Part I: History and Culture

Serbian Literature

Nicholas Moravcevich

The arrival and settlement of the ancient Serbs in the Byzantine controlled central regions of the Balkan peninsula started in the first half of the 6th century. Since they had already spread over a sizable territory by the middle of the 7th century, the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius, making a virtue of necessity, granted them official permission to remain there as permanent settlers in return for their recognition of the Byzantine suzerainty and payment of annual tribute. Though the Byzantine rule over the Serbs greatly enhanced the spread of Christianity among them from the very beginning of their arrival to the Balkans, numerous linguistic, cultural and geographical barriers continued to impede the success of their conversion for a considerable length of time. The decisive change occurred in the 9th century when two Byzantine missionaries, Constantine (later known as Cyril) and his brother Methodius, finally devised the first Slavic alphabet (now known as Glagolitic) and translated the most important Christian liturgical texts into the Slavic dialect spoken in the Salonika region. Preserved in these liturgical texts, this language (later known as Old Church Slavonic) was quickly adopted as the official language of all Slavic Churches of the Orthodox variety, and as such survived to this day. The work of Cyril and Methodius was under-taken in response to the request of the Moravian Prince Rostislav, who asked the Byzantine Emperor Michael III to send him some missionaries who could spread the Gospel among the Moravian Slavs in a language that they could understand. The Moravian mission of Cyril and Methodius was ultimately not fully successful because of the stiff opposition of the local Latin-oriented Frankish clergy, which looked up to the church of Rome. Yet, several of their pupils continued their work among the Serbs and Bulgarians after they were forced to abandon Moravia and settle further south in Ohrid. Consequently, the oldest Serbian literary texts were the Church Slavic liturgical translations from the Greek, written in the Glagolitic alphabet. Sometime in the 10th century this script was replaced by a different one, now erroneously known as Cyrillic, which was most likely devised by Cyril and Methodius’ pupil, Kilment, whose Macedonian cultural center in the town of Ohrid (which at that time was within the territory of the first Bulgarian empire) exerted a strong influence upon the development of early Serbian letters.

After the creation of the independent Serbian medieval state in 1168 by Stefan Nemanja (1123-1200) and the establishment of the long line of Nemanjic dynasty rulers in Serbia, the local literary endeavor began to acquire more pronounced national characteristics. The most significant 12th century literary and artistic accomplishment was the illuminated Miroslav Gospel, written by a monastic pupil Grigorije of whom nothing else is known. From the 13th century survive four biographies of Serbian rulers and church dignitaries written in a hagiographic style. The first two, written by the first Serbian Archbishop and national saint Sava (Rastko Nemanjic, 1169-1235) and his older brother, King Stefan Nemanjic (?-1223), are biographies of their father Stefan Nemanja; while the last two, written by the Hilandar Monastery monks Domentian and Theodosije, both treat the life of Saint Sava.

The 14th century Serbian Archbishop Danilo the Elder (c. 1270-1337) started the collection of The Lives of Serbian Kings and Archbishops which was later continued by a number of anonymous biographers and eventually included his own life as well. From this century also date the famous Law Code of Tsar Dusan the Mighty (1308-1355), an invaluable record of medieval Serbian society and its institutions, and Danilo the Younger’s (c. 1350-1396) Praise of Prince Lazar (1393).

From the beginning of the 15th century survive the biographies of King Stefan Decanski and Despot Stefan Lazarevic, produced by Gligorije Camblak (c. 1365-1420) and Konstantin Kostenecki (?-c. 1433), both of whom worked at the Serbian Court although they were born in Bulgaria and are thus claimed by Bulgarian literature as well. The best 15th century work, however, Pohvala knezu Lazru (Praise of Prince Lazar, 1402), who as the last independent Serbian ruler perished fighting the Ottoman Turks in the famous Battle of Kosovo (1389), was embroidered on his shroud by the nun Jefimija (c. 1349-c. 1405), widow of Despot Ugljesa Mrnjavcevic. In addition to these especially prominent literary works, a number of lesser authors produced during the 14th and 15th centuries a considerable quantity of translated and adapted apocryphal writings, hymns and secular tales, until the Turkish conquests of the Serbian lands, completed in 1459, extinguished almost all written literary endeavor.

