Slovak Literature In The Sixties

In Slovak literary thinking the Sixties is a phrase with positive connotations. It is customarily compared with the previous decade and in this comparison the results are very positive. There have been some sceptical voices who hold that in the Sixties no new paradigm emerged and in fact the literary programme didn’t change. This is true because there was always talk about socialist literature and from that came certain ideas for different works. Despite this, literature did undergo a developmental process by the end.

The Fifties are associated in our literature mainly with an image of literary schematisation. During these years a hard-line Stalinism ruled and the direct consequence was a process of political persecution even execution not only of politicians but also cultural workers, writers and artists. Rigged trials in Slovakia noticeably affected culture. A whole literary generation – paradoxically, they were representatives of the left and then of Communist orientation – found itself in the dock and then in prison. Khrushchev’s speech at the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in 1956 brought at an end to the worst excesses of Stalinism. One of the consequences of the revelation of “the personality cult” was the rehabilitation of those sentenced in the Fifties and their re-entry into cultural and literary life. Thus the fine poet, Laco Novomeský, the modernist prose writer, Ivan Horváth, the sharp critic, Daniel Okáli and others returned to Slovak literary life in 1963.  All these, although though not to the same extent, influenced the health of original literature through their presence.

It’s evident that Slovak literature in the Sixties was elsewhere at the time of persecution and development continued by other routes. It was important that the monolithic literary front was divided in terms of generations so younger and younger writers gave Slovak writing in the Sixties its characteristic stamp. They were concentrated round the magazine, Mladá tvorba (1956 – 1970) and in its “active radius” they gradually formed and crystallised their creative personalities. In poetry through which a new literary direction came into being in its earliest and most mature form with Yessenin, and Laco Novomeský) and accentuated moral values. Accordingly the poetry of the previous era had failed because it didn’t tell the truth about man and society. This poet brought a “tragic sense of life” into his work which contrasted with official optimism.  He was concerned with human dignity, humanity. He became the expresser of human suffering, not manifesting happiness.

Miroslav Válek established himself with modernist poetic expression. Through the devices of avant-garde poetics he analysed the situation of modern man and was sceptical of his activity where he intervened in the way the world went.  A younger group known as the Concretists, Ján Stacho, Ján Ondruš, Ľubomír Feldek, Jozef Mihalkovič and Ján Šimonovič) repressed the function of ideology almost completely and settled on precision of metaphor and the concretism of their poetic name.

In the work of the younger prose generation which matured more slowly (Anton Hykisch, Jaroslava Blažková, Ján Johanides, Jozef Kot, Peter Jaroš and others) established two tendencies. One cohered with a critical view of the condition of society, the other with a demand to insert into their work their sensual and intimate experience. In the first it meant the criticism of Stalinist methods in political and social life through themes of the persecution of innocent people, work camps, trials and so forth. In the second it resulted in motifs of subjective life of small human joys and cares in the life of a young person. The motif of a return to the years of childhood became one of the most enduring motifs. The young generation of prose writers tried to revive literature not only through “true” pictures of reality but they also decided to modernise the means of expression.  While the young poets had returned to the poetic avant-garde (poetism and surrealism), the young prose writers – late in the day – were inspired by literary existentialism, the French “roman nouveau” or absurd drama (Peter Jaroš and Ján Johanides) and other forms hitherto not used. From the young generation only Vincent Šikula and Rudolf Sloboda retreated from these literary impulses. Šikula populated his short stories with figures from the borders of society, wanderers, beggars, mentally retarded individuals and village eccentrics. The real humanity he sought among them was not that of the “builders of a new society”. Sloboda lit upon a model of autobiographical prose connected with considerations of a philosophical nature. His heroes, too, move on the edges of society as “voluntary outsiders” and this position allowed Sloboda to think more freely about the conditions in which he created and existed.

With new initiatives there were also new writers; other prose writers included Pavel Vilikovský, Pavel Hrúz, Ladislav Ballek and others. Similarly in young poetry Ján Buzássy, Štefan Strážay, Štefan Moravčík, and Ján Štrasser. Following the Concretists there were the Solitary Runners, Ivan Štrpka, Peter Repka, and Ivan Laučík uniting the imagination with complex poetics full of secret places, complex metaphor and abstract expression. In the era of normalisation all three were affected (Peter Repka emigrated) and could not publish. This normalisation affected a large proportion of the younger generation.

The subjective tone of the young prose writers was in reaction to the previous generation from the “National Uprising” (Vladimír Mináč, Alfonz Bednár, Ladislav Mňačko, Dominik Tatarka, Katarína Lazarová and others), the destiny of whose protagonists were connected with significant historical events such as the Slovak National Uprising, February 1948 or large social initiatives such as the collectivisation of villages or the building of enormous factories. These authors continued writing in the Sixties in the direction they had taken (Mináč’s trilogy Generation and other works.) This generation dealt with the period of Stalinism inserting themes closer to realism and criticism, directly in a way that judged the Stalinist deformations through the genres of literary journalism and reportage (Ladislav Mňačko: Late Reports) and political pamphlet (Dominik Tatarka: The Demon of Conformism which was published only in the Sixties).

The tendency to be more truthful about reality (both past and present) was the main tendency in Slovak literature of the Sixties. It was connected with the renewed practice or literary work in a developmental line brutally interrupted in February 1948 with a similar tendency to liquidate isolation from western literature. This process did not happen automatically and it was necessary to fight for it in the political regime. Although cultural ideologists visibly enlarged the space for artistic work they still suspected writers (especially the younger) of betraying Socialist ideals. The struggle for the shape of literature with the regime was fought at the level of literary criticism and journalism. The older writers were closer to the regime’s ideological requirements than the younger generation who were more radical. There was a battle within literature itself. Characteristic of this were the polemics between Vladimír Mináč and the young critic Milan Hamada. Mináč considered that Stalin’s was a deviation from and deformation of correct thought. Milan Hamada talked of the total failure of mankind and with regard to literature he rejected Mináč’s division of literature into Socialist and non-Socialist. By the end of the Sixties these notions had begun to converge. On the 29 August 1968 Soviet tanks stopped the whole “process of regeneration” clearly visible in Slovakia (and in the whole of Czechoslovakia) in the spheres of art and literature and turned development back into the era of the Fifties.


Translated by Viera and James Sutherland-Smith