Diary 1957-1968


Päevaraamat 1957-1968

The Diary of Karl Ristikivi 1957-1968 (Memoirs, Estonian)
Published by Varrak, 2009, pp. 1112

The last decade has brought before the public a wealth of memoirs and diaries. Whether or not this is connected to a general surge of interest in all kinds of autobiographical materials (ego-documents), writers` diaries have moved to the centre of Estonian cultural space. Certainly this is an indication of the high degree of esteem in which writers and their creations continue to be held in Estonia, and a key factor in the way these texts signify. This is particularly true of the diary of Karl Ristikivi: everything that the author says, reveals or withholds contains some kind of truth about him as a writer.
For a long time, Karl Ristikivi`s diaries have been a closely kept secret. In the second half of the 1930s, this son of a servant girl from Läänemaa became a literary star in Estonia. As far as we know, Ristikivi began keeping a diary quite late, around the time he was completing his university studies on the threshold of his 30th year. On 23 October 1941 he picked up a small notebook and wrote on the cover: literary diary.

Though it was started as a record of his literary reflections, the diary soon turns autobiographical, and is interrupted in January 1944, when the writer flees to Finland. He continues on to Sweden in September of the same year. After a long period of depression, during which his best friend marries and his first novels written in exile are met with accusations and reproaches, he resumes his diary on 1 August 1957. The opening lines of the diary are ordinary—even perhaps too ordinary: a self-introduction, but addressed to whom?

1.8. 57—Thursday.
It is a very ordinary day, this day on which I begin my diary. I do not know which attempt this is, nor whether I will get farther with it this time than I did the previous times. But now I have decided to keep it for 10 years. Thus it would replace the newspaper clippings---which I am now finished with—after 10 years of work.
And so, for starters, my coordinates. I am 44 years old and work in the Solna health insurance office/---/This is located diagonally across the street at Rasundavägen 100, and I am sitting under the window.

As is often true of diaries, Ristikivi`s does not contain the information one would expect, nor does it reveal great secrets. Rather, it corresponds to all the characteristics of the canonical diary: it is monotonous, full of repetitive openings, memory fragments, returns to the same themes. It is unexpectedly circumstantial while also unexpectedly private—a very human document in its moving helplessness. Nevertheless, it is very deliberately written as the diary of a writer, a public figure who belongs to the public sphere. While concealing everything that is deeply personal, information is periodically divulged about conditions surrounding writing, including the writer’s health. The author knows that the diary is a personal document, but he also knows that one day it will be found and read. Otherwise, why would it be composed so thoughtfully? The writer notes the dates and ceremonies that are important to him, and emphasizes the way he recollects the past. He heals past trauma through scriptotherapy, sometimes dramatizing the past in order finally to be freed from it. Daily writing allows him to lighten his heart, and helps him begin writing again. The first-person narrator of Ristikivi`s last work, Rooma päevik (Roman Diary) refers to his diary as a hermit’s monologue. Ristikivi interrupts the fictive monologue of Roman Diary in mid-sentence. Ristikivi`s own writer’s diary, however, resembles a secret drawer. The writer does not hold out the key to the reader, but hands him a secret message directing him to the next hiding place, where yet another secret message awaits him.

In many famous diaries self-examination is prevalent: the writer seizes the opportunity to know himself or herself in such a fashion as only God could know their inner self—to know themselves truthfully, thoroughly and from the inside. In his diary Ristikivi is free of all pride, but he never takes himself apart completely: God knows him anyway, and we can only guess that besides himself he has written the diary for a reader, whom Ristikivi trusts, yet from whom he also hides a great deal.
He complains to his diary about all those things that he never complains about to his friends in real life, yet even here he chooses what exactly to confide, and what to conceal. The main themes of the diary are the writer’s state of mind, his hopes and fears, creative plans and progress reports about his books, failures to cross the language barrier, events of the past and anniversaries of significant events, in addition to impressions from his travels and miscellaneous circumstantial information.
The diary is often the only reliable place to talk about depression. Along with this, the diary is often filled with anxieties of being different. Self-examination is often accompanied by the feeling that others see him as something strange. Repeatedly he confesses his fears:
I am afraid of people, afraid of illness, afraid of accidents. And unfortunately this is not without reason (12.10.57)
When day dawns and with the coming of the lighter season of the year, these existential fears recede and Ristikivi exerts himself to find a topic that would attract him enough to be able to start writing again. Often the greatest obstacle is not so much the present with its everyday fears and routine, but images from the past that continue to make themselves felt. Just as the writing of history is a dialogue between the present and the past, so also is a diary. Sixteen years ago I left Estonia. I had no real place there, neither do I have one here.“ (26.11.59)
Along with isolated images from the past and coded messages, the diary presents quite a thorough chronicle of creative work, both works in progress and those Ristikivi actually wrote. In addition to brief notations, there is much material about the many books he plans to write—drafts of outlines, choices, gathering source material, and the process of writing.
As Ristikivi finds his writing rhythm, his depression subsides, and the diary entries increasingly become reports of how his writing is progressing: information not only about his choice of topics but about how he writes. Ristikivi’s creativity is lively, yet there is the perpetual question of finding a new form. For example, in the diary Ristikivi does not reveal the entire design of his series of historical novels up front; rather, he only alludes to it.

True to promise, Ristikivi kept a diary for 10 years, and even a bit longer: 1 August 1957-21 June 1968. It seems that at least at the beginning he intended to write a page a day. Some longer entries can be found in the pocket calendars he kept during the period 1947-1977.
There is no doubt that the diary is a helpful resource for those conducting research on Ristikivi`s life and work. For other readers, it is a human document. However, if the curious reader expects a glimpse of the angel „barring the way with a sword“ from Ristikivi`s poetry, he will find no more of this in the diary than has already been said in the poem. Instead, we find the writer’s self, firmly held in check, and despite the self-revealing helplessness, it is in part constructed. How else would it be possible?

The original manuscript of the diary is kept in the Baltic Archives in the Swedish State Archive in Stockholm. The diary has been prepared for publication Janika Kronberg, a scholar deeply versed in Ristikivi’s work, and who has also provided the diary with extensive commentary.

Text by Rutt Hinrikus

First published in ELM

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