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Travels Around the Baltic

I

The reason I’m here [in Ventspils, October 2008], I think, is because six years ago I took an eight-month journey around the Baltic Sea, and three years ago I published a book about this journey entitled “Towards: A Literary Journey”.

But how did it happen that a young man from Norway, who spent his formative years above the Arctic Circle, on the edge of the great seas to the west, how did it happen that he, that’s me, turned his back to this, started to look east, and spent several years of his life travelling in and reading and writing about the Baltic region?

The answer is very simple: literature.

On the opening pages of my book there is a scene set in Oslo in 1999, some days before my first trip to Riga. I’m standing in a bookshop and looking at maps in travel-guides. Suddenly I see the countries around the Baltic Sea as a whole, as an interconnected north European region. It was not an original idea, not at all; lots of people have seen after the Baltic region in this way. But the interesting thing is that I hadn’t been reading books about the Baltic; the reading came afterwards. At the time I just saw it, out of the blue.

Why did I suddenly see this map, one that I had seen hundreds of times before, in a new way? Why did I see the Baltic world as something united, and not as nine strictly separated nations?

The answer, again, is literature.

I suddenly realised that some of the authors and novels most precious to me are situated round the Baltic Sea. I saw Lübeck on the German coast, and I thought of Thomas Mann. I saw Gdansk, and I thought of The Tin Drum, both the novel and the movie. And then, of course, I saw St. Petersburg, with its great literary tradition. I had just finished my degree in philosophy, and I saw Kaliningrad, Kant, Königsberg. And then I saw, and to some extent knew, and wanted to explore, how the literature on the southern shore of the Baltic was connected with the literature on its northern shore. I was lost in what I had found. These thoughts were going to occupy several years of my life.

We are perhaps used to thinking, or at least I was used to thinking, that seas and rivers divide, that they are above all borders. But of course historically seas and rivers have had a unifying role because they provided the easiest routes for transport; seas and rivers connected people, the Baltic Sea connected people. In fact it may be that mountains divide us more, and that in this sense it is Norway and Sweden that have been lying with their backs to each other.

Norway, where I come from, is a very western oriented country, but if you go west from Norway, there is just water. But if you go east, there is land, and this land comprises many different countries. I wanted to map my world, the part of the world that I had been born into. I wanted to make a grand tour, not by going to Italy or Greece, but by visiting my neighbouring countries, the countries round the Baltic Sea.

I wanted to cross borders. The Nordic countries are longitudinal countries, north-to-south countries. However, when it comes to similarities in landscape and climate it is perhaps the latitudinal connection, the east-west line, which is more significant. I grew up in northern Norway. In my experience the landscapes on the same latitude in Sweden, Finland and Russia are more similar to the landscape I grew up in than several types of landscape found in southern Norway, or for that matter, in the most northern part of my country. Moreover, it is somehow exciting to realize that Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki and St. Petersburg are situated on almost exactly the same latitude. If you stick to the same longitude in Norway, Sweden and Finland, you will for most of the time find yourself within the same nation. If you look for connections along the latitudes, you will very soon find yourself traversing national borders.

 

II

Before I wrote my book about my Baltic journey, I had written two novels, and a university thesis about the novel as a literary form; I was not, and had never been, interested in travelogues or travel books. The few I read I often found to be boring, loose, badly structured diaries. But at the same time I wanted to escape the novel, I wanted to get closer to reality, I wanted to write more directly in a non-fictional form -- while at the same time retaining my literary aspirations. Whether I write a novel or a travelogue, my ambition is always to create a piece of art, or at least to try.

A lot has been written about narrative literature in the Baltic world, for example in each nation's national history of literature. The Norwegians love to write and rewrite their national histories of literature, as do the Danes. Less has been written about travelogues from the Baltic region, as far as I know almost nothing. So: who were my predecessors, and who has come after me?

