The Figures of the Love Discourse in Bulgarian Literature from the 1950ies to the 1990ies
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By seagirls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
(T. S. Eliot, The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock)
The manner in which the topic of love is applied in the Bulgarian literature of the last few decades is what this text will be concerned with; by the manner of application dominating in the Bulgarian literature of this period love was made to be the most significant way of opposing the social pressure, love – which may be taken as a shield protecting us from social obligation, or else as a crack towards writing in contrast with or despite social obligation.
In the beginning, we shall deal with the 1950ies which, after the establishment of the socialist canon and censure, brought the first literary scandal (though not in Bahtin’s sense of the word), related to the several cycles of intimate poetry by Ivan Radoev, published in the official (at the time) magazine of the Bulgarian Writers Union, known under the ‘peaceful’ name of Literary Front. There is no philosophy in them, no concealed allegories, no profound allusions or use of satiric language. Then why was it that they provoked a scandal?
The scandal was provoked for a very simple reason – the appearance of a poet (the author’s voice in the poem) who is in love. The author is not in love with the social utopia, but, simply, with a person from the opposite sex. Today this fact may sound incredible, but in the countries of the former Eastern block the literary history inevitably includes this episode: it seems as if lyricism is being born all over again, as if with the help of the avangard literature from between the two World Wars it reaches its peak, and now that they have reached theirs, it seizes them, starting from the very beginning.
The intimate lyrical poetry from the 1950ies, that so irritated the authorities of that time, is incredibly simple, both in its expression and its purpose. As a matter of fact, it deals with a time contemporary to the author, filled with emotions and deprived of history. It is important that the intimate lyrical poetry transfers from a utopia to the concrete life of the poet encountering the problems of “all people”. So, lyrical poetry should sound lyrical rather than epical, more like an elegy than like an ode – is what poets like Ivan Radoev stood for, and their experiment displays a literary resistance against the totalitarian authority. (In his A Journey to Istanbul, Brodski described this contrast much more profoundly through the figures of Ovid and Virgil, in order to demonstrate the difference between these two types of poetry, in reference to its relationship with the individual world).
How realistic this poetry was is evident from the following example:
Ladies’ houses with small circular balconies,
stick out from the thin air!
Fictitious ladders made of rope
on which our sights climbed
together with Romeo’s husky step!
The balconies have become microareas.
The rope – tightened to the iron necks
of the Capuletes and Montagues.
And as a continuation from four centuries ago
after the early morning of Juliet’s
over the abyss of the family happiness
It seems unusual today that in the search for the leading writers of the epoch, these or similar verses can be and are taken as representative and, as far as the ladies’ houses with the small balconies are concerned, they remind us of images from the dawn of literature, naïve and warm, and which, through the role of love as the main antagonist, represents the famous literary scandal of the time.
The 1960ies were, on the other hand, characterised by posh way of living. Parties where alcohol is served and free love become the subject of the literature opposing the contemporary social norms, and were accepted generally – though not as a social conspiracy but, on the contrary, as a concealed terror. In the poem underneath, Atanas Slavov (its author) praising the little society formed of friends, presents the new attitude towards writing, viewing it as a resistance, as a faith in liberation.
Only in an absolutely intimate space, most frequently behind the walls of a house situated outside the city, is the human being free – is what the 60ies believed in.
In his Pornographic Poem, Atanas Slavov, who immigrated in the USA in 1975, praises the orgiastic power of an idler – the creator of the fashionable way of living. That person – a writer, a painter, an actor – opposes the social norms by passive resistance. Lustful, the heroes of this way of living exhaust their physical activities in the name of a contrasting style – the idleness. It is but lying lazily all day in the name of social health.
That is precisely the reason that these verses describe the love act as hanging over nothing.
And the country house shall wake again
like the big clock from Bavaria
over the rock of the world
and from the green shutters young people,
lovers and drunkards and of all sorts
and sculptors and whores and many others
shall come out screaming like jays
and Felini Voluyak’s foal
shall be puzzled
as if from a large cigarette case
on the terrace
the toothless housewife comes out.
She shall turn towards the garden looking for support,
but each of the lilacs shall blossom with a heap
of newborn puppies
and the naked professor shall chase the biggest one
among the wayfaring tree.
Then he shall go to Felini’s
to scare him with worn out jeans
in black suits
sunk in an enormous heap of hay
in the middle of the Novozagorian Jewish graveyard
striped and unreal
drunk and endless rows of Trakian funeral
and the country house shall decay
like a sandwatch
over the German stony tides
over the bones of the German crusaders
over the bones of bitches and professors.
Or, as Slavov himself described his own creation: “in art, reality is humiliated without mediation of aesthetics” adding: “Nikolaj Rajnov called that pornography: emergence of emotions that are neither perennial nor universal, but transitory and confined; to him it was of no significance whether they were political, social or, simply, sexual. That is precisely where the pathos of the poem lies: to refer only to a limited scope of friends who have been convicted, even before their mature years, to a creative oblivion.
Therefore, in the descriptions of the 60ies, sights of journeys among the cities seem to be exposed. At the close of this decade, the Bulgarian literature goes through its Following the Path variant.
Taught (through the development in the 50ies) to praise natural love, or, more precisely – love as nature, and confronting in such a way the social system and its pressure, accepting, in the same time (from the tradition of the 60ies), the separation of the individual – “real”, from the public – “untruthful” life, the Bulgarian literature from the 70ies begins celebrating a certain special kind of neoromanticism in which deprival of life becomes the main subject, and melancholy – the main feeling.
A typical example of this period would be the poetry by Boris Hristov, particularly the poem A Window (1997). It is about a boy who wants to see the naked bodies of women bathing, but the window is so high that he never manages to reach it. Never.
And, anyway, here is the whole text:
I rise to reach the ajar window.
Behind it are the women – rounded off, beautiful.
Oh, how I wish to see them! Could I now pass the edgy wall
or were my friends here to lift me up.
And how they chase – the chase seems like
the return of a herd, that rushes on sunset…
And through what a funnel does God pour breasts upon them
since their laughter is heard even on the street.
A red ant is crawls and somewhere about lunch time
it will arrive at the spot and will die over the window with a mad admiration.
I rise again and scratch the wall
and my body could extinguish lime – so hot is it in the inside.
I have always in my life got to the window. And that’s it.
Eventually I will take out my tongue, to hold my breath with difficulty.
And there is no one to give me a hand, and no one who would bring water
to the draught, to my hope breathless as a fish out of water.
In vain do I strive! Who could help you see everything
– here, in the sky, or in the eternity of art.
And why is it that we wonder so often who the poet among us is?
And why is it that we tiptoe one in front of the other?