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Gojko Tešić, Writer And Literary Historian

Necessity And Freedom

His chosen heroes are writers who’ve been ideologically written-off, or so-called traitors and revolutionaries. He left an indelible mark in his studying and scrutinising of the Serbian literary avant-garde. According to the well informed, he was the most successful editor of literary magazine Književna reč [The Literary Word]. A critic, controversial raconteur, beloved professor of the University of Novi Sad and father of a daughter, Iva, who also earned her doctorate in literature and followed in her father’s footsteps, here he discusses his upbringing and career, but also his encounters with greats of the Yugoslav literary scene – from Radmir Konstantinović and Vasko Popa, to Miroslav Krleža and Koča Popović

His birth village is called Lještansko and is located in the municipality of Bajina Bašta, and it today boasts Gojko’s birth house, which he restored as an example of early 20th-century rural architecture. Alongside this home is also another house, which was built by Gojko’s father. All the Tešićs hail from there, including father Milenko, mother Milenija, sisters Milesa and Milena. Their names all start with the letter M, while his name is Gojko. Doctor of Literary Sciences Gojko Tešić (1951), an invaluable archivist of Serbian literary heritage, who read the first two books in his birth house, both simultaneously representing the family heritage: the Holy Bible and Dositej Obradović’s Fables. And that was enough for books to take over his life.

And that which he took away from his home continues to shape him to this day:

“We were raised to greet everyone you encounter on the road. Whether you see them only once, or never again, which is most common, you must greet them politely. I remember the poverty we lived in and that I could almost recreate like a film. And that’s certainly a code for understanding everything that would follow in my life. In my early school years, I didn’t know what shoes were. It was known that I wore rubber sandshoes in the summer and rubber boots in the winter. The most important thing is that I learnt in my parents’ home what morality, integrity, fairness, audacity, courage and gratitude are.”

Poverty has been a common companion of great minds throughout human history. Few among them were born with a silver spoon in their mouths.

“Poverty is a kind of incentive, not in order for me to prove myself, not to forget that part of life, because that cannot be forgotten. I realised that I set out in life from nothing and that I had have some goal. I had one from my childhood days.

“My parents were caring and gentle people. Mother fell ill with severe rheumatism early on and that stayed with her until her death. My paternal grandmother, who lived with them, was unpleasantly strict. Wednesdays and Fridays were Lenten days in the house. On one of those two days, I went to the shed and took some cheese, because I was hungry. My evil grandmother punished me harshly for that. She was a dictator against whom neither my father nor mother dare say a word. While my mother was ill, her mother came to watch over us. She was gentle, looked after us and pampered us, with her I was privileged.”

Gojko’s mother was ill and wanted her son to study medicine. Gojko’s father was a lover of technology who thought his son should study technology. He today says that he tricked both his parents. His father enrolled him in secondary technical school and informed him that he had to take the entrance exam the next day, to which Gojko replied: ‘You enrolled me, you take the exam. I want to attend a gymnasium secondary school!’ His father had no option but to collect the documents from the technical secondary school and enrol his son in the gymnasium school in Užice. And back then Gojko already knew that he would study literature; that books were his life choice.

With the end of his schooldays approaching, he wanted his graduation thesis to be on literature. The lady professor, who only had a few years of experience, didn’t permit Gojko to write on any of the topics he’d proposed, and he’d wanted to write about Branko Miljković, Momčilo Nastasijević or Vasko Popa. She didn’t allow him to write about any of those poets, nor even Vladislav Petković Dis.

“I asked professor Stanko Jovančićević, a wonderful man and a brilliant professor, whose face is still etched in my memory, why my professor wouldn’t allow me to do anything that I’d proposed, and he replied: ‘You know, Gojko, if she allowed you to do that, she’d have to learn it too’. That was the truth, and because of it I unfortunately had to do a topic from philosophy: Necessity and Freedom.”

The real ‘culprit’ for me having continued to deal with Vinaver was Radomir Konstantinović. He first edited Nadgramatika, which I read as a high school pupil, and I think that’s when I flew into a channel, into a labyrinth that I didn’t want to find my way out of. More precisely, I had to go all the way to the end

Among the general public, Gojko Tešić is known as a modern literary historian who has, above all, dedicated himself to the works of writers who didn’t enter the canon. It was clear that this would be the case already during his days as a high school pupil, when he spent his free time in the Užice Library discovering Stanislav Vinaver, Stanislav Krakov, Dragiša Vasić and other writers who were not include in school reading lists and textbooks.

