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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Edvard Kocbek

Born the son of a church organist in 1904, Edvard Kocbek grew up in the section of present-day Slovenia that was then Austria-Hungary. He studied classics and foreign languages in high school, but by the time he had finished his studies Slovenia had lost much of its independence and had become part of the new country of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. He entered a Catholic seminary in Maribor with the intention of becoming a priest. After two years, however, he left, protesting the rigid rules of the community.

In Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia, Kocbek studied Romance languages and literature at the university and edited the Catholic magazine, Cross, while also contributing to the Catholic Socialist Fire. Writing poetry, he began find a space between the provincialism of much of Slovene literature at the time and the avant-gardism of poet Srečko Kosovel.

Two trips of western Europe to Berlin and France, where he discovered German expressionism and French surrealism, highly influenced his writing, and upon his return to Slovenia, he began writing a cycle of “Autumn Poems,” which, with other such poetic cycles, would make up his first published book, Zemlija (Earth, 1934).

By the mid-1930s, as the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes changed its name to Yugoslavia and became a monarchist dictatorship, Kocbek began speaking out against the Slovene support of Franco, as he moved closer to socialism. By the beginning of World War II the poet called for a new political order: [The intellectual] must opt for a new order as soon as possible, without supporting any particular ideological group in its entirety.” Throughout the war Kocbek was active in anti-Fascist groups, and he had attained the rank of general, serving, briefly, as a minister in Belgrade by the end of the war. Returning to Slovenia he became Vice President of the Presidium of the National Assembly of Slovenia.

Throughout World War II, Kocbek had continued to write, but he was not eager to publish. The rise of Yugoslavian Communism, coinciding with the new wave of Stalinism in Russia, meant that there was a high level of censorship throughout this period; and it was only when Tito broke with the Comintern in 1948 that Kocbek ventured to publish excerpts from his war time diary, Comradeship. But his next book, the collection of stories Fear and Courage, resulted his public disgrace and his being outcast as an official. For the next ten years he became a nonperson, his watched, his phone tapped, and quarantined to his neighborhood. He earned a living only through translation. Only in 1963 was he allowed to publish a new collection of poetry, Groza (Dread). In 1967 he published a second volume of war-time diaries, Document, and, in 1969 another volume of poetry, Poročilo(Report). His collected poems, Zbrane pesmi, appeared in 1971, containing three new volumes of work, Pentagram, Embers, and Bride in Black.

Late in his life, Kocbek received the acclaim that had been previously denied him, and he was welcomed to literary circles in Slovenia and traveled to several countries, including England, France, Germany, Austria and Italy, becoming a particularly close friend with Nobel Prize-winning novelist Heinrich Böll. Upon his death in 1981, he was granted a state funeral.


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