Miloš Crnjanski

Complete Text of the Introduction to A Novel of London, by David Norris.

(This text is copyrighted material.)

Few would now dispute the important role Miloš Crnjanski has played in the history of Serbian and Yugoslav literature, but this has not always been the case. He courted controversy as one of the leaders of the avant-garde generation of artists in Serbia after the First World War, proclaiming against the old aesthetic order while, at the same time, wanting to find social acceptance and enjoy the rewards of literary success. Many were opposed to his radical innovations in poetic language, preferring the harmonious rhythms of traditional versification with conventional subject matter. Later, he was declared persona non grataby the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, which took control of the country after the Second World War. He remained in exile for almost twenty five years, living an obscure life in London before eventually returning home in 1965. His experience from that period in his life produced his final great novel, A Novel of London(Roman o Londonu, 1971), now available for the first time in English translation.

Crnjanski’s family had its roots in the community of Serbs who migrated north to escape the brutality of Ottoman rule in the Balkans at the end of the seventeenth century and accepted an offer from the Habsburg authorities to settle in their depopulated border provinces. The community continued to nurture their national traditions and the Serbian language. The future author was born on 26 October 1893 in the southern Hungarian town of Csongrád. At the outbreak of the First World War, he became a reluctant soldier in the Austrian army on the Galician front. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, he was sent to Vienna for treatment in 1915 after which he was assigned non-military duties on the railways at Segedin before his posting to a school for reserve officers in 1917. The experience of the war had a great impact on the young Crnjanski; the main characters of his major novels are all soldiers or former soldiers. He published a couple of poems before the war, but his first mature work appeared in the Zagreb literary magazine The Contemporary (Savremenik)in 1917.

Crnjanski in 1914.

Wearing his soldier’s uniform, he wrote poems with a bitter and ironic tone, expressing his sense of despair and disillusionment in response to the consequences of the war. Arriving in Zagreb at the end of 1918, he became a member of the editorial board of the pro-Yugoslav journal The Literary South(Književni jug)where he was introduced to another young writer, Ivo Andrić, Yugoslavia’s only recipient of the Nobel prize for literature, who was also one of the journal’s editors.

His literary career took off in 1919 when he moved to Belgrade, the capital of the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, later renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Mixing with the bohemian artistic circle which met in the café of the city’s elegant Hotel Moskva, he was soon regarded as a radical innovator in poetic language and a leader of the younger avant-garde writers. While making a reputation for himself as a daring poet with a fresh voice, he also collaborated with other members of his generation on magazines and journals the purpose of which was to provide not only a forum for new writers but also a means of promoting manifestos of experimental writing style and aesthetics. His early works, the poetry collection Lyrics of Ithaca(Lirika Itake, 1919) and short novel A Diary of Čarnojević(Dnevnik o Čarnojeviću, 1921), were marked by the theme of the soldier returning from war to face the crushing effects of conflict, tormented by his unyielding memories of the front and his frustration that despite the ruinous war nothing has fundamentally changed. His work evoked an air of defeatism in a country celebrating victory. Those who did not share his feelings of being cheated by history found difficulty in accepting the expression of deep alienation from a life devoid of real purpose or meaning. Some praised his boldness in defying literary conventions and experimenting with language to articulate a new cultural sensibility. Others derided his lack of linguistic harmony, even seeing elements of pornography in his output. Over the next few years, he was involved in many heated debates on literary matters of the day, in which he found himself confronting not only the more conservative elements of the reading public, but also writers and critics representing other views among the fragmented movements of modernist art. At times the literary polemics took on personal or political overtones, and some disputes were even taken to the courts. Declaring himself a socialist at the end of the First World War, he became increasingly conservative in his political outlook.

The novel Migrations (Seobe) was his next major literary undertaking. It was first published in serial form in the influential journal Serbian Literary Herald (Srpski književni glasnik) in 1927 before appearing in book form two years later. This book cemented his name as a leading writer of his day, appealing beyond the narrow margins of the avant-garde circles and making an impression on the more conventional reading public. The story is set in the middle of the eighteenth century among the Serbs living in the border regions of the Habsburg Empire who had recently migrated from further south in Serbia and are now under pressure to surrender their Orthodox religion and accept the Germanizing policies of the central administration. The main character, Vuk Isakovič, is an officer in the Austrian army leading his men to fight a European war on behalf of the Habsburgs, the purpose of which they do not understand and for which they feel no sincere commitment. Vuk is constantly thinking of the life which they abandoned in Serbia and how best to preserve a sense of his own identity. He can only imagine that a further migration to Russia will save the Serbs from official attempts to convert them. Departing for the war, he leaves his wife in the care of his brother who is a successful merchant and has no sympathy for Vuk’s feelings of loss and disappointment. He seduces Vuk’s wife but she dies tragically. Vuk returns a year after his departure, the completion of one natural cycle and beginning of the next mirroring the feeling that life goes on while history unfolds indiscriminately, leaving individuals subject to the random effects of chance. Crnjanski’s previous themes are here enlarged from a generational to an existential question, while he amplifies his linguistic creativity to produce a highly lyrical and suggestive form of prose writing establishing new norms for the literary canon.

