Ana about Prešeren

16. 2. 2020
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Ana Schnabl
Ana Schnabl is a writer and editor. Her prose debut The Disentangled received two awards and two nominations. Her first novel The Masterpiece will be out in April this year.

France Prešeren gets on my nerves. I’ve felt this way about him ever since we’d dealt with the details of his life in high school. I previously hadn’t been particularly appreciative of his work anyway. Far be it from me to call it lousy; while I do find e.g. his Sonnets of Misfortune to be overwrought, I used to be like that as well. I could understand them. But the man himself – ugh. Or rather the myth woven by time and literary history around his life – ugh, ugh.

Of course, poor France can’t be faulted for the elaborate myth that grew out of the known facts about his life. It was quite late in my life, maybe I was going to college at the time, that I found out that the canon does the same thing with all male artists – first it elevates their work, then their character, no matter how loathsome it might be (and in cases where the character cannot be explicitly elevated, such as with Hamsun, Pound or Picasso, it’s simply ignored or transformed into a curiosity). The literary canon has thus always been populated by guys who were terribly vulnerable, special, sensitive, romantic, frustrated and complicated but also terribly talented. And what’s violence, misogyny, drug addiction compared to talent?


Well, I’m not claiming that France was a heavyweight idiot, however, I’d also never seen anybody wanting to take a critical look at his character. I don’t like cheering and applause – I’m not sure whether there’s anybody treading the earth whose character would make them deserving of such. If nothing else, a critical study of Prešeren’s character would tell us a lot about the time in which he lived. And even more so, about people in general.

Let’s take a look then:

  • On April 6, 1833, Prešeren saw Julija Primic, a girl from a rich Ljubljana family, at the Trnovo church and fell in love with her. This love – source: Wikipedia – heavily influenced his subsequent writing. Prešeren was – source: myth – hopelessly in love. Although he was – source: myth – a remarkable man, Julija didn’t want to marry him.
  • Prešeren became a judicial trainee with his friend Blaž Crobath but was never allowed by the Austrian authorities to establish his own law firm as he was considered politically suspicious. Prešeren was – source: myth and poetry – a free thinker and a great man.
  • Prešeren and Jernej Kopitar along with the Kranjska čbelica circle fought about which alphabet to use for the Slovenian language; Prešeren also wrote a couple of mocking lines of poetry about Kopitar. Prešeren – source: myth – was very interested in and loved the Slovenian language and was thus concerned about its fate.
  • He established a relationship with 14-year-old Ana Jelovšek who bore him three children. Their relationship was complicated; it deteriorated primarily due to Jelovšek’s decision to put their first child in foster care. Although they weren’t a proper couple, Prešeren provided for the children. Prešeren – source: myth – was unpredictable, but nevertheless a good, nay, great man.


I’m caricaturing, of course, but caricaturing a caricature. My interpretation of the known facts would be as follows.

  • He fell in love with Julija. (Devilish addendum: it just so happened that she was rich, and he was not.) But even more than he fell in love with her, Prešeren fell in love with an idea that proved pretty damn useful in his writing, and if something is so useful it can be very hard to give up. Let’s just say Prešeren’s suffering was utilitarian.
  • No comment.
  • He simply had a propensity for derision and schadenfreude and was small and human.
  • Pretty bad for a 37-year-old man to get involved with a 14-year-old and have three children with her. And a pretty common story for the patriarchy, where very young girls were trophies. A young person, almost a child, is much easier to manipulate than a fully developed human being, isn’t that so? Disgusting, both then and now.

What would happen if everybody looked at Prešeren as unforgivingly as I do? Would his poetry come crashing down as well? Wouldn’t it? For me, it actually did. The more I knew about the man, the less I cared about his work. The Ana Jelovšek “detail” was the final straw. And Prešeren is not the only one: Roth, Foster Wallace, Mailer, Cankar, all these guys make me angry and I was more than ready to give them up. So you write well? Nice, good, fine! You’re trying to be ethical? Very nice, great, wonderful!

But … but, you’re going to say, then we might as well erase the history of art!

Yeah, that would be a bit of a bummer, because there is a lot of great art. Maybe we don’t have to erase anything; however, we could start questioning art. And maybe finally invite a woman or two into the canon. I’m sure they’d do better on the character front. We’ve only just been getting our first opportunities not to.