- The Gentle Humor of Oskar Luts
Oskar Luts (1887-1953) is one of the most beloved of Estonian writers. His youth novel Spring, 1912-13, is generally considered to be his best literary work. (It was translated into English in Tallinn in 1983 by Aino Jõgi and Melanie Rauk, and illustrated by Ūlo Sooster.) The work is immensely popular in Estonia: to date it has been reprinted 14 times. It has inspired film and theater producers, and it has been translated into Armenian, Czech, English, Finnish, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, Slovak, and Ukrainian.
Spring's subject matter and very familiar characters, its evocative psychological insights, and its lively popular style give it a harmonious feeling. The novel is also rich in gentle humor, and it is this quality which may be the chief reason for its great popularity.
Curiously, the novel's distinctive humor has seldom been analyzed. Spring is rich in different shades of the comical. Luts has been compared with Rabelais, Dickens, Gogol, and Cervantes. His comic devices also have something in common with the Finnish writer Aleksis Kivi. His is a spontaneous gift, perfected by diligent study of the people's language, especially its skillful wordplay, as well as of the outstanding humorists of the world. Above all, however, Luts is Luts, unique, an original.
The subject matter and characters of Spring had been with the writer for a long time. "Remembrances of schooldays did not leave me alone, they actually forced themselves on paper," Luts once recalled. In Spring he observes school life, pupils, various relationships between teachers and students in their serious as well as comical aspects.
"I'll do half of my Russian for tomorrow."
"Well, all right. But learn it well."
"If I can't solve both of the arithmetic problems I'll do one."
"Well, all right. I suppose it's fine if you do even one."(90)
It is customary to think of school, first of all, as a place of teaching and learning, but we must keep in mind that the attitudes of teachers and pupils to this process rarely coincided over the ages. The writer is able to poke fun at both sides. The teacher is feared a little, children try to [End Page 103] deceive him a little or, at least, not to pay heed to all his orders. But he is there and thus limits the illusive freedom his pupils would like to enjoy. Laughter helps to conquer fears and uneasiness and sometimes even the source of themŪthe teacher himself.
More often than not, the jokes of Luts' school-story have quite a serious background. We have in particular to keep in mind what the parish school of the late 19th century was like. Above all, this was the period of Russification. Because all instruction was given in a foreign language, many pupils scarcely knew what was going on in class. The ambivalence of Luts' humor must be observed: He is exuberant and derisive at the same time, he confirms and denies, he buries and exhumes.
Arno put down his slate-pencil and turned to have a good look at his deskmate. His face was pockmarked, his nose slightly askew. His light yellow hair was badly tangled.
"He'll have a hard time when he starts combing it," Arno thought.(8)
Everybody in Spring is laughing and being laughed at—the whole world is funny. Spring is full of fine school humor, where the "you may—you may not" can often be topsy-turvy. It may not, for instance, matter that you are sitting still; you may get into trouble anyway . . .
"Well then, Tali . . . what was the name of the man that lived the longest, and how old was he?"
"Metal," came the bright answer.
"Met . . . Methuselah."
"Yes, Methuselah. What was it that you were muttering before that?"(23)
Luts has here made a travesty of Biblical history. The ingenious pun—substituting the expected answer from the Bible with an everyday word is certainly funny. Levity, however, does not seem to be Luts' only goal. Through this incident he also shows how a sensitive boy like Arno can suffer when...