During the three and a half centuries of Turkish rule, the national creative impulse went entirely into the cultivation of oral folk literature resulting in one of the largest and most interesting bodies of epic and lyric poetry, tales, legends, fables and proverbs found in European lore. Particularly significant in this long period is the Serbian epic poetry composed in decasyllabic blank verse and singing of the exploits of both historical and legendary Serbian heroes. Of the numerous cycles of such poems, those concerning the Kosovo tragedy and its aftermath, the Serbian national her Kraljevic Marko, the struggle of Hajduks and Uskoks against the Ottoman oppressors and the liberation from the Turks in the beginning of the 19th century are the most outstanding.

Several centuries of the oppressive Turkish rule and a number of wars between Turkey and Austria fought on Serbian soil compelled many Serbs to flee to the Austro-Hungarian borderlands in Vojvodina, and the first signs of a Serbian cultural revival appeared there. A certain degree of local religious and secular autonomy won by the Serbian exiles from their not-too-generous new masters by the mid-18th century, eventually resulted in a modest spread of literacy among the Serbian settlers, the appearance of printed books (first in the Old Church Slavic language and later in the vernacular) and growth of the press and printing. Closer contact with Western European thought brought to Vojvodina the ideas of the Enlightenment which quickly reawakened the long dormant Serbian written literary tradition. The leading rationalist author of this era was Dositej Obradovic (1739-1811) whose shrewd pragamatism, apparent in his numerous translations and adaptations, educational endeavor and such original literary work as his autobiography (1783), greatly influenced subsequent Serbian literary development.

Serbian Gusle: An instrument used in the narration of Serbian epic poetry, in particular, during the five centuries of Turkey's occupation.
Serbian Gusle: An instrument used in the narration of Serbian epic poetry, in particular, during the five centuries of Turkey’s occupation.

The cultural leadership of the Vojvodinian Serbs remained dominant for a considerable time even after the liberation of Serbia proper in the early years of the 19th century. The first modern Serbian poet of note Lukijan Musicki (1777-1837), author of numerous odes and patriotic songs written in the neoclassical style was a Vojvodinian, as were Joakim Vujic (1772-1847), founder of the modern Serbian theater and a prolific translator and adapter, and Milovan Vidakovit (1780-1841), pioneer of the Serbian novel. Yet by the mid-century it was already clear that all of these were overshadowed by the towering figure of the first great cultural leader to come from Serbia proper Vuk Stefanovic-Karadcic (1787-1864), whose monumental cultural achievements remain the cornerstone of the entire modern Serbian civilization. As the reformer of the Serbian literary language, the inventor of the modern Serbian phonetic script, the first collector and proselytizer of Serbian oral literature and folklore, noted historian, memoirist and creator of the first Serbian dictionary and grammar, Vuk in a single lifetime accomplished tasks that might have taken scores of dedicated scholars to do.

Vuk’s labor provided the firm cultural foundation for the creative effort of the whole generation of Serbian romantic writers including the most renown South Slav poet, the Montenegrin Archbishop-Prince Petar II Petrovic Njegos (1813-1851), author of several notable poetic works, among which the most outstanding is a magnificent philosophical poem Gorski vijenac (The Mountain Wreath, 1847) which, through the depiction of the epic Montenegrin fratricidal struggle for survival against the local Moslem converts and their alien ideology and allegiance, forwarded the idea of freedom and opposition to tyranny in general. Other outstanding authors of this generation were the talented lyricist Branko Radicevic (1824-1853) whose verse full of enthusiasm, poetic freshness and formal flexibility enriched Serbian poetry with new motifs, modern sensibility and rare melodiousness; and the noted dramatist and poet Jovan Sterija Popovic (1806-1856), most renown today for a cluster of his comedies of manners strongly reminiscent of Moliere.

