Laza Kostić

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Laza Kostić
(Serbian Cyrillic: Лаза Костић)
Laza Kostić 3.jpg
Born Lazar Kostić
(1841-02-12)February 12, 1841
Kovilj, Austrian Empire (now Serbia)
Died November 27, 1910(1910-11-27) (aged 69)
Vienna, Austria-Hungary
Resting place Sombor, Serbia
Occupation poet, dramatist, journalist
Language Serbian
Ethnicity Serb
Genre romanticism

Lazar "Laza" Kostić (Serbian Cyrillic: Лазар „Лаза“ Костић; 1841, Kovilj – 27 November 1910, Vienna) was a Serbian poet, prose writer, lawyer, philosopher, polyglot, publicist, and politician, considered to be one of the greatest minds of Serbian literature. He devoted himself to writing poetry and to translating from European languages. He promoted the study of English (to balance the German predominance in the Balkans) and was among the first with Dr. Jovan Andrejević-Joles (1833–1864) to begin the systematic translation of Shakespeare into Serbian.

Biography[edit]

Laza Kostić was born in Kovilj, Vojvodina (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) in 1841, of a military family. In his youth he was converted to the principles of social justice and Serbian independence in particular, and threw himself with great energy into political agitation. In 1864 he graduated from the Law School of the University of Budapest, and two years later he successfully defended his doctoral thesis in jurisprudence. After completing his studies, he occupied several positions and was very active in cultural and political life in Novi Sad, Belgrade, and Montenegro. He was among the leaders of Ujedinjena omladina srpska (United Serbian Youth) and was elected a Serbian representative to the Hungarian parliament, thanks to Svetozar Miletić, his mentor. Because of his liberal and nationalistic views he had to leave that Hungarian-occupied part of Serbia, but after several years in Belgrade and Montenegro he returned home. He died in Vienna in 1910.

From 1869 to 1872 he was the president of Novi Sad's Court House, and virtually the leader of his party in his county; he was a delegate several times in the clerico-secular Sabor at Sremski Karlovci. He was Lord Mayor of Novi Sad twice, and also twice a Sajkasi delegate to the Parliament in Budapest.

After Svetozar Miletić and Jovan Jovanović Zmaj, perhaps the most active leader in Novi Sad was Laza Kostić, whose politics were some distance away from those of his associates but who was convinced that his mission to save Serbia through art had been baulked by obscuranist courtiers. In 1867, the Austrian Empire was transformed into Austria-Hungary, with the Kingdom of Hungary becoming one of two autonomous parts of the new state. This was followed by a policy of Hungarization of the non-Hungarian nationalities, most notably promotion of the Hungarian-language and suppression of Romanian and Slavic languages (including Serbian). As the chief defender of the United Serbian Youth movement, he was especially active in securing the repeal of certain unjust laws imposed on his and other nationalities in the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire. When Mihailo Obrenović III, Prince of Serbia, was assassinated, the Austro-Hungarian authorities (headed by Kalman Tisza) sought to falsely implicate Laza, his mentor Miletić, and other Serbian intellectuals in the murder plot. Though arrested and incarcerated, Kostić, like the rest of them, was eventually set free. The new Prince of Serbia was Milan IV Obrenović, a boy of fourteen who had fallen in love with Laza's most recent work—Maksim Crnojević—released that year (1868; though it was written five years earlier). Milan's great mission in life, he had already decided, was to save from a life of misery and suffering the poet whose work he and others adored. In 1872, Milan IV of Serbia was declared of age, and he took the government into his own hands. Almost Milan's first act as monarch was to send for Kostić, "that great Serbian poet and activist for Serbian rights in Austria-Hungary." At the time, Laza, back in Novi Sad after making a vitriolic speech against the Habsburgs at Milan's inauguration in Belgrade, was put back in prison by the same authorities as before. The accusations laid against him—high treason—came to naught and he was eventually freed. With more false accusations pending against him, Laza decided it was time to seek refuge in Belgrade.