“In a way, that determined that I embark on a literary-historical quest to find writers who’d been marginalised for purely ideological reasons. The most terrifying thing is that this marginalisation remains a valid paradigm to this day. And what I was doing was on the cutting edge of the knife of ideological condemnation. In seeking data from the lives of those writers and presenting their works, I didn’t neglect a single piece of information for a single moment. I didn’t comment, evaluate, offer flattering platitudes about their ideological and political orientation. I just dealt primarily with their work.

“When I today consider what the most important thing I did in this half a century of work was, I think it is my editorial work. For an anthology about me, my daughter Iva compiled a bibliography of books that I edited. For me, that’s an I.D. card. And it clearly show what I’ve done and what my intellectual orientation is.”

This editorial work also includes the command position he held at the head of the magazine Književna reč [The Literary Word] from 1980 to 1984. That was a time when communication with writers was conducted via letters, postcards and other correspondences, and Gojko preserved it all, as solid evidence of the times in which he worked, and the people he met who forged the literary scene of Yugoslavia, but also the world. He is thankful to everyone who helped him in his career, from Radovan Popović, Jovica Aćin and Aleksandar Petrov, to Radomir Konstantinović and Vasko Popa, who showed understanding for this graduate of an Užice high school, this dishevelled young man with long hair, as he was at the time, in the spring of 1970, when he would ring their doorbells day after day.

At the very end of that Dnevnik, the newsreader, Ljiljana Marković, read a news item: ‘The Palulula Municipal Committee of the Union of Communists today expelled Gojko Tešič, editor-in-chief of The Literary Word, from the Union of Communists, despite him having tendered his resignation.’ At that moment, my mother hit herself in the head with both fists and moaned: ‘Kuku, my black son, what have you done?’

“Haša, the wife of Vasko Popa, came out and said: ‘Vasko, a boy is looking for you!’ The poet appeared, two heads taller than his wife, and I told him my name, that I’d come from Užice and that I wanted to talk with him. He welcomed me into his house and we remained in contact constantly from then until the end of his life. He helped me to come to the Institute of Literature, by recommending me to Aleksandar Saša Petrov.”

As would happen during those times, in the fourth year of high school, Gojko – as a good student and an intelligent young man – was nominated for membership in the League of Communists of Yugoslavia. He didn’t consider that a very serious matter. However, during his studies he ended up at the centre of a row over the election of a student vice dean. A person who he considered unworthy of that position was chosen. Out of rage and a sense of helplessness, he headed to tender his resignation from the League of Communists. While on his way, he encountered professor Đorđe Trifunović, who was even known among the students for being a staunch anti-communist, just like his famous brother, art historian and university professor Lazar Trifunović. He ‘boasted’ to him that he was going to clear his hands of the Party, but the professor stopped him.

WITH LEPOSAVA AND KOČA POPOVIĆ, Photo Mehmed Akšamija

“He told me not to accidentally do such a stupid thing. He told me that I would thus close every door that was open to me, that I would destroy my future. I remember his sentence: ‘You know I’m an anti-communist, but I don’t want you to destroy yourselves’. I listened to him, and only later realised that this was the smart thing to do, regardless of how much I’d already been marked as a freethinker by then, as someone who rejected the Party’s rigid discipline. Some years later, Radovan Popović recommended to Jovica Aćin that I become a member of the editorial department of The Literary Word. I was later also Aćin’s choice to become chief editor of that journal. That’s the most precious period of my life, representing a kind of creative storm with different fractures and misunderstandings, but with experience that’s totally unrepeatable. I made up my mind to allow every writer who I believed was worthy to enter The Literary Word. I had a concept that was distinctly Yugoslav in a literary sense, but also a much broader, European orientation. That was then a magazine that made it to a large number of university departments around the world and had an international reputation, while those passing through its editorial department included the likes of Novica Tadić, Aleksandar Jovanović, Svetislav Basara, David Albahari, Mihajlo Pantić et al. And it was written by an exceptional array of creators, from the youngest to the oldest across the whole of Yugoslavia. The years that I spent at The Literary Word represent the most exciting period of my life.”

