White Shroud

White Shroud


by Antanas Škėma
translated by Karla Gruodis

Pages: 180 (approx.)
ISBN: 978-1-908251-84-8
Dimensions: 210 x 140 mm
Publication: 1 March 2018

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White Shroud (Balta drobulė, 1958) is considered by many as the most important work of modernist fiction in Lithuanian. Drawing heavily on the author’s own refugee and immigrant experience, this psychological, stream-of-consciousness work tells the story of an émigré poet working as an elevator operator in a large New York hotel during the mid-1950s. Using multiple narrative voices and streams, the novel moves through sharply contrasting settings and stages in the narrator’s life in Lithuania before and during World War II, returning always to New York and the recent immigrant’s struggle to adapt to a completely different, and indifferent, modern world. Strong characters and evocative utterances convey how historical context shapes language and consciousness, breaking down any stable sense of self.

As in other major modernist works, Škėma uses language and allusion to destabilise. Narrative, voice and language shift continuously, capturing the anti-hero’s psychological and cultural disorientation — the complexity of experience in a modern world where, in Yeats’ words, “the centre cannot hold.” Like the author’s, Garšva’s frame of reference is vast — quotes from French arias, Kafka and American culture collide with visceral memories of archaic Lithuanian folk song. Garšva’s use of poignant and comical émigré slang in his interactions captures the ironies and absurdities of the immigrant’s situation. By the end of the novel, further grammatical and linguistic disarray mirrors the final unravelling of Garšva’s mind as he descends into madness.

Like all powerful fiction, this novel draws the reader into an intimate, culturally and historically specific world to explore universal human themes of selfhood, alienation, creativity and cultural difference. This English translation promises to appeal to various audiences: readers of modernist and world literature, scholars of Baltic literature and refugee studies, and members of the Lithuanian diaspora unable to access this novel in Lithuanian. Written from the perspective of a newcomer to an Anglophone country, White Shroud encourages readers to better understand the complexities of immigrant life.

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"White Shroud is a novel of tantalising poetic beauty, masterful in its setup and with touching characters. A true discovery!" – Hartmut Buchholz, Badische Zeitung

"White Shroud is a well-written, powerful and musical testimony of modernity, and its protagonist’s fate mirrors that of an entire nation. […] In breathless, abrupt episodes Antanas Škėma, who died in 1961 in a car accident, sends Garšva through a number of days and nights in New York. […] The world is turning, and the novel […] turns even faster." – Jörg Plath, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

"This great novel shows how brittle an immigrant life is. […] White Shroud is not only relevant for Lithuania. This novel is world-class." – Judith Leister, Saarländischer Rundfunk

"The novel was born during the diaspora and yet it is full of associations of the Lithuanian provenance. But never nostalgically backwards. […] White Shroud is a breath-taking novel leading into chasms and caves, interlacing past and present, oscillating between a mythological and an avant-garde tone." – Lerke von Saalfeld, Deutschlandfunk

"It’s astonishing how little antiquated this novel comes across today. […] Škėma can be ironic and sarcastic, but also seriously existentialist and even sentimental. This novel is not an easily sung melody, but a many-voiced symphony – a polyphony that is enjoyable to follow." – Jochen Schimmang, TAZ

"The autobiographic novel White Shroud by Lithuanian author and playwright Antanas Škėma, written in New York between 1952 and 1954, provides deep insights into the soul of traumatised humans. Now, 60 years later, this eloquently and associatively written novel is more topical than ever." – Cornelia Zetsche, BR2

"Concisely, accurately, and in a neutral manner, Antanas Škėma depicts the chasms his protagonist must face – in independent Lithuania, in the Second World War, in a country first occupied by the Soviets, then the Germans, and then the Soviets yet again. The text reverberates with the old questions: Who am I, who was I? […] It opens a gateway to Lithuanian literature much too little explored until this day." – Gisela Erbslöh, SWR

"With powerful eloquence and poetry the author, deceased in 1961, spreads out a most unpoetic life. […] The up and down of the elevator becomes a metaphor for life. And time stretches out between the floors. It is pervaded by associative memories that drive the novel and its protagonist more and more mercilessly towards a reckoning – with himself and all those writing maniacs who infected the Lithuanian post-war exile literature with a virus that glorified history in the light of nationalistic patriotism." – Mirko Schwanitz, Bayerischer Rundfunk

"The gripping episodes make up a puzzle of the 20th century, depicted by Škėma with a powerful abundance of language – a whirl of perceptions and memories that descend upon Garšva and which he struggles to handle with his repeated literary attempts. Impressions of the streets of New York, song lyrics and reminiscences of Lithuania associatively surge into the text, urging and besieging the protagonist. White Shroud also tells a story of the author’s responsibility in an uncertain world, of forms of assimilation and possibilities of resistance. […] A novel of dark beauty and filled with existential questions that remain unanswered to the present day." – from Guggolz Verlag, the publisher of the German translation of White Shroud

Reviews translated from German into English by Marie-Bernadette Rollins