Mapping Vilnius Literature

Vilnius’ literature mapping project is being developed by several Vilnius University literature scholars and cartographers. In our case, cartography or mapping is not a literary metaphor, but a term and concept used and applied in a literal – geographical – sense of meaning. The ultimate goal of the project is to identify different sites and demarcate various spatialities of Vilnius found in a variety of literary genres, starting from fiction, poetry, belletristic, memoirs, travelogues, city guides, letters and other forms of non-fiction writing. In addition, we seek to incorporate and map out elements of biographical nature. While our textual selection might sound extensive and overwhelming, in terms of theoretical logic, we try to walk on the methodological ground of cartographical practices. One way or another, we seek to re-imagine the physical – actual – space of Vilnius by filling it with fictionalized routes in hope of finding local sites of narrative crossings and representational diversions extracted from an assortment of literary traditions. Essentially, by placing literature on a cartographical (scientific) terrain, we want to read the city in all its linguistic profusion without losing much of its imaginary possibilities to translation.

Why did we decide to embark on this project? Historically, Vilnius has been a multicultural and polyglot city, with Lithuanians, Poles, Jews, Belorussians, Russians, Ukrainians, Germans and Tartars making it homeplace. However, in the mid-20th century Vilnius radically changed – originally multilingual, it became a predominantly Lithuanian city. Its historical narration also became predominantly Lithuanian. Those who could have told other history of the city disappeared. And voices of those who left Vilnius before and after the Second World War did not reach ears of the new population of the city.

Hence, the representation and literary imagination of Vilnius always gets divided into several, often, contradictory and antagonistic story plots, usually segregated by different linguistic forms and framed within separate national narrative traditions. There is no Vilnius literary cannon to speak of, for the fact that in most cases, different (local) narrative traditions work in opposition to each other. The literary scene of Vilnius, then, is demarked by divisive lines, creating a narrative landscape of “representational disharmony.”

However, all these different representations are spread out within the same geographical perimeter of the known, recognizable space of the city and while historical and socio-political settings of many stories are different, it’s possible to plot their narrative lines on the same map of the place.

Our literary research seeks to connect these multicultural lines of Vilnius narration, and to represent them all. The only connecting point for all different traditions of Vilnius literature is the city itself. Cities need spatial representation. And a map can provide us with such representation. Due to modern technologies, it can acquire a 3D or even a 4D structure (the latter includes the dimension of time). So, it seemed that only the map could help us to represent the archeology of the city’s narrative discourse. And we started our experiment.
Literary maps are not our invention. Their initiator was Franco Moretti, whose maps drawn in the book Atlas of the European Novel showed that there is a connection between literature and geography, between a story and real space. The next step in literary cartography was the development of digital literary maps. Such are the Lancaster University project called Mapping the Lakes: A Literary GIS and the project from the Swiss cartographers entitled A Literary Atlas of Europe. Both of them began almost at the same time.

When we talk of city maps, it is worth mentioning the New York Times map of Manhattan and a couple maps of Saint Petersburg, which were created in universities in the United States. Manhattan’s literary map is based on locations mentioned in various literary works. These locations are marked with the author’s name and quote from the book where the location was mentioned. The map resembles a tourist guide. The maps of Saint Petersburg, on the other hand, are based on literary works themselves, meaning that works of Gogol and Dostoyevsky were mapped separately.

The end goal of our project is to map all literature that includes Vilnius. We divide it according to genres – fiction and poetry, travelogues (as well as tourist guides which also include a kind of narration). Similar to travelogues are memoirs, which disclose personal experiences of Vilnius. Sometimes it seems reasonable to map geo-biographies which could be reconstructed from various sources.

As we recently worked with Lithuanian novels, I will base my explanation of literary maps on them. When we started we needed to decide upon the methods of mapping literature. So we needed texts containing as much geographical data as possible. And such were Lithuanian novels of recent decades. Sometimes it seems that they have been written on the Vilnius map.

Nevertheless, there always arises a question: what is this map eventually supposed to show? It is obvious that it shows places, but what kind of places and how? We decided to divide them according to their function. Places can function as places of action – as objects of observation – as imagined objects/places – and – finally – as random places. These places are ranked according to their importance: low – medium – high. Also places are devided according to a geographical type of an object, for example, a river, park, church, flat, store, or district. These objects constitute more generalized categories, such as nature (river, hills), culture (churches, monuments), infrastructure (streets, cafés) and private spaces (characters’ flats). There is also a separate division into groups of objects: route – panorama – observation. Vilnius is often represented through panoramas and overall views. Observation represents characters’ mental mapping. When emotions are clearly stated (e.g., sadness or joy) – we mark them, but otherwise we do not speculate about the mood which text could or not induce in its reader. The same applies to the symbolic meanings of a location. And we mark the status of an object – whether it exists or does not exist anymore.

The meanings of the chosen colors are these: a place or area where action takes place is marked red, an observation place is marked yellow, and random objects and places are purple, while imagined ones are blue. The size of a star correlates to the importance of a place. When users click on an object, they see a table, where pages, quotes and all the other information that I have mentioned – type of location, subdivision etc., is presented.

All of the aspects regarding geographical location (function, type, importance) can be used as tools for cartographic analysis. For example, if we choose to review literary works according to the function of a particular location, we can see which authors and which texts include this location as a fictional action place, which places are only imagined, and how plots migrate in the city space, as well as many other things. Through the comparison of Vilnius city views presented by different authors, we can see which places are the connecting points for the story of the city, and which stories are recorded in which places. After all we will be able to layer all these diverse maps coming from different literary works and then create one unified Vilnius literary map, as well as do many other things.

What kind of problems do we face when we approach literature from this perspective? First of all, no map can show us the type of a literary work it is visualizing. All we know, that a novel keeps the epic distance; travelogues, on the contrary, convey immediate impressions. Mnemonic poetry (like those of Miłosz or Sutzkever) seek to restore the lost city, the city of the past. A map cannot represent these divisions. Another point worth mentioning is the relationship between locations in Vilnius and very distant places. For example, Milosz remembers Vilnius while in Paris or San Francisco, Sutzkever when in Israel, and the protagonist in Gavelis’ novel, while wandering Vilnius streets, walks into Chicago. How we can mark such deviations is not yet clear. A literary story has no difficulty with such deviations just as it has no difficulty in entering the interior spaces of a city. While cartographic methods cannot successfully represent the relationships that exist between interior and exterior spaces.

And this is a point at which we return to the writing on the city. Writing overcomes the static view of a map very easily. However, inspired by creating of maps, this writing is based on a fresh reading of a text. Creating a map one is forced not only to identify the topographical data, but also to see the place in his or her imagination – to see a corner of a street, to identify a point of view for a panorama or a city landscape. I think this is the most important effect of the creation of such literary maps. This way a map becomes a tool for the literary analysis. By mapping literature we can see what parts of a city text could be transformed into a literary text, and what city a literary text recreates. So, maps help us to keep in mind the relation of a city with its literary double. We hope, that accordingly, maps help us to keep our writing on literature in relation to the history of a city. The history that is preserved by literary texts.


Project Staff:
Inga Vidugirytė-Pakerienė
Laimonas Briedis
Taisija Laukkonen
Julija Snežko

Giedrė Beconytė
Andrius Balčiūnas