Gojko was a subeditor at The Literary Word from 1977 to 1980, and its editor-in-chief from 1980 to 1984. And as would often happen in countries with a one-party system, the harshest punishment for the head of an institution was expulsion from the Party, which happened to Gojko while he was at home with his parents, watching the ‘Dnevnik’ news bulleting that was then obligatory viewing.

I made up my mind to allow every writer who I believed was worthy to enter The Literary Word. I had a concept that was distinctly Yugoslav in a literary sense, but also a much broader, European orientation. That was then a magazine that made it to a large number of university departments around the world and had an international reputation, while those passing through its editorial department included the likes of Novica Tadić, Aleksandar Jovanović, Svetislav Basara, David Albahari, Mihajlo Pantić et al

“At the very end of that Dnevnik, the newsreader, Ljiljana Marković, read a news item: ‘The Palulula Municipal Committee of the Union of Communists today expelled Gojko Tešič, editorin- chief of The Literary Word, from the Union of Communists, despite him having tendered his resignation.’ At that moment, my mother hit herself in the head with both fists and moaned: ‘Kuku, my black son, what have you done?’ That’s a scene I can never forget. I calmed her down, telling her that I’m alive, healthy, that everything will be fine, but she couldn’t stop. I consoled myself with how fortunate I was to have been there, beside her, because who knows how she would have felt if she’d only heard the news and didn’t know what had happened to me.”

That’s how the Party broke up with Gojko, and when the multi-party system emerged in Serbia, he was again joined a political party, this time the Democratic Party. He became close friends with Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić.

“I met Zoran in 1972, as a student at the protests that he organised in the Hall of Heroes at the Faculty of Philology. He was a contributor to The Literary Word; I published his texts from Germany that were critical, interesting, sometimes translations. Later, in the Democratic Party, he asked me to tour Serbia and talk about the importance of culture. Politics didn’t interest me, but I respected him greatly.”

WITH DAVID ALBAHARI IN THE EDITORIAL OFFICE OF “THE LITERARY WORD“ MAGAZINE

I also met another politician while I was editor of The Literary Word, in the form of Koča Popović.

That was an unbelievable, exciting and surprising encounter. That wonderful cynic received me with friendliness. He was important to me as a surrealist – who had been marginalised by apologists for surrealism. When I told him that I wanted to rehabilitate him, as a very important avant-garde creator, with a thematic edition of The Literary Word about his surrealist poetic and philosophical work, he had certain reservations. However, when that famous, disputed triple edition was published, he provided me with insight into his entire handwritten legacy and allowed me to photocopy it, which was a great start to our friendship and cooperation. For Belgrade-based publishing house Prosveta, I prepared two books from his surrealist oeuvre – he was delighted, happy, and surprised. Those are two beautiful books. We agreed for Ivan Lovrenović and Gavrilo Grahovac to prepare his memoirs for Sarajevo-based publisher Svjetlost under the title Zapisi iz pokojne prošlosti [Notes from a deceased past] in eight books, using material that covers in excess of 17,000 pages. The contract was signed in Dubrovnik in 1989… That’s a project I’m persevering with. I guess I’ll also bring that story to an end… Hanging out and becoming friends with Koča Popović is an exciting part of my life story…”

For many literature connoisseurs, Gojko’s efforts on publishing the works of one of the most important creators in Serbian literature, Stanislav Vinaver (1891-1955), represents his lifetime achievement. It was while he was still a gymnasium pupil that Gojko discovered Vinaver and his Beogradsko ogledalo [Belgrade Mirror] and Nadgramatika [Overgrammar]… And he never again parted from him. It was during his student days that he studied the life and works of this great writer and translator, and he remained with him only to complete his grandiose undertaking – or editorially preparing 18 books – that represent collected works of Stanislav Vinaver and a book of essays and articles about him.