What I have found out is both strange and, at least from my point of view, interesting. It is as if the Baltic Sea Region has been fashionable among travel writers at two points in our history, with almost exactly 200 years in between. First, as you may already know, Johann Gottfried Seume published a travelogue from the Balticin Leipzig in 1806 entitled Mein Sommer 1805. Around the same time two Englishmen, John Carr and Nathaniel Wraxall, published extensive travel books about the Baltic, which were even bigger in scope than Seume's. Then 200 years passed, during which, as far as I have found, no travelogues were published that aspired to cover the whole Baltic area, until I published my own book in 2005. And then, last year, a young Swedish historian published a travel book about the Baltic called Östersjovägar, or Baltic Sea Paths.

Let me begin with the three older works by  Seume, Carr and Wraxall. They all begin their journeys  in the spring, as I did. For my own part I wanted to travel not only through the countries, but also through the seasons: spring, summer, autumn, winter. John Carr starts his journey on the 14th of May 1804, and completes it on November the third, after travelling five and a half months. Seume starts walking in April 1804 (the poem that opens his book is written in Breslau on the 18th of April), and is back in Leipzig on the first of October, after a journey that has taken almost the exact same amount of time as John Carr's, five and a half months. Nathaniell Wraxall commences his journey on the 19th of April 1774, and writes his last letter in Bremen on the 25th of September, after travelling for five months.

Carr starts his journey in Husum in Schleswig-Holstein, where he arrives by boat from England. Wraxall starts in Copenhagen, where he arrives by boat, also from England. Johann Gottfried Seume starts walking from Leipzig.

Carr publishes his book in 1805, Seume in 1806, Wraxall his expanded edition in 1807. Three in a row.

Nathaniell Wraxall and John Carr embark on their journey in the same direction, from east to west along the northern shore of the Baltic sea, which is also the route I followed myself. The two Englishmen use almost exactly the same route and visit the same cities; Copenhagen, Roskilde, Helsingör, Helsingborg, Jönköping, Linköping, Norrköping, Stockholm, Uppsala, Åbo, Borgå, Viborg, St. Petersburg, Narva, Dorpat, Reval, Riga, Mittau, Polangen (which I suppose is Palanga), Memel, Königsberg, Elbing, Marienburg, Dantzig, Berlin, Lübeck.

Carr completes his journey where he started, in Husum, while Wraxall goes to Bremen. The two gentlemen travel almost exclusively by horse carriage, and by boat. These are the means of travel Seume also uses, although he also walks some stretches of his journey.

Seume is the only one who travels the circle in the opposite direction; he starts on the southern shore and goes east. Per Högselius, as we shall see, does not travel in a circle at all. Seume and Högselius are the only ones who also take an excursion to Moscow. Seume travels more inland than all the others, and does not visit cities like Danzig and Königsberg.

 

III

It struck me that most of the literary works that I and Per Högselius tried to "track" and situate in the landscape around the Baltic Sea were written after Carr, Wraxall and Seume made their journeys, and thus didn’t exist as literary place in their time. Lübeck was not associated with Buddenbrooks, Danzig had nothing to do with The Tin Drum, Stockholm had yet to encounter Strindberg, St. Petersburg had no idea that Dostoyevski was going to use the city as the setting for Crime and Punishment.

When he begins his journey, John Carr has already read some of the Norwegian-Danish writer Ludvig Holberg, but when he needs literature on his journey, he quotes Shakespeare, or he writes a verse himself. When they visit Elsinore and the Castle Kronborg north of Copenhagen, neither Carr nor Wraxall mentions Hamlet, though they know their Shakespeare. What occupies Carr and Wraxall are kings and queens, their life at court, and the wars they fought. In Denmark they both write at length about the enlightened but tragic reign of Struensee. The shocking details and gossip sound more like fantasy, and remind one of Per Olov Enquist's novel about these incidents, The Royal Physicians Visit.

