Estonia's best known and most translated writer, a kind of cornerstone and conscience of the nation, is Jaan Kross. He was tipped for the Nobel Prize for Literature on several occasions for his novels, although he in fact started his literary career as a renewer of poetry and a translator.

Born in 1920 in Tallinn, he went to Jakob Westholm Grammar School. In 1988 appeared his marvellous school novel Wikmani poisid (The Wikman Boys) about those years. Then he studied law at the University of Tartu and was arrested first by the Germans, then after the war by the KGB. On his return eight years later from the labour camps and internal exile in Russia where he spent the years 1946–1954 as a political prisoner, Kross was the one to renew the content and form of Estonian poetry, giving it new directions. His first collection Söerikastaja (The Coal Enricher, 1958) had been partly composed as a prisoner.

Kross began writing prose in the latter half of the nineteen-sixties, first with a film scenario, Liivimaa kroonika (A Livonian Chronicle) which dealt with the life of the author Balthasar Russow (1536–1600) and which also became the subject of his first masterpiece, Kolme katku vahel (Between Three Plagues, 1970), a suite of four novels. From that time onwards Kross moved by stages nearer to our present time in history, describing figures from Estonian history, first in short stories, later in novels, also in writings where he has drawn upon his own experiences. The heroes of his novels tend to be of Estonian or Baltic German origin and cultured people, though on the margins of society and are usually faced with a moral dilemma of some sort.

Kross himself has termed his own books psychological character novels, which is by no means to underrate the time and space which surrounds these figures: Kross attempts to be as accurate as possible with regard to historical detail, whether the work is set in the 16th or the 20th century. When writing about history, Kross always manages to make hints and allusions to his own era. Russow's Livonian chronicle plays around with the idea of censorship, while in his allegorical masterwork Keisri hull (The Czar's Madman, 1978), Timotheus von Bock is declared mad for criticising the Czarist régime, a fate which also befell dissidents in Soviet times. The protagonists, keen observers and somehow outsiders: the title of Kross´s novel Vastutuulelaev (Sailing Against the Wind, 2002) is somehow characteristic of almost all his main heroes – they are all heading stubbornly and proudly headwind.

In Professor Martensi ärasõit (Professor Martens' Departure, 1984), the professor of law, Martens, serves an empire which blithely ignores human rights, whilst the excavations in the novel of that name reveal a 13th century manuscript which threatens the totalitarian nature of the Soviet régime by its contents.

In his autobiographical novels, set against the background of personal experiences, Kross describes the loss of Estonian sovereignty in the late thirties and early forties – for example in Paigallend (Treading Air, 1998) the fate of one a number of schoolmates as the Estonian Republic disintegrates and the Second World War ensues. Perspectives on the past are so important for Kross, that in his novel Tahtamaa (Tahtamaa Farm, 2001) the problems arise regarding the restitution of state property to its former owners during renewed independence in the nineties. Criticism of society can be seen in a historical perspective, although this time Kross wrote about the present day for contemporary readers. Against the background of his own work, Kross held a series of lectures at the University of Tartu, which are collected in the volume Omaeluloolisus ja alltekst (Autobiographism and Subtext, 2003).

Jaan Kross' novels, his short stories and novellas cover a cross-section of Estonian history in a European context. In the confident composition of his works, Kross has varied both form and narration, so that his works fit into the canons of classicism, modernism or even postmodernism. This is literature which is psychologically enriching and emotionally satisfying, whose influence is acknowledged by readers in many countries: and it is written with a very special, playful use of language.
Kross was married to the poetess, children´s writer and translator Ellen Niit, whom he has also mentioned as his muse. He translated a lot: among others Alexander Blok, Sergei Yesenin, William Shakespeare, Honoré de Balzac, and Lewis Carroll.

Kross died in Tallinn in 2007. The second part of his monumental book of memoirs titled Kallid kaasteelised (Dear Fellow-Travellers), which Kross finished before his death, appeared in 2008.
In 2010 the Jaan Kross Literary Award was established to honour the best publication of prose, poetry, drama, translation or cultural history. He could be compared to Thomas Mann if one is searching for parallels, and has been translated widely.


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