A LITERARY PROFILE OF IVAN MEŠTROVIĆ
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Journal of Croatian Studies, XXIV, 1983, – Annual Review of the Croatian Academy of America, Inc. New York, N.Y., Electronic edition by Studia Croatica, by permission. All rights reserved by the Croatian Academy of America.
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There have been many prominent sculptors and painters, who excelled also as writers. Meštrović is one. This suggests that there exists an inner link between all branches of human creativity.
Since Meštrović is a sculptor of world wide fame, he is usually neglected as a writer. It is interesting to speak about his literary activity, because through it we understand and appreciate him even better as a sculptor.
I will divide my presentation into five sections: In the first I will speak about Meštrović as a singer and a creator of folk poems; in the second, I will analyze his superb stories, which were included in the collection Ludi Mile (The Crazy Mile, Zagreb 1970); in the third, I will discuss his unpublished autobiographical novella Fire and Ashes, which sheds a new light upon Meštrović's character; in the fourth, I will summarize his also unpublished drama called Alexander; and in the fifth section, I will point out certain literary qualities of his Memoirs (Uspomene na političke ljude i dogadjaje, Buenos Aires 1961) in which he narrates his encounters with important personalities from the beginning of this century until 1947, when he emigrated to the United States.
Meštrović was deeply influenced by folk poetry throughout his entire life.
Before he knew how to read and write, he learned many folk songs from his villagers and particularly his paternal grand-mother. Though she was illiterate, her repertory of popular ballads was enviable.
It was from her that he heard the well-known ballad about the wife of Hasanaga. He did not write it down then, but much later, upon the insistence of his friend Milan Ćurčin, he did so.
Some scholars greeted it as evident proof that "Hasanaginica" was still alive in the Dalmatian hinterland, in the same region that the original song was created, while others denied its authenticity, saying that it was influenced by a poem included in Vuk Karadiić's famous collection.
I follow a realistic and more plausible theory, which takes into consideration both the historical facts and also the possible impact which each man's memory undergoes in the course of several decades.
The ballad "Hasanaginica" was created and written down on the territory between Imotski and Drniš; it was kept alive among the Catholic inhabitants of that region. When Fortis copied it in 1774, he got it directly from someone living there, most probably in Split.
Meštrović at first had memorised it as he heard it from his grandmother. It is a pity that he or someone else did not record it at that moment, at the turn of the century.
The years and decades passed by, he became a learned man, and among other books, he read Karadiić too. When he recited it in 1932, at least in certain passages, he no longer distinguished the original version from Karadžiić's redaction.
His version neverthelles is precious for several reasons: it betrays its natural habitat, it has verses which stand by themselves or are closer to he "Split manuscript" or Fortis than Karadiić, and it testifies to the great artistic talent of Meštrović who produced a ballad which is superior to other versions supposedly still alive.
Meštrovh's version has confirmed a tradition, which was alive in the Dalmatian hinterland, that "Hasanaginica", which had stimulated a strong interest in South Slavic folklore, was created by the Moslems of the Dalmatian region: there are in it words and customs typical only of them. It portrays, however, a tragic destiny common to all men.
Although I do not believe that the milieu into which someone is born is the determining factor of his development, I do think that it can help us to understand certain of his characteristics.
Dalmatia, which has contributed to Croatian culture more than her other regions, can be divided into two distinct zones: the coastal, with medieval cities and surrounding islands, where foreign, particularly Italian, influence is noticeable; and the mountainous area, where masses lived for centuries in misery and ignorance, and have often been obliged to fight invading forces. They preserved their epic poetry.
From the Renaissance onwards, Croatian artists have usually come from the coastal area. During the Enlightenmen some writers began to appear even in the hinterland ("Zagora"). When Alberto Fortis, in his famous Viaggio in Dalmatia (1774), scornfully spoke about the primitive peasants of the mountainous region, Ivan Lovrić, a native son, defended their intelligence, honesty and bravery.
During this present century, Dinko Šimunović, Vjekoslav Kaleb and Ivan Raos, to mention the most important storytellers, have depicted the inhabitants of the Dalmatian hinterland: they too stressed their poverty, illiteracy, courage and human dignity but also their exploitation by foreign rulers or native merchants and intelligentsia.
Meštrović's prose is compared with that of Šimunović. I see a greater similarity with that of Kaleb, since both are less romantic than Šimunović. Meštrović is closer to Kaleb than to Raos, because they often touched existential questions and are less disposed to humor than Raos is.