The most distinguished younger romantic authors were the poet Jovan Jovanovic-Zmaj (1833-1904), widely acclaimed for the clarity and simplicity of his love lyrics and the polish of his reflective; patriotic and children’s verse; the poet, dramatist and short story Djura Jaksic (1832-1878), particularly renown for his large output of lyric, epic, love, patriotic, and satirical poetry distinguished by rare plasticity of expression, exemplary sincerity and depth of feeling; and the poet and dramatist Laza Kostic (1841-1910), whose creative inventiveness and originality were equally apparent in his numerous lyrics, historical plays such as Pera Segedinac (Peter of Szeged, 1883) and a number of very successfully translated Shakespearean plays.

Realist tendencies, which were already noticeable in the later output of Jaksic and Zmaj, did not prevail in Serbian literature until the mid-seventies. At that time, however, the polemical and critical writings of Svetozar Markovic (1846-1870) came into vogue and this greatly accelerated the change in literary taste. Educated in Russia and greatly impressed by the liberal ideas of Chernishevski, Herzen and Dobrolyubov, Markovic, upon his return home, quickly became the leading Serbian liberal, utopian-socialist theoretician and the most outspoken champion of the literature of social commitment and criticism that required a distinctly realist mode of expression. Of those prose writers who under the influence of the new liberal ideas switched from the romantic to the realist style of writing, the most successful was Jakov Ignjatovic (1822-1889), author of the first Serbian social novel Milan Narandzic (1860), a critique of bourgeois society. The first full-fledged realist, however, was the father of the Serbian peasant short story, Milovan Glisic (1847-1908), whose satirical tales exposed the corruption of petty rural officials, greedy merchants and money lenders, while his humorous folkloric stories and comedies ridiculed the gullibility and backwardness of the peasantry and small townsfolk and laid bare various popular superstitions and foibles. Even more adept in the realm of the short story set in a provincial milieu, though far less prolific, was Laza Lazarevic (1851-1891), whose conservative yearning for the older, more patriarchal way of life was in his tales aptly heightened by his subtle psychological character portrayal, keen sense for atmosphere and background and impeccable style. Of the younger village story writers that emerged in this era the most popular with the reading public was Janko Veselinovic (1872-1905), despite the fact that his numerous tales and novels frequently suffered from excessive idealization of village life and manners and too strong a stress on patriarchal rural harmony. Within the same period, the short story writer and novelist Sima Matavulj (1852-1908) gained considerable recognition for his successful presentation of life in Dalmatia, Hercegovina and Montenegro. His best work, the novel Bakonja Fra Brne (1892), depicted both realistically and humorously life in a Dalmatian-Catholic monastery. An even more eclectic short story writer and novelist of a distinctly conservative persuasion, Stevan Sremac (1855-1906), drew his often humorous and satirical inspiration from life in his native Vojvodina and the towns of Nis and Belgrade where he spent many years in government service. His most popular novel Pop Cira i pop Spira / (The Priests Cira and Spira, 1898) is a broadly sketched, humorously lyrical panorama of Vojvodinian customs and manners, revealed through the Gogolian depiction of the petty squabbles of two neigh-boring Orthodox clergymen and their wives.

To this era also belongs the endeavor of the first Serbian master of allegorically-satirical prose, Radoje Domanovic (1873-1908), whose sharp and often bitter satire enveloped the broadest range of contemporary social evils; the work of the highly esteemed short story writer and novelist, Svetolik Rankovie (1863-1899), whose darkly critical view of the Serbian rural reality was most explicitly shown in his novels Gorski car (The Emperor of the Mountains, 1897) and Seoska uciteljica (The Village Schoolmistress, 1898); and the earlier endeavor of tHe most popular modern Serbian humorist and playwright Branislav Nusic (1864-1938), particularly renown for his comedies Narodni poslanik, Sumnjivo lice, and Protekcija (The Member of Parliament, 1883; The Suspicious Character, 1888; and Protection, 1889) in which poignant satirical themes were often diluted with the author’s weakness for quick comic effects and topical humor.

