BALKANI
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Interviews with authors from the White Series

TONCHO ZHECHEV

When looking back, can you clearly see the importance of the Bulgarian book for you?
I would say, regrettably rather than proudly – it was everything to me. It is as if I have lived to read and write books (in a broader sense – magazines, newspapers, archives – anything that is related to the invention of Gutenberg). Was that good or bad – it is for others to judge. But when looking back I see myself next to a mountain of books written by others, and myself standing humbly with that small heap of mine. This is true also in a more direct sense. The room where I spent most of my life is full of books, most of which I have not needed for a long time as these books do not interest me any more and which will simply create problems to my relatives when they will have to get rid of them. Besides, there is also the bitter realization that hardly everything that has ever been a subject of consideration or experience, even the most important things ever considered and experienced, has been transformed into a book…
Which books have given you the most and from which books have you been able to take more than you believed it possible?
I have been addicted ever since my childhood years to the chronicles of individual persons, families, houses, villages, towns, social strata, peoples, mankind – in all possible forms like memoirs, diaries, notes, chronicles, history, research studies. Moreover, and that is perhaps something of a manifestation of professional deformation, the value of poems, short stories and novels for me rises substantially if I sense that they are based on an autobiography, on somebody’s experience, when I come to know how and why these works were created, what is the seed of authenticity, what are the paths that relate them to the psychological and moral realms of the author, what is the creative history of the works themselves. During my research on the Turkish press in Istanbul while writing The Bulgarian Easter I found that even newspaper stories had a dual life – the life on the day they were published, the life shortly afterwards (uninteresting like a yesterday’s newspaper), and the life a long time after that, for instance after more than a century, when the same items assume quite a different meaning and value.
What is the destiny of fine letters now, and what could this destiny be in the near and in the more distant future?
It is obvious that in the age of information revolution and technologies that mankind has been living through over the last several years the place and the role of books are also slated to experience a substantial change. This phenomenon can already be observed in the cultural habits of our sons and grandchildren. Books will not have a cornerstone impact on them as they had on us. The whole issue is reduced to whether new technologies will help or obstruct the new structure of expanding, enriching and preserving the cultural memory of mankind. If it is possible to proceed without robotization, without abandoning human nature, without distorting the very human memory of the experienced, then we should not be crying over the dusty book libraries. I am not afraid of how future generations will read and get to know Don Quixote or Crime and Punishment, I am afraid of whether they will “read“ and know them at all. And the most important issue: is it possible that a time would come when people will claim they are “cultured“ without even knowing about those books. For me that would be the end of human culture as it will be stripped of its eligibility to be called culture and will lose its very substance.
The cultural crisis of today has its causes and its signs, but it also has a remedy that is basically universal. Perhaps, the purely Bulgarian specifics of this remedy remain out of focus?
Your question contains an insurmountable contradiction – a universal remedy should be attributable to Bulgarian specifics as well. The point is that the world as a whole, and we together with it, is experiencing a secondary barbarization as prophesied a long time ago by Giovanni Battista Vico. The world at large – and this could be clearly seen by the wars raging around us – together with its pleasantries, with the wellbeing in certain parts, with the unthinkable new technologies and information capabilities, is hosting also some kind of new barbaric offhandedness, a disparaging attitude towards the poor and backward, a non-Christian sense of superiority, a Jesuit justification of all available means in the name of elevated goals etc. The gap between the technological armaments of mankind and its moral level is growing bigger and bigger instead of being closed. Actually this trend represents a degradation to savagery rather than an advance as culture is judged by behavior and not by arms. The health of mankind can be judged with any credibility by its moral temperature alone and by nothing else. Any remedy should be prescribed only after this temperature has been measured and steps have been made to have it within its normal range.
There are many secrets to a book, and the author’s mastership tends to be among the most obscure. Have you reached a conscious explanation for yourself of everything that you have created – as creative art, besides a pure will, is also the product of the artist’s instincts, of the artist’s enigmatic and mysterious self that he deciphers only partially in his texts to the reader?
I am not sure I am qualified to speak about author’s mastership, as my job is somewhere between the „master“ and the reader, which is equivalent to being between the irrational and its rationalization. There is one thing I could say after long deliberation and in view of the experience I have gathered towards the end of my life: the secrets are much more numerous that I could have imagined in my presuming youth. The hour of the long shadows is coming closer and an old man more often would see a mystery or a mysterious meaning even in the most simple things of this world. Now I am not sure any more whether my life would have passed in the same way, whether I would have lived with the same illusions and topics, whether I would have written the same books and done the same stupid things, were it not for several fortuitous events, like accidentally seeing Zdravko Petrov freezing in front of a bookstore in Sofia and asking him to come and live with me; or like ordering Vassil Djerekarov on a business trip with me; or like missing the queue in front the of the Dean’s office where I met Snezha; or like Vanya never being sent to Budapest; like not having my beloved son Yordan so close to me, etc. etc… This is how mysterious I see the path to our books and the valuable seed they contain. I know it is difficult to be believed, but the story of my book about the eternal Pygmalion for instance is nothing but a naked and virgin truth. On the very morning when I managed to overcome the major problem, when I decided to transform my impressions from Crete into impressions from Cyprus – where the story had to take place – I received a telephone call and was offered to visit the Island of Aphrodite for commemoration of the anniversary of Geo Milev. Maybe it was pure chance. But how could I, a person who is otherwise conventionally superstitious, fail to see a celestial sign, the sign of Fate! Which means that even a comparatively rational person like me, engaged in a rational profession and possessing scientific knowledge, could say that the conscious, planned and premeditated portion of our life covers something like ten to twenty percent. And this portion is far from being the most interesting and the most creative segment of life.
