For what purpose was I born among them as an artist and musician if they cannot fathom my soul?

Central European University Press’s Classics series started out in the early 1990s with the aim of making available in English classic writers of Central and Eastern Europe’s 19th and 20th centuries. Its early interest in translating the works of Czech, Hungarian, and Polish writers has undoubtedly helped to make names such as those of Gyula Krúdy and Dezsö Kosztolányi, to cite but a few, better known outside of their countries of origin (Trevor has reviews of some of their works on this blog (here) and (here)). In recent years the series has widened its scope to include representatives of even more peripheral literary traditions: Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and, most recently, Croatia. From this country comes A Tale of Two Worlds (Dva svijeta, 1901; tr. from the Croatian by John K. Cox, 2014), the only work of Croatian writer Vjenceslav Novak (1859 – 1905) available in English.

A Tale of Two Worlds

Review copy courtesy of Central European University Press.

Fittingly, one of the running themes of A Tale of Two Worlds is Croatia’s place on the periphery of the mainstream cultural world of 19th century Europe. Published in 1901, the book follows the fortunes and misfortunes of Amadej Zlatanic, a promising young musician, as he strives for success and recognition in his native country in the mid-19th century.

The novel opens as Jan Jahoda, the Czech kapellmeister of a Croatian village, discovers his orphaned little helper’s gift for the organ. This comes to Jahoda as no less than a miracle because, after decades in the country, he has convinced himself that Croats are simply not a musical people.

Jahoda wore himself out working with them, and finally after much irritating and miserable work he dropped the idea. This is not for you people . . . Your ears are too accustomed to the sound of the waves on the sea — that’s what is at fault, keeping you from distinguishing one note from another. It has made you deaf as doorknobs.

Jahoda dies not long after, leaving his young protégé with rudimentary piano training, a composition inspired by the story of his love for his Czech muse Marenka, and a yearning to become a recognized musician. Perhaps because the kapellmeister was Czech, perhaps because of the dearth of appropriate institutions in Croatia, Amadej then travels to Prague to pursue his musical education at the conservatory. The several years spent there are in some ways a formative period as he faces deep poverty, catches up with the musical creations of his time, meets people whose opinions challenge his own, and gains some recognition from Prague’s cultivated circles (this includes a much older Marenka, now a patron of the arts).

Yet it is after his return to his position as the village organist, far from Prague’s more cosmopolitan culture, that the real struggle begins. Amadej marries his childhood sweetheart Adelka and draws for a time inspiration from his love for her, but soon enough hits a wall of disinterest from his wife, his fellow villagers, and Zagreb’s musical world. Despite the sympathetic presence of Irma, an outsider to the village who acts as Amadej’s patron for a time, things only get worse as money becomes tight, his compositions are rejected, and Amadej is replaced as the local musical authority by a young player of the folk tamburica.

It is at this point that an embittered Amadej begins to define the world he lives in as actually the two worlds of the book’s title: “how it is supposed to be — and how it is.” The irreconcilability of the lofty aspirations as an idealist musician and the daily grudge of a poorly paid village organist is made worse by Adelka’s lack of education and understanding of Amadej’s aspirations. Much as he loves her, he cannot restrain himself from comparing her with Irma, worldly and knowledgeable about classical music as she is. There is more than a passing resemblance with Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield and his eponymous hero’s unsatisfactory marriage to the childlike Dora. In David Copperfield, though, Dora’s death opens the way for David to marry a woman better suited to his aspirations, while in A Tale of Two Worlds Adelka too dies, but this provides no solution to Amadej’s woes as he descends into madness.

Amadej’s predicament is, at the same time, only the domestic version of a wider struggle involving music, education, and national pride in a country on the margins of the multinational, German-centric Habsburg empire. Nowhere is the parallel between Adelka and Croatians so visible as in the episode of Amadej’s return from Prague to his native village after several years of absence, as he dreams of future glorious compositions that will win him fame and love from his fiancée and his people. Yet, like Adelka, the villagers are motivated only by hard-nosed interest that usually either precludes art or instrumentalizes it in the pursuit of other material aims.

Thus, having refused Jahoda’s suggestion that the village should sponsor Amadej’s studies in Prague (“We have to consider what it is that we live from. Bread is what we need. Luxuries like what you are talking about aren’t our cup of tea”), village officials enlist him after his return to prepare a celebration for a visiting official. A choir has to be formed to perform a mass, and a piece of poetry by a local scribbler set to music, but the opportunity is not so much a recognition of Amadej’s talent as the expression of the mayor’s aim to smooth out (to his benefit) certain issues related to the building of the local railway line. The event is not altogether a success, the villagers finding the choir’s performance “pretty” but Amadej’s choice of music too morbid. If there has to be music, waltzes and entertaining musical ditties are what is wanted and this is true in Zagreb too, where Amadej’s projects for grand, patriotic compositions in the spirit of his more successful Czech contemporaries Dvorak or Smetana are rejected by publishing houses who demand light, popular music.

The conflict between the two worlds of pride and penury, and great and small nations, comes to a head when Amadej, having sent his compositions to a publishing house in Berlin on Irma’s advice, receives gets told his music can be accepted but only so long as he relinquishes the right to having his name appear. This he refuses but, compelled by need, he nonetheless accepts to rearrange others’ works to make them fit for publication.

Amadej, what became of your artistic pride? Where are your big dreams? In the end I am overcome by boredom and loathing for what I do, providing for prettier clothes for the pale, bloodless, and infirm spiritual children of an unknown German composer. And I think about how he is walking proudly down the sidewalks of his big city, about how he superciliously makes the rounds of his relatives who shower him with glory and champagne, and how he feels grand compared to me, the musician from an unknown minor nation.

A Tale of Two Worlds thus provides a refreshing perspective on that century’s cultural, political and nation-building ferment. This does have to be teased out from the book, which rambles on at times and sometimes shoots out in more directions than it can really handle. It is unclear, for instance, whether the extensive retelling of Jahoda’s doomed love for Marenka is supposed to provide a counterpoint to the relation between Irma and Amadej, and whether it is endowed with symbolic value in the context of the broad issues outlined above. Through the person of Vesely, a Czech drop-out from the conservatory who befriends Amadej in Prague, Novak also introduces a hint of socialism which, besides sometimes reminding Amadej not to take people at face value, is never fully exploited.

The translation, too, often feels pedestrian. This may simply be a reflection of the original style, and translator John K. Cox admits in his preface to having had difficulties with Novak’s predilection for long sentences. More jarring is his deliberate choice to give a modern slant to many of the dialogues, peppering the text with “what the hell?,” “school buddies,” and “mate” (as in “I’m thinking you won’t be too miffed about this, mate”). This may be legitimate, but it often leads to incongruous results, particularly when paired with more dated expressions: what, for example, to make of Amadej’s old professor of composition’s comment that “You’re going to lose the reins, man — and then what will you do with those fiery steeds of your southern imagination?”

Its content and presentation do not put A Tale of Two Worlds on quite the same footing as earlier works in the CEU Press Classics series such Boleslaw Prus’s excellent The Doll, yet it remains an interesting and entertaining account of a man’s struggle to integrate his country into the mainstream culture of Europe’s 19th century.

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