By LEIDA KIBUVITS.
Translated by Eret Talviste.
MARGUS SUURUL SAUNTERS along Matignon avenue. Early spring. The day is covered in bluish haze. And Margus’s head is slightly foggy. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, Margus’s head has often been foggy lately, and even aches. A strange image tortures him, that this man who wanders along the streets, joyless, is not himself. He himself is dreaming, and in this dream a man walks along an avenue in early spring, his hat tilted back, and his face thin. This man is very similar to him, he is his twin-brother. Indeed, for God’s sake, there must be two Margus Suuruls, the first one foggy-headed, and the other one perpetually observing the first.
Margus’s eyes stop suddenly at a fashion boutique’s display window. The bright colours of a particular ladies’ hat forced him to stop. Violet-green-pink. An odd combination, utterly tacky, thinks Margus absent-mindedly. A disgusting violet, some obtrusive shade of purple, with a confusing, stabbing hint of red in it. Added to that a tawdry green, and on top of it all this pink, this pryanik pink.1 Margus recalls the pryanik pink – how long has it been since he last saw these merry-coloured sweets? Margus Suurul’s hometown had a fair before Christmas and the New Year that used to be called Jäämark.2 It had these pink pryaniks, porcelain poodles, and dolls of sugar, attached to a cardboard, all lined up – their faces pink, hair dandelion yellow and dresses sky-blue. It is odd indeed that right now Margus gazes at the hat in front of him with its three ugly colours, but he cannot see them as clearly as he sees the colours of the fair, of his home-town fair, in his memory!
Margus Suurul stands in front of the display window of Suzanne Talbot’s boutique, and stares at the oddly coloured hat. He himself did not want to stop there, but this mix of colours, it forced him. And now he keeps standing because there is nothing that makes him move. He is sluggish and absent-minded. He stands there and looks and thinks. Moving his lips, he hums ‘Suzanne Talbot.’ Passers-by nudge him with their elbows and brush against him. ‘Suzanne Talbot’ – just a name, two words side by side on a darkened pane of glass. But in Margus’s opinion these two words, and the entirety of this name, are alive. In Margus’s mind, these two words together conjure up an image of a woman who holds these two words. Suzanne – she must be taller than average, her head must be long and slightly large. Talbot – she probably speaks slowly, with her mouth curved. She has cool, dry hands. This is what she would have to look like according to the name on the glass. But if Margus stepped into the boutique and saw its owner, he would surely be disappointed – a chubby, lively, and polite professional woman with sweaty hands might be bustling about in there. Margus would then stand in front of that woman and feel the same as he does when he sees his own name in print – that in print, whether in black or gold, the name becomes detached from its owner and takes on a life of its own. Margus Suurul, Margus Suurul – this man is a stranger to the real Margus, whose head is constantly foggy these days.
Two ladies stop in front of the same display window, nudge Margus aside, and force him to move along. He goes, but his thoughts circle around printed names, often-printed names. Eventually, only the name remains, and the person behind the name disappears and withers. He himself has already withered, but not yet disappeared, he is still walking around on his two legs…
Margus smiles. He remembers how blissful he felt when he first saw his name in print. Remembers it quite clearly. It was a spring exhibition of the students’ works in the art school, and his work appeared there too, exciting unusual attention. The review of his work did not move him much, it was seeing his name that had astonished him back then. Margus Suurul, Margus Suurul, he stared at these two words, and saw them, and the feeling was inexpressible! He read the review, his eyes sliding over letters and sentences, skipping the meaning – but his own name he scrutinised. It was a bodily pleasure, slightly intoxicating. He spent a full, long day looking at his name, did his chores too and did his job, but from time to time he grabbed the newspaper and looked at his name.
“You act as if you are up in the clouds,” said mum. Yes, that’s right, felt Margus. Someone really had lifted him up into the clouds, and he was so light, and it was so pleasant to hang there – as if on a swing. In the evening he cut out the review from the newspaper. Carefully, enjoying the creaking of the scissors. It was a Saturday – he even remembers that. And he spent all Sunday sitting to craft a sturdy scrapbook, made of dark brown paper with a cover of variegated half-silk. He was good with his hands and the scrapbook turned out truly beautiful. On the first page, he sketched a laurel wreath together with two paintbrushes, glued the review next to it, and added the name of the newspaper, the date, and the issue number. Thinking about it now, he feels he should be ashamed of this childish act, but he cannot be – he was so young, sincere, and innocent back then! More and more reviews were published in the newspapers back then, Margus collected them all in his scrapbook – he looked at his name often, but the two words no longer triggered this unusual feeling. Quite the contrary – the more Margus looked at these words, the more unfamiliar they became. But he kept collecting the reviews with the usual care towards his collection which he kept at a prominent place on the bookshelf. He often thought that in case of fire, the first thing he needs to save is his scrapbook – how on earth would he collect and gather these reviews again…
Where this book lies now, Margus does not remember. He brought the precious book with him to Paris, but the last time he saw it was when he knocked over a capless bottle of siccative and urgently needed some paper to dry the blot on the floor. He grabbed the first book in his reach and tore out a page – it was a longer review with which he cleaned the floor, and in which his name was mentioned many, many times.