St. Petersburg is by far the city on the shores of the Baltic that interests Carr, Wraxall and Johann Gottfried Seume most. Carr uses over 200 pages on this marvellous city (his own words), almost half of his book. Petersburg impresses him: “The vast space of its streets and areas will ever give it superiority over every other European capital; but its principal beauty arises from its being the result of one mighty design”. Wraxall is less impressed. But Wraxall visits the city 30 years earlier than Carr. It’s 1774, and the city is still in the making. He writes: “This city is as yet, only an immense outline, which will require future empresses, and almost future ages, to complete.”

The beauty of the city aside, Carr does not find Russia a civilised country. But he is even more shocked when he enters Prussia: “I was shocked at the inhuman blows which, upon every petty occasion, assailed the backs of the soldiers.” For almost the first time on the journey he is furious: “My blood boiled in my veins, to see a little deformed bantam officer, inflicting these disgraceful strokes.”

Johann Gottfried Seume is not much occupied with literature either, but he is by far the most political writer of the pack. The shocked John Carr's observation of the beating of the soldiers could very well have been written by Seume. It doesn’t bother Seume that people will regard him as a political writer. Quite the opposite. He states that a non-political book is not just superfluous, but simply a bad book. Seume is also the most well-informed writer of the three. He has travelled in parts of this area before, and when he arrives at places he has already visited, he investigates to see if ways of life have improved since his last visit. His aim is to improve peoples lives. This is his attitude during the journey: How can people’s life be bettered, how can we use enlightened reason to improve peoples conditions? He harshly criticises the privileges of the nobility, the keeping of slaves, the lack of universal education.

To put it simply one could say that whereas the two Englishmen are preoccupied with what the rulers and kings have accomplished in the wars they have fought, Seume is preoccupied with what they have destroyed in these same wars. Whether he visits small huts or big castles, it is the people living there that really interest him, not the buildings, not the landscape. He talks of the beauty of humanism, the common good, he champions liberal values. To me he sounds like an early social democrat. In his view, Sweden is the friendliest and most humanistic country, and the city of Stockholm is the paradise of the north. John Carr is also impressed by Sweden: “The higher orders of the Swedes are highly cultivated, well informed, and accomplished ... almost every peasant can read, and many of the sons of the peasants are sent from these schools to the colleges of Uppsala”.

What people find beautiful and interesting changes during history. When Carr leaves Russia and enters Prussia – from one eagle to another, as he puts it – and arrives in Memel, the next stop on the journey would be the Curonian Spit, now a world heritage site and a popular tourist destination. But Carr is not interested in this fascinating stretch of moving sand. Not at all. He merely reflects on how he can bypass it most easily, on land or by boat; the territory is an unwelcome annoyance. Nathaniel Wraxall does travel down the spit, in a terrible storm, seeing some of the poorest fishermen he has ever seen, feeding on boiled pumpkins. In general, Nathaniel Wraxall makes harsher judgements than John Carr. Riga, for example, “is a most disagreeable city.” About Åbo he simply states: “There is very little in Åbo”. And Königsberg ”is a great collection of houses and streets without elegance, beauty, or order.”

These are some of the impressions recorded by travellers in the Baltic 200 years ago. Has anything happened during the 200 years that passed before I and Per Högselius made our journeys? A lot, of course. And it is not only that  the cities, the landscape, the means of travel, the political systems, customs and beliefs have changed. The way of writing travel books has also changed. My own book and that of Per Högselius exhibit astonishing similarities. We both incorporate personal and even private reflections into our investigations of the cultural history around the Baltic Sea in ways that are unthinkable for Seume, Carr and Wraxall. We explore our own personal pasts and backgrounds in the same manner that we explore the historical backgrounds of the nations we travel through. How did it all start, why did it turn out as it did? It is as if travelling through history, which is what travelling to a large extent is, inevitably turns into searches into the personal history of the traveller himself. Going to foreign places reminds you of your own places, makes you compare.

