From Foreign Literature to World Literature

Jüri Talvet 75

Keywords: world literature, literatures of western Europe, Hispanic studies, continuity in teaching world literature

The article deals with the transition from the Soviet-era concept of foreign ­literature (väliskirjandus) to the historically justified concept world literature (maailma­kirjandus) in Estonian literary studies and the role of Professor Jüri Talvet (b. 1945) of the University of Tartu in this process. Although the concept of world literature was not taboo in the Soviet Union, its content was hardly found taught in institutions of higher education. Instead, there was a subject called Foreign Literature, which mainly included literatures of western Europe since early Middle Ages. In Tartu University, World Literature received its own professorship only during the university reform of 1991–1993, while Jüri Talvet, graduated in English but active in Spanish studies, became its first full-time chair. Being a prolific researcher of Spanish late Renaissance and post-Renaissance literature, essayist and poet as well as introducer of the culture of the Spanish-speaking world in Estonia, Jüri Talvet, together with his colleagues, achieved that Estonian students got access to the historical structure of world literature in full scale, both in geographical and chronological terms. Undoubtedly the depth of his achievement can also be judged on the basis of relevant dissertations and other studies, but those numbers being variable, the author of this article sets more value to continuity in teaching world literature from high school to doctoral studies. Intellectual prerequisites for a successful completion of the studies, including reading poetic texts translated with comments, can now be acquired, in principle, towards the end of upper secondary education. This is especially true of medieval epics, but also of newer lyrics. Foreign literature was largely an ideological concept. World literature, however, is a cultural or, if desired, even semiotic concept, which is broader than mythopoetics and more general than international classics.


Peeter Olesk (b. 1953), Honorary Member of Estonian Literary Society (Vanemuise 19, 51014 Tartu),