LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 22, No.2 - Summer 1976
Editors of this issue: Bronius Vaškelis
Copyright © 1976 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
THE NAKED EYE
Some Aspects of the Prose of Mykolas Sluckis
College Ahuntsic, Montreal
My life is beginning to coincide dangerously with what one calls vacation or imagination. I want unity and I am torn into pieces... I cannot give all of myself... And what I get is not enough! So where is the real "I"?
There Is No Peace in My Harbor, p. 354.
The quotation comes from a novel by Mykolas Sluckis, one of the most significant contemporary writers of Lithuania.* Having written seven collections of short stories and three novels, he is an established author and a challenging one it is difficult to make up one's mind about him. There are writers who discover early in their careers their weak and strong points and then proceed to work carefully in the fields most familiar and the easiest for their talent. Then, there are the searchers, restless and eager to experiment with forms, to define over and over again their creative ego. In the continuous fight to master their own talent and imagination they sometimes win victories that affect the growth and evolution of the whole literature of a nation. Such an author is Mykolas Sluckis.
There have been several important changes in the prose of postwar Lithuania, involving both content and form. The conflicts and the traumas of the immediate postwar period, the painful emergence of new social classes and new patterns of behavior have given place to a preoccupation with the quality of peace, the routine of everyday existence. Today, it is difficult to distinguish between friends and enemies. The moral, didactic issues of the classic social realism novel are often replaced by questions of the importance of personal judgment. The social and political aims of society at large have given way to considerations of the personal goals of an individual. Where once the heroes were concerned with solutions to concrete problems, now there is a painful analysis of ambiguities in human relationships. The antihero emerged trying only to survive, not to conquer. Where once the content of the novel was everything and all experimentation with form highly suspect, the new prose writers are more and more interested in the possibilities of different forms. Mykolas Sluckis, a writer in love with the colors, shapes, surfaces of ordinary life, a writer with an acute, sensual perception of reality, has been a major influence in these changes.
We shall try to look at the major problems of the people we meet in the novels and short stories of Sluckis and the most striking aspects of his style.
If one should look for a very simple definition of the state of mind of Sluckis' characters, one probably would conclude that they live in a state of small, nagging fears. Fear is the enemy. Fear that paralyzes action and corrupts understanding. It comes not from the outside circumstances but rather from the facts over which the individual has little or no control. Sluckis does not show us people in extreme or critical situations. Fear as a way of life interests him.
His first novel Staircase to Heaven deals with the frustrations of a young idealist, Jaunius, impatient with the burden of the past that he is forced to carry. The aftermath of war has left a spectra of hunger in the minds of the older people he meets and lives with. The war has also left a web of unsettled accounts in which Jaunius is trapped while trying to create a life of his own. He becomes a pawn in a game he cannot control or completely understand. Old betrayals and antagonisms smolder around him and he learns that the past is continuously present and the price of understanding it is often guilt. Jaunius survives because of the vitality of youth and because be accepts life with his emotional scars.
In the second novel, Adam's Apple, the hero, Kamanis, carries everywhere with him the image of his father, a monster of selfishness, which he can neither reject nor accept as part of his own destiny. This image paralyzes his will to live and to make decisions, comes close to wrecking his marriage and makes him a failure in his own eyes.
Fear, inspired by the past, is an inhibiting factor in the psychological portraits of Sluckis. Rather than react to it, his characters seem to freeze. It accounts for their difficulty in making even small decisions.
Another of the forces of fear is the fear of the witness. In the long novella "The Passions of Strangers," the simple and honest mind of a young peasant girl observes the clash of violent passions among the members of the family for whom she works. Terrifying in the brutal intensity of their loves and hates, they come to her to exteriorize the inner darkness that engulfs them. The fear of not understanding the passions of others, in this story, reaches the proportions of psychological terror. In the small, subdued story, "A Cup of Tea," the heroine, Vida, is overwhelmed by a mixture of bitterness and sorrow when she hears her rival talk of her suffering in the next room. Vida is awakened to a new understanding but also to a sense of hopelessness having seen the mask slip and the reality behind it, what can one do? Offer a cup of tea? Witnesses of each other's lives, the characters of Sluckis are aware that to know others would require a lowering of one's defenses, exposing one's own vulnerability. They fear the complexity of others, knowing that people have more than one face and not knowing to which they should react. Erikienė in Adam's Apple is a woman who lives off scandals, the vices and the superficiality of society women, and she is also a woman who once risked her life to save others. Genovaitė, the heroine of this novel, is typical of Sluckis' characters the mystery of personality both attracts and repels her. The ambiguity of Erikienė frightens her and she wants to escape.
