Miroslav Krleža was born in Zagreb. He enrolled in a preparatory military school in Pécs, modern-day Hungary. At that time, Pécs and Zagreb were within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Subsequently, he attended the Ludoviceum military academy at Budapest. He defected to Serbia but was dismissed as a suspected spy. Upon his return to Croatia, he was demoted in the Austro-Hungarian army and sent as a common soldier to the Eastern front in World War I. In the post-World War I period Krleža established himself both as a major Modernist writer and politically controversial figure in Yugoslavia, a newly created country which encompassed South Slavic lands of the former Habsburg Empire and the kingdoms of Serbia and Montenegro.
Krleža was the driving force behind leftist literary and political reviews Plamen (The Flame) (1919), Književna republika (Literary Republic) (1923–1927), Danas (Today) (1934) and Pečat (Seal) (1939–1940). He was a member of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia from 1918, expelled in 1939 because of his unorthodox views on art, his defense of artistic freedom against Socialist realist doctrine, and his unwillingness to give open support to the Great Purge, after the long polemic now known as "the Conflict on the Literary Left", pursued by Krleža with virtually every important writer in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, in the period between the two World Wars. The Party commissar sent to mediate between Krleža and other leftist and party journals was Josip Broz Tito.
After the establishment of the Nazi puppet Independent State of Croatia under Ante Pavelić, Krleža refused to join the Partisans now headed by Tito. Following a brief period of social stigmatization after 1945 - during which he nevertheless became a very influential vice-president of the Yugoslav Academy of Science and Arts in Zagreb, while Croatia's principal state publishing house, Nakladni zavod Hrvatske, published his collected works - Krleža was eventually rehabilitated. Supported by Tito, in 1950 Krleža founded the Yugoslav Institute for Lexicography, holding the position as its head until his death. The institute would be posthumously named after him, and is now called the Miroslav Krleža Institute of Lexicography.
From 1950 on, Krleža led a life of the high-profile writer and intellectual, often closely connected to Tito. Krleža wrote about Tito that Tito was an illegitimate child of the Keglević who in another poem became, as a fictional character, the epitome of exploitation of the working class. He also briefly held the post of president of the Yugoslav writers' union between 1958 and 1961. In 1962 he received the NIN Award for the novel Zastave, and in 1968 the Herder Prize.
Following the deaths of Tito in May 1980, and Bela Krleža in April 1981, Krleža spent most of his last years of his life in ill health. He was awarded the Laureate Of The International Botev Prize in 1981. He died in his villa Gvozd in Zagreb, on 29 December 1981 and was given a state funeral in Zagreb on 4 January 1982.
Krleža's formative influences include Scandinavian drama, French Symbolism and Austrian and German expressionism and modernism, with key authors like Ibsen, Strindberg, Nietzsche, Karl Kraus, Rilke, and Proust.
Krleža's opus can be divided into the following categories:
Although Krleža's lyric poetry is held in high regard, by common critical consensus his greatest poetic work is Balade Petrice Kerempuha (Ballads of Petrica Kerempuh), spanning more than five centuries and centred on the figure of plebeian prophet "Petrica Kerempuh", a Croatian Till Eulenspiegel.
Krleža's novelistic oeuvre consists of four works: Povratak Filipa Latinovicza (The Return of Philip Latinowicz), Na rubu pameti (On the Edge of Reason), Banket u Blitvi (The Banquet in Blitva) and Zastave (The Banners). The first one is a novel about an artist, a novel written before Sartre's Nausea. On the Edge of Reason and The Banquet in Blitva are essentially political-satires about ideas (the latter located in an imaginary Baltic country and called a political poem), saturated with the atmosphere of all-pervasive totalitarianism, while The Banners has rightly been dubbed a "Croatian War and Peace". It is a multi-volume panoramic view of Croatian (and Central European) society before, during, and after World War I, revolving around the prototypical theme of fathers and sons in conflict. All Krleža's novels except the last one, Zastave (The Banners), have been translated into English.
The most notable collection of Krleža's short stories is the anti-war book Hrvatski bog Mars (Croatian God Mars), on the fates of Croatian soldiers sent to the slaughterhouse of World War I battlefields.
Krleža's main artistic interest was centered on drama. He began with experimental expressionist plays like Adam i Eva and Michelangelo Buonarroti, dealing with defining passions of heroic figures, but eventually opted for more conventional naturalist plays. The best known is Gospoda Glembajevi (The Glembays), a cycle dealing with the decay of a bourgeois family. Golgota is another play, political in nature.
Krleža's memoirs and diaries (especially Davni dani (Olden days) and Djetinjstvo u Agramu (Childhood in Zagreb)) are fascinating documents of growing and expanding self-awareness grappling with the world outside and mutable inner self. Other masterpieces, like Dnevnici (Diaries) and posthumously published Zapisi iz Tržiča (Notes from Tržič) chronicle multifarious impressions (aesthetic, political, literary, social, personal, philosophical) that an inquisitive consciousness has recorded during an era lasting more than half a century.Hrvatski bog Mars (1922)
Gospoda Glembajevi (1928)
Povratak Filipa Latinovicza (1932)
Balade Petrice Kerempuha (1936)
Banket u Blitvi (1939)
Translations into English:
Krleža, Miroslav. The Banquet in Blitva (Banket u Blitvi, 1939). Translated by Edward Dennis Goy and Jasna Levinger-Goy. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2004.
_____. The Cricket Beneath the Waterfall, and Other Stories (Cvrčak pod vodopadom). Various translators; edited by Branko Lenski. New York: Vanguard Press, 1972.
_____. Harbors Rich in Ships: Selected Revolutionary Writings (The Glembays and other early texts). Translated by Željko Cipriš. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2017.
_____. On the Edge of Reason (Na rubu pameti, 1938). Translated by Zora Depolo. New York: New Directions, 1995.
_____. The Return of Philip Latinowitz (Povratak Filipa Latinovitza, 1932). Translated by Zora Depolo. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1995.