SLOVAK LITERATURE - A BRIEF INTRODUCTION
earlier | 18th-19th century | 1918-
From the eleventh century up to 1918, Slovakia was Upper Hungary, the northern part of the kingdom of Hungary. In 1918, at the end of the Great War, it became part of the new state of Czechoslovakia. In 1939, with the collapse of the Czechoslovak Republic after Munich, a client Slovak State was established under German hegemony. In 1945 this territory was returned to Czechoslovakia, minus Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia in the east, attached to the Ukraine by Stalin.
From 1968 Socialist Czechoslovakia became a federation (the only main survival of political reforms), but at the end of 1992, not long after the end of the Communist regime which came in 1989, the federation broke up, under the pressure of economic, political and national discontents, and an independent Slovak Republic once more came into being.
This territory, running north of the Danubian plain of present-day Hungary, has a large majority of Slovak speakers, whose language is closely akin to Czech (Czechs and Slovaks can converse perfectly easily, given a bit of experience of each other's lingo).
It also has, especially in the south, many Hungarians, and there are other significant groups such as Romany Gipsies, and Ukrainians.
To the west Slovakia is demarcated from the Czech Republic by the Biele Karpaty (White Carpathians) and the Morava river. It is divided from Poland in the north by the Tatra and Beskydy mountains. The border with Hungary runs north of the Danube and eastward, first following the river Ipeľ (Ipoly), then passing south of Košice and extending almost as far as Užgorod in the Ukraine.
Bratislava in the west is the capital (formerly called Pressburg). It is not far from Vienna, and is the largest city. The next largest town is the steel centre of Košice, right in the east of Slovakia, with Prešov to its north. Other urban centres include ancient Nitra, east of Bratislava, Žilina, further north, and nearby Martin (Turčiansky Svätý Martin), where the cultural institution Matica Slovenská was founded in 1863. Moving south again, Banská Bystrica in central Slovakia was the focus of the major Slovak Uprising against the Nazis in August 1944.
LITERATURE UP TO THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
The political history of Slovakia from medieval times to the early twentieth century is largely that of a part of Hungary. Slav tribes arrived in the area between the 5th and 7th centuries AD. The embryonic state of "Great Moravia" extended its rule into the territory when, in about 833, Mojmír of Moravia drove the ruler Pribina out of Nitra. Western church activity was followed from 863 by the Byzantine missionaries Constantine (Cyril) and Methodius, who introduced their Slavonic liturgy. The arrival of Hungarian-speaking Magyars on the Danubian plain soon after 900 led to incorporation of this territory in the emerging kingdom of Hungary. From the reign of Stephen I (977-1038) Hungary was firmly in the orbit of the Western Church and Latin culture. There are surviving literary texts in Latin, including the Legend of Saints Svorad and Benedict, by Bishop Maurus (died 1070), who celebrated these saints' hermit lives at Skalka near Trenčín, north-east of Bratislava.
The lack of any sufficiently large urban centre worked against the creation of a written Slovak in medieval times. Moreover, the relative closeness of Slovak speech to Czech enabled the Czech written standard to be adopted without too great an adjustment (alongside Latin, German and Hungarian). Influx of Slovaks into initially German-dominated towns brought some use of Czech for town records. Scholarly connections with Prague University and Czech Hussites had some influence. It was also significant that from the 15th century onward, Bohemia and Hungary began often to share a monarch. In the 16th century standard written Czech, through the Czech bible, was reinforced by the spread of Lutheranism into Slovakia.
After the battle of Mohács in 1526, Hungary was mostly occupied by the Turks, and the remnant, not much more than the area of present-day Slovakia in fact, joined the Habsburg domains. Some of the Hungarian nobility took refuge here from Turkish rule, which continued until the later 17th century.
The earliest specimens of vernacular writing consist of 15th-century town documents and devotional texts (e.g. the Žilina Town Book, the Spiš Prayers of 1480). A brief blossoming of Humanist culture occurred with the founding in 1465 of the short-lived Academia Istropolitana in Pressburg/Bratislava under King Matthias Corvinus. (The site, at Ventúrska 3, now houses part of the Academy of Performing Arts.)
Book printing began in the later 16th century, and Latin Humanism produced a number of authors, such as the poet Martin Rakovský (c1535-1579). A number of 16th and 17th century eminent Slovaks were active in the Czech Lands, amongst them the medical scholar Ján Jessenius (Jesenský). Born 1566, in Wrocław, he taught at Wittenberg and Prague, where he conducted the first public dissection. He was one of those executed on the Old Town Square in 1621, his tongue having first been removed. Another, Vavřinec Benedikti z Nedožer, was author of the first proper Czech grammar (Grammaticae Bohemicae, 1603). Also of Slovak birth were two vernacular authors of biblical plays, Pavel Kyrmezer (died Uherský Brod 1589) and Jiří Tesák Mošovský (died Prague 1617). Another writer, Jakub Jakobeus (c.1591-1645), was a Protestant Czech from Kutná Hora who settled in Prešov after 1620; his verses in Gentis Slavonicae Lacrumae, Suspiria et Vota (1642) lament the horrors of tyranny, Turkish hordes, war, natural calamity and pestilence.