Until 1895 Laza was left to live as best as he could. He was utterly convinced that he was in the world to write verse and prose and defend Serbian rights and that any other activity was a betrayal of his mission. Making his home in Belgrade, he became a popular figure there as a poet, but Serbia had other plans for him. In Belgrade, through Milan's influence Laza obtained the position of editor of Srpsku nezavisnost (Serbian Independence), an influential political and literary magazine. Milan, however, was careful to balance the Austrian and Russian parties in Serbia, with judicious leaning towards Austria-Hungary at first. At the end of the Russo-Turkish War, 1877–1878, Milan induced the Porte to acknowledge his country's independence at the Treaty of Berlin. Laza, let it be known, that he identified himself with the more moderate and opportunistic section of the Liberal party, decisively dissociating himself from the doctrine of a sudden and violent overthrow of society, and urging his associates to cooperate in bringing about a gradual development towards an independent state. In 1878 Milan chose him to be Jovan Ristić's principal assistant at the Congress of Berlin. In having Ristić as his chief adviser Milan was most fortunate, and but for that statesman's astounding diplomatic genius the liberation of Serbia would have been impossible. And in 1880 Kostić was sent to Petrovgrad as a member of the Serbian Legation there. The following years Milan devoted himself to his duties as a constitutional king with great conscientiousness by restoring the shattered finances of Serbia, reorganizing the army and modernizing the antiquated institutions of the young kingdom. But soon, Belgrade's opposition parties began taking issue with Kostić's writings. Laza Kostić had made Belgrade too hot to hold him. He had boasted of his power over the King in jest, but had disdain to make influential friends at court, so that King Milan in 1883, had to ask him to leave Belgrade for a time. Despite his great exaggerated bizarreness, Laza Kostić was ranked a great poet and writer just the same. Soon after, he took up residence in Cetinje, and the post of editor-in-chief of Glas Crnogoraca (The Montenegrin Voice), where he met like-minded intellectuals, Simo Matavulj, Pavle Rovinski, and Valtazar Bogišić. It was to him that was chiefly due the great success of the Liberals in older Serbian provinces. In 1890, Laza came to live in Sombor where he married Julijana Palanački in September 1895, and spent the rest of his life there. It was in Sombor that he wrote the hallucinatory night book, Dnevnik snova (Diary of Dreams), and the ever popular poem Santa Maria della Salute. He died on 27 November 1910 in Vienna while on a visit.

Verse and prose[edit]

Laza Kostić

In his lyric poetry he often touched upon universal themes and human concerns, especially the relationship between man and God, society, and fellow man. Perhaps his most important contributions are stylistic and linguistic innovations; he experimented freely, often at the expense of clarity. Closer to European Romanticism than any other Serbian poet of his time, Kostić attempted unsuccessfully in numerous, unfortunately incomplete theoretical essays to combine the elements of the native folk song with those of European Romanticism. The lack of success can be attributed to the advanced nature of his poetry and the ideas of his time and to his eccentricity. Indeed, his exuberance prevented him from becoming a truly great poet. However, today he is beginning to be reevaluated and appreciated more and more.

Of his plays. Maksim Crnojević (1863) represents the first attempt to dramatize an epic poem, Pera Segedinac (1875) deals with the struggle of the Serbs for their rights in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Gordana (1890).

Indeed, Kostić was the last great poet among the Romanticists. He was a controversial personality, and the critics had a field day with him. He was more celebrated than understood in his youth, and he experienced a general loss of popularity in his old age, however, real fame came to him only after his death, although even that was slow in coming. Today, it is generally accepted that Kostić is the originator of modern Serbian poetry, the predecessor of the avant garde and other creative experiments which prevailed in Serbian poetry later on. In his life, and in his poetry as well, he constantly deviated from the ordinary and the customary, becoming known as an example of a bizarre, eccentric Romanticist who was rarely taken seriously by anyone. Yet, this poetic fantast was the most educated Serbian poet of the time; he knew classical and modern languages, translated Shakespeare, was a writer of aesthetic and philosophical treatises, and was the most significant thinker of Serbian Romanticism.

Translator of Shakespeare[edit]

Shakespeare reception in Eastern Europe came in the nineteenth century. At the same time as the emergence of the so-called national revivals in the course of that century. In these movements, Eastern Europeans claimed a cultural and political independence from the feudal empires, such as Austria and Turkey. It was the Balkans that appropriated Shakespeare solely for reasons of cultural emancipation.

At the age of eighteen, in 1859, Kostić undertook the task of translating Shakespeare. In 1860, in conjunction with Dr. Jovan Andrejević-Joles (1833–1864), he set on foot an excellent translation of Shakespeare's King Richard III, published in 1864. He himself was responsible for Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet.

The cultural ideals that motivated Kostić to render Romeo and Juliet into Serbian were part of the Serbian literary revival going back to Dositej Obradović in the eighteenth century. At the time theatre emerged as a by-product of the Serbian people's incessant striving for national independence in the last decades of the eighteenth century, the First Serbian Uprising in 1804 and then again in 1815, and reaching its early maturity in the second half of the nineteenth century. During the 1850s and inter-war years, great efforts were made by Kostić and his collaborator, Dr. Andrejević to introduce Shakespeare to the Serbian public.

