NewsSearchMapContactHelpProject RastkoEnglish indexSrpskiAbout
Project RastkoHistory of Serb culture
TIA Janus

Novica Petkovic

Twentieth century literature

Chapter from the book
"The history of Serbian Culture"
The history of Serbian culture  


Courtesy of



In the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, Serbian literature took on all the basic characteristics of a modern national literature. It is usually thought that the modern novel and narrative in the leading European literatures came about after the disintegration of Realism, when a transition was made from Naturalism to Impressionism. Modern lyric poetry began with the (French) Parnassians and the transition to symbolism. Literary criticism also changed, as did literary theory. Literary theory left the external interpretation of literature behind and moved to internal interpretation - to the analysis of the artistic traits of a work, and not of the circumstances under which it came into being. In Serbian literature, similar phenomena are to be noticed not only in the appearance of the Parnassian lyric poems of Vojislav Ilic (who had a large number of followers and was a dominant figure in the 1890s), but in literary criticism as well.

In the last decade, Milorad Pavic has been one of the most often translated Serbian authors. His works have been published in twenty-five languages, all over the world

Ljubomir Nedic (1858-1902) is rightfully considered to be the forerunner of the internal interpretation of literature. As early as 1893 he aimed sharp criticism at the utilitarian theory of art espoused by Svetozar Markovic, who accentuated the social role of literature in Realism. Quite the opposite, Nedic emphasised the aesthetic side of the lyric poem, using the example of Ilic's lyric poems; even the feelings which the poet expresses, Nedic stressed, are not commonplace, rather such poetry was an expression of a "feeling for the Beautiful"; poetic emotion is by nature "artistic emotion". Hence, the place of earlier interest held primarily by those who studied themes, was now held by those who stressed form. Thereby, the attention of the critic and the reader, and the poet himself, slowly moved toward the writing of poetry as a specific artistic creation, which would have far-reaching consequences not only for interpreting and evaluating poetry, rather - and this is of utmost significance - for its development in the two decades to come.

Of course, the changes observed in Serbian literature were stimulated by similar changes which had taken place somewhat earlier in some of the European literatures. Contacts and exchanges between literatures were felt ever more strongly. There was obviously also a certain parallelism in their developments. Thus, the entire period which encompassed the 1890s to the First World War is marked by a term which is common to most central European literature and south Slavonic literature as well - the moderna (Modernism). Although the term was taken from German literature, propinquity with that literature and its influence were at a remarkably low ebb. Only the Serbian lands under Austro-Hungarian rule at the time (Vojvodina, Bosnia, Herzegovina, and the Serbian regions of Croatia) continued to be affected by the influence of German culture and literature. In the Kingdom of Serbia and its capital Belgrade, the French influence suddenly grew stronger. This was a fortunate turn of events, for the new literary ideas of the times were coming from Paris.

For two decades - the length of time which Modernism ultimately lasted - the artistic ascent of literature was greater than ever before. This was especially felt in poetry, which caused the modern poet M. Pavlovic to call this period "a short golden age in Serbian poetry". However, it is also interesting that, and this is no coincidence, equal advances were made in criticism and literary scholarship. A more expansive view would indicate that all branches of scholarship and science all over Serbia were in high bloom at the same time. Significantly strengthened as a cultural and scientific centre, Belgrade took on a leading role in literature. The literary life of the capital, as it was among other peoples, turned toward development and established a common criterium. That which Nedic had tried with no success would be carried out by a younger critic, Bogdan Popovic (1864-1944). In Belgrade in 1901, he began perhaps the most important and surely the best edited periodical for literature "Srpski knjizevni glasnik" ("The Serbian Literary Herald"). In its first fourteen years, the "Glasnik" intensified certain ideas about literary models toward the most general and most unified criteria among writers and their readers.

Jovan Ducic (1874-1943) as ambassador

The role played by critics became obviously more important. Historians later mention that a "hegemony of criticism" existed in the Modernist period. Yet, that hegemony was actually one of the conditions for a certain continuity in literary development to be established through the critical evaluation of the literary heritage. First of all, B. Popovic put together the excellent Anthology of Modern Serbian Lyric Poetry (1911). The preface, the strict selection of poems, and their arrangement as well, indicated the historical sequence of the new lyric poets - from the founder, Radicevic, to the symbolist Ducic - as an uninterrupted sequence of the perfecting of poetic art. Thereafter, the second editor of the "Glasnik", and the most eminent critic, Jovan Skerlic (1877- 1914) wrote The History of Modern Serbian Literature (1914). Using modern criteria, he described the interchanges between epochs, stylistic formations and schools. The image which was established showed that the new Serbian literature had developed in a way typical of European literature. Finally, Pavle Popovic (1868-1939) undertook extensive historical-comparative research in all domains: folk literature, medieval literature, the literature of Dubrovnik and the new literature.

That which occurs in language has always been significant for literature. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the literary language had stabilised. However, certain relationships had been visibly disturbed. Based on the languages of the people which were taken from oral poetry and prose, at the start the literary language was more suited to the needs of rural and traditional culture than to urban culture and Modernism. It was necessary to adapt the language to new, more intellectual needs, with complex stylistic differentiations. It was here that the milieu of Belgrade began to play a decisive role. If the more widely understood periphery had had an influence on the centre of culture (Belgrade) in the beginning, that centre now began to hold sway over the periphery: local differences coming from the territories were subordinated to the general standardisation, and functional styles were formed. Thereby, a special form was created in which literary language would appear, adapted to the needs of the cultivated urban-intellectual milieu: this form became known as the Belgrade style. It was not used only by professional writers. It was found in equal part in scholarly prose. One of the most famous representatives was the historian Slobodan Jovanovic (1869-1959), who only took literary themes under consideration from time to time, but his texts can be read as if they were literary because of the very stylistic skill with which they were written.

