Miroslav Krleža Krleža, Miroslav (Vol. 8) - Essay

Krleža, Miroslav (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Krleža, Miroslav 1893–

Krleža is a Croatian dramatist, novelist, short story writer, essayist, and poet. The most important Yugoslav writer, surpassing Ivo Andrić in the eyes of most critics, Krleža, a Marxist, has been chiefly concerned with the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian empire in his writings. A master stylist, Krleža has been compared with the great writers of Western Europe: Proust and Joyce. It is to Krleža's credit that he has not permitted the doctrine of socialist realism to limit or inhibit his creativity.

The volume and scope of Krleža's writings is vast and impressive. He has written more than fifty volumes of prose and poetry. Among his plays, the best known are The Glembays, In Agony, and Leda, all published in 1929. These plays constitute an organic entity, along with the short stories of the Glembay prose cycle. Here we meet the Glembays and the Fabriczys, two patrician families who marry, give birth, and die on the soil of Austria, Hungary, and Croatia between the days of Empress Maria Theresa (1717–1780) and those of the Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Jasenovac concentration camps (1941–1945). (p. 10)

The geographical setting of almost all of Krleža's fiction is Pannonia, once a Roman province, today a territory encompassing western Hungary, eastern Austria, and northern Yugoslavia, bordered on the north and east by the Danube. The fact that Krleža refers to a modern region by its ancient name must be seen as both an attempt at universalization and as an ironical device: we are confronted with a part of the world that has been stagnating for many centuries. It is a real and at the same time mythical region, like Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, obeying the specific laws of the author's imagination. Nothing changes in Pannonia's utter desolation, where pigs eternally grunt, horses neigh, and somber women creep about in muddy hovels. (p. 12)

With Voltairian irony, Rabelaisian laughter, and Orwellian satire, Krleža ridicules the degraded Pannonian intellectual and moral climate. He bombards bourgeois respectability and every kind of oppression of the free expression of man's thoughts. He analyzes the origins of wealth among the Pannonian rich and somewhere on each genealogical tree he finds a murderer or a swindler. The first accumulation of capital reeks with the stench of blood. (p. 13)

A Funeral in Teresienburg is a long procession of impressive names and titles—Krleža's funeral oration over the dead body of a condemned system. What is being buried in A Funeral in Teresienburg is not only the body of a young first lieutenant but, more generally, everyone who walks behind the coffin: the dignitaries with heads devoid of a single intelligent thought, dentured and coifed waxlike figures in cloaks, helmets, straps, chains, bronze lions' heads, two-headed golden eagles—all the pomp and ceremony of a crumbling empire. (pp. 13-14)

Krleža portrays the peasants, the bourgeoisie, and the nobility who live in and around those small Pannonian towns with poplars along the roads, the blacksmith shops and taverns, the steeples in the distance, and the brickyards on the edge of town where, when the bus returns at a monotonous pace from the hotel on the main square, everybody already knows who arrived that afternoon: a new officer or a traveling tie salesman…. But there is a fourth group in his fiction; the Pannonian Don Quixotes—the seekers, the dreamers, the prodigal sons, the neurotic artists and vagabonds who refuse to succumb to the Pannonian mentality, fighting to the very last to escape it. These heroes are Krleža's fallen angels who seem to have retained the memory of a former paradise they seek to recapture. Through them Krleža castigates and brilliantly illuminates the Pannonian mode of existence while at the same time criticizing the heroes' lofty dreams and attitudes. Some of these dreams glorify a particular woman, others an escape to a foreign country, still others the return home after futile wanderings abroad…. All are defeated and end in suicide or abandon or are completely shattered and full of remorse for their initial folly. (pp. 14-15)

In Banquet in Blithuania the liberal politician Niels Nielsen confronts the dictator Barutanski. The battle may appear at times to be futile; the ideal may seem weak compared to the political reality of the day. But Nielsen will continue to fight because—and this aptly illustrates one of Krleža's fundamental beliefs—against stupidity, violence, and arbitrariness the printed word still remains the most prestigious and effective weapon.