What has been the major source of hope and belief for you through the years?
To preserve the memory of myself and of my relatives.
What is your vision of Bulgaria at the end of the 21st century? What does Time mean to you?
I am afraid I have no prowess in futurology. Besides, I am basically a historian, and hence I know that – as Valeri said – you must walk into the future with your back first and with your eyes anchored on the past. Perhaps that is the reason why my expectations are far from positive. Besides, as it usually happens here, we are hardly ever capable of exerting an influence on whatever is bound to happen, and three quarters of what is happening in this region is decided somewhere else. I have certain hopes that some day there will emerge Balkan leaders that will finally rationalize the experience of the centuries and will realize that ghost hunting, servicing prejudices and quests for historical rights will all have to come to an end. The Balkan states, and first of all Bulgaria, need economic prosperity most of all, and only then they will get down to free exchange of products and people and to the gradual extenuation and erasure of boundaries. And finally, new personalities must be pushed to the front and brought to power; new personalities that will start thinking about their peoples and, together with this, about themselves and about the ancestors and not about some history ghosts and rights. No chimera is worth a human life, it was best stated by the greatest Orthodox thinker – the harmony of the whole world is less valuable than a child’s tear (Dostoevsky). That means that even the most far-reaching utopia is less valuable than the smallest human suffering. Throughout the new century Bulgaria’s fate will depend on whether it will be able to fight the rages it was enslaved by in the past.
The issue of Time is the most difficult issue possible and I have no answer to what Time actually means. There is one consolation, which – when viewed from a different aspect – is tantamount to the deepest despair: for the infinity of Time it is of no consequence whether something has continued for a second or for a hundred million years! I love Hegel’s proverb that Time, i.e. Chronos, is like Cronus – it eats up its children and thus destroys everything that has been created in it.
What would you choose – if you had to choose today – between a bag of gold and an eternal book? And what would have been your choice 30 years ago?
Now – the bag of gold, of course; as thirty years ago with the same levity I would have chosen the eternal book!
Could the experience with your own public recognition be useful today? How did you gain recognition, was it easy?
As far as there ever was such a thing, my public recognition is related to the restoration of a topic that was forgotten in Bulgaria, namely the place and the role of the Church in the efforts to restore the Bulgarian people and to establish the Bulgarian nation. My experience could be useful with that that the labors spent for the sake of correcting an injustice never remain unrewarded. It is because our historians, and together with them the descendants, had forgotten the efforts, the pains, the exultations and the failures of a constellation of religious and secular figures who had won the victory in the spiritual struggle for independence – the only national victory gained without the decisive support from abroad, with our own forces.
In many aspects I deserve to be envied. I had the chance of having wonderful and unforgettable parents, I spent my childhood amidst pastoral silence and peace – my village is located between Pliska and Preslav and my fellow villagers were as noble as the remnants of the noble houses of the First Bulgarian Kingdom; I have been lucky with the women in my life and I have the best son possible – there could hardly be more loyal and better friends. I have had respectful enemies as well –vicious, among the most properly thinking and the most honest – thoroughbred enemies. My books and my newspaper pieces were read and often instigated an enormous public response. After all – could a man ask for more from life?
Would you disclose your own anthology or collection of names of masters of the prose whom you hold in highest esteem – names from the Bulgarian and world, including Balkan, literature?
This is a difficult but rewarding task and I will try to mention whatever I could remember, with the assumption that I do not consider myself neither an expert nor a researcher who has specifically targeted the arts of the persons I would list. I have nipped a little from some of them, but that little something has stayed with me all my life. First of all I will mention the Greek mythology and Plato’s dialogues that I cherish. The Old and the New Testament come immediately after that, and I have never parted ever since my youth, while I consider the Four Gospels as the summit of prose, human wisdom and dramatic nature. I adore the Roman historians, and for a certain period the Russian and French Byzantology used to be my favorite choice of reading. Good historical prose for me stays at the top of the art of prose, and I have read entranced whatever I have been able to find by Michelet, Gibbon, Momsen, and of course our Zahari Stoyanov, Simeon Radev, Peter Mutafchiev. Fine philosophical prose is ranked in my personal hierarchy somewhere above literary prose. It is difficult to uncover anything more enchanting than the prose of Schopenhauer as translated by Afanasy Fet, of the Russian religious thinkers, as well as Pascal and Kirkegor. The unbelievable procession after Dostoevsky and Vladimir Solovyov has for decades reigned over my conscience, feelings and thoughts, and I am still reading them again and again. I am an admirer of the novel and have dealt in detail with its origins and development. I love the 18-century English novel, the 19-century French novel, and I would add also Marcel Proust of our century. I was crazy as a young man about Turgenev, then I fell in love with Chekhov, but as an adult I never parted with Fyodor Mikhailovich.
I should not forget about Ivo Andric whom I admire, and the powerful prose of Moby-Dick. As far as poetry is concerned, I would say I absorbed Botev with my mother’s milk, as it was my mother who taught me to recite all his poems even before I was able to read, in a time when a person is still not capable of storing away memories. Then I fell in love with Debelyanov, Pushkin, Tyutchev, Blok, Ahmatova. From among the exhibits of the Bulgarian prose, I would place the prose of Karavelov, Vazov, Elin Pelin, Yordan Radichkov, Ivaylo Petrov at an unattainable peak. I consider the physical, spiritual and moral image of Aleko Konstantinov to be a much more perfect work of art than Uncle Ganyo. For me, Nikolay Liliev is still the same mystery – how was it possible to bring to life something so perfect and devoid of faults in a country of such barbaric morals and savage relations? I would stop here as you can see yourself that the topic is starting to lead us too far away and to a different place …





