Poetry Collections "Annual Rings", 1969, and "Autumn Time", 1987, and the Trilogy of Novels "Bille", 1992–1999, by Poet and Writer Vizma Belševica (1931–2005)
Thrice nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Vizma Belševica (1931–2005) first gained fame as a poet, controversial to the Soviets, and later in life again rose to national prominence for semi-autobiographical novels set before, through and after the Second World War.
Belševica was born into a working-class family living on Rīga’s Vārnu Street. In the “Bille” trilogy of novels, published 1992 to 1999, she drew from her childhood experiences to describe the poverty and mores of the simple folk, telling the story of Bille, a bright girl who comes to know a world where there are chiefly negative expectations of her.
Politically, the first part of the trilogy can be seen as refuting popular perceptions of Kārlis Ulmanis’ (1877–1942) authoritarian rule as an era of plenty. Maybe it was to some, but not everyone, Belševica said in a 1994 interview with the Rīgas Laiks magazine.
Politics, however, have nothing to do with the story’s sheer emotional impetus. Loss of innocence is part of life, but Bille’s brushes the tragic as it happens much too early. In her work, Belševica herself would manifest the lack of self-worth instilled into her in childhood. Nonetheless, the ascetic aspect of this attitude, which she sometimes seems to apply to Latvians as a nation, lends her work a fierce and spiteful moral quality.
Belševica first started publishing poetry at the age of 16. The first collection to really grab public – and official – attention was “Annual Rings” (Gadu gredzeni, 1969). It contains an innovative poem juxtaposing the writings of the region’s first historian, Henry of Latvia (c. 13th century), with poetry he supposedly wrote on the manuscript margins, bemoaning the fates of the peoples oppressed in the first Baltic crusades and calling them to arms. This was taken to reflect the fate of the nations that the Soviets had subjugated.
After much ado, Belševica was banned from publishing through 1971–1974; at the time, the authorities carried out a 16-hour search at her apartment. She became a “non-person”, not to be mentioned in public, but continued translating and working on her next collection of poems. For Belševica, there was great personal cost incurred in the heavily publicized case, but, in response, people started quoting her poetry on the street, and her name was heard in the West due to the proceedings.
In the context of the hitherto liberal atmosphere of the late 1960s, “Annual Rings” joined a growing body of culture that would prepare the soil for the flowering of the Latvian independence movement twenty years later. Just as the collapse of the Soviet Union started seeming inevitable, Belševica would publish some of her more openly confrontational poetry yet in “Autumn Time” (Dzeltu laiks, 1987). The collection saw Belševica further develop her style, ever rich in natural themes and the clash of opposites; while its series of historic poems places individual voices in collective events, singing with the fierce rage of the just.
Belševica had two sons, Klāvs Elsbergs (1959–1987) and Jānis Elsbergs (1969). Klāvs was a prolific translator and poet and is popular to this day. He died in unclear circumstances, and Belševica considered it to be a political murder. Jānis is likewise a well-known poet and translator.
Belševica remains a household name through and through. Many a child has grown up reading her translations – “Winnie the Pooh, Doctor Dolittle”, and Kipling’s “Just so Stories”, to name a few – only to encounter her renditions of Shakespeare, Vonnegut, Hemingway, and others as they grow up. Many composers have used Belševica’s poetry as lyrics, perhaps most notably Imants Kalniņš (1941, also included in the Latvian Culture Canon) for the classic song “Dūdieviņš“. In 2018 Ināra Kolmane directed a feature film based on the first book of the “Bille” trilogy.
Raimonds Briedis on Vizma Belševica in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008. (in Latvian)
Novel trilogy "Bille" first part of the first chapter "Jātiek uz augšu". Vizma Belševica's handwriting. S.l., early, 1990. National Library of Latvia, Collection of Rare Book and Manuscripts. (in Latvian)
Fragment from Vizma Belševica's novel "Bille", 1992–1999. Ciemos pie vecātēva. (in Latvian)
Fragment from Vizma Belševica's novel "Bille", 1992–1999. Divi lati. (in Latvian)
Fragments from Vizma Belševica's poetry collection "Gadu gredzeni", 1969. (in Latvian)
Fragments from Vizma Belševica's poetry collection "Dzeltu laiks", 1987. (in Latvian)
Programme of poet's Vizma Belševica author evening. (1981). Rīga: Latvijas Padomju rakstnieku savienības Literatūras propagandas birojs. National Library of Latvia, Collection of Small Prints. (in Latvian)
Raimonds Briedis on Vizma Belševica in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008.