Then, there are the fears that accompany the threats against the small security created by the routine, the preoccupations of day-to-day living. This security can be shattered by a word, a smile, a moment of silence. A good example is "Do Not Forget the Stork," which concentrates on the thoughts of a young man whose world consists only of things he can buy. During the drive in the country, this secure, plastic world is shattered by a child's demand to be shown a live stork. It is something that cannot be bought. The story ironies the materialistic outlook; it shows that fear of loss of control when familiar truths crumble faced with the childish, the simple truth.
The different fears and ambiguities that are the texture of relationships between characters are, in fact, the themes of all three of Sluckis' novels. There are no elaborate plots, no great decisions to be made, no violent conflicts, and no grave consequences. The author is interested not so much in building up the structure of his novel as he is in examining all the different psychological implications that one small and simple human action can have. The plot of Adam's Apple is one day in the life of a scientist facing a crisis in his marriage. He tries to run away from life, wants to avoid the moral responsibility of bringing children into a corrupt world; his wife loves life passionately, wants children. They leave in the morning for work and meet again at night. Nothing much happens during that day many unfinished phone calls, a meeting with an opportunist who has become the superior of the hero by stealing the latter's ideas, the wife tries on a new dress. The story of their marriage is shown through flashbacks.
Kamanis and Genovaitė are not particularly original or fascinating characters. They are indecisive and guilt-ridden. Above all else, they are doubters. Both continuously question their own actions. They constantly agonize over whether they have correctly interpreted a word, a smile, a silence. They are, if one may say so, painfully aware people aware of hidden meanings, nuances of mood, two or more possible answers to every question. Nervous, ultrasensitive, imaginative people, they are forced by the tension between them to live in a perpetual state of conflict with their surroundings. The indifferent, anonymous, materialistic world in which they live requires of them, as, of course, it does of everyone else, hundreds of small compromises and humiliations. The difference between them and other characters in the novel is that they reject the easy lies that others use for comfort. They and the other characters created by Sluckis captivate the reader not by the dimensions of their actions of profundity of their sentiments but by the authenticity of their self-perception. Their fight to save their relationship and guard it as a shelter and not to sacrifice their own integrity is, essentially, the great theme of the writers of our century in the words of Arthur Miller how can a man make of the outside world a home?
With fears, doubts, and anxieties invading their minds, the characters of Sluckis have a difficult time relating to others. This problem and its variations form the content of the third novel There Is No Peace in My Harbor. It is a story of a man who must find a way to integrate in himself his creative life and his personal life and who finds that impossible to do. Romualdas, a film-maker is not content simply with recording reality but aspires to interpret it. He is married to a young, self-indulgent, capricious, and amoral woman, Miglė, who manipulates him through his senses. Throughout the novel the hero is torn between two ways of life: excitement, represented by Miglė, and work and serenity, represented by a former sweetheart, Renata. The evolution in the novel consists of his repeated attempts to understand what these two women represent to him and what, in fact, does he want?
The greatest part of the novel deals with the way Romualdas sees objects, events, and people. As was mentioned before, Sluckis' characters have an extremely sharp perception of physical reality, and in Romualdas this is carried to an almost abnormal degree. He suffers from a state of what one could call "inflamed imagination." What touches his senses vibrates in his memory and often distorts his image of people. The best example is Miglė as seen through his eyes. He sees her in detail the smell of perfume, the burning white of a summer's dress, a hand lying on the side of a chair, lips chapped by the sea-wind, taste for ice-cream and black coffee, a certain intonation of her laughter... The details, somehow, do not add up to a whole personality. What is Miglė? A superficial creature of pleasure, a child-woman, spoiled and without direction, a love-object, an inspiration, or, perhaps first, a simple woman who wants the simple pleasures of life. We know that she fascinates the hero by her playfulness and antagonizes him by her freedom. Above all, he wants clarity in their relationship and this he does not get. The reader sees that the problem lies not with her character so much as with the mind of Romualdas who tries to define her but fails to penetrate the multicolored surface. In the beginning of the novel, Romualdas tells of the way an image is built:
I chose without much thought, one trait after another, from the colored mass of faces absentmindedly playing with small pieces of amber and, suddenly, there was a shining mosaic. The image of Miglė, when you really looked at it carefully, was as colorful and as contradictory.
There Is No Peace in My Harbor, p. 31.
Colorful, but not true. Seen by a film-maker's eye, the different frames succeed one another, but the mystery of personality remains.
