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Claire Lawrence

Former British Ambassador to Lithuania

Part of UK in Lithuania

5th March 2018 Vilnius, Lithuania

Lithuanian Centenary – the people who built our friendship – Writers

Not long after first arriving in Vilnius I hosted the book launch for Kristina Sabaliauskaitė’s new book ‘Vilnius, Wilno, Vilna’. I didn’t know much about the author, although many people in the Embassy had read, and loved, her bestselling Silva Rerum books. I very much enjoyed her Vilnius book, though. So much so that I bought copies for all my friends and relatives that Christmas. The three stories did what good literature should do, opened my eyes to a deeper understanding and gave me a real sense of place and history. Of course, in the case of these stories, it was three evolving and overlapping impressions, reflecting Vilnius’ very multi-cultural and multi-lingual heritage.

I think of Kristina Sabaliauskaitė, who lives in London, as a form of literary Ambassador. She often engages with UK academics on Lithuania and will be part of the London Book Fair’s focus this year on the three Baltic States, along with three other Lithuanian authors, Alvydas Šlepikas, Tomas Venclova, and Undinė Radzevičiūtė.

I feel Lithuanian literature deserves to be better known in the UK, including as a means of better knowing Lithuania. There is some fiction available, for example the UK even has a publishing house devoted to Lithuanian fiction in English translation. I hope that 2018, the Centenary year, will help us see more.

Indeed, it was through literature that the name of Lithuania would first have come into the consciousness of many in England. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, from the late 14th Century, the Knight has returned from fighting in Lithuania:

‘In Lettow [Lithuania] hadde he reysed, and in Ruce,

No Christen man so ofte of his degree.’

And so of course, while it will be a landmark opportunity to showcase Lithuania, the influences of writers on the relationship go beyond the London Book Fair this year. British fiction is widely read in Lithuania. We were delighted to welcome Evie Wyld to the Vilnius Book Fair, with the Lithuanian translation of All the Birds Singing. (Other discussion at the Vilnius Book Fair threw up a long list of British literature which should be translated into Lithuanian.) And some British authors, such as Simon Schama and Simon Sebag Montefiore, have Lithuanian roots.

Shakespeare is widely known throughout Lithuania, and has contributed more to the relationship than any other writer. His works provided a beacon for Lithuania during some of the darkest moments of the 20th Century. Indeed, his works help show some of the cultural likemindedness between the UK and Lithuania – a shared love of freedom for example.

I think of Lithuania, with the beautiful libraries of places like Vilnius University, and the historical bravery of the Lithuanian Book Smugglers, as a country with a deep love of books. The role that books and writers have played in building the relationship between our countries and people over the past century is therefore a particularly special one.

2 comments on “Lithuanian Centenary – the people who built our friendship – Writers

  1. Dear Claire,

    I’m working with the Lithuanian Culture Institute to celebrate Day of the Book Smugglers for the first time in London. Taking place on Friday 16th March, this annual Lithuanian celebration is a potent symbol of this country’s unique history and commitment to literature and culture.

    As you know, book smuggling is remembered annually on the birth date of Jurgis Bielinis “King of the Book Smugglers,” to remember Lithuania’s long-standing use of books in non-violent resistance against occupation.

    A breakfast event at London’s Free Word Centre will feature special guests including Dr Kristina Sabaliauskaitė, LBF Market Focus Author of the Day and Lithuania’s most successful modern writer, who will be in-conversation with journalist Rosie Goldsmith. It will be an opportunity to learn more about the country’s literature, culture, history, forthcoming titles and rights available.

    All attendees will be armed with their own Lithuanian literature goody bag when leaving the venue and will be joined by a troupe of “knygnešiai” (book smugglers), primed to journey to key cultural locations across London. We will be encouraging people to track the smugglers’ progress on social media using the hashtag #followthebooksmugglers

    I’d love to send you some more information about what we have planned. Do you have an email address that I could contact you on?

    Many thanks, Emma

    1. Emma, very pleased that this is happening. I’ll send you my email address for more details. And I’ll definitely be following the book smugglers. Claire

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About Claire Lawrence

Ms Claire Lawrence was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Republic of Lithuania in June 2015. Ms Lawrence joined the FCO in 2000, working on European issues. She has worked…

Ms Claire Lawrence was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Republic of Lithuania in June 2015.

Ms Lawrence joined the FCO in 2000, working on European issues. She has worked on various international issues since, including a posting to the UK Representation to the EU. She has most recently served as Deputy Western Balkans Director.