Karl Ristikivi

Karl Ristikivi

Karl Ristikivi (October 16 1912 Lääne County - July 19 1977 Stockholm) was an Estonian writer. He is among the best Estonian writers for his historical novels. Although he published only one collection of poems during his life, "The Journey of a Man" or "A Man's Journey", he is considered among the best Estonian poets beside Gustav Suits and Heiti Talvik.


Ristikivi graduated Tartu University (cum laude) in 1941.

Dictionary of Literary Biography on Karl Ristikivi:

Karl Ristikivi was one of the first Estonian writers to create a comprehensive panorama of his country's urbanization. He also wrote the first Estonian surrealist novel, a work that is strongly influenced by existentialist philosophy. He orchestrated an impressive cycle of twelve books into a polyphonic unity with a time scale that embraces European history over two millennia. His invention and use of a complicated system of myths and symbols could be compared to the approach of the school of semiotic writers. Humanism and traditional ethics are, however, the chief legacy of his works.

Ristikivi was born on 16 October 1912 in Paadr²ma in western Estonia to an unmarried maidservant, Liis Ristikivi, and was baptized Karp Ristikivi in the Russian Orthodox congregation to which his mother belonged. He spent his childhood on various farms where his mother found employment. In 1920 he entered a village school and suffered humiliation because of his illegitimacy and his frail physique.

He obtained some knowledge of literature and history by reading old German books that he found in the attic of a local manor house; although he did not know the language at first, he enjoyed looking at the pictures and asked grown-ups about the meaning of the texts. In the process he shaped his own imaginary world of medieval knights and Christian ideals.

His interest in history and talent for learning languages made Ristikivi an academic success at the village school. In 1927 a rich relative offered him an opportunity to continue his studies, and Ristikivi attended the Tallinn Commercial School and the Tallinn Evening Gymnasium; he graduated from the latter institution in 1932. The reminiscences of older residents of the city sparked Ristikivi's interest in the first period of urbanization in Estonia at the end of the nineteenth century.

Ristikivi began his literary career writing stories for family magazines, and in the 1930s he published a series of children's books with animal characters: Lendav maailm (The Flying World, 1935), Sinine liblikas (The Blue Butterfly, 1936), Semud (Buddies, 1936), and Sellid (Pals, 1938). The money he received for these works enabled him to enroll in the department of geography in the faculty of mathematics and natural sciences of the University of Tartu, where he chose sociology as his main subject.

While at the university he was active in the left-wing student society Veljesto (Brethren).

In 1938 Ristikivi published his first novel, Tuli ja raud (Fire and Iron). It and his next two novels treat the urbanization process as it affected three representative classes of Estonians--workers, merchants, and intellectuals--and comprise his so-called Tallinn trilogy.

Tuli ja raud begins in the 1880s with Jüri Säävel giving up farming and moving to Tallinn, thereby becoming a member of the first urban proletariat in Estonia. He witnesses the revolution of 1905, World War I, the Estonian declaration of independence in 1918, and the subsequent War of Independence. Throughout his life he retains his ideals of hard work, honesty, and charity. One of his sons dies in an accident; the other son, continuing the family tradition of moving to places of economic opportunity, seeks his fortune by immigrating to the United States. Säävel sends his orphaned grandson to the newly founded Tallinn Technical University, thereby establishing a pattern of progress: Säävel is a foundry worker, his late son was a train engineer, and the grandson gets a degree in engineering.

A reverse pattern is also apparent, however: the grandson divorces his wife, leaving her with a baby son. Säävel dies without forgiving his grandson, but the rest of the family continues living together to bring up the child.

Tuli ja raud was the literary event of the year and won first prize in the fiction competition of the Loodus publishing house. The award money enabled Ristikivi to continue his studies; even more important to the young novelist was a public letter of praise from Anton Hansen Tammsaare, the "living classic" of Estonian literature. Tammsaare's words of encouragement suggest that the older writer was aware of Ristikivi's debt to Tammsaare's epic novel cycle Tõde ja õigus (Truth and Justice, 1926-1933). Other influences on Ristikivi's Tallinn trilogy were the novels of Charles Dickens, John Galsworthy, and Thomas Mann and--oddly--the 1933 Hollywood movie Cavalcade.

In June 1940 the Soviet Union annexed Estonia. One of the consequences of the Communist occupation was that when the next novel in Ristikivi's trilogy was published in December, its title was changed by the authorities from the author's Õige mehe koda (The Abode of the Just Man) to Võõras majas (In a Strange House, 1940) because the original title was thought to be too biblical.

In Võõras majas Jakob Kadarik, an orphan, is brought up in the household of a rich German merchant who owns a department store in a choice location in Tallinn. Jakob is ashamed of his peasant origin and obsessed with getting ahead. To reward his doggedly faithful service, humility, and business acumen, the merchant gives Jacob the hand of one of his daughters, who would otherwise remain an old maid. Another daughter, however, will get a much bigger dowry, so Jakob engages in an intrigue whereby he gets the other sister to marry him. Decades later, life in the Kadarik household is outwardly splendid: Estonia is an independent republic; Estonians have replaced Germans in business and society; and Jacob now owns the department store. Real happiness eludes Jakob, however. His wife has not forgiven him for the greedy and fraudulent maneuver that led to their union and has never loved him. Then the business fails. After the wife dies, the children find her diary, which reveals the ugly truth about her marriage; as a result, they become estranged from their father. Jakob's store burns down; he is suspected of having set the fire to collect the insurance; and one of his sons commits suicide.....


Ristikivi's books include
*"A Man's Journey"
*"Fire and Iron"
*"Souls' Night"

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