Journal on Crnjanski

Our Friend from the Past
”Of all of us, only Crnjanski is a natural born writer”, wrote and admitted Ivo Andrić. The old maestro knew that it is a type, the seal of forces on the destiny of an individual, and that it is a great fortune for literature but not for the writer. All made of opposites, which only in the gold of a verse or in the flash of a brilliant sentence achieve unity and self-justification, Miloš Crnjanski (1893-1977) as remained to date the most beloved and the most disputed among the greatest Serbian writers. A Mediterranean Hyperborean, a modern traditionalist, gentle warrior, grumpy lyricist, poor dandy, plebeian elitist, he planted many reasons that keep us always coming back to him

Edited by: Vesna Kapor

Non Finito, Non Finito

Between the voice from Spain whispering La vida es sueno, to Michelangelo’s Non finito, non finito, the life and the world of Miloš Crnjanski are pulsating. By networking the time and space, his words are places for our consolations, and they will remain to be this for some distant, new generations of readers. Imbued with deep need for the other, for the world, always going further from where he is and what he is, already as a young veteran from the Great War he questions the entire cosmos and order, reaffirming them at the same time. He also questions the values and order in Serbian (Yugoslav) literature. They see him as an anarchist, nihilist, rightist... He is recording the depth and vastness of the war sludge already in his first works that become the turning point and, one can say, an open new poetics of Serbian twentieth century literature.
I saw Troy and I saw it all
The sea and shores where lily grows,
And I return pale and alone.
During exile, after World War Two, they declared him dead.
He was a master in his ability to enchant and charm the readers with both the said, and even more the offered spaces of the unsaid, only insinuated. Then when he just appeared, as well as today.
Scandal master, defeatists, traveler, and above all always enthralled son of his nation, he keeps causing controversies and mystification even today.
At the time when he was writing his works on long, sticky war days, at the back of a war photograph taken in 1914, he wrote with his own hand: ”It is an important think to keep in mind.” Later, when writing comments for Ithaca, he says how his mother, with horrifying patience, like only a mother can, was sending a few packages to the front every day. And inside them: one pepper red like a mother’s heart. In a letter to Andrić he says: ”The only thing that my poor mother asked from me was to see me before she dies. I didn’t manage to fulfill even that wish.”
In one interview he said: ”I don’t agree to be the second, even after my dear friend, a Nobel Prize winner, Ivo Andrić.”
He said: ”My life was difficult and he was spoiling my literature.”
He wrote one passionate poem to Anica Savić Rebac.
He challenged to a duel Andrija Sondermajer, a pilot and officer of the Yugoslav army.
In the uniform of an Austro-Hungarian cadet, he wrote an ode to Gavrilo Princip.
He dreamed eternal white areas of the North and Hyperborea.
Having returned to the country, he showed to Vida the Central Committee building: ”See, this is now a Congregational Church.”
He was both a modernist and traditionalist. Everything he wrote is imbued with deep, pure emotion. Lyricism was the natural condition of his life.
Eternally on his guard, ready for new blows, in his letters, debates and articles he records the precious time in which he lived.
Reluctant soldier of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, journalist, polemicist, an irresistible charmer, an outcast about whom numerous anecdotes and stories have been written and spoken, a man declared dead in his lifetime by his pre-war friend Marko Ristić, Crnjanski has been paving the road to himself with his quill even today. And his metaphor, from the beginning of The Migrations (”Vast blue circle. A star in it”), no matter how much worn from use, is a sign of understanding, the symbol of dreaming and searching for the eternal.

