Baltic travelogue uncovers a forgotten past

The glass wall. By Max Egrémont. Picador; 320 pages; £ 25. To appear in America by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in September; $ 30

TIL BALTIC the states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania once seemed to have disappeared as completely as Atlantis. The collapse of the Soviet Union put them back on the map. As Max Egremont writes in his elegiac account of the links between the past and the present, “the 1990s finally allowed us to discover a world that we thought was closed forever. History and memory took on a bright new dimension, as if a window had suddenly been wiped down.

Listen to this story

Enjoy more audio and podcasts on ios or Android.

In fact, locals remember the Soviet past all too clearly. But the author’s voyage of discovery in these supposedly unknown lands navigates such quibbles. The book is confidently written, with reporting interwoven with its own literary and genealogical ideas and those of other writers.

“Max Egremont” is a deceptively simple pseudonym. In his other life, the author is John Max Henry Scawen Wyndham, 7th Baron Leconfield and 2nd Baron Egremont; he lives in Petworth House, one of Britain’s most stately homes. This may explain, but does not excuse, his excessive emphasis on the aristocracy of the long-gone region, the German Baltic barons who for two centuries ruled Estonia and Latvia as provinces of the empire. Russian. The names, dates and places can sometimes read like a kaleidoscopic version of the “Gotha Almanac,” a handbook of European nobility. A more ruthless editor would have pruned this material back, allowing the central themes to emerge more clearly.

One of them is a paradox from the pre-1918 era, when German seigneurial families fostered the development of cultures they had previously oppressed. Another is the lasting scars of armed conflict. The upheavals of World War I were followed by polygonal fighting between parties comprising Red and White Russians, revengeful Germans, and independence-hungry locals (heavily aided by Britain). The author also sympathetically writes about the trauma of WWII, when the Baltic States were crushed between the Nazi hammer and the Soviet anvil, with dire consequences for everyone, but especially for the Jewish population.

In places it hits its stride. His description of the former Tsarist naval port of Liepaja is exemplary, bringing together a grand historical narrative, local details, tales of shaped and shattered lives, and architectural and literary ideas. But more often than not, the tone is rushed, sloppy and condescending. He visits an important Estonian war memorial but (wrongly) guesses the meaning of the inscription. Why not ask someone? He quotes, but misquotes, the opening line of “Pan Tadeusz”, the most famous Polish poem, which refers to Lithuania. Historical and geographical asides are strewn with errors.

This reflects the biggest flaw: a cheerful Orientalism. Hardly anyone these days would write about the former European colonies in Africa through the eyes of nostalgic Imperial administrators or their accomplices. Mr. Egremont quotes Elizabeth Rigby, an Englishwoman who in 1838 traveled to present-day Estonia to catch up with her German Baltic in-laws. His account of these dark lands comments on the Estonians’ “slavish obedience and cunning escape”; they were “as improvident as the Irishman, without his wit – and phlegmatic as the German, without his industry.”

These deplorable people were not illiterate and landless because of the weather. They had recently emerged from what is called slavery elsewhere in the world. The performers and beneficiaries of this system were these great families with their splendid mansions and cultivated tastes.

All of this could be more forgivable if the author paid more attention to the modern Baltic states. Atlantis has reappeared. How is? Although pen portraits of individuals abound, the overall picture, buzzing with cultural and technological innovations, gets a few sketchy sentences at the end of the book, with a characteristic whimsical payoff on the mysteries of migrating storks.

These are real places. They deserve more than to be the backdrop for someone else’s story, however evocative it may be.

This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the print edition under the title “The Wrong Side of the Story”

Previous The anatomy of a fear of growth
Next The green unilateralism of Europe by Hans-Werner Sinn