The Bosnian Fairy, a periodical for entertainment, education and literature, came out in Sarajevo from 1885 to 1914

Stylistic skill, which is not only linguistic, was no where as impressive as it was in poetry. No single poet will perfect his writing with such diligence and patience as Jovan Ducic (1874-1943). He was primarily Ilic's successor, and afterwards (Poems, 1908) he made a rapid transition to symbolist poetics, using French models. He sharply narrowed the selection of verse styles to two: symmetrical dodecasyllable (the Alexandrine) and hendecasyllable, both French in origin. This restriction was to be felt in everything - in the choice of motifs, the images, the colours - and it can be attributed to the tendency of narrowing external descriptions in order to strengthen the symbolic meaning. In the poem, descriptions are at times given in perfect proportions, making the poem a small masterpiece. Yet, this poetry is not static, as it was with the parnassians; it was rather developed in finely constructed nuances. Ducic was born in Herzegovina, a stone's throw from the Adriatic, and he possessed a typical Mediterranean love for light, for the sun, for balance and harmony. His verse reflects this with its balance and resonance. He did not, however, stop there. He directed his later development toward a change in verse and toward compact images filled with profound tragic elements interwoven with Christian symbols. One of his last books, Lyrics (1943), represents the very best of Serbian meditative lyric poetry in rhymed verse.

In contrast to Ducic, another equally important poet was Milan Rakic (1876-1939). He accepted the dodecasyllable and hendecasyllable verse forms from the very beginning, and basically never abandoned them. This made it possible for him to bring them to the point of rhythmic perfection. Less diverse, he was also not as prolific: he only published two volumes of poems in a very short time span (Poems, 1903, 1912). He was more disciplined than others, and he developed the art of rhyme and strophe to virtuosity; he did the same with alternating rhyme and syntactical units in various forms of enjambment. This corresponded to a certain amount of emotional suppression, and to the bitter irony and scepticism which is to be found in Rakic's poetry. The somewhat edified, festive tone of his verses and strophes is in marvellous harmony with historical themes -- related to Kosovo -- in a small group of his patriotic poems.

An abundance of patriotic poems is to be found in the works of a third poet, Aleksa Santic (1868-1924). However, he rather extended this traditional genre more than he changed it in the new spirit, as Rakic did. In Mostar (Herzegovina), where Santic was born and which he never left, a group of writers formed around the periodical "Zora". Ducic was a member of that group in the beginning, as was the most significant narrator Herzegovina ever produced, Svetozar Corovic (1875-1919). Continuity with the literary development of the nineteenth century was not interrupted here. Similar to Santic, a poet from Vojvodina named Veljko Petrovic (1884-1967) also contributed to the revival of patriotic poetry (Patriotic Poems, 1912, and then On the Threshold, 1914). He was even more significant as a narrator: from the exceptional story Bunja (1905) to his last book The Breath of Life (1964).

Poets who were younger and more radical than Ducic and Rakic encountered misunderstandings with the critics, which was a sign of further change. They transformed the initially sombre atmosphere into a gloomy one, and moderate pessimism into despair. In the tedium of Belgrade they first began to reveal the metropolitan spleen which Baudelaire had introduced into poetry. First of all, Sima Pandurovic (1883-1960) almost callously depicted scenes of bodily and spiritual chaos in his collection Post-Humus Honours (1908). Then, Vladislav Petkovic Dis (1880-1917) opened Serbian lyric up wide for irrational substance and images drawn up from the subconscious (Drowned Souls, 1911). All in dreams and intuitions, he paid little attention to the external appearance of his poetry. It was not faultless, especially in its language. Yet, Dis's poetry is among the most musical in the Serbian language. The unusual inversion of images, the change of syntax and the grave intimations foretold new changes in poetry.

Vladislav Petkovic Dis (1880-1917)

In contrast to poetry, prose changed more slowly and with greater difficulty. Moreover, the dominance of lyric poetry actually created conditions in which common characteristics appeared among prose writers, for whom J. Skerlic introduced the term "lyrical realists". However, the stylistic traits of Impressionism were those that came mostly to the forefront. Petar Kocic (1877-1916) was close to this, and it is often difficult to define the line between poetry in prose and in his narratives (From the Mountain and Under the Mountain I-III, 1902-1905). In his narratives, the desolate mountains of Bosnia are just as much heroes as are the little people who struggle against them in their battle for survival. Beautiful and terrible in the same stroke in Kocic's works, the natural surroundings in Bosnia, as an elemental force, meld with man in the resistance to the foreign, imperial rule of the Austro-Hungarian government. Kocic is the founder of the Bosnian narrative. Equally fascinating impressions of the Adriatic and the karst regions by the sea are to be found in the works of Ivo Cipiko (1869-1923). However, in his novels he offered a broader picture of life in Dalmatia and its hinterlands. In his first book Seeking One's Fortune (Za kruhom, 1904), the main hero departs, is educated in another city and returns to his homeland where he then sees everything differently; in his second work The Spiders (1909), he develops his portrayal of different social classes. This first theme is to be found also in the work The Wilderness by Veljko Milicevic (1886- 1929), now set in a similar environment - neighbouring Lika - but with a literary transposition into a more modern form of man's isolation. The main hero is, in all, an indifferent foreigner, and this develops into the theme of modern man's lack of homeland. It is an exceptional work both in its structure and in its view of the world, seen through the eyes of a foreigner.

