Conference on the Owner of Orto, Andres Laur, at the Estonian Literary Museum

September 16, 2008

It is not so easy to find the name of Andres Laur, the owner of the publishing house Orto, in Estonian reference books. As known, it occurs only in the 1938 lexicon Eesti majandustegelased (Who’s Who in Estonian Economy).

At the same time books published by him fill the bookshelves of Estonians living abroad as well as in the homeland. On April 23, on the occasion of Andres Laur’s 100th anniversary, the Estonian Literary Museum held a conference in Tartu where the participants discussed Andres Laur’s contribution to exile Estonian and Canadian culture and remembered him as an active though conflicting person. The conference was sponsored by the Tartu Culture Foundation.

Piret Noorhani, project manager of the Estonian National Museum and a researcher of the Literary Museum, opened the conference with a summary of Andres Laur’s background and biography. Her paper, however, focused on Orto and Andres Laur’s archives that are preserved at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) in Ottawa. Without doubt it is one of the largest and most essential archival collections reflecting the history of exile Estonian culture in Canada and as such is of great interest to Estonian researchers. Unfortunately only very few researchers from Estonia have had an opportunity to visit the Orto archives at LAC. In order to make this valuable material accessible to Estonian researchers it would be necessary to digitise its most important parts. Negotiations with LAC to reach this goal have been under way and Noorhani intends to continue the negotiations in Ottawa in the near future. Estonia could contribute to the project via the Compatriot Program.

Anne Valmas, head of the Centre for Estonian Literature Abroad at the Tallinn University Academic Library, talked about Andres Laur’s activities as the founder and chief of Orto, focusing on Orto’s initial phases. In 1943 Laur moved to Finland where he already in 1944 published two books: Karl Ristikivi’s Tuli ja raud (Fire and Iron) and Valev Uibopuu’s Võõras kodu (Foreign Home). In 1944 he went to Sweden where it dawned on him that Estonians badly needed textbooks of Swedish and other languages as well as other necessary books. Soon he was publishing one book after another. In 1950 he moved to Canada where Orto continued its activities. Orto has published altogether 405 titles. In addition, Laur published the magazine Kodukolle (Hearthside) and the newspaper Vaba Eestlane (Free Estonian). By way of comparison it can be mentioned that Eesti Kirjanike Kooperatiiv (EKK, Estonian Writers’ Cooperative) has published 415 titles.

In his paper titled ”Orto as the Readers’ Cooperative” Janika Kronberg, director of the Literary Museum, touched upon the complicated relations of two competing exile Estonian publishing houses, Orto and the above-mentioned EKK. As known, the foundation of EKK was a reaction to Laur’s publishing policies and his complicated relations with authors who showed increasing dissatisfaction with contract conditions and royalties. Many colleagues and authors turned into opponents and rivals. It has to be admitted, though, that Orto was established first and EKK later. Andres Laur also initiated a book club – a network for global distribution of books – that was later copied by EKK. Kronberg illustrated his paper with juicy examples of the discussions and polemics in exile Estonian newspapers.

Sulev Kasvandik, a researcher of local history from Häädemeeste, who has made a great job of studying the life of his fellow countryman Andres Laur, finished the morning session. Laur was born at Mardi Farm in Ikla village, Orujõe parish, Pärnu County. Kasvandik has dedicated an entire issue of his magazine Häädemeeste Elu (The Life of Häädemeeste) to Andres Laur. At the conference he talked in addition to Laur about other publishers coming from the same region – about the blind poet and publisher, Jüri Dreimann (1861-1916), the co-founder of the Boreas Publishing House, Evald Jakobson, and the contemporary Estonian writer and chief of the publishing house Penikoorem, Peeter Ilus.

The afternoon session was led in by Eva Rein, a researcher of Canadian literature from Tartu University, who discussed the role of Andres Laur’s publishing activities from the perspective of Canadian studies. Rein is one of the few Estonian researchers who have had an opportunity to visit the Orto archives in Ottawa. Rein concluded that these materials record not only Laur’s role in exile Estonian cultural history but testify his importance to Canadian culture as well. After he had moved to Canada he began to publish Estonian translations of world and Canadian literature. He organized the first Canadian literary competition and attempted to create a network for distributing books in English, similar to the Estonian book club. Although not always successful his undertakings were nevertheless remarkably bold.

Professor of Estonian Literature Tiina Kirss from Tartu University, drawing on her own and her family’s reading experiences, talked about the books which exile Estonians used to read and how these books influenced their readers. She also analysed the significance of books published by Andres Laur – classics, new titles, novels from the Northern countries, etc – for different generations of exile Estonian readers.

The next speaker was Eda Sepp, a guest from Toronto and the only participant with personal memories of Andres Laur who had been a family friend. Sepp’s reminiscences confirmed the impression of Laur as a conflicting personality already conveyed by previous speakers who based such an opinion mainly on printed sources. Sepp remembered Laur, who writers accused of paying mean royalties, as a generous man who liked to throw grand parties and enjoyed company. According to Sepp, Laur was a culture-friendly businessman but not an intellectual. This might be one of the reasons why he had his differences with writers. Notwithstanding, Laur’s activities as a publisher are worthy of recognition. Orto published a great many books important to Estonians, including The Great Bible, which remained Laur’s last publication and can thus be seen as a grand symbolic summary of his lifework. On April 3, 1973, Andres Laur died in Toronto.

Merike Kiipus, head of the Archival Library of the Estonian Literary Museum, had arranged an exhibition of Orto’s publications on the occasion of the conference. After raising toasts and viewing the exhibition an auction of Orto books in support of Baltic Heritage Network was held, with Mart Orav, the editor of the journal Akadeemia (Academy), acting as the auctioneer. Baltic Heritage Network was founded in January 2008 with the aim of uniting the preservers of the cultural heritage of the Estonian and Baltic diaspora (see Literature lovers showed an enthusiastic interest in the books, especially appreciating books that had dedications or inscriptions by Marie Under, Artur Adson, Ivar Ivask and other famous writers.

Without doubt the conference in Tartu succeeded in bringing Andres Laur’s personality nearer to the friends of literature. It is also to be hoped that it helped to perpetuate his contribution to Estonian cultural history. It is important that reading Estonians remember not only Orto but its founder and owner as well. And perhaps Andres Laur’s name will finally find its way into reference books.

Piret Noorhani