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Antun Gustav Matoš (1873-1914)

Antun Gustav Matoš


Matoš is considered the leader of Croatian modernism (moderna). He was born in Tovarnik on the present Croatian-Serbian border in 1873. Matoš died of throat cancer in 1914 shortly before his 41st birthday. At age two, his family moved to Zagreb where he attended primary and secondary school with mixed success.  However, his lifelong study of the violoncello was a common artistic thread no matter where he lived or whatever else he did. Veterinary medicine studies in Vienna, a brief stint in the Army, imprisonment, refuge in Serbia, writing literary criticism, travels back to Vienna, then Munich and Geneva – just some of what he did before arriving in Paris in August 1899, the morning after a disastrous train crash in the suburbs.

Eager to actively participate in the cultural life of this European capital, he absorbed new trends, such as symbolism and impressionism, and made new friends like André Rouveyre and Maurice Toussaint, whom he introduced to Croatian cultural heritage. He even had a press pass to cover the 1900 Paris World Fair.

Defining himself as “a combatant for national liberation and franco-croat friendship,” this journalist and socio-political critic confirmed his francophile inclination in 26 letters published in the Zagreb journal Hrvatsko pravo/Le Droit croate as “Impressions de l’exposition universelle”.

… La supériorité spirituelle de la France, affirme-t-il, se situe dans l’esthétisme –

si je puis dire – de l’esprit français. Ce sens de la beauté et ce bon goût se manifestent

aux quatre coins du monde dans tout ce que fait la France. Aujourd’hui encore, c’est

à Paris qu’on écrit le mieux, qu’on tient le discours le plus choisi, qu’on vit le plus

agréablement.  Aujourd’hui encore, c’est là que se trouve le foyer des innovations

esthétiques, le foyer de la beauté, de l’art, de la littérature…  

Translated from Hrvatsko pravo, 1900 (retrieved from on 26 Oct. 2014 Retranslated in Most – Književna Revija, 1-2/2002, p. 29

Matoš first published a short story, La Force de la conscience/Moć savjesti, in 1892 at the age of 19 which many consider the beginning Croatian modernism (moderna). Two parallel themes often appear simultaneously in his work: regional scenes set in Zagreb and Zagorje with everyday people and situations and, on the other hand, vast “landscapes” inhabited by grotesque and fantastic characters as well as Greco-Roman gods and goddesses.

Novels, travelogues, essays, etc. were followed by some 80 poems starting in 1905. Like Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal, Matoš’ verse has the same sense of musicality, a refined rhythm alternating between song and speech, as well as the impressionistic use of colors, smells sounds, etc.  Jugoslav Gospodnetić spent some 30 years perfecting his French translations to keep the rhythm and rhyme in agreement with the original Croatian, honoring both languages and linking two proud and rich cultural traditions just as Matoš had done one century earlier.

Matoš wrote about his literary creations and role models, including the influence of Poe, Maupassant and Mérimée in a letter to his friend Milan Ogrizović whose 5-year-old daughter, Lilly/Ljerka,, was immortalized in the poem “À une petite fille à la place du jouet/Djevojčici mjesto igračke.”  Sonnets are the chosen form for 32 of the 49 poems presented in chronological order in La Porte de pierre — Kamenita vrata.  They express the poet’s feelings toward love, gardens, landscapes, death and patriotism. Here are the first and last stanzas from the 1905 sonnet about his homeland, “Chez nous/Kod kuće,” which opens this volume:

Mon âme est un paysage charmant

Où le peuplier garde les nids de noblesse,

Où le vent transporte le parfum de tilleuls

Et la brillance prévespérale du chant.

…  / …

Notre âme c’est ce paysage zagorien

Où le serf, le pauvre, se tue sur cette vieille terre

Au chant des oiseaux, des faucheurs et que les cloches sonnent.

Oh monotones cloches à nous, tristes et bonnes,

À travers vos psaumes l’univers marmonne :

Harum – farum – larum – hedervarum –

Reliquiae reliquiarum.

“La Vieille chanson/Stara pjesma” was written the year after his return to his homeland in 1908 and reflects those unsettled times.  And we know he loved short pieces, whatever the genre, tinged with humor, satire, irony and sometimes sarcasm.  Wasn’t poetry once defined as “meaningful words, condensed?”

What else needs to be said to convince you of the importance of making these wonderful French translations of Croatian literature better known?