My conversation with Krleža was very unusual and exciting. I first spoke to him about why I’d chosen to do the dissertation, explaining that bibliography is the foundation of any serious literary science. If you don’t have all the information in one place, you can’t know the context, the dynamics, both literary and cultural…

“The real ‘culprit’ for me having continued to deal with Vinaver was Radomir Konstantinović. He first edited Nadgramatika, which I read as a high school pupil, and I think that’s when I flew into a channel, into a labyrinth that I didn’t want to find my way out of. More precisely, I had to go all the way to the end. When I spoke to Konstantinović about Vinaver, he liked that a lot and insisted that I continue working on it. After a few years socialising together, he somehow imposed on me the obligation to prepare Vinaver for print. That was like a kind of will, a testament, that I had to do. I offered it to various publishers, but they didn’t want to print it, and that went on and on, and I persevered to madness. I believed in a miracle. And then it happened. The publishing credit belongs to the then director of Službeni glasnik [the Official Gazette], Slobodan Gavrilović, great editor Milka Zjačić Avramović and the Institute for Publishing Textbooks, or its director Miloljub Albijanić. When everything was published, I felt a kind of serenity. And that despite the fact that this publishing endeavour was not noticed in the media in the way it deserved. But I didn’t tug anyone by the sleeve to write about it.”

WITH DAUGHTER IVA, BRIJUNI, Photo Jelena Ćivović

It should be mentioned that the main reason for the marginalisation of Stanislav Vinaver’s work was ideological. Branded as someone who belonged to the old, right-wing, reactionary period, drastic efforts were taken to prevent him from working. One of the few people from the then political structures to help Vinaver find a job was Tanjug founder Moša Pijade, who dealt with painting and writing. He demanded that Vinaver be accepted at Tanjug [a national news agency] as a translator, given that he spoke six or seven languages. He worked night shifts and translated books when he had nothing else to do. He translated Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais, The Good Soldier Schweik, One Thousand and One Nights, the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe and Paul Valéry, the books of Mark Twain etc. Of course, there was no shortage of comments that he’d only received help along his Jewish lineage.

WITH PROFESSOR MILIVOJ SOLAR, ZAGREB. PHOTO ZVONKO KOVAČ

As a professor, Gojko was loved by students in Novi Sad because he gave them the freedom to discuss everything that interested them with him. He sought that they freely express their thoughts and was capable of easily recognising the special ones among them. He liked to give good grades, because he considered that a stimulating way of instilling in them a desire to dedicate themselves to literature more and better. He had a positive influence on many of them finding themselves after completing their studies.

He didn’t influence his daughter Iva when she chose to follow in his footsteps. She completed the same studies as her father, earned her doctorate and today works at the Institute of Literature, where he also began his working life. She fell in love with some writers that she was introduced to by her father, but she has a special affinity for the likes of Miroslav Krleža, Tin Ujević, Matoš et al. She is scientifically preoccupied with the study of Serbian-Croatian literary relations.

Poverty is a kind of incentive, not in order for me to prove myself, not to forget that part of life, because that cannot be forgotten. I realised that I set out in life from nothing and that I had have some goal. I had one from my childhood days

“Krleža is her choice, and I met this writer in 1974, at the Institute of Lexicography in Zagreb. I had previously worked on Krleža’s bibliography, from 1968 to 1973, as my graduate dissertation assigned to me by Croatian literature professor Mate Lončar. I received the October Award, then the highest recognition for student work, for that 150-page dissertation. The work was published, Krleža read it and wanted to meet the young man who dealt with such complicated and important work for culture. A meeting with him was scheduled by Enes Čengić, who was then his closest associate. Since 1972 and until today, I’ve travelled to Zagreb to work at the University and National Library, which is a cult library for me. I would claim that it is also the most important national library for Serbian culture.

WITH DAUGHTER IVA, BELGRADE. MILORAD PAVIĆ AND HIS WIFE JASMINA IN THE BACKGROUND, Photo Živko Nikolić

My conversation with Krleža was very unusual and exciting. I first spoke to him about why I’d chosen to do the dissertation, explaining that bibliography is the foundation of any serious literary science. If you don’t have all the information in one place, you can’t know the context, the dynamics, both literary and cultural… He liked my story, and then started recounting his own story of literature, explaining to me why Jakov Ignjatović is the greatest Serbian novelist, why Vojislav Ilić is the greatest Serbian poet, why he is repulsed by Skerlić… He spoke to me about what he read in the newspapers, described New Belgrade and New Zagreb as inhumane cities, as ‘boxes thrown from the air and left to fall where they will, that’s how they built the high-rises’.

When the time for discussion at his office elapsed, we walked together to the bookshop Oslobođenja [Liberation], located in an underpass near the train station… He walked slowly because he had problems with his joints. That was a casual, endless, wondrous monologue on various topics. That was one of those days that you always remember.”