Latvian Literature

By | March 11, 2022
  1. From the origins to the 18th century

The history of Latvian literature begins with the vast heritage of oral culture represented by the dainas, popular songs, which were sung in the pagan Baltia (Baltic cultural and linguistic area), in Livonia as in Lithuania, before Europe saw the birth of troubadours, the Minnesänger, Dante and G. Chaucer; characterized by accentuated lyricism, they are generally very short compositions, with a prevalence of natural and familiar themes, sometimes satirical or warlike. As in the rest of Baltia, interest in the language of the people grew considerably in Livonia in the second half of the 16th century, favored by the advent of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. The first Latvian book, a translation of the Catechismus Catholicorum, dates back to these yearsby P. Canisius, which appeared in Vilnius in 1585 (perhaps the work of E. Tolgsdorf). Important was the work of the Latvian G. Elgers, author of religious songs, a Catechism and a great Polono-Latin-lottavicum Dictionarium which appeared posthumously (1683). In recent years there are also the efforts of the Jesuits to found a polyglot university in Livonia.

The real development of Latvian literature, however, occurred in the following 17th century, when the northernmost part of ancient Livonia passed to the Swedes. In this period, the works of the humanist J. Mancelis, composed in the Latvian language, with the German title Lettus, das ist Wortbuch sampt angehengtem täglichen Gebrauch der lettischen sprache (1638) and Langgewunschte Lettische Postill (1654) were printed ; those of the Curonian C. Fürecker and E. Glück, first translator of the Bible in Latvian (1689). The end of the 17th century. it is instead characterized by the production of grammatical and lexical works: the Curonian J. Langius wrote a Latvian-German dictionary and a Latvian grammar in German; H. Adolphy published a grammar which served as a model for his successors for over a century; J. Wischmann wrote about poetics.

The 18th century. it is characterized by narrative and didactic works based on the ideas of the German Enlightenment; among the authors of the period stands GF Stenders, translator of Aesop and other classics, as well as author of treatises on natural sciences, mathematics, cosmology, etc.; his son A. Stender wrote the first Latvian comedy (1790). G. Merkel (18th-19th century) is known for the work Die Letten (“The Latvians”, 1796) which introduced the people Latvian in the world; A. Bielenstein (19th century) was the author of a monumental scientific grammar of Latvian. Lesser known authors of this period include: M. Stobe, KF Watson, KG Elverfeld, K. Hugenberger; all, more or less, contributed to preparing the subsequent so-called tautisks, that is, national period. During these years JG Herder took a passionate interest in Latvian culture, who stayed in Königsberg and Rīga (1762-69) and studied popular poetry.

  1. From the 19th century. to independence

The historical revival of the Latvian nation is usually dated to 1856, when the so-called Jaunlatvieši (“Young Latvians”), led by K. Valdemārs, promoted periodic meetings in which literature, art, but also politics were discussed; their sympathies went to the national movement, more or less underground, which until then had always been fought by Tsarist Russia, an ally of the landowner nobility of German origin. Before returning to his homeland and finally moving to Moscow, Valdemārs studied in St. Petersburg, where he managed to publish a newspaper in Latvian, Pēterburgas Avīzes (“Petersburg Newspaper”, 1862-65). Among the students who supported the ideals of the Young Latvians are: J. Alunāns, poet and linguist of the movement; K. Barons, who collected and published dainas throughout his life; F. Brīvzemnieks and A. Lerchis-Puškaitis, collectors and authors of fables, sagas and riddles; G. von Mannteufel was industrious in Letgallia. Opposition to the Young Latvians came from the more moderate background of evangelical theologians and was represented by the pastor and writer J. Neikens. In 1869 the Latvian Society of Rīga was founded which immediately became the center of the intellectual life of the national rebirth movement; new Latvian newspapers appear and the figure of the publicist and polemicist A. Kronvalds stands out. The end of the 19th century. it is characterized by the adhesion to late-romantic artistic expressions, where heroes of the mythical past and the struggles against the settlements of the Teutonic Knights of the 13th century. they constituted the preferred matter; among the authors we remember above all the poet Auseklis; A. Pumpurs, author of the epic poem Lāčplēsis (1888), that is the “bear ripper”, name of the hero protagonist; Matīss and Reinis Kaudzīte, authors of the satirical novel Mērnieku laiki (“The times of the surveyors”, 1879); A. Alunāns, initiator of the national theater.

