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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 Slovene literature. He is regarded as the greatest writer in the Slovene 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 Slovene 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 Slovenes. Cankar thus began travelling throughout the Slovene Lands, delivering lectures and conferences. The most famous of these were "The Slovene people and the Slovene culture" (Slovensko ljudstvo in slovenska kultura), delivered in Trieste in 1907, and "Slovenes 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.


As personality he was a sharp thinker


Cankar was a relatively fragile personality, a sharp thinker who was able of poignant criticism of both his environment and himself. He was also full of paradoxes and loved irony and sarcasm. He had an unusually sentimental and somehow ecstatic nature, intensely sensitive to ethical issues. He was very introspective: his works, which are to a large extent autobiographical, became famous for the ruthless analysis of his own deeds and misdeeds.

Cankar was an influential author during his lifetime and after, and he was the first author in Slovene who could make a living exclusively from writing. Moreover, he became even more significant after his death, as his insistence on the cultural and national specificity of the Slovene people meant that he became a key figure for young intellectuals who rejected the centralistic and unitaristic policies of the Serb political elite in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

Cankar was especially influential as a playwright, and his impact really started to be felt in the expressionist theatre of the 1920s, and especially so between the 1950s and 1970s. Moreover, the works of many contemporary Slovene playwrights and screenwriters, including Drago Jančar, Dušan Jovanović, Tone Partljič and Žarko Petan, continue to show a clear influence of Cankar's concepts.
While Cankar's prose is still regarded as one of the finest examples of Slovene style, his influence as a novelist has faded since the 1960s, while his plays remain among the most popular works in Slovene theatres.

Some of his famous works:  Erotika (Eroticism, 1899), Za narodov blagor (For the Wealth of the Nation, 1901), Na klancu (On the Hill, 1902), Kralj na Betajnovi (The King of Betajnova, 1902), Hiša Marije Pomočnice (The Ward of Mary Help of Christians, 1904), Hlapec Jernej in njegova pravica (The Servant Jernej and His Justice, 1907), Zgodbe iz doline šentflorjanske (Tales from the St. Florian Valley, 1908), Pohujšanje v dolini Šentflorjanski (Scandal in St. Florian Valley, 1908), Hlapci (The Serfs, 1910), Moje življenje (My Life, 1914, published in 1920), Podobe iz sanj (Images from Dreams, written in 1917–1918, published in 1920).
Some of the events in the Year of Ivan Cankar:

Cankarjev dom Cultural and Congress Centre in Ljubljana: Festival Cankar on Cankar, ICankar theatre performance, Ivan Cankar: scandal in St. Florian Valley, From the good times (Ivan Cankar letters to Anica Lušinova), Large retrospective exhibition marking the centenary of the writer’s death. City of Vrhnika: Cankar Days - cultural and sports events (April till May): fairs, concerts, sports competitions and tournaments.

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