Short Story Collection "Subtle Flaws", 1937, by Eriks Ādamsons (1907–1946)
Eriks Ādamsons’ 1937 short story collection “Subtle Flaws” (Smalkās kaites) gave notice that the era of modernism had begun in Latvian prose. In these stories written between 1931 and 1937, humanity is revealed as internally conflicted, driven by subconscious urges and complexes; rational desires are suddenly subverted by unrealistic fantasies and passing whims. In these stories Ādamsons applies his unique prose style and his language is idiosyncratic and colourful, and has a real originality, employing terms never before seen in Latvian literature.
Ādamsons was born in Riga in 1907, and in 1924 began studies in law at the newly-established University of Latvia in his home city. He published his first work – a one-act play – the same year, and by the 1930s had dedicated himself to work as a writer, publishing a number of collections of poetry and prose. Ādamsons, who as well as his native Latvian spoke Russian, German, French and English, was also a professional translator, and translated works by Lord Byron, W.B. Yeats and Oscar Wilde into Latvian. (Ādamsons has often been compared to Wilde by Latvian critics). In 1931, Ādamsons married Mirdza Ķempe (1907−1974), herself a famous writer and translator, but the couple separated shortly before the beginning of World War II. In 1944 Ādamsons got married again, this time to Elvīra Padegs – widow of famous artist Kārlis Padegs (1911−1940) – but he had contracted tuberculosis during the period of the German occupation, and in 1946 he died in Biķernieki sanatorium in Riga.
Ādamsons was known as an aesthete both in his work and in his personal life – professor of Latvian literature Viesturs Vecgrāvis (1948) has called him “the only true Latvian decadent”. His work is often thought of as “ornamentalism”, for its careful descriptions of small details; and often also features exaggeratedly grotesque forms, cloaked in light irony. “Subtle Flaws” is also characterised by an interest in the strange and unusual, the subjective and the temporary, and that which exists only in inklings and illusions. Avoiding moralising or straining for an aesthetic ideal, Ādamsons stresses the conditionality and relativity of life, how people’s views and feelings can be shaped by the subconscious.
The protagonists of “Subtle Flaws” include an insanely jealous soldier who is worried about his bride’s faithfulness; a gardener who expends all his energy on creating a unique variety of yellow rose; and a German officer who is suddenly overwhelmed by lust for a married Latvian woman. All are placed in positions where they must make a choice whether to control their urges or to allow themselves to succumb to their impulses so that they go to their death or commit crimes.
There are few precedents for Ādamsons in Latvian literature, but the influence of his work can be detected in work by later writers, most prominently Anšlavs Eglītis (1906−1993) and Zigmunds Skujiņš (1926). Ādamsons’ work has not yet been translated into English (although a selection of stories from “Subtle Flaws” did appear in French in 2000), and so the work of the latter author is perhaps the best way for Anglophone readers to get a sense of the unique flavour of Ādamsons’ prose – Skujiņš’s 1999 novel “Flesh-Coloured Dominoes” has been published in English by “Arcadia Books”. Speaking of Ādamsons, Skujiņš said that he revealed what is inside of all of us, in an infinitely bright and infinitely garish fashion.
Latvia celebrated 110 years since Ādamsons’ birth in 2017 with poetry readings and events, including an hour-long episode of Latvia’s premier cultural TV programme “100 Grammes of Culture” (100 g. kultūras) dedicated to a discussion of his life and legacy – the presence of Toms Treibergs (1985), among Latvia’s best-known contemporary poets, testifying to his continuing relevance in the literary world.