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« Tuna 4 / 2019

Messages from the “Edge of the World”: Aksel Valgma’s Letters to Artur Adson

Aksel Valgma was born in Estonia in 1910 and died in Australia in 1966. In 1933 he became a professional journalist. He worked for several newspapers in Tallinn and, in addition to this, he published humorous stories and children’s books. During the Second World War, Valgma fled to Germany and emigrated from there to Sydney – to the “edge of the world”, as he himself called his new domicile. He worked at a felt factory, managed a chicken farm, and was editor of the Australian Estonians’ weekly Meie Kodu (Our Home).

While he was working as a journalist in Tallinn, he became acquainted with Artur Adson (1889–1977), a poet, writer and theatre critic, who fled to Sweden from the Soviet occupation. They never met again, yet for a short while their old acquaintance was renewed through correspondence. Artur Adson and Marie Under’s collection at the Estonian Cultural History Archives contains thirteen letters written by Valgma to Adson in the period from 3 February 1964 to 25 May 1966. The addressee on the envelopes is Artur Adson, yet in several letters he turns to Adson and his wife, the poetess Marie Under, with news for both of them. Some of the letters are in aerogram format, whereas others are in ordinary envelopes, as they contained photographs and banknotes, which could not be enclosed in the aerogram. The collection of letters is complete, without gaps in content, so it could be assumed that Adson preserved all of Valgma’s letters. The last letter by Valgma is dated three months before he committed suicide. Its content suggests that life goes on and the correspondence continues; there is no indication of its being the last letter, which it actually was.

When Valgma started correspondence with Adson, twenty years had passed since their last meeting. The letters indicate several reasons for renewing their acquaintance. Valgma was looking for contributions to the newspaper and wished it to come from Europe; he had a strong province complex and considered Australia to be a cultureless country. On the other hand, Valgma was looking for someone to whom he could confess the pain he felt from losing his homeland. The first letters focus on reminiscences, the later ones discuss more topics from the present. Valgma suggests collaboration to Adson, hoping that his articles would enhance the prestige of Meie Kodu among the readership and would have a considerable impact on the editor’s unstable self-esteem.

The topic most often discussed by Valgma and Adson is trends in refugee literature. Adson is disturbed by the depictions of intimate life in the works of younger authors, and in his reply Valgma agrees with him, although this topic is not very important for him. Valgma is worried about the writers’ divergence from the refugees who constitute the only target group of exile literature. In Valgma’s opinion, the interest of the refugees in Estonian-language literature was approaching the critical line. Valgma thinks that exile literature should refrain from “philosophical sophistry” and use, above all, refugees’ everyday life as a source of inspiration. During the years of correspondence, Valgma wrote his novel Elu üksiklinnud (The Solitary Birds of Life, Lund 1966), which precisely follows the requirements for exile literature that he had explained to Adson. As Valgma wrote the novel and letters in parallel, they overlap remarkably in terms of sentiments and their general mood, which in places is rather depressive. The book reviews and obituaries dedicated to the author have emphasised the biographical side of the novel.

In his fourth letter to Adson, Valgma writes that his mother-in-law, Mrs. Möölmann, who stayed in Estonia during the war, has been granted a permit to settle in Australia. The seventh letter evidences that Adson has asked Mrs. Möölmann, through Valgma, to help him find out about the destiny of his former neighbours. The tenth letter reveals an interesting fact: mediation of news from their homeland developed into a correspondence between Möölmann and Under. Together with Adson’s letters addressed to Valgma, Under’s letters to Möölmann reached Australia. Valgma enclosed his mother-in-law’s answers in the envelopes addressed to Adson, and this is how news from Soviet Estonia moved through Australia to Sweden.

The sub-section “Selected letters” presents complete texts of three letters which provide an insight into the problems that creative intellectuals focused on in their discussions in the first decades of exile. The letters also refer to the reasons that inhibited Estonian refugees’ adaptation to life in Australia.