the integrity of the reading experience itself. I would maintain, however, that with a book like Those Whom I Would Like to Meet Again that integrity is actually threatened by the withdrawal of context and a lack of attention to issues outside the text, isolating it from the biographical, historical, and cultural factors influencing its creation (including its publication in the United States), rather than by taking context into account as an aid to understanding the work.
The book appears to be a “best of,” selected from Radvilaviciute’s two books published in Lithuania. This is something we must infer, however, since the only indication of their provenance (on the back cover and in the promotional copy) is that the book contains ten of the author’s “best stories.” Even if we accept that this judgment is correct (and ultimately we have no other choice), uncertainty about how we are to regard the book remains. Is it a book encapsulating the writer’s most characteristic work, or is it essentially just an artifact of translation, giving English-language readers some access to her work, to be read for the quality of individual “stories”? That Radvilaciute appears not to be a particularly prolific writer perhaps makes this problem less acute, although the very question of her seemingly spare productivity also seems one that might helpfully be addressed through some sort of critical commentary.
What is most significant in the publisher’s description of Radvilaviciute’s writing is that it identifies the contents of this book as “stories.” Although these “stories” are further characterized as “combining fiction, memoir, and essay,” this attempted clarification is more confusing that illuminating—to what extent can fiction, memoir, and essay really be “combined”?—and finally doesn’t adequately prepare the reader for the true indeterminacy of genre these stories achieve. Clearly enough the intention is to categorize Radvilaviciute’s work as fiction, and while there are qualities in these pieces that would justify considering them as fiction, this representation of them to American readers is at the least misleading about the way they are received in Lithuania, where Radvilaviciute is more likely to be considered an essayist and where the essay itself has become an increasingly prominent literary form. Such at least is the conclusion I reached about Radvilaviciute’s status in her native country after tracking down available facts about her, but unless readers are willing to similarly search for additional information about the author and the Lithuanian literary scene, they will lack what is surely relevant context about her ambitions as revealed in this book.
The blurring of the lines between “fiction, memoir, and essay” is certainly the most provocative feature of Those Whom I Would Like to Meet Again, and is ultimately the reason why it is still very much a book worth reading. The pieces, each narrated by the author, or her fictional stand-in, are mostly plotless reminiscences of the author’s childhood and equally discursive meditations on her present circumstances. As a way of reinforcing the depiction of the latter, as well as strengthening the impression that what we are reading are nonfiction essays, there are frequent references to the narrator’s life as a writer and editor. One of the pieces, “A Long Walk on as Short Pier,” begins with the narrator receiving a call from a publisher inquiring about the novel he believes her to be writing. Although she is not (“I told him he’d caught me during a reading phase”), the publisher’s spiel prompts the narrator’s subsequent ruminations on writing this hypothetical novel, going so far as to compose an ostensible opening paragraph, but otherwise it is clearly suggested that these ruminations will have to substitute for any actual novel the narrator might write.
If we were to regard this work as a short story, we would likely consider it a species of metafiction, although of a somewhat diffuse and loosely organized sort. In this form it would be an interesting enough story (its interest extending beyond its metafictional qualities), but not otherwise remarkable. If, on the other hand, we were to identify it as an essay, it probably seems an effective personal narrative incorporating the author’s anxiety about the status of her writing career, but again not especially groundbreaking in its exploitation of the form. The piece’s singular interest comes from the way in which the distinction between fiction and essay remains indefinite, layered together so that we might even read it first as one and then as the other, superimposed on each other rather than “combined.” Rather than obscure the difference between fiction and nonfiction, such a strategy makes each mode equally salient in the reading experience. This may be the most radical implication of Radvilaviciute’s achievement, making us question whether the customary distinctions of mode and form serve any useful purpose.
Because all of the story-essays offer first-person accounts of the same narrator’s life, the book ultimately has more of the effect of a novel than a collection of either stories or essays. Even though the individual pieces move freely from past to present and setting to setting (one of them being the United States in a few of the pieces, including the first one), they cumulatively present an integrated account of the narrator and her current situation, her memories, and her interactions, some of them with people (such as her daughter, as well as her best friend) who make multiple appearances as “characters” in her story. Those Whom I Would Like to Meet Again is thus ultimately an accessible book, both in its parts and as a whole. Finally the provocative tension between taking the pieces in the book as fiction or as essays only adds interest, as inevitably we wonder about the extent to which the book accurately reflects not just the author/narrator’s personal situation but also the cultural and historical conditions in present-day Lithuania, and whether such accuracy matters.
At this point, it might be objected that a critical introduction to this book would be superfluous. If literal fidelity to circumstances of the kind we find in realistic fiction is something Radvilaviciute’s work convinces us is not required, wouldn’t social-cultural-historical “background” only suggest we should judge her book according to its fidelity to existing conditions, the way things “really are” in Lithuania? Still, there are characteristics of the way things are whose full significance probably can’t really be assumed by American readers without some awareness of Lithuania’s status as an only recently liberated “republic” of the U.S.S.R. (The very name already no doubt seems like ancient history to some readers.) The lingering memory and still tangible effects of this reality noticeably inform many of the pieces, such as “My American Biography,” which draws substantially on the narrators memories of events surrounding the Soviet shootdown of the American U-2 spy plane in 1960, as well as the later Soviet invasion of Lithuania. “Essential Changes” is a direct and extended reflection on the changes that have occurred during the narrator’s life, and even the title story, which is accessible enough as a general meditation on “those whom I would like to meet again,” would probably be even more effective if the cultural circumstances attached to the subjects of the narrator’s reminiscences were clearer.
Other of the pieces certainly work perfectly well on their own, their social and cultural circumstances universally recognizable. “Autumnal People,” in its contrasts between people of an “autumnal” and a “sporting” disposition, probably needs no local context. The “native land” contrasted in “The Native Land and Other Connections” with the narrator’s experiences in Chicago upon her return to Lithuania could certainly be anyone’s native country observed in the light of an extended period away. “Required Texts,” another metafictional reflection on the narrator’s circumstances as a writer, could be written by any writer suffering anxiety over “that coveted, extremely well-selling novel” that hasn’t been written. Few if any of the pieces are so tied to specific context that the reader can make nothing of them, but, still, the cultural and historical realities of Lithuania do furnish the pieces with often important concrete details, and it seems only helpful for readers to be reminded of the recent history of Lithuania and the aftermath of independence, to prepare them for the role these realities play in the book they’re reading.
I, for one, found myself as well somewhat taken aback by the narrator’s frequent observations regarding the influence of American literature and culture. Perhaps this derives from the narrator/author’s time spent living in the United States, but it also indicates a larger American influence in contemporary Lithuania, since we must presume that Radvilaviciute’s Lithuanian readers recognize the books, movies, and music to which the narrator so freely refers. While some readers will find these references reassuring in their familiarity, others could consider them equally peculiar. Is American culture indeed so pervasive that it reaches a country that only twenty years ago officially had little access to it? Is that very pervasiveness actually a kind of reaction against those previous restrictions, as well as the remaining Russian cultural legacy? I myself don’t really know the answers to these questions, but I enjoyed Those Whom I Would Like to Meet Again so much that, in adding to my ability to understand the writer’s tacit assumptions and the specific milieu in which they arise, some provisional answers to them accompanying the publication of the book would only make it that much more readily enjoyable.