BLAGA DIMITROVA

When looking back, can you clearly see the importance of the Bulgarian book for you?
As far as I remember myself, any book in Bulgarian (that was written originally in Bulgarian or that was translated by a good translator) was the air I breathed and without which I would not be able to live at all.
Which books have given you the most and from which books have you been able to take more than you believed it possible?
My favorite books have, in the course of years, given me more and various things – and that is the inexhaustible spiritual treasure of books.
What is the destiny of fine letters now, and what could this destiny be in the near and in the more distant future?
The destiny of the letters of value has always been and will always be the destiny deserved despite all hindrances, obstacles and stigmatizing, while in the immediate and in the more distant future all these obstacles of various roots will expand unforeseeably. I do believe that the Word, by its very nature, bears a powerful charge to survive the eons.
The cultural crisis of today has its causes and its signs, but it also has a remedy that is basically universal. Perhaps, the purely Bulgarian specifics of this remedy remain out of focus?
I think that the sources of the specific Bulgarian remedy during previous national woes and for the current book-market crisis may be looked for in the traditional mutual support, which was largely forgotten during the period of ideological dictates, but which is more and more phenomenally emerging out of lethargy despite the stress of economic hardships.
There are many secrets to a book, and the author’s mastership tends to be among the most obscure. Have you reached a conscious explanation for yourself of everything that you have created – as creative art, besides a pure will, is also the product of the artist’s instincts, of the artist’s enigmatic and mysterious self that he deciphers only partially in his texts to the reader?
As far as I can judge by my own experience, the surprise comes from the initial trust, from the unexpected germination of the concept, but the actual labor over the text itself requires a somber self-control and concentration. There is one more enigmatic aspect: words seem to come in an irresistible tide, it is almost as if somebody else is whispering them in to your ear. These are the celestial instants of the arduous literary endeavors.
What has been the major source of hope and belief for you through the years?
I have always drawn belief from engrossing into the Bulgarian language – its mysterious vital power is boiling inexhaustibly in its depths, nourished by the spirit of men throughout the centuries.
What is your vision of Bulgaria at the end of the 21st century? What does Time mean to you?
I would like to see Bulgaria restoring the atmosphere I have known and cherished since the 1930s – the time of my school years in Sofia. Time for me is personified by the images of the personalities that create Time. The sparklingly clean old Sofia seems to come to life in front of my eyes, with the prominent intellectuals promenading on the golden tiles of Tsarya Street or leisuring in the Tsar Osvoboditel café: Elin Pelin, Prof. Alexander Balabanov, Bagryana and Dora Gabe, Vladimir Vassilev, Pipkov, Liliev, Dinekov…
What is the weight of the values created over the last hundred years, and what is the burden that these years have placed on us?
Our century has its indisputable weight in terms of its achievements mainly in the realm of culture but the century has burdened us with wars, with national catastrophes, with terrorism (the assassination in St Nedelya church in 1925), with bombings and with half a century of Bolshevism. And the brightest moral summit: the salvation of the Bulgarian Jews. And towards the end of the century – the adventurous hope for freedom and democracy.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the destiny of the Balkans and mankind, and why?
Optimism and pessimism are purely schematic designations, like black and white. They are never encountered in their pure form in real life. The truth lies in the incessant movement. I have often asked tortuous questions about the destiny of Bulgaria and the destiny of mankind, and these questions have no answer. Still, there is a pillar: the Bulgarian Word that has forged itself under the pressure of our cruel history into something surprisingly flexible and durable, soaked in inextinguishable spill of humor.
Is there any peculiarity of your character that you freely joke about in public? And does it happen frequently?
I have a peculiarity – to run into troubles. Actually, I make bad jokes with myself.
What would you choose – if you had to choose today – between a bag of gold and an eternal book? And what would have been your choice 30 years ago?
It depends on what you mean by „eternal book“.
Do you think that in these times when the path to the reader is difficult and uncertain, new names could emerge? Could the experience with your own public recognition be useful today? How did you gain recognition, was it easy?
Genuine works of art must emerge first, and the names will become sooner or later established. Being easily recognized, especially in these tremulous Balkan lands, might be delusive. And in my case there was, thank God, no official recognition.
Would you disclose your own anthology or collection of names of masters of the prose whom you hold in highest esteem – names from the Bulgarian and world, including Balkan, literature?
My collection of names is sacrosanct. I would not like to have it on public display.





