From Matoš to Karakaš, Part 3


I swear by Apollon Musagète, this is what I thought as I was reading about a correspondence between Roland Barthes and Émil Cioran: finally someone who knows what this is all about. Cioran describes Barthes as a fashionable critic (I still have not come up with a better description of his semiotic persona) with a “calf’s head”; he tells us about a letter he received from Barthes after he had read his preface to Joseph de Maistre. In the letter he says: I haven’t read any of your work… Cioran answers swiftly: I thought the guy was more modest. “There is nothing worse than the arrogance hidden behind the calf physiognomy.” And then he adds something of utmost importance: honesty that is on the borderline of rudeness is something we would only practice with people we consider immeasurably lower than ourselves. In literary circles, it is righteously considered identical to coarseness or provocation. “We are not entitled to say to a writer what we really think about his work unless we admire him.” An example of this is a remark by Matoš about some of his predecessors, in an essay discussing the ongoing literary crisis of Croats: “Mažuranić, Preradović, Šenoa, and Kranjčević are talents that would bring honour to any world literature.” His observations are interesting, especially in the comparison to today’s columnists and writers: “Then journalism. Like everywhere else, news has displaced books, and journalists have displaced writers. The advance of journalism, especially the speculative one, has led to the downgrade of our literature. In these difficult circumstances of ours, at times of jeopardised national survival, when these bits of rights and independent national heritage are in danger, during burdensome days, our people do not and cannot have any other preoccupations or interests but politics.” Let us imagine him as a member of the government grant committee. I reckon Matoš would at once eliminate all those who earn their living in a different profession and who write for hobby. There is logic in this imaginary attitude of his; it emerges from the texts he wrote. He whined relentlessly about having to read people who write in their free time, and here – and by that, I mean today – giving someone a grant does not imply the author taking unpaid leave and focusing on writing but rather being paid for a book of unknown quality. No one, not even the author, knows what the book would be like unless the author is a narcissistic, immature monster without the slightest doubt about their abilities. This would make Matoš’s blood boil, no two ways about it, regardless of how much he might be delighted with the government’s support for books. He would have to swim between these two options, and if you are wondering what that would look like, well, this is what I think it would: first, you have to support the writers and only then professors, gynaecologists, football stars and their wives, and doorkeepers who have set their mind on writing belles-lettres. He whines about the patronage, saying that the theatre is strongly supported (today, he would add the film industry to the list, too) and that literature is in the rank of crocheting or needlework – it is of such private importance that it only concerns the pretender to art, who is none of the state’s business. He skins the theatre people alive by saying that, in the whole year, “not once” they knew all their lines; they “who often misinterpret the prompter’s intentions: these half-grown people squander relatively generous wages doing nothing, whereas a myriad of literary talents, especially the young ones, breathe their last in pubs, having a free coffee milk, waiting for the Balkan War to end to go somewhere where the value of a talented wordsmith is more appreciated.” Matoš is wringing his hands over the fact that all artistic branches, except for the literary ones, have free workshops, heating, and servants, and writers are struggling to get by, living on the edge of poverty, underpaid: drama writers receive far less money than the directors or actors with minor roles as if any of that would be possible – the whole machinery – if it weren’t for the dramas they have written. And then, an interesting moment: in Serbia, he writes, governments always support writers, even if they are political opponents, which reminds us of a sentence that has been dragging around the Croatian literary scene for a decade: you, Croats, write for the Ministry; we, Serbs, write for the market. It is on the opposite end of associations evoked by Matoš’s remark, but it discloses the specific way the literary scene functions. A writer in the neighbouring country  – a writer, not someone with such and such job who writes in their free time – gets a monthly allowance if only they provide any supporting evidence that they live off of writing. More cultured countries, such as Czechia, Slovakia, or Poland, take a step further and take special care of these craftsmen of written words, but we are at an unbearable distance from such reasoning. Matoš provides some examples: the condescending Ibsen, he says, received a stipend from his small nation. These lines prove that nothing has changed for more than a hundred years: “Nothing more illuminating for us than the possible report by the government which would show who receives earthly support in this country. First of all, children or cousins of higher officials and their kind – so, mainly children from well-off homes. Whereas in other countries, stipends are given to the poor, we mostly give them to the wealthy people’s in-laws whose wages ARE the government’s assistance. Then the professors, namely the favoured and well-described gentlemen preparing for some special profession in Europe.” The last ones are the ones here who have given themselves the pet name of geniuses. And then Matoš says this: “We have various kinds of literature, yet none that is literate, namely that which would be created by writers. As it is impossible here for a writer to be just a writer, to live off the pen, a writer, the real writer is none; so a writer, an amateur writer is anyone, and everyone can – as into a church – walk serbez1 into and out of our literature. Mädchen für Alles. There is no intelligent man here