In reading these storytellers, no one will think how splendid it is to live in the Dalmatian hinterland, but all careful readers will depart with respect for those peasants who, though poor and ignorant, are generally presented as faithful husbands, tender parents, reliable neighbors, hard workers and bound to their national and religious traditions. They are no saints, but good-hearted human beings, who at certain moments, when their temper, greed or wine overtake them, can commit crimes.
The first and (in my view) best Meštrović story is about the "insane" Mile. As once in the Gospels, "the poor in spirit" and later, epecially in Russian literature, "the fools" of this world are indeed wiser than the rest of mankind, because they have learned their truth and follow it as the Magi did their star from the east.
Mile was considered out of his wits because he was different from others: he was deeply religious, constantly in touch with God and his angels; he was oversensitive and, after his first wife died, he could not touch his second one; he was artistically gifted and in corn-unions with all creatures. The animals loved Mile, and they approached him as they did St. Francis. When he became sick, they stood close to him and warmed him. Instead of humans, he eagerly talked with flowers, trees, clouds, winds, the blue sky, and was afraid of no one.
Mile was different from others because he did not distinguish reality from his dreams. For him earth and heaven are so linked that one need only to cross "the bridge" to come to the other world.
Though the deceased ones can follow us, we can only guess what is happening on the opposite shore.
Mile is a combination of the author's theological (Tolstoyan) meditations mixed with the ideas of a simple peasant who babbles incoherently when he speaks about history; on the contrary, he knew the Scriptures and folk tradition well.
The second story (or novel, 185 pages long) is about a peasant Kejo "who killed his star". Kejo is tormented as were certain famous characters in Dostoevsky's writings. Whatever he, his wife or children touch, turns into misfortune; he is possessed by the idea that he expiates either the sins of his ancestors or his own when in anger he shot at his star. He does not understand why others, as sinful as he, or even worse, prosper in this world and are respected by the civilian and religious authorities.
In this story the author describes the entire village, with their beliefs and superstitions, love and hatred, marriages and deaths. Since the author portrays mostly his relatives, (his feminine characters are unforgettable), at times he indulges in details which have no connection with the main plot.
In a tale about Marko Raketić his life-story is given: being the youngest among his brothers, he was spoiled, became lazy and quarrel-some, but in a happy marriage he calmed down and accepted various blows, in humility, as they came.
Both his sons went to the United States, worked in the mines, were terribly exploited and married domineering American women; one of them acquiesced in being a henpecked husband, while the other returned home and for a long time was neither here nor there. Even in his dreams he was scared of America whose language he never mastered but he sensed that he had become different from his villagers: he did not like their primitive ways of life and he never went to church.
His father, on the contrary, after the death of his wife, lived in the expectation that he would join her in the other world. In spite of his misfortunes, he considered himself lucky because his sweet wife made him so happy that he would not exchange his destiny with anyone.
In this tale there are many superb episodes. For example, when one son is admiring stone heads in the cathedral of Šibenik.
In a novella about Nako Gazdić the author again dwells upon religious beliefs and natural goodness. Nako's family was poor, but suddenly became rich. Then people were saying that his uncles had robbed the monastery at Visovac. His father, who spent a certain time in Bosnia, spread the rumor that, -after the Austrian occupation of that province in 1878, he inherited the riches of a departed Turk. He began to lend money to the peasants at high interest, and when they were unable to pay, he confiscated their fields and animals. Though prosperous, respected and influential, he nevertheless commits suicide.
His only son and heir lets the peasants cheat him and shows a complete lack of interest for his fortune. In a conversation with the author he confesses that, though he does not believe in God and even less in the other world, his conscience disturbs him because his clan had indeed robbed the monastery and subsequently exploited the villagers. He is good and gentle. Upon his death everyone is convinced that his soul would go straigth to heaven.
As in the preceding stories, also in the last one there are superb episodes. Who can forget when Pusinica, in the manner of "bugarštica," laments her husband or when the oxen shed tears, having smelled the blood of other oxen slaughtered a little earlier?
Certain features of Meštrović the storyteller should be stressed:
Above all, his unique language. Although I was born in a village, hundreds and hundreds of words which Meštrović uses to describe home, utensils, animals, trees, fields and work, I have never heard before. The Turkish vocabulary is more frequent than in the coastal region, while the Italian is reduced to a minimum. The aorist and imperfect tenses give a particular flavor to Meštrović's sentences, for they indicate whether the action should be viewed as completed or continuous.
When Meštrović narrates, he does this not because he has literary amibtions, but simply because he felt an inner urge to talk about those "dear ones," who remained deeply rooted in his memory, before he left his native village at the age of fifteen.
