White Shroud (Balta drobulė, 1958) by Antanas Škėma is considered by many as the essential work of Lithuanian modernist fiction. We’re excited to share the news that the book that has so many connections to Kaunas has finally been translated into English!
Antanas Škėma was born in 1910 and started studying medicine in Kaunas in 1929. He later transferred to law studies and, in 1935, began attending a theatre studio. Škėma even made it to the main stage as an actor. From 1940 to 1944, he acted and directed in Vilnius State Theatre and later left the country for the West. In the German DT camps and then in the United States, he continued his theatrical career and wrote numerous articles on theatre and literature and a handful of literary works. He died in a car accident a few years after White Shroud was finished.
Drawing heavily on the author’s refugee and immigrant experience, this psychological, stream-of-consciousness book tells the story of an émigré poet working as an elevator operator in a large New York hotel during the mid-1950s. The novel moves through sharply contrasting settings and stages in the narrator’s life in Lithuania before and during World War II, always returning to New York and the recent immigrant’s struggle to adapt to an entirely different, and indifferent, modern world. Strong characters and evocative utterances convey how historical context shapes language and consciousness, breaking down any stable sense of self.
Like all compelling fiction, this novel draws the reader into an intimate, culturally and historically specific world to explore universal human themes of selfhood, alienation, creativity and cultural difference. The English translation by Karla Gruodis promises to appeal to various audiences: readers of modernist and world literature, scholars of Baltic literature and refugee studies, and members of the Lithuanian diaspora unable to access this novel in Lithuanian. Written from the perspective of a newcomer to an Anglophone country, White Shroud encourages readers to understand the complexities of immigrant life better. Published by Vagabond Voices, the book is available on their website.
You can also see the dramatisation of the novel in the Kaunas State Drama Theatre. Directed by the Lithuanian theatre genius Jonas Jurašas who himself experienced life in the US, the play has been among the most popular ones in the past few years. On stage, the protagonist Antanas Garšva wanders through his cracky memories in places of the interwar Kaunas, High Panemunė and Vilnius; he’s forced to carry out a Sisyphean-like lift-operators work in the most prominent hotel in New York.
Good news is that the play is shown with English surtitles on selected dates. Please check the webpage of the theatre for more information.