The Serbian Novel Critical Essays


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Slavic tribes in Southeastern Europe developed their cultures separately beginning in the tenth century. Only in the second decade of the twentieth century were they united in one state called Yugoslavia. Even then, Yugoslav literatures went their own ways despite the ethnic, linguistic, and cultural kinship. For that reason, it is best to discuss fiction of Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian, and Macedonian literatures separately.

Serbian fiction did not fully develop, or show worthwhile results, until the nineteenth century. The main reason is that the Serbs were militarily occupied by the Turks from the end of the fourteenth century almost to the middle of the nineteenth century. Little literature, except for oral epics, was possible. The earlier forms resembling fiction, biographies of saints and kings, the folk epics, and the translations of medieval novels were either not novels or not original creations and therefore belong to the prehistory of the Serbian novel. The Serbs, who had migrated to Austrian lands in the north, slowly began to revive cultural activity in the late eighteenth century. The first novelist of significance was Milovan Vidakovi (1780-1841), a writer of limited skill but unlimited ambition. Imitating both the European baroque adventure novel and the Greek love novels of late antiquity, he wrote several of his own that, though of meager artistic value, were very popular with the readers. The ensuing Romanticism, lasting approximately four decades (1830-1870), emphasized poetry and drama and showed little interest in the novel. The Serbian novel came into its own in the second half of the nineteenth century. The writer most responsible for this development was Jakov Ignjatovi (1822-1889). He began by writing historical novels but soon turned to the realistic depiction of the life of his people in Austro-Hungary. Even though he wrote most of his novels when Romanticism was still dominating Serbian letters, it was his interest in everyday life and his attention to minute detail (which he acquired during his stay in Paris and through contacts with French realists) that made him the founder of the realist novel in Serbian literature. He possessed sharp observation, keen understanding of the life around him, and boundless energy. His glaring artistic weaknesses prevented him from becoming an outstanding novelist in the mold of Honoré de Balzac. Nevertheless, Ignjatovi’s works formed the firm basis for further development of the Serbian novel.

It was not until the last decade of the nineteenth century that other realist novelists appeared. For the most part, they depicted the Serbian village, following the lead of the short story. Furthermore, they tended to emphasize their own region, drawing from its rich folklore and thus bringing that region into the limelight. These writers—Janko Veselinovi (1862-1905), Simo Matavulj (1852-1908), Stevan Sremac (1855-1906), and Svetolik Rankovi (1863-1899)—brought the Serbian novel closer to the European realistic novel, though not to the same artistic level. They were also very much concerned with social problems, which began to preoccupy the Serbian society, and through their psychological probings they revealed the influence of the nineteenth century Russian realists.

In the twentieth century, the fragile realistic tradition continued while new modernistic tendencies began to make inroads, not dramatic at first but increasingly evident. While Borisav Stankovi (1876-1927) and Ivoipiko (1869-1923) also wrote about provincial regions, Milutin Uskokovi (1884-1915) attempted to write a city novel about Belgrade, in contrast to the existing literature, which was almost entirely about either village or small-town life. The true modernists, however, appeared after World War I, spurred by their traumatic war experiences and keeping in step with the dramatic changes in their country. A noticeably enhanced artistic value of their novels, imbued with a pronounced poetic atmosphere, as manifested in the novels of Rastko Petrovi (1898-1949) and Milo Crnjanski (1893-1977), finally brought the Serbian novel to the level of world fiction after a century of lagging behind.

The culmination of this advance is embodied in the three novels by Ivo Andri (1892-1975) published in 1945. His magnum opus, Na Drini uprija (1945; The Bridge on the Drina, 1959), combines the epic tradition with modern approaches to the...

(The entire section is 1803 words.)