YORDAN VASILEV

When looking back, can you clearly see the importance of the Bulgarian book for you?
It is a permanent factor in the formation of the personality – from childhood till the end.
Which books have given you the most and from which books have you been able to take more than you believed it possible?
There are many but I will try to list at least some of them. As a student in the primary school – Karl May with the nobleness of his characters. During the secondary school the Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas. There were a lot of titles when I was in college – but most of all The Records [on the Bulgarian uprisings] by Zahari Stoyanov, the poetry of Nikolay Liliev. In my university years I started to professionally (as a philologist) study Bulgarian and foreign literature but I would like to highlight the book that gave me more than expected – The Builders of Contemporary Bulgaria by Simeon Radev. At a later stage there came The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov, the memoirs of Stephan Popov, and others.
What is the destiny of fine letters now, and what could this destiny be in the near and in the more distant future?
Today writers have the full liberty to write as they like and whatever they like. I hope they will never again live through violence and dictatorship.
The cultural crisis of today has its causes and its signs, but it also has a remedy that is basically universal. Perhaps, the purely Bulgarian specifics of this remedy remain out of focus?
I do not see a crisis in culture. Talent and freedom are of a decisive impact. There could hardly exist a specific Bulgarian „remedy“. Culture is universal.
There are many secrets to a book, and the author’s mastership tends to be among the most obscure. Have you reached a conscious explanation for yourself of everything that you have created – as creative art, besides a pure will, is also the product of the artist’s instincts, of the artist’s enigmatic and mysterious self that he deciphers only partially in his texts to the reader?
I have not.
What has been the major source of hope and belief for you through the years?
Friendship.
What is your vision of Bulgaria at the end of the 21st century? What does Time mean to you?
I see Bulgaria as a flourishing and prosperous place within the world community. Time seems to me as being the major mystery for human beings.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the destiny of the Balkans and mankind, and why?
An optimist, but a very timid optimist – that is what I am now, in April 1999.
Is there any peculiarity of your character that you freely joke about in public? And does it happen frequently?
With my credulity and simplicity. I joke in order to try and overcome them.
What would you choose – if you had to choose today – between a bag of gold and an eternal book? And what would have been your choice 30 years ago?
Both before and today I would choose the book. That is how my life went by – with books.
Do you think that in these times when the path to the reader is difficult and uncertain, new names could emerge? Could the experience with your own public recognition be useful today? How did you gain recognition, was it easy?
Each time brings to life its own talents and they always – might be sooner, might be later – reach the hands outstretched to hold them. I lived in a difficult and suffocating time. I was often fired, without work, let alone recognition. It is interesting that in 1975 – during the largest ever purge against Bagryana’s books (which she wrote together with my wife, Blaga) – I was awarded the most sincere recognition by both people who were unknown to me, and by people I knew. I would not want one more generation to live through the experience of our generation. I was banned throughout my whole life from attaining an academic rank, I did not manage to do so before 1990, when the State Security was already history. And I was 55 at that time…
Would you disclose your own anthology or collection of names of masters of the prose whom you hold in highest esteem – names from the Bulgarian and world, including Balkan, literature?
In order to answer this question I would have to write a study of scores or even hundreds of pages…