Relating to others is difficult for the hero in his work as well. His fascination with human faces brings him to think of what lies behind the mask offered to the public. Sent to a provincial town to make a dull, routine documentary, the bread and butter of his profession, he films people solemnly facing the camera and is suddenly frightened. What right does one have to freeze these faces for all time on a strip of film, when one cares nothing about them? Romualdas is rather idealistic where his work is concerned, he would like to give himself to it more completely, but his senses and his rational mind work in opposite directions. Rationally, he longs for serenity and self-control (exemplified by his mother and Renata, the other woman), but to create he needs the tension and stimulation of the world of Miglė. To create something important, he should transcend his own involvement in the glitter of the passing moment. He fails to do so because there are too many moments, too many possibilities, not enough certainty.
The problem of the creative artist in society has been dealt with by many authors. It is interesting that Sluckis has chosen to concentrate on the very essence of what makes a man an artist not what kind of reality he chooses to see and to recreate, but how he sees it. Ironically, it is the sharpness of his perception of detail that makes Romualdas' relationships with people fragmentary and fragile.
The last aspect of relating to people in There Is No Peace in My Harbor is found in the attitude of the hero toward incidental encounters with people who have no direct bearing on his life. This is well shown in the episode of an old street vendor of newspapers to whom Romualdas sometimes speaks in passing. The old woman tells him a few passing incidents from her life. His mind glides over them lightly. Then one day she is beaten up by a group of drunk youths and dies small incident in the life of the city. Yet the hero suddenly feels the loss with burning pain. Even the lights in the street appear cruel. There is no sentimentality in the hero's reactions but rather a small, nagging feeling of responsibility. Do we not somewhere fail as human beings when we fail to recognize among us those who are weak, helpless, useless, unknown? This almost imperceptible sense of guilt follows many of Sluckis' characters. Living in an anonymous, crowded, rushing, unthinking, self-centered, materialistic modern society, they are often approached by a stranger seeking some kind of comfort. It might be a neighbor downstairs worried by his scatter-brained daughter playing records all day, or a bored, pampered, executive's wife looking for variety (Adam's Apple), all such people essentially seek some warmth and compassion. Still, to help them would mean to get involved, and involvement is painful. Sensitive as Sluckis' characters often are, they cannot shrug off the pain of others. Somehow, they feel responsible. Romualdas and others feel responsible for what they create and for the people they affect, yet the question asked in Adam's Apple remains central in all of Sluckis' work "How does responsibility for everything differ from fear of everything." Since the author refuses easy answers and wants to remain true to people as they are and not as they should be, the problem remains, and the characters continue, in T. S. Eliot's words, "to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet" (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock).
To summarize the aspects of the problems that Sluckis analyzes in his novels they appear to fall generally into two categories: (1) the insecurity and difficulty to accept oneself and (2) the fragility and ambiguity of human relationships. The dramatic tension in his novels arises from the confrontation of subjective and objective realities in the lives of his characters. Living in a modern society that alienates man by turning him into an object, they look for some personal truth, something permanent and meaningful in a world that concentrates only on appearances.
The Stream of Consciousness
All this is presented in a style that is both rich and complex. There are three aspects of Sluckis' style that are best seen in his novels. In his short stories, he is simply a realist, often creating the story around a simple incident, avoiding unnecessary ornamentation.
The first of three aspects is the stream of consciousness technique introduced into the literature of contemporary Lithuania in the past decade. It is an apt choice of Sluckis' to work in this manner for two reasons. First, as we have seen, his characters are generally tortured by feelings that are usually hidden from outsiders private fears and anxieties, the inability to make decisions, the rather remote need to analyze every action, the seeking for reassurance in familiar daily objects or scraps of conversations these are played out on the stage of the mind while the outer action may remain routine and insignificant. What fascinates the author is how much suffering and turmoil may be behind the eyes of the man who is waiting for the bus to take him to work. To Sluckis, every human action is important; one careless gesture can throw a whole day out of balance. The motivation and importance of the inner conflicts are properly emphasized by the technique of stream of consciousness, for it juxtaposes the important and the trivial and thereby emphasizes the dramatic contrast. Second, Sluckis is masterful in choosing the appropriate, the significant detail. His view is not panoramic, it is the view up close, noting the wrinkles, the nervous ticks, the small cracks in the facade. His characters are very much aware of the shapes and sounds and smells that surround their every move. The stream of consciousness technique organizes this mass of detail by association of ideas. As a stone dropped into water spreads ripples across the surface, wider and wider, so a detail will bring with it a wealth of associations that allow the reader to penetrate the layers of personality that the character is trying to hide even from himself.