The Serbian modern novel and narrative actually begin with Borisav Stankovic (1867-1927). His characters are complexly constructed, with powerful internal conflicts between contradictory motives. The narrative is styled from the immediate proximity of the main hero, often from his consciousness, which through introspection leads to man's earliest, most deeply suppressed experiences. No one so bravely delved into the spiritual and sensory life of man as he did in his novel Tainted Blood (1910) nor did anyone so dramatically show the relation between collective proscription which culture imposes on man and the individual, both emotionally and bodily. As such, the body of the main heroine Sofka is shown in movement, with constant changes and with an abundance of sensation which had not been present in earlier prose. An entire little-known world of urban old Balkan culture is also revealed. Tainted Blood is the first Serbian novel which received favourable critiques in its translations into several European languages. His second novel, Master Mladen, almost all his narratives, and the often performed drama Kostana, are all linked to the little town of Vranje in the far southern part of Serbia.

Isidora Sekulic (1877-1958)

Compelling analytical prose, all packed with carefully stylised impressions, began in that time (Fellow Travellers, 1913) under the authorship of Isidora Sekulic (1877-1958). Her works regularly use introspection - with a tendency toward an essayistically narrative text - which is inclined to develop into the following of the stream of consciousness. Between the two world wars, and even later, I. Sekulic was one of the best essayists and interpreters of literature. Milutin Uskokovic (1884-1915) was less apt to innovation; he wrote two novels about life in Belgrade: The Newcomers (1910) and Cedomir Ilic (1914). Uskokovic's development was ended by the First World War, as was the development of an even younger author, Milutin Bojic (1892- 1917). In certain ways, Bojic returned to the resonant Parnassian- symbolist verse, with a rhetorically exhilarating tone. Such verse characterises The Blue Common Grave, a stirring poem about the Ionic Sea as the graveyard of the Serbian army, decimated by disease as it retreated (in the First World War). Apart from that, Bojic was one of the rare writers who worked with dedication on drama: he wrote five dramas on historical themes (The King's Autumn, The Wedding of Uros, and the trilogy The Despot's Crown), and two dramas on modern themes (Chains and Madam Olga).


The unquestionable artistic rise of Serbian literature which the war years brought to a halt was not revived or extended as one would expect. Literary life was rapidly revived, especially in Belgrade, which was largely a city in ruins. This, however, was no longer the capital of Serbia, but rather the capital of the newly created state of liberated south Slavic peoples - Yugoslavia. Writers, mostly young ones, did not only come from a variety of domestic literary milieus: many of them brought experiences from various European metropolises where they had lived for longer or shorter periods of time. These differences introduced a new dynamic into literary life. The old models began to lose their value. Instead of one leading periodical such as "Srpski knjizevni glasnik", several new, most often short- lived, periodicals appeared; they had their own special, uncompromising programmes. Everything, or almost everything, which was characteristic of earlier literature gradually came into dispute.

The disputes which these young writers were disposed to, however, did not only arise from the general scepticism caused by the cruel and, for many, traumatic experiences of the war. It was also a part of the programme of new literary movements, whose manifestos flooded European literature especially just before the war, and then again after the war. All of those movements, sprouting up in various countries, were tributaries to a single overall literary-historical phenomenon (stylistic formation) which came to be called the avant garde. Avant garde literature - like the avant garde art and music of the time - actually disputed traditional artistic norms and forms. In Serbian literature, Expressionism was the first to appear as an avant garde movement, in the 1920s. The Manifesto of the Expressionist School was written by Stanislav Vinaver (1891-1955). He took over the role of the critic who interpreted post-war literature, while polemically deconstructing pre-war literature at the same time. Parody is a powerful destructive tool. It was by no means a coincidence that Vinaver first parodied Popovic's Anthology of Modern Serbian Lyric Poetry, thus the view of this development which the authoritative critic of Modernism canonised.

The front cover of the French edition of the novel Migrations by Milos Crnjanski, published by Julliard and L'Age d' Homme, in 1986

In a short time, groups of writers rallied around individual periodicals, writers who were closer to Futurism or Dadaism, and somewhat later to Surrealism. Apart from these international movements, indigenous movements such as "zenitizam" ("zenithism") and "hipnizam" ("hypnism") also appeared. The founder of the first was Ljubomir Micic (1895-1971), who was little known as a writer, but who started the periodical "Zenit" (1921-1926), which gathered collaborators from various countries and became the first international periodical for literature and art (in Serbia). The founder of the second movement was Rade Drainac (1899-1943) who was significant as a poet, and who started the periodical "Hipnos" in 1922, one of the characteristically ephemeral periodicals. For about ten years, literary life was filled with many controversies, manifestos, and with experimental texts which were mostly quite short- lived. Yet, works of lasting value were created at the same time. Most importantly, at a time when practically all literary conventions were being exposed to doubt, some of the most important writers of the twentieth century were being formed. Milos Crnjanski (1893-1977) was the most prominent of the new rebellious writers at the very beginning. His collection of poems The Lyrics of Ithaca (1919) caused great controversy. The return of the soldier (which Crnjanski was himself) from abroad to his homeland, compared to Odysseus's return to Ithaca, served as the general framework not only for his anti-war lyric poetry, but also for an unusually courageous, typically avant garde denial of the canonised values (and myths) of the national culture. His violation of the poetic norm was also controversial. Thereafter, Crnjanski rhythmically changed Serbian verse: he repressed metre and lent a greater role to intonation and syntax. The rhythmically arranged sentence was carried over from verse to prose. Verse and prose, the lyric poem and the novel, were thus drawn close together. Thus, his novels have a powerful lyric hue, starting from A Journal about Carnojevic (1921) which is thematically parallel to The Lyrics of Ithaca. Two other novels, Migrations (1929) and The Second Book of Migrations (1962), have a historical background: the Serbs who fled into Hungary and then into Russia in the eighteenth century, and their participation in the battles all over Europe. A powerful Romanesque fresco on the biblical theme of a nation in exodus. Finally, A Novel about London (1972) depicts emigrants, characters in the diaspora in a modern megalopolis. All the characters, and an entire nation, find themselves in search of a homeland. The return to the lost homeland in Crnjanski's works is stylised as one of man's utopian dreams.

