If there was one thing other than poetry that Latvian poet and writer Eriks Raisters was passionate about then, that was literature. He has a real love affair going with books, and each new book that came his way would be tenderly taken, looked at, read and then put gently upon a shelf to reread at a later date.
Some Thoughts About Reading
Poet and writer Eriks Raisters wrote many articles for the newspapers he worked for with the most written during the time he worked as the editor of the Latvian newspaper “Laiks” or “Time” in New York. I discovered an article that he wrote about his thoughts on reading and books.
He thought that if he saw a person reading one book after another, it was not bad but that perhaps they weren’t getting any real inspiration or pleasure from the books because they were “devouring” them much too fast. It seemed to him that it was like the devil was forcing them on to keep reading and reading but never to stop and savor every book.
A World of Books
Raisters once noticed a young woman who had started reading books by Latvian authors, foreign authors, famous people, and even those who wrote cheap novels. She was doing this not because she expected to get something out of these books but because she was bored and was trying to find a way to fill the emptiness. When at last she ran out of books she couldn’t even remember the authors of some of the books. Latvian writers like Akuraters and Virza had gotten mixed up with Maupassant, Dickens, and Jack London.
All of this reading frenzy was similar to when young people would make a mad dash for the movie theater just so that they wouldn’t miss the latest film, and they could tell their friends that they had seen it. However, later on, they would start to complain that the movie they had seen had been dull and meaningless, but they would still eagerly wait for the next big film to come out.
Raisters remarked that he had also been swept up in all the movie craziness only to accept the fact that there was something wrong there. When he went to university, he remembered reading somewhere that books should be read systematically. The idea was to stick to books by one author or starting with easy reading pieces and gradually working your way up to the more challenging literature. However, Raisters was not clear on how to begin, so he set reading aside until he started yearning for a good book, and he had lost the interest to run to every new film.
Years went by when Raisters didn’t read more than one book a month, and when he began his career as a journalist, there was even less time to read. Then came the times when he was so tired and felt so empty that doing nothing started making him crazy and nervous. It was at this time that he turned again to reading. The first books that caught his eye were two volumes by Miguel de Cervantes “Don Quixote.” However, he had read this book twice before, so he went on to take a look at other books. There were “A Thousand and One Nights,” Aleksis Kivi “Seven Brothers,” among others, but they all seemed so familiar. So he returned to “Don Quixote.”
Finding a Friend in Don Quixote
Raisters took the book in his hand, looked it over carefully, and started reading from the first page. It opened up a world to him from which he had gone away from so long ago. Now, this world was once again opening its door to him. The more he read, the more he saw Don Quixote in a different light, which he had not recognized previously. Many phrases were worth remembering, some places in the book Raisters read twice and enjoyed the author’s writing style. It was then that he realized that he was starting to get into the book like a wine expert who takes a good old wine and sips it slowly, savoring the taste. The book suddenly seemed like new again. After two hours, he felt refreshed and could return to the newspaper article he had begun to write.
The rest of that day, nothing else seemed to beckon to him because he knew that tomorrow he would return to Don Quixote, and it would further delight him. Each day after that, he waited for when he could pick up his book and read uninterruptedly. His favorite daydream was returning from work, sitting back in his armchair, putting the book on his lap, lighting up a cigarette so that the day’s last stress would ease and get lost in the pages of the book. So Don Quixote became his best friend.
He had found something in this book that he hadn’t noticed there previously. Afterward, Raisters read many of the latest books written by Latvian authors and finally turned to Dante, Homer, Goethe, Shakespeare, and Pushkin, among others. He loved Aleksis Kivi’s “Seven Brothers” so much that he learned some of the passages by heart. A lot of these works stirred the poet’s soul in him and inspired him. He began learning by heart the poems of some of the greatest masters and especially enjoyed 19th-century French lyricism.
My Own Experience with Don Quixote
When I first translated my dad’s article, I decided to give “Don Quixote” a try. At that time, I lived in Riga, Latvia, so I got the book from the Latvian National Library. I could have chosen to see if they had the book in English, but I chose to try to read it in Latvian because I knew this was the language my dad read the book in. I knew dad didn’t understand Spanish, and he started learning English only later on. Well, I will tell you that trying to find what my dad found in this book was the same as the character Don Quixote having to fight those windmills. However, what did happen is that I fell in love with Quixote’s horse, Rocinante, and I could imagine having such a horse. For anyone interested and has never read “Don Quixote”, I strongly recommend giving this classic a try. You might find it becomes a special book for you as Raisters did, or you might find something special from the book for yourself as I did.
Saying Goodbye to Books
At the time of occupation and as WW II came on full force, Raisters had to say good-bye to the poetic atmosphere in his apartment and his collection of books that had steadily grown. Leaving Riga, Latvia, he had carefully chosen some books to take with him. Unfortunately, these boxes were no longer on the train when he got to his destination at the port city of Liepaja in the Kurzeme region of Latvia. He was left with the books he had managed to put into his suitcase. There were poems by Omar Khayyam and four novels by Latvian writers.
These were then the first and only books he had with him starting life in exile. Raisters remembered that in Berlin, Germany, when the only food one had, was some bread and you could see your breath in the air in a cold room how wonderful it was to pick up a book by Latvian writer Karlis Skalbe. Then he could “walk” into the pages and be back in Latvia. It was great to remember the days of living in the countryside, the smell of sweet hay, and to leave the desolate days of the war behind for awhile. Skalbe’s stories brought him back to his childhood to the days when as a little boy, he was a shepherd daydreaming in the fields in Ranka, Latvia, where he was born.
Reading Omar Khayyam
Reading the verses of Omar Khayyam, Raisters felt he could fulfill his inner self. Verses about wine and passion were in complete contrast to life in Berlin at that time. Even while eating some thin soup in a Berlin café, it was possible to imagine it had a taste of wine, and he could smell the roses in the rose gardens that were blooming for Khayyam’s mistress. With Khayyam, he could also spite death and be ready to receive it if it should come feeling free and fulfilled. When he had read all he had, he started to show an interest in German literature.
In the winter, he would go to libraries to look for interesting reading material, but this pleasure ended when in February, there was a bombing raid on Berlin, and libraries closed their doors. Several months afterward, he left behind the ruins of Berlin and arrived in Husum, a small, grey looking town on the North Sea where the famous German novelist Theodor Storm was born and raised. It was Storm who coined the epithet “the grey town by the sea.” Raisters discovered that the woman who owned the house where he was renting a room had a lot of German literature, and his love of reading and poetry could begin anew.
Raisters felt that a poet could feel great passion if he found the right reading material and that sometimes one had to go through great mountains of books to find the right path to take. When one does find a book that can stir their soul, it should be savored like fine wine and taken one sip at a time. Even the smallest book at wartime could open a magical world and help an individual escape from the grey and tiring world of exile, even if for some moments in time.