There was another side to the author’s professional life in the 1920s. Graduating from the University of Belgrade where he studied history and literature, he worked as a teacher in and around Belgrade, taking leave of absence to travel abroad, sometimes with the financial support of the Yugoslav government. Avant-garde art might be a vocation but it rarely pays the bills and Crnjanski used his pen for commercial reasons too, publishing in 1921 a detective novel The Underground Club(Podzemni klub) under a pseudonym as if the book were a translation of a novel from Swedish by Harald Johansson. Writing reviews, articles about his travels and features for newspapers and magazines provided him with another source of income. In 1928 he was employed as press attaché for the Yugoslav Embassy in Berlin and then in 1938 in the Embassy in Rome where he stayed until Yugoslavia entered the Second World War in 1941. He published the journal Ideas(Ideje) for a short period in 1934 and 1935, covering literary, cultural and social issues. Articles in this magazine and his reports from abroad during the 1930s revealed a sympathy for some aspects of right-wing political opinion, including some of the achievements of Hitler and Mussolini, although he was always opposed to their antisemitic stance.

The German army invaded Yugoslavia on 6 April 1941 and the country soon capitulated. Crnjanski, along with the other members of the Embassy’s staff in Rome, was awarded diplomatic immunity and made his way to neutral Portugal, accompanied by his wife, Vida, whom he had married in 1921. He was interviewed in the British Embassy in Lisbon about his opinions on Hitler and Mussolini. In his autobiography, he voiced his suspicion that he had been denounced by a fellow countryman for his political views. He and his wife were flown to Dublin and then Bristol, where they were met by the police and he was questioned again. He recalled that all his books and papers were taken away and his cigarettes broken open, as if, he remarked, that is where poets would hide their secret intelligence reports. His impressions from this unfriendly reception stayed with him for the rest of his life. Arriving in London during August of 1941, he was appointed to a post in the information service of the Yugoslav government in exile which he held until 1945.

The Communist Party under Josip Broz Tito came to power In Yugoslavia after the Second World War. They quickly took control of the country, liquidating their opponents who had supported the Axis occupation forces and others who might present a rallying point in the future. On their liberation of Belgrade, they executed 105 prominent citizens accused of collaboration with the enemy in November 1944, followed by many others in the capital and in the provinces. Sometimes the harsh penalties were meted out to settle not only political but also personal scores. Crnjanski, a high profile public figure from the pre-war days, was in no doubt what awaited him should he return. Radovan Zogović, a long-standing member of the Party, was charged with responsibility for literary affairs in Yugoslavia. Publishing a collection of his writings in 1947, he included an article from 1935 in which he had attacked Crnjanski for opinions expressed by him and others in Ideas, describing it as a fascist journal. A further highly critical attack appeared in 1954 by Crnjanski’s former friend, the surrealist poet Marko Ristić, now a highly placed functionary in the new regime.

Crnjanski and Vida decided to stay in London, where they lived until 1965 when they felt it safe to return to Yugoslavia. In the first few years of their émigré life, he managed to find low-paid but temporary employment; in the shoe shop Hellstern and Sons and later in the dispatch department of a major bookshop, Hatchards, in Piccadilly. He also attended courses to gain English qualifications hoping to improve their financial situation, including a course in hotel management. He even applied for British citizenship in 1951, in the hope this would help with finding work. However, permanent and well-paid employment eluded him. Vida became the main bread-winner by making and selling dolls and clothes for dolls in some of London’s more exclusive department stores. They lived at various addresses, where landlords would sometimes take advantage of their status and their poor knowledge of housing legislation. Desperate for accommodation, they accepted an offer from Lady Paget to stay in the coachman’s house in the large garden of her house near London from 1948 to 1953. Lady Paget’s husband had been the United Kingdom’s Ambassador to Serbia at the beginning of the twentieth century. She helped provide medical facilities for the Serbian army and humanitarian supplies during the Balkan Wars and the First World War, maintaining her concern for the Serbs after 1945 among the émigré community in London. The Crnjanskis had no money to pay for their lodging, so Vida baked and served cakes for Lady Paget and her guests while her husband addressed envelopes for the invitations, not an arrangement which they would have wished for themselves. The last twelve years of their London life was spent at Queens Court, Queensway, London. Their lack of financial security and frequent changes of address in the early years marked their migrant experience, as so many others before and after them.

Crnjanski’s hopes for an occupation more suited to his qualifications and experience were never fulfilled during his period of exile. In 1948 he thought that he might obtain the post of lector for the Serbo-Croat language at the University of Cambridge, but it was given to someone else. Suggestions that the BBC might have a place for someone with his background also came to nothing. He blamed suspicions voiced from the beginning of their life in England about his political views and the malicious intentions of others aimed against him personally for this lack of opportunity. He became President of the Association of Serbian Writers and Artists Abroad in 1951, but resigned from the position within a couple of years, after which he remained distanced from the Serbian émigré community in London. Realistically, however, the author faced a common problem for migrants, especially when forced to live abroad in their later years. His heavily accented English was not always welcome in London of the 1950s. More importantly, as one friend commented, he was competing in the job market against candidates who were far younger and whose applications were, therefore, more attractive to prospective employers. The point does not seem to have been enough for Crnjanski to explain his predicament.