The book Revelations by Rastko Petrovic, published by Cvijanovic in 1922

Rastko Petrovic (1898-1949) went even further into literary innovations. In Revelation (1922), he left all the characteristics of the old verse behind; in a novel with a theme about the life of the ancient Slavonic divinities, The Burlesque of Lord Perun the God of Thunder (1921), he develops the unity of action, time and space. He became acquainted with new tendencies in art in Paris, where he was educated after retreating with the Serbian army through Albania. Under the strong influence of the psychoanalytic school, from the conscious life of man he moved to the unconscious. He developed a theory of poetry about the deconstruction of linguistic structures in order to penetrate into the extra-phenomenal, the purely sensorial. He is the first among Serbian writers to take an interest in primitive and exotic cultures. His most voluminous work, Day Six (1960) is the only modern novel about the retreat through Albania. Before that, only Dragisa Vasic (1885-1945) had broadly wrestled with the problem of war in Serbia in an exceptional book of narratives The Icon Lamp Extinguished (1922).

Among the poets, only Momcilo Nastasijevic (1894-1938) completed his work as a unified whole. First came Five Lyric Circles (1932), and then two other books: Moments and Echoes (1938). He returned to folkloric verse and melos not to introduce them into his poetry, but to discover in them that which he called the "maternal melody". More than the other poets, he activated ancient images and meanings in the language consciousness. His lyric poetry is occasionally hermetic, but it is thus also one of the most profound in all of Serbian poetry. Apart from his narratives, which are correlates of his lyric poems, An Account of the Gifts of My Cousin Marija is a real masterpiece; he also wrote two dramas in verse (The Treasure of Medjuluzje and Djuradj Brankovic) and one in prose (At the "Eternal Fountain") which can be categorised among the best of dramas. He is one of the most important among drama writers in this period. Others would be Todor Manojlovic (1883-1968), a poet and author of the wide-ranging book The Origins and Development of Modern Poetry (1987), and also Ranko Mladenovic (1893-1943) and Zivojin Vukadinovic (1902-1949), who were also theatre critics.

The art of narrative was not developed and perfected by anyone as it was by Ivo Andric (1892-1975). He was not only linked to Bosnia thematically. Of all regions - as I. Sekulic remarked - nowhere is narrative done with so much devotion and balance as it is in Bosnia. This was shown already in oral narratives and epic poetry in Karadzic's collections. Then Petar Kocic. And finally, the contemporaries of Andric of whom Isak Samokovilija (1889-1955), Borivoj Jevtic (1894-1959) and Marko Markovic (1896-1961) are worthy of mention. Andric comes at the end, and rather than at the beginning, of a narrative tradition, which he transposed into the modern forms of the narrative and novel. Hence, already in his first narrative The Journey of Ali Djerzelez (1920) and first collection Tales (1924), a certainty of language and a balance in composition is felt, which owes as much to the past as it introduces that past into modern times. His rich narrative opus is varied both thematically and morphologically. Yet, there are no extreme solutions or experiments. Andric is among those rare writers who innovate and canonise at the same time. Such are the three novels published in 1945: The Bridge on the Drina, The Travnik Chronicle, and The Spinster. Published somewhat later, The Devil's Yard (1954) shows all of Andric's narrative skill: he transformed the ancient framing of a story within a story into the harmonious and complexly built structure of a short novel with multiple meanings. In terms of content and theme, it corresponds to collected experience and age old wisdom drawn both from eastern and western cultures, which met and intermingled in Bosnia. When Andric received the Nobel Prize for Literature, he became the most commonly translated and interpreted Serbian writer. He entered into Goethe's conceptualisation of world literature, as had the earlier folk songs and Njegos.

Ivo Andric accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961

At the end of the 1920s, when the avant garde movements in Europe changed or were lost, Serbian surrealists published a manifesto The Position of Surrealism (1930). Actually, from 1922 onward, surrealism was developing in Belgrade, in parallel with the like-named Breton movement in Paris. Marko Ristic (1902- 1984) took over the role of leader and theoretician. His starting point was Freud's discovery that at the transition point from the unconscious to the conscious of man's life, there is a kind of censorship which deforms undesirable (forbidden) issues into symbolic pictures. The surrealists placed those dream pictures and secret desires in their texts as loosely connected, muddled and often even grotesque. Thereafter, they abandon canonised literature, opposing it with spontaneous poetry, which is generated in unrestricted associations, through the technique of automatic writing. Changes in literature are linked to social changes, to the revolution, which brought them closer to Marxist ideology in the 1930s. Their strength was more in subversion than in the construction of literary forms.

The finest lyricist among them was Milan Dedinac (1902- 1966). His poem Public Bird (1926) was considered as a model of pure poetry. Dedinac's collected works Hard Times (1957) is made up of a mixture of poetry and prose, lyric poems with experimentation. Another poet, Dusan Matic (1898-1980), entered into an even braver experiment in language and verse, starting in 1923. It was only with the collection Bagdala (1954) and The Wakening of Material (1959) that he became an influential poet. In his work, one finds a rarely successful mixing of conceptuality and light, almost easy-going narration. A third poet, and productive novelist, Aleksandar Vuco (1897-1985) was the only one who wrote humorous poetry according to the principles of the surrealists (Humour Sleeping, 1930) and children's poetry (The Exploits of the "Five Little Roosters" Company, 1933). Finally, the youngest of them Oskar Davico (1909-1989), in his exceptionally productive novelist works, went the furthest in relating surrealist writing techniques and ideological engagement to the leftists. The collections Poems (1938) and Hanna (1939) were the best parts of his work. They belong among the best books of poetry written between the two world wars. Close to them was the later Cherry Tree Behind the Wall (1950). Thereafter, Davico dedicated ten voluminous novels to the lives of the revolutionaries and builders of the new social order. However, only the first novel The Poem (1954) had an influence on modern Serbian prose with its innovation of the narrative technique.