who has not – at least at his young age – abused the muses. Therefore, our literature still retains completely dilettante features, and dilettants, in shortage of other business, remain writers till the day they die, whereas many natural-born writers stop writing in such paradoxical circumstances”. (…) “In other nations, literature is usually the expression of an experienced soul and the image of a complete, ripe artistic development, whereas here, it is usually the work of young, often completely green spirits, who have just stopped breastfeeding – at one point, even, a strange theory of Young and Strong was formed, although it is well-known that sad is the literature in which immaturity is the sign of strength, and maturity of fragile senility”. (…) “Our literature, dilettant in its core, is divided into the writer’s, professor’s, youth, female, snobbish, into literary, non-literary, and anti-literary literature. Literary literature, namely literature created by people of literary education, literary temperament and gift, literature of the natural-born writers who work despite the external circumstances, the same as they breathe, whose life is a book and a book their life: such literature is almost inexistent here, and its representatives are such a minority that they are almost extinct, having just the ideal influence at best, whereas in our literature republic, half-writers rule the roost”. Matoš keeps tearing a strip off the scene of his times, and it is hard to conquer the feeling that everything he says refers to us, as well; to applaud his genius is, therefore, mere hypocrisy because no attention has been given to many of his warnings put down in words; we think that to write critically about one’s environment means to write about others rather than ourselves – we are always removed from the final negative balance. He considers professors, who may be, as he says, more educated than writers, simply the defenders of authority because to pursue books does not yet mean to be a word-painter. “To them, an unread author from the 17th century is more important than the liveliest and most outstanding literature pieces of today”. (…) “Our Academy is a real professorial fortress, a temple of the pure professor spirit, completely restricted for us, profane literary people, so we piously dread the very thought of our academic spirits…” (…) “Croatian Writers’ Association (DHK) is also full of knowledgeable professorial gentlemen, especially the Reading Room, so whenever I walk by, I get a perpetually horrible feeling of being a third-rater…” He neither spared the criticism: professors’ criticism is timid, young people use the terrorist devices, and with aggressiveness, they replace something irreplaceable – knowledge. “Only in our cowardice is it possible for the mob of young, literary irresponsible Apache to disparage the meritorious people in the name of the ostensibly new and advanced phrases. Only in contemporary cowardly Croatia may the criticism be an act of ordinary revenge…” But when he was warm, there was no one more generous. The two sharpest pens of Croatian literary criticism, Matoš and A.B. Šimić admired the literary gift of the lady of fairies: Ivana Brlić Mažuranić. When writing about her – the very title of the text, “Klasična knjiga” (Classical Book), is like carved in marble –  the usually eloquent Matoš is left with nothing but the conventional and often used comparison with pearls. “Čudnovate zgode šegrta Hlapića” (The Strange Adventures of Hlapich the Apprentice) is a masterpiece, in Matoš’s opinion. He was right about it, which has been proven throughout the years following its publishing. “A beautiful little book”, he writes, saying that he was waiting and waiting for someone to notice this literary miracle. I waited in vain because no such person appeared, he writes and continues: the best books of humanity are written both for children and adults: Homer, Don Quijote, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s travels, fables of Pilpay, Aesop, or La Fontaine, but the book by Ivana Brlić Mažuranić is of a particular kind: her miracles are miraculous but possible, thinkable, realistic. Her world is not made up but created, and the magic of her words is so huge that it makes us look through the eyes that are not ours anymore but a child’s. “Lucky is the one who stays young, who is never fed up and desensitised, who is always able to admire and stand in awe!” Here are a few of her sentences to feel what an extraordinary writer she was: “Because horses turn grey, too, although they do not share people’s worries.” “Because parrots carry their knowledge on their tongues, not in their heads.” The very description of Hlapić is a miniature masterpiece: “Apprentice Hlapić, as tiny as an elbow, as cheerful as a bird, as brave as prince Marko, as wise as a book, and as good as the sun…” “His letters were big and curved like a pear.” “The thunder roared as if the iron coach was riding across the sky.” “All of them (children) were curly and warm like baby birds in a nest”. “Clouds are not carried by people’s words, but by the wind.” “Because you don’t get to know people by their suit, but their eyes.” “Therefore, one must always wait for a while before one starts to moan.” “At the fair, the clamour is such that no one has time to think in the daytime of the things that will happen in the evening.” “All happy people sing the same way.” “From the fields and meadows, the wisdom came into Hlapić’s textbooks and all other books…” The only trait of a good book is GOOD style, says Matoš, as if he had all the plot-chasing books in his mind, which are so predictable and boring that it becomes apparent immediately that nothing from the fields and meadows entered their creators’ heads, nothing from the outer world. What a queen, this Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić, the woman whose quotes, and we have cited just a few from her literary opus, have overshadowed the complete contemporary Croatian literary scene, incapable of thinking in images. Or thinking in thoughts nevertheless. Except for a few rare, scarce exceptions. The one and only is the author of “Priče iz davnine” (Croatian Tales of Long Ago).

  1. ‘freely’, a word of Turkish origin


Dario Grgić