- Life Writing's Coming of AgeThe Year in Estonia
In a 2011 overview of prose fiction in Estonia, Jan Kaus, a well-known Estonian novelist and literary critic "cautiously propose[s]" that "life writing may be past its prime" ("Mina ja maailm" 411). Since in annual overviews of literary output, discussions of life writing never appear independently (as life writing is not regarded to be of sufficient literary importance), Kaus's comment indicates that life writing is at least circling on the margins of Estonian literary landscapes. Although Kaus focuses on several autobiographical texts that he rates among noteworthy literary achievements of the year, a sense of relief and anticipation of the reduced prominence of life writing in the future can be detected in his remark. Kaus's comment can be traced back to heated debates emerging in the last decade that sought to come to terms with the "life writing boom" in Estonia, viewed as one of the characteristic features of this decade. How does the Estonian life writing of 2017 and the first half of 2018 fit into those developments and debates? Can it be characterized as the continuation of existing trends or the emergence of new practices, genres, and subject matter? In our overview, we seek to provide tentative answers to these questions, focusing on a few lifewriting works that illustrate current trends and developments of life writing in Estonian literary and cultural landscapes that in turn relate to some characteristic tendencies of post-Soviet life writing in general.
In Estonia, the year 2008 in particular marks a moment when life writing arrived on the literary scene as a force to be reckoned with. Sales numbers for Musta pori näkku, the scandalous autobiography of punk musician and popular television host Mihkel Raud, focusing on his adolescence, considerably exceeded those of the best-selling novels of the preceding few years. Other top-selling life writing works followed, leading several literary critics to assume a highly critical stance toward life writing in general. An indication of the impoverishment of "literature proper," the sudden upsurge of life writing was viewed as having a numbing effect on the readers' capacity to comprehend and appreciate more complex (fictional) narrative formats (Mutt), and to thwart attention from the essence of literature as "a [End Page 41] poetic journey into the very depths of individual human beings beyond the visible and mundane layers of the world" (Kaus, "Ilukirjandus" 1695). However, for the very first time during the post-Soviet period, life writing started receiving systematic critical attention outside the narrower academic contexts. Various classification categories and evaluation criteria were introduced that were frequently based on variations of the literary-versus-documentary binary (see Velsker 1422; Hennoste 1276) but sometimes also included other aspects relating to subject matter, forms of address, and modes of construction of subjectivity.
The fact that over the past decade a number of lifewriting works have been awarded major literary prizes also shows that it is increasingly being recognized as belonging to the literary sphere. Yet it has predominantly been viewed as a borderline phenomenon, justifying its proximity to literature via aesthetic merits that are not related to different autobiographical modes and practices but rather viewed as existing in spite of them. Publications in recent years are no exceptions: in 2018, three of the literary awards of the Cultural Endowment of Estonia were awarded to works of life writing. Though the jury viewed them within the scope of literary achievements of 2017 in general, these works are also significant from the perspective of the development of life writing either by facilitating a wider discursive shift in Estonian memory culture through foregrounding the traumatic nature of the individual's experience of history, or by creating new auto/biographical modes unparalleled in Estonian life writing.
The essay award went to a generically ambivalent work, Valede kataloog/Inglise aed by Tõnu Õnnepalu, one of most renowned contemporary Estonian authors, applauded for free circulation between poetry, fiction, and essayistics, and for its melancholy undertones "selitub ometi lootus ja inimeseks olemise helgus" [crystallizing into a sense of hope and lightness of being] ("Selgusid kirjanduse...