Novel "Smoulder", 1977, by Writer Regīna Ezera (1930–2002)
Regīna Ezera (real name Regīna Kindzule, née Šamreto) wrote 28 books of novels and stories. Perceived as a first-rate, but nevertheless very traditional writer throughout most of her career, Ezera’s mature works expanded the boundaries of the prevailing psychological realism genre, paving the way for a new generation of writers who delved headfirst into the undercurrents of language and the human soul.
“Smoulder” (Zemdegas), often referred to as a novel but in fact a set of closely linked novellas, marks Ezera’s departure from the constraints of Soviet-approbated writing, exploring the relationship between the author and the text, and between language and reality.
Ezera was born into a family of a carpenter and a nurse. One of the very few Latvian writers with a different native language–her parents spoke Polish at home–she is now routinely named among the language’s greatest prose stylists.
Ezera’s family, plus four of their extended relatives, lived in a cramped apartment near the railway station in Rīga. She went on to study journalism, but it was difficult for her to find time to write as she had three children by the age of 26. Ezera’s devotion to her craft has earned her a reputation among modern feminists. “Anytime I have to choose between a manuscript and a broom, I’ll take the first,” she once quipped. Despite the initial difficulties, Ezera’s debut book of stories was published in 1961 and she quickly became well-known.
The state, which lavishly sponsored the literati during the Soviet era, granted Ezera an apartment in Rīga’s prestigious Mežaparks neighborhood, but in 1978 she settled down in the Brieži countryside home near the Daugava river in Ķegums Municipality, central Latvia. There, she did a lot of walking, thousands upon thousands of kilometers crisscrossing the woods near her country house, dog in tow. Love of animals is a motif prevalent throughout her work: altogether, she had five dogs in her life, and country and animals are likewise very prominent in “Smoulder”.
The book’s Latvian title refers to underground fires, which in Latvia happen when peat burns beneath the topsoil, sometimes smouldering on for months; as it were, the title also prepares readers for a ravishing examination of passions raging beneath the calm surface of the imaginary Mūrgale village where the book unravels.
But the rub is that the melodramatic narrative, interspersed with soaring, hilarious episodes in which the author (not to be confused with Ezera) tells the reader how she came to learn the stories to follow, comes only after a cryptic introduction where the author enters a mysterious garden and realises she’s dead, and that the characters we’ll later learn about on the page are dead as well.
The stories centre around witting and unwitting murders, the lived and unlived love affairs of the locals. They’re written in a realist fashion and in flourishing Latvian, making great use of all its registers. But the book turns itself on the head with the highly self-ironic closing chapter, in which it is revealed that the author’s death was caused by a museum employee pestering her for personal objects to be displayed at an exhibition; then, she is magically brought back to life together with all the characters who died (or, one might say, were killed by the author).
“The novel tries to negate itself, or, more precisely, the dimension which is usually called ‘accordance with reality’. In Latvian prose writing of the 1970s, mostly dominated by the traditional psychological realism usually associated with socialist realism, this was a very radical step. In essence, “Smoulder” is a big step in the way of literature perceiving itself, first and foremost, as literature,” wrote critic Guntis Berelis.
By now, readers in the West probably have “Barthes! Death of the Author!” flashing about in their minds, but it is highly unlikely Ezera or any other writers in Soviet Latvia had access to this quintessential postmodernist text, or any related texts for that matter. How, then, did this trend towards the metafictional enter Latvian literature? One can only wonder.
Ikstena, Nora. Par sēnēm un vientulību: Regīnai Ezerai (On Mushrooms and Loneliness: Dedicated to Regīna Ezera). (in Latvian)
Guntis Berelis on Regīna Ezera in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008. (in Latvian)
Fragments from Regīna Ezera's novel "Zemdegas" (Smoulder), 1977. Mīna ar laika degli jeb stāsts par Veldzi un Ingu (Delayed action mine or the story about Veldze and Inga). (in Latvian)
Fragments form Regīna Ezera's novel "Zemdegas" (Smoulder), 1977. Beigas (The End). (in Latvian)
Regīna Ezera – 50 on 20 December 1980: [brochure]. (1980). Rīga: Latvijas PSR brīvprātīgā grāmatu draugu biedrība. National Library of Latvia, collection of Small Prints. (in Latvian)
Progamme for Regīna Ezera author evening "Pati ar savu vēju" (With My Own Wind). (1980). Rīga: Latvijas Padomju rakstnieku savienības Literatūras propagandas birojs. (in Latvian)
List of books written by Regīna Ezera that were published during her lifetime. (in Latvian)
Guntis Berelis on Regīna Ezera in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008.