The most outstanding of this generation’s poets was Vojislav Ilic (1862-1894) who both widened the scope of Serbian poetry with themes from classical antiquity and old Slavic, Eastern and Medieval lore and enriched it with an unusually polished and cosmopolitan stylistic refinement. Though he left us some excellent examples of patriotic, satirical, epic and lyric verse, his best works are his parnassian elegiac poems rich in mood and emotion and endowed with exceptionally vibrant musicality and mellowness of style.

In the opening years of the 20th century Serbian poetry came under a strong French influence. Both symbolist and parnassian affinities were clearly visible in the verse of the leading poets of this era, Jovan Ducic (1871-1943) whose elegantly composed sonnets evoked equally well the distant ages of the gay and frivolous baroque Dubrovnik and the Byzantine, mystically austere medieval Serbia; Milan Rakic (1876-1938) whose slim output and somber and pessimistic view of life were more than offset by the complex spirituality and formal brilliance of his line; and Milutin Bojic (1892-1917), noted for the vigorous sensuality and patriotic fervor of his lyrical and dramatic works, but occasionally criticized for his declamatory rhetoric and verbosity. Quite apart from the modernist influence so distinct in the work of these poets stood the Bosnian realist bard Aleksa Santic (1868-1924), author of some highly flavorful and moving love lyrics, elegies and patriotic songs. The last are particularly indicative of his strong attachment to the native soil and his boundless empathy for its poor and often exploited tillers.

In the realm of prose, still characterized by regionalist affinities and untouched by the Western modernists trends, the most notable author in Serbia proper after the turn of the century was the short story writer, novelist and playwright Borisav Stankovic (1876-1927). He created a powerful psychological novel Necista krv (Tainted Blood, 1911) and a number of stories in which the conflict of the new and older order in the provincial atmosphere of Vranje unleashes an avalanche of suffering, passion and nostalgia for the old patriarchal way of life gradually swept away by the continuous influx of the social, economic and cultural changes. Similar regionalist flavor adorns the work of the Bosnian short story writer and dramatist Petar Kocie (1877-1916), a powerful portraitist of the beautiful Bosnian landscape and its colorful, shrewd and hardy peasants locked in an uneven struggle with their mindlessly bureaucratic Austrian oppressors; and the endeavor of the Dalmatian short story writer and novelist Ivo Cipiko (1867-1923), whose whole creation echoes the lure of the sea and the beauty of life lived in harmony with nature. His major novel Pauci (Spiders, 1909), however, contrasts this with the sufferings of the Dalmatian farmers and fishermen, abused and exploited by the local officials, merchants and clergy.

The leading dramatist of this era continued to be Branislav Nusic, whose later comedies Pokojnik, Ozaloscena porodica and Gospoda ministarka (The Loved One, The Bereaved Family, The Cabinet Member’s Wife) continued to expose the countless foibles of the Serbian petty bourgeoisie in a frenzied pursuit of wealth, privilege, political influence and fashion.

A substantial improvement in the quality of Serbian literary criticism during this period was largely brought about by the effort of such dedicated critics as Bogdan Popovic (1863-1944), founder of the major literary journal Srpski knjizevni glasnik (Serbian Literary Herald, 1901) and editor of an impressive collection of Serbian poetry (1911), and Jovan Skerlit (1877-1914), a most authoritative Serbian advocate of ethical positivism in literary creation and author of three brilliant studies of modern Serbian literature, Pisci i knjige (Writers and Books, 1905), Omladina i njena knjizevnosti (The Youth and Its Literature, 1906), and Istorija novije sprske knjitevnosti (History of New Serbian Literature, 1914).

In the interwar period following the unification of the Yugo-Slavs, Serbian poetry continued to develop under a strong French expressionist and surrealist influence. Of the poets who matured during this era, the most outstanding were Rastko Petrovic (1898-1949) who, influenced by Eluard, Apollinaire and Cocteau, sought poetry in everyday life and favored spontaneous poetic outbursts, unhampered by contemplation, polish or revision, and Desanka Maksimovic (1898-) whose intensely personal verse expression is rich in emotion, fluidity of thought, freshness of imagery and rhythmic melodiousness.