The cover of the English edition of Vasko Popa's Collected Poems, published by Persea Books, New York, in 1979

After the mid-1930s, there was an ever greater polarisation among Serbian writers to the political right and left. On the left, literature was once again expected to serve certain social goals. A "social literature" movement was formed. It produced no writers of importance. However, the movement's writers had an influence on literary life just before the war. In a pure literary sense, they were conservative. They revived certain forms which had been surpassed. Even so, the revival of traditional literature was not due to them. Traditional literature in the 1930s was not so much revived as its presence was more visible after the avant garde was extinguished. Even during the most turbulent changes, the development of the old literary forms, suppressed but uninterrupted, existed in the lyric poem and novel. Thus, without greater innovations, Branimir Cosic (1903-1934) in his most significant work The Mown Field (1934) actually perfected the Belgrade novel type, whose form was first rendered by M. Uskokovic. In the lyric poem, Velimir Zivojinovic Massuka (1886-1974) is worthy of mention.

Few poets, however, encompassed such a long developmental continuity as did Desanka Maksimovic (1898-1993). For seven decades, from her first collection Poems (1934) up to modern times, she enriched and perfected a lyric poem which had all the traditional elements: confessional, sensitive, descriptive and, often, patriotic. She generally wrote in a balanced variant of free verse which was also very musical. Her use of language was rich and cultivated. In a later collection I'm Asking for Pardon (1964), her main characteristic stands out: she is a poet of the world as it is, both good and evil (for which she seeks pardon), and not of how it could be or should be (according to an imperial code). D. Maksimovic is undoubtedly the most popular Serbian poet of the twentieth century. No less popular, but in prose, is Branko Copic (1915-1984). Together with D. Maksimovic, he is the most prominent children's writer. Three books of his stories came out before the war, related to his homeland in the Bosnian territories. He spent the war with the Bosnian partisans, and that had a significant influence on many of the books which he started to publish regularly after 1944. He gave the most comprehensive account of Bosnia during the war in the novel The Breach (1952), which was followed by several others. His narratives were, however, the most important of all. When he finally returned to his childhood and the world which preoccupied him in the beginning, he produced A Mallow- Coloured Garden (1970). This was a collection of small narratives of lasting value, connected in two cycles. The gentle humour, imagination and images originating in the folk tradition were victorious over cruel reality.


The beginning of the longest period, which includes modern literature, was marked as much by the end of the war as by the changes in the social system. The Second World War was equally as devastating as World War I for the Serbian nation. However, it had even deeper effects on literature. It was also a more complex war. Beside the resistance to the foreign occupation forces, there was also an internal schism among the people based on ideology. Two parallel resistance movements - the Chetniks (led by the monarchists) and the Partisans (led by the communists) - were irreconcilable. The victory of the latter led to the establishment of a socialist social order, which was maintained in Yugoslavia for half a century; it had an influence on literary development much more than the earlier social systems could. Understood as a kind of social superstructure, literature was brought under ideological control from the standpoint of the adapted Marxist philosophy. Literary development starting with 1945 cannot be properly understood if this rather new phenomenon is not taken into account. Literature noticeably depended on the general political-ideological changes, which were often sharp and sudden, but which decade after decade lost their strength, and thus the art of literature was able to continue its independent development.

Miodrag Pavlovic in a drawing by Stojan Celic in 1989

In the literary life of the first post-war years, the writers of the left were dominant. The nucleus was made up of the pre-war "social literature" movement. However, even then there were no writers of greater importance among them, not among the younger generations. Anyway, that with which they were concerned was not literary art. The forms which they followed, led them to the application of literature to social, revolutionary, and patriotic themes, and thereafter to the themes of renewal and construction. Even the most prominent of the poets, Cedomir Minderovic (1912-1966), Tanasije Mladenovic (b. 1913) and the reticent lyricist Dusan Kostic (b. 1917) were not important, from the purely literary point of view, for that which they wrote in that period, but rather for that which they wrote later, following the general development of Serbian poetry. An even more prominent example is Skender Kulenovic (1910-1978), who wrote an exceptionally successful poems Mother Stojanka from Knezopolje; and after a long period of hesitation between genres and obvious choice, it was only in two later volumes, Sonnets (1968, 1974), that he rendered artistically disciplined and profound lyric poetry.

After the conflict with the centre in Moscow and the exclusion of the Yugoslav communists from the Informbureau (the Information Bureau of the Communist Party) in 1948, when the liberals among the Yugoslavs prevailed, the pressure on literature for stylistic uniformity was eased, which had meant social realism. The controversies soon began in the periodicals of Belgrade, gaining new elan in the early 1950s and lasting to the end of the decade. The more conservative realists rallied around "Knjizevne novine" and "Savremenik", and the modernists attracted by innovations gathered around "Mladost" and "Delo". Although the modernists made reference to and returned to the experience of the writers between the wars, this was not simply a revival of the avant garde. Something quite new, which had not existed in Serbian literature beforehand, is to be found among these poets. A sharp critic of the old conceptions and interpreter of the new poetry was Zoran Misic (1921-1976). His critiques, argumentation, and essays Word and Time (1953), and then Word and Time I-II (1963), show that there were not only differences in opinion, but rather that there were differences in general in the understanding of poetry.

Dobrica Cosic (b. 1921)

Understanding was made especially difficult for Vasko Popa (1922- 1991). The controversy around his The Crust (1953), and then Field of Unrest (1956) became quite extensive. This was because the basic characteristics of the old lyric poetry, such as subjectivity, personal feelings and emotional connotations in poetic language, are not to be found in most of Popa's poems. Subjects from man's surroundings are described coolly and precisely. However there is a certain shift which makes that description metaphorical: it expresses discomfort, anxiety, fear and endangeredness. Popa gives form to the experience of the modern urban man. Yet, at the same time, he reveals another, older experience of man through language and cultural memory. From national images (A Land Upright, 1972) he moved to those of Orthodoxy (Wolf's Salt, 1976) and to universal images as well (A Secondary Heaven, 1978). His miraculous images raised from the deep recesses of human memory quickly began to enchant not only domestic readers but those abroad as well. Popa himself, while still living, became not only the most often translated Serbian poet, but one of the most famous European poets altogether.

