Pencho Slaveikov can be considered the father of the Bulgarian essay. Not only did he institute the genre of the essay in Bulgarian literature, but he also outlined the essential features of its future physiognomy: a highly critical approach to the phenomena of national cultural life, an ambition to mediate in the process of the Bulgarian appropriation of Western European spiritual values, and a twofold mission—to inform, and to influence public opinion on all momentous subjects. The tradition of essay writing that Slaveikov initiated during the first decade of the 20th century was fully internalized by the interwar readership through the publication, in the 1920s, of seven volumes of his works (edited by the literary historian and essayist Boian Penev), three of which contain his most representative essays. Slaveikov’s essays are also considered by critics to be an insightful guide to his own poems, which occupy an eminent position as part of the intellectual
trend in Bulgarian poetry.
Born into the family of Petko R.Slaveikov (a poet, publicist, and explorer of Bulgarian folklore heritage), Pencho Slaveikov extracted as good an education as he could in his native country (which in 1878 had just been liberated, after almost five centuries, from the Ottoman yoke) and supplemented it in Leipzig, where he studied philosophy, aesthetics, and literature (1892–98). German philosophy—mainly Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and his professors J.Folkelt and W. Wundt—deeply influenced his views. Slaveikov’s aesthetic taste bears the marks of his thorough acquaintance with the works of Goethe, Heine, Kierkegaard, and Ibsen. This general perspective allowed him to look at the cultural and political life of his native Bulgaria with the eye of an outsider.
The target of Slaveikov’s harsh criticism included both works of contemporary authors and the activity of popular cultural and political figures of the time (such as Ivan Vazov, who is commonly recognized as “the patriarch of Bulgarian literature”) as well as the freshly created mythology of the heroic period of the fight for national independence (e.g. Khristo Botev, the national symbol of a poet-revolutionary). The driving force behind Slaveikov’s criticism was his conviction that an artist’s good intentions and sincerity would not compensate for a lack of artistic merit and that the application of provincial criteria to the emerging modern literature in Bulgaria could only harm its development and kill whatever of value had been born within it (“Bulgarskata poeziia: Predi, sega” [1906; Bulgarian poetry: before, and now]). According to Slaveikov, there were three main sources from which Bulgarian artists should seek models and criteria: Bulgarian oral poetry, as preserved in the folklore; the great achievements of other Slavic literatures (e.g. Pushkin, Tolstoi, and Mickiewicz); and German literature, especially its spiritual loftiness and refinement.
Slaveikov believed that it was not the written religious texts (which reveal Byzantine provenance), but the Bulgarian oral tradition that best mirrored the national character and creativity and could serve as fertile ground for literature in independent Bulgaria (“Bulgarskata narodna pesen” [1904; Bulgarian folksong]; “Narodnite liubovni pesni” [1902; Love folksongs]). An important part of Slaveikov’s own poetry as well as his highly appreciative essays on the works of two Bulgarian symbolist writers—Peio lavorov and Petko Todorov, both greatly influenced by folklore—is a practical confirmation of his vision of the unity between the centuries-old oral tradition and the beginnings of written literature in the 19th century.
While looking at the foreign literary examples as models for Bulgarian literature, Slaveikov was fully aware of the impossibility of directly transplanting them into the Bulgarian context. Bulgarian writers and readers should, Slaveikov believed, form their taste on the greatest achievements of European literature; imitations of German and Russian poets, however, received nothing but Slaveikov’s scornful rejection. To Slaveikov, translation was the most beneficial way of overcoming the distance between the young Bulgarian literature and the European literary models. His essays on the reception of Heine’s and Pushkin’s poetry in Bulgaria (he also planned to write his doctoral thesis on Heine in Russia) disclose a mature conception of translation as a natural way of adopting alien ideas and literary forms.
As an enthusiastic reader of Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra (1883–85; Thus Spoke Zarathustra), Slaveikov often takes as a point of departure the charisma of the writer (as in his essays on Nietzsche, Goethe, Pushkin, and Tolstoi). The originality of a work of art, Slaveikov maintains, comes from the greatness of the writer’s personality:
“One cannot question a personality, one only needs to understand it” (“Zaratustra,” 1920). Nevertheless, the lack of great personalities did not prevent Slaveikov from outlining a vivid picture of Bulgarian cultural life with its weaknesses and its promise (“Natsionalen teatur” [1910; National theater]; also his reviews of the Bulgarian literary and cultural journals). Slaveikov promotes the idea of the enlightened and creative leading figure (be it the editor of a journal or the director of a theater) with the highest
aesthetic standards and the civic courage to pursue them. As a director of the National Theater (1908–09) and the National Library (1909–11), and as an editor at large of the literary journal Misul (Thought) (1892–1907), Slaveikov embodied this ideal and was loved by the talented and the inspired, but also hated by the mediocre.
Slaveikov’s conviction that literature and art should stay as far as possible from political struggles ran counter to the 19th– century Bulgarian understanding of the “utilitarian” role of literature and, in particular, of poetry which was supposed to serve as an instrument in politics. Slaveikov consistently followed this view in all his activities; along with his austerity as a critic, this contributed to his lonely position in Bulgarian culture during his life. Communist scholars, applying the Marxist methodology to his
output, felt obliged to emphasize the “contradictions” in his aesthetic views and the “negative impact of idealistic philosophy” on his thought. Nevertheless, traces of Slaveikov’s refining influence can be detected in the whole subsequent development of the essay in Bulgaria.
Born 27 April 1866 in Triavna. Studied philosophy, aesthetics, and literature at the University of Leipzig, 1892–98. In poor health for most of his life, from 1884. Member of the literary group Misul, which emerged around the literary-cultural journal Misul (1892–1907) and included Peio lavorov and Petko Todorov. Worked as a teacher; deputy director, 1901–09, and director, 1909–11, National Library, Sofia; director, National Theater, 1908–09: dismissed because of his attacks on the government. Companion of Mara Belcheva, from 1903. Died (as the result of a long-term chronic disease) at Lake Como, Italy, 28 May 1912.
Essays and Related Prose
Izbrani proizvedeniia, vol. 2, 1955
Suchmeniia, vol. 2, edited by Angel Todorov and Boris Delchev, 1966
Other writings: poetry (including the unfinished Kurvava pesen [wr. 1911–13, pub. 1919–20]).
Collected works editions: Subrani suchineniia, edited by Boian Penev, 7 vols., 1928;
Subrani suchineniia, edited by Boris Delchev, 8 vols., 1958–59.
Furnadzhieva, Elena Georgieva, Pencho Slaveikov: Bibliografiia, Sofia, 1966
Hinrichs, Jan Paul, “On the Language of Penco Slavejkov,” in Dutch Studies in South Slavic and Balkan Linguistics, edited by A.A.Barentsen, B.M.Groen, and R.Sprenger,
Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1987
Sarandev, Ivan, Pencho Slaveikov: Esteticheski i literaturnokriticheski vuzgledi, Sofia: Bulgarski Pisatel, 1977
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