A Questionnaire For The End Of The Millenium

Ján Zambor:  There are so many works of value  in the Slovak literature of the 20th century, that the preferences the questionnaire leads us to express should not be taken too seriously; on the other hand, such a question is worth asking. When it comes to poetry, I should like to pick out two “notebooks” by the Symbolist Ivan Krasko Nox et solitudo and Verše, which were the beginning of modern Slovak lyrical poetry. They are an unusually comprehensive expression of the complicated situation people find themselves in in the 20th century, looked at from a number of aspects, including the metaphysical; they have refined Slovak poetic expression and  established the foundations for a strong tradition in the lyrical verse of contradiction and analytical unease. From among the prose works, I should like to highlight the short novel by Dominik Tatarka Kohútik v agónii, which I value (unfortunately it is still topical) for the ability of the protagonist to go beyond his own ideological horizon in order to comfort his sister, whose son has been killed by German fascists. This aspect, together with the indirect use in the novella of the classical genre of consolation, has left a deep impression on me.

Blahoslav Hečko: As a winegrower I grew up with wine, in fact as a little boy I almost drowned in wine, because I fell into it, and therefore the topic of winegrowing is close to my heart. I am fond of the novel by my brother František Hečko Červené víno (Red Wine), which has been translated into dozens of languages and even made into a film. It is certainly one of the 10-15 most important novels in Slovak literature as a whole. But I could also name others, Dom v stráni, Živý bič, Jesenský’s Demokratov, Život bez konca…So far as a work of poetry is concerned, Ján Smrek suits my nature. He introduced me to the world of literature, and I contributed for twelve years to the magazine Elán; I really like his verses, I like  to return to them and I keep reading them. Smrek is a kind of Renaissance poet, our folk bard, he is not lacking in thought and as to form, I’ll say no more. Personally, I particularly like the poems where he shows his optimistic attitude towards life; he even took the word ELÁN from a French philosopher and grafted this philosophy as if onto a vine in Slovak soil. You see, I keep coming back to wine; with wine I was born and in wine I should like to die.

Mila Haugová: It is very difficult, almost impossible to choose just one book. In such a case I would mention the collection by Ivan Krasko, his Básne and Nox et solitudo – in fact the whole of his work, which to me represents the beginning of modern Slovak poetry, which deserves a place in the context of Europe. Another book is Šialený mesiac by Ján Ondruš – on account of the author’s strength of expression and his hitherto unknown view of man’s existence.

When it comes to prose, my choice would be Kôň na poschodí, Slepec vo Vrábľoch by Pavol Vilikovský. This is mainly on account of the wonderful language he uses to present seemingly everyday matters in a very profound and untraditional way.

Ján Boor: Which book? Rázus’ Argumenty. And which poems? There are so many of them of equal worth. For example, Krasko’s poems, and those by Rúfus, but I can’t decide which I would put first.

Milan Hamada: I  think it is impossible to choose a book or books that characterise the whole of the 20th century, which has  been a complicated period.  I therefore decided to chose two pairs of works, one for the period up to the end of the Second World War and the other for the second half of the century. In the first half of the century I consider the poetic works of Valentín Beniak to be outstanding - his collections entitled Žofia and Popolec. These are poetic compositions in which there is an original synthesis of the traditions of the poetry of Hviezdoslav and Krasko (or even older sources of folk poetry and  Baroque poems) with the avant-garde poetry of the Nezval kind, while Beniak’s poetry also preserves a metaphorical, spiritual dimension.

In my opinion, one of the great achievements in the sphere of prose is Švantner’s Život bez konca. Švantner’s river-like novel is a polyphonic narrative poem, which is not dependent on any ideology and whose structure builds on the achievements of many prose works, from those of Kukučín, Timrava, the short prose works of Milo Urban, Hronský’s novels Jozef Mak and Pisár Gráč to the works of Švantner’s contemporaries, for example the novel Železné roky by Ján Barč-Ivan. So far as the poetry is concerned, I consider the most outstanding collection of poems in the second half of the century to be Šialený mesiac by Ján Ondruš, which stands out in the trio with Dvojramenné čisté telo by Ján Stach and Zimoviská by Jozef Mihalkovič.  Works of note in the sphere of prose, apart from those by Vincent Šikula, are the novel Narcis by Rudolf Sloboda, a novel leading the way to postmodernist works, for example those by Pavol Vilikovský and Pavol Hrúz.

