Ivan Cankar Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Ivan Cankar 1876-1918

Slovene novelist, dramatist, poet, essayist, and short story writer.

Cankar is numbered among the finest Slovene writers of the twentieth century. Associated with the Slovenska Moderna, a modernist movement in the Slovene arts, he is credited with transforming the aging formalism and staid realism of his nation's literature through his prose. Focusing on the dismal lives of the poor in Vienna where he spent much of his life, Cankar's works offer his poetic view of anguish and of the struggles of the artist as outcast. At once naturalistic and symbolic, his works—including the short novel Hlapec Jernej in njegova pravica (1907; The Bailiff Yerney and His Rights) and the drama Lepa Vida (1912)—depict the squalor of turn-of-the-century life among the underclass and explore universal themes of human suffering and hope.

Biographical Information

Cankar was born in Vrhnika, Slovenia, one of eight surviving children in the impoverished family of an out-of-work tailor. A gifted student, he attended Vrhnika elementary school and was later sent to high school in Ljubljana, where the destitute Cankar was forced to live a straitened existence and survive on charity. By age fourteen he had begun to write poetry and soon became the chief member of his high school's literary club. In the fall of 1896, Cankar briefly studied engineering at Vienna University, but soon dropped out of the program, preferring to read literature and philosophy. That year he published a number of naturalistic short stories in the periodical Slovenec. Cankar remained in Vienna and there familiarized himself with the European literature of his day while writing articles for Ljubljana newspapers in order to support himself financially. With no money, Cankar returned to Vrhnika in 1897 and began preparing the manuscript for his poetry collection Erotika (1899). By late 1898 he was back in Vienna with hopes of completing his studies. Again penniless, he became a lodger in the home of Albina Löffler, a divorcée. Eventually he abandoned his formal schooling at Vienna University and attempted to make a living as a full-time writer. He published several collections of short stories and produced three plays at the turn of the century. He also began the novel Na klancu (1902), for which Cankar received his first substantial acclaim. In the ensuing years, Cankar continued to produce fiction and briefly sought to enter Slovenian politics as a Social Democrat, but was defeated in the election of 1907. That year also saw the publication of one of his most successful works, the short novel Bailiff Yerney and His Rights. Once again in Austria, Cankar continued to fictionalize the people and events associated with his Viennese surroundings in works of prose and drama. He was imprisoned for several months in 1914 after the outbreak of World War I for voicing his Serbian sympathies. Cankar was later drafted into the Austrian army but was quickly discharged for poor health. He spent the remaining war years in the town of Rožnik, until September of 1917 when he returned to Ljubljana. Cankar died of pneumonia on 11 December 1918.

Major Works

Among Cankar's earliest works, Erotika, his first published book, contains a number of decadent and sensual poems, while Vinjete (1899) offers naturalistic prose sketches of life among the Viennese poor. Cankar continued his process of dramatizing the downtrodden in the stories of Knjiga za lahkomiselne ljudi (1901), in which he introduces a figure that was to become a stock type in many of his later writings, the insipid, obese, and corrupt bureaucrat. Among his dramatic works of the period, Popotovanje Nikolaja Nikiča (1900) details the brief life and death of a poet misunderstood by society. The satirical Za narodov blagor (1901) describes rampant corruption in Slovene politics. Kralj na Betajnovi (1902; King of Betajnova) draws its inspiration from the Nietzschean idea of the superman. Cankar's idealized mother is the subject of the novel Na klancu, which depicts the life of a poor yet morally unsullied woman. The theme of abused children is central to Hiša Marije Pomočnice (1904; The Ward of Our Lady of Mercy), a novel that combines both naturalistic and symbolist styles to relate the story of a terminally ill girl. Martin Kačur: Življenjepis idealista (1907) recounts the tragedy of a young, idealistic teacher living among the unenlightened inhabitants of an isolated village. Biblical allusions predominate in the short novel Bailiff Yerney and His Rights, in which the old laborer Yerney, recently displaced from his farm, fails to find justice among men. A departure from realism to the world of folklore and fantasy occurs in Kurent: Starodavna pripovedka (1909), in which a legendary character, the fiddler Kurent, leads the impoverished Slovene peasantry from captivity in Vienna. Among his later dramas, Hlapci (1910) presents a theme similar to that of Martin Kačur, detailing the lives of Slovene teachers under a conservative political regime. Set in an abandoned Ljubljana sugar factory used as a homeless shelter, the symbolic Lepa Vida (1912) dramatizes the suffering of the poor and the sanctity of art. Cankar's final works include a collection of stories entitled Podobe iz sanj (1917; Dream Visions and Other Stories), and the posthumously published stories of Moje življenje (1920; My Life and Other Sketches).

Critical Reception

During his life, critics found Cankar's early works Erotika and Vinjete to be confused if not outright scandalous. His novel Na klancu, in contrast, was highly regarded by his contemporaries, who lauded the realistic style and moral theme of the work. Upon its publication, Bailiff Yerney and His Rights was considered an outstanding work of Slovene fiction, and has since been translated into numerous languages. Still, early twentieth-century commentators were generally dismissive of Cankar's dramatic works, though some among the Moderna did recognize his brilliance in such works as Lepa Vida, which the contemporary poet Oton Zupančič called, “the high mass of the Slovene language.” Additionally, critics viewed the visionary stories of Podobe iz sanj as among Cankar's greatest. Since his death, Cankar's plays have been frequently staged, and while criticism of his works in English is still slight, Cankar has been acknowledged as the principal figure among the Slovene modernists, and the precursor of 1930s social realist fiction.