Gencho Stoev

Taking up our questions, Gencho Stoev provided us with the following non-standard, synthesized, seething and uninterrupted answer:
Today, my lines and paragraphs will not follow the order of the questions. I will only share the things that well up in my mind, the problems of the writer will follow their genesis and the probability of their future development.
The Bulgarian book remains as dear to me as my homeland. But it is just a part of my literary homeland. I don’t know why, but even as a child I was looking forward to the time when I would be able to leave my home and town. I’ve only just realized that it was among the books in the old cultural center of the town that I was gathering the motivation, experience and strength I would need for that moment.
Books have always been my basic existential problem. They have compensated for the things I have been deprived of by a life restrained by circumstances. I guess I would have performed well in other walks of human activity but before I saw them all (so I could compare them and choose), the first one I started on absorbed me for life. The easiest, the most hospitable perhaps? Hardly so; but I cannot make a comparison now – I know nothing else.
Besides, it is thrilling to watch – from a shorter distance – the great shadows of Karavelov, Botev, Vazov, Yovkov, Elin Pelin, Karaliichev… In the same Olympus, though on another track, there walk Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov… As if farther, nonetheless visible, there drifts Homer (accompanied by the suite of ancient tragedians), together with Shakespeare himself, with Goethe and Balzac – at times they seem to become one with the ancients… Thither are Hemingway and Sholokhov (if this is the author of The Silent Don!) climbing, and many others, whose list I can hardly complete.
I gaze at all of them but when I tell them how much I worship them and how, at the same time, I offer my well-meaning envy as a sacrifice to them, they nod in silence, as if to say, „This is not enough for us, sacrifice yourself, try the power of your pen, your blood, your spirit, if you have them!“ Then I recognize that not all of them have always been as happy, loved and elevated as they are now in the writers’ heaven. I recognize that there is also a writers’ hell, here, on earth, among the living, and that we, today’s writers, are in the boiling cauldron…
The tar in this cauldron is not made just of insoluble moral substances – something that should actually go together with every diligent and penetrating author. No. I live and write in the apartment block of the Bulgarian writers: a nice tall building. But some of my colleagues passed away and their apartments were occupied by strange, unspiritual creatures. Other apartments (whose owners are still alive) were rented to well-to-do people, mainly large businessmen, including foreigners. The impoverished “artists” were evacuated to other, cheaper, apartments and now they live by the rent.
Naturally, all newcomers have higher requirements, especially for large drawing rooms. So the writers’ block constantly resounds with the roar of drills, crews demolish or move walls. As the spring set in, the attack was resumed, the offense was at its peak, the air vibrated with compression, and I tapped away on my typewriter, my ears wadded with something I found in the drugstore. At first sight, the problem is purely one of life. But it is not. Here, without meaning to, I touch upon some of the neglected questions.
Similar and even more fateful repairs are made in the minds of those who have to take and pass on the torch of fine letters. And in the minds of their readers. Will fineness improve if it turns into files of the otherwise wonderful creation, Internet?
Of course, mankind will survive in the new letterless era but it will also have undergone a major repair. Mutation. As is evident, my optimism is boundless.
It even swells when I think I forgot to mention Ivo Andric in the beginning. He too was great and he has many heirs today. Out of love for him, they parceled out his skin and it is now drying in yards and attics.
My respects to those who are now arguing with me.