The author had ambitions to continue his literary life in exile. At an early point in London, he thought he might write in English; like Joseph Conrad before him, he would not have been the first writer to transfer from one language to another. He began a novel with the title The Shoemakers of London. Fragments of the manuscript, preserved and held by the Crnjanski Foundation in Belgrade, reveal that the intended book contains many autobiographical episodes. However, his English was not up to the task and he gave the idea up. He then tried to rely on his previous work in Serbo-Croat and in a letter to his friend, the Slavonic scholar Alec Brown, suggested that he might write about him for Encounter magazine and translate Lyrics of Ithaca or Migrations into English. Brown explained that the UK book market and its literary journals would be very unlikely to be open to such a venture and that it would be better to wait until Migrations appeared in French or German first. Crnjanski returned to working in his native language and preparing new work, including a second volume of the historic novel Migrationswith the title Second Book of Migrations (Druga knjiga Seoba). In the new story, he follows a younger branch of Vuk Isakovič’s family who finally make the move of which he dreamed to Russia.

Crnjanski’s name and reputation in Belgrade as one of the leaders of the Serbian modernist movement was ignored from 1945 to 1955. His works were not published and were omitted from studies of Serbian and Yugoslav literature. However, government policies were changing in Yugoslavia, with Tito increasingly regarded as a friend and ally of the West. The country opened its doors to Western influence and introduced reforms to liberalize the economy, setting itself on a course of socialism at variance with the centralized Soviet system. Culture afforded a space in which the Yugoslav Communists could demonstrate their differences from the Soviet model without giving too many concessions on the political front. In 1955 a small publisher in the north Serbian provincial town of Subotica published A Diary of Čarnojevićand Migrationsin one volume. Crnjanski’s name in connection with Serbian modernism appeared in critical studies by Zoran Mišić and others. In 1962 a major Belgrade publisher printed Migrationstogether with its sequel Second Book of Migrations. Crnjanski’s place in the history of Serbian literature was slowly being acknowledged, although some critics were still reluctant to recognize his influence and role.

Overtures were made to Crnjanski for him to return to Belgrade, official circles counting on such a move in order to bolster their liberal credentials in the West. Messages were transmitted via the Yugoslav Embassy from the late 1950s urging him to return. On at least one occasion, the writer Ivo Andrić met him privately also with the intention of encouraging him to come back. From the early 1960s, he found it possible to publish in Yugoslavia extracts from his new work for readers anxious to know more about the author in exile for so long. With the personal assurances of the Yugoslav Ambassador to Great Britain, Srdjan Prica, guaranteeing his safety, Crnjanski travelled back to Yugoslavia in 1965. Vida followed shortly afterwards. The émigré press in London and elsewhere in Europe and North America attacked him for selling out to the Communist regime for material advantage. Although, he probably felt that he was sufficiently ostracized from them not to care overly for their opinion on the matter. He received a rapturous welcome from the public, well aware of his importance for the development of Serbian literature in the twentieth century, and because he was still producing prose and poetry to stir the imagination of his readers.

With some significant changes, Crnjanski adapted parts of The Shoemakers of Londonand wrote his last great work of fiction A Novel of London in Serbo-Croat, published in Belgrade in 1971. The main character is Prince Repnin, a Russian aristocrat. Leaving Russia in the wake of the October Revolution, he meets his future wife, Nadya, also from an aristocratic family. They live the itinerant lives of refugees, travelling across Europe, eventually moving to London, where the novel takes up their story after the Second World War. Some incidents from the author’s own life coincide with Repnin’s fictional existence, although Crnjanski was careful to point out that the book is not about him. The novel is a powerful recreation of the migrant experience in the twentieth century. The material hardships and insecurity of the Repnins are multiplied by their complete isolation in the anonymous and unforgiving environment of a city too big to care for one refugee couple. Theirs is a life of constant struggle to affirm their identity, in which the present is constantly interrupted by memories of friends and family mixing with the everyday reality of the present. The urban metropolis almost assumes a monstrous form of its own, tearing apart any hope they might have for a normal life, demonstrating the vulnerability of the foreigner with no sense of home or belonging anywhere in the world. Crnjanski returns to his major themes: migration, loss of home, constant movement in search of a place of safety, alienation from history which holds no purpose for individual human lives. A Novel of London won the coveted NIN prize for novel of the year and it was also voted the reading public’s most popular book.

Miloš Crnjanski died on 30 November 1977 in Belgrade, where he was buried with due ceremony in a plot reserved for those who have earned special recognition for their contribution to public life. At the beginning of his literary career, he was the enfant terrible of the radical avant-garde generation of younger writers, and at the end, he was awarded a place at the table of modern classics of Serbian literature. His work is linguistically innovative and profoundly moving. His last work, A Novel of London, encapsulates both aspects of his own experience and contemporary preoccupations with the fate of migrants across the world. 

David Norris, Nottingham

Copyright © 2019 Diálogos Books.

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