There are many more rebels, protesters, fantasts, and dropouts in Krleža's fiction. Leone, for instance, in the play The Glembays, is the prototype of Krleža's oversensitive, critical intellectual who denies his patrician family and the social order of his time. Krleža is fascinated, too, by Juraj Križanić, a seventeenth-century Croat who one day, laughed at by all his neighbors, set out from his village for Moscow in a horse-driven carriage full of books and documents, intent on alerting Russia's rulers to the historical obligation of Russia toward their Slavic brethren—only to be scorned and thrown into Siberian captivity where he remained for seventeen years—time enough to ponder his sin of idealism and imagine what his life could have been instead. (p. 16)

Krleža is attracted by tortured men whose lives are manuals of self-destruction. The same holds true for Krleža's women. If there be some general truth in the saying that women of twenty are crude, like Africa; women of thirty full of hope, like Asia; women of forty generous, like America; and women of fifty wise, like Europe, then it can be advanced that Krleža shows a predilection for portraying women in their forties, former beauties full of autumnal charm, rich in experience, open, hurt by life, with nothing to hide.

Only with these women can his equally tortured heroes find a few moments of deep understanding and meaningful respite. In describing such relationships Krleža has written some of his most beautiful pages, as, for instance, when Philip and Xenia Raday console themselves by attributing their sufferings, the deep wounds and beatings they have taken from life, to some ancestral, primeval force, feeling as if someone else's life is streaming through their hands, revealing itself in chance touches. Xenia Raday in The Return of Philip Latinovicz, Yadwiga Yesenska and Wanda in On the Edge of Reason, are all women whose very names evoke something languorous, and strangely attractive. And Laura Warronigg, the silly "twenty-year-old goose" in The Love of Marcel Faber-Fabriczy for Miss Laura Warronigg, becomes interesting only twenty years later when, as the tired, disappointed, and anxious heroine Baroness Lenbach in the play In Agony, she slowly but inevitably slips into suicide, struggling in vain to retain her last lover, Dr. Križovec. Time is dealing out poetic justice; the old wounds have been cauterized; life goes on. The rich texture of Krleža's prose integrates the swelling of memory, the nostalgia for childhood dreams and for a time of life and an epoch that are no longer…. (pp. 17-18)

[Krleža illuminates his fictional edifice] in his remarkable book of reminiscences, A Childhood in Agram. As a child Krleža slept under a baroque ceiling, gazing at it intently before closing his eyes. Later, when he began to write and throughout his career, he was to translate into literature that rich ceiling with its fallen and not-yet-fallen angels, devils, saints, warriors, trumpets, flutes, cymbals, drums, bows, arrows, candles, banners, horses, eagles, prayer books, and wreaths. (pp. 19-20)

In a broad sense, Central Europe is Krleža's literary territory, and Pannonia is part of Central Europe. He has peopled it with extravagant characters, corrupt and refined. He has ferociously attacked the Central European, Austro-Hungarian Pannonian bourgeois culture, but cannot help also admitting that this culture was able to produce a material civilization that on the whole compared favorably with that of the French. To understand Krleža one must bear in mind his own ambivalence. Along with his violent negation there exists a strong affirmation. He is in love with what he denigrates, just as he cannot help tearing apart the ideals of his dreamers for which, in the same breath, he voices profound nostalgia and admiration. When asked whether his Glembays and Fabriczys ever existed, he retorted: "Of course not. Had they existed, Zagreb would today be another Florence." They grew out of the baroque ceiling of his childhood and he made them live.

In A Childhood in Agram, Krleža recalls how, forty years later, the odor of old church books would bring back long-passed sensations of his earlist youth…. Krleža recalls the stillness of a room, the deep perspective formed in the shadow of a burning candle, the distant echo of thunder, the muffled roar of guns, the outpost with the young soldier who must kill for the first time, the penumbra of a church where one hears the twittering of swallows outside. All of these scents, noises, colors, perspectives Krleža weaves into the rich texture of his fiction.

One thing Krleža sensed from the very outset, deeply and intuitively—the existence of two different realities: One, a brute reality, used, abused, fragmentary, and diminished by the rational ideas of the man to whom the tree he observes hides the forest; the other, a pure, fantastic, virginally untouched reality that is fresh, childlike, and immediate, more real than the reality divided by reason. Consequently there are two kinds of people: First, men who have completely lost the link with their childhood, members of a molded and deformed humanity, actors reconciled to their parts, men turned gray and inert, fodder for statistics and consumer reports; the other, the poets, all those referred to by average talentless man as dreamers and schizoids, individuals who want to live life with the intensity of their childhood, for whom reality remains the prickly warm ball of a porcupine slowly moving in the dust under moonlight. The poet, the artist, the creator, the seeker is the man who remains, in the innermost core of himself, a child. And from the outset of his career Krleža has sided with that child against all the forces intent on annihilating him. (pp. 19-20)

Krleža has lived through a succession of isms—fascism, communism, and socialism, among others, and knows both sides of the coin only too well. He is equally suspicious of the right and the left. He expresses as does no one else in today's letters the wisdom of a third world that has demystified many consecrated historical, political, and artistic cults (p. 20).

