"I saw the fisherman": Laco Novomeský 1935 - 1939

(In the late 1920s, and especially after the suicide of Vladimír Majakovskij in April 1930, Novomeský concluded that, in a world whose prime need and interest was material progress, poetry was obsolete and would  disappear. But he recovered his faith in the future of poetry after hearing the visionary speech by Nikolai Bukharin at the First Congress of Soviet Writers in Moscow in August 1934.)

In his next published collection, Open Windows(Otvorené okná, 1935), Bukharin’s influence is powerful. Meetings(Stretnutia), a poem on Slovak country life, is an ambitious attempt at the kind of ‘synthetic poetry’ which Bukharin had demanded. Novomeský approaches the Slovak village armed head to toe in ideology. When one reaches the actual village it is seen to be a dreadful place: one finds cowdung there ... and on Sundays there is the smell of incense !!... Life is all about mean continuity, hopes are superstitious, energies are low. The vigorous young men have all gone off to the wars or to the Chilean prairies. Idealism is represented by the impotent figure who is introduced in some beautiful lines: the ‘Saint beyond the Village’. (The typical Slovak village had its patron saint, an honoured figure, but not so honoured that his statue would be seen in the village itself; one would find it somewhere beyond, on the approaches.) (1)

            The beauty of life belongs to the village, but it is beauty bewitched, under a spell, a curse. Enchanted, the beauty of the village hangs on a gallery wall, purely potential, as yet metaphorical, in the portrait of a beautiful woman with hair of golden corn. --- Where are this beauty’s liberators?  Novomeský doesn’t like fairytales, and one mustn’t expect to find handsome princes galloping to the rescue. But one might find Greek titans:

Through the labyrinth of pain we’ll wander

for the beauties of the world bewitched.

            These are characteristic lines. Novomeský could never quite be robbed of his tragic sense. Giving up the idea of the death of poetry, he turned now to the self-sacrifice of poets. The ‘accursed poets’ of France, Majakovskij, Yesenin, had paid very dearly indeed for their triumphs. They could be seen as models of the sacrifice of self for art. What about the poets who would move in Bukharin’s vast perspectives? --- well, they too might have a price to pay! That Greek story of the audacious Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind, might still have its point. Zeus, the lord of Olympus, took a frightful revenge on the rebel. Prometheus was left chained to a rock, where every day an eagle came to peck his liver.

            Taking this story as his point of departure, Novomeský produced a remarkable poem, If you need an epilogue(Hoci epilóg). It is Bukharin set to verse. And the strangest thing is this: though unquestionably this poem comes by way of Russia, though the Russian progressive tradition inspires it, though a strange and disordered modern time-consciousness informs it ─ still, on me it makes the impression of something Greek. It is as if  Novomeský‘s words came from long, long ago, when the things that he saw had a name. In the profoundly Christian literature of the Slovaks, this is the most Greek poem I know.

            *                      *                      *

            Over the next few years (1935-39), as the clouds darkened over Europe, Novomeský’s poetry blossomed, and his prose intelligence was expressed ambitiously. The Saint beyond the Village (Svätý za dedinou,1939) contains wonderful things. It will do no harm to quote a few lines. Take the description of the Saint beyond the Village, which begins:

Brother of the star that’s hurled out of its orbit,

emigrant with no country, whose home is everywhere,

wagon by the wayside, unharnessed and unwanted,

tree split by a lightning bolt from the April air

                                                            The Way You Are (Aký si)

or the smuggler at the border:

Oh, just this little suitcase, Sir Customsguard, is mine,

and to all worlds devotion on every border-line.

                                                                        The Smuggler (Pašerák)

or these tremendous lines about ‘the fisherman’:

I saw the fisherman, how he reached for beauty;

his net an outspread hand, he lay in wait for sirens.

But he could never trap the ocean’s face and genius,

only the white fishes with their shillings gleaming.

                                                                        The Sea  (More)   (2)

            But here I am mainly interested in something else: signs of a change in the poet’s attitude to the country. Novomeský had spent many summers in Senica; it was not exactly the country, but the country was immediately within reach. For a long time the poet was cut off from this source, or he lived it poetically only through Yesenin. Now there were signs of a certain reconciliation with nature and with the country people. A Stroll (Prechádzka) gives a sudden flash of the magic of country life. A row with a bird who is counting away life (Zvada s vtákom, ktorý odpočítava život) is a more didactic type of poem, but there too  Novomeský seems changed.