Surviving native literary compositions of the period also include ballads (sometimes with Hungarian analogues, Hungary) such as Martin Bošňák's 'Song of Muráň Castle' (1549), an eyewitness account of the taking of Muráň by royal troops and execution of its robber baron; also, the 'Song of Sziget' of 1566, describing the Turkish siege of the town, the bravery of its defenders, and the death of their leader Miklós Zrínyi. The love theme is represented by the 'Song of Two Hungarian Lords and the Turkish Emperor's Daughter' ('Siládi and Haďmaži'), which tells of two captive noblemen in Constantinople. Helped to escape by the Sultan's daughter, who runs away with them, they both fall in love with her. In addition, some love lyrics have been found, evidently 16th-century, recorded in Liptov in 1604 by Ján Jób Fanchali, some of them associated with the Hungarian poet Balassi, if not composed by him.
Religious poets include Ján Silván (c.1493-1573) and Eliáš Láni (1570-1618). There is also much hymnography, both Catholic and Protestant. The most famous is the standard Lutheran collection, first published in Levoča in 1636, known to all good Protestants as Tranoscius, after its compiler and part author, Jiří Třanovský, from Těšín, another of the Protestant exiles who came to Slovakia after the Bohemian Protestant debacle of 1620. Here in Slovakia the Counter-Reformation trod more lightly, and a significant proportion of the population remained Protestant.
A strong centre of re-Catholicisation, and also of Baroque writing, was Trnava (a short distance north-east of Bratislava), where a Jesuit university was founded in 1635. Sermons, hymns and the like formed the major element in vernacular book production during the 17th and 18th centuries. Meditative devotional verse was practised by authors such as Ondrej Lucae (1596-1673) and Daniel Sinapius Horčička (1640-88). There was also memoir writing, such as Sors Pilarikiana - Osud Pilárika Štěpána (1666), a verse description by the author Štefan Pilárik of his Turkish captivity and release, also Ján Simonides' Latin memoir of Protestant ministers condemned to the Spanish galleys (circa 1677), or Daniel Krman's Itinerarium (1709-1711), describing conditions in Poland, Prussia, Lithuania, Belorussia, the Ukraine and Moldavia. (He witnessed the defeat of the Swedes at Poltava in 1709.)
Eighteenth-century love poems, mostly anonymous, include Obraz pani krásnej, perem malovaný (Picture of a Beautiful Lady, Painted by the Pen, 1701), written by a law student, Štefan Selecký, in Trnava speech. A particularly long, moralising cycle (of 17,000 lines) was composed by the Francisan Hugolín Gavlovič, with the title Wallachian Shepherd School - The Garner of Morals (Valašská škola - mravov stodola, 1755). One outstanding local-minded scholar was Matej Bel (1684-1749), author of Noticia Hungariae Novae Historico-Geographica (Historical-Geographical Account of Modern Hungary).
Traditional folksong and balladry abounded. One particularly famous theme is that of the life and exploits of Juraj Jánošík (1688-1713), a Robin Hood type figure, originally a soldier with Prince Rákóczi's army, who led a bandit group in North-West and Central Slovakia in 1711-13, was captured, imprisoned in Vranov castle, near Liptovský Mikuláš, and executed on the town square, condemned to be hung from one of his ribs. He became a favourite theme of 19th-century poets (e.g. Botto).
LATER 18TH CENTURY AND EARLY 19TH CENTURY
An incipient scholarly nationalism may be discerned in 18th-c. writers such as Juraj Papánek or Juraj Sklenár, where the theme starts to develop of the Slovaks as co-creators of the early Moravian state and of medieval Hungary, in which they are seen as playing a civilising role vis-a-vis the Magyar invaders. Texts such as these start to create the basis for some of the mythology and historicist ideology of future Slovak-language writers.
The reigns of the Emperor Joseph II (1780-90) and his mother Maria Theresa (1740-80) form a watershed which marks the disintegration of the old (roughly feudal) order and the beginnings of a new (later industrial, capitalist) era. One symptom of the modern era, linked crucially with general literacy, was an increasingly dominant tendency to attempt to equate language community with political nation. Hungarian elites began to aspire to achieving a homogeneous, Hungarian-language political nation (initially in opposition to Habsburg ambitions to have German as the dominant elite medium, supplanting Latin). Joseph II, however, was also keen to encourage local vernaculars for lower popular education, and thus central policy simultaneously both Germanised and vernacularised.
