14 September 1852|
Šibenik, Dalmatia, Austrian Empire
|Died||20 February 1908
Belgrade, Kingdom of Serbia
Simo Matavulj (Serbian: Симо Матавуљ, 14 September 1852 – 20 February 1908) was a Serbian novelist, a representative of lyric realism, especially in short prose. He is best known for employing his skill in holding up to ridicule the peculiar foibles of the Dalmatian folk. He was an honorary member of the Matica srpska of Novi Sad; president of the Society of Writers and Artists of Serbia; member of the Serbian Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts (SANU); and president of the Serbian Literary Society.
Simo Matavulj was born in Šibenik in Dalmatia, Austrian Empire (now Croatia), on 14 September 1852, to a Serbian merchant family. He went to Italian and Serbian grammar schools and graduated from a Šibenik gymnasium (high school). After his father died he went to live and study with his uncle Seraphim, the abbot (iguman) of the Serbian Orthodox Krupa monastery in Dalmatia. He was initially educated for the church, but chose not to take orders, and after four years left for Zadar's Illyric Teacher's College, from which he graduated in 1871. He was a considerable linguist by then and knew Serbian, Italian, Old Slavonic, and some Greek and Latin.
Thereafter he taught in Serbian villages and towns in northern Dalmatia, particularly in Đevrske and Islam Grčki, near the castle of the Janković family, built by Stojan Janković, Serdar of Kotar. His descendent, polyglot Ilija "Deda" Janković, who lived in the castle with Jelena, his wife, took Matavulj as his personal secretary. Janković had a vast collection of books in his private library and gave Matavulj the freedom to use it at any time of day or night. When Matavulj's benefactor and language teacher suddenly died, Matavulj wrote a poem and gave a eulogy at Janković's funeral:
I lost a valuable teacher who gave me his great wisdom, drop by drop, and opened my obscure soul, so that I may speak among honest people. He is the one I owe a debt to.
Matavulj's friend, Lazar Tomanović (1845–1932), helped him find a new job in 1874 at the Serbian Naval Academy of Srbina in Herceg Novi, teaching Italian. In Bilješke jednog pisca (Notes of a Writer), Matavulj wrote:
In Herceg Novi I lived from 1874 until the end of 1881. The most beautiful period of my youth I spent in this magnificent part of the Serbian country, on the southern junction of three frontiers, in events and circumstances which can only be imagined for a young man who had longings and affection for story-telling.... I do not know if my stories are better than others but they certainly carry the spirit of what was most dear in my life – the spirit of youth.
In 1875 he participated in the Herzegovina Uprising, where he was the secretary of one of the leaders, Vojvoda Mićo Ljubibratić (the translator of the Koran in Serbian), and again in 1881 he participated in two short-lived revolts in Krivošije before they were suppressed by the Austrian army. In the Herzegovina rebellion he got to know a freedom-fighter named Petar Mrkonjić, afterwards King Peter I of Serbia, with whom he was constantly connected in his journalistic ventures later on in life.
Professional non-writing career
From 1881 to 1882 he was superintendent of public schools and rector of a gymnasium at Cetinje, where he met the likes of Pavle Rovinski, Laza Kostić, and Valtazar Bogišić. Till he had become a superintendent of public schools Matavulj had never left his native homeland; but his responsibilities as superintendent necessitated a journey to Paris, and he passed some four months of the year 1882 partly in the capital (studying the French school system) and partly in leisure rambles in the counties of France. In Paris he met Anatole France, and embarked on translating some of the works of Guy de Maupassant, Molière, and Zola, of whom he was at this period of his career a faithful disciple.
In 1883 we find him acting as master of rhetoric to Danilo, Crown Prince of Montenegro, a post which gave him admission to the court. In 1887 he left Cetinje for Zaječar where he taught at a high school for a short while before returning to Cetinje once again. In 1889 he was teaching at a Belgrade gymnasium, and later managing the Press Bureau of Serbia's Foreign Ministry. This latter post he held till his death, though offers of more lucrative positions were made to him. His duties were light, and he employed his leisure in writing more short stories and novels.
Personal life and family
He was twice married, once in 1892, and when his wife, Milica Stepanović, 16 years his junior, died a year later giving birth to a stillborn; he remarried seven years later (1900) to Ljubica Dimović, a childless widow.
He spent the last years of his life in Belgrade, where he died on 20 February 1908, survived by his second wife. That same year (1908) three other prominent Serbian writers died: Milovan Glišić, Radoje Domanović, and Milan Đ. Milićević.
His main collections of short stories are: Iz Crne Gore i Primorja (From Montenegro and the Seacoast, 1888, 1889), Iz beogradskog života (From Life in Belgrade, 1891), and Iz raznijeh krajeva (From Various Cantons, 1893). His best short stories are Pilipenda and Povareta, depicting the moral strength of common village folk as they struggle through life's vicissitudes. His most acclaimed work, Bakonja Fra Brne (1892) depicts in a humorous, satirical tone the life in a Catholic cloister. His other novel, Uskok (Rebel, 1892), portrays the heroic struggle of the Serbs of Montenegro against Turkish invaders.
Of significant interest is also Matavulj's autobiographical work Bilješke jednog pisca (Notes of a Writer, 1903), in which he recorded thoughts and views on life, literature, and art.
Like many writers of his generation, Matavulj is a strict realist. As a painter of nature he has much in common with the Russian Gogol in keeping his eye on the object, but adds, like Gogol, a visionary gleam. In his stories and novels he describes both peasants and city dwellers, depicting with cold objectivity the difficult, stifling life of sea fishermen and the middle-class malversations in Dalmatia, the heroic and hardy people of Montenegro, and the machinations of the movers and shakers in the bustling metropolis of Belgrade.
The Chakavian dialect used in dialogues of some of his short stories (of which Povareta, for decades included in high school curriculum in most of former Yugoslavia is likely best known) is a rare example of that dialect, since the 1990s considered by most a part of only Croatian, used in Serbian literary language.
For many years Matavulj enjoyed the confidence of Cetinje and King Nicholas I of Montenegro himself, whose son he tutored. During his teaching tenure he had opportunities to be brought into close touch with the rural and urban folk of Montenegro, Dalmatia and Serbia, becoming familiar with their speech and manners. There he learnt to understand the ways and thoughts of the peasants, and laid up that rich store of scenes and characters which a marvellously retentive memory enabled him to draw upon at will. The progress of his intellect during these early years well deserved to be recorded. In 1880, Simo Matavulj became the most prolific and talented painter of the Montenegrin life. His novel Uskoks and others, were based on national anecdotes. Although these were early stories by Matavulj, through sharpness of perception and the power of shaping they represent the highest artistic attainment in the narrative prose on Montenegro before 1918.
He is included in The 100 most prominent Serbs.
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- Translated and adapted from Serbian Wikipedia: Simo Matavulj
- Tranaslated and adapted from Jovan Skerlić's Istorija nove srpske književnosti / History of New Serbian Literature (Belgrade, 1921), pp. 390–395.
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