Miroslav Krleza 1893–1981
Croatian dramatist, novelist, essayist, short story writer, poet, critic, and autobiographer.
The following entry presents criticism of Krleza's career through 1987. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 8.
Considered the most significant Croatian literary voice of the twentieth century, Krleza wrote more than five dozen books, but has been generally ignored by Western academics and readers. Only a small portion of his work has been published in English—two novels, a short story collection, and selected writings issued in periodicals. His commitment to radical humanism led the Yugoslav government to ban most of his work until 1940, but by the early 1950s Krleza had become a major proponent of the artistic integrity of indigenous Yugoslav cultures. A master stylist who is often compared to such Western literary luminaries as James Joyce and Marcel Proust, most of Krleza's writings concern the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian empire and its transformation into a modern socialist state, while giving expression to often ambiguous themes and politics. Ante Kadic has explained that Krleza's "materialist convictions—conveyed with strong emotional impetus, his Marxist and liberal philosophy, his socialism mingled with sincere defense of personal freedom, and his readiness to defend his point of view with his own life—made Krleza highly controversial."
Born in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, Krleza was sent to Hungary after graduating from high school to attend an officers' school in Pécs and then a military academy in Budapest. Although trained as an Austro-Hungarian officer, Krleza nonetheless sympathized with the Serbian nationalist cause and volunteered his services to the Serbian army in their war against the Turks in 1913. Suspicious Serbian officials, however, expelled Krleza, who consequently was arrested by Austrians, deprived of his rank, and sent to the front lines as a private when Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia in 1914. This was the same year that Krleza made his literary debut with the publication of the anti-religious drama Legenda (1914). Krleza's experience on the fronts in Galicia and Austria during World War I brought him into contact with Croatian peasants and workers, with whom he shared the horrors and hardships of war, which became a principal theme in many of his writings. Inspired by the 1917 October revolution in Russia, Krleza and other leftist writers founded several short-lived, underground literary journals, including Plamen (1919), Knjizevna republika (1923–27), Danas (1934), and Pecat (1939–40). Despite official restrictions on his works in the period between the World Wars, Krleza proceeded to write not only plays but also novels, poetry, short stories, and essays. He continued to write during World War II, but he refrained from publishing his writings until later. Publicly disgraced after 1945 because he did not actively support the Partisan cause during the war, Krleza was rehabilitated by Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito during the early 1950s and went on to win numerous Yugoslavian literary prizes and several international awards, including the Heder Prize. In 1950 he was named director of the Yugoslav Lexicographic Institute—a position he held for the rest of his life—and from 1955 to 1971 he served as editor-in-chief of Enciklopedija Jugoslavije. In 1967 Krleza actively joined the cause of Croatians to publish in their own dialect, but when Tito issued an edict in 1971 against Croatian political leaders and intellectuals forbidding them to do so, Krleza retreated into silence. He died in Zagreb in 1981.
Krleza's early plays, often likened to the romantic, symbolist style of Oscar Wilde, depict historical personages as legendary individuals struggling with self-doubt about their visionary goals and about validation of their ideas by the masses. Legenda portrays the relationship between Jesus and Lazarus's sister, Mary, who suffers unrequited love for Jesus despite the presence of his "shadow," or alter ego, which insists that Jesus betrayed his own self and his true feelings for his high ideals. Mikelangelo Buonarti (1925) presents the artist as the sensitive soul who rejects all earthly delights in favor of solitary pursuit of creative endeavors, while Kristofor Kolombo (1918) represents the explorer as a dreamer aware that his discovery of a new world will certainly succumb to the evils of the old. Themes of the horrors of war, the nullification of the past by a brighter future, and the peace obtained amid native landscapes inform Krleza's poetry collections, most notably Lirika (1919), Knjiga lirike (1932), and Pjeseme u tmini (1937). Written in the dialect of northern Croatia and influenced by Croatian folk poetry, Balade Petrice Kremepuha (1936), regarded as Krleza's formal and stylistic poetic masterpiece, traces the history of Croatian peasants from the 1570s to the 1930s, protesting the consistently intolerable conditions of peasant life under the nobility, the clergy, and the modern bureaucracy. Krleza's short stories and novels contrast the hardships of Croatian peasants with the decadence of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. Intended to represent the rise and fall of capitalistic society, a series of eleven stories and three plays describe the history of the Glembay family, whose rise out of peasantry to middle class prosperity is accompanied by moral degeneration. The plays in the so-called "Glembay cycle'" feature the psychological method of dramatist Henrik Ibsen and include Gospoda Glembajevi (1928), Leda (1930), and U agoniji (1931). The novel Povratak Filipa Latinovicza (1932; The Return of Philip Latinovicz) tells the story of a once-renowned painter, who returns to his childhood home after a twenty-year absence and confronts unhappy memories. Similarly, the first-person narrative of Na rubu pameti (1938; On the Edge of Reason) recounts the story of a Zagreb lawyer's alienation from his society, which gradually resolves in his descent into madness. Krleza's other novels, Banket u Blitvi (1938–9) and Zastave (1967), focus on the relationship between the individual and his government, particularly in dictatorships reminiscent of those that came to power in the 1920s and 1930s. Krleza's numerous essays on subjects ranging from politics to literary criticism display his powers of persuasion and his vast, though sometimes inaccurate and biased, knowledge.
Critics have regarded Krleza as a highly controversial writer, whether on the basis of his literary style and themes or his politics and philosophy. According to Kadic, only a few Central and Southern European critics have emphasized that "Krleza is the real initiator of Yugoslav revisionism." Although most scholars of his native land have recognized Krleza as the most significant Croatian and Yugoslavian writer to emerge during the twentieth century, some have attempted to discredit or minimize his literary and cultural acheivements, particularly for his refusal to accept government interference in cultural and literary domains. Kadic has noted that "Krleza's skirmishes with the 'socialist' theoreticians were just as bitter and dangerous as were those with the bourgeois camp." In the English-speaking West, Krleza remains relatively unknown due to the paucity of his works published in translation. Some critics have maintained that this neglect stems in part from the narrow-mindedness of Western publishers and their public, while others have attributed his obscurity in the West to the ambiguous nature of Krleza's themes and politics. The link between his politics and writings has constituted the central debate among commentators, the majority of whom have remarked on the inherent duality of Krleza's vision, which simultaneously embraces socialist revolutionary ideals and the importance of moral and artistic integrity. Some have stressed the political activist perspective of Krleza's works, arguing that his Marxist leanings show the moral and political inefficacy of the middle class, but others have countered that the common thread throughout his literary corpus affirms an abiding belief in humanist ideals. Kadic has concluded that "Krleza was and shall remain a pivotal figure, and no one interested in twentieth-century Croatian and South Slavic literature can ignore him…. He fully deserves to be ranked among the luminaries of contemporary world literature."