Jesuit Czech usage, centred on Trnava in the west of Slovakia, was somewhat Slovakised during the 18th century, and this process was taken further by Josef Ignác Bajza (1754-1836), who introduced his own spelling and local linguistic features into the pioneering Slovak novel René mládence príhody, a skusenosti (The Adventures and Experiences of the Young Man René, 1783-5). It is a diffuse picaresque narrative with satirical elements, in which the hero travels in foreign lands, but also in Slovakia (from Vienna to around Trnava), observing the life of the people.
The first really systematic codification of a distinct Slovak written standard was the work of the Catholic priest Anton Bernolák (1762-1813), one of a circle at the short-lived Josephinist General Seminary at Pressburg (Bratislava) Castle. In 1787, at the age of 25, Bernolák expounded its orthography; his Grammatica slavica followed in 1790; his huge six-volume Slovak-Czech-Latin-German-Hungarian Dictionary only appeared posthumously in 1825-7. (Its preface notes the advantage gained by the increased ease with which Slovaks will now be able to gain fluency in Hungarian...)
Bernolák's Slovak was short-lived. Its first writer was Juraj Fándly, a colleague of Bernolák, popular educator, and one of the founders of the Slovak Learned Society (1792) based at Trnava. The Bible was also translated (1829-32), but the outstanding author of Bernolák's Slovak was another Catholic priest, Ján Hollý (1785-1849), associated especially with the parish of Madunice near Piešťany. He translated Virgil's Aeneid (1828), and then went on to produce his own verse epics in classical hexameters, on Slovak-Slav themes such as the Moravian prince Svatopluk (Svatopluk, 1833), or Cyril and Methodius (Cyrilo-Metodiáda, 1835). Hollý is venerated as the founding father of Slovak poetry, and there are strong touches of lyric freshness in his fusion of classical and Slovak idiom, especially in his Theocritan pastoral verse.
Bernolák's Slovak failed to be adopted by Protestants, and the Catholic centre of Trnava also declined culturally after the transfer of its University to Buda (now part of Budapest) in 1777.
The main Protestant centre was Pressburg (today Bratislava), where a chair of Czecho-Slovak was established in 1803 at the Lutheran Lyceum. Loyalty to the Czech bible kept the Czech tradition strong.
The leading Czech-language poet of Slovak origin was Jan Kollár (1793-1852), resident in Pest (present-day Budapest), and author of a famous sonnet cycle Slávy dcera (Daughter of Slavia, 1824, 1832), in which the poet's beloved Mína is represented as daughter of a mythic Slav patron Goddess, and a pilgrimage is conducted through Slav lands and then, in Dante-like style, into a Slav paradise and hell. Kollár was a valiant propagator of inter-Slav cultural cooperation, and an important collector of folksong.
Another Protestant Ján Chalupka (1791-1871), minister for many years in Brezno, was the first significant dramatist, achieving popularity with his comedy Kocourkovo (1830), a satire of small-town ways, which raises language consciousness, and uses crazily distorted Latinisms and Hungarianisms in a plot revolving around the selection of a new schoolteacher.
THE ŠTÚR GROUP AND THE FOUNDING OF MODERN SLOVAK
By the 1840s however an young energetic group of Lutherans led by Ľudovít Štúr (1815-56) became attracted by the idea of a separate Slovak literary language (to which the poet Kollár remained strongly opposed). Instead of Bernolák's Western Slovak, they forged a new standard based on Central dialects, and this is the variety upon which the modern language is now based. Štúr's chief partners in this were Jozef Miloslav Hurban and Michal Miloslav Hodža; the decision was formally taken at the vicarage in Hlboké, near Senica, north of Bratislava, in 1843.
Štúr started a Slovak-language daily paper in 1845, in 1847 he became a member of the Hungarian Diet, and during the 1848-9 Revolution he participated in the Slav Congress in Prague. Then he took Vienna's side against the Hungarians, organising military volunteers, in hope of winning Slovak autonomy. Instead, Vienna's victory inaugurated a period of centralism, and Štúr moved on towards Messianic faith in Tsarist Russia's mission to liberate.
In literature Štúr stressed native originality, influenced by Herder, and believing that the Slavs were destined to give great poetry to human civilisation. Poetry, the highest product of the human spirit, should take folksong as its starting point, not its goal; it should match spirituality with objectivity, espouse high ideals. Štúr died suddenly and prematurely, after a hunting accident in 1856, but his new Slovak standard had somehow taken root, though still facing great odds.
