To Mark Valentine
‘I had never before then dreamed that I would become interested in Estonia or bourgeois democracy. Nevertheless, I kept listening to his loving tales of twenty free years of that unsensational, work-loving small people. I heard about the principles of the Estonian Constitution, modelled on the best European examples and how their One-House Parliament of one hundred members had worked.’– Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
Modern Estonian poems quoted here are from The Literary Review Quarterly, edited by Clarence R. Decker and Charles Angoff (Fair-leigh Dickinson University, 1965). For more ancient verses I am indebted to The Great Bear, edited by L. Honko, S. Timonen, M. Branch and K. Bosley (Finnish Literary Society, 1993), given me in kindness by Robin Ashenden. I am indebted to Estonia (Allen and Unwin, 1938), by my former history teacher, J. Hampden Jackson; to Ian Thomson’s Sailing to Tallinn (London Magazine, edited by Alan Ross, 1989); and to Stefan George: Poems, translated by Carol North Valhope and Ernst Morwitz (Kegan Paul, 1944). For Rilke, I owe much to the translations by J. B. Leishman, published by the Hogarth Press. Ogygia, several times mentioned, is, of course, Calypso’s island in the Odyssey, Calypso herself mentioned in Aleksis Rannit’s poem ‘On the Island of Ogygia’, quoted in the text. Every effort has been made to contact copyright holders. If any who have not been acknowledged wish to get in touch they may contact me care of my publishers.
Wilfrid’s hands were soothing, as though caressing a bird, while containing skills in calligraphy and sculpture. In the extremity of winter 1944 he had no time for either.
Amongst the incalculable inmates of Meinnenberg language had largely dwindled to brusque signs and animal grunts for food and sexual bargaining. Song could be more common than speech – raucous, often wordless hymn tunes and ditties popular throughout Europe. They would begin, then subside to vague hummings, left unfinished like so much else. Discussion had become useless or incriminating, though in sudden disputes almost forgotten words reappeared – Crocodile, Hannibal, Jesuit – yelled with barbaric vehemence otherwise lacking in the listless, undernourished, cunning and scared. Some rages seemed a disguise for those with several languages, though risking none of them, while occasionally someone whistled a fragment of Mozart or exhibited a graceful gesture, unable to resist impulses from former days.
At times Wilfrid could be likened to the shaman, revered in the North long into the Christian Era, advising, healing, confronting demons, exorcizing omens. His authority, more assiduous than assertive, made him appear taller than he really was. His slender physique looked deceptively fragile, for he worked longer than any, while, within grime and shabbiness, retaining a certain elegance with carelessly worn scarves and clean overalls. Fastidious, gently enquiring, he possessed courtesy without condescension. Listening to suggestions, more often to complaints, debating rudimentary morals with bully or thief, he almost always appeared to be withholding a smile only out of respect for the occasion.
Such restraint could nevertheless entrap. Once, a Griefer, the Grabber, tried to ingratiate by insinuating that one couple were secret Jews. At the next communal meeting, Wilfrid, his smile breaking free, praised the two for their honourable lineage, casually adding that the Grabber might disagree. He was heard in silence, but, after a night scuffle, the Grabber vanished.
Sometimes, as if to himself, Wilfrid would quote some poem, in one of which statues began to hear, stillness soften to its own music, grotesquely at odds with the pared-down Meinnenberg existence. Though at ease even with the most degenerate, he was intimate only with himself.
The intake remained constant: deaths from disease, exhaustion, gangrene, suicide were replaced by fugitives, deserters, unclassifiables. Over a million Poles and Balts had been deported to the USSR, but, after Stalingrad, the Red counter-attack somewhat loosened civilian grip. Here, polyglots of diverse backgrounds were equally unshaven, soiled, ageing prematurely. Children withered most quickly, and were culled by malnutrition and tuberculosis. Germans had been trained by: Don’t think. The Führer will think for you. A French child’s presence was inexplicable, for though he worked willingly he never spoke, until dying, when he uttered very distinctly, ‘C’est évidemment un personage d’importance’, finally murmuring, ‘J’espère.’
Most were ground down to a beaten, almost witless blur, evolving into another Europe, a reluctant, suspicious unity. They breathed an atmosphere of an aimless, monotonous holiday, raw fact and wavering fantasy inextricably competing, a continual babble suggesting a slum in the last days of imperial Rome. The failure of Count von Stauffenberg’s attempt to kill Hitler in the July Plot, though known, interested very few, so numbed were curiosity and hope.