            “During the interwar years,” a sociologist tells us, “Slovakia, with its high proportion of the population of the population engaged in agriculture, was one of the most emphatically backward agrarian lands, along with Poland, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria.” (The author might have added to her list of the retarded: Ireland.) In 1930 63% of  Slovaks worked on the land, compared to 31% in the Czech lands, 29% in Germany and 6% in England. Before 1918 Slovak literature had reflected this predominance, and the big city was presented only as the habitat of the worst human types, e.g. Budapest in Samo Bodický’s Nihilists (Nihilisti,1898). But after the First World War there was a proliferation of city poetry and city postures. (3)

            Novomeský’s official consciousness, so to speak, was the doctrinaire radicalism of the cult of progress. (For us in the 21st century, it is simply the conventional point of view.) The peasant, seen from this standpoint, was awful; he would have to be abolished, or transformed. This is the viewpoint of the long poem on the Slovak village, Meetings (Stretnutia,1935). The same spirit is expressed more brutally by Michal Chorváth in his essay on Yesenin, quoted earlier. But a mind like Chorváth‘s was incapable of moving beyond its dogmatic limits. Not so Novomeský, as witness the remarkable short poem Slovak Spring. (4)

            I do not think anything like Slovak Spring had previously appeared in Slovak literature. But an 18th century English poet might have written something similar, or a poet of ancient Rome. Slovak Spring is the work of a sophisticated city consciousness which is glad that there is something beyond the artificiality of the city, some sounder basis of human life. It is a hymn to the great continuity of agrarian culture, stretching far into prehistory.

            Two thirds of a century has passed, many things have changed. For a person whose roots are somewhere between the Urals and the Aran Islands, chancing upon this poem in the early years of the third millenium, it will not be easy to comprehend, or, supposing one comprehends it, other feelings will sway one’s judgement. Perhaps there are still places on earth where a reader might judge such a poem more justly, appreciating its merits and its faults. A strict judge might indeed have fault to find. Perhaps there is something rhetorical in the language, something a little forced, an element of preaching. A critic in 1952 accused Novomeský of condescension ─ but the critics of 1952, we are all agreed, were harsh. Slovak Spring , in my own opinion, is more authentic than inauthentic, even when all due rigour is brought to bear.  (5)

                        *                      *                      *                      *

            By the late 1930s, Novomeský was tending towards the view that art was above politics. Which is not to say that the artist is above politics. Oscar Wilde, who said precisely that, went too far, Novomeský declared in a lecture in 1935. Precisely because fascism threatens to sweep away culture altogether, it may happen that “poets find another point of departure in their calling“, as politicians. But politics is not poetry and poetry is not politics. Recalling how Slovak poets had once been expected to be preachers of nationality, he praised Apollinaire for his liberating example: “Among us Slovaks, by his example he helped young poets to free themselves from the outmoded didactic duties of poetry, and to seek and find the meaning of poetry in poetry alone.“ (6)

            The surrealists had gone farther in this direction than anyone else. When it came to surrealism, one might have expected Novomeský to feel all the reservations he had previously felt about poetism, and more. The poetists, at the very least, had contributed much to good humour; the surrealists, with their morbid interest in Freud, weren‘t even fun. Nezval had mutated into a surrealist, and this could be seen as a further proof of his decline. Be that as it may, Novomeský was always ready to defend the surrealist species against realists, whether members of his own Communist Party or Slovak nationalists. When a leading communist writer denounced ‘perverse’, ‘pathologically decadent’ art, Novomeský retorted: “All these ‘perverse’, ‘pathological’ deformations are dictated by opposition to the objective form of the world today.”  (7)

            Looking along Bukharin’s grand perspective, it seemed that no authentic work of spiritual discontent could be thought of as pathological or futile. Nor should the culture of the West be spurned. “The West --- for us this is a symbol of the cultivation which was and is amassed through the great self-sacrifice of its creators,” he told a conference of Slovak writers in May 1936. “The East, as transformed after the World War by the Russian Revolution, gives a driving force, an outlook on the world, a reliable method of knowing events and their creation and transformation.”  (8)

            East and West were part of a great dynamic, their best efforts had the same goal. It was, of course, “the all-round, fully-developed human being” as described by Bukharin, whose words he quoted to the Slovak writers. And to illustrate how such a person might actually live, he produced the famous passage from Marx about fishing in the morning, hunting in the afternoon and writing reviews after supper. And he concluded (and his words would be used in evidence against him later): “On this road ‘East’ meets ‘West’, that is to say, those extra-soviet and extra-socialist efforts which are seeking to achieve such universally human perspectives by other means than Russia has arrived at them; perhaps by means which are as noble as the goal is.”  (9)