Štúr's Slovak had the fortune to find writers, especially poets, who made an immediate impact: of these three poets Janko Kráľ, Andrej Sládkovič and Ján Botto are of clearly primary importance.
Janko Kráľ (1822-76) has become the most celebrated, both for his poems and for his biography. In 1848, he joined a teacher friend in southern Slovakia, rousing the local villagers to overthrow the landowners. Held in Šahy and Budapest, after release he later became involved with pro-Habsburg anti-Hungarian volunteers. After the Hungarian defeat, Kráľ joined government service and virtually stopped writing. His best known poems are ballad-inspired verses, in which folk idiom combines with a central Romantic figure, divný Janko, "strange Janko", a solitary withdrawn hero, alienated from his surroundings, aspiring to soar eagle-like to freedom, but falling into suicidal melancholy.
Another, more staunchly optimistic, poet was the Protestant pastor Andrej Sládkovič (1820-72) . His most famous work is the long poem Marína, written in lyrical sonnet-like ten-line stanzas, inspired by his unhappy love for a Banská Štiavnica burgher's daughter. Where for Kollár erotic and patriotic love are divided, in some sense incommensurate, here they harmonise. Love for Sládkovič is not a mere intoxicating, sensual adventure of youth, it is a divine gift that enables Man to transcend his physical being, a force that enables one to contemplate and embrace truth through beauty, that joins in harmony body and mind, the physical world and the world of the spirit. All this is coloured by a Hegelian vision of progress towards freedom and harmony. Sládkovič's second famous long poem Detvan (published in 1853), celebrates the uplanders of Detva, an area beneath Poľana, a vision of unspoilt innocent vigour.
The youngest of the three, Ján Botto (1827-76) is remembered for his allegorical balladic poem Smrť Jánošíkova (1862, revised 1870s), the most famous work on the theme of the executed bandit Jánošík. Throughout the poem there is a tension between fairy-tale-like visions (blended with messianism) and gloomy realism (almost) - a sense that ideals of freedom exist in a world apart from the world of men - there is a chasm between the mythic dreamworld represented by Jánošík and the portrayal of passive Slovak peasants (or between ideals and mankind's lot).
The best years for educational and cultural furtherance of the Slovak language cause had followed the fall of the Bach regime in Vienna. Then Štúr's Slovak was introduced into primary schools, and the first Slovak-language secondary schools were founded, in Veľká Revúca, Turčiansky Svätý Martin and Kláštor pod Znievom (1862-6). Another milestone was the founding of the cultural institution Matica slovenská in 1863, centred in Martin. However, the 1867 Dualist solution removed Hungarian internal policy from Viennese oversight. The Slovak secondary schools were closed in 1874-5, as was Matica slovenská, in 1875 (it re-opened only in 1919).
Slovak fiction was ostensibly somewhat in the shadow of poetry. However, one should at least not omit to mention the notable writer Ján Kalinčiak (1822-71), whose masterpiece Reštavrácia (Country Elections, 1860) describes humorously, in a fictional setting, underhand goings-on during a Hungarian county election in the pre-1848 period. The overall tone is humorous, untendentious, almost apolitical - but the lack of reverence amounts to a form of attack on the myth of the Slovak gentry as a force to be reckoned with in the national cause. Kalinčiak uses his material for humorous fiction, as a vehicle for story telling and stylistic virtuosity - with sharp figure painting and flamboyant use of idiom, colourful sayings and proverbs. The whole book may be seen as a display of verbal and narrative technique, just as much as it is a heightened portrayal of gentry types.
The most famous Slovak collector of folk-tales was Pavol Dobšinský (1828-1895), and some of the tales from his classic Prostonárodné slovenské povesti (1880-1883) have been re-told in English.
FROM REALISM TO SLOVAK MODERNA
During the latter three decades of the century the leading poet was Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav (1849-1921), who worked as a lawyer, mostly in Dolný Kubín, east of Martin. His most celebrated longer narrative poem is Hájnikova žena (The Gamekeeper's Wife, 1884-6) - the story of a young gamekeeper Michal Čajka and his wife Hanka, who kills her would-be rapist, the morally corrupt aristocrat Artuš Villáni. The centre of the poem is the upland life and celebration of its freedom. The seasons are portrayed, local scenes and human activities integrated with the life of the forest (fetching of water, tree felling, raspberry picking, stag hunt, the night stars, the woodland torrent like the crashing of chains "which however does not bind, does not fetter legs, or spirit, does not confine in its circle the spirit which flew like an eagle in between the hills, to sate itself with freedom, and feel that it is spirit." Hviezdoslav is somewhat of a cosmopolitan (but also patriotically Slovak) Parnassist. Sometimes diction is all: he enriches the poetic language with dialect expressions and neologism, pursuing eloquent texture, even at the cost of textual obscurity. His Krvavé sonety (Sonnets of Blood, 1919) express bitterness about the madness of the war, which tramples on his struggling optimism; he doubts the future of man, and God's justice; but ends on a note of optimistic longing.