Of those authors who in this period contributed to both poetry and prose, the most notable is the Vojvodinian Milos Crnjanski (1893-), who for a long period during and after World War II/lived as a political exile in England. In his early collections of verse he presented a distinctly personal, emotionally intense and often elegiac view of the contemporary human condition. However, he is far better known for his large historical novel in two parts Seobe (Migrations, 1929-62) which depicts the 18th century Serbian exodus into Austrian borderlands. This profoundly pessimistic work strongly underscores the theme of the endlessness and futility of the uprooted man’s search for a better life, peace, and domestic tranquility. Though Crnjanski’s prose frequently appears obscure and antiquated, it bears a highly personal stamp which greatly heightens the elemental intensity of his poetic vision and the epic breadth of his historical perspective. Another writer of this era who excelled in more than one genre, Stanislav Vinaver (1891-1955), was noted for both his poetry and his essays. Though rich in rhythmic melodiousness, his verse, influenced by Valery, is often rendered difficult by excessive stylistic experimentation. His essays, similarly, reveal both his immense linguistic and formal versatility and his great love of polemic and literary ridicule.

The most distinguished prose writer of this period, and of the entire modern Serbian literature as well, the 1961 Nobel Prize winning short story writer and novelist Ivo Andric (1892-1975), produced in the interwar years three collections of tales about his native Bosnia which both stylistically and thematically heralded his later great novel-chronicles Na Drini cuprija (The Bridge on the Drina, 1945) and Travnicka hronika (The Travnik Chronicle, 1945), the first monumental panorama of a Bosnian microcosm of the world over which ramble centuries of events and generations of men, and the second, a penetrating psychological study of the Bosnian milieu as seen by the French consul at Travnik during the turbulent Napoleonic era. The plasticity of Andric’s narrative, the depth of his psychological insight and universality of his symbolism remain unsurpassed in the entire Serbian literature.

Of the lesser interwar prose authors the most notable was the short story writer Isak Samokovlija (1899-1955), whose best short story collections are distinguished by a mixture of heroic and 1udicrous, tragic and humorous, lyrical and naturalist details. Like Babel in Russia, Samokovlija showed a great affinity for poor but picturesque characters and used an archaic language of biblical flavor with many Yiddish and obscure expressions. His contemporary, Isidora Sekulic {1877-1958}, devoted herself primarily to the short story and literary criticism. Her best story collections betray her strong romantic affinities and a frequent preoccupation with the dichotomy of human nature. Her essays reveal that she was an imaginative and stimulating analyst of literary texts. though deeply introspective and at times highly subjective. The last notable prose author of this era. Branimir Cosit (1903-1934), is remembered chiefly for his last novel, Pokoseno polje (The Mowed Field, 1934), a largely autobiographical work and the only one in this period that successfully depicted the contemporary Serbian urban milieu.

The most influential literary critic of this time, whose career continued well into the postwar years, was Milan Bogdanovic (1892-1964). Influenced by the French critic Jules Lemaitre and by his older colleague Skerlit, he emphasized in his numerous essays that literature should be engage and relevant to the reality of its time. This prompted him to deny the modernist notions of absolute freedom and condemn most of the modernist experimental tendencies. Bogdanovic’s style was distinguished by its fluidity and polish, and his critical judgment was notable for its harmonious blend of ethical and aesthetic considerations.

