The essay is one of the typical genres of 20th-century Bulgarian literature, the fruit of both the native prose tradition and interiorized foreign influence (particularly German, French, and Russian). The native origins of the Bulgarian essay can be traced back to Istoriia sloveno-Bulgarskaia (1762; The Slavic Bulgarian history), written by Father Paisii Khilendarski (1722–73), the biographical and historical essays of Zakhari Stoianov (1850–89), and Aleko Konstantinov’s (1863–97) travel essay Do Chikago I nazad (1894; To Chicago and back). These works are representative of the leading themes in the Bulgarian essay: national identity (initially seen as the institutional unity of the State, the independent Orthodox Church, and common past, but from the beginning of the 20th century understood primarily as cultural identity) and Bulgaria’s relationship to the rest of Europe. In general, the Bulgarian essay reflects the peculiarity of the nation’s political and social history: from the second half of the 19th century, when Bulgaria was liberated from the Ottoman yoke, the essay was considered to be a means of public discussion of the major problems of the nation.
In Bulgarian literature and fine art at the beginning of the 20th century, the traditional society and the “national soul” were aestheticized. The genre of the essay in its turn was thematically dominated by the idea of “Bulgarian-ness,” systematically introduced by the pioneer of the modern Bulgarian essay, Pencho Slaveikov (1866–1912), whose essential contribution to Bulgarian culture was to reject utilitarian tendencies and reconcile the “traditional” and the “modern,” for instance in his works on Bulgarian folksongs and on Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra (1883–85; Thus Spoke Zarathustra). Krustyu Krustev (1866–1912), Boian Penev (1882–1927), Spiridon Kazandzhiev (1882–1951), Petar Mutafchiev (1883–1943), Vladimir Vasilev (1883–1963), Chavdar Mutafov (1889–1954), Nikolai Rainov (1889–1954), Konstantin Petkanov (1891–1952), Konstantin Gulabov (1892–1980), Atanas Iliev (1893–1985), Geo Milev (1895–1925), Atanas Dalchev (1904–77), and Ivan Khadzhiiski (1907–44), each in his own fashion, reflected on a few particular issues that stemmed from the theme of cultural identity: the national psychology of Bulgarians in contrast to Western European or other Balkan nations; changes in the emotional world of Bulgarians in modern times; the spiritual and social state of the Bulgarian intelligentsia; Bulgarian literature and fine art in the context of European culture; cultural kinship of Bulgarians and other Slavic nations. German influence can be detected in the idea of Bulgarian “spirit,” “soul,” or “fate” (the equivalent of Geist) which preoccupied students of national psychology and culture. By the time of World War II, a whole mythology of national psychology (“narodopsikhologiia”) had developed, ranging from the most positive to the most negative features: the former were seen as the heritage of the idyllic past, while the latter were explained as the result of the lost innocence of peasant life and the lack of national self-consciousness, spiritual and social unity, and stability in the present day. In this period the Bulgarian essay revolved around the questions “Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?,” as Ivan Elenkov formulates them in his preface to the most representative anthology of Bulgarian essays, Zashto sme takiva? (1994; Why are we thus?).
Along with and through the elaboration of the theme of cultural identity, the main characteristics of the Bulgarian essay were constituted: a tendency toward formal objectiveness (the narrative point of view is not “I,” the author, but “we,” which can be denoted as Bulgarians, the Bulgarian intelligentsia, or a group gathered around a particular cultural magazine); a tendency toward generalization and a prophetic tone in some essays which followed naturally from the ambition to answer the most important questions about national existence and the future, even when discussing fleeting subjects; and a succinct style, especially characteristic of followers of the German school of the essay.
After World War II, communists seized political power in Bulgaria. The idea of a gradual Europeanization of Bulgaria, dominant in the interwar period, was replaced by the ideology of the “internationalization” of Bulgarian culture. Literary and art criticism was proclaimed to have a “leading function” in cultural life; critics were supposed to “transmit” the ideological directives of the Communist Party into art, to propagate the “most recent course of the Party” and the “most advanced” literary method—that of “socialist realism” (see The Cultural Policy of Socialism , the selected speeches of Todor Zhivkov, the first secretary of the Communist Party). Because the genre of the essay was treated as an effective literary means of communist control over cultural life, and because, unlike other communist countries, in Bulgaria samizdat (underground) publishing hardly existed, the essay was more deeply harmed than other literary genres.
The 1970s brought the first significant breakthrough to this stagnation. Georgi Markov (1920–78) began broadcasting his political essays about Bulgaria from Radio Free Europe (collected in The Truth That Killed, 1983). Blaga Dimitrova (1922–) and Iordan Vasilev (1928–) published a two-volume essay in 1975 devoted to the Bulgarian poet Elisaveta Bagriana (Mladostta na Bagriana [Bagriana’s youth] and Dni cherni i beli
[Days black and white]) and Toncho Zhechev (1929–) brought out a series of essays under the title Mitut za Odisei (1979; The myth of Odysseus). Both publications evoked storms of negative criticism incited by the Communist Party. The 1980s, however, began with the official acceptance of Zhechev’s essay Bulgarskiiat Velikden ili strastite Bulgarski (1980; Bulgarian Easter, or the passion of Bulgarians), which restored the interwar interest in the riddles of national mentality and posed anew the question: Why are we thus?
