Bulgarian Literature

The story of Bulgarian literature began with the invention of the Cyrillic alphabet in the 9th century. For the next several centuries, Bulgarian writing tradition was centered around religious texts: hagiographies, Biblical stories and Bibles, moral and instructive tales.

One of the best preserved Medieval Bulgarian manuscripts is the Tetraevangelia of tzar Ivan Alexander. Written in 1356 during the reign of the last ruler of united Bulgaria before the Ottoman conquest, the Tetraevangelia contains the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luka, John), written in Middle Bulgarian and illustrated with over 250 miniatures, including a portrait of the tzar and his family. Secreted away during the conquest, the book was kept for centuries at the Agiou Pavlou monastery on Mount Athos before being purchased by a British collector and donated to the British library, where it is currently housed.

Portrait of Ivan Alexander and his family in the Tetraevangelia.

With the writing of Istoriya Slavyanobulgarskaya in 1762, Paisius of Hilendar ushered in the Revival period in Bulgarian literature. Works of this era were largely inspired by the struggle for freedom and by links to Bulgarian folk songs and lore: forest nymphs, spirits and dragons. Poet Hristo Botev and writers Georgi S. Rakovski and Luben Karavelov are notable from this period. The Revival period also saw the advent of a modernized school system and the first Bulgarian encyclopaedia, the Fish Primer (Riben Bukvar), written by scholar Petar Beron.

After Liberation, Bulgaria’s literary society blossomed, and poets and novelists began to work, meet and further the traditions of their genres. Writer Ivan Vazov, author of plays, poems and novels, penned the quintessential novelization of the Bulgarian struggle for liberation, Pod Igoto (Under the Yoke) in 1893.

Aleko Konstantinov, a journalist and satirical writer, worked in the same period, producing two crucial works of Bulgarian literature. One was Bay Ganyo, a series of short stories about a boorish, uncultured Bulgarian merchant’s misadventures in Western Europe. Based on a real person he encountered at the World Exhibition in Chicago in 1893, they became a cautionary tale and an ethical guide for Bulgarians travelling abroad. The other was Do Chicago i nazad (To Chicago and Back), an account of the author’s visit to America in the late 1893, including a wonderful description of the Niagara waterfalls. Konstantinov was assassinated by mistake at the age of 34, but his work had already steered Bulgarian society towards European integration. Read a translation of one of his short stories here: Craving (PDF).

The work of Bulgarian poets of the era such as Peyo Yavorov, Geo Milev and Dimcho Debelyanov, tragically killed at age 27 in World War I, were notable and renowned in European literary circles. Dora Gabe and Elisaveta Bagriana were two Bulgarian poetesses with careers spanning over 40 years.

Two lovely eyes. The spirit of a child.
Two lovely eyes. Sunrays and music.
They don’t want anything and they don’t vow.
My soul is praying,
Child!
My soul is praying…

The passions and the woes
Will cast tomorrow over them
The veil of sin and shame.
The veil of sin and shame
Won’t cast tomorrow over them
The passions and the woes

My soul is praying,
Child!
My soul is praying…
They don’t want anything and they don’t vow…
Two lovely eyes – sunrays and music.
Two lovely eyes. The spirit of a child.

Peyo Yavorov

More recently, Dimitar Dimov’s novels Tyutyun (“Tobacco”) and Osudeni dushi (“Doomed Souls”), although forcibly revised during the Communist Era, remain classics of Bulgarian literature. Poet and translator Valeri Petrov has written dozens of poems, five fairy tales for children and four screenplays. Writer Nikolai Haitov and his 1967 book Divi razkazi (“Wild Stories”) was heavily influenced by Bulgarian village mythology, weaving the supernatural into the fabric of his stories.

This is only a small sample of Bulgarian literature and literary greats. If you’re looking for more reading resources, start here.

Essential Reading List

Pod igoto (“Under the Yoke”) – Ivan Vazov (1893)

Do Chicago i nazad (“To Chicago and Back”) – Aleko Konstantinov (1894)

Tyutyun (“Tobacco”) – Dimitar Dimov (1951)

Divi razkazi (“Wild Stories”) – Nikolai Haitov (1967)

Pet prikazki (“Five Tales”) – Valeri Petrov (1986)

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