A girl had been sold by her father for a sack of potatoes; a man, almost blinded by noxious liquor from a secret still, unexpectedly boasted that he had founded a bank. Meanwhile, battles still demolished East Prussia, though Berlin must soon fall. ‘I intend to plunder,’ the Reichsmarschall had declared in his glory, ‘and plunder thoroughly’, though plunder was the least atrocity we awaited. Simultaneously, we heard rumours of a glittering, phantasmagorical festival for his birthday, extravagance unlimited, medieval costumes, blaring music, courtly dances, streams of wine, grandiose roasts from days and nights of hunting, while alien bombers flew over regions left undefended.
We ourselves lingered in furtive paralysis, Displaced Persons in a nether world where colours, laughter, juicy food were ill-remembered romance, while frontiers toppled and eastern hordes returned.
The monotony was occasionally relieved by extra rations, dubiously procured, even by a ‘ball’, the dancers more intent on propping each other up than in risking free movement, accompanied by a mouth-organ and a drum improvised from old tin.
Clawing for survival, all must learn the tricks. To dither might ensure starvation or assault. At food doles, the experienced waited, the last drops of soup being thicker. Details, once small, were magnified: a ribbon, dirty crust, stick, had the richness once held by coins. A spasm of pain or fatigue could be as menacing as a stranger. As if in a fairy-tale, everything was something else: talisman, omen, warning. Like artists, we studied others’ bodies, the language of eyes, mouths, hands. A limp, groan, scar, twitch signalled a threat or appeal. Our own faces we forgot. Before fleeing, the SS had forbidden mirrors and confiscated forks, knives, spectacles. A face with remnants of beauty was a perilous target.
A child imagines himself special, the universe fining down to his whims. At mirrors, I slowly, ceremoniously, put fingers to my lips, hiding the extraordinary from those I most loved. A precaution against losing that love, which would hurt like a whip or iodine.
Like a fox, I had my domain, jealously guarded, a turret perched above the large, rambling Manor, its thick, ochred chimneys narrowing towards the top. From there, like an Emperor Earth, I surveyed the neat, disciplined park encircled by pasture bordered by Lake – ‘the Lady’ – and Forest both spread under huge skies to lonely farms and, across flat marsh, to the Sound.
Tiny squeaks and patters in the roof were outriders from Forest, to be withstood by woodman’s vigilance.
Trees, like birds, had voices: one old gardener could hear the different replies of beech, willow, aspen, oaks, pine to the wind. Any tree, even when silent, had a story. Trees had lives, thus, like animals and, with the moon aglow, thoughts.Within each tree was a face. A woodcutter, felling an oak, saw a tissuous form escaping, hiding in air. Forest had recesses hinting at dangers, questions unanswered, perhaps unanswerable, save, of course, by trees, questions I never asked, fearing to be thought stupid.Words, when uttered, in unpleasant magic transformed private knowledge to the ridiculous.
I flinched at knowing too much, instinctively wanting trees, animals, people, particularly myself, to preserve mystery. On days still as paint, trees might yet stir and rustle, which, in tales, betokened presences, perhaps imaginary though watchful. Exploring, I glimpsed fleeting shapes and once heard distant drumbeats, or Forest’s heart. Forest was outpost of the giant, wooded North that had repulsed Rome. Southwards, in another forest, the German, Arminius, had for ever defeated the legions of Caesar Augustus.
So often had Charlemagne’s Franks invaded Livonia that when an uncle mentioned the Flight from the Franc, I could only imagine danger from a new Charlemagne.
Forest paths disappeared into fern and scrub. I glimpsed the woodpecker’s crimson crown, the yellow of a fallen aspen. In a clearing stood a lofty, irregular boulder, deeply grooved, with vague shoulders. We called it Fenris’ Grave, though villagers named it differently, incomprehensibly. Fenris? The wolf, son of wicked Loki, fated to devour Allfather Wotan at Ragnarok, the Last Battle, when the world shook with flame, sun and moon perished. I see from afar the downfall of the Fighting Gods. Heimdall, Valhalla’s watchman, had lost a hand chaining Fenris, to delay disaster. He also had nine mothers, an unenviable asset, the Herr General considered. Fenris might still lie under the dense, upright stone, struggling to wrench himself free. I cherished my engraving of an ancestor clasping Thor, though Father slightly spoilt it by relating it to an Estonian, anti-German caricature. Explanations killed. After dark the Night Mare rode the sky.Why? No matter.