YORDAN RADICHKOV

When looking back, can you clearly see the importance of the Bulgarian book for you?
I have never divided books into Bulgarian and foreign. They can only be good or not that good. When they asked Faulkner what brand of whiskey he preferred, he said that of two glasses of whiskey he preferred the full glass. If books could be divided into full and empty, I would say I prefer the full ones.
Which books have given you the most and from which books have you been able to take more than you believed it possible?
I find it difficult to answer this question because I think the book is written to share the loneliness of the lonely man. All of us being lonely, the book becomes our companion on the road of life.
What is the destiny of fine letters now, and what could this destiny be in the near and in the more distant future?
The destiny is unenviable and will be unenviable for a long time to come.
The cultural crisis of today has its causes and its signs, but it also has a remedy that is basically universal. Perhaps, the purely Bulgarian specifics of this remedy remain out of focus?
I cannot tell.
There are many secrets to a book, and the author’s mastership tends to be among the most obscure. Have you reached a conscious explanation for yourself of everything that you have created – as creative art, besides a pure will, is also the product of the artist’s instincts, of the artist’s enigmatic and mysterious self that he deciphers only partially in his texts to the reader?
There are many secrets to a book and it is best when they remain secrets. When trying to explain (or decipher) them, we find ourselves in the situation of a man trying to explain why water is wet. Well, it is wet!
What has been the major source of hope and belief for you through the years?
I have always found belief and hope in my children and grandchildren. But not in the International Monetary Fund.
What is your vision of Bulgaria at the end of the 21st century? What does Time mean to you?
I see Bulgaria as it is today: mountains, rivers, a sea, fields, meadows, mountain fallows, forests spared from the ax, the air bustling with birds of passage. I also hope there will be a man or two saved from the winds of migration. Or else, what do we need Bulgaria for if the people are not here!
What is the weight of values created over the last hundred years, and what is the burden that these years have placed on us?
I would not venture to analyze the last one hundred years.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the destiny of the Balkans and mankind, and why?
I have a moderate attitude towards these things.
Is there any peculiarity of your character that you freely joke about in public? And does it happen frequently?
I think that folly is a blessing we all make use of.
What would you choose – if you had to choose today – between a bag of gold and an eternal book? And what would have been your choice 30 years ago?
Such a choice has never been offered to me – neither now, nor 30 years ago. And I don’t think it will ever be offered to me.
Do you think that in these times when the path to the reader is difficult and uncertain, new names could emerge? Could the experience with your own public recognition be useful today? How did you gain recognition, was it easy?
The path to the reader is always difficult. It means finding a path to the man and his heart. I consider myself lucky with readers. These were mainly young people, students and pupils.
Would you disclose your own anthology or collection of names of masters of the prose whom you hold in highest esteem – names from the Bulgarian and world, including Balkan, literature?
I couldn’t arrange my own anthology. My literature teacher in high school often talked to us about books and told us that when a man started collecting his own home library, he actually started making a very personal home bible. Such a bible I couldn’t make.
I don’t have a personal anthology or collection of names. When I was young I found it easier to say what I liked. With years these things get harder and harder!




