LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 22, No.2 - Summer 1976
Editors of this issue: Bronius Vaškelis
Copyright © 1976 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Antanas Musteikis. Kiauros Rieškučios. Chicago: Lietuviškos Knygos Klubas, 1972, 259 pp.
In 1972, Professor Antanas Musteikis made his literary debut with a novel called Kiauros Rieškučios (Porous Hands) and which so far has received a good deal of coverage in the Lithuanian press even though most of the reviews tend to focus on Musteikis' treatment of autobiographical material rather than the novel's structure and intent.
The main and virtually single character of the novel is Liudas Rimgaila who, like the author, is a refugee from Lithuania and eventually a scholar and professor in the United States and whom the reader gets to know both as the narrator of his own life as well as a character in the novel in interaction with his younger brother Mečys, a patient in a German tuberculosis sanatorium. The novel opens with a reunion of the two brothers after the recent death of Mečys' girlfriend. The older Liudas whom Mečys views as a symbol of professional success and personal happiness is trying to comfort his grief-stricken younger brother by confessing to him the story of his own loss and defeat. This story-within-the-story, unfolding before us strictly from Liudas' own point of view, can be roughly subdivided into three main parts.
The long first part, which culminates in Liudas' marriage to his beautiful former student Karolina, relates in much detail Liudas' experiences as a budding writer and a promising young teacher at a provincial high school in Lithuania during World War II. Although set against the turbulent background of the Soviet and Nazi occupations, the entire section is pervaded by an air of youthfulness, hope, and expectation. It is also exceptionally well rounded stylistically. The second part shows Liudas and Karolina, now married, as refugees and later as displaced persons in Germany at the end of the war. The loss of their homeland and the general disruption of their lives is reflected in a loss of their marital happiness and a corresponding deterioration of purpose and artistic inspiration. The relatively short and stylistically least unified third part, with its multitude of characters and events, describes a difficult new beginning in the New World where Liudas eventually achieves an outward semblance of success and stability as an educator and family man only to see his illusion of happiness suddenly destroyed by Karolina's abrupt and unexpected walk-out. As Liudas completes his narrative and the action of the novel resumes its course, a curious reversal of roles takes place. The ailing Mečys rises from his passivity and assumes initiative, while the successful Liudas sinks deeper and deeper into the same apathy from which he had just wanted to rescue the other. Whether or not the author identifies with his character, he certainly passes a severe judgment on him. His wife gone, his great novel never written, Liudas, at the end of his narrative, stands before us as a broken man who has failed both as a creative writer as well as a human being and looks back at his life with empty hands, as the title implies. Where did he fail? Throughout his account, which focuses almost exclusively on Karolina, Liudas, indirectly, tends to put the blame for his artistic failure on her:
There were so many times when I wanted to sit down and write... and I never did so... I don't know why, but with her around it seemed almost impossible for me to write about something else, and it never occurred to me to write about her (p. 164; my translation M.G.S.).
Charmingly seductive and eternally dissatisfied, Karolina is the most memorable but also the most elusive figure in the novel, and a number of the book's reviewers have criticized the author for describing her primarily in terms of her physical rather than her emotional characteristics. If one keeps in mind, however, that Karolina is not an active character in the novel but is seen strictly from the narrator's point of view, the lack of psychological depth in her portrait may well be viewed as a reflection of Liudas' own lack of insight and understanding with respect to the people who were close to him. He himself admits to his brother at the end of his confession that he had never learned how to share and that wandering on the summits of art and literature, he had missed the very essence of life.
Very revealing in this connection is his discourse on the different roles of men and women:
Men tend to be logical women intuitive. Men are hard women gentle. Men are objective women subjective... Men are passionate, but the woman is romantic; she will kiss her lover's footsteps on the ground (p. 250; my translation M. G. S.).
With this rigid mentality and such preconceived ideas about himself and others, Liudas obviously is not the man to establish a give-and-take relationship with any woman and especially not his wife. Thus, it is not surprising that Karolina's inner world remains closed to him.
Viewing the novel from the point of view of its composition, the figure that should be developed more is not so much Karolina as Mečys, the ailing younger brother, who is the only other acting character in the novel and moreover emerges as an important contrast figure to Liudas. While Liudas lets life slip through his fingers, Mečys, although terminally ill and permanently confined, is made to experience both the meaning of love as well as the fulfillment of artistic creation. Thus, his life appears richer and more fulfilled than Liudas', and we sense him to be a warm, open, and compassionate man, even though he remains one-dimensional an idea rather than a living human being. This also applies to the dialogue between the two brothers, which, quite unlike the witty and pointed dialogue in the narrative, is often forced and unconvincing and shows a regrettable tendency toward pathos and sentimentality.
The publisher's notice on the book jacket introduces Musteikis as an "aesthete of the Lithuanian language." In literary history, the term aesthete is applied to the poets and writers of the late 19th century Aestheticism, who subscribed to the ideals of Art for Art's Sake and insisted on stylistic and formal perfection even at the expense of content. Musteikis, no doubt, is a good writer whose language is rich, vivid, and easy-flowing, and whose style, marked by a successful use of irony and understatement, reveals a considerable talent for satire and characterization. This, however, applies primarily to the story-within-the-story. The novel's frame, by contrast, like most frames, never assumes a reality of its own and merely serves as a unifying and clarifying device for the story contained within it. The existence of the frame, moreover, indicates that the novel has a message to tell. At the very end of the novel, Liudas appears if not happier then at least a better man, who thus may yet fulfill his artistic aspirations. Although it might be possible, perhaps, to view the main character as an aesthete, that is, as a man who, for a while at least, had placed art higher than life, this designation does not quite fit the author, and the novel as a whole lacks the precision and detachment that we would expect to find in the writings of an "aesthete."
M. G. Slavėnas
State University College at Buffalo