The part played by the poetry of Miodrag Pavlovic (b. 1928) was no less significant in the changes. His first book 87 Poems (1952) was filled with more drastic and even more shocking images for the readers of lyric poetry. At that time the phenomenon of the absurd appeared, first in the works of Pavlovic. Although his poetry is quite different from Popa's, he also returned to the diachronic depths of memory: The Milk of Time Immemorial (1963), The Great Scythia (1969), The New Scythia (1970), and so on. Exceptionally prolific as a poet, he was no less productive or significant as an essayist. A third, equally significant poet is Stevan Raickovic (b. 1928). Not even in his first books Poems of Silence (1952) and Ballads about Evening (1955) did he place the readership or critics in doubt: whether he was writing in enjambment or in free verse, the traditional lyric poems is recognisable. Raickovic's transposition of the poet's experience into nature and into landscape seem as old as the lyric poem itself to us. Even so, he is a modern poet who introduces something of man's existential shakenness and endangeredness into his charming images from nature. He casts the pure lyrical state with highlighted artistry, especially in the sonnets Stone Lullaby (1963). The picture would go unfinished if no mention was made of such different poets as the elegiac Svetislav Mandic (b. 1921), the entertaining Slobodan Markovic (1928-1987) and the equally important, as a prose writer and poet, Branko V. Radicevic (b. 1925), who constantly revived a certain special view of folklore culture in western Serbia.

A facsimile of Mesa Selimovic's handwriting

Although in the beginning it was somewhat slower, prose changed in parallel with poetry. For prose, the review factor was much more important, and thus the abandonment of socialist realism did not necessarily mean the forsaking of realist stylistic characteristics. The transition was particularly obvious in the novels published in 1950-1951, which are usually described as being decisive. First was The Wedding by Mihailo Lalic (1914-1992), written in the manner of the realists; its theme was taken from the last war, but it is presented not only on the ideological level, but rather on a more intense psychological one. In his successive novels Lalic did not change his theme, or the time and setting of the events (northern Montenegro), and the same characters even appear in several different works. However, he thus gave psychological depth to his characters, narrowing the focus to a collective primordial form which unceasingly controls the characters' behaviour. Except for Njegos, no one has ever understood the ethno-psychological heritage of the people of Montenegro so well. The increasingly complex motivation of individual behaviour on the firm foundation of traditional morals demanded new forms of narrative, and Lalic gradually achieved them. The Wailing Mountain (1957) and The Chase (1960) are the best of his ten novels.

A second novel published in 1951 - Distant is the Sun by Dobrica Cosic (b. 1921) - is written more courageously. For the first time, a certain internal hesitancy and indecisiveness is shown, which was quite surprising and brought the writer exceptional success. Cosic thereafter published Roots (1954) in which he turned his attention to the end of the last century, and in several voluminous novels (a series of novels) he deals with the dramatic developments and turning points in the social, ideological and political life of Serbia during the first half of the twentieth century. The Time of Death I-IV (1972- 1979) is a great historical novel which transposed, into literary form, the drama of war and the suffering and death of the Serbian people in World War I. Finally, in 1950 The Winter Summer Holiday by Vladan Desnica (1905-1967) came out. It was the first modern prosaic novel written with themes taken from the last war (set in the coastal hinterlands of Zadar). Even before the war, Desnica had written stories which depended on the tradition of Serbian writers in Dalmatia. Afterwards, his prose became ever more meditative. In the remarkable novel The Springtimes of Ivan Galeb (1957) the narrative flows exclusively from the sensitive consciousness of a musician who is mortally ill, confronted with death and ruminating over the everlasting battle of light and dark, of being and nothingness.

The German edition of Miodrag Bulatovic's novel The Red Rooster Flies Heavenwards, published by Karl Hanser, Munich, 1960

The struggle between opposing principles - but also between dogma and rebellion, authority and the individual - is to be found in the writings of Mesa Selimovic (1910-1982). He published his novels relatively late in life, but they brought him quick success not only among domestic readers but among the foreign public as well. His oriental milieu is darker and more cruel than that of Andric. The Dervish and Death (1966) is a narrative about a Moslem cleric, a dervish in the eighteenth century, and The Fortress (1970) is a narrative by an educated man in the seventeenth century. The tension and drama are shaped within their troubled consciousness and in their diffident consciences. In a biblically intoned style, Selimovic presents man's eternal fear and his suffering under ideological impositions and the hidden webs which the authorities are constantly weaving for him. Similar to Selimovic, Bosko Petrovic (b. 1915), after his poems and stories, did not publish his first novel before 1970, Reaching the End of Summer. His most important work, however, is the impressive The Singer I-II (1980). The narrative in the novel runs in parallel in the present and in the Serbian cultural past, from the end of the eighteenth century onward. Yet, the essence is not in the parallels and comparison of those two realities, but rather in the search for a more profound historical stream, for a living cultural and spiritual continuity: the present is conceived in the past, and that which is past extends into the present, and together they hold the future open before us. Somewhat younger than Petrovic, Aleksandar Tisma (b. 1924) was not as inclined to contemplation, but rather toward restrained, even cold, description in stories and novels. He presents cruel and evil scenes without compassionate tones, and this grew into a style with which he constructs an inhuman world, with human figures appearing as the objects of manipulation, in his best novel The Uses of Man (1976).