The paths might be preparing surprise, perhaps ambush by Forest Uncle, immemorial Bear or some Master of the Forest, bark crusted or disguised as an elk. Where paths crossed in sudden embrace a patch of air, peculiarly colourless, might disclose a squat, grinning figure, greenish, unearthly, peaked face wrinkled as a map, with a riddle, warning or malicious joke.
When snow fell, servants chuckled that beds were being made in heaven; woodmen said that lightning created mushrooms.
Forest Uncle excited me more than lightning or Fenris. Wars occurred because people had once been bears, and Forest Uncle was more real than many visitors and relatives. Bears had actually vanished but, like Christ, might return. A cook was said to have been dismissed for ‘Bear Dancing’ in the library, regarded with awe and alarm in the kitchen, as though it were a temple of Loki and at very least storing strange knowledge. Our steward, Herr Max, grander and more aloof than Father, declared that the silence of books was terrible.
In Baltic legend people prayed for deliverance from Turks, little better than bears.Yet Forest Uncle, if capricious as God, protected trees, birds, animals and could glisten like the weather-cock over the stables, which could fly to the moon when dusk turned green. Conceivably, a prowler might stumble against him in darkness. He was known to have fathered a child in a distant village, as indeed had the moon. Undeniably, the folk there were large, shaggy, surly. The mother had died giving birth to ‘large claws’.
Once I saw, though never rediscovered, a tree stump, its surface flat as a plate, reputed to expect offerings to Forest Uncle, and a circlet of wild violets was undeniably rotting near by. Traditionally, he demanded the first fish or bird killed on St George’s Day. Under the Weeping Oak, by the Lake, virgins – very scarce, grumbled the housekeeper – were said to sing for lovers with dead fathers and full purses.
In Forest, silences were less than silent, shadows more intense. Kitchen folk spoke of a lost shrine to the Lady, washed once annually, reclothed, garlanded, standing rigid while a girl was drowned. Lake, wide, darkly fringed by thickets, thus covered scores of bodies, her silvery hazes the breath of the dead. Sometimes the water shuddered, as if a dripping head, scaled and unblinking, might break surface. Further away, in the Sound, children whispered about a snake encircling the world. ‘Rubbish,’ Mother said. ‘Nonsense, dear, but not rubbish.’ Father’s quiet tones implied rebuke.
Telephone wires streaked everywhere, to Reval, Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Riga. Moscow? Better not ask.
From my Turret I saw the Pole star, which an ostler called Nail of the Sky, fixed above the giant tree or mountain upholding the universe. Once I saw, or thought I saw, a grey tower looming above trees but never rediscovered it, despite frequent attempts. Poems, however, showed that what did not exist could nevertheless be real, like the world-snake.
I read of the betrayal of Baldur, young and beloved, from whom our Baltic was named. Baldur, Redeemer, Shining One. Watching bundles of rain rolling in from the Sound, I rejoiced that he had survived Ragnarok, and I strove to connect him with those incessant in adult talk, in some Other World beyond the day: the Umbrella Bearer; the Cripple in the White House; the Champagne Baron; the Reichsmarschall; the Gutter King; the Moscow Ogre; Frau Simpson, the American. Adults were always busy, smiling, handshaking, whispering, allowing me to enjoy village auction-fairs, with rickety stalls piled with shoes, jerkins, old spades, scythes, querns, where dancers in broad black hats, red shirts, yellow skirts and breeches formed circles to croaks and squeals from queerly shaped instruments. Youths hitherto loud and boastful slunk into a certain tent I never dared approach, once hearing a woman’s voice from within. ‘You shouldn’t drink from the sea, darling; it’s touched by sailors ‘whatnots.’
Mindful of the farrier’s warning that the sky played tricks, I watched night swirling with polar tints, iced reds and greens, flimsy blues, billowing in masses, splintering into whites and yellows, flashing far away, simultaneously glimmering in our ponds.
Under certain lights, tree, water, bird, like portraits, were about to utter the extraordinary.
The estate was much diminished after Estonia’s secession from Russia, following an interregnum during which Berlin schemed for Baltic kingdoms, Estonia, like its sisters, a Hohenzollern Fürstentum, outflings of ‘Germania’ beloved by poets and singers.
My family and friends, of German ancestry, retained assumptions still feudal, our dependants the grandchildren of serfs. Though formally Estonian, the Germanic caste, High Folk, still considered itself proconsular. One neighbour had formerly been entitled to style himself Hereditary Imperial Councillor and sometimes still did so. Father once said that Germans were natural rulers, without disclosing whether he approved.