Crnjanski and the Call of Sirens

Crnjanski had a few phrases that are frequently repeated even today, and these are secret signs of his continuous presence among us. One of such sayings is ”a comedian’s case”, which is often used when we want to emphasize an unusual, grotesque similarity. However, there is one other saying of his that is more gentle and melancholic, and is used much less frequently. It is the phrase ”a friend in the past”. Maybe it is not by accident that Crnjanski, who had few friends in the present, had so many friends in the past. It is not by accident that that he was saying, in Hyperboreans, that one should keep contact with the dead. Of course, he did not think about the mediums, but the spiritual link with the dead, awareness that something connects us with people who lived before us.
In this way, I myself feel that something connects me with Crnjanski. Both of us belong to a small nation that had a longer history than it deserves, thanks to the set of circumstances that were often not favorable. This nation was not fortunate to turn the wheels of modernization of the world, or that technological, geographical, but also spiritual discoveries were in line with its interests. The spirit of time often imposed on us the role of an object in such processes, and rare moments when we would manage to, with youth, strength and vitality, avoid such a fate, were the moments of our greatest victories. But also our greatest misconceptions. The year of 1918 was one of those years, when we thought that he wheel of history had stopped, once and for all.
Crnjanski came after that year, at the time of national demobilization, when Serbian middle class was quickly sinking into corruption and moral downfall, believing that all national problems had been solved with Yugoslavia once and for all. At first, Crnjanski shocked that class with Lyrics of Ithaca. Soon, his youthful desire to shock was replaced with sincere worry not only for the class itself, but for the nation it was to lead. This happened when Crnjanski started to feel like this wheel of history had moved again. Already two or three years after the war, Crnjanski, when staying in Paris, say that Serbian power of representation was weakening, that we began to lag behind, to become outdated, to loose the sense of how we should represent ourselves. Here is an excerpt from The Letters from Paris which Crnjanski wrote in the early 1920’s:
”Belgrade municipal officials should be given better cylinders and tell them what kind of suit one wears in the morning, and what kind in the afternoon. One will say that I repeat old things, and the others that I am a social-patriot. But here [in Paris] life is built, and quite firmly so, on the basis of politeness and friendliness. From America to Swedish king, everybody bowed to the grave of the Unknown Hero; the way we did this was worse than the Republic of Liberia. Do you think that everything has been resolved in Kaimakchalan? Bitter surprises are waiting for you.”
Crnjanski, however, did not have many friends in the present: he was not able to convince anybody that not everything had been finished on Kaimakchalan, that history cannot be completed, not that it is possible to take a break from it. The surprises he announced came two decades later.
Crnjanski is a writer who had one rare trait: he was not afraid of modernism, and he did not surrender to it. Like Odysseus, with whom he already identified himself in the character of a war veteran, Crnjanski wanted to hear the call of the modern times, but not to go after them. There lies the great wisdom of this writer and this is the possibility for us to accept him as our friend from the past. Today, for god knows hoe many times, we are in the same situation. The sound of sirens is around us. If we don’t hear it, we will suffer. If we surrender to it, we will suffer. Our job is to paddle, tied to the mast, with our ears wide open. And our eyes as well.