The majority of characters, whom Meštrović chose to portray for his readers, indeed existed; he confesses that at times they themselves revealed what happened to them or why they acted in one way or another. When the writer is not informed, then his imagination has free rein and he narrates in minute details as if he had witnessed the events themselves. There are instances when he recognizes that he too is puzzled» and then he indulges in psychological meditation and stresses the complexity of human nature.
None of Meštrovir's stories is about ordinary people. They all excel in something: some of them are tormented by the religious quest or by a guilty conscience, while others are known for their moral quality or physical beauty.
When everything seems to be moving smoothly, a sudden blow turns the blessed ones into miserable Jobs. Meštrović's protagonists rarely commit suicide; the unfortunate ones, when they are old, die from their grief and unwillingness to live, while the young ones usually succeed in turning the page; there are cases when a blow is indeed the beginning of a sunnier existence.
In Meštrović's native region the Catholic population is in the majority, while the Orthodox constitute a fourth of the population. The author speaks about both religions with equal respect; his peasants are generally more religious than their monks, because the latter exploit the popular beliefs, while the folk try by their deeds to earn eternal life. The Catholic and Orthodox villagers call their language Croatian, they have the same political goals, and there is no trace of animosity between them.
However, in those stories whose action extends to royal Yugoslavia, the situation gradually changes because the government push the Orthodox believers into identifying their faith with Serbian nationality. There are those who resist and support the Croatian peasant movement under the leadership of the two Radić brothers.
Meštrović's stories regularly loose in their literary value, when those political epilogues are added.
Meštrović reluctantly spoke and seldom wrote about his intimate experiences, struggles and sufferings. He carefully tried to conceal his inner turmoils. Ait certain moments, however, when he was sick or otherwise prevented to go to his studio, particularly when he felt exuberant, lonely or dejected, he wrote down (for himself) his enchantments and joys, his pains and sorrows.
Thus it happened that in Syracuse (New York), when he was already in his seventies, he has minutely described his big love affair, which has left a deep impact upon him as a man and an artist.
This story or rather "confession," under the title Fire and Ashes (140 pages), has remained unpublished. His son Matthew has translated it from Croatian into English. Since the original is damaged and often illegible, I was given only its English translation.
Meštrović has been twice married, first with Ruža Klein from Vienna, and then with Olga Kesterčanek from Dubrovnik. With Klein he had no children; this probably was the main reason why he divorced her and wedded Olga, who gave him two daughters and two sons.
Though Meštrović has remained formally (socially) faithful to his wives, he became enamoured with several other ladies whose company he eagerly sought. He was saying that a husband becomes somewhat accustomed and consequently bored with his legitimate spouse, and therefore between them there are no longer surprises or stimuli. He considered the involvement with beautiful women necessary so that his fantasy and creative elan could be animated. He avoided women "intellectuals"; he did not carve the female "thinkers" but the feminine sensuous body.
None of his sweet-hearts, including even Mary Račić-Banac, to whose memory he has erected a famous mausoleum in Caveat, has fascinated Meštrović so much as did a Czech lady Ružena, who was married to a Russian diplomat. The artist met her in Rome in 1912. She died in 1923 at Leysin (Switzerland) from tuberculosis. During her life and later in her death Meštrović was literally obsessed by Ružena.
Forty years after their Roman encounter, thirty years after her death, the old artist still dreams about Ružena and asks himself whether he has committed a mistake when, not listening to his heart but to his reason and convention, he has continued to live with his first wife. Ružena has dominated so much his entire being that, in spite of his good decisions, their physical separation and her deadly sickness, his lust to possess her did not diminish.
Ivan was saved, because his body was strong, he loved his work, he had first Ruža and then Olga upon whom he could always lean, but poor Ružena, unhappy in her wedlock and determined that her spirit must be stronger than her body, she payed this sublime love with her health and then her life. She died happy that she has fulfilled her Christian duty and convinced that in the other world, as an angel another angel, she will meet Ivan whose advances she has resisted so that she could have him forever in heavenly abode.
In Meštrović's story are masterfully portrayed not only Ružena and Ivan but also other characters.
Vassili, Ružena s husband, is depicted in two totally different periods of his life: while in the service of the Russian emperor, he was snobbish, superficial and at times even brutal. He treated Ružena as if she were a household ornament: he did not respect her as a sensitive human soul. Only later, when he lost her, especially after the October Revolution when he became poor, he proved to have a heart, to love Ružena in his own way and to be even generous.
Meštrović, who admires the Russian women, thinks that many Russian men are just like those about whom we read in Dostoevsky's novels: split and sick personalities, who commit atrocious sins so that they have something to expiate for. Indeed strange people, Meštrović concludes, the devil is within them.