VERA MUTAFCHIEVA

When looking back, can you clearly see the importance of the Bulgarian book for you?
You probably expect to receive the standard answer but I – in the name of sincerity – will disappoint you: I got acquainted with our native literature too late in life. My parents insisted on my learning foreign languages even as child and they had an original approach to this: they allowed me to read only French and German books, which were abundant in our house and which they bought for me after competent selection. Including Russian books. So, before I started reading in Bulgarian (I read hungrily, constantly) I was well acquainted with the foreign-language classical literature. This might have been good: I was mature enough when I started reading Bulgarian literature. It was definitely good: I could comprehend it within the context of the entire European literary process.
In fact I think it is quite natural that I was more interested in the contemporary literature than in the Bulgarian classic. Fortunately, it was during the time of my generation that the contemporary literature developed rapidly and differentiated. This applies to language, poetics, literary devices. I continue to try to follow and analyze it. But we must confess that this is not easy now: there are too many Bulgarian books and new authors.
Which books have given you the most and from which books have you been able to take more than you believed it possible?
Well, it is impossible to list them all; moreover, I am not sure an author can name the model he follows. Literary works are a mixture of a large number of components, which are not always recognized as the source of influence, of imitation.
What is the destiny of fine letters now, and what could this destiny be in the near and in the more distant future?
Despite the cries that fine letters are making way to the aggression of electronic media and galloping new technologies, I don’t believe their destiny is tragic. After all, throughout history, not all people were addicted to reading; the reading public has always been a certain portion of the people. I don’t think this portion is decreasing today – just the opposite. As far as authors are concerned, they have always conformed with something: if not censure, than the market. There is no place for crying and this is evident: more books are written and published today than in the past.
The cultural crisis of today has its causes and its signs, but it also has a remedy that is basically universal. Perhaps, the purely Bulgarian specifics of this remedy remain out of focus?
As a rule we consider ourselves specific, peculiar and – mainly – unfortunate. What is cultural crisis for us? Probably the fact that today the state does not allocate as much funds as authors would like. But it wasn’t different before, when only a few people enjoyed such stimuli, while the rest had to fight their way, if at all admitted to creative activity. Undoubtedly, if it is like air to you, you find a remedy. Creative fulfillment has always been a matter of personal initiative, so it is today. Look at the number of publishers and publications! Are they comparable to the criteria ten years ago? The fact that authors feel underpaid is nothing new. It seems to me we are forgetful because we do not compare the payment of artistic work before and now. Money has never been enough for anybody.
There are many secrets to a book, and the author’s mastership tends to be among the most obscure. Have you reached a conscious explanation for yourself of everything that you have created – as creative art, besides a pure will, is also the product of the artist’s instincts, of the artist’s enigmatic and mysterious self that he deciphers only partially in his texts to the reader?
Secret, mysteriousness, mystery and solving a mystery… I think these categories are the subject of the science of psychology or creative art. It is true that it often surprises us to complete disagreement with its conclusions. This is so because there are no two authors alike in gift and consciousness. The most difficult thing is to know yourself, to analyze yourself. But why should you? Do the audience have an idea about the methods of medicine (on which their health depends), or of mathematics? Why should the writer always disclose himself?
What has been the major source of hope and belief for you through the years?
My work and my capacity for work. We have no right to seek the source of our own energy outside ourselves, it is absurd.
What is your vision of Bulgaria at the end of the 21st century? What does Time mean to you?
I have no idea. Reality is so dynamic, unstable and mobile that any forecast would be an act of charlatanism. As far as Time is concerned (as you have appropriately written it with a capital „t”), it is an omnipresent and all-embracing category. We can only make efforts to understand or describe it but it will always remain much larger than we can imagine. My personal but indemonstrable feeling is that Time is not a line but a point, encompassing past, present and future. We separate them to make thinking easier.
What is the weight of the values created over the last hundred years, and what is the burden that these years have placed on us?
Actually, they are 120 years, though this figure usually brings with it the continuation „of deep darkness“. It is a fact that the spiritual upsurge, the creation of institutions and the strife to connect Bulgaria with the free world was much more intensive before the Liberation. That was the time of the most prominent men of our nation. It seems that foreign rule somehow suppressed the manifestation of careerism, envy and destructive malice in our society, which could not be said for the time after Bulgaria gained independence. Anyway, till present day, any useful effort in Bulgaria meets the opposition of unconscious reaction, and destruction is often more pervasive than creation. Nevertheless, despite the seemingly insurmountable difficulties, despite the inborn inclination to negate the positive phenomena, quite a lot was completed during these 120 years. Imagine what it would it be if all the energy spent on petty quarrels was used for creation! We would be unequalled, in the Balkans at least.
Is there any peculiarity of your character that you freely joke about in public? And does it happen frequently?
I consider myself dotty and I like to exaggerate myself as such.
What would you choose – if you had to choose today – between a bag of gold and an eternal book? And what would have been your choice 30 years ago?
No offence meant, but I think this is a question for young people. If anyone tells you he would prefer the eternal book to the bag of gold, he will surely be joking. Because with a bag of gold he could buy all eternal books and keep them in an ebony bookcase. What choice is this, when it has never been offered? And it won’t be offered.
Do you think that in these times when the path to the reader is difficult and uncertain, new names could emerge? Could the experience with your own public recognition be useful today? How did you gain recognition, was it easy?
Of course new names will emerge – we are witnesses to this. Why do you say the path to the reader is „difficult and uncertain“ – has it ever been easy? Each writer starts from anonymity, a few readers find him and love him, and that is usually with delay. If he persists, i.e. if he does not set short terms or impracticable conditions to his success but keeps on writing, he may succeed, if… And here comes the condition which writers reject as a rule: talent. In other words, his ability or inability to work on his product, to improve its quality. It is much easier to accuse the public or the time or the literary critics, though they do neither create, nor liquidate authors. I cannot tell if I gained recognition easily or with difficulty; all I know is that I worked hard.
Would you disclose your own anthology or collection of names of masters of the prose whom you hold in highest esteem – names from the Bulgarian and world, including Balkan, literature?
Frankly speaking, I wouldn’t. We don’t live in the 19th century when there were a handful of writers and the scarce readership could be thoroughly acquainted with their works. Today we sail, often without a compass, a sea of works and I always feel uncertain that I have probably not read the best of them. Anthologies today are to a certain extent unnecessary. Readers’ taste is highly differentiated, so there is no need to share your preferences. But I am certain about something else: as long as I live, I will not get tired of reading, of making new delightful discoveries only for me.