Margus Suurul – these words live their own life now and Margus walks in their shadow, as if beneath waving banners. Margus’s road to success was neither short nor easy. As far back as he can remember, he was busy with paintbrushes, pencils, colours, always worrying about not having enough paper. When he was five or six years old, he followed his dad and mum3 around and pleaded for coloured pencils – twelve pencils at the cost of five kopecks! Later, he learnt how to wield a brush from an elderly German mistress, and after this, his mouth was always covered in paint, as in the spout of inspiration, the brushstrokes went dash! dash! into the little painter’s mouth, and this habit was impossible to wean off. He was even threatened with physical punishment, but then the boy did it in secret – in his mouth, the brush tip became very sharp and thin and even, not a hair stood apart from the others. He enrolled in the art school early on in his life, worked hard, and was a decent young man.
He graduated as the most talented student and headed to Paris on a stipend. Now his name is known in his homeland and in Paris. If one asked a schoolboy in his hometown about what kind of a man is this Margus Suurul, then a quick answer would be drawn up from the boy’s sleeve: “He painted the Son of Kalev and the Smith of Finland – oh, how nicely the sword glimmers in sunlight! No doubt it is a sword and one can feel it whistle.” Even the old, vicious Paris blinked its perplexed eyes. The times had made its eyes accustomed to seeing the wry and the crooked, the strained and the exaggerated. But then Paris blinked its eyes: a young man comes from somewhere in the north and with his paintbrush lures the sun into his canvas to have a feast, “The colours of the young painter are the colours of labour, health, and joy,” wrote one of the reviewers about Margus’s first exhibition. “He chooses things and beings that are entirely covered in sunshine and conveys the life that the sun has given to them. One can downright feel and hear how the sap seeps under the bark of a tree, and how the warmth of the skin of the woman who sits underneath the tree reaches beyond the canvas, to the visitors of the exhibition. A strange sunlight hangs over the works of Suurul, as if caught from the air with bare hands – this is not a layer of paint, this is light itself.”
Yes, the artist and the sunshine had good relations already in Margus’s childhood. The old Suuruls, Margus’s dad and mum, worked at the peat bog behind the town. Dad cut off blocks of black and freshly-wet peat from the peat pit, and mum, together with the other women, carried the blocks to dry in a stack. As they didn’t have anyone to look after the child, the parents took their offspring to the peatlands. There, the boy waddled among shrubs of wild rosemary and high meadowsweet. On the edges of fresh, already half-overgrown, and green peat pits. It was there that he saw the sun having a party, saw the hot air quivering in colour above peat pits at a midday in July. Saw how the sun strew green gold beneath and around the duck weed and melted the coal-black water that surrounded the peat pits into something as blue and shiny as a stone on a ring. And a beetle with a bluish brightness bustled over the dark surface of water, leaving a silvery line in its wake like a small steam boat. Waterspiders whirred up vivaciously, while on the walls of the peat pit, the caddisfly larvae were hanging like golden sticks in the sun. Meanwhile, a shovel, digging the peat, shone like new silver. “The sun licks the wet shovel with its tongue,” Margus thought then, smiled, and was feeling very content. Once, while sitting at the edge of the peat pit, the little boy chewed a stem of wild rosemary, got a high fever from it and sleep-talked while lying on his father’s jacket, under a bush of meadowsweet. Ah, during the fever the sun had a grand and lavish party! Large, golden-yellow wheels carried a blue heart, the wheels spun in one direction, the heart in the other. Then the wheels joined and became an enormous windmill with rainbow-coloured wings, and the mill was grinding sun’s gold. This party made the boy’s eyes hurt. And when the fever went down the lying boy noticed how extremely delicate the clusters of blossoms of meadowsweet are – these can only be put to paper with a paintbrush that has two or three hairs. A lynx hair paintbrush.
