THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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34 posts categorized "Czech Republic"

11 September 2017

International Collaboration: a Dutch Polymath and a Czech Printer in 17th-Century Rome

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We do not often realise just how much collaboration took place between foreigners working abroad rather than in their native countries in 17th-century Europe. One interesting example of such a collaboration is that between a Dutchman, Cornelius Meyer, and a Czech printer, Jan Jakub (or Giovanni Giacomo) Komárek, who worked and collaborated in Rome, a veritable hive of intellectual activity at that time.

Meyer Arte de restituire tp
Title-page of Meyer’s L’arte di restituire a Roma la tralasciata navigatione del suo Tevere (Rome, 1685), 49.h.10 (1).

Little is known of Cornelius Meyer except that he was born in Holland in 1629, was generally accepted to be a polymath and trained as an architect, civil engineer and an engraver. He moved to Rome, one of the most vibrant and active capitals in Europe, in the 1680s and died there in 1701. He is principally remembered for his studies on technology, particularly his masterminding improvements to the navigability of the River Tiber in his L’arte di restituire a Roma la tralasciata navigatione del suo Tevere.

Meyer Nuovi ritrovamenti Dragon
Title-page of Meyer’s Nuovi ritrovamenti, divisi in due parti (Rome, 1689-96) 49.h.10 (2), showing the alleged dragon seen near the Tiber

He is also remembered for his description and detailed account of the sighting of a dragon ‘nelle paludi fuori di Roma’, in December 1691. Despite his detailed and beautiful engravings of the beast’s skeletal remains, Meyer’s account of the dragon was an elaborate hoax not unlike ‘Piltdown man’ but was so skilfully produced and illustrated that he duped many learned men and scientific experts.

Meyer Occhiali
Engraving of three wearers of different kinds of spectacles, from Nuovi ritrovamenti

Meyer’s engraving of spectacles and their wearers for his work on various technologies, Nuovi ritrovamenti, divisi in due parti, printed by Komarek on behalf of the Accademia Fisico-matematica, one of the most important scientific academies in Rome, is extremely finely detailed, recalling similar images by Holbein. It imparts a very human perspective on what could have been a dryish discussion of the important science of optics, which had made very considerable advances since Galileo first used the telescope to study the heavens systematically. Moreover, by depicting the wearers of the spectacles in fine detail, two with fulsome beards, all three wearing caps or bonnets, and two wearing beautifully detailed ruffs, thereby modelling their visual aids, Meyer imparts a sense of scale and proportion to his illustration and is able to show the size of the pince-nez spectacles and their respective lenses he has designed (one set of which is even tinted) to their best advantage and how well they would look and fit on the noses of prospective clients.

Meyer Nuovi Ritrovamenti 1689
Title-page of the 1689 volume of Nuovi ritrovamenti, with Komarek’s imprint ‘all’Angelo custode’.

Despite the Italianization of his forenames to Giovanni Giacomo, the printer Jan Jakub Komárek was born in Hradec Králové, in Bohemia, in 1648. He moved to Rome between 1669 and 1672 and was originally employed as a technician in the papal print works of the Congregazione della Propaganda della Fede, founded in 1622. He set up his own printing press at ‘all’Angelo custode’ and later, ‘alla fontana di Trevi’ and was active until 1700, publishing several liturgical works by Giovanni Giustino Ciampini, Andrea Pozzo’s celebrated Prospettiva, and works for the Accademia of the Collegio Clementino. The work is an excellent example of very effective networking and of the creation of considerable synergy between author and publisher and of truly international co-operation: a Dutchman having his work printed by a Czech printer in Italy.

This co-operation is also a very timely reminder of the very great debt that the whole continent of Europe, and Italy in particular, owes to Germany. It was a German, Johannes Gutenberg, who invented printing with moveable type in the 1450s, something which played such an important role in disseminating new texts and ideas, and created an ever-increasing demand for the printed word. But we should also not forget the debt owed by Italy to German printers and engravers, from Albrecht Dürer to Lucas Cranach. From the first introduction of printing to Italy in 1465 by Konrad Sweynheym and Arnold Pannartz, who worked in partnership at Subiaco, printing was firmly established in Italy by German printers.

