Central Europe

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Central Europe

JiImageí TrávníImageek

“Central Europe” is not a self-evident term. Indeed, it has represented a conceptual battlefield for nearly a century. The main period in which debates on Central Europe flourished was that of the 1980s. Milan Kundera, the Czech novelist living in France, was centrally responsible for this revival. In “The Tragedy of Central Europe” (1984, New York Review of Books 31:33—38) he argued that this part of Europe had been kidnapped from the West and taken to the East. In addition, he tried to draw geographical lines of this area as a culturally specific space between Germany and Russia. The common denominator of what Central Europe is marked by could be called a unity of differences, i.e., a harmony of disharmonies, particularly—as Csaba G. Kiss stated—“an odd mixture of pain and nostalgia, negative sentiments, affection and hate, gibes and national injuries” (1989, “Central European Writers about Central Europe,” in In Search of Central Europe, ed. G. Schöpflin and N. Wood, 127). Czech, Slovak, Polish, and Hungarian novelists are an unquestionable part of Central European culture. However, some would stress that Central Europe also encompasses Austria (Vienna, as the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is a strong source of cultural and intellectual radiation, particularly at the turn of the nineteenth century), Slovenia, Croatia, the northern part of Italy (around Trieste), Bavaria, Serbia (Vojvodina), Romania (Transylvania and Bukovina), and the Ukraine (Galicia, Ruthenia).

Beginnings and National Revival

The historical-cultural situation at the turn of the eighteenth century is as follows: Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, and Hungarians do not have their autonomous states; their languages are underdeveloped, forced into the periphery (Czechs), or nonexistent in standard form (Slovaks). As far as prose is concerned, only such largely popular genres as short stories published in calendars, gothic narratives, didactic writings with religious themes, and mock epics exist. Parallel to this, the bulk of narrative literature is written in verse. The novel has not yet been established as a separate genre with its own functions. Being neither a part of “high” nor of “low” literature, the novel does not manage to find its proper role. Despite these socio-aesthetic handicaps, some attempts to overcome this state, and thus to domesticate the novel within a specific national framework, are made. With the exception of Czech literature, there are texts that could be considered the first novels within the given literature.

Influenced by Enlightenment ideas, György Bessenyei wrote the novel Tariménes utazása (1804, The Travels of Tarimenes). It is a partly satirical, partly moral work based on a journey, enabling concrete observations and proclaiming a universal moral in the vein of contemporary rationalism. The same plot is also used in Mikołaja DoImagewiadczyImageskiego Przypadki (1776, The Adventures of Mr. Nikolas Wisdom) by Ignacy Krasicki. The novel is filled with the protagonist's travel experiences, combined with his satirical reasoning (see PARODY). In order to do this, the author presents the utopia of Nipru, an ideal state that enables him to criticize the contemporary Polish situation. Jozef Ignác Bajza's René mlád'enca príhodi a skúsenosti (1784, The Young René's Adventures and Experiences) is even more representative of this period. The author, a clergyman who spent his whole life in dispute with the Church, attempts not only to write in the vein of Enlightenment rationality but also wants, by means of this work, to establish standard Slovak (he did not succeed). What all the works have in common is that they are written “from above,” i.e., by authors who are well educated and often in high positions (Krasicki was a duke and bishop).

Realism and the Turn of the Nineteenth Century

Realism serves as an emancipating device in Central Europe, especially for the novel. In addition, the second half of the nineteenth century is marked by a higher measure of urbanity and by a self-confident middle class. As a result, the reading public is large enough to support the novel in its aspirations to play the role of the most important literary genre of the time.