The narrator presents Mary Račić-Banat with a few strokes: though she cherishes the company of her countryman and dear artist, nevertheless, as a true friend of his wife and a woman of strong moral principles, she rejects all his attempts to seduce her.
From Meštrović's love-story we learn plenty about him as an artist, as a patriot who sacrificed much of his time so that Croatia could be freed from the Austrian yoke, about his travels to various countries and about stormy (little known) periods of his life.
The most brilliant are those pages in which he narrates how in 1918 he visited Ružena at Leysin and thereafter became sick from the Spanish influenza that he almost died.
Friendship between the autocratic king and the famous sculptor was rather surprising. What bound them together? Alexander was certainly delighted to be on intimate terms with the atrist, who had extolled the Serbian past and tried to build a bridge of understanding and compromise between the Croatians and Serbs. Meštrović, on his part, believed that Alexander was sincere and courageous in opposing the Serbian chauvinists; the sculptor was convinced that this powerful connection could be useful to his oppressed countrymen. In a word, they needed and respected one other.
There is no doubt that Alexander liked Meštrović. He proved this not only by buying his statues and ornamenting his palace with them, but mostly by seeking his advice at some critical moments. In his Memoirs Meštrović spoke at length about Alexander and portrayed him, as a man and a ruler, in a more favorable light than he is usually viewed. Nothing has more surprised Meštrović's readers than his assertion that the King, before going to Marseilles, had firmly decided to divide Yugoslavia into two halves, Serbia and Croatia, which would enjoy equal rights.
To this decision of Alexander Meštrović devotes great attention in his unpublished drama, entitled Alexander. He wrote it in old age, here in America. It seems that he was not totally satisfied with it, because he inserted over the typed script several explanatory sentences and added an entire scene to the third act.
Though, especially at the beginning, Alexander is presented as moody, arrogant and ambitious, directly responsible for the murder of Apis and indirectly for that of Radić, nevertheless, in Meštrović's opinion, he gradually improved, because he honestly and resolutely wanted to solve the Croatian question finally.
The first act of the drama Alexander takes place at Corfu, in 1917. Alexander agrees with the prime minister of Serbia, Nikola Pašić, that the colonel Apis should be executed and that the power of the "black hand" should be diminished. This organization had imposed its views and wishes upon the weak king Peter from the moment he was installed on the throne by them (1903). The heir to the throne and Pašić discuss also the way the Serbs, the Croats and the Slovenes should be united. While Pašić thinks only how to extend the realm of Serbia, Alexander tries to take into consideration both the traditions and the political goals of other constituent elements. After many prolonged discussions, Pašić accepts a composite name for the future kingdom (SHS), and the representatives of the former, citizens of Austria, in a spirit of compromise no longer insist that the Constitution should be voted on by the two thirds of the Parliament. Thus in advance Serbian predominance was guaranteed.
Alexander is often indisposed and nervous; he is afraid of displeasing the Serbs but he tries also to understand the Croatians. Pašić is a petty Balkan manipulator for whom all means are permissible to remain in power. Other Serbian politicians are mainly concerned with their own personal interests or with that of their parties.
Meštrović speaks respectfully of Trumbić and Supilo, the prominent Croatian émigré politicians, who do their utmost to diminish the disastrous consequence of the secret treaty between the Allies and Italy (in April, 1915), by which the Italians were promised a great portion of the Dalmatian shores.
While the first act gives a rounded picture of the political situation towards the end of World War I, the second is a continuation and explanation of the first one. In its first scene the Serbian émigré politicians, in Nizza, analyze the significance of the Corfu Declaration, and in the second Georges, the elder brother of Alexander, in the Parisian apartment of the dramatist, speaks about the execution of Apis. He regrets that his brother has fallen under the influence of Pašić, whom he dislikes. Georges, who is usually portrayed as uneducated, uncivilized and a bit crazy, by Meštrović is depicted as an unselfish and honourable character.
In the third act we read about the sudden death of Pašić (1926) and the assassination of Radić in the Parliament (in June, 1928), in which the royal court also participated. Alexander then outlawed political parties, introduced dictatorial rule and divided the country into nine arbitrarily divided regions. The division was made in such a way that the Serbs constitued the majority in six of them. The Croats thus lost in the south the city of Dubrovnik together with the island of Korčula, and in the north the region called the Srijem.
