From Matoš to Karakaš, Part 4

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So there he is, the second harshest judge of Croatian literature, falling onto his knees – for a reason – in front of the genius of Ivana Brlić Mažuranić. A. B. Šimić begins his text in an “unpopular” fashion – similarly to Mandić a few years ago when he said that four-fifth of women “cannot write” – and says: “Women here have never been good writers.” Today, the timid Antun Branko would experience severe head-smashing all over the Internet for this; back then, he managed to get through. Beware that the sly old fox wrote an antithetic text, first the insult and then a panegyric to a woman writer. In the sentence to follow, he spits a little on the world writers, too, saying: nor abroad have I often encountered an excellent female writer; he admits that after a couple of pages, he gets disheartened. It happened, clearly, long before the glorious days of today when the promise by Branko Miljković seems to be coming true in the worst possible way; the promise he gave – drunk or sober, we cannot be sure, but in a threatening fashion, we’re sure of it now – that the poetry will be “written by everybody”. “The greatest flaw of women writers is”, says Šimić, “that they neither write like women nor men. Their writing is at its best when they write like women; these are the rarest.” This could as well be said – due to the widely spread and mega-developed idea of political correctness – of the “male” writers: in their desire to involve the female sensibility in their writing, they write like hermaphrodites. Šimić favours women; they are of superior sensitivity, fineness and thinness of nerves, closer to art than their male colleagues, a bunch of sullen schmucks. “The style of nuance, the style of a needle and a silk thread, the style of fine chopping, the style of polishing suits a woman, the lover of flowers and perfumes, music and daydreaming, fragile fineness and delicate temporariness.” Then, a remark by Šimić about the difference between journalistic and literary styles follows. They rarely write, he says, in literary style, and although it should be obvious what the difference is, some of the best literary works were published (and written for) the newspapers. Matoš, for example, and Šimić refers to him when he writes about Ivana Brlić Mažuranić: “A. G. Matoš, who has been the fear, the dark fear, the sword and the bludgeon to many of our writers for two decades, who described Vidrić’s poetry as an attempt and Rakić’s poetry as imitation and Dučić’s poetry as snobbery, found the children’s book about the apprentice Hlapić a classical book, coming down on the Croatian criticism and the Croatian public, who didn’t even notice this masterpiece”. Šimić is willing to bet: “Croatian tales of long ago” is a book that “stays”. He says that she is an epic by nature, the same as her grandfather Ivan Mažuranić was (one of the three Croatian writers that the Polonist Zdravko Malić described as a writer with a spine), adding that this skill is a rarity because writers usually describe and do not narrate. Then, she knows the Croatian language, which Šimić sees as a rarity. A poor-language condition has survived until this day when many write using some cubelike language fit only for hitting a bad neighbour on the head with it. “This is not insignificant in a country where only the rare have been given this grace from God, where even some great talents write in a second-class language”. A refined taste and an elegant naiveté, says Šimić, are the main features of her style. The style is musical, and words flow in the marvellous rhythm of prose. He cites: “So carries the wind this little boat to the sea unknown, to the disappearing island of Bujan. The lush island floats in the sea like a green garden – lush grass and sward in it;  grapevine in it, and blossoming almonds in it. Amid the island, there lies a gemstone, the white flaming stone Alatyr. Half of the stone burns above the island, and the other half shines under it into the sea. There, on the island of Bujan, on the stone Alatyr, sits Dawn-a-Girl.” He was impressed by the description of the elves’ circle dance, as well: “And the circle dance started: on the hearth, on the ashes, under the chair, above the chair, on the jug, on the bench! Dance! Dance! Dance! Fast! Faster! They are squealing and screaming, shoving and grinning. They spilt the salt, overturned the vinegar, scattered the flour.” He compliments it by saying that the book didn’t need the illustrations, it didn’t need anything but the author’s words. “So big was this man (Reygoch) that one might think the church tower has fallen right next to the wall.” Bold and lucky comparisons: “…under the mountain, there were two golden fields, like two golden scarves, and resting on them, two white villages like two white doves.” Then Šimić notices the following: we lack modern prose writing, actually; our narrative literature is as old as some long-ago “Russian and French works”, and yet we have an outstanding children’s book. “A Croatian book, written in prose, yet great: how difficult it is to grasp.” And then, when there is finally a book in this literature, it is a children’s book written by a woman. Simply maddening for a patriarchal culture in which a priest is still a synonym for wisdom and knowledge. My mate Mickey would be intrigued by Ivana Brlić Mažuranić. He would be even more intrigued by Marija Jurić Zagorka, who is so lucky or unlucky to be despised by every distinguished Croatian writer. However, her books are still sold at high prices in second-hand bookstores, unlike the books of our acclaimed writers, which sell for 5 kunas. The taste works in mysterious ways! Surely this doesn’t make her books valuable in the literary sense, but these facts need to be considered. Even if he hadn’t written a single poem, A. B. Šimić would be significant for drawing attention to a widely spread opinion, which is a deep-rooted prejudice: critics write second-class literature, and the first-class literature is written by poets, prose writers, dramatists. Šimić was, as people would say it, a genius, so he saw through this point of view as through a broken picket fence. “If we were to ask someone whether they would prefer to own everything that had been written about Raphael or an original Raphael, they would nonetheless choose the painting. The thought I have read somewhere, I do not remember where, is not encouraging for the critics. Criticism may indeed be more valuable than the whole exhibition, for not every painter is Raphael. It is possible to acquire Réne de Gourmont’s point of view. He says: I do not believe there is such a difference between a critic and a creator, as claimed… The same amount of talent is needed to be a great critic as it is to be a great novelist.” What Šimić is trying to say is: what is the quality of the critical text? Is the text terrible, as a terribly sounding song, or is it of high quality? The book of Krleža’s polemics is literary superior to some more appreciated forms, if they are not written by a Croatian Dante. The interpretation of other people’s texts may be, if done by a virtuoso like himself, superior to everything else that has been written – it can be more of a sonnet than the sonnet itself. The story of Ivana Brlić Mažuranić is very modern in its literary value and goals, the same as that of the previously mentioned Marija Jurić Zagorka who published the first magazine for women a long time ago and was highly talented for plot twists, superior even to Karl May, an underrated author in his domicile literature, too. Love of literature is born in distributaries like these – that’s where the first burning steps through these parallel worlds are learnt, and many devoted readers have a single wish towards the end of their lives: to look at these early first loves again. And when you test May comparing it to a best-selling author, such as Dan Brown, it takes you a couple of beginning chapters to conclude: May is superior to him and grinds him with every single line. With Ivana Brlić Mažuranić, something else is at hand: the pure-blooded prose of a language artisan, skilled at any pitch, big or small, with the perception capable of seeing everything through intertwined images. And if I were selling books to Mickey, I would toss “Hlapić” and “Croatian tales of long ago” into his backpack during the first trading encounter.

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Dario Grgić

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