The cases of Henryk Sienkiewicz and Alois Jirásek are telling. Both are authors of historical trilogies, set in the most famous periods of Polish and Czech history. Sienkiewicz's trilogy, consisting of Ogniem i meczem (1884, With Fire and Sword), Potop (1886, The Deluge), and Pan Wołodyjowski (1887—88, Sir Michael/Fire in the Steppe), deals with the seventeenth-century Polish wars against the Cossacks, Swedes, and Turks. The author combines typical realistic omniscient narration set against a wide panoramic canvas with a romantic conception of his characters, who are often real historical figures. They are depicted as almost immortal. When some of them actually happen to die, it is in battle and in a heroic way. Whereas Sienkiewicz offers colorful reminiscences of the most famous parts of Polish history, Jirásek tries to rewrite the early fifteenth century from the point of view of Czech national concerns of the second half of the nineteenth century (1887—90, Mezi proudy, Between the Currents; 1893, Proti všem, Against Everyone; 1899—1908, Bratrstvo, The Brethren). His narration focuses on leading personalities of this period. Thus, Jan Hus (ca. 1370—1415) and Jan Žižka (ca. 1376—1424) are transformed from being a religous reformer and a military commander, respectively, into national leaders. The most impressive parts of Jirásek's novels are those depicting battles and broad historical panoramas. While skillful storytellers, both authors were strongly criticized for oversimplification, distortion of historical facts, and for the populist tendency of appealing to the audiences' nationalist sympathies.

Comparable to these authors in terms of popularity but different in terms of writing style, Mór Jókai is a leading figure of Hungarian realism. He also wrote a couple of colorful novels set in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the period of the wars with the Turks. The more vivid and lasting part of Jókai's work, however, concentrates on the situation after 1848. His novels Egy magyar nábob (1854, A Hungarian Nabob) and Kárpáthy Zoltán (1853—55, Zoltan Kárpathy) depict generational conflicts between father and son against the background of the national situation. This generation gap, showing the clash between old (egoistic) and new (enthusiastic), is vividly colored by a delicate humor and anecdotal style. In all four literatures there are many novels set in the contemporary village, depicting its slow social disintegration (Josef HoleImageek, Martin KukuImageín, Władysław Stanisław Reymont).

While the turn of the nineteenth century is mainly dominated by poetry, there are some important developments in the form of the novel. The main trends are toward impressionism (Gyla Krúdy, Vilém Mrštík), experiments with changing points of view (Stefan Imageeromski, Karel MatImagej Imageapek-Chod; see NARRATIVE PERSPECTIVE), and psychological approaches (Margit Kaffka, Zsigmond Móricz). This is also the Golden Age of the so-called Prague Circle, a group of writers of mostly Jewish origin who wrote in German (Max Brod, Franz Kafka, Gustav Meyrink).

From the Turn of the Century to 1945

After 1918 Czechs and Slovaks (together), Hungarians, and Poles had their own autonomous states. In this new political environment literature ceased to be a vehicle for fulfilling patriotic tasks. As a result the novel enlarged its scope, adding a variety of themes, styles, and narrative techniques. Almost everything that characterizes the novel as such has its Central European version: mainstream realism; experimental writing, balancing on the edge of fact and fiction; utopian and dystopic visions of the future (see SCIENCE FICTION); political engagement; mythological affinities (see MYTHOLOGY); subtle psychological introspection; blood-and-soil ruralism (see REGIONAL); and philosophical reflections. The division between traditional and modern literature, which is so strongly felt in poetry, does not play as crucial role in the novel.

There are, however, several works and tendencies that may be seen as specific Central European contributions to the novel of this period. Jaroslav Hašek's Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za svImagetové války (1921—23, The Good Soldier Švejk and His Fortunes in the World War) has reached a world audience and is now considered emblematic of the Central European mentality as a whole. Hašek managed to create a character who is able to master every situation. Švejk is forced to serve in a war machine and, at the same time, is able to destroy it. Authors of Slovak naturalism (Margita Figuli, František Švantner) attempt to overcome the constraints of blood-and-soil ruralism by means of mythological patterns and balladic style. Epic order yields to lyrical contemplation, and thus the relationship between humans and nature is newly seen in an existentialist manner.