Although Maček, the leader of the Croatian masses, is imprisoned and Trumbić refuses to have any contact with the regime, Meštrović continues to visit the king. In frank conversations he reproaches him for being surrounded exclusively by Serbian ultranationalists and the generals, who look upon the Croats, as an unthankful and rebellious "tribe," which should be handled only with an iron fist.
In the fourth act Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, in the hotel Esplanade, stages a celebration for the birthday (in December, 1933) of Queen Mary. The king is jubilant, seeing present so many dignitaries, all drinking, eating and exchanging pleasant and casual conversation. The king informs Meštrović about the recently concluded Balkan Pact, in which he sees a strong defensive line, especially against Mussolini.
As soon as the king has left the hotel, the rumor goes around that there has been an attempt on his life. It is learned that Oreb, a Dalmatian fisherman, who was sent from an ustasha camp in Italy to kill Alexander, had changed his mind at the last moment, falsely believing that his countrymen were welcoming the dictator.
Alexander goes immediately to Bled, in Slovenia. Some days later, on his return to Belgrade, he stops in Zagreb, where he again meets his sculptor friend. He confides to him that he has resolved to divide the kingdom into two parts, each enjoying equal political, economic and financial rights. He promises that he will, as soon as he returns from France, free Maček and solve the Croatian question. He anticipates that the Serbs will reject his ideas, but he knows that he cannot confront the machinations of Italy if the Croats remain discontented. He hopes to convince them that the dynasty is on their side and approves their justified claims.
The weakest and least elaborated act is the fifth. In it even events are only sketched. The dramatist perhaps felt that his readers were already sufficiently informed about the tragic denouement, or he had no time to perfect the act.
Alexander sailed to Marseilles; he wanted to prove to the Duce that he was not scared of him and that the Mediterranean Sea belonged to other nations besides the Italian.
The king is gloomy and sleeps badly. In his dreams appear to him his father, Apis, Pašić and Radić. Although a sorceress had predicted to him a glorious future, the ghost of Apis tells him that very soon he will be in his company.
The king is disappointed in Marseilles by a lukewarm official reception and by the shouts of the public against him. The ship's captain and the royal bodyguards suggest that he should return home, but he believes that he must go forward.
The assassin easily approaches his car and shoots him. He dies without uttering a single word! The drama ends with a horseman hitting the assaillant on the head with a saber.
In this Meštrović s historical drama there are certain questionable features.
Thus Alexander, Pašić and all other Serbs, with few occasional typically Serbian words, speak a pure Croatian language. This definitely diminishes the impression of its authenticity.
I do not know if Meštrović wrote his Memoirs first or viceversa, but in the Memoirs his language is more chiseled and the narrative more concise than in the drama Alexander.
The characters often lack psychological motivation: Who they are; why they act as they do?
All these weaknesses are perhaps due to the fact that the author had no time to improve, shorten and deepen his Alexander.
He wrote it probably more for himself, to be freed from a subject which continued to puzzle him, than for a large audience to whom he said what he wanted in his published Memoirs.
Meštrović's Memoirs (Uspomene) were published only a few months before he died.
We who had visited him frequently, particularly during his last years in South Bend, were not surprised by their content, because certain of their fragments we heard several times.
It is interesting to note that Meštrović, who wrote fascinating articles about Michelangelo and Egyptian art, who with his friends eagerly discussed theological and artistic questions, who was above all an artist and writer and not a professional politician, nevertheless, in his Memoirs treated political issues exclusively.
Upon their publication the reaction was varied: while they were welcomed by the Croatian nationalists, because the author had drastically moved from the pro-Yugoslav position to a conviction that Croatia should be free, on the other hand, the unitarists and centralists attacked him because they felt betrayed by him. They failed to understand how the same man, who in the interwar period was intimate with king Alexander, in his old age was on the best terms with the Croatian émigrés.
It should be stressed that Meštrović was not an exception when he moved from centralism to federalism and the idea of an autonomous republic. Many of his distinguished countrymen followed the same path.
Even great men mature in the course of their lives. Thus also Meštrović moved from a utopian idea of South Slavic "brotherhood" to the conviction that each nation should remain free to choose its political affiliation or none at all. Nobody has right to tell another nation what is good or not good for it!
I do not discuss here if certain, particularly early chapters of these Memoirs are historically reliable. I suspect that some fragments can be challenged, because the author wrote them from his memory, which can be fallible when not supported by documents.
However, I stress that these Memoirs were written by a great artist, whose style is so captivating that a reader readily overlooks certain defects or errors of fact.
Though a Croatian patriot, Meštrović was above all a humanist, who strove to unite all men in the pursuit of peace, in lgting their hearts to the heavenly father, whose creatures and children we are all.