Denis Reidy, former Curator Italian and Modern Greek Collections 

08 August 2017

‘A Czechoslovakian epic’: the Czechoslovak Legion in the Russian Revolution

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Throughout the 19th century, a growing sense of Czech national identity was a constant source of alarm to the rulers of the Habsburg Empire. Friction between Czech and German speakers increased, and the first Slavic Congress, held in Prague in 1848, consolidated pan-Slavic sympathies. Although the Congress ended without formal agreement, one important result was the proclamation of a Manifestation to the Nations of Europe, calling for an end to the oppression of Slav peoples and ‘extending a brotherly hand to all neighbouring nations who are prepared to recognize and effectively champion with us the full equality of all nations, irrespective of their political power or size’.

On the outbreak of the First World War, many of the empire’s 8,000,000 Czechs and 3,000,000 Slovaks found themselves fighting under the Austrian flag. Wherever possible, their battalions were dispatched to the Italian front to reduce the likelihood of desertion to join their Russian and Serbian fellow-Slavs. Yet as the need for troops on the Eastern Front grew ever more urgent, this principle could no longer be maintained, and by 1915 many of these men found themselves deployed in Russian Poland.

On 5 August 1914 a battalion of Czechs and Slovaks known as the Česká družina (‘Czech Companions’) was organized within the Russian army to fight against the Austrians and their allies. More regiments were added as the war continued. In July 1917, the battalion, now known as the Czechoslovak Rifle Brigade (Československá střelecká brigáda), distinguished itself at the Battle of Zborov when its troops overran Austrian trenches. After this success, the Russians authorised the mobilisation of Czech and Slovak volunteers from Russian prisoner-of-war camps. The brigade was renamed again as the First Division of the Czechoslovak Corps in Russia (Československý sbor na Rusi) or the Czechoslovak Legion (Československá legie). By 1918 it contained some 40,000 troops.

Czech Legion Dufka 2 YA.2003.a.16242

An infantryman of the Third Archduke Karl regiment, stationed in Kroměříž. Illustration from Josef Dufka’s memoir Přál jsem si míti křídla (Prague, 2002) YA.2003.a.16242.

When the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, the chairman of the Czechoslovak National Council, Tomáš Masaryk, began planning to transfer the Legion to France to continue fighting against the Central Powers. The Bolsheviks granted permission for the Legion to travel from Ukraine to Vladivostok to embark on transport vessels as many of Russia’s chief ports were blockaded, but this was hindered when, in January 1918, the German Army launched Operation Faustschlag on the Eastern Front to force the Soviet government to accept its peace terms. In early March, after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk had taken Russia out of the war, the Czechoslovak Legion successfully fought off German attempts to prevent their evacuation in the Battle of Bakhmach.

Czech Legion Becvar 9087.aa.29 Czech legionaries on the Siberian border, from Gustav Becvar, The Lost Legion (London, 1939) 9087.aa.29

On 25 March, an agreement was signed ordering the Legion to surrender most of its weapons in exchange for safe passage to Vladivostok. The evacuation was delayed by the dilapidated state of the railways, the shortage of trains and the constant need to negotiate passage with local soviets. There was also mutual mistrust between the Legion and the Bolsheviks. When, on 14 May, a dispute broke out at the Chelyabinsk station between legionaries heading east and Hungarian prisoners of war heading west to be repatriated, Leon Trotsky ordered that the Legion be disarmed and arrested.

This triggered what became known as the Revolt of the Legions. By the end of June, the Czechoslovak Legion had seized Vladivostok and overthrown the local Bolshevik administration. On 6 July they declared the city an Allied protectorate. By early September they had swept Bolshevik forces from the entire length of the Trans-Siberian Railway and taken all the major cities of Siberia, but their seizure of Ekaterinburg came less than a week too late to save Tsar Nicholas II and his family.

Czech legion Vykrik

 Výkřik (‘The Scream’), a magazine printed by the Czechoslovak Legion during the Russian Civil War. RB.31.c.832.

As the Red Army gained strength and retook several cities the Legion’s enthusiasm waned, and when the independent state of Czechoslovakia  was proclaimed on 28 October 1918, its members had every reason to wish to return home. On 18 November a coup overthrew the leadership of the Whites’ Provisional Government in Siberia, with which the Legion had made common cause, and Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak was appointed ‘Supreme Leader’. The Legion was left to defend Kolchak’s sole supply route and the gold bullion which he had captured from Kazan for much of 1919, but most legionaries were uneasy with Kolchak’s rule. On 7 February 1920, the Legion signed an armistice with the Fifth Red Army granting safe passage to Vladivostok on condition that they did not try to rescue Kolchak and left the remaining gold with the authorities in Irkutsk.