This movement was in essence, an attempt to reawaken a national spirit that had been suppressed by centuries of wars with Turks, Tartars, and others invaders. Serbian writers, having come into contact with the humanitarianism of the French Enlightenment, the theory of Volksgeist (linguistic nationalism) of Herder, and the masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy, were eager to do for their nation what French, German, Italian, English and other writers had done of theirs.

To bring Serbia back up to the cultural level of the West, to make Serbians conscious once more of their nation's individuality and culture – these were the aims of Serbia's literary renaissance – and Kostić was among those who led the way. He tried to bring closer the Balkan cultures and the Antiquity, including experimenting with the translation of Homer into the Serbian epic decametre, following a theory of theatre originating in Balkan ritual performances. He also translated many foreign authors, notably Heinrich Heine, Heinrich Dernburg, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii, and Hungarian poet József Kiss's later poetry and verse novel which dealt mainly with urban topics but were noteworthy for its Jewish subject matter, like Jehovah (1887), a love ballad.

One of the most important characteristics of the literary revival was the development of an unprecedented interest in the Serbian language, both spoken and written. All Serbian intellectuals of the period believed that the existence of their country was irrevocably bound to the fate of their native tongue, then spoken widely throughout the two foreign empires. It was this premise that provided for Kostić's translation of Romeo and Juliet. The Serbian translation of Richard III was the joint effort of Kostić and his friend, the physician and author Dr. Jovan Andrejević-Joles, one of the most prolific contributors of Matica Srpska and the founder of aesthetic romanticism in Serbs. Andrejević also participated in the founding of Novi Sad's Serbian National Theatre in 1861. The year of the appearance of Richard III (1864) in Novi Sad coincided with the 300-year anniversary of the birth of Shakespeare and for that occasion Kostić adapted two scenes from Richard III, using the iambic verse for the first time. Richard III was staged in Serbia and directed by Laza Kostić himself. Later, he translated Hamlet.

Personality and private life[edit]

Laza Kostić may be characterized as an eccentric but had a spark of genius all his own. His writings abound in coined words, and in devious turns and twists of expression. He was the first to introduce iambic meter into the dramatic poetry, and the first translator of Shakespeare into Serbian. At a European authors' convention at the turn of the century he once tried to explain the relationship between the culture of Serbia and those of major Western European cultures using the scenario of a phone conversation, in which the speaker in Belgrade keeps repeating: Can you hear us? We do hear you, can you hear us? with the other end of the line not responding whatsoever. This scenario of his accurately expressed the frustration of the smaller European cultures (such as Romanians, Croats, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Ruthenians, Poles, all of whom then under Austria-Hungary) at not being heard, or not being understood.

Kostić was often quoted as saying, "Ne tražite spasa na zapadu, tim svetom vlada grošićar" (don't look for help in the West, for it is ruled by a penny monger). He wanted the best for his people; he wanted his people to rid themselves of the invader. It was, after all, high time.

Kostić's translation of the fourteenth stanza from Byron's Canto III of Don Juan expresses Byron's advice to the Greek insurgents:

Trust not for freedom to the Franks –
They have a king who buys and sells
In native swords, and native ranks
The only hope of courage dwells,
But Turkish force, and Latin Fraud
Would break your shield, however broad.

Curiously enough, the Great Powers's policies regarding the Eastern Question were the same as those of the Ottoman Empire.

Yet Kostić's embeded message came out clear: Do not expect any help from the selfish and mercantile West ruled by their shopkeeper-king; take up arms and try to free yourselves, even if your prospects are not the best.

Selected works[edit]

Laza Kostić on a 2010 Serbian stamp
  • Maksim Crnojević, drama (1868.)
  • Pera Segedinac, drama (1882.)
  • Gordana, drama (1890.)
  • Osnova lepote u svetu s osobenim obzirom na srpske narodne pesme, (1880.)
  • Kritički uvod u opštu filosofiju, (1884.)
  • O Jovanu Jovanoviću Zmaju (Zmajovi), njegovom pevanju, mišljenju i pisanju, i njegovom dobu, (1902.)
  • Među javom i med snom, poem
  • Santa Maria della Salute, poem
  • Čedo vilino, short story
  • Maharadža, short story
  • Mučenica, short story

References[edit]

See also[edit]