August Gailit was a writer of exuberant imagination, a late neo-romanticist, whose entire output focuses on the eternal opposition of beauty and ugliness. He is immediately recognisable by his style, which probably leaves nobody indifferent.

Born in 1891 in Sangaste, South Estonia, as a son of a building master of Latvian or Livonian origin, he was a journalist in Riga, then a war correspondent. At the age of nineteen Gailit published his debut Kui päike läheb looja (When the Sun Sets, 1910) and from then on, he lived the life of a writer for half a century. He took part in the Estonian War of Independence and was afterwards the press attaché in Riga.

Gailit belonged to the famous literary group Siuru, being one of the initiators of it, as well as one of those who, with his bohemian rebelliousness, was the reason of its break-up. He was the expressionist-naturalist member of the group, and his collections of short stories – like Saatana karussell (Devil’s Merry Go Round, 1917) have been compared to squalls of storm.

Gailit lived in Germany, France and Italy in 1922–1924, then married an Estonian operetta actress and worked later as a theatre director.

In 1944 he emigrated to Sweden, where he also wrote his last work, the trilogy Kas mäletad, mu arm? (Do You Remember, Dearest? 1951–1959), borrowing its title from Baudelaire´s poem Une Charogne. In this he had become more serious and depressed by the grim fate of his homeland. He died in 1960 in Örebro.

As a talented master of words with an extraordinary style, choice of subject and type, Gailit focused throughout his creative life on the eternal opposition of beauty and ugliness, positive and negative, almost as if himself consisting of two different sides: one of them writing about dark and evil, cynical sarcasm and decadence, symbolist grotesque, the other one full of friskiness and joy springing from imagination, bonhomie and warm-heartedness. The gloomy one started writing the short stories, depressed from the experiences of the First World War, but the buoyant one was already there, waiting, and in the novel Muinasmaa (Fairyland, 1918) a writer and a painter spend a beautiful, adventurous and humorous summer in a village, surrounded by romantic nature. Gailit´s nature descriptions are something unforgettable, like a part of some natural mythical world life-cycle. At the same time his irony in his feuilletons about cultural policy, narrow-mindedness and bureaucracy was excoriating.

Gailit´s best-known work, Toomas Nipernaadi (1928), is a magically light-hearted novel consisting of novellas about a man who leaves the town every spring and lives the summers free of everyday routine, wandering around. Although he seems careless, fleeing every time when the situation gets complicated, the things that happen touch him, and as the autumn is drawing near, he becomes more serious as the light summer days grow shorter. His summer is full of adventures, work and fairy-tale-like love-stories, partly real and partly imagined. With the first snow his wife comes from the city to take him home. The tragicomic story has a very deep and touching side, the eternal wanderer follows the mythical cycle of life, the sequence of seasons in the beauty of nature.
The novel was first translated into German in 1931 (under the title of Nippernaht und die Jahreszeiten) and reviewed with extreme positiveness also by Hermann Hesse and Hans Fallada, then into many other languages, and it was made into a marvellous film in 1983.

Based on his own experiences, Gailit wrote a novel about the refugees fleeing to Sweden, titled Üle rahutu vee (Across the Restless Sea, 1951). The novel consists of inner monologues of different people who happened to sail over the sea in this little fisherman´s boat, revealing their fate during the war and occupations, but also the inner qualities of these men and women. Gailit was always honest, so in this boat there are both noble people and rascals, and not all of them survive the nightmarish journey over the water.

Text by Elle-Mari Talivee


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