Czech Legion Dufka YA.2003.a.16242

Illustration from Přál jsem si míti křídla: ‘One day we were delighted by the news in the papers that Austria was no longer fighting and the Czech Republic had been established.’

It was not until 1 March 1920 that the final Czechoslovak train left Irkutsk, and only in September that the last legionaries sailed from Vladivostok. Many of those who returned brought their skills and experience to the newly-established Czechoslovak Army; others, including Jaroslav Hašek, author of the satirical novel The Good Soldier Švejk, joined the Czechoslovak Communist Party. Still others lived to write their memoirs, including Gustav Becvar, whose account appeared in English as The Lost Legion. It concludes, ‘On 20 June 1920 we crossed the frontier of our newly freed homeland, the Czechoslovak Republic. […] Here, after six and a half years of weary exile, I saw my mother again.’

Susan Halstead (Content Specialist, Humanities and Social Sciences) Research Services

The British Library’s exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths is open until 29 August 2017, telling the extraordinary story of the Russian Revolution from the reign of Russia’s last Tsar to the rise of the first communist state. You can also read articles from our experts exploring some of the themes of our exhibition on our Russian Revolution website

27 April 2017

Bianca Bellová wins the EU Prize for Literature

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On 21 April it was announced that this year’s European Union Prize for Literature had been awarded to a Czech writer with Bulgarian roots, Bianca Bellová, for her novel Jezero (‘The Lake’). She will receive the prize of 5000 euros at a ceremony in Brussels on May 23. The novel also won the Czech Magnesia Litera Award  for the book of the year recently.

Jezero

 Cover of Bianca Bellová, Jezero (Brno, 2016) BL copy awaiting shelfmark.

The European Union Prize, established in 2009, is awarded annually to writers from the EU member states, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and the EU candidate countries to enable them to have their books published abroad and address a wider public. It also aims to promote better understanding among nations, and over 60 of the winning books have been translated into three to four languages on average. The jury usually selects writers from 12 countries as the EU award laureates. In recent years the prize has twice been conferred on Czech authors: Jan Němec received it for his novel about the avant-garde photographer František Drtikol, Dějiny svetla (‘The History of Light’: Brno, 2013; YF.2014.a.9528), in 2014, and Tomáš Zmeskal for his debut novel Milostný dopis klinovým písmem (‘Love Letter in Cuneiform Script’) in 2011.

Bellová was born in 1970 in Prague, where she studied economics, going on to write for newspapers and periodicals and work for multinational companies before embarking on a career as a translator and interpreter from English. She made her literary debut with Sentimentální román (‘Sentimental Novel’; 2009), followed by the novellas Mrtvý muž (‘The Dead Man’; 2011) and Celý den se nic nestane (‘Nothing Happens All Day Long’; 2013). The first of these is the story of a traumatized family during the 1970s and 80s – the grandfather had been a victim of the regime (the book opens with the sentence ‘They hanged Grandad in September 1950’), the grandmother fights against it, the mother is on the verge of a complete breakdown, and the father experiences his own ‘coming out’ during the Velvet Revolution, while the children – the protagonist Hana and her twin brother David – play at being the Mašín brothers who fought the Communists in the 1950s and the ‘communist bastards’. In the second, set in a hotel which is preparing for a wake, an employee, Marta, is trying to communicate with her 16-year-old daughter Lola, while both of them miss Esterházy, a man who has abandoned them both.

Bellová also wrote a number of short stories. One of these, Přijela tetička Lidka (‘Along came Auntie Lidka’), appears in a collection held by the British Library, Možná si porozumíme (‘We may come to understand each other’), together with stories by other well-known contemporary Czech authors including Petra Soukupová and Michal Viewegh.