My own book and that of Per Högselius are extremely occupied with tracing and situating  literature in the landscape around the sea. We also both have travelling companions that serve as opposites of ourselves. I am visited by a friend who accompanies me during parts of my journey. He differs from me in that he sees different things from what I see: he sees the surfaces, the visible world, and this is what I  try to learn to see during my journey, almost as if I were in school. My aim during the journey is to try to look outward, into the world, not inward, into myself.

Högselius has a new girlfriend, Kasia from Poland, who studies literature, and serves as his opposite because she does not believe in his vision of the Baltic as an interconnected region. She is much more pessimistic than he is. She sees borders, differences, separate national cultures, misunderstandings and disagreements. When he tries to build a Baltic brotherhood in his mind, she tears it apart. And this, of course, is the big similarity between my own and Högselius's book: We are both obsessed with establishing connections in the Baltic world, hunting for signs that bind the countries together, dreaming of a future where the countries are united. Högselius tries to structure his book around a theme that is important for him both professionally and privately. Will he, as an historian, be able to unite the neighbouring nations around the Baltic Sea, unite them for a common future building on a common past, just as he privately tries to unite his liberal, secular Scandinavian values with his girlfriend's Catholic beliefs and much stronger traditional values?

But at the end of the book this engagement with Kasia evaporates; she doesn’t even turn up as expected, on Gotland, where he is waiting for her, where she was supposed to arrive by boat from Liepaja. The ending is quite depressing. No Kasia, and Per starts thinking of the Estonia, the ship that sank. He drinks a beer and muses on the cosmopolitan Baltic world on board this ship, a cosmopolitan world that the sea itself swallowed. The ending is open, but his last thoughts are about the ship, a Baltic future sunken in the sea that was supposed to unite this future.

There is one important difference between my own book and that by Högselius . Högselius is the only one of the five I have been talking about today that doesn’t make a round trip, doesn’t close a circle. He uses Sweden as a base camp, and over one summer he makes three longer journeys through the Baltic, covering all the countries. When I was planning my journey, I considered this way of travelling, but it became clear to me that this was not a way of travelling I wanted to undertake. I wanted to make a circle, I wanted to travel through the differences, leaving one country and entering a new one, not travel back to Norway in between for a rest.

The big difference between the Högselius's book and my won, and the two written by the Englishmen two hundred years ago, is that the older travellers are simply visiting foreign countries. They are not on a quest, searching for the Holy Grail, that lost shimmering idea of a united Baltic world. Seume has an intellectual project, a political one; he wants to improve life in the countries he visits.

I would like to end these reflections on travels round the Baltic Sea with a story about a travel book from that other sea, the North Sea. The year after I published my book, in 2006, I travelled for a couple of months through the islands in the North  Sea. On one of many rainy days during this journey I sought shelter in the public library of Lerwick on Shetland. And what do I find on the shelves in the local collection? I find a travel book written by a well-known Norwegian, a politician and former Member of Parliament, Jon Leirfall, a book I have never heard about, a book that is even translated into English with the title West Over Sea.

Jon Leirfall starts to travel to the islands in the North Sea in the seventies, especially Shetland and the Orkney islands. He is reminded of the Norse traditions, and the strong connections historically between the Norwegian west coast and the islands in the North Sea. He keeps coming back to the islands; it irritates him that the contacts between the Norwegian west coast and the islands have come to an end, and it makes him furious that he cannot travel directly to Kirkwall, but has to go via Oslo and Edinburgh. So close, and yet so far away. His quest is exactly the same as the quest Per Högselius and I embarked on in the Baltic.

Norway, Shetland, the Orkney islands, Scotland. Once we were neighbours, we are no more. The sea that once united now separates.

Last week I gave a lecture at a literary festival in Norway.The theme of the festival was “Neighbours”. On Friday I’m going to another Norwegian festival, where the theme is “Crossing borders”. And earlier this autumn there were a festival in Stavanger, where the theme was “Walls”. “Neighbours”, “Crossing borders”.I don’t know what all this is about - perhaps it is  a sign of the times. But it connects.