Branko Miljkovic (1934-1961)

Of all the post-war writers, none is a narrator in the narrow sense as is the writer Antonije Isakovic (b. 1923). He was the first to offer something truly new in narratives on the theme of war, and that primarily in his use of language which is ultimately elliptical, even crude. This is also true of his description which is precise and almost sparse, but which has strong symbolic connotations. Finally, in the books Grown Children (1953) and Fern and Fire (1962) the action is carefully led throughout, and the composition balanced. These elegantly composed narratives are filled, however, with powerful drama. The narrative genre was further developed by Miodrag Bulatovic (1930-1991). His collection The Devils Are Coming (1955) caused great controversy. It was followed by The Wolf and the Bell (1958). Bulatovic is not a writer of balance and discipline. He abruptly changes tone, he makes quick transitions from the serious to the parodical. He connects disparate phenomena, disfiguring them to the point of grotesqueness. All of this is then brought into conformity with a fairly disturbed vision of the world: in his narratives, the places of authority over the main characters are taken on by despised and even mad characters either from the village or from the urban demimonde. Through the eyes of such characters, a world which is as unusual as it is enchanting is seen in the novel The Red Rooster Flies Heavenward (1959), which was - as were some of his other novels - translated into most of the major world languages. Bulatovic, in fact, started a new developmental stage in Serbian prose.

Ivan V. Lalic (b. 1931) belongs to the new generation of poets. From his first collection (Used to Be a Boy, 1955) to his exceptional last one (The Letter, 1992) he gradually revived the neglected development of symbolist poetry: in his work one finds its artistic brilliance, balanced imagery and spiritual cogency. Lalic not only returns to Byzantium (Byzantium, 1987), but to the even wider ancient world; like some of the European neo-symbolists from the turn of the century, he is searching everywhere for the classic balance of poems and he binds poetic inspiration to culture. Although it was ephemeral, it is indicative that a movement of poets appeared in Belgrade in 1957, calling themselves neo-symbolists. Among them, the most prominent was Branko Miljkovic (1934-1961). His rapid development lasted only a few years, interrupted by his untimely death. He was inclined to the revival of abstract poetry, which he presents as a combination of poetic forms which generate symbols and ideas which connect dialectic extremes: fire and ashes, being and nothingness, life and death. He called it the "pathos of the mind", which was powerfully seen in his best book, which was also quite influential for a time, Fire and Nothingness (1960).

Desanka Maksimovic (1898-1993)

The closest to authentic symbolist poetry, however, is Borislav Radovic (b. 1935). He is like a refined artist, ahead of the rest of today's poets. From Poeticality (1956) to Poems 1971-1991 (1991) he has not ceased to test the potentialities of verse and language. His delicate lyric poetry at times reminds one of M. Dedinac. The poetry of Jovan Hristic (b. 1933), reminds one of an older poet, D. Matic, at least inasmuch as he offers experience mediated by erudition in a spontaneous, colloquial tone (Old and New Poems, 1988). Hristic is just as significant as a theatre critic and author of dramas based on classical themes (a book of dramas The Four Apocryphas, 1970). Ljubomir Simovic (b. 1935) developed along other lines. On one hand, he is a lyric poet inclined toward generalisation and abstractness, and on the other he returns to his western Serbian homeland, to its landscapes, to its past, and to its daily life, which no one has put into poetry like he has till now (selected poems Bread and Salt, 1985). His dramas have met with success in performance (Dramas, 1991) are akin to his lyric poetry. Matija Beckovic (b. 1939) has gone even further into the purely regional. Above all he is entertaining, and he has always been rhetorical. Thus, in his narrative poems A Fellow Told Me (1970), the Boundary of Vuk the Insane (1976), and Woe and Alas (1978) he offers new forms of poetry written in dialect, full of phraseologies, which retain the remains of a certain view of traditional culture in Montenegro. Among the many poets in this broad formal and thematic range, two or three should be mentioned: Vito Markovic (b. 1935), Milovan Danojlic (b. 1937) who is ever more significant as a stylistically brilliant prose writer, Branislav Petrovic (b. 1937), and Alek Vukadinovic (b. 1938).

Borislav Pekic (1930-1992)

The most musical poet among the neo-symbolists, Velimir Lukic (b. 1936), has dedicated himself to drama. His dramas on classical themes (A Sea Turned to Stone, 1962), in a genre close to farce (The Long Life of King Oswald, 1963), and then with elements of fantasy and mystery (Bert's Carriage or Sibyl, 1964), have met with visible success. However, the beginnings of post- war drama were marked by Heaven's Detachment (1957) by Djordje Lebovic (b. 1928) and Aleksandar Obrenovic (b. 1928). Dark scenes from a Nazi camp and characters who have lost their humanity draw Heaven's Detachment close to existentialist drama. The most prolific and popular dramatist is surely Aleksandar Popovic (b. 1929). His pieces are light and interesting, and they have neither rigidly directed action nor deeper dramatic plots. However, because of that, language has taken on a special role, particularly the language of Belgrade; S. Vinaver had described that language as a mixture which was suitable for dramas. His most important pieces are Ljubinko and Desanka (1963), The Hundred Loop Stocking (1965), The Pig's Trot (1966), and Second Door to the Left (1969). Finally, Dusan Kovacevic (1948) continued Nusic's tradition of the comedy writing of Belgrade: The Marathoners' Victory Lap (1973), The Balkan Spy (1983) and St. George Slaying the Dragon (1986).

