Slovak Novel in the 20th Century

At the beginning of the 20th century almost 150 years after the first novel in Slovak was published – Jozef Ignác Bajza: Childe René’s Adventures and Experiences (René mládenca príhody a skúsenosti, 1784)–  the Slovak novel became a part of a standard growing but not yet mature literary organism. The Slovak novel in the diverse multicultural milieu of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had a certain affinity to the Hungarian part, but the codification of the Slovak language that took place fifty years ago made it possible to build Slovak institutional infrastructure and this, naturally, created a new cultural starting point. Literature as the immediate agent in this process was inevitably determined by it and this eventually led not only to dynamic changes in ways of looking at reality, but also visible shifts in the development of its own structures. While the Romantic and Postromantic phase was characterized by an effort to find a myth supporting Slovak liberation, by the end of the 19th century it became necessary to get rid of myths and come up with new ideas and more realistic dimensions. This developmental stage is represented by names such as Martin Kukučín, Jozef Gregor Tajovský, Elena Maróthy-Šoltésová, Božena Slančíková-Timrava and Janko Jesenský whose works are the most representative examples of Slovak literary realism. However, during this period many writers started to prefer short prosaic or even journalistic forms and it was only at the peak of their careers that some of them finally started to write novels. The most significant works created during this period were novels by Martin Kukučín A House on a Hillside (Dom v stráni, 1904), The Homeland Calls (Mať volá, 1926), Lukáš Blahosej Krasoň and Bohumil Valizlosť Zábor (1928); Democrats I, II (Demokrati I, II, 1934, 1938) by Janko Jesenský; My Children (Moje deti, 1923-1924) by Elena Maróthy-Šoltésová and of course novellas by Božena Slančíková-Timrava. Slovak realism grew out of opposition to its Postromantic predecessors (Svetozár Hurban Vajanský) and their concept of national identity based on historical examples or artificial revival of inevitably decaying patriarchal social structures (the gentry). The realistic novel concentrated on the real subject and social criticism while glorifying those who were socially disadvantaged. Slovak literary realism was inspired mainly by Russian realism particularly by ideas presented in the writings of L. N. Tolstoy, A. P. Chekhov or M. Gorky; many Slovak writers, though, were influenced by the Czech milieu in which they grew up.

            The situation changed after the war of 1914-1918 when the Austro-Hungarian Empire ceased to exist and Czechoslovak Republic was established. This led to separation from Hungarian tradition which was often forced on the Slovak people. Slovakia became less isolated and managed to free itself of existential uncertainty. The novel did not have the necessary conditions for progress in these traditionally immature social structures, but some new approaches were initiated by modern European trends such as naturalism, expressionism, naturism, poetism and surrealism. Prose reflected more social issues and strived to analyze the relationship of the individual and society. Many short prosaic works, mostly novellas, were written during this period, although quite a number of writers created novels that became keystones of modern Slovak literature. Among them were novels The Living Scrouge (Živý bič, 1927), Fog at Dawn (Hmly na úsvite, 1930) by Milo Urban; Atoms of God  (Atómy boha, 1928) and  Broken Bough (Odlomená haluz, 1934) written by Gejza Vámoš; Jozef Mak (Jozef Mak, 1933), Bread (Chlieb, 1931), Gráč, the Scrivener (Pisár Gráč, 1940) and A World in a Quagmire (Svet na trasovisku, 1960) by Jozef Cíger Hronský; Ladislav Nádaši-Jégé’s Journey Through Life (Cesta životom, 1930) and Adam Šangala (1923) and Man With An Artifictial Leg (Muž s protézou, 1925) by Ján Hrušovský. Slovak naturism was one of the most productive and powerful movements in modern Slovak literature, inspired by European literary trends (Jean Giono, C. F. Ramuz, H. Pourrat) but deeply rooted in the Slovak milieu and genotype. Apart from short proses it was represented by novels of Ľudo Ondrejov: Bandit Youth (Zbojnícka mladosť, 1937) and Jerguš Lapin (1939); Dobroslav Chrobák: The Dragon Is Coming Back (Drak sa vracia, 1943); Margita Figuli: Three Chestnut Horses (Tri gaštanové kone, 1940) and Babylon (1946)); The Mountain Bride (Nevesta hôľ, 1946) and Life Without End (Život bez konca, 1956) by František Švantner.

