Croatia’s James Joyce: Modernist Master Miroslav Krleža

Considered the greatest Croatian writer of the 20th century and a leading figure in Balkan literature, Miroslav Krleža is renowned in his home country as a modernist literary icon on a par with Joyce or Proust. His works evoke the literary avant-garde of the early 20th century whilst also examining the clamour of national identities which characterised Yugoslavia during the period.

Miroslav Krleža
© Vila Velebita/WikiCommons

Like so many early modernist writers and artists,
Miroslav Krleža’s life
and work was shaped by the ferocious violence of World War I. Krleža was born
in Zagreb in 1893, in what was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and
spent much of his early life in military schools, before eventually serving in
the Austro-Hungarian military. In an early manifestation of the political
turmoil which would define his later life, he defected to the Serbian Army,
where he was branded a traitor and was forced to return to the Austro-Hungarian
army, his defection was punished and he was demoted to the rank of common
soldier. This picaresque tale was deadly serious for Krleža, as his demotion
meant he was sent to the frontlines upon the outbreak of World War I, where he
experienced the horror and confusion that characterised this conflict first

Krleža’s early literary endeavours were firmly in the idealist and romantic vein, but like his political ideals, they were changed irrevocably by his wartime experience. He returned from the war a committed pacifist and Marxist, galvanised by conflict and political chaos into a belief in socialism. The conflict thus transformed his political and artistic conception of the world, and catalysed Krleža into creating the politically engaged literature which would define his career. He witnessed the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the formation of the state of Yugoslavia, and would return to explore the political ramifications of this downfall repeatedly throughout his career, whilst he would maintain an uneasy, and at times antagonistic, relationship with the socialist ideals of Tito and the Yugoslav Communists. Despite his Marxism Krleža firmly opposed the despotism of Stalinism, and the cultural and artistic repression which went hand in hand with such autocratic leadership, and therefore challenged the leadership of the Communist Party in Yugoslavia to offer another model of socialism, one which prized cultural and artistic expression.

Miroslav Krleža Statue
Miroslav Krleža Statue | © Flammard/WikiCommons

spent much of the interwar years fomenting political and cultural change in the
Balkans, whilst evading the attentions of the repressive forces of the pro-Nazi
puppet Independent State of Croatia under Ante Pavelić, and maintaining an
uneasy alliance with the Communist Party of Yugoslavia. He also published much
of his most celebrated works during this period and developed his reputation as
a political and cultural iconoclast in the ferment of the Balkan political
scene. His most celebrated novel remains The Return of Philip Latinowicz, a
formally innovative interrogation of cultural roots which put Krleža firmly in
the mould of the High Modernist writers of Western Europe. It follows the
exploits of struggling Croat painter Philip Latinowicz, who returns to the town
of his upbringing to find artistic inspiration. Instead he discovers a socially
and cultural bankrupt world in which corruption and hypocrisy are widespread.
This sudden glimpse of the poverty of his own artistic context and the
brutality of his own upbringing radically alters his perspective on his life
and his art. Through this allegorical tale Krleža examines the influence of
culture and society on an individual as well as engaging in a philosophical
discussion of rationality and art from a Marxist perspective. The novel stands
as a unique achievement which combines the philosophical acuity of Dostoevsky
with the modernist nostalgia of Proust to great effect.

Krleža’s other great novel of this early period was On the Edge of Reason, which offered a bleak vision of morality and hypocrisy within bourgeoisie society. It is an unnerving portrayal of life under a tyrannical government which bears similarities to allegorical works such as Camus’ The Plague as well as the expressionist despair of Kafka’s The Trial. In it a highly regarded lawyer inadvertently blurts out an honest statement at a dinner party, and from these innocuous beginnings, chaos breaks loose, as the façade of his respectable bourgeois life comes crashing down upon him. Remarkably prescient for its time, it foreshadowed Eastern Europe’s descent into totalitarian oppression and remains potent even today for its interrogation of the political import of truth and fiction.

Miroslav Krleža Lexicographical Institute
Miroslav Krleža Lexicographical Institute | © Silverije/WikiCommons

Although Krleža is best remembered for his novels, he was also a celebrated dramatist and devoted much of his career to the theatre, where he wrote expressionistic plays such as Adam i Eva, which combined the late 19th century realism of Ibsen and Strindberg with the modernist theatre which was blossoming across Europe. He also released a number of short story collections during the 1920s, such as the Croatian God Mars and A Thousand and One Deaths, both of which are vehemently anti-war and are clearly informed by his military experience.

Following the end of World War II and the
establishment of the new boundaries of the post war Yugoslav state Krleža was
rehabilitated, and his contribution to the national literature of Yugoslavia
was recognized. He was elevated to the role of literary laureate of the state,
particularly after Tito broke with Stalin’s USSR. Supported by the state Krleža
founded the Yugoslav Institute for Lexicography, and spent the rest of his life
as a cultural and literary leader within Yugoslavia. The renamed Miroslav
Krleža Lexicographical Institute remains in Croatia as a monument to his
political and cultural importance, and as an enduring reminder of this
political iconoclast turned cultural leader, who would embody and define the
chaos of 20th century European history, whilst giving the Balkans a modernist
icon of their own.

By Thomas Storey