Krleža's denials of certain ways of living rest on a deep personal faith from which they derive their strength and conviction. "To refuse the world is a way of accepting it," says Krleža in a statement that permits us better to understand the negative universe he creates in order to transform it through the very power of negation into its opposite.

There is something insufferable about a hot Sunday afternoon in August in one of the many Pannonian small towns with "gray, dusty, unwashed windowpanes, bare curtain rods, mothballed rugs, paper lanterns in the windows of stationery stores." It is on such a Sunday afternoon that the narrator in The Cricket Beneath the Waterfall runs into his old acquaintance Dr. Siroček and in a tavern tells him about the unusual things that have been happening to him recently—of how, for instance, he has been hearing voices of people who are no longer. Dr. Siroček listens with interest and sympathy. He invites the narrator into the latrine where once, beneath the waterfall, he heard the voice of a cricket. Ever since, Dr. Siroček carries bread crumbs in his pocket in case the cricket is heard again. The mere possibility of hearing its voice from out of the heart of the Pannonian wasteland transforms the loneliness of two people into a shared experience of human understanding.

Since the early part of the century when he began writing, wherever he has gone—in classrooms and in military barracks, in hospitals and prisons, behind coffins and on devil's islands, on trains and in hiding—Krleža has been following that voice into the darkest recesses of the night and of the heart of man. (p. 23)

Branko Lenski, in his introduction to The Cricket beneath the Waterfall and Other Stories by Miroslav Krleža, edited by Branko Lenski (copyright © 1972 by Vanguard Press; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Vanguard Press, Inc.), Vanguard, 1972.

Aside from the novel The Return of Philip Latinovicz … and a few stories here and there, the prolific work of the leading contemporary Croatian writer Miroslav Krleža, a repeated nominee for the Nobel Prize, is still largely unknown to the English-speaking reader. As the first collection of his short stories in English, The Cricket beneath the Waterfall and Other Stories goes a long way toward rectifying this omission. (p. 185)

[The six stories comprising this book] are among the best of Krleža's stories. Written over a span of several decades and varying in length from a few pages to a short novel, they display the rich repertoire of a seasoned writer: a keen interest in what is important to the contemporary reader, a skill in creating unforgettable characters and above all an ability to understand and recreate the specific atmosphere of his milieu—Croatia of the last two centuries. A Marxist practically all his life, Krleža has always felt that literature should have a social function. That he has not fallen prey to the deadening dicta of a didactic and propagandistic literature inherent in such a method as socialist realism—against which he has always fought vigorously—can be attributed largely to his immense artistic talent. For Krleža is first an artist and then a social revolutionary. In a very informative introduction to the book the editor Branko Lenski says that Krleža "expresses as does no one else in today's letters the wisdom of a third world that has demystified many consecrated historical, political and artistic cults" [see excerpt above]. Thus by keeping a proper balance between his art and his views he has succeeded in remaining an always fresh and pure writer.

The stories depict Krleža's favorite environment—a corner of Central Europe comprising parts of Croatia, Austria and Hungary, which he mythically calls Pannonia. Skillfully translated by various hands, they abundantly show Krleža as a very contemporary writer even though some of them were written almost half a century ago. (pp. 185-86)

Vasa D. Mihailovich, in Books Abroad (copyright 1974 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 48, No. 1, Winter, 1974.

A few casually uttered home truths change the course of a man's life in ["On the Edge of Reason," a] mordant parable about social convention, injustice, and hypocrisy. Mr. Krleža is a Croatian writer who examines human folly under a microscope, and all varieties seem to repel him equally. The main character is a respectable middle-aged lawyer who scandalizes a dinner party and eventually gets thrown in jail for insulting his host, a pious profiteer who has been boasting to his guests about how he once shot four peasants who were attempting to steal his wine. In rapid succession, everyone the lawyer knows turns against him, and he loses his wife, his friends, his job, and, eventually, his sanity. The story is narrated by the gradually less sane-sounding lawyer, and, though his plight is horrendous, it is hard to feel much about him, perhaps because the author garlands his martyrdom too lavishly. (p. 140)

The New Yorker (© 1977 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), April 11, 1977.