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Ivan Cankar, one of Slovenia's most celebrated writers, died 100 years ago on this day

Ivan Cankar's portrait and signature. Photo: UKOM archive

IVAN CANKAR - Slovene writer, playwright, essayist, poet and political activist

Ivan Cankar (1876-1918) is, together with Oton Župančič, Dragotin Kette, and Josip Murn, considered as one of the pioneers of modernism in Slovenian literature. He is regarded as the greatest writer in the Slovenian language, and has sometimes been compared to James Joyce. 

Ivan Cankar was born in the town of Vrhnika, near Ljubljana, one of the many children of a poor artisan. After finishing grammar school in his hometown, Cankar studied at the Technical High School in Ljubljana, and started writing, mostly poetry, under the influence of Romantic and post-Romantic poets such as France Prešeren, Heinrich Heine, Simon Jenko and Simon Gregorčič. Another big influence on his style and ideals was the poet Anton Aškerc, who led Cankar to embrace literary realism and national liberalism.

In 1896, he enrolled at the University of Vienna, where he came under the influence of contemporary European literature, especially decadentism, symbolism and naturalism. In the spring of 1897 he moved back to Vrhnika, and after his mother's death in the same year he moved to Pula, then in 1898 back to Vienna, where he lived until 1909.

It was here that Cankar's worldview underwent a deep change. In a letter to the Slovenian feminist Zofka Kveder, written in 1900, he rejected positivism and naturalism. He embraced spiritualism, symbolism and idealism, and became highly critical of Slovene liberalism, publishing an attack on Anton Aškerc's poetry and moving towards radical social activism on a Christian basis. He joined the Yugoslav Social Democratic Party, an Austro-Marxist group active in the Slovene Lands and Istria, even standing unsuccessfully as a candidate in the first general elections to the Austrian Parliament, held in 1907. 

In 1909 Cankar left Vienna and moved to Sarajevo, where his brother worked as a priest. During his stay he turned away from his previous anti-clericalism, becoming more receptive to Christian spirituality. The same year he settled in Ljubljana, and although he remained an active member of the Yugoslav Social Democratic Party he rejected its views on nation-building, supporting instead the national and linguistic individuality of Slovenians. Cankar thus began travelling throughout the Slovenian Lands, delivering lectures and conferences. The most famous of these were "The Slovenian people and the Slovenian culture" (Slovensko ljudstvo in slovenska kultura), delivered in Trieste in 1907, and "Slovenians and Yugoslavs" (Slovenci in Jugoslovani), delivered in Ljubljana in 1913. As a result, Cankar was sentenced to one week in prison for defamation of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. In his last lecture, delivered just after the end of the World War I, he called for the moral purification and rejuvenation of Slovene politics and culture.

Cankar died in Ljubljana in December 1918, from pneumonia, a complication of the Spanish Flu pandemic which was raging at the time. His funeral was attended by a huge crowd and the highest representatives from cultural and political life in Slovenia, and in 1936 his grave was moved to the Žale Cemetery in the city, a sign of the writer’s status in his homeland.

He dealt with social, national and moral themes

Ivan Cankar is considered one of the primary exponents of Slovene modernist literature, and one of Europe's most important fin de siècle figures. In Slovenia, his best-known works are the play Hlapci ("Serfs"), the satire Pohujšanje v dolini Šentflorijanski (Scandal in St. Florian Valley) and the novel Na klancu (On the Hill). However, his importance for Slovene and European literature probably lies in his symbolist sketches and other short stories, which, in their mixture of symbolism, modernism and even expressionism, convey a high degree of originality. 

Ivan Cankar's monument in Vrhnika, his birthplace. Photo: TIC Vrhnika archive.

Regarding his monument, there's an anecdote: Cankar, in the company of friends and acquaintances said: "When they build me a statue, I want them to build it in a way so it portrays me sitting down; I do not like to stand." And really, by choosing the work of Ivo Jurkovič people of Vrhnika fulfilled the wish of the greatest Slovenian writer and playwright.

Children under the Vrhnika bridge. Photo: TIC Vrhnika archive

Ivan Cankar celebrated the so-called "Eleventh school under the bridge" in his sketch story "My life". The "school" took place on the banks and the shallows of the Ljubljanica river, under the bridge which leads from Vrhnika towards Verd and Borovnica. This site was a popular meeting place for children. They were pulling interesting objects out of the river, played variety of games and thus passed their time socialising and learning "life's lessons". 

Text: Tanja Glogovčan