Explore the culture and history of the Serbian people by discovering the best Serbian authors of all time and their most famous works.
Serbia has a rich history of war, turmoil, and totalitarian regimes. This historical turmoil created a society of people with tenacity and grit and gave way to a literary tradition highlighting those character traits. Starting in the 12th century and continuing to the modern day, the Serbian state brought many influential works to the literary movement, including poetry and prose. Many works have been translated into other languages, including English, so that modern readers can enjoy them.
The grit and determination of the Serbian people are seen by picking up a book by one of its many authors. Yet there are so many to choose from, so how can you choose the best ones to tackle as you explore this literary tradition? Serbian literature brings many excellent works and authors to the forefront. Each one is worth exploring as you delve into this culture and its contributions to literature.
If you’re interested in historical literature, you might enjoy our round-up of the best authors of historical fiction.
1. Ivo Andric, 1892-1975
Ivo Andric tops the list of best Serbian authors of all time. This author was born in Austria-Hungary and became an active member of South Slav national youth organizations as a young man. When Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, Andric was arrested and imprisoned for suspected involvement. He later became involved in diplomatic service with the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. His writing drew on his political experiences and his knowledge of Slavic history.
One of the reasons Andric is a top name among Serbian writers is that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in 1961, winning over names like Tolkien and Frost. His work wrote about the life and history of Bosnia, including the complex mix of cultures that settled in the region. His most famous novel, Na Drini Cuprija (The Bridge on the Drina), follows the story of a young Serbian boy taken from his family to serve the Ottoman empire, converting to Islam and becoming Grand Vizier. In addition to novels, he wrote short stories, poems, and essays.
“The children were walled into the pier, for it could not be otherwise, but Rade, they say, had pity on them and left openings in the pier through which the unhappy mother could feed her sacrificed children. Those are the finely carved blind windows, narrow as loopholes, in which the wild doves now nest.”Ivo Andric
2. Danilo Kis, 1935-1989
As a young child, Danilo Kis’s father suffered from mental illness and survived a Nazi mass shooting during World War II. Sadly, the man was killed at Auschwitz, and his suffering and death significantly impacted Kis’s writing. Kis grew up in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, where he was baptized as a young child, and his baptism certificate saved him from ending up in a concentration camp with his Jewish father.
After World War II, he studied literature at the University of Belgrade before launching a career as a writer for Vidici magazine. He also worked as a lector at the University of Strasbourg. He died of lung cancer in 1989 at the age of 54.
Kis was a prolific writer, publishing short stories, poetry, and multiple novels. In 1976, his novel A Tomb for Boris Davidovich was published, only to be accused of plagiarism a year later. The author responded to this scandal by writing another book, The Anatomy Lesson.
Many of his early works took on themes of growing up in the real world, which he drew from his experiences with his father’s death. Later works took on a more documentary style. In 1984, he was given the Ivo Andric Prize in Belgrade, and in 1989 he received the Bruno Schulz Prize in New York.
“The story that I am about to tell, a story born in doubt and perplexity, has only the misfortune (some call it the fortune) of being true: it was recorded by the hands of honorable people and reliable witnesses.”Danilo Kis
3. Milos Crnjanski, 1893-1977
Milos Crnjanski was born in Csongrad to a low-income family. When he was three years old, they moved to Romania, where they attended school. During World War I, the young man was studying in Vienna, where he suffered persecution due to the anti-Serbian attitudes of the war.
He was drafted into the army and sent to the front lines, only to be wounded. After the war, he studied literature at the University of Belgrade. He worked as a diplomat for Yugoslavia, traveling much of Europe until World War II hit. He died in Belgrade and was buried in the Alley of Distinguished Citizens.
Crnjanski was a versatile writer who published novels, plays, poetry, and short stories. He also has a selection of non-fiction works. His early works focused on the futility of war, and he set the stage for Serbian literature’s avant-garde movement. The Explanation of Sumatra, an essay that he published in 1920, was a clear example of this style of writing. His book Roman o Londonu won the NIN Award for Best Novel of the Year and most Read Book of the Year.