In the 1980s the essay genre became more popular and obtained greater liberty. Several publishing houses (e.g. Narodna Kultura [National culture], Izdatelstvo na Otechestveniia Front [Publishing house of the Fatherland Front], Knigoizdatelstvo “Georgi Bakalov” [Georgi Bakalov publishing house]) issued series of essay collections by Bulgarian and foreign authors. The philosopher Isak Pasi (1929–), himself author of essays on German, French, and Spanish thinkers, began promoting European classical essays in Bulgarian translation. In the 1980s two essayists who cherished their spiritual link with the interwar period attracted readers’ attention: Mikhail Nedelchev (1942–) with his Sotsialni stilove, kriticheski siuzheti (1987; Social styles, critical subjects), and Svetlozar Igov (1945–) wrth his critical essays (Groznite pateta [1984, 1989; Ugly ducklings]) and essayistic fragments Prizori (1988; Before dawn). Thematic variety and relative liberty of expression notwithstanding, the Bulgarian essay still had to keep its most important messages “between the lines” in order to avoid censorship or to react playfully to the “deficiencies” and “simulations” of the totalitarian epoch, as did Alexander Kiossev (1953–), Ivailo Dichev (1955–), Vladislav Todorov (1956–), and Ivan Kristev (1965–) in their essays collected in Post-Theory, Games, and Discursive Resistance: The Bulgarian Case (1995).
After the collapse of communism at the end of 1989, Bulgaria found itself “in the hall of democracy,” to use the title of one of the typical collections of essays from the first two years of the political changes (Georgi Velichkov [1938–], V antreto na demokratsiyata, 1990). Liberated from the restraints of censorship, Bulgarian publishers hastened to issue books by émigré writers: Georgi Markov’s political essays Zadochni reportazhi za Bulgaria (1990; Broadcasts about Bulgaria) and Novi zadochni reportazhi za Bulgaria (1991; New broadcasts about Bulgaria); Stefan Popov’s (1906–89) Bezsunitsi (1992; Insomnia), which combines memoir and travel essay features and belongs to the national identity trend in the Bulgarian essay; Atanas Slavov’s (1925–) autobiographical essay S tochnostta na prilepi (1992; With the Precision of Bats) and Bulgarskata literatura na “razmraziavaneto” (1994; The “Thaw” in Bulgarian Literature), as well as a selection of his political essays, Politika: Belezhki po dilemite na promianata (1992; Politics: notes on the dilemmas of the change), in which Slavov reflects on the specifics of the national political tradition which allowed communism to root itself deeper in Bulgaria than in some other East European countries and points out the importance of the well-functioning state institutions for the transition from totalitarianism to parliamentary democracy. Konstantin Katsarov’s (1898–1980) twovolume travel essay Svetut otblizo (1947; The world from close up), once on the censorship index, was reprinted in 1995. Step by step, the higher standards of the interwar Bulgarian essay are returning. The liberation of thought was accompanied by the liberation of language and style; awareness of personal responsibility for the written word along with the immense variety of political opinions brought a new subjectivity to the Bulgarian essay. At the same time, interest in “hot topics,” as well as the fact that during the period of transition to a market economy most of the literary and cultural magazines collapsed and were replaced by newspapers, made a journalistic style prevail in most writings. Typical examples of the contemporary Bulgarian essay can be found in Blaga Dimitrova’s Raznoglasitsy (1996; Discords), in Beliia svyat (1994; The wide world), travel essays by Vera Mutafchieva (1929–), or in the essays of Dimitar Koroudzhiev (1941–), whose main concern is the deformation inflicted by totalitarianism on the human soul (e.g. Hristiianskata svoboda [1996; Christian freedom]).
At the end of the 20th century the Bulgarian essay is returning to the question “Why are we thus?,” burdened—or perhaps enriched—with reflections on the consequences of more than four decades of communist stagnation. Once again the audience expects the essay to address the pivotal problems of the future of Bulgaria, to be a genre with a social mission.
Izbrani Bulgarski eseta: Bulgarski eseisti mezhdu dvete voini (Select Bulgarian essays:
Bulgarian essayists between the wars), edited by Zdravko Petrov, Varna: Knigoizdatelswo “Georgi Bakalov,” 1981
Post-Theory, Games, and Discursive Resistance: The Bulgarian Case, edited by Alexander Kiossev, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995
We wtasnych oczach: XX-wieczny esej zachodnio- i południowosłowiański (In [their] own eyes: the 20th-century West and South Slavic essay), edited by Halina JanaszekIvaničzkova, Warsaw: Panstwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1977
Zashto sme takiva? V tursene na Bulgarskata kulturna identichnost (Why are we thus? In search of Bulgarian cultural identity) edited by Ivan Elenkovn and Rumen Daskalov, Sofia: Izdatelstvo Prosveta, 1994
Elenkov, Ivan, and Rumen Daskalov, Prefaces to Zashto sme takiva? V tursene na Bulgarskata kulturna identichnost (Why are we such? In search of Bulgarian cultural identity), edited by Elenkov and Daskalov, Sofia: Izdatelstvo Prosveta, 1994
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