Eduard Vilde was the first Estonian prose writer to achieve classic status, and he has thereby come to be regarded as the most eminent. He was 'first' in many ways – to write bulky original novels such as the huge historical works Mahtra sõda (The Mahtra War,1902), Kui Anija mehed Tallinnas käisid (When the Anija Men Went to Tallinn, 1903) and Prohvet Maltsvet (The Prophet Maltsvet, 1908) – when published, they were at first regarded as 'comforting exceptions'. Other novelists did not achieve Vilde's potential until the nineteen-twenties, from which time the success of the Estonian novel (even in a quantitative sense) was seen as a guarantee – or simply a demonstration – of cultural vitality; this was the case in Estonia in the nineteen-thirties and in exile circles in the fifties and sixties. And the very archetype of this 'vitality' is Eduard Vilde, whose collected works in 33 volumes included novels, short stories, plays, travelogues and humorous pieces.

Vilde was not only the first great prose writer, he was also the first modern European in Estonia. When Vilde embarked upon his remarkable career as a writer and journalist in the last decades of the 19th century, Estonia was a rural province of Tsarist Russia and – in a sense – a part of the German Empire by virtue of its German nobility.
Born in a North Estonian village in 1865, he had no university education, but compensated for it with a wide experience of life. In the late eighteen-nineties, Vilde spent some years in Berlin where he became a devotee of materialism, socialism and 'critical realism', a commitment that he adhered to for the rest of his life. He worked as a journalist and writer in Estonia and abroad, was a political refugee, and finally a diplomat, the Estonian Ambassador in Germany from 1919 to 1921. His longest journey began after the revolutionary year of 1905, when he and his wife had to leave Estonia, afraid of being arrested. They stayed in Saint Petersburg, Switzerland and Finland, where Vilde issued underground political satire, then in Copenhagen.
While first discovering Europe in Berlin, Emile Zola and his 'naturalism' was all the rage there. Vilde could be said to have been reborn as a European at this time, and this was a strikingly modern and liberal rebirth in the atmosphere of the Baltic province. Vilde's numerous short stories and novels now expressed, in the words of the pre-eminent Estonian literary critic, Friedebert Tuglas, irony and sarcasm about a conceited world which is in fact hopelessly out of date. In Astla vastu (Against the Prick, 1898), the first European novel in Estonian literature, Vilde reveals the vices of such a world, its oppressive social barriers, the inequality of women, the degenerated appetites of society. And when all is said and done, the merry company, in excellent spirits, takes a coach and leaves that horrid province... heading west, towards 'our sunrise'. Vilde is evidently the first 'Euro-coachman' in Estonian literature - urging on his horses, whilst vigorously whipping all manner of human and social vices.

A whip is a significant element throughout Vilde's writings. A considerable part of his output depicts - sometimes using documentary materials - the life of the peasantry under the rule of German landlords in 19th-century Estonia. Among other things, he is fond of describing the corporal punishment of peasants. This grim ritual, this symbol of the epoch – a landlord wielding a whip – was for Vilde the embodiment of the evil and archaism against which he, a world reformer, so keenly battled. Vilde was a humanist, yet his novels are often full of blood and violence; he whipped the landlords with his method of 'critical realism' just as fiercely as they had whipped his compatriots during the years of corvée labour.

The whiplash can be felt in every one of his works, in some way or other. They all deliver a stroke, however slight, at a human vice or social injustice. The very tone of the text, the choice of words, immediately reveals the author's 'critical tension' and steer the reader to a particular point-of-view. A later short story, Kolmkümmend aastat armastust (Thirty Years of Love, 1927) is a good example of Vilde's technique: just look at all those hypocrites, the priest, the mourning widower! Social roles and egoistical passions rule the day, true humanity is but an empty phrase! Vilde observed the whole of society with suspicion; as a socialist who had experienced 'a moment of enlightenment', he, like any true believer, considered our world to be but a 'valley of afflictions' to be replaced by a better one. His works describing the life of the city proletariat reflect that valley (in Külmale maale – To the Frozen North, 1896; and Lunastus – Redemption, 1909) about the life of Danish workers. Their best moments acquire a slightly manic and expressionistic guise, or, to put it another way, in all his stories and novels, Vilde tries to reveal what people are really thinking and feeling (for instance at a funeral), which arguments and instincts govern life in this our valley of afflictions.

The most respectable Estonian prose classic thus displays neither 'classical tranquillity' nor 'mature wisdom', with the exception, perhaps, of his last novel, Mäeküla piimamees (The Dairyman of Mäeküla, 1916) with its love triangle, and the signing of a pact with the Devil. Rather, Vilde's texts contain a perpetual glow of moralising resistance and an ever-lashing whip – whether it be striking the lacerated back of a peasant, or in the dashing hand of a coachman speeding towards Europe. And it sometimes seems that this kind of bitter settling of accounts with one's past and present, alongside the rush towards an enlightened Europe, constitutes one of the most characteristic features of Estonian mentality over the last hundred years. Vilde's reality – the manor house stables, the humble peasant dwellings and the stuffy workers' barracks – has changed beyond recognition. But the 'deeper structure of that reality', the fact that we are still half-way between the valley of afflictions and 'our sunrise', has remained unchanged. This may indeed be one of the secrets of Vilde's classicality.
Eduard Vilde died in 1933 in Tallinn. The literary prize bearing his name was founded to reward a follower in his tradition every year.

Text by Toomas Haug


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