Hviezdoslav's fellow-poet Svetozár Hurban-Vajanský (1847-1916), son of the writer and national figure Jozef Miloslav Hurban, was initially a lawyer, then editor of the newspaper Národné noviny, twice imprisoned for his views. His first collection, Tatry a more (The Tatras and the Sea, 1879) was stimulated by army service in the Balkans during the occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. His writing also includes fiction, such as Letiace tiene (Flying Shadows, 1883) and Suchá ratolesť (Dry Branch, 1884). Vajanský expressed the faith that the most able members of the zeman (lower gentry) class would come round to identifying with the Slovak nation, that the future lay in an alliance between such people and intellectuals of lowly peasant origin. He also believed fervently in the liberation of Slovakia by Russia. While wishing to paint a portrait of contemporary social life, he was more a Romantic idealist. He wrote, in 1883: "There is no real darkness in us; our weaknesses, our oddities, our faults are but flying shadows; above them there rules the silent, eternal brightness of the Ideal... Oh, have faith in the Ideal, have faith in its light." He portrays Slovak middle class life, creating individuals embodying hope or disintegration: the impoverished, disorientated zeman, the officials dependent for their living on the establishment, the tragic woman driven to insanity, young educated men faithful to their roots and eager to serve the Slovak cause.
Slovak fictional realism reached a peak perhaps in the works of Martin Kukučín (1860-1928), a writer more evocative and empirical than purposefully uplifting in manner. Initially he produced stories dealing especially with the environment typified by his native village, Jasenová, in the Orava region. Probably his finest, more than a mere psychological study, is Neprebudený (The Unawakened, 1886), about a mentally defective gooseherd. His best-known full-scale novel is his Dalmatian work Dom v stráni (House on the Hillside, 1903-4), an acutely observed picture of Croatian rural life, centred about two lovers from different social classes, who, unromantically, have to part.
The turn of the century also saw a number of women writers make their mark: perhaps the most distinguished was Timrava, pen-name of Božena Slančíková (1861-1951). She does not have the warm sympathy for the village life of Kukučín, she rejects the sentimental clichés of love, depicting erotic disappointment, and middle-class smugness.
The last years before the First World War, are marked by a group known as the Slovak Literary Moderna, related to European Symbolism, with often soft-focus, connotative use of visual metaphor, and melancholy ironic, subjectively atmospheric, visual-art-influenced fin-de-siecle technique.
The crucial Moderna poet was Ivan Krasko (1876-1958), famous for his two slim collections Nox et solitudo (1909) and Verše (Verses, 1912). Most of his poetry was written in Bohemia, not far from Prague. Krasko's musically refined, often ostensibly quite simple (but equally enigmatic) verse typically expresses moods of loneliness, melancholy, hesitation and pessimism in mistily-defined (often erotic) lyric situations slenderly sketched against lyrical, typically autumnal, crepuscular landscapes. Elements of Christianity function as nostalgia, emblems of traditions or collapsed values, more than of faith.
LITERATURE BETWEEN THE WARS
After the First World War, in order to give the Czechoslovak Republic, founded on 28 October 1918, a clear majority nationality, the constitution erected the concept of a single language, existing in two variants, Czech and Slovak. In practice Slovak became the dominant official language of Slovakia. In Bratislava the Comenius University was founded in 1919, and a Slovak National Theatre opened in 1920. From being a mainly Hungarian and German town Pressburg, now Bratislava, became rapidly more and more Slovak. The cultural centre of gravity now shifted somewhat away from Martin, with its revived Matica slovenská.
Czech-Slovak economic and general cultural disparities, however - and failure to tackle Slovak resentments in a situation where Czech elites held many influential positions in education and government, replacing ousted Hungarians - undermined newly forged solidarity, and helped Hitler to induce local politicians to break away after Munich and establish a puppet Slovak State.
The writings of Janko Jesenský (1874-1945), a member of the Slovak Moderna group, straddle the pre-1918 and later periods. His fiction is characterised more by straightforward critical social realism, especially in his novel Demokrati (The Democrats, 1934-37), a humorously and affectionately ironic portrait of hypocritical "democracy" in practice, of middle-class life, public and private, civil servants, and the petty politicking of the day.