Karel Imageapek's work often depicts visions of a totalitarian society in which human beings are no longer responsible for their deeds, as in Válka s mloky (1936, War with the Newts). His work shows the limits of human understanding, particularly regarding guilt, crime, and, more generally, human identity—the Hordubal trilogy, collected as Three Novels (1933, Hordubal); PovImagetroImage (1934, Meteor); ObyImageejný život (1935, An Ordinary Life). Imageapek calls certainties into question and produces a sense of relativism; in a competition between high truths and small proficiencies, he favors the latter. Imageapek was criticized for his “little-man” mentality, i.e., for an inability to expand his horizons. However, if there is a typical trait of Central Europe in this period, it is precisely this “inability.” The small town and its middle-class sensibility; a stable world which slowly loses its certainties; a sense of a soft-focus old-fashioned order of things; regularly provided rituals; colored stiffness—all of these become a topos and even a narrative pattern for a majority of writers whose significance is far from local: Karel PoláImageek, Bruno Schulz, Sándor Márai, Deszö Kosztolányi. These worlds are mostly depicted by combining nostalgia with irony, and empathy with criticism.

After 1945

After a short period of “phony peace” (1945—48), communists directed from the Soviet Union took power and started to execute their cultural politics. As far as the results are concerned, literature in all three countries was split into three currents: officially published works, works written in exile (many authors were forced to leave their countries), and unofficially published works (samizdat). In the early 1950s, the novel was considered a privileged genre because it could be used as a direct means of ideological influence (see IDEOLOGY). What arises is a new form of the novel à thése, established from above (ideologically) and directed not only in its themes (socialist construction, factories, fighting outmoded practices, cooperative agriculture), but also in its plotting (good guys against bad guys). This highly artificial attempt, called Socialist Realism, finished quickly without leaving noteworthy works (see RUSSIA, 20th C.).

The 1960s are not only a period of literary emancipation but also the Golden Age of the novel. The most emblematic tendencies for the development of the postwar novel within this region may be the work of Milan Kundera. He only managed to publish one novel in his pre-exile period (before 1975), Žert (1967, The Joke), which deals with the 1950s Stalinist period and establishes Kundera's key themes—human beings confronted with history, a game destroying its own creator—and narrative techniques, a characteristic combination of Diderotian playfulness with essayistic approaches. The most well-known of his novels is Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí (1985, The Unbearable Lightness of Being), which thematizes exile as the inability to communicate Eastern experience to Western audiences. This exile experience plays a crucial role for many novelists from this part of Europe: Jerzy KosiImageski (who wrote in English), Josef Škvorecký, Sándor Márai, Gustav Herling-GrudziImageski, and others.

Life under socialism is frequently taken up in the Central European novel. György Konrád examines everyday life in Budapest when confronted with omnipresent ideological oppression, especially in A cinkos (1982, The Loser). The main achievement of Konrád's novel lies in the relativization of what is real and what is absurd, what is sane and what is a mental disease (see SURREALISM). Tadeusz Konwicki won international acclaim for his novel Kompleks polski (1977, The Polish Complex). This novel is a mixture of concrete and symbolic meanings, creating an atmosphere of absurdity. Absurdity seems to be a common denominator for other Central European novelists: Rudolf Sloboda, for example, writes as if he does not know what will come next. Bohumil Hrabal's absurdity oscillates between melancholy and existential cruelty. Following Hašek's example, he focuses on free speech as a medium enabling an endless number of combinations. The Holocaust, or Sho'ah, is another major topic of this period, especially in the 1960s. Novels on this topic are written mostly (but not only) by survivors (Henryk Grynberg, Imre Kertész, Jerzy Kosinski, Arnošt Lustig, JiImageí Weil), and alternate between written record and psychological introspection, description, and elaborated narration.

After 1989, three formerly separate currents again become one. Novelists must react to the new challenges of the market economy as well as to the immense number of books flooding the market. Some trends seem to show their post-communist significance: filling the so-called white places in history (Stefan Chwin), attacking an area between popular and serious fiction (Michal Viewegh), postmodern playfulness (Tomáš Horváth, Péter Esterházy), expressive brutality (Dorota Masłowska, Peter Pišt'anek, Jáchym Topol), mixing fiction with reality (Jan Novák), and dissolving into the cosmopolitan “Euro-style” (Olga Tokarczuk).

SEE ALSO: Censorship, Magical Realism, Metafiction, Romance.


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