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Jaan Kross: Vastutuulelaev: Bernhard Schmidti roman (Sailing Against the Wind)

Bernhard Schmidt was an Estonian scientist and craftsman. (Note that the Wikipedia article linked says that he was German. He was not. Despite his German-sounding name, he was Estonian, born in Estonia, living in Estonia for a long while (though also living in Germany for a long while) and speaking Estonian). This issue of his nationality is raised on more than one occasion in this novel.

Kross tells us a fair amount about the outer man in this novel. Bernhard Schmidt’s importance was as an inventor. He invented, for example, a form of wind-driven propeller, which allowed boats to go in a direction opposite to the direction of the wind. This invention gives its title to the book. However, he is best known for his work on telescopes, where as a craftsman, he dramatically improved the quality of telescope lens, producing better quality lens with his hand (he had only one) and some crude equipment, than glass companies did with more sophisticated equipment. He also invented lens which remained widely used in astronomy and astronomical photography till fairly recently.

Kross, however, tells us a lot about the inner man. A key event occurred when he was a boy, which coloured his whole life. Even at that age, he was inventing and experimenting. He had managed to get hold of some gunpowder and built a rocket. When he lit the fuse to launch the rocket at a beach (he lived on the island of Naissaar), nothing happened. He waited for a short while and then went to investigate. As he picked up the rocket, it exploded and the result was that he lost a hand. This caused him considerable trauma, not only at the time but for the rest of his life. It may partially explain why he never married (though he did have a relationship with a woman called Johanna, whom we meet several times during the course the novel). It certainly explains why he was a solitary person.

Partially because of politics – Estonia was an independent country for a short while between the wars but, for the rest of his life (1879-1935), it was under either Russian or German control – he left Estonia in 1927 and went to Germany. He worked in Hamburg and went on an expedition to the Philippines, to photograph the total eclipse of the sun. (Kross has a wonderful section on this expedition, in which he manages to mock both the Germans and the Americans; in fact, the best pictures were taken by Schmidt, thanks to his lens.)

However, Kross does not tell the story in chronological order, as we hear about Bernhard’s life in Germany and in Estonia at different times. We also meet the author, i.e. Kross, as he interviews people who knew Schmidt, including his nephew, Johanna and a potential employer. The tales he receives from these people add to the Schmidt legend. These include the story that he used to make magnifying glasses out of ice, when young, and built a camera with one hand. We learn about the various outside events that very much affected Bernhard, such as hyperinflation in Germany, World War I, the rise of the Nazis and the arrogance of the Russians who occupied Estonia, but also such events as the discovery of Pluto.

Bernhard Schmidt comes across as a very independent man. We see him standing up to the Nazis but we also see him in negotiations, such as with Kelter, who wants to hire him and offers him a ridiculous amount of money (to the horror of his son, who is with him) to the sale of his telescope to the local optics merchant when he returns, broke from Germany. The optics seller initially does not want to buy it but ends up paying a lot of money for it. However, he feels that the world rejects him and more than once mentions inventions of his, which he considers were more deserving of praise (including the sailing against the wind boat). This is, he feels, partially because of his hand, partially because of his lack of formal education and, at least in Germany, because he is Estonian and proud to be so.

As with his other books, Kross tells a story, and a very excellent, story but, at the same time, he wanders around his subject. In other words, his biography of Bernhard Schmidt is a novelist’s biography and not a biographer’s biography. He is interested in what motivated Schmidt and in the environment in which he lived, particularly, of course, the reality of being an Estonian in a world (at least his world) ruled by Germany and Russia. He is fascinated with Schmidt’s inventions and what led him to them and how they had an effect on the world beyond his workshop. But, at the same time, he is interested in Schmidt the man, the man and his sexual feelings, his reticence and independence and his, at times, sheer bloody-mindedness. In doing so he gives us, perhaps, a fuller portrait of Bernhard Schmidt than a conventional biographer might have done and he certainly gives us a first-class novel.

Publishing history

First published 1987 by Eesti Raamat
First published in English 2012 by Northwestern University Press
Translated by Eric Dickens