Biography

Aleksandar Tišma (Horgoš, January 16, 1924 – Novi Sad, February 15, 2003)

Aleksandar Tišma was born in Horgoš, a town formerly in Southern Hungary, which after the First World War became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. His mother Olga Müller came from a Jewish merchant family (which Müller Teréz, Tišma’s grandmother, describes in her memoir Istinita priča [A True Story], Novi Sad: Akademska knjiga 2012). Olga loved all kinds of art, and she graduated from a civil school in Subotica. His father Gavra, a Serb from the Austro-Hungarian military (Grenzer) village Visuć near Gospić, attended lower grades in Sremski Karlovci thanks to a scholarship, but did not continue his education in a seminary. With a recommendation from the humanitarian organization Privrednik he began an apprenticeship with the Szeged merchant Schwartz. He spent the First World War in a commissariat, and after the war returned to work in Horgoš (the town that came to belong to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes), where he met his future wife Olga. Tišma used to say that the marriage of his parents, who due to his father’s job had moved to Novi Sad, was a union formed on oppositions. Consequently, Aleksandar grew up as an only child of an extrovert, optimistic and affable father, and a melancholy, introverted, art-loving mother, who insisted that her son learn foreign languages from an early age. (Besides Serbian and Hungarian Tišma was fluent in English, German and French.) Their loyalty to, as he later said, “inconsistent civilizations”, drove him to face problems of identity early on, and favor compromise over exclusivity, which he found distasteful. Refusing to select one collectivity, Tišma turned the fact of his dual origin, united with his artistic inclinations, into a position of a detached individual – an observer, who does not participate in the world, but observes and analyzes it. This position led him, in spite of his sense of insecurity, to choose the writing trade, so that everything other people took for granted, he saw and told through an original, personal standpoint. (Tišma’s analytical nature is demonstrated by his Dnevnik [Diary] (2001), where he subjected his immediate and wider milieu, but also himself, to a stern dissection).

In the diary he kept since his youth (1942-2001), as well as in the autobiography from 1992, Sečaj se večkrat na Vali [Always Remember Vali], Tišma wrote that early in the Second World War his thoughts were directed towards the individual, the personal, and not the general. During the occupation he was expelled from the Serbian Gymnasium, for a minor offense, and the Novi Sad Raid in January 1942 – when both nations to which he belonged by birth suffered terribly, and which his grandmother survived by mere chance – left a deep scar on the young Tišma. (The writer will later incorporate his personal experience from that time in a realistically structured story, a novel entitled The Book of Blam.) Taking refuge in Budapest (where the persecution of Jews had yet to gain momentum) with his Mother (grandmother Teréz), Tišma enrolled at the Faculty of Economics, which he soon after left for the Faculty of Philosophy – department of French language and literature. He was enthralled by lectures on contemporary literature – Proust, Joyce, Mann, Virginia Woolf, Celine … In 1944, after the German occupation of Hungary, he was sent with hundreds of other fellow-students to a labor camp in Transylvania, where he spent six months and for the first time, as he would later say, felt a close connection to a group and “came to love the people”. (This “return” to the community was also critical for the future writer, who needed to get acquainted with human nature, and “life itself” in order to write about it in a realistic manner.) On his return to his parents’ home in Novi Sad he developed jaundice, and while recovering on a nearby farm, he spent his time solely in reading. Near the end of the war he had, as he would later say, the strongest reading experience – when he got his hands on Proust’s Swann’s Way in French. At the same time – this also meant a disappointment for the future writer – because he realized then that all the books he wanted to write “had already been written.”

He came to the headquarters of the Yugoslav Third Army Group on his friend’s recommendation, after the liberation. This took him to Sombor, where he worked in the newsroom of Bilten. Living among the victors, soldiers of the so-called highland mentality – markedly different from his “Pannonian” one – Tišma felt the appeal of a “straightforward” and “rudimentary” way of life. This job in the army, where he was soon hired as a censor in the Army Post, saved him, he believed, from certain death on the Syrmian Front, were inexperienced and unskilled young men such as himself were being deployed. His father Gavra’s store was appropriated, and on the directives of the new regime their home was soon filled with unknown residents.
Hopes that he would move to France, where his relatives lived, were quickly dispelled – he failed to meet the requirements, and each subsequent attempt to get a passport in socialist Yugoslavia was unsuccessful. He started working as a journalist of Slobodna Vojvodina, its bureaus in Sremska Mitrovica and Subotica, feeling all the burden and suffocation of command journalism. In Novi Sad, the central office to which he finally was sent, he felt relief with the people with whom he worked as a journalist for the economic section. In the summer of 1947, he was involved in a “work action” in Bosnia, later do be called up to complete his military service in Sarajevo and Mostar.

