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Author: Ivan Radev


One of Bulgaria's chief literary historians (though he did not live long enough to benefit from it) was Boyan Penev (1882-1927). His productive life ended abruptly after a misplaced operation for appendicitis.

A member of the "Misal" and "Zlatorog" literary groups, Penev studied Slavic philology at Sofia University. In 1909 he was engaged as a docent in Bulgarian and Slavic literatures at Sofia University, rising to full professor at that institution two years before his death. Penev's erudition and industry were enormous.

Although he also investigated Polish culture and authored a Polish grammar, he worked mainly on the history of Bulgarian literature, especially the Renaissance period. He did separate studies of Paisij Hilendarski, Rakovski, Botev and other important literary figures, but his most lasting monument was the posthumously published "Istorija na novata balgarska literatura" (History of Modern Bulgarian Literature, 4 vols., 1930-1936), which for all its bulk makes its way only partially through the Bulgarian Renaissance.

Unique in its scope and depth, Penev's history will long be consulted by scholars writing on the period which it covers. Penev also went beyond the Renaissance, writing a monograph on Aleko Konstantinov as well as some general theoretical articles on the state of contemporary Bulgarian letters. One of his fortes was the composition of essays analyzing the links between literature and the social and intellectual forces of a given epoch: he never tried to divorce literature from the era in which it was written. In addition he had a keen esthetic sense, though much of the literature he discussed was worth relatively little as art.



Boyan Penev [1882, Shumen – 1927, Sofia]: literary critic and historian. He completed his secondary education in Rousse and graduated from the ‘Department of Slavic Philology’ at Sofia University in 1907. He became a professor in the ‘Department of Bulgarian and Slavic Literature’ at Sofia University in 1917, and then department chair in 1925. Between 1923 and 1924, he gave lectures on the history of Bulgarian literature in Poland (in Cracow, Warsaw and Lwów (Ukr. Lviv). Close to the circle around the modernist periodical Мисъл (Thought), Penev was, together with its leading figure Krastiu Krastev, one of the main proponents of the modernist approach to literature and culture in general. His modernism and positivism were aligned with liberal political views. Descending from a family of modest social status, Penev was an exemplary figure for the new Bulgarian intellectual elite, which, in contrast to that of the first post-liberation generation (coming mainly from the urban elite), comprised people from all social strata. This generation shared common cultural standards imbued by the national educational institutions. Penev married Dora Gabe, the most important Bulgarian poetess at the beginning of the century. She came from a renowned Jewish Levite family, which had moved to Bulgaria from Russia. Gabe converted to orthodoxy to get married to Penev in 1908. Penev dedicated a series of influential works to the history of Bulgarian literature and to contemporary literary development. He also contributed to the debate on national culture and especially to discussions regarding the relationship between the people and the intelligentsia. His important essay ‘Our intelligentsia’ became one of the formative texts of the Bulgarian cultural project as a whole. Penev championed the idea that the Bulgarian people and its elite latently possess the best qualities of all European nations. However, he argued that their fulfillment could be achieved only through conscious efforts and well-formulated common aims. Penev’s ‘History of new Bulgarian literature’ is considered to be the most important modernist interpretation of the national literary canon.

Boyan Penev, similar to Benyo Tzonev in the nineteenth century, sees the beginning of new Bulgarian literature as a cumulative process. At the same time, he also depicts the individual figure of Paissy as the first incarnation not only of the revival of the national spirit, but also of its first modern articulation. In other words, Penev is one of the first historians trying to interpret Paissy as the first Bulgarian Enlightener. In accordance with the Tainean model, Penev focuses on the extra-literary factors which effected the formation of the literary work, but at the same time puts at the center the individual figure of Paissy, thus reiterating the main modernist archetype. The compromise between external determination and individual predetermination is particularly pronounced in the analysis of Paissy’s work. According to Penev, Paissy stands as a ‘predetermined bearer’ of national consciousness in the given historical moment. What is more, being an incarnation of the national soul, Paissy is at the same time its active principle: “from the depersonalized and apathetic slave, he wanted to create a Bulgarian; he aimed to trace in the consciousness of the generations the ways of the future.”


Addendum: An excurse like this is quite inadequate to present a portrait for an author, whose magisterial work "History of Modern Bulgarian Literature" (4 vols., total of 1500 pp.) is second only as achievement after Vassil Zlatarski's Bulgarian history — which, by the way, also remained unfinished and published posthumously. Though not so far the first literary history in bulgarian language, Penev's work is the most accomplished and comprehensive tool on the subject and stays at par on critical level with theoretical thinking from such experts as Sainte Beuve, Hippolyte Taine, etc.

The monograph from I. Radev on Prof. Boyan Penev is written comparatively late as timeline to fully appreciate the predecessor's contribution to Bulgarian science and culture. Whatever flaws it have are inherent from the new type of socialist criticism which have been a leading method for evaluation in esthetics and dogma appreciation in Eastern Europe for quite some time. Still, as separate work on the B. Penev's heritage it remains the only source as a secondary reference to the titular.

A lateral side from the portrait of the author is his personal life and more particularly his meetings / encounters with different man and woman. In this case we found a most valuable source in the unauthorized diary of poetess Elisaveta Bagryana — viz., as his second wife and confessor (N.B., first wife of the author was also bulgarian poetess Dora Gabe, which he untimely divorced) — so that here in these poetical ruminations we find quite a lot about the esthetics of Boyan Penev and his time, Bulgaria in the period between the two World Wars, ditto.


Pictures: Sample picture credits from the archive of Elisaveta Bagryana.

(i). Boyan Penev and Elisaveta Bagryana sometime in the 1920s.



Copyright © 2008, 2013 by the author.