Introducing Antanas Škėma
Antanas Škėma was born in 1910, at a time of increasing self-determination for the Lithuanian people. Over the course of his life, he would see the elevation and suppression of his culture under a series of oppressive regimes. He started out working in the Lithuanian State Theatre as an actor and director, before fleeing to Germany during the Second World War, where he continued to work in drama before eventually emigrating to America in 1949.
Taking a menial job as a lift operator to focus on his craft, Škėma became involved with various exile cultural activities, meeting up with fellow Lithuanians and keeping his language alive through pamphlets and stage productions. Back in the Soviet Union, learning Russian was mandatorily enforced, and simply speaking Lithuanian became a mode of resistance, something to be done at home and preserved. This atmosphere birthed the publication of White Shroud (Balta drobulė, 1958).
The novel, great swathes of which are doubtlessly autobiographical, details the mental decline of its protagonist Antanas Garšva. Told through a breakneck, stream of consciousness style, with frequent historical allusions and narrative digressions, the book flits between continents in a Joycean tumble as it jerks the reader into the mind of a struggling émigré poet. Through his eyes we explore a ferociously written account of a life lived through culture, unrequited love, the alienation that so often accompanies creativity, as well as the immigrant experience in an increasingly modern world. The novel’s setting may now be antiquated, but the experiences its characters describe hold universal resonance.
On its original publication the novel provoked vivid literary discussions, with some reviewers calling it obscene, while most critics agreed that it was an attempt to take the Lithuanian novel out of its conservative past. Škėma has since been understood as an ambassador for Lithuanian Modernism and its influence on his native culture has been long lasting. Jonas Mekas (celebrated Lithuanian film-maker) has cited Škėma as an influence and the novel has been adapted for the stage numerous times. It is still being taught in schools today.
Despite all this, Škėma is still relatively unknown outside of Lithuanian cultural circles. This translation will be the first time that his magnum opus will have the chance to be appreciated by an English-speaking readership.
Martynas Noreika is an artist and writer based in Glasgow. He studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London and is currently working on his first novel.