Jaan Kross

Jaan Kross (1920-2007), Estonia.

Jaan Kross, poet, novelist and translator, was born in Tallinn, Estonia, during that country’s period of interwar independence; he began to publish in magazines by the time he was 16. He studied law and lectured for two years (1944-1946) at the University of Tartu. Kross was arrested as an Estonian patriot by the German army in 1944; in 1946 he was arrested by the Soviet secret police and spent eight years “interned” in the not-very-temperate Komi and Krasnoyarsk regions. He was frequently mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and on at least one occasion was told to wait by the phone for a call that did not come (evidently this is an unpleasant experience that a surprising number of writers have once they reach a certain age and perceived level of significance). Kross received numerous honorary degrees and prestigious literary prizes, especially after Estonia's independence was restored in 1991; translations of his work (the historical novels) into English date from after 1991.

Professor Martens’ Departure can be read as a moral autobiography of its narrative center and hero, the pre-Revolutionary Estonian professor, government functionary and international mediator Friedrich (or Fred, or Fyodor) Martens, whose memory ranges widely over his past and over that of his sort-of namesake and possible past-life incarnation, a German professor Martens who lived nearly a century before. The novel unfolds during a train trip that lasts less than one day “in real time.” Loosely based on a real historical figure, Martens has alwyas lived a double life, and Kross delicately traces its axes and oppositions, beginning at a somewhat ponderous pace that feels almost archaic to a reader today, but bringing everything together in an ending that has come to feel inevitable.

Many of Kross’s works have yet to be translated into English. Our edition was translated by Anselm Hollo.

Questions for reading:

Other books by Kross:

Works about Kross:

Still no monograph on Kross in English - it's the the fate of writers from “small nations.”

You might enjoy comparing Kross’s work to other historical novels - Andrić, or Kadare, or (to cast a wider net) A. S. Byatt Possession, also the basis of an entertaining film. For Estonian context, see Kajar Pruul and Darlene Reddaway Estonian Short Stories.