Normally, I don’t hang with many award-winning physicists, but the distinguished Lithuanian scientist Ramūnas Katilius was an exception, in that as well as many other things. Our association began with our mutual friend, the poet Tomas Venclova, who suggested – rather, insisted – that I meet the Katilius family during my 2011 swing through Vilnius, one of my favorite cities. It ended yesterday, when he died in his sleep in Vilnius. He would have been 80 next year.
Romas and his wife Elė were generous and hospitable during that 2011 visit – they laid out a splendid brunch for me and their son, the photographer, Ramūnas Jr., and the father gracefully insisted I allow his son to squire me about Lithuania. With Justina Juozėnaitė of the Venclova Museum, the three of us toured the hidden corners of Lithuania associated with the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, finally ending at the poet’s birthplace in Šeteniai (we also had a long stopover in Kaunas – I wrote about that here). A day or too later, the three of us took an enchanting moonlight stroll through the Old Town. I wondered why the physicist and his wife didn’t join us on any of our adventures. I don’t know how I was able to overlook that my host was seriously disabled, thanks to a childhood bout with polio. In retrospect, I think he didn’t want me to notice, thinking it might dampen the pleasure of our meeting. He was magnanimous that way.
Certainly the unforgettable moments of those magic days included the afternoon when Romas (père) brought out his collection of Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky‘s manuscripts, doodles, translations, notebooks, photos, sketches, letters, postcards, and more from their decades-long friendship, and placed it on my lap. I never thought I’d see the treasure again – but when Romas later made it clear he was looking for a permanent home for it, I recommended it to the Stanford Libraries. Now it is within a mile of my home. Well, I tell that story here, but also here and here and here.
Romas tells his own story about his long friendship with the Russian poet here. Brodsky was having personal troubles in Petersburg after his rocky return from internal exile in Archangelsk. He called his friend Andrey Sergeyev daily to complain, using expressions like “end of the world” or “it’s a total mess” – „конец света“, „полный завал“).
“Let him come over here. We are all in a good mood here,” said the big-hearted Romas. So began a visit and a friendship, which featured a walk much like the one I had taken:
“Joseph stayed with us for about a week. What did we do in our, so to say, spare time, apart from listening to his poetry? We took long walks in the Old Town, in daytime and at night, often accompanied by some of our friends – Juozas Tumelis, Pranas Morkus, Virgilijus Čepaitis, Ina Vapšinskaitė, as well as my brother Audronis. Joseph made friends with them very quickly.
“The Liejyklos Street, where we lived, follows the ancient line of the city wall, so it only takes a leisurely stroll of 15 or 20 minutes to reach almost any place in the Old Town. And we did take advantage of our location. The nearest route started right around the corner and continued along St. Ignatius (Šv. Ignoto) Street, leading to the Dominican monastery, closed a long time ago. The monastery has an inner courtyard that can be reached only through the second floor of the building. The building was inhabited by ordinary people, and Joseph suddenly decided to try and rent a room there for a longer period, and even called at one of the flats. Someone opened the door, but, fortunately, there were no rooms for rent, and Joseph calmed down. Obviously, there was no way he could afford it.
“I also remember our walk along the same St. Ignatius Street one late evening. At the end of that street, turning to the courtyards opposite to the Dominican monastery, one could get on the roof of a corps de garde, a ward-house – a small building with columns, pertaining to a large palace ensemble, the architectural style of which is somewhat alien to the Old Town; it was built in the times of Russian Empire as a residence for the Governor-General (today the palace is used as the President’s office).”
I love Vilnius, and Romas tells a charming and insightful story with the city as its backdrop – I really shouldn’t attempt to excerpt it, especially since it replicates his somewhat uneven English; it’s easier to catch the rhythms of it when you read more than a couple paragraphs.
I remembered the warmth of our meetings, but not the limitations of Romas’s English (which is still far, far better than my Lithuanian) – so it was always a surprise when I telephoned him as his health was failing, and I would suddenly remember that our conversation would be a bit hampered without a translator to mediate. But a few phrases were clear as a bell. In particular, I remember the last phone call, which ended after I told him how I wished to return to Vilnius, and soon. “We will wait for you!” he promised.
Postscript: I didn’t realize that Romas and I had other mutual friends until I posted this on Facebook. Ilya Levin wrote: “I first met Romas and Elia in early 2008 when posted to the U.S. embassy and then was fortunate to enjoy their hospitality on many occasions during my subsequent visits to Vilnius. RIP.” Anna Halberstadt recalled “he and Tomas were romantic figures for us in grade school – good-looking young dissidents.” Anna Verschik added, “I visited them every time I was in Vilnius. It was always a pleasure.” This from Mikhail Iossel, Founding Director of the Summer Literary Seminars in Vilnius (and, incidentally, a former Stanford Stegner Fellow):
“This is sad news. He was a remarkably interesting and generous man. Uncommonly young at heart, as the saying would have it.
“I met him for the first time in the summer of 2009 (if memory serves me), via Ilya Levin. Along with Ilya and Anna Verschik, I went one evening to his and his joyfully hospitable wife’s small apartment on the outskirts of Vilnius, where the two of them, Ramunas and his wife, Elia, over the extended dinner and for several hours thereafter, proceeded to reminisce about the many years of his close friendship with Brodsky, begun with Tomas Venclova’s participation in late-1950s Leningrad and resulting (among other fortuitous developments) in the KGB-besieged, officialdom-hounded young Leningrad poet’s subsequent frequent trips and lengthy stays in Vilnius, at Ramunas’s old place on Liejyklos Street (where, in 1971, none too incidentally, the famous “Lithuanian Divertissement” was written). Numerous old, Soviet-style, heavy-duty folders were produced by the hosts, full of painstakingly collected and carefully preserved Brodsky’s handwritten notes and drafts of poems, quick pencil sketches and rather elaborate ink drawings. The love the man felt for his famous friend was brightly intense. [This collection is now at Stanford – ED]
“After our next meeting, in the Old Town apartment of a friend of mine, I asked Ramunas to visit our inaugural SLS-Lithuania program and tell our participants about the meaning of Lithuania in Brodsky’s life. He accepted the invitation on the spot, with much eagerness, the considerable difficulty with which he already walked by then notwithstanding.
“His talk was thorough and detailed and informed of the same genuine feeling of deep devotion to Brodsky’s memory. His polite, soft-spoken, English-speaking son served as the interpreter.
“A very good man indeed, noble of spirit and honest of heart and keen of mind. A true mensch.”