Fiction opened up further to the world, both topographically and thematically. Historical writing, grimly analytical of human nature, in a somewhat Zolaesque manner, is practised by the older Jégé (Ladislav Nádaši, 1866-1940), particularly in Adam Šangala (1923), set in the Counter-Reformation. Outward looking, more exotic, technically ambitious writing includes: Ján Hrušovský (1892-1975), with stories of Rome in Pompiliova Madona (Pompilius's Madonna, 1923), also Muž s protézou (Man with a Prosthesis, 1925), a First World War novella about a cynical, "prosthetic-hearted" officer's uprootedness; Tido J. Gašpar (1893-1972), elegant man-about-town, later jailed for Slovak State collaboration, author of ornamentally stylish, erotic, romantically disillusioned stories reflecting his time as a young naval officer; Ivan Horváth (1904-1960), another vitalistic, exotic writer, on Paris, for example, where he was a law student in the twenties; he was jailed for alleged treason in the fifties, and posthumously rehabilitated.
Amongst writers for whom domestic social themes are central, Milo Urban (1904-1982), is especially revered for his novel Živý bič (The Living Whip, 1927), a panoramic chronicle, full of visionary pathos, of the wartime agonies of a fictional village, transformed from passivity into revolutionary violence. Between 1940-45 he edited the main Slovak Fascist daily Gardista. His other novels from the thirties to the sixties, chronicling Slovakia in the years up to 1945 are less generally well-regarded.
Portrayal of the class struggle, using journalistic, propagandistic socialist realism, was the goal of writers such as Petr Jilemnický (1901-49), e.g. Pole neorané (Unploughed Field, 1932), and Fraňo Kráľ (1903-55), e.g. Cesta zarúbaná (Blocked Road, 1934).
A more provocatively compelling author, Gejza Vámoš (1901-56) was the son of a Hungarian Jewish railway official, who studied medicine, practising first in Prague, then in the Slovak spa town of Piešťany. Following the short stories of Editino očko (Edita's Eye, 1925), portraying biological drives and human cruelty, Vámoš's novel Atomy Boha (Atoms of God, 1928), full of sarcastic commentary, continues this author's medically inspired semi-autobiographical line. A doctor in a Prague VD clinic infects himself while experimenting; his girlfriend, raped by an infected degenerate, commits suicide with him. In Odlomená haluz (Broken Branch, 1934), he portrays his own Jewish community from around Nitra. In 1939 he left for China and Taiwan in 1939, as a Jew, then worked among the poor in Brazil, where he died of beriberi, contracted in the Far East.
Jozef Cíger-Hronský (1896-1961) is one of the few significant Slovak novelists to have been translated into English. His narrative method combines depictive realism, focussed on rural life, with lyrical expressivity in depicting the symbiosis of man and nature. In Jozef Mak (Jozef Mak, 1933), set in the pre-war era, and depicting the inner world of a lumberjack and railway navvy, Mak is both the apotheosis of ordinary submissiveness and passivity, and of simple natural resilience, the resilience of grass which "withstands more than anything in the world".
The end of the thirties saw the arrival of a trend which has become known as "lyricised" or "naturist" prose, and which peaked in the forties, during the years of the Slovak State. Instead of analysis of rural change, there is a return from urban chaotic ferment to emotive evocations of elemental freedom in isolation, presenting myths of nature, exploiting modes of folklore and fairy-tale narrative; there is some influence from the French regionalists such as Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz and Jean Giono. The main names are Chrobák, Figuli and Švantner, again little translated.
Dobroslav Chrobák (1907-51) has been called a "modern traditionalist". After studying electrical engineering in Prague, he worked in Bratislava radio. Alongside the stories of Kamarát Jašek (Friend Jašek, 1937), his main work is the skilfully structured and narrated balladic novella-tale Drak sa vracia (Dragon Returns, 1943). The foundling potter named Drak ("Dragon"), object of superstition and irrationally blamed for local misfortunes, overcomes enforced alienation, showing inner moral strength, when, in company with his rival in love, he saves the villagers' herd menaced by burning forest, returning to gain communal acceptance.
Margita Figuli (1909-), born in Vyšný Kubín, began with the short stories of Pokušenie (Temptation, 1937), their themes generally of love and the sensibilities of young women. Her novella-tale Tri gaštanové kone (Three Chestnut Horses, 1940), inspired by the upland region of the author's Orava home, depicts the victory of pure, honest commercial traveller Peter over ungoverned rich farmer and occasional horse smuggle Ján, who dies under the hooves of his tormented horse, so that Magdaléna, whose hand he had won, may be united with Peter. They go off together to their childhood country. The lyrical atmosphere is heightened by a symbolic trinity of chestnut horses, denoting beauty, fighting manliness and sensuality. Purity wins over evil in an enclosed fictional world with its own laws. Figuli went on to write a monumental biblical historical novel Babylon (1946), portraying the fall and disintegration of the glorious Chaldean empire to Persian conquest.