From the 1960s onward, the development of prose became more dynamic than ever, but it also became more complicated. It is difficult to present the whole picture without oversimplifying. That which is most readily noticed, as a phenomenon which is developing with ever greater alacrity, is that the writers are as preoccupied with their art as they are with the subject of their description, if not more: the same theme is exposed to various narrative approaches, so that the same approaches can then be applied to different problems. Radomir Konstantinovic (b. 1928) publishes novels as monotonous tractates on the most general of themes, and only later did he switch to essay writing. Pavle Ugrinov (b. 1926) is consistent in his minutely detailed description, which slows the action and suppresses the theme. Bora Cosic (b. 1932) is the most persistent in his experimentation. As a culmination of his experiments, he turned his massive novel The Tutors (1978) into the interplay of construction and de-construction, in which the reader is at a loss. This tendency is extended by the somewhat younger Mirko Kovac (b. 1938). He constantly changes, from The Place of Execution (1962) and Door of the Innards (1978), and constantly crosses the boundary between narrative and reflection about narrative.

Different kinds of procedures are used by Borislav Pekic (1930-1992), a writer who drew much attention in the 1970s and 1980s with his productivity and willingness to change. As early as The Time of Miracles (1965) he places the temptation of man - with ideological and political connotations - at the foundation of the New Testament stories, and thus universalises their meaning. Although that approach is not repeated in the successive novels, similar themes and the general principles of relating and generalising are to be recognised. His most massive work was the Romanesque series The Golden Fleece (1978-1986), where the history of a single family reflects the fate of an entire people, the Tsintsars, who were assimilated into the other peoples of the Balkans after centuries of diaspora.

The French edition of Danilo Kis's Encyclopedia of the Dead, published by Gallimard, Paris, 1985

Less prolific, Danilo Kis (1935-1989) is much more preoccupied by form. He achieved acclaim among Serbian prose writers, with the novel Garden, Ashes (1965). The narrator is as much in search of his lost childhood as he is for his dead father. The finest of sensations, to whatever extent they are lyrically translucent, they are shadowed with bitterness in memory: the imago of the father-victim hovers over this book, as it does in Kis's subsequent novels. In The Hourglass (1972), where the theme is not changed, the narrative technique is brought to the point of virtuosity. A Tomb for Boris Davidovic (1976), which brought Kis great acclaim abroad, is narrated as a whole with a skilful interweaving of documentation and fiction about the victims of the Stalinist purges.

It was actually Milorad Pavic (b. 1929) who was able to disperse facts into the imaginary in a seductive way, and to give solid factual contours to the imaginary. He is a well-known historian of Serbian literature, and he captured the fancy of both domestic and foreign critics and readers with a novel strangely written in the form of a dictionary (Dictionary of the Khazars, 1984). Above all, he formally shattered the temporal sequence in the narrative: the dictionary makes segmentary reading in random order possible. Then, he offers testimony from three civilisations, three religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) about the Khazars, an ancient people about whom practically nothing is known. The presuppositions multiply, and the reader is drawn into them. The interplay between the real and the possible, between knowledge and fantasy, does not end here, but rather continues in the subsequent two novels which are equally unusual: A Landscape Painted in Tea (1988) and The Inner Side of the Wind (1991). In the past decade, Pavic has been one of the most commonly translated authors in the world.

At the transition between the seventh and eighth decade of this century, a new parallel stream came to the forefront: the return to temporally and spatially limited domestic themes and the revival of more simple, if not more traditional, forms of narrative. After M. Bulatovic, Dragoslav Mihailovic (b. 1930) offers the most significant book Good Night, Fred (1930), because it marked the further development of the Serbian narrative. The themes and language of everyday life are put together, so that narration in the first person can be equally done in jargon or in a dialect. The exceptional novel When the Pumpkins Blossomed (1968) is enchanting with its revelation of something which is quite close to us and yet neglected: the common life of post-war Belgrade, with human destinies which are no less tragic because they are common. Thereafter, Petrija's Wreath (1975) leads us into central Serbia, into rural and suburban life. Two younger authors, Vidosav Stevanovic (b. 1942) and Milisav Savic (b. 1946) simultaneously published stories (Refuz, the Dead, 1969, and Bulgarian Barracks, 1969) with similar themes, and to a certain extent with the same stylistic traits, and the critiques speak of a special trend of "realistic prose".

Stevan Raickovic (b. 1928)

In the last two decades, stylistic and thematic variations, among other things, have become enormous. On one hand, authors such as Zivojin Pavlovic (b. 1933), Slobodan Selenic (b. 1933), and Svetlana Velmar-Jankovic (b. 1932) are inclined toward modern approaches in shaping modern themes. On the other hand, Mladen Markov (b. 1934) is noticeably traditional both when he reaches farther back into history and when he writes about a post-war village. Vojislav Lubarda (b. 1930) turns back into history, both distant and more recent. He fills out the picture of Bosnia, which does not look much clearer in the past than it does today. On the other hand, an unknown writer till then, Miroslav Popovic (1926-1984) was a surprise with his excellent novel Destinies (1984), written with balance and with a highly nuanced psychology in its characters. Finally, the number of young authors is fairly large, and they have largely begun a new stage in the development of Serbian prose; there are prominent writers among them, such as Miroslav Josic Visnjic (b. 1946).

Taken as a whole, Serbian literature has entered the last decade of the twentieth century with a highly developed dynamism and complexity which testifies to its further ascent, but which has only been hinted at here in broad strokes. Historians usually divide European literatures into leading literatures and those of the smaller nations; the latter are characterised by a so- called "rapid development" not only in the nineteenth but also in the twentieth century. Catching up with leading literature, that is - rapid development, was characteristic of Serbian literature up to the end of the First World War. Then it became directly involved in the powerful international movement of the literary avant garde. As early as the 1950s, during the second half of the century, the increased interest in Serbian writers, their ever greater presence in translation, the feedback which their works provoke among foreign readers and students of literature, have all indisputably transformed the old picture. It is obvious that Serbian literature - in tandem with the leading literature in the other Slavic languages: Russian, Polish and Czech - is simultaneously participating in the literary life of Europe, and in the general development of the art of literature.

// Projekat Rastko / The history of Serbian culture //
[ Promena pisma | Search | Map | Contact | Help ]