            The continuity in the development of the Slovak novel was interrupted by postwar political events, particularly the shift towards Communism, when the so called socialist realism prevailed, causing schematism and extreme ideologization of literature. In this situation only novels vehemently condemning the war and Fascism and celebrating the Slovak National Uprising as a manifestation of anti-Fascist and social resistance were acceptable. Among the most important works of lasting value are novels by Vladimír Mináč: Death Walks In the Mountains (Smrť chodí po horách, 1948) and his trilogy Generation (Generácia, 1958-1961); Dominik Tatarka: The Clerical Republic (Farská republika, 1948) and The First and Second Strike (Prvý a druhý úder, 1950); Hours and Minutes (Hodiny a minúty, 1956) by Alfonz Bednár; Rudolf Jašík´s St.Elizabeth Square (Námestie svätej Alžbety, 1958) and The Dead Don’t Sing (Mŕtvi nespievajú, 1961) as well as novels depicting more recent Slovak history like František Hečko: Red Wine (Červené víno, 1948) and Alfonz Bednár: The Tooth of Thunder (Hromový zub, 1964). But there were novels that brought new and more personal views of this period like Ladislav Ťažký’s Amenmaria (1964), Gospel According To Sergeant Matúš (Evanjelium čatára Matúša, 1979) and A Basement Full of Wolves (Pivnica plná vlkov, 1965) or Ladislav Mňačko’s Death is Called Engelchen (Smrť sa volá Engelchen, 1959).

            The Slovak novel turned away from ideology and politics during the late 50’ up to the early 70’ in a whole new generation of talented and prolific authors, strong personalities such as Anton Hykisch, Ján Lenčo, Rudolf  Sloboda, Vincent Šikula, Ján Johanides, Peter Jaroš, Pavel Vilikovský, Ladislav Ballek, Dušan Mitana, Pavel Hrúz, Anton Baláž, Dušan Dušek, Jozef Puškáš and Peter Holka who have marked the second half of the 20th century and still determine the character of literary development. For these writers an individualization of the protagonist and the story is typical and also profound subjectivism inspired by modern literary trends in the world with a certain shift towards concreteness in the philosophical, psychological or social sense, as well as the use of narrative techniques requiring magical or phantasy attitudes. The authors mentioned above have already made their contribution to the plurality of style and opinion in Slovak literature. The most remarkable novels that were written besides a large number of short stories and novellas include Vincent Šikula’s trilogy Masters (Majstri, 1976-1979) and novels The Weather Vane (Veterná ružica, 1995) and Ornament (Ornament, 1991); Marek the Horse Groom and the Pope of Hungary (Marek koniar a uhorský pápež, 1983), A Ballad of a Savings Pass Book (Balada o vkladnej knižke, 1979), The Noise of Blackbirds Before Sleep (Krik drozdov pred spaním, 1992) or Punishing Crime (Trestajúci zločin, 1995) by Ján JohanidesSense (Rozum, 1982), Grey Roses (Šedé ruže, 1969), Ursula (Uršuľa, 1987), Blood (Krv, 1991) by Rudolf SlobodaHelper (Pomocník, 1977) and Acacias (Agáty, 1981) by Ladislav Ballek; Remembering (Rozpamätávanie, 1978) by Ján Lenčo; End of the Game (Koniec hry, 1984) by Dušan Mitana; The Garden in the Fifth Season of the Year (Záhrada v piatom období roka, 1984) by Jozef Puškáš; Millennial Bee (Tisícročná včela, 1979) and Dumb Ear, Deaf Eye (Nemé ucho, hluché oko, 1984) by Peter Jaroš; Love the Queen (Milujte kráľovnú, 1984) by Anton Hykisch; The Chronicle of Better Tomorrows (Kronika krajších zajtrajškov, 1997) by Anton Baláž; Peasants I, II (Sedláci, 1988, 1992) by Štefan Moravčík; Ever Green is... (Večne je zelený, 1989), The Last Horse of Pompeii (Posledný kôň Pompejí, 2001) by Pavel Vilikovský.

            Shorter prosaic genres were preferred to the novel during the last decade of the 20th century – this happened in all crucial periods of Slovak history. From the few postmodern novels created by young writers, often ironizing or using metatext procedures, at least some should be mentioned: Being Silent (Mlčať, 1992) and Like Cigarette Smoke (Ako z cigariet dym, 1996) by Ivan Kolenič; History of Things (História vecí, 1988) by Edmund  Hlatký; Rivers of Babylon I, II (Rivers of Babylon, 1991, 1994) by Peter Pišťanek and Viliam Klimáček’s Vanya Krutov (1999).

Translated by Alena Redlingerová