The youngest of this group, František Švantner (1912-50) was inspired by the highland region of the upper Hron dominated by the peaks of Ďumbier and Chopok, and by tales of fantasy and demonic beings. In Malka (Malka, 1942) he produced a cycle of eight lyrical-balladic tales of passion and retribution, followed by Nevesta hôľ (Upland Bride, 1946), a novella which shares the same setting, and themes of death, sensuality, the irrational, and the participation of mythically demonic, primeval nature in human life.
POETRY SINCE THE TWENTIES
Slovak poetry has been little translated into English, and even less of it well, unfortunately.
Emil Boleslav Lukáč (1900-79), a Lutheran pastor and parliamentary deputy, developed a somewhat neo-Romantic idiom of permanent discontent. He moved from somewhat Symbolist-style home-and-abroad meditations in Dunaj a Seina (The Danube and the Seine, 1925), through tersely agonised erotic and reflective verse in O láske neláskavej (Of love unloving, 1928) and Križovatky (Crossroads, 1929), continuing into trenchantly castigatory treatments of social and patriotic themes in collections such as Elixír (Elixir, 1934), Moloch (1938) or Bábel (Babel, 1944). After enforced silence, he was able to publish again from the mid-sixties.
Jan Smrek (1898-1982), brought up in Modra in a children's home, worked as a journalist and publisher's editor, and founded the Prague-based Slovak literary monthly Elán in 1931. From the time of his second collection Cválajúce dni (Galloping days, 1925) he became the main Slovak Vitalist poet, and a generally happy-toned, deftly lyrical eroticist, though the Second World War altered his carefree note for a while. In his longer composition Básnik a žena (Poet and Woman, 1923-34) he depicts meetings with a lady over four seasons of the year. Appreciation of his verse is very much a matter of response to lyrical artistry.
Valentin Beniak (1894-1973) came from a large peasant family near Topoľčany, and worked later as a civil servant in Bratislava. He is a more original, and also more enigmatic magic spinner of words than either Smrek or Lukáč, Beniak's topics, in collections from 1928 onward, include rural hardship, tradition and beauty; existential disharmony; artistic themes from France and Italy; apocalyptic vision of war. He absorbs influences of Symbolism, Czech Poetism, Surrealism, and folklore. His work has been regarded as culminating in the long sequence Žofia (Sophia, 1941), continued in Popolec (Ash Wednesday, 1942). These rehabilitated him poetically from some pro-Slovak-State sentiments. He was able to publish again from the mid sixties.
Proletarian verse, evoking working-class oppression and the class struggle, would be a misleading label for the more complexly resonant poetry of Ladislav Novomeský (1904-76). A Communist activist belonging to the left-wing group DAV ["Throng"], Novomeský was imprisoned as a `bourgeois nationalist' in 1952 (rehabilitated 1962). Early becoming sceptical about poetry's public role, Novomeský produced associative, playful, gently melancholy, reminiscing, generally unpropagandistic social and personal verses from Nedeľa (Sunday, 1927) and Romboid (Rhomboid, 1932) onward, which remind one often somewhat of Nezval and Czech Poetism. In Stamodtiaľ a iné (From Over There and Others, 1964), Novomeský recalls his imprisonment for "bourgeois nationalism" in the Stalinist years, but reaffirms his Socialist faith.
The most admired woman poet from the inter-war period is Maša Haľamová (1908-95), an effectively simple lyricist, who lived for many years in the Tatras.
Slovak Surrealism's main poet was Rudolf Fabry (1915-82), remarkable for startling imagery as indicated by titles such as Uťaté ruky (Severed Arms, 1935), Vodné hodiny piesočné (Waterclock Sandglass, 1938), and Ja je niekto iný (I Is Someone Else, 1946). Surrealist idiom, rejigged as Slovak `Nadrealismus' (`Super-realism'), soon began to be used to express clearly anti-Fascist, socio-political tones.
Central names in post-war poetry include Miroslav Válek (1927-91), and Milan Rúfus (b. 1928), both associated from the fifties with the anti-Stalinist thaw. Younger poets range from Marián Kováčik (b. 1940), long-time editor of the literary journal Romboid, and Mila Haugová (b. 1942), to the provocative Taťjana Lehenová (b. 1961), and this list should obviously be extended by a whole number of other names.
If Slovak poets have received inadequate attention from the outside world, Slovak prose is not very much better off. One of the favourite post-war themes has been that of wartime partisans and the events of the significant Slovak Uprising of 1944, which, though major in scope, failed to link up with the Red Army advance and was suppressed, some months before the eventual liberation.