Klára Jarunková:  From the poetry, Ivan Krasko’s Nox et solitudo. Among the small, important books in this dramatic century Nox et solitudo stands out as something unusual.: it is impossible to forget this book. We read it in our early youth and we still read it today as a timeless song of comfort, which through the magic word of poetry, in a whisper and courageously, faces sorrow, the eternal fate of man in this world. In a poem dedicated to Hviezdoslav, Krasko, with  extraordinary modesty, says of his own poetry:

Only for this

have my weak wings grown


that from time to time

a quill might be taken


whenever a pen is needed –

– to prescribe a remedy


for the wounds inflicted

by my spirit’s apathy

And a prose work? František Švantner: Dáma. In addition to plenty of other disasters, the century that is coming to an end was shaken by two world wars. It is they – and the second in particular – that became an unwelcome muse, a source of inspiration for Slovak writers over a long period of time. Of the many, many post-war works, I was most deeply impressed, even shaken, by the collection of novellas by František Švantner Dáma. It tells us what the war did to people, especially what people demoralised by the surrounding atmosphere of war crimes are capable of doing. He is in fact talking about the love, morality, compassion and self-sacrifice, which no longer exists, because war has killed it off in people’s hearts.

Ivan Kamenec: So far as the prose is concerned, Ivan Kadlečík, Hlavolamy, Epištoly and the poetry? Janko Jesenký, Na zlobu dňa. While Kadlečík’s prose is poetical, timeless and humanist, Jesenský’s verses are highly social, as well as being extremely topical in Slovak public life to this very day. 

Peter Jaroš: Of the prose writers, Jozef Cíger Hronský and his book Písar Grác, because it enriched and developed Slovak prose from the formal and the experimental aspects, and through the narration he gave an account of the first world war, which marked a turning point and an advance in the existence of the Slovak nation. As for the poems: Herodes a Herodias by P. O. Hviezdoslav, because this excellent allegorical, even prophetic drama is in fact about the life of the human individual at the beginning of the20th century.

Ladislav Ťažký:  Of the prose writers, Vasil Štefan Koban and his work Máriine žiale. He is a Slovak author in America and we must count these authors of ours as part of Slovak literature. What impressed me about the work was the author’s knowledge of the conditions in which our first Slovak emigrants lived and on account of the vivid depiction of the characters of the different people in the book. The character of the resilient, courageous and determined, hard-working, moral, emotionally rich and naturally intelligent girl, Mária, from a practical point of view the head of a large family, is one of the most beautiful character portraits of a Slovak woman in Slovak literature. As regards the poetry, it would be two Slovak poets from the southern Danubian plain: Juraj Antal Dolnozemský and Gregor Papuček. They are poets who belong to the deliberately uprooted and Magyarized Slovak national minority in Hungary – I am fond of their work as a whole.

Anton Baláž: The collection of poems: Až dozrieme by Milan Rúfus. His first collection of poems already has everything that makes Rúfus one of the greatest poets of this century: a modern poetic style, which is, however, anchored in national literary traditions, profound reflection, drawing on the spiritual sources of Slovak life, emotional fervour and the “bared soul” of the poet, humility in relation to the majesty of nature and the feeling that every “ode to joy” both in poetry and in life is bought with the pain of knowledge. This collection of poems also helped me at the beginning of the sixties to find the way to my own literary work, even though this was in the sphere of prose.

The prose work: Peter Jaroš, Tisícročná včela. This novel is a happy symbiosis of the realistic and the fantastic to be found in Slovak life during the centuries of its “bee-like” destiny. It is not only an apotheosis, but also an ironical grin directed at the unceasing swarming of humankind in the eternal cycle of nature. It lightens the often cruel fate of man with fabrication, it works magic with reality and history, in order to humanise it at least a little. It has all the marks of a modern novel and its literary value and attraction for the readers make it one of the key prose works in Slovak literature.

Stanislav Štepka: I was seventeen years old when I passed my school leaving exams. No, I was not a child prodigy (rather the opposite). But at that time, forty years ago, it was like that: elementary school took eight years and secondary school three… The Institute of Education in Nitra took almost anyone who didn’t get into the other university level colleges, and that was my case.

I had Professor Ján Kopál for Slovak. He was an excellent specialist in literature - and a wonderful, tactful man, an excellent teacher; throughout his life he spent more time encouraging than criticising. On the manuscript of my first play Nemé tváre he wrote the word Perform, although at that time in 1963 he could have written Throw it away and forget it! That is how the Radošina Naive Theatre actually came into being.