Slobodan Vladušić

Miloš Crnjanski and Gusle

Let us move, for a moment, to the article by Miloš Crnjanski ”The ball game of gusle players at the Alipaša’s Bridge”, and with respect to this game to his comment ”Does the song of gusle players still have sense”, from 1925.
Un-illuminated with the glow of the old halo, Crnjanski writes there that we ”have forgotten our people, as if they have all moved to Čubura”. He, knowledgeable about Belgrade chronicles, fan of airplanes, goes to hear with his ears the competition of 64 gusle players. To him it seemed baroque. To go there ”near white minarets and cemeteries, under the shadow of Blažujska church, erected on top of the bones of hanged priests; it was worth of a deeper horror and awe”. ”Herzegovina is, it seems, the heart of our country and the bodily beauty there is wonderful and general. Beauty and archaism of our folk song, ethically great and more eternal than all other artistic manifestations of our race. All this bloody history that is lamenting from the gusle, now it is time to see this, was the beauty of Aeschylus, destined to us.”
A little later he adds how Princip’s shadow Sarajevo has passed. And what is Gavrilo Princip, ”whose hand did not tremble”, but a tragic St. Vitus Day hero about whom our poet in his Comments of Ithaca also wrote sentences like this: ”Son of a poor fellow, proletarian, farmer, from Herzegovina, not yet an adult, took him down (Franz Ferdinand) from the skies with gun shots... His act was approved not only by our poor people and youth... With his act, Princip put a brand of murderers on foreheads of all of us, and we have all become suspicious to policemen, not only in Austria but in all of Europe. Princip in this way connected us much better than how we had been connected, before that, with church, tradition, blood... The assassin spoke to us, loudly and from the other side of the grave.” This connection and clarity, of course, come from the very heart of the Vow of Kosovo. It is about assassinating the tyrant.
When in ”The Soldier’s Poem” he says: ”I did not cry for silver or for gold, / or for Dušan’s glow”, this was said to call the lower, suffering Sebarian strata, which he praised in his ”Apotheosis”, not failing to lower the tone of the established pathetic          question as to who, in what form and with what may stand before Miloš: ”This glass to the Banatian division, which will come before Obilić all bent, from the worst possible diseases.” ”The folk song of a gusle player / who will not let you mature through life”, isn’t it similar to the one by Njegoš about young corn harvested before its time. Crnjanski often calls his nation crucified. Dying joyfully. Finding honor in death. And that is why in ”Dithyramb” he threatens and curses like this: ”If you kneel to life with humbled face, / I am no longer your son.” And when he writes ”Ode to the Gallows”, he is actually writing a nihilistic ode to honor: ”It’s more beautiful to fly on you in the sky, / there is mud on the ground.” To know how to die, he repeated the words of his father, he who, having fulfilled his destiny, at the end of the road, refused medications, food and water, turned toward the wall and died. There are migrations. There is no death!
Behind the horrors of war, therefore, those who ”lost joy”, whose ”eyes darkened with sorrow of the beast”, had to earn everything all over again: both laughter and joy and homeland and nation. Crnjanski called his rebellious, cynical, black humor poems patriotic. And he was right. It was both for the Homeland and for the Nation negatively expressed love. Negatively, against the hypocritical pre-war rhetoric of the higher classes who intended to build Meštrović’s Vidovdan Temple; and always in a new, his own way, the said love for freedom fighters: ”Let the cry of haiduks’ blood echoes. / Build the Vidovdan Temple for the murderer!” The murderer who restored Obilić.
In the middle of the article about gusle players, there is a sentence like this: ”What a great artist this singer is... he is singing, and we who are standing around have our eyes filled with tears.”
There is no, therefore, a sensitive Serbian ear, no matter where one was born and where he lived, how hard he resisted, while listening to a gusle player, without his whole body being shaken, without tears coming into his eyes... On this journey of his, Crnjanski first describes the beauty, silence and enchantment of the Drina and the surrounding landscapes he was seeing for the first time. Somewhere in the back of his mind there is a thought as to what should he, educated in Timisoara, Rijeka, Vienna and Paris, have to do with gusle and gusle players, those Indians in colorful traditional dress, turning their necks and heads atavistically toward the sky. And with that lamenting and monotonous melody. And we saw, there, how that davorija takes him under its wing, breaking him down to the bone: ”he is singing, and we who are standing around have our eyes filled with tears.
Miloš Crnjanski was not removing himself, he knew our epic history by heart. And now, he is in harmony with God, more than what has been written: ”In God it is joyful. With us everything sulks.”