Czech short stories

 The short story collection Možná si porozumíme (Jihlava, 2015) YF.2016.a.16116

Jezero is the story of a boy, Nami, trying to find his mother in a distant region reminiscent of the shores of the Aral Sea. We follow him as he lives rough in search of work, standing hopefully in line day after day until he finally gets a backbreaking job as a stevedore at the port and then as an asphalt-layer in a sulphur factory. By night he sleeps in a squalid dormitory where his meagre savings are stolen and he is plagued by bedbugs; we witness the creeping brutalization of his fellow-workers whose sole pleasures are smoking and a weekly trip to the brothel, and the gradual breakdown of their health and hygiene as, covered in sulphur-dust, they stagger back at night too exhausted to wash or clean their teeth before collapsing into bed. This in turn mirrors the degradation of their environment - a fishing village at the end of the world on a lake that is drying up and, ominously, pushing out its banks.

Yet Nami cherishes memories of Zaza, his first love, whom he lost to Russian soldiers, and dreams of being reunited with his mother although he cannot remember her face or even her name. His quest for her takes him on a pilgrimage across the lake and around its shores; despite the highly topical themes of pollution and the slow poisoning of the atmosphere and the landscape, human relationships and individual souls, the eternal figure of the young hero, a Parsifal for our times, testifies to the endurance of hope in the midst of intolerable bleakness.

Susan Halstead Content Specialist (Humanities and Social Sciences) Research Services

 

19 April 2017

Four legs good? A Bohemian Wild Man

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The Gazeta de Lisboa reported on 29 August 1825 that a wild man had been found in the Hartzwald in Bohemia. About 30 years old, he howled like a dog, walked on all fours, climbed trees as nimbly as a monkey, and caught birds with ease. Taken to Prague, he resisted all attempts to civilize him.

This news inspired the anonymous author (or, rather, translator, as most of his information comes from the New Dictionary of Natural History printed in Paris in 1803 – that is, Nouveau dictionnaire d'histoire naturelle, appliquée aux arts, principalement à l'agriculture et à l'économie rurale et domestique; BL 723.i.1-23.) to put together in 14 pages a small anthology of wild men.

Wildman tp
Noticia de hum homem selvagem, apparecido ultimamente; com a curiosa relação de outros muitos, que em varios tempos tem apparecido na Europa (Porto, 1825) RB.23.a.24200.

In 1544 a young man in Hesse had been brought up most carefully by a family of wolves, who had dug a hole in which to hide him. So used was he to walking on all fours that it was necessary to tie splints to him to make him stand upright. Having learned to speak, he told the Landgrave he would sooner live among wolves than men. His natural language consisted of “most expressive gesticulations” and “sharp cries issued from his throat”.

Wildman Lutterell Psalter  Add MS 42130
A mediaeval image of a wild man, walking on all fours, from The Lutterell Psalter, Add MS 42130

There is a remarkable consistency among these wild men: a boy of about nine found among bears in Lithuania also communicated in rough grunts and refused all attempts at education. Another Lithuanian wild boy had forgotten all about his animal life by the time he learned human language.

Tulpius, the Dutch doctor (was he the Dr Tulp of Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson?) describes a boy brought up by sheep in Ireland. He lived on straw and leaves, which he could sniff out without mistake.

Tulpius Observationes
Engraved title-page of Nicolaus Tulpius, Observationes Medicae (Amsterdam, 1672) 1607/108

Another recognized his foster mother at a distance, by smell alone, like a dog. Some were still wearing residual clothing, like the boy found in Breslau. Had he run away from a cruel mother or nanny? Initially fierce, he allowed himself to be partly domesticated, but all his life evinced an antipathy to women: their proximity made him shiver and tremble.

Come of these cases are described as unusually hirsute, but in general are said to be well formed. In all cases the senses were developed beyond those of a civilized person. The treatments of these cases are neither voyeuristic, sensationalist or sentimental. Although the idea of the Noble Savage had been current for over a century, these savages are neither better or worse than the people who write about them.

Wildman Peter
‘Peter the Wild Boy’, a famous 18th-century feral child, found near Hamelin in Germany in 1725, from The Manifesto of Lord Peter (London, 1726) 12316.tt.24.

Even though these men and boys in many cases came to speak normally, none of them was reconciled to the civilized life, and sadly all yearned to return to the animal families who had nurtured them.