GEORGI DANAILOV

When looking back, can you clearly see the importance of the Bulgarian book for you?
I cannot specify whether music or the Bulgarian book brought my first encounter with the spiritual during my childhood. Music was often played at home, while father liked to have a glass of wine after supper, to open Under the Yoke or Balkan Legends and read aloud to us from there. On most occasions he chose the presentation of the “The Sufferings of Genoveva“ from Under the Yoke, while he read Yovkov’s works one after another, and after the last words of the short story “In the Primrose Meadow“ he usually shed a tear or two. No one dared to get up from the table before he had finished reading. Thus, for me, being touched by Bulgarian literature turned into a rite.
Which books have given you the most and from which books have you been able to take more than you believed it possible?
I find it difficult to answer this question. There are books one likes, and books one adores. I myself like San Michele by Axel Munthe, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Tortilla Flat by Steinbeck, I loved The Three Comrades, but I admired The Brothers Karamazov and Shakespeare’s dramas.
I admit that I never managed to read War and Peace to the end. I love and admire Yordan Yovkov – for me he is a phenomenon of a planetary scale. I cannot claim that I am sufficiently knowledgeable in literature as many other things have occupied my attention throughout my life.
What is the destiny of fine letters now, and what could this destiny be in the near and in the more distant future?
It seems to me fine letters are becoming less and less fine. The definition itself is perhaps already outdated or it is not sufficiently correct. But if the issue is about literature in general – then it has some fearsome competitors – television, video, the cinema. And I personally think that only the literature that succumbs with an ever growing difficulty to some type of visual representation, or to say it simply – to screening – will have some future.
Is there a remedy to the cultural crisis and doesn’t the purely Bulgarian specifics of this remedy remain out of focus?
Frankly speaking, the terms „cultural crisis“ is being abused. Things would look quite simple if the term was used to explain only the deficit of means for spiritual performance. That’s money. Let us then make a fairly bold assumption: that the ministers and the members of parliament have finally come to their senses and have understood that those that invest in arts, sciences, education actually invest in the economy. Would people visit theaters more frequently? Would people flock to concert halls? Would people read more? Would better Bulgarian books be written? Would these books be read more? I doubt it. We need a national revival of the type Bulgarians experienced before and after the Liberation. National revival bears the thirst for spirituality, it makes the young willing to study and create. The world already lacks unifying ideas. Communism turned out to be a deadly utopia, nationalism harmful, religions are perishing, religious and philosophical deficiency is spreading everywhere. And young people are forced to search for reason in entertainment, sports, amusement. A new breed of Íîmî sapiens is emerging. Íîmî divertissimus! But as far as religious necessity, the need for a common target of sanctification, is still existent in most people, there have emerged substitutes of the Gods, albeit substitutes of a dubious immortality – rock singers, football players, pop musicians, sex idols etc. It all means that the so-called cultural crisis will not be overcome before new humanistic ideas are born, if ever.
What is your vision of Bulgaria at the end of the 21st century?
In any case I do not see a Bulgaria confined within closely guarded borders.
What is the weight of the values created over the last hundred years, and what is the burden that these years have placed on us?
The astounding technical progress. I knew a hundred-year-old man who did not know what a train was when he was a child, and who saw with his own eyes the emergence of electricity, of the motor car, the radio, the telephone, the tape recorder, the television, the computer… All within a single life… There were times when people never saw a single change for ages. Well, this hundred-year-old man used to say: when I was born at the end of the last century, people did not know what was happening in the next village, behind the hillock, and now everybody knows what is happening anywhere in the world. Then I asked him: „Have humans become better?“ „No“, he said. „And they will never be“.
It is true that the knowledge, the power of technologies, the capabilities of communicating and establishing links between humans have still not brought about substantial changes in morality and humanity. The fact that we are no longer cannibals is not very too encouraging and could easily be explained with the easier access to food. Man remains a slave and potential killer. The last hundred years saw the shedding of more blood than any other period of human history, they saw the largest-scale delusions. Blood continues to be shed and no one knows when this will stop, I dare hope only that we shall manage to shed also some delusions. At least, these delusions were clearly revealed: communism, fascism, nationalism and the efforts to reign over nature.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the destiny of mankind?
I do not believe either in my own immortality, not in the immortality of mankind. And we shall perish before our time unless something unifying and healing for the people and for this planet is found in the 21st century.
Which is the peculiarity of your character that you freely joke about in public?
I like to joke with myself in public but I don’t like it when the public decides to joke with me. This is simply a demonstration that my sense of humor is far from perfect.
What would you choose – if you had to choose today – between a bag of gold and an eternal book? And what would have been your choice 30 years ago?
This is a misleading question. If I say: the book, everybody will decide that I am putting on airs. If I say: the gold, they will say that they have never expected anything else from me.
Perhaps the right question would be: if it was up to you to preserve for the generations a great book, of which there is a single copy left – for instance The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam – by abandoning the bag of gold – that would be something different, but the situation is becoming too fictitious to be true. “You have no right to pose questions to me that cannot be posed by an experiment,” Werner Heisenberg said. Well, I will tell you: give me the gold and I will hide the book, too.
Would you disclose your own anthology?
Anthologies are always incomplete and hence, unfair. Still, I will try:
Of the Bulgarian literature: Vazov – Uncles, Zahari Stoyanov – The Records [on the Bulgarian uprisings], Aleko Konstantinov – Uncle Ganyo, Elin Pelin – some of his short stories, Dimitar Talev – The Iron Candlestick, Yordan Radichkov – some of his short stories.
Of the Balkan literature: Kazantzakis and Andric.
Of the world literature: Chekhov, Steinbeck, Camus, Dostoevsky, Oscar Wilde, Exupery – well, this is a time when you could say with relief – and other great writers….
No, nothing will come out of it.

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