“I felt, one day, all the helplessness of our life, and the intricacy of our destiny. I saw that no one goes where they want, and I noticed connections unobserved before. That day, some people from Senegal, and some Annamites, walked past me; I met an old friend of mine, coming back from the war. When I asked him where he was coming from, he replied: from Bukhara!”Milos Crnjanski
4. Milutin Milankovic, 1879-1958
Milutin Milankovic was not a prolific writer, but he did write many books on science, earning him a spot among the best Serbian writers. He is best known for his contributions to world science, including Canon of the Earth’s Isolation, a statement on the climates of the planets in the Solar System, and a long-term explanation of climate change on the earth, a scientific theory now named the Milankovitch cycles, which explained the ice ages.
Milankovic was born in Dalj in Austria-Hungary. His Serbian parents taught him at home before he went to Vienna to study engineering as a teenager. He was known for his excellent use of logic in his scientific work, and he earned his Ph.D. at the age of 25.
Most of Milankovitch’s writings are non-fiction, scientific works, but in the midst of these, he wrote Distant Worlds and Times. This novel is a time travel book that draws on his scientific knowledge. He tells of a man traveling through time to watch the universe as it develops, writing a letter home to his love outlining all he has seen. This book is an interesting look at romance and fiction merged with scientific facts from one of Serbia’s best-known scientists.
5. Borislav Pekic, 1987-1930
Boris Pekic was born to a well-known family in Montenegro and lived most of his youth in Belgrade. As a young man, he was arrested for being part of the illegal Yugoslav Democratic Youth organization. He spent five years in prison and came up with ideas for his future novels. He studied experimental psychology at the University of Belgrade but never earned his degree.
In 1971, he became an outlaw of the Yugoslavian government to prevent his books from being published. Still, he continued to put out works criticizing the Yugoslavian government, leading to his exile. In his later years, he became a founding member of The Democratic Party in Serbia and served as a leader of the Serbian P.E.N. Association.
Pekic has a large body of works, and many of his works continue to be published even after his death. Many of his novels took on themes of the dangers of totalitarian governments, and some were set in World War II, a time period he lived through. His staunch arguments against communism remain a theme throughout all of his novels. In addition to novels, he wrote screenplays.
Many of his works have English translations, including How to Quiet a Vampire and The Time of Miracles. His most well-known work is The Golden Fleece, a multi-volume work that describes the Negovans and the history of The Balkans in a style similar to James Joyce. This work established him as one of the most critical contributors to Serbian literary craft.
6. Zoran Zivkovic, 1948 – present
Born in 1948, Zoran Zivkovic is a writer and university professor known for his novels, short stories, and encyclopedias. Little is known about the author’s childhood, but in 1973 he earned a degree in literature from the University of Belgrade, earning a master’s degree six years later and a doctorate in 1982. Today he lives in Belgrade with his French wife and their children. He is a professor of creative writing at his alma mater.
Zivkovic has 23 fiction works and eight nonfiction books in his bibliography today. These books have been translated into 21 languages. He writes fantastic and surreal works of fiction and has won multiple awards for his work, including the Golden Hit Liber Award in 2007 for The Bridge and The Golden Dragon Award for his body of works in 2015. The Fourth Circle is considered one of his best books. It explores a fantastic world that brings together great scientists from across decades, Sherlock Holmes, and a computer wizard as they attempt to close the dangerous Fourth Circle.
“He is here because of the Circle. The only thing that matters, the only thing that makes sense. Other questions, which flash occasionally into his mind, fail to even make him wonder.”Zoran Zivkovic
7. Filip David
Filip David was born to a Jewish family in 1940 and graduated from the University of Belgrade and the Academy of Theater, Film, Radio, and Television before becoming an important part of the Serbian literary scene. In 1989 he founded the “Independent Writers” society of Sarajevo, and in 1990 he founded the Belgrade Circle, a group that opposed the ruling government of the time. His political leanings got him fired from the Radio Television of Belgrade, but he continued to speak out on topics of importance to him despite the opposition he faced.
As an author, David was known for essays, dramas, short stories, and novels. The House of Remembering and Forgetting was one of those novels, and it earned him the NIN Award for Best Serbian Novel of the Year in 2014. It tells the story of two boys rescued from a Nazi concentration camp and how they came to terms with the evil surrounding them. This book is hard to read, but it touches on many important themes that make it a vital contribution to the Serbian literary world.
“The train slows down as it comes to the station but does not stop. Albert can see the faces pressed against the carriage windows. They are not the faces of the living. They are the dead, and this is their train. Rising above the relentless noise that strikes both terror and horror in his soul is a voice, a child’s voice. ‘Brother, save me! It is so dark here!’”Filip David
Looking for more? Check out our round-up of the best 19th-century authors!