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A Tale of Two Worlds

 

Vjenceslav Novak

Translated by John K. Cox

Vjenceslav Novak (1859–1905) was a Croatian realist writer and dramatist, author of modern psychological poetry with occult themes.

In this novel, written by the esteemed novelist in 1901, a provincial composer and organist from Croatia struggles to find his way along the perilous frontier between the worlds of artistic vocation and humdrum family life. The local kapellmeister---a Czech, in good Habsburg tradition, and a confidant of Gaj and Palacký, influential politicians of the time---recognizes young Amadej Zlatanić as a prodigy and persuades the stingy mayor and stubborn parish priest to pack the teenager off to the conservatory in Prague. After several years of sordid student purgatory, Amadej returns to Croatia---ready for love and ready to make great art.

The world of Central Europe in the 1860s flows past, and Amadej tries to keep abreast of political change. At the same time he ducks and dodges predatory relatives and townspeople in his native district, to which he has returned for the sake of employment. Despite his marriage to the impressionable and vulnerable local beauty, Adelka, and his devotion to their daughter Veruška, Amadej is sorely troubled by the political corruption and isolation of Croatia. His wife takes ill and his family is poor. Yet ultimately it is the vulgar, populist notion of Croatian "identity"---symbolized by the worship of the tamburica, a local musical instrument---that crushes Amadej's career. As it does so, he contemplates the two worlds of national greatness, amidst the Croatian national awakening, and international fame. Finally, frustrated beyond relief by unsuccessful affairs both amorous and professional, and tortured by the philistinism surrounding him, Amadej leaves the world of sanity for a mind-blowing descent into the maniacal and inescapable world of hallucination, paganism, and paranoia.

2014
430 pages
978-615-5225-82-6 paperback $17.95 / €13.95 / £11.99

"The nineteenth-century Croatian novel, following the pattern of European cultures further north, west, and east, had Romantic predecessors and a Realist flowering. Unsurprisingly for a patchwork people hemmed in by three empires (Venetian, Ottoman, and Hapsburg), the boundary between these two periods is marked by a shift in enemies. In the spirit of Byron or Pushkin, Romantics like Ivan Mažuranić and Petar Njegoš wrote epic poems about heroic resistance to savage Turks. Realism, in all its proxy everydayness, arrived with August Šenoa, whose battle cry to the Croatian readership was to forget the colorful impalings of innocent Slavs by their Oriental overlords and focus on the daily, more dangerous micromanaging of those sea-hungry technocrats, the Austro-Hungarians. For even when not exploitative, the Germans, with their passion for modernization, would tie the South Slavs into the hopes, ambitions, and aggressions of industrialized Europe. Vjenceslav Novak, himself a Croat of Czech-German ancestry, produced anxious novels that looked north". - Slavic an East European Journal

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