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies

23 March 2017

From Cubism to concentration camp: the life and death of Josef Čapek

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Many English speakers who claim that they do not know a word of Czech would be surprised to hear that at least one has found a firm place in their vocabulary: robot. Those who are aware of its origins might confidently state that it owed them to Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), first performed in 1920. However, he declared that he had merely given it currency, and the term had actually been coined by his elder brother Josef Čapek (1887-1945).

CapekSelf-portrait Self-portrait from Co má člověk z umění a jiné úvahy (Prague, 1946) 07812.m.41.

The two brothers had been born in the Bohemian town of Hronov as the sons of a doctor, and enjoyed a happy childhood there with their older sister Helena, who later remembered them affectionately in her memoir Moji milí bratři (‘My dear brothers’: Prague, 1962; 11880.r.19). All three siblings showed talent as writers from an early age, but Josef also displayed a gift for painting and drawing, and it was as an artist that he found his true vocation, studying at the Uměleckoprůmyslová škola in Prague and the Académie Colarossi in Paris. In later life he often illustrated the writings of Karel and Helena, but the paintings which initially made his name were in a very different style with a strong Cubist element, even in portrayals of Czech peasant life which recall the angular and bizarrely-coloured figures who people Chagall’s Vitebsk.

CapekHnedakrajinaJosef Čapek, Hnědá krajina (1936) from Josef Čapek, ed. Emil Filla and Bedřich Fučik  (Prague, 1937) X.0423/14.(63.)

Josef possessed considerable creative versatility, however, and developed not only a variety of idioms appropriate to the authors whose works he illustrated but a literary career of his own. He collaborated with Karel on the play Ze života hmyzu (‘The Insect Play’: Prague, 1921; Cup.408.z.53). Its satirical parallels between human society and that of various species of insects, from the bourgeois Crickets to the totalitarian world of the Ants, were universally applicable, and two years later it was translated by Paul Selver and ‘adapted for the English stage’ as The Life of the Insects (London, 1923; 11758.a.40.) Under his own name he published the utopian play Země mnoha jmen (‘The Land of Many Names’), which was also translated into English in 1923. However, one of his best-loved works was a charming collection of tales about a dog and cat who set up house together, Povídaní o pejskovi a kočičce (‘The Tale of Pup and Puss’), which is still a firm favourite with Czech children.

CAPEKPOVIDANINEWTitle-page from Povídaní o pejskovi a kočičce (Prague, 1929) X.992/1488)

He also had the capacity to provide humorous illustrations which matched the style of the comic authors such as Eduard Bass as well as Karel’s fairy tales and stories for young readers; though both brothers married, Josef had only one daughter, Alena, and Karel no children, but they were both adept at creating books for them whose wit and fantasy were in no way inferior to their works for adults.

However, as the 1930s progressed, political events provided sharper and bleaker matter for Josef to portray. He had had many years of experience as a journalist, initially as a critic and the editor of various art periodicals, including Umělecký měsíčník (Prague, 1911-14; ZA.9.b.1513), the journal of the Skupina výtvarných umělců (Group of Representational Artists), which he had co-founded in 1911. From 1918 to 1921 he acted as editor of Národní listy (MFM.MF641) which he left to spend 18 years as the editor and art critic of Lidové noviny (MFM.MF623). The caricatures which he provided for the newspaper became increasingly pointed and bitter in the period leading up to the annexation of Czechoslovakia by the Nazis in 1938, and on 1 September 1939 he was seized and imprisoned by the Gestapo. Eight days later he was transferred to Dachau, and thence to Buchenwald, where he spent two and a half years. His artistic gifts led him to be assigned to a calligraphic workshop where, along with other artists including Emil Filla, he was given the task of painting the family trees of SS officers.

CapekDiktatorskieBotyA drawing from the cycle Diktátorské boty (‘The Boots of the Dictator’: 1937), reproduced in Josef Čapek, ed. Emil Filla and Bedřich Fučik  (Prague, 1937) X.0423/14.(63).

His creative spirit remained undaunted even after his removal to Sachsenhausen on 26 June 1942, where he not only translated English, Spanish and Norwegian poetry but wrote and illustrated a long poem dedicated to his brother Karel and circulated further poems in manuscript. However, on 25 February 1945 he was moved yet again – this time to Bergen-Belsen, where typhus had broken out. In his weakened state after five years of incarceration Josef soon fell victim to the disease, and although some witnesses claimed that he was still alive in April, he died shortly before the camp was liberated, and as his body was never recovered he was officially declared in 1948 to have died on 30 April 1947. Karel had died at Christmas 1938, having contracted pneumonia after working in his beloved garden, and with his spirit crushed by the fate of his country; he is buried in Prague’s Vyšehrad cemetery, where a monument also commemorates the brother whose last resting-place remains unknown.