Margus spent a couple of summers on a riverbank. Dad and mum carried firewood from the barges to the lumberyard. The barges were wide and with curved edges, piled up with the white-barked birch logs. The water underneath the curved barges was black-green-brown. Little sons of Russians who worked on the barge were swimming in this water. They were naked and looked pink in the sun. Every time a pink body splashed into the water, the sunshine cast the black-green-brown water into a shade of golden yellow, like a liquid honey. Margus spent hours looking at the play of sunshine, water, and the little Russians, and smiled…
Translator’s note: ‘Ladybirdred’ is perhaps one of the most famous short stories of Leida Kibuvits. This is its first English translation — as well as the first (published) translation of any of her work. Written in the 1930s, it is included in three collections of her short stories and longer prose: Elagu Inimene! (An Ode to People! 1962), Endistest Aegadest (Of Bygone Times, 1977), and a collection with a title of the same name: Lepatriinupunane (Ladybirdred, 1987), published posthumously. ‘Ladybirdred’ reflects a style characteristic to Kibuvits: a painterly attention to colour and light, inspired by Kibuvits’s own short training at the Pallas art school in Tartu. Although Kibuvits never graduated, she continued to write with a painterly eye, as is hopefully apparent in this translation. Kibuvits also kept decorating her own furniture, and sewing and crocheting her own clothes throughout her life. Her handcraft was exhibited in the Kondas Centre in Viljandi in 2018. For a couple of years, Kibuvits used to live in Viljandi, a small but scenic Estonian town by a lake, which is likely depicted towards the end of ‘Ladybirdred’. Although the translation here is only the beginning of the story, it gives an idea of Kibuvits’s style which is full of lively alliterations and comparisons, of ellipses and dashes, of use of simple past and present, and of phrases rather than full sentences. Her style creates a sense of dreamy urgency in Estonian, and I’ve tried to keep that original sense alive as much as possible. Kibuvits’s words, like Margus’s paint, seem to capture bodily, lived experience. The whole story, like Margus’s early paintings, is strongly sensorial, and full of pleasure that comes from having a body. Kibuvits’s words, like Margus’s paint, seem to capture not only the light itself, but life. —E.T.
LEIDA KIBUVITS (18 October, 1907, Kurepalu, Tartu County – 5 December, 1976, Tallinn) was an Estonian novelist, short story writer, journalist, and translator. Her debut novel Soomustüdruk (1932, Armoured Girl) won a literary prize for the best novel in 1932. Four more Kibuvits novels – Rahusõit, 1933 (An Evening Train), Paradiisi pärisperenaine, 1934 (The Real Mistress of Paradise), Manglus Sepapoeg, 1936 (Manglus the Smith’s Son), and Kass arvab, et…, 1936 (The Cat Thinks That…). She was also a prolific short-story and novella writer throughout her rather tumultuous life that witnessed the Soviet occupation and imprisonment in Siberia. Her work was appreciated and known during her lifetime, and some reviews compared her to Anton-Hansen Tammsaare, one of the most canonical and well-known Estonian authors, both internationally and nationally. But today, Kibuvits is largely forgotten – there is little academic and public interest, apart from a few attempts to revive her legacy and reprint her novels. Her contribution to Estonian literature is, however, immense, and her work, once translated, certainly has international appeal. More, in English, on Kibuvits’s life can be found here.
ERET TALVISTE is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Tartu in Estonia. Her background is in English literature, and she is turning her PhD thesis into a monograph Affect, Embodiment, and Materiality in Virginia Woolf and Jean Rhys: Exploring Strange Intimacies (expected 2025) for Edinburgh UP. Her new postdoctoral project ‘Women, Nations, and Affect: The Importance of Leida Kibuvits’s Writing in the Context of Transnational Modernisms’ focuses on Kibuvits’s work in the context of transnational-feminist-modernist studies. Part of this project is translating and introducing Kibuvits’s work to audiences outside Estonia. Eret has written various essays and reviews about intimacy, feminism, and literature for Estonian cultural magazines and has academic articles on similar topics in international academic journals.
ADDITIONAL TRANSLATOR NOTES:
- Pryanik is a specific baked good, something between a scone and a biscuit. They are typical to Eastern Europe and come in various shapes, sizes, and colours such as pink (if they a specific flavour, for example, strawberry).
- Jäämark in direct translation means “icemark” but has no meaning in Estonian as such. The word probably refers to end-of-year fairs that were popular in early twentieth-century Estonia, and it likely derives from a German Jahrmarkt which means “yearmarket”. The German influence is likely because Estonian culture had many links with the German one at the time, and Kibuvits knew and translated German.
- Although ‘mum and dad’ is more common in English, the original uses ‘dad and mum’, and also sounds slightly odd in Estonian. The original oddity is therefore probably intentional, and I’ve kept it.