The emergence of the socialist regime in Yugoslavia in the aftermath of World War II resulted in a number of politically inspired attempts during the first post-war decade to replace the traditional Western cultural ties with those of the Soviet-style socialist regime. However, the subsequent Yugoslav parting from the Eastern bloc and lesser government and party restrictions on literary expression allowed the modernists to gradually regain their original prominence. At the outset of the socialist period the Belgrade literary scene was dominated by a group of authors who, after championing a largely unsuccessful surrealist movement in the 1930’s, joined the communist cause. The most notable among them are the poets Milan Dedinac (1902-) and Dusan Matic (1898-), and the poets and novelists Aleksandar Vuco (1897-) and Oskar Davico (1909-), all from Serbia proper, all educated in Belgrade and Paris, all involved in their formative years primarily with poetry, and all of them striving half-heartedly after the war to replace their earlier avantgarde subjects and stylistic excesses with more socially relevant material. Dedinac is the least prolific of the four, since his entire opus comprises only three slim collections of verse. From the dream world of abstractions reminiscent of that of Andre Breton and rich in striking metaphors and symbolic visions which prevailed in his early poetry, Dedinac has gradually shifted to the level of socially more relevant expression, though he still tends to overintellectualize his subject matter. As a prose writer and essayist, Matic is urbane and erudite but seldom gripping; as a poet he has produced some of his most significant verse in the last few years. Vuco’s best poetry is characterized by its black humor and his best prose by its erudite complexity. Davico is both the most prolific and the most modernist author of this group. Several of his verse collections show that he is an original poet with a fertile imagination, although his poems frequently contain irrational construction, exaggerated metaphors and vague verbosity. His best novel Pesma (The Song, 1952) depicts the actions and dilemmas of a young and overimpulsive resistance fighter in occupied Belgrade. This work, regarded as a bold modernist experiment when it appeared, is carelessly structured and contains much excessive soliloquizing and fantasy.

The realist style and war themes appeared to be most popular among those contemporary authors who matured during the war and joined the mainstream of socialist realist expression in its after-math. The most successful prose writers within this circle are Branko Copic (1915-) whose stories and novels of small people caught in the cauldron of armed struggle and social turmoil are told in the colorful popular idiom and with a great deal of humor, and Mihailo Lalic (1914-) who in his stories and novels concentrated largely on his dark memories of the fratricidal partisan-chetnik war encounters. His most successful novel Lelejska gora (The Wailing Mountain, 1962) is a modern prose poem about the loneliness of a partisan fighter, struggling to survive his isolation and danger and still remain human.

Similar to Copic and Lalic in background and experience but greater in talent is the novelist Dobrica Cosic (1921-). After his first war novel Daleko je sunce (The Sun Is Far, 1951) won wide acclaim for its objectivity and artistic vigor, he followed with an even better one Koreni (The Roots, 1954), in which his penetrating portrayal of life in a rich Serbian peasant family at the turn of the century successfully evoked the overall sociopolitical atmosphere of the time. His later and best endeavor, Deobe (The Divisions, 1961), a novel in three volumes, follows a descendant of the same family through the ordeals of World War II. Its plot focuses almost exclusively on the Serbian chetniks and the decline of their ill-fated political movement. Cosic is an exceptionally keen psychologist and an unsurpassable connoisseur of the Serbian peasant mind. The authenticity of his plots, the vibrancy and boldness of his nature sketches, and the free flow of his straight-forward, colloquially pungent expression clearly reveal that he is an author of rare potentiality and distinction.

The most representative Serbian post-war literary critics are Marko Ristic (1902-), a past member of the Belgrade surrealist circle and the leading contemporary supporter of modernist tendencies in Serbian literature, and Velibor Gligoric (1899-), whose interwar propensity for polemics and stubborn opposition to everything but a literature of social aims and realistic content has considerably mellowed.

Within the very youngest generation of authors coming into prominence, the most outstanding prose writers appear to be Miodrag Bulatovic (1930-), creator of grotesquely picaresque novels Rat je bio bolji (The War Was Better, 1969) and Heroj na magarcu (Hero on a Donkey, 1967) and Radomir Konstantinovic (1928-); and the most promising poets, Vasko Popa (1922-), Miodrag Pavlovic (1928-) and Stevan Raitkovic (1928-).

The first page of the Oktoih, the church hymnal book, printed in Serbia -Mantenegro 1493.
The first page of the Oktoih, the church hymnal book, printed in Serbia -Mantenegro 1493.


Serbian Americans and Their Communities of Cleveland Copyright © by Nicholas Moravcevich. All Rights Reserved.

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