In Slovakia, under the Stalinists, like elsewhere, Socialist Realism became official doctrine, though policy later grew much more accommodating than this statement would suggest. The anti-Stalinist thaw can be regarded as beginning as early as 1954, in Alfonz Bednár's (1914-89) unrosily depicted "construction novel" Sklený vrch (Glass Peak, 1954). Clear-cut hostility to Stalinism, its hypocrisy and corruption, and unvarnished views on the famous Uprising and human violence, certainly arrive with the stories of Bednár's Hodiny a minúty (The Hours and Minutes, 1956). These two books are obvious landmarks in the emancipation of postwar Slovak fiction.
Other notable novels of the era include František Hečko's (1905-60) Červené víno (Red Wine, 1948), the chronicle of a wine-growing village, and Rudolf Jašík's (1919-60) Námestie svätej Alžbety (St. Elizabeth's Square, 1958), a sensitive psychological portrait of love, a wartime town and the fate of Slovak Jews, transported to death camps.
The Communist writer Dominik Tatarka (1913-1989) established anti-Stalinist credentials with Démon súhlasu (The Demon of Conformity, 1956; 1963), a work preceded by Socialist-Realist style novels. After the Soviet invasion of 1968, Tatarka refused to conform, became the leading Slovak dissident figure, and pursued his writing in autobiographical, polythematically diarist, sensualist, "shockingly" eroticist, meanderingly rhapsodic and playful texts.
Another Communist turned anti-Stalinist, the most translated one, was Ladislav Mňačko (1919-94) , who latterly lived in Austria. Mňačko described Stalinist persecutions in his Oneskorené reportáže (Delayed Reportages, 1963), partly in order to "document my own guilt in these events". His novel Ako chutí moc (The Taste of Power, 1967) traces the life of a leading Communist politician, corrupted by his position.
Some writing of considerable fresh charm and psychological sensitivity is to be found in the teenage novels of Klára Jarunková (b. 1922), one of which has been translated.
Novelists who came to prominence in the seventies include Vincent Šikula (b. 1936), whose lyrically rural-plebeian trilogy about the Uprising, Majstri (The Master Carpenters, 1976-9) has attracted the most critical attention. Ladislav Ballek (b.1941) is another well-regarded writer, whose novels evocatively chronicle events in his native Šahy, near the Hungarian border, since 1945; these include Pomocník (The Assistant, 1977), Agáty (Acacias, 1981) and Lesné divadlo (Forest Theatre, 1987).
One of the most original writers is Ján Johanides (1934-2008), who moved from a laconic Existentialist-influenced idiom to an often exuberant, syntactically expansive, imaginatively and linguistically rich prose, including a remarkably rich historical novel Marek koniar a uhorský pápež (Marek, Master of Horse and the Hungarian Pope, 1983). Alongside biological, genetic, ecological, existentialist and morally reflective concerns, and elaborate psychological presentations (which are at the same time self-consciously literary and dream-like), Johanides conducts teasing games of narrative and imagery with multiple and symbolic, even mystic, significances and parallels.
There are very few translations of recent fiction, but individual short stories by Johanides and three other authors, Vilikovský, Sloboda and Mitana, appear in the Picador anthology Description of a Struggle. One of the most acute and innovative contemporary writers is Pavel Vilikovský (b. 1941), also editor of Romboid, a leading literary magazine, and a notable translator of English and American fiction. Rudolf Sloboda (1938-96) briefly studied, worked as a miner, builder's labourer, and foundry worker, later as an editor and in films. His books include novels and short stories. Dušan Mitana (b. 1946), who studied film and television, published a first book of short stories, Psie dnie (Dog Days), in 1970, and has several notable volumes to his credit, including the successful novel Koniec hry (End of Game, 1984). In the same anthology there is also a story by a prominent writer from the significant Hungary community, Lajos Grendel (b. 1948).
Another younger Slovak writer is Martin M. Šimečka (b. 1957), son of the notable Bratislava-based Czech dissident writer Milan Šimečka, and author of an autobiographical novel reflecting the life of a dissident's child, Džin (1985, 1990), was published in English translation as Year of the Frog (1993).
The Slovak literary scene was rather less restricted politically than its domestic Czech equivalent in the seventies and eighties. It remains an unfairly neglected literature in terms of published English translations.
This sketchy account of recent decades ought to be extended, at least to incorporate later developments, perhaps including a mention of the fiction of Peter Pišťanek (b. 1960), but brief surveys of this kind are always unsatisfactory, are they not?
The page above is adapted from my chapter on Slovak literature in the Traveller's Literary Companion to Eastern and Central Europe, Brighton: In Print Publishing, 1995.
© James Naughton - text last revised June 2008 back