In Adam's Apple, Kamanis' irritation at being bothered by an old man in the bus who insists on telling him of his problems with a young daughter brings out the fact that Kamanis is trying to hide the fact that he himself has a father who is a hopeless drunk. That, however, is the surface reaction that reveals in the turmoil of Kamanis' thoughts the fact that Kamanis blames his father for what he himself has become a man who has allowed his life to dominate him instead of vice-versa and the fact that for this reason he is afraid to be a father himself. Having reached this point, he takes a turn into the past and brings out the character of Kamanis' father.
This type of revelation of character usually takes the form of an interior monologue, or rather dialogue, in which the character persistently asks himself questions: Why am I angry? Why blame the other when you are not any better? etc. The persistent questioning suits well the characters who attempt to define what is real in their lives and what is not, what is important and what is not.
The evocative, precise detail echoing through the novel unites the different parts and intensifies the feeling. Sluckis likes to give his characters an identifying detail that is repeated throughout the novel. Genovaitė, the wife of Kamanis, in Adam's Apple is often seen accompanied by images of water. By profession she is a swimming instructor. The first time Kamanis hears her voice, in the next room, there is an aquarium in which the lazy swimming of the fish complements the gossiping voices of women; the first time he becomes aware of her as a desirable woman is standing at the edge of a swimming pool where she is teaching her students; the warm, damp air heightens the sensual attraction; Genovaitė's burden of guilt is the responsibility for a student she could not save from drowning; when she wants to exorcize her feelings of growing hate for her husband's weakness, she spends the afternoon washing his shirt.
This kind of detail is dependent usually on the logic of the character. Water is the principle of life, and Genovaitė is a life-carrying force. The father of Kamanis is the epitome of hypocrisy, and his voice reminds Kamanis of the taste of honey in his mouth a surfeit of fake sweetness. Miglė in There Is No Peace in My Harbor is always seen in bright colors.
It is Sluckis' great attraction and the proof of his mastery of prose that the descriptions of such ordinary things as kitchen utensils, office furniture, or a television studio become intensely alive. This is more than what is known as realistic description. Sluckis does not simply photograph reality, he chooses it carefully in its minute aspects and illuminates it through the eyes of his characters. It is a heavily weighted-down style but never wooden, just ornamental. The first reaction of the reader is usually that the writer must be an unusually keen observer. It is only at the end of his novels that we realize with what care the details are chosen and organized to reinforce the feelings of a person to create a mood or to compliment a passing thought. It is a style that has echoes of Marcel Proust, of William Faulkner. It is slow-moving and sometimes ponderous, but never pretentious.
The moods of these novels vary from the gray and depressive to the feverishly gay. The backgrounds of homes, offices, cafes in which the characters move are full of things necessary to create the texture of everyday living. The reader not only walks through them; he lives in them. This is what a prose technician with a great love for concrete things does for us he allows us to enter into the life of a character without using any special tricks; precision, imaginative choice of the most appropriate detail that is enough. And that is the greatest quality of Sluckis' style.
It is too early to make a judgment of Sluckis' prose. His style changed from one novel to another. In Staircase to Heaven he was concerned with man in changing social structures. The vulnerability of youth, the frustrated enthusiasms, the victims of circumstances were presented in the more traditional form, with sharply designated antagonists, the moral coloring being still in black and white patterns. In Adam's Apple his concern changed to man in his intimate relationships, the battles of an existence narrowly confined in routine occupations and limited possibilities, examining the failures, the unfulfilled promises; a simple man trying to come to terms with his conscience and with his weakness. He chose a different form the stream of consciousness intermingling with the outside reality. There are no black and white colors, there are all the different shades in between. The enemy is not easily recognized, or perhaps there are no more enemies, only too many compromises.
In his last novel Sluckis again tried something new an analysis of the contradictions of the creative mind. The world of There Is No Peace in My Harbor is the plastic world of transient emotions, of people who are trying to create and are confronted with new conflicting desires. Through the mind of only one man we see what many believe to be the central problem of our times a breakdown in communication.
There can be no doubt that the novels of the future may bring Sluckis to consider still other aspects of human existence. It is to be expected of a writer whose creativity has as its center the importance of the human act and the complexity of the human soul.
* Mykolas Sluckis was born in Lithuania in 1928. He studied in the Department of Philology and History at the University of Vilnius, from which he graduated in 1950. He began writing while still at school and his first story appeared in the periodical press in 1947. Since then, he published a number of collections of short stories, some children's stories, and four novels. His major novels: Staircase to Heaven (Laiptai į dangų, 1963), The Adam's Apple (Adomo obuolys, 1966), and There Is No Peace in My Harbor (Uostas mano neramus, 1968). Editor.