I have often been tantalizingly informed that the characters in Ričardas Gavelis’s fiction are recognizably based on real people in Lithuania. My ears always perk up. Oh? Really? I would find this a bit difficult to imagine if I hadn’t, in my lifetime, come across some pretty bizarre characters myself.
There’s something about certain places that seems to attract the oddballs, and Vilnius is certainly one of them. Strangely, this doesn’t always remain a stable thing. Maybe it’s just something about the period and not the geography? Take San Francisco, for example. Although my last visit there was brief, the place even smelled differently than it did in the early 1970s, and was most certainly much tamer. The oddballs, I’m afraid, have been chased out. Instead of listening to a cynical old black guy on the bus muttering, “I think Ray Charles can see,” I find myself crammed into a space in a sidewalk cafe and forced to listen to two young women interminably discussing their latest shopping finds.
Gregory Rexroad’s stories about Carl Ellis, otherwise known as “The Swami,” would have seemed completely outrageous if I hadn’t occasionally had the opportunity to see Carl and his followers on the streets of Urbana, Illinois (also in the 1970s). And quite a sight it was, too. For some reason it’s mostly his bare legs – fat, pasty white, with scraggly dark hairs – sticking out beneath his too-short robe that stays with me. Carl himself has made his way into literature: I’ve some across at least one mention of his exploits in the campus heating tunnels, in Richard Powers’ The Gold Bug Variations. I’ve not read enough of David Foster Wallace to know if Carl might not have made an impression on Wallace, too, who was a boy in Urbana at the time, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
So as I said, I’m always curious about the people Gavelis found intriguing, but seldom seem to get any solid names. So I was delighted to read Loreta Mačianskaitė’s article “Balys Sruoga as a Character: A Few Texts by Ričardas Gavelis in the Light of Cultural Memory” available (in Lithuanian with English summary) here. In the article, she argues that the portrait of Professor Bolius in Vilnius Poker is based in part on Balys Sruoga, who wrote about his experiences in the Stutthof concentration camp in Dievų miskas (translated into English as Forest of the Gods) and in part on Rapolas Mackonis, who had the misfortune to be imprisoned in both Stutthof and the Gulag.
Even more intriguing, in a footnote Mačianskaitė mentions the sculptor and painter Teodoras Kazimieras Valaitis (1934–1974), who mysteriously died in a fire, as the basis for the character Teodoras Žilys in Vilnius Poker. The painting above is an example of Valaitis’s work from the Lithuanian National Gallery. Whose portrait, I wonder—Lolita’s, or Stefa’s?