Perhaps less well known in the English-speaking world than his brother, Josef Čapek deserves to be remembered on the 130th anniversary of his birth for the original and many-sided vitality of an artistic spirit which remained unquenched even in the grim circumstances of his final months.

Susan Halstead, Content Specialist (Humanities and Social Sciences), Research Services

10 August 2016

‘Happiness for ten crowns’: Milena Jesenská (1886-1944).

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The British Library possesses a mysterious book published in 1926 in Czechoslovakia. In keeping with its title, Cesta k jednoduchosti (‘Journey to simplicity’:, its plain purple cover bears only the title and the author’s name – the single word ‘Milena’.

Milena Casta Kjednoduchosti cover
Cover of Milena Jesenská, Cesta k jednoduchosti (Prague, 1926) British Library YA.1987.a.16955.

During her lifetime, the author bore three different surnames, but is widely remembered for her association with a man whom she met only briefly. Milena Jesenská  was born on 10 August 1896 as the daughter of Jan Jesenský, a prosperous doctor who alleged that he was descended from Jan Jesenius, the first professor of medicine at Charles University  and one of the Protestants executed in the Old Town Square in 1621. She was educated at the Minerva school, the first gymnasium for girls in Central Europe. After the death of her mother when Milena was 16, she became increasingly rebellious, purloining drugs from her father’s medicine cabinet, reading controversial authors and staying out all night. Dr. Jesenský insisted that she should enrol in medical school, but when she fainted during her first dissection class he allowed her to abandon her studies. A gifted pianist, she flirted with music, but lacked the application to make it her career. She became a well-known figure in café society during the First World War, when political tension was growing between Prague and Vienna and the Čapek brothers, Karel and Josef, and their friends were discussing new trends in literature and art.

Milena aged 13
Milena aged 13, reproduced in Mary Hockaday, Kafka, love and courage : the life of Milena Jesenská (London, 1995) YC.2003.a.7796.

It was at the Café Arco in 1916 that Milena encountered two men who were to have a lasting impact on her life. One was a reticent young Jewish author who never stayed long at the café and initially made little impression on her. The second was Ernst Pollak, ten years older than herself. Her father disapproved of Milena’s association with a German-speaking Jew with no profession, and in 1917 he had her committed to a private psychiatric clinic. He finally capitulated, and in March 1918 Milena and Pollak were married and departed for Vienna.

Despite their participation in the lively intellectual life of the Austrian capital, the marriage proved unstable. Pollak had little regard for fidelity, and Milena herself began an affair with the author Hermann Broch. Desperate to recapture her husband’s attention, she stole and pawned jewellery from a friend to buy new clothes, and ended up in court. It was not until, in 1919, she began to write for the progressive liberal paper Tribuna, edited by Arnošt Lustig, that she began to develop a sense of identity and purpose, giving readers in Prague impressions of life in post-war Vienna. From fashion articles and essays on the delights of simple pleasures such as fruit, flowers and cakes (‘Happiness for ten crowns’), she progressed to sharp-eyed portrayals of the black market and the privations which the Viennese suffered as they nevertheless kept the city’s traditions of cafés and culture alive.

Milena_Jesenská
Milena in the mid-1920s. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

On a visit to Prague in October that year, she met up again with the man whom she had known slightly from her Arco days, and they began a correspondence. It was these letters, subsequently published as Briefe an Milena, that made her famous though her association with their writer – Franz Kafka.

Many of the books about Milena define her in terms of this association – for example, Margarete Buber-Neumann’s Kafkas Freundin Milena (Munich, 1963; X.908/2595), or Kafka’s Milena (London, 1992; YK.1994.a.904), the English translation of Adresát Milena Jesenská (Prague, 1991; YA.1992.a.2927), a biography by her daughter Jana Černá. Yet they only met twice, for four days in Vienna and one in Gmünd, during a correspondence which broke off abruptly in November 1920. The relationship, which began as a literary collaboration when she translated Kafka’s story Der Heizer (‘The Stoker’), the first of his works to appear in Czech, stood little chance of success because of Kafka’s poor health and timorous pessimism (‘We are both married, you in Vienna, I to my fear in Prague…’) and Milena’s inability to leave Pollak, whom she eventually divorced in 1925. Although it was Kafka who ended their association, he entrusted her with his diaries, and they corresponded sporadically until his death in 1924.