                        *                      *                      *                      * 

            But the great events in the background raised the question of whether any of this was real. For example, the Spanish Civil War. In 1937 Novomeský went on a journalistic tour of the areas controlled by the Republicans. He observed that in Barcelona the wonderfully attractive street life went on as hectically as ever. In besieged Madrid the trams ran on time, and the city gardeners continued tending the public lawns and watering the flowers. But “every street, every house and every inhabitant was a political and military bulwark of anti-fascism.“ (10) 

            The finest poets of Spain had declared for the Republic: Lorca, murdered at the outbreak of war; Alberti; Machado. In Valencia he heard the elderly Machado read his poetry. Without understanding Spanish, he listened to “the serious flow of undramatic speech ... Machado was sublime in his bashfulness, his quiet voice more resonant than some pathetic yell“. And indeed, as he learnt later, Machado was telling of something very interesting: “how his newer faith in the Spanish people followed on from his old doubts; how his old knowledge, his previous testimony, was connected with the new and tragic, but ever-hopeful events in his country.“ (11)

            Novomeský‘s sympathies were bound to go to the Spanish Republicans, and the paradoxes of the Spanish situation would have fortified him against doubts. The fact is, those who came forward in defence of Spanish tradition were systematically employing the 20th century‘s filthiest weapon: aerial bombing. In fact, they were giving over their country to foreign air forces as a training ground. Europe was only now becoming properly acquainted with that novel hero, the airman: brave, highly trained and highly resourceful, highly disciplined also; cruel and professionally amoral; always capable of mass slaughter, by accident or by design; inseparable from the age,

Age of smashed skulls and dreams with bulletholes.

                                                The Prince of Denmark (Kráľovič dánsky)

            For Republican Spain he wrote some of his most explicitly propagandist poems. One of them is significantly called Agitka, which puts it in the genre of agitatsia, the Russian newspaper-poem. Their merit is uneven, but they include memorable lines. Sometimes these are lines that shock and disturb and convey the time‘s perversity, lines the surrealists laboured to manufacture, and couldn’t. About the children killed in the war,

let the clenched fist of a rose grow above their graves

                                                            Agitka (Agitka)

about the Spanish sky,


I wished to count its flocks of stars

before they burnt.

                                    The sky of Spain (Španielska obloha)

            To be or not to be .... Hamlet‘s question occurred to him, this time not on his own account. One ought to be for the fallen, he thought. And that seemed to mean being like a soldier, keeping strict order in the ranks....

            “The young revolution has to live in barracks at a certain stage of its advance,“ he had heard Karl Radek say at the Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934, “and it cannot be otherwise, for soldiers live in barracks.“And so in 1938, when Bukharin, as the last of a line of senior Bolshevik defendants --- Radek himself was another --- was found guilty of sabotage, treason and spying, attempting to dismember the Soviet Union and to restore capitalism, Novomeský felt like protesting, because he could not believe the charges. But he remained silent.  (12)


(1)      On Bukharin‘s influence, see also Štefan Drug, Dobrý deň, človek (Bratislava 1983), p. 340, pp. 358-360.

(2)      Elena Mannová, Entwicklungsbedingungen bürgerlicher Schichten in der Slowakei im 20 Jahrhundert in: E. Mannová (hgb.), Bürgertum und  bürgerlicher Gesellschaft in der Slowakei 1900-1989 (Bratislava 1997), p. 11.  

Statistics of countries:  ibid., p. 12.

(3)      Michal Chorváth, Cestami literátury (Bratislava 1979), pp. 445-447.

(4)      Ľudo Zajac, Antirealizmus v našej literáture, Slovenské Pohľady, 1952, p. 755.

(5)      Oscar Wilde/”Poets find ...” :  Laco Novomeský, Manifesty a protesty (Bratislava 1970), p. 209.

“Among us Slovaks ...” : Laco Novomeský, Slávnosť istoty (Bratislava 1970), p. 125.

(6)      Manifesty a protesty, p. 318.

(7)      ibid., pp. 240-241.

(8)      “The all-round human being ...” : ibid., p. 239.

“On this road ...” : ibid.

(9)      Laco Novomeský, Čestná povinnosť (Bratislava 1969), p. 259.

(10)  Slávnosť istoty, pp. 177-178.

(11)  “The young revolution ...” : Maxim Gorky et al., Soviet Writers’ Congress 1934 (London 1977), p. 177.

Novomeský remained silent:  Umenie politiky, politika umenia. Z listov Laca Novomeského zv. 3, zost. Štefan Drug, (Bratislava 1990), p. 281.