Rajko Petrov Nogo

About Rooms in which Writers Live

There are moments when, in the spirit of the observer – whether it is a spirit of a literary archivist, imaginative essayist, historians of a certain time or a curious spirit of a biographer – awareness arises on causeless congruence, when the mutual belonging of those for whom it has remained hidden forever illuminates, although they – we conclude this based on so many scattered signs – felt as if it existed. It is the moment when complete privacy is recognized as a cultural event. Unlike the external space that puts into effect our senses in an overtly direct way, the inner space is filled with signs of invisible drama that has torn the threads of our lives. The rooms in which we live do not reflect only our taste, or our wealth, or accident that brought us here, but they become – separately from all desire – are our very life. What knowledge follows our imagination in the moment when we concurrently read what – at the same time, in distant cities, in completely different cultures – rooms of two greatest Serbian writers in the twentieth century looked like?
The former ambassador, reserved and dignified, accepted as a fellow traveler of the communist revolution, in the grey times of restoration and construction, in 1950’s, himself almost a decade older than that century, in the time of mass meetings, burning speeches, when the sword of revolutionary justice was being brandished above human heads, he lived as a ”tenant in Prizrenska Street, in the home of a lawyer Milenkovića. He had two rooms there: a drawing room, for guests, and the other one where he slept. Te furniture was modest, bourgeoisie-Serbian, from the end of the previous century, and then already quite dusty and worn, and the bed where he slept was made of iron, almost a military bed. In the corner of the first room there was a small round coal stove, in which Andrić himself would put coal with a little shovel” (Erih Koš, Fragments of Memory, Writers, Prosveta – Belgrade, Mediteran – Budva, Matica srpska – Novi Sad, 1990, 69–70). It was not some starting residence but his long-term apartment, it was not a youthful destiny of a misunderstood and gifted man, but the stage of fame observed by the eyes of the man prone do skepticism and resignation at the age of almost seventy. Because, everything has been here forever: the feeling of homelessness, and eternal appearance of poverty, which as if it is there even when we are no longer that poor, and dustiness of worm-eaten furniture, and the iron bed of a novice, and shovel for coal as a source of heat. This is not about an apology of indigence, or praise to humbleness, and no paper monument is needed to the stoic spirit of our writer, because we should assume – apart of all this – that there is an invisible sign hovering over this description.
This sign could be – at the same time – seen on both places, in the conglomerate of the streets of London, in giant and ugly building, the grim circumstances of immigrant life of the former low diplomatic officials, unemployed, politically questionable on both sides of the Iron Curtain: ”The room is really a mess. Crnjanski was writing something on the typing machine. Manuscripts all over the desk, armchair and one chair that, together with another one, is the all sitting furniture. Walls covered with bookshelves, things, packages, clothes. Claustrophobia can be seen. A sewing machine next to the window... On the other side a kind of a closet, with wide wings. It is actually a bed that is pulled out from the wall in the evening and lowered to the floor. Then Crnjanski and his wife would move the table in the corner, and then there would be no more room to move around” (Dragan R. Aćimović, With Crnjanski in London, Filip Višnjić, Belgrade, 2005, 35–36). Complete immigrant alienation, piled objects that restrict ever living move, gathering the force of life into a single point, the point such as suicide, chaos and confusion of things almost tripped over by the man whose life tree rings require – and in itself carried with misery and ill will – assessment and collection of impressions collected from the journey of almost seven decades. This pure ridicule of fate against what was expected, however, carries a sign that almost atones for it all: there is a typewriter in the apartment, of the kind of which there is plenty in big cities, as if it excludes the fate of the writer from this ordinariness.
What is the link – like a distant echo of an artistic theory on connections in the world, that all things are connected – between the hand holding a coal shovel and the hand typing on the typewriter? What is the link between that coal shovel and that typewriter? In what kind of sameness the tow tenants, two existentialist geniuses meet, and does that sameness exceed the differences between the grey socialism and bright capitalism in the middle of the cold war? It is not as if our writers did not have big and happy moments of fame; it is not as if they will not have them when they leave these rooms in which they lived for too long; it is not as if we do not have writers whose apartments are remembered as images of abundance and luxury; it is not as if we such writers were not able to – with a single twist of fate – wake up in rooms like these. But, if once we observed the room in which in Tronoša Monastery – according to a legend – Vuk studied, if we saw the tiny beam of light coming from its small windows, not managing to illuminate even the grounded bed, if we imagine what kind of darkness there must have been in that room in those times, if we can empathize with the world – its richness and poverty – the last trace of which is the iron bed of Bora’s house in Vranje, then loneliness of a writer, evoked by a coal shovel, and writer’s exile, illustrated by the typewriter, reveal that trajectory in Serbian literature that is identical with the European sense of artistic fate. Because, it is the trajectory between loneliness and exile.

Milo Lompar


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