In Vilnius, you cannot fail to notice the Baroque facades of the churches, dancing like the Baltic sea waves, cornices breaking in foam of stucco ornaments. Even the clouds above the bell towers seem worthy of an Old Master paintbrush. During the years of Soviet occupation many of these churches were turned into warehouses, garages and prisons. The Old Town, from which most of native inhabitants were expelled after World War II was treated like an empty shell without memories. These were to be replaced with new Soviet propaganda, enforced by selective historical amnesia. The people who built the city, lived and loved in it for centuries were to be portrayed as the ‘class enemies’, ‘assimilated, degenerate nobility, who brought the state to a collapse in 1795’ when it was swallowed by the Russian empire.
This year, when Lithuania is celebrating its centenary of freedom from the Russian empire, I realized that the only thing that is unchanged in Vilnius from the mid-17th century, where I start my Silva Rerum novels, is the sound of the Cathedral bell. It is the same as when the French founder Jean de la Marche (or Delamars as he was called) put it there. It still deep, sonorous – like the Latin language that sounded in the nearby university, like the even more archaic Lithuanian. Sometimes the most ephemeral things are the most lasting. Delamars is one of the characters in my novel, and his bells toll in the tetralogy finale too – for the world that ends. The architect Johann Christoph Glaubitz, who designed most of the churches, the students and Jesuit professors of Vilnius university (and especially one of them, a mathematician who spent five years in London), the stubborn nuns, matriarchs of the families who lost their husbands and sons in wars, Jewish doctors, the Gaon of Vilna, nobles and the peasants – those are the people whose stories emerge from the sound of the bell, a church pew or a painting, an old Latin-English dictionary, a diamond earring, or a gold watch with hands eaten by rust, an undelivered letter, or a silva rerum – a family chronicle book, which translates as ‘the forest of things’. Indeed these objects, buildings and streets each have a story, a human fate behind them, and they survive their owners who long ago turned to dust. I tried to revive them in my novels, to capture their stories. Writing them down, the ephemeral becomes lasting.
The Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – will be the Market Focus for the London Book Fair 2018 (10th – 12th April). Kristina Sabaliauskaitė will be the Lithuanian ‘Author of the Day’.
Dr. Kristina Sabaliauskaitė is an art historian and one of the most prominent contemporary Lithuanian writers. Born in Vilnius, she has been based in London since 2002. She worked as a foreign correspondent in London and columnist for Lithuania’s biggest daily newspaper until 2010.
Photo: Paulius Gasiūnas.
Kristina Sabaliauskaitė at the St.John’s University church bell tower