Milena Zijeme cartoonCartoon from the magazine Žijeme (P.801/132) showing Milena, her husband and daughter in a sparsely-furnished modernist flat

After her divorce Milena returned to Prague and developed her career as a journalist, translator and editor. She published Cesta k jednoduchosti, a collection of her articles which she dedicated to her father, and their reconciliation was strengthened by her marriage on 30 April 1927 to a man of whom he wholeheartedly approved – the modernist architect Jaromír Krejcar. He was a member of the Devětsil  group, and Karel Teige was one of the witnesses at the wedding. A daughter, Jana (Honza) was born to the couple in 1928, but a serious illness during the pregnancy left Milena with a permanent limp and an addiction to morphine. The marriage ended in divorce in 1934.

Milena journalism
A collection of Milena's journalism in English translation, The journalism of Milena Jesenská: a critical voice in interwar Central Europe, edited by Kathleen Hayes (New York, 2003) m03/21721

Two collections of Milena’s journalism make her work accessible to non-Czech speakers: The journalism of Milena Jesenská, edited by Kathleen Hayes, and Widerstand und Biografie: die widerständige Praxis der Prager Journalistin Milena Jesenská gegen den Nationalsozialismus, edited by Lucyna Darowska (Bielefeld, 2004; YF.2014.a.8107). These articles, originally published in Tribuna, Národní listy and Přítomnost, the political and cultural journal which she edited in 1938-39, provide critical insights into the rise of Nazism and its implications for Czechoslovakia. Her outspoken stance and the help which she provided to enable Jewish and political refugees to emigrate led to her arrest by the Gestapo in November 1939, imprisonment and deportation to Ravensbrück, where she died of kidney disease on 17 May 1944.

From the time when she stole flowers from graves to distribute as gifts to her last days in the concentration camp, Milena Jesenská’s life was characterized by an unquenchable zest for life and generosity of spirit. These qualities shine through her journalism, which is at last earning her the reputation which she won during some of the most turbulent times of recent Czech history.

 Susan Halstead Content Specialist (Humanities & Social Sciences) Research Engagement

06 May 2016

The Bard, the Bear and Bohemia: Shakespeare and the Czechs

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Travelling home from a screening of the recent Kenneth Branagh /Judi Dench Winter’s Tale in Oxford, I overheard a conversation between two other passengers who had also attended it. ‘Were there really bears in Bohemia?’ one of them was earnestly asking her neighbour, referring to one of Shakespeare’s most famous stage directions as Antigonus meets his fate: ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’. We could, of course, have debated this and concluded that it was indeed entirely possible that Antigonus might have encountered such a creature in the territory which we now know as Bohemia, but that would have missed the point. As soon as Antigonus addresses the Mariner who has brought him to this desolate spot to abandon the infant Perdita on his king’s instructions, it is clear that we have been transported beyond the realms not only of Leontes’ Sicilia but of reality itself: ‘Thou art perfect, then, our ship has touched upon / The deserts of Bohemia?’

This glaring geographical error – attributing a sea-shore to the landlocked territory of Bohemia – has frequently been cited as an instance of Shakespeare’s ignorance of Central European topography, and provided Derek Sayer with the title for his study of the Czech lands, The Coasts of Bohemia: a Czech history (1998; YC.2000.a.2603). Attempts have even been made to suggest that ‘Sicilia’ is a mistaken substitute for ‘Silesia’ – though this only compounds the mystery of why Antigonus would need to travel by sea to another area with no coastline.

Instead, we might do better to consider the growth of Shakespeare’s reputation in the real Bohemia and the contribution which he made to the development of theatre within Czech culture, from the earliest translations and imitations to the growth of the Prague Shakespeare Company and Summer Shakespeare Festival.