In in 1948 he came to the Belgrade journal Borba, the Communist Party’s official paper, whose mission was to educate the masses. This newspaper, as he would later say, no one bought or read, and there he became a candidate member for the Party. At the time of Tito’s conflict with the Cominform, Tišma avoided labeling and possible punishment and deportation to Goli Otok simply owing to his natural displacement from the community and his essential disinterest in politics. He then enrolled to study art history but soon abandoned it for German studies, which fit him better as a scholarly pursuit.

In 1949, he again got a job in Novi Sad, becoming an administrative secretary of Matica srpska (where he would remain until his retirement, later working as an editor in its publishing company), and where he met Boško Petrović and Mladen Leskovac. The following year he began writing reviews of foreign literary periodicals for Letopis Matice srpske. He was also translating from Hungarian, and later from German, and Letopis published his first original story “Ibikina kuća” [Ibika’s House]. Encouraged by the praise and kindly affection from the writer Boško Petrović, a more mature and confident Aleksandar Tišma began writing poetry and plays. (The communist cadres having left him alone because he had already been expelled from the Party.) In early 1952, he married his strikingly beautiful coworker Sonja Drakulić, and they had a son Andrej the same year. He wanted to write a novel about a subject matter which troubled him personally: the attempts of young people, living in a post-war socialist society, to leave the country. It was two years after his father’s death (1955), at 33 years of age, that Tišma got his passport and took a long-awaited first trip – to Paris. Although he settled fine in the French capital, he returned to his family and home, to Matica, where in the following year, 1958, he published his first travelogues.

This is when his literary career began taking off. He published two short story collections Krivice [Faults] and Krčma [Tavern] (1961). That same year he travelled to Poland, where he wrote the famous travelogue “Meridijani srednje Evrope” [The Meridians of Central Europe]. On this trip Tišma experienced a certain epiphanic insight which marked a turning point for him as a writer. Judaism, to which he belonged by birth, and the Holocaust (although not personally experienced) become the dominant themes in his stories and novels. With these books the writer reached his literary peak and they earned him numerous awards. These novels, The Book of Blam (1972), The Use of Man (1976), Kapo (1987), and a short story collection Škola bezbožništva [The School of Godlessness] (1978) – where the dominant themes are evil in the “civilized” man and the world – were translated into 17 languages and earned Tišma recognition, making him a widely read author both in and outside of the Serbian and Yugoslav cultural space.

He became a corresponding member of VANU (Vojvodina Academy of Sciences) in 1979 and a full member in 1984. He was elected a full member of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts (SANU) in 1991, and Vice president of its Novi Sad branch in 1992. The Berlin Academy of Arts (Die Akademie der Künste in Berlin) made him a member in 2002. He received a number of awards: the Branko Radičević Award (1957); the City of Novi Sad October Award (1966); the Nolit Award (1977); NIN Award (1977); National Library of Serbia Award (1978); the Szirmai Karoly awards (1977, 1979); the Andric Award (1979); the Leipzig Book Prize for European Understanding (1995); the Austrian State Prize for European Literature (1995); the French National Order of Merit (1997).

In his inaugural speech to the Academy, in the form of a short story entitled Nenapisana priča [An Unwritten Story] (1989), Aleksandar Tišma revealed the essence of his poetics based on a realist approach, the belief that one can only write about unlived experiences, which the writer in his workshop keeps at a necessary distance. The fact that his work is based on the duality of closeness and separation between the artist and the world is also evident in the autobiography in which Tišma discusses his life up to the time of his mother’s death. This event from the most intimate realm, which undoubtedly was a source of tremendous emotional charge, is portrayed without glossing over its wider social background, where yet another tragedy was taking place on a much broader scale, with both individuals and entire communities as its protagonists. The causes of the breakup of Yugoslavia and the wars of the 1990s are studied in Sečaj se večkrat na Vali, in a concise but highly objective manner, which based on the readers’ predispositions led to different assessments of this autobiographical work. His mother’s death and the breakup of his country – a country which Tišma viewed with his characteristic, ever-present detachment (but which for him was a symbol of some kind of community, meaning that he felt the loss of a double “sanctuary”), represented yet another turning point in the writer’s life. After 1991, the final decade of the 20th century saw a gradual fading of the milieu which was – however uninspiring or filled with examples of negative values – the only true context of Tišma’s narrative world. Having attained renown in Europe, a symbol of freedom he always craved for – with a touch of melancholy emanating from all his works where evil is a presence, and humanity and earthly justice a constantly missed absence – Aleksandar Tišma was putting his affairs in order.

After Aleksandar Tišma’s death on 15. February 2003, on the initiative of his son Andrej Tišma, also a noted artist, the Novi Sad publisher Akademska knjiga began publishing his collected works. The first book in this project was the novel Ženarnik [Womencage] (2010), a work left in manuscript. In 2015, Radio Television of Vojvodina produced a TV series based on Tišma’s novel Vere i zavere [Faiths and Conspiracies] (1983).

Prof. dr Gorana Raičević