            It was Professor Kopál who, in that Nitra lecture hall at the beginning of the sixties, introduced me to the verses of a modern Slovak poet, Miroslav Válek, which at that fortuitous time suddenly appeared out of the blue in Slovak literature, bringing a new way of seeing and expressing things, which literally stunned me. So after Rovina and Príťažlivosť I waited outside the bookshop in the main street in Nitra for the arrival of new books… and new collections by Miroslav Válek.

            For Miroslav Válek is a European poet. And if, on the other hand, we have a poet of world renown in Slovakia, it is again Miroslav Válek. Milovanie v husej koži is probably the most important Slovak book of verses from the twentieth century. Even in his pro-communist collection Slovo, I don’t think there is a single poem that was not clearly written by a master poet.

            Let those who feel qualified to do so judge his work as a socialist  government minister. And likewise let all those who want to cast doubt on Válek’s merits as a poet. So long as those doubts are on a level with the poet Válek…

            In spite of the fact that it was published as long ago as the twenties, I consider the novel by Milan Urban Živý bič to be the most impressive prose work in the Slovak literature of the twentieth century. Don’t ask me why, I wouldn’t even be able now to tell you in detail the whole story. But to this very day I can feel that youthful thrill in my body and soul when I gulped down that great and at times oppressive story, told with the enthusiasm of a great narrator, a story that is always and throughout full of the village and of humanity. As I myself am from a village, as I suppose most of us are, I know what I am talking about.

            Young Urban was talking about post-war life in northern Orava, but I had the feeling that he was borrowing almost identical episodes that had happened in our own village. Few writers have painted such a profound and true picture of the Slovaks as Milo Urban.

            When Živý bič was published in 1927, Milo Urban was only twenty three years of age! Yet his was the prose triumph of the century!  I take my hat off to him.

Milan Rúfus: Texts that have accompanied me through the century…This may sound strange, but it is true. So far as prose is concerned, the texts which have had the greatest influence on my life during this century, were not written in this century.

            In the first place, it is the Bible. It entered my life while I was still a boy and it remains with me today, it has kept coming into my mind throughout the century. The metaphorically formulated moral code of man. A strict and precise timetable for interpersonal communication, and if not kept to, trains can tragically collide. Just such megatragedies are characteristic of the twentieth century and push humankind to the very edge of its possible non-existence.

            The texts I would put in second place did not all appear in this century either. Kukučin’s village tales. I have read them many times and I still read them. Not so much as literature now, but as highly necessary self-identification, a confirmation of myself and the need to maintain irrational contact with the essence of the society that gave me life and with it words.

            With poetry it is somewhat different. Here in the twilight of my memory I can see flicker many worthy names. If I am only allowed to mention one, then it is Vladimír Holan. But as primus inter pares. The bitter, strict and acrid guardian of humanity. Celebrating life “in the tragic, to which he had to withdraw/ in order to hear the voice of the unreal”. But all those other names I have not mentioned are tickling my tongue and I should like to say to them: forgive me.

Ladislav Šimon: From the poetry, the poems of Mikuláš Kováč – because he lived in Banská Bystrica and was my friend. From the prose, the works of Pavol Hrúz – because he lives in Banská Bystrica and I hope he is still my friend. Literary historians will one day discover (maybe even in the near future) that Banská Bystrica literature was (is and will be) a fundamental contribution not only to the literature in the region at the foot of the Tatra mountains, but it has something to say to everyone who has learned to read.

Vladimír Petrík: People's opinions of literature are always subjective and our

assessment of individual literary works must be likewise. I think those are of  value  which at a certain time in our lives have influenced us most and set our intellectual and emotional strings vibrating within us. We measure things of cultural value by the

strength of the experience they provide. So far as Slovak prose is concerned, several works by our Naturists (D. Chrobák: Drak sa vracia, F. Švantner: Nevesta hôl) have been a thrilling experience for me, but this is also true of the work of the great magician of prose J.C. Hronský (Jozef Mak, Pisár Gráč, Andreas Búr Majster). Of

the poetry I would pick out a member of my generation, Milan Rúfus and his first book of poems Až dozrieme, which for me (for us) was a little miracle. It radiated not only the strength of art, also highly moral pathos. And that swept us off our feet.

Interviewed by Daniela Humajová