Oskar Luts (1887-1953), one of the Estonian most beloved authors, was simple and paradoxical, externally an enjoyable comic and a real man of the people, internally amazingly captivating. He wrote, moving “the ear of the heart”. Laughter, devilments and moving sadness are in his books uniquely brought together and it would not be easy to explain their magic. It has to be felt while reading.

Luts grew up in Palamuse, Northern Tartu county. His father was a shoemaker. He studied pharmacy at the University of Tartu. During the World War I, while serving as military pharmacist, Luts married half Polish, half Byelorussian Valentina Krivitskaja. In 1922 he made a bold decision to become a professional writer, undergirded by the literary monthly Looming and a contract with Noor-Eesti (Young Estonia) publishing house, where his manuscripts raised cheerful excitement. In 1929 he was presented to the King of Sweden as one of the great figures of the Estonian culture. He was the first to receive the title of National Writer in the beginning of the Soviet occupation, but shortly afterwards some of his books were banned, although his name was still used in propaganda. Luts died of cancer in 1953 and was mourned for all over the country.

His specialization was wide, from children to grown-ups, from film-like and symbolist-surrealistic novelettes to novels and short stories about urban milieu and modern melancholy, protagonists aiming to get out of the slum like the heroes of Charles Dickens. His books were shadowed by the experience of war and reflected author´s unique ability to look inside the human soul. He immortalized the human kaleidoscope of the backyards of Tartu: tenants and hosts, university students, the town folk of Russian, Estonian and Baltic German origin.

Sharp observation and rich talent using folk humour to run down the foolishness made his realistic short comedies a hit. Luts is the most staged and dramatized Estonian writer. The main character of the play Kapsapea (The Cabbage, 1912), noisy villager Saamuel Pliuhkam, is a well-known animated hero. His other characters can be compared to the seven brothers of Aleksis Kivi.

His first novel Kevade (Spring, I–II, 1912-1913 ) is still the most beloved book in Estonia. The schoolhouse of Paunvere (Palamuse) is an object of curiosity up to nowadays and the heroes of the novel are the Estonian versions of Tom Saywer and Ernö Nemecsek. The novel is translated into fourteen languages and describes the formation processes of young people, offering something dearly familiar to every reader. The novel was the first of the sequence, followed by Suvi (Summer, 1918) up to Sügis (Autumn, 1938). The writer is himself one of the characters. He surprised the audience with playfulness, serious philosophy, farce and criticism, and gave even in the 1980s reason to one of the mystifications of the Estonian literature in a form of fan fiction, as then a deadly serious and queer novel Talve (Winter) appeared.

Strikingly bewitching is his novel Kirjutatud on ..., which later appeared under the title Soo (The Swamp. It has been written that..., 1914). A young artist coming home from Paris and fighting first for love and then for his life, competing with gloomy bog, its will-o'-the-wisps and grotesque settlers, is the main protagonist of a thrilling and subtly psychological novel, depicting restless soul and forbidden love.

Luts began writing to children with an autobiographical piece Inderlin (1920). This narrative of a long journey from Byelorussia to Tartu is a tender inner monologue of a young father. His next story named Nukitsamees (Bumpy, 1920) has won the hearts of the Estonian children as a book, a film and a play. Based on folklore, it tells a story of a boy and his sister imprisoned by a devilish forest witch in a ghastly house in the woods. They manage to escape at last, bringing the little horned son of the witch with them to the world of light.

His best of the 1930s was the novel Tagahoovis (In the Backyard, 1933) that has been compared to naturalism, Kafka and Italian neorealism, and the scene of action also to paradise of scamps. The book has two endings in its way: the Russian lady gets away from her disconsolate backyard home, but the washerwoman´s daughter Veika-Roosi commits suicide. The next novel, Vaikne nurgake (A Quiet Corner, 1934), sharply bit the fascist views of the Baltic German society and its version on stage almost brought about a diplomatic scandal. Later written memoirs form a kind of river novel, in which Luts caricatures the World War I as a bitter Jaroslav Hašek.

His tender descriptions of nature and subtle knowledge of human soul are written down in free and easy everyday language, full of expression and unique in its spontaneous way also in Europe.

Text by Elle-Mari Talivee

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