Towards the end of the century, the new socialist ideas, those of the literary movements of the West, as well as of philosophies imported from abroad, find expression in the now growing Latvian press. Meanwhile the national movement grew and the age-old privileges possessed by the Baltic barons were questioned. In literature this favored the affirmation of realism and naturalism; among the most important authors we should mention J. Poruks for the original prose inspired by F. Nietzsche and H. Ibsen; R. Blaumanis, A. Brigader ; in poetry, E. Veidenbaums. The national poet J. Rainis belonged to the socialist soul, which among other things favored the rise of many clandestine organizations and led to the revolution of 1905.and his partner Aspasia; For a long time in exile in Switzerland, they were able to return home only after the declaration of independence. In this context, the attempt to detach Latvian culture from the double Russian and German influence is produced, and a more marked orientation towards Romance cultures (especially E. Virza and E. Stērste) is manifested, in the effort to give life to an art national high level. To the rich pleiad of authors influenced by Russian symbolism belonged: V. Eglītis, J. Akurāters, K. Skalbe, J. Jaunsudrabiņš, K. Jēkabsons, K. Štrāls, K. Krūza, A. Austriņš, V. Dambergs. Worthy of mention is the novel by E. Virza Straumēni, from the name of a Semgallia farm that becomes a symbol for a novel-epic of rural life.

  1. From independence to Soviet and post-Soviet times (20th-21st century)

With the independence of the Republic of Latvia (1918), Latvian culture aims to relocate itself in the European context. The main literary current of the time was expressionism, represented by the poets P. Ērmanis, J. Sudrabkalns (proclaimed tautas dzejnieks “poet of the people” in the new Soviet order), V. Grēviņš, J. Roze, A. Dāle, J Ziemeļnieks and J. Grots. The young generation of writers was divided into two groups that were headed by the left-wing magazine Jauno Trauksme (“Young People’s Alarm”, 1928-31), and by the Zaļā vārna circle . (“The Green Crow”), nationalist. Important figures of the first orientation were the poet A. Čaks, reformer of the metric structure of the Latvian verse, J. Plaudis, E. Ādamsons, J. Medenis, V. Cedriņs. Female opera is represented by A. Baumane, A. Skujiņa, M. Bendrupe and V. Stēlerte. Among the narrators we remember A. Grīns and K. Zariņš for the historical novel, J. Ezeriņš for the short stories, as well as A. Eglītis and A. Niedra. In literary criticism Z. Mauriņa stood out.

With the worsening of the political situation in the years 1940-44, and with the annexation of the three Baltic states to the USSR, a ‘literature of emigration’ (in Germany, Sweden, USA and Canada) developed. At home, on the other hand, the realism of social commitment that soon merged into ‘socialist realism’ essentially survived. Among the writers of this period we remember E. Birznieks-Upitis, author of short stories and memorial works; S. Edžus, revolutionary activist; the poets A. Arājs-Bērce and Latvia Paegle ; the essayist R. Pelše; the novelist E. Eferts-Klusais. The main representative until the 1950s was A. Upīts, prolific storyteller, Stalin prize for literature. The novelists V. Lācis are still remembered; A. Sakse; J. Grants; Z. Grīva; the poets P. Vilips, A. Grigulis, J. Vanags, A. Balodis, F. Rokpelnis.

From the 1960s new trends appeared: the committed opera by M. Kempe ; the analytical poetry of I. Ziedonis; the philosophical one of O. Vācietis ; the sensitive to historical and folkloric themes of I. Auziņš. In fiction A. Jansons, J. Kalniņš, V. Lams, V. Spāre, Z. Skujiņš, A. Bels, I. Indrāne, followed the psychological current. Starting from the 1970s, the work of the poet J. Peters, full of historical motifs, that of K. Skuyenieks, and, finally, of P. Brūveris, is noted.

The events that, at the beginning of the 1990s, led to the independence of the country, have also shaken the publishing landscape with the publication of works previously censored, and of numerous new magazines, while the narrative has been characterized on the basis of two privileged lines: publication of historical-memorial works of the protagonists of the events of the 1930s and 1940s and of emigration; reacquisition of the literary heritage of the Latvian exiled communities.

Latvian Literature