Fittingly, The Winter’s Tale was performed as part of the entertainments surrounding the wedding of James I’s daughter Elizabeth to Frederick, the Elector Palatine, in 1613. Six years later, life would imitate art as the young princess did in reality become Queen of Bohemia when her husband ascended its throne. However, the title of the play was tragically applicable to their situation, as the reign of the ‘Winter King’ and his consort lasted only a few brief months before they went into exile. These events raised awareness of Bohemia and its place in European politics with the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War, and it is possible that plays by Shakespeare were performed by the members of an English company which visited Bohemia in 1617 and again in 1619-20, though concrete evidence that Shakespeare’s works were known there cannot be found before the later years of the century.

Czech Shakespeare travelling theatre
A Czech travelling theatre of the kind that took Shakespeare to audiences around the country until the late 19th century. Picture by  by Adolf Kaspar, reproduced in Miroslac Kačer & Mojmír Otruba Josef Kajetan Tyl (Prague, 1959) British Library 10601.y.6.

However, in the course of the 18th century the permanent stage theatre gradually arrived in Prague, with the opening of the V Kotcích theatre in 1738 and the Estates Theatre  (Stavovské divadlo) in 1783. Performances there were usually in German or, in the case of opera, Italian, but in 1786 the Bouda (or ‘Shed’), a wooden theatre, was constructed in Wenceslas Square. Here audiences could see regular performances in Czech, including two plays published in 1786 by Karel Hynek Thám – adaptations of Schiller’s Die Räuber and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, followed in 1791-92 by Hamlet and King Lear.

  Czech Shakespeare JKTyl
Josef Kajetan Tyl, who translated and performed in Shakespeare plays in the 19th century. Portrait from Voytěch Kristián Blahnik J. K. Tyla had z raze (Prague, 1950). 10794.c.37.

The bad luck traditionally associated with the ‘Scottish play’ did not appear to affect the Bouda – if one discounts the fact that the theatre was knocked down after only three years – or halt the growing enthusiasm for Shakespearean drama. The poet Karel Hynek Mácha was an enthusiastic amateur actor and joined the dramatic society founded by Josef Kajetan Tyl which performed at the Cajetan theatre in Malá Strana (1834-37), including plays by Shakespeare in its repertoire. Other major literary figures of the 19th century were also profoundly influenced by Shakespeare. Josef Jiří Kolár (1812-96) translated a number of Shakespeare’s plays (Hamlet, Macbeth, and The Merchant of Venice; 11762.bbb.25), while Jan Neruda (1834-91) drew on his writings as a rich source of quotations and references to support his own opinions. Like other members of the ‘May generation’ (Májovci) he prized the optimism and vigour which he saw in Shakespeare’s writings, and frequently reviews performances of his plays in his capacity as a drama critic. Although he did not learn English until much later, he was already reading translations of Shakespeare as a schoolboy in 1851, when only four published examples in Czech existed (Macbeth, The Comedy of Errors, Othello  and Romeo and Juliet). As a journalist, he used Shakespearean phrases to upbraid the Old Czech members of the National Assembly whom he felt were betraying the country’s interests by their lassitude and torpor.

Czech Shakespeare Merchant of Venice
Title-page of Josef Jiří Kolár’s translation of The Merchant of Venice (Prague, 1883) 11762.aa.6.
 

The timeless relevance of Shakespeare’s works provided an invaluable resource in times of political and ideological repression, allowing writers to use his plots and characters as a means of commenting on contemporary situations. Vladimír Holan (1905-80), unable to publish his poetry in print, reflected in Noc s Hamletem (‘A Night with Hamlet’, 1964; X.908/5000) on the paradoxes and uncertainties of human and political existence in a work which would become the most translated poem in Czech. Similarly Václav Havel (who launched the Summer Shakespeare Festival at Prague Castle in 1990) returned to play-writing after many years when his energies had been claimed by his political duties with Odcházení (‘Leaving’, 2007; YF.2008.a.17785), in which he acknowledged the influence of King Lear in his portrayal of ex-chancellor Vilém Rieger’s reactions to the crisis which follows his relinquishment of political power.

Shakespeare’s ‘Bohemia’ may not exist on any map, but in a broader sense it does not have a sea-coast because it is also without boundaries and frontiers. It is a single part of a limitless world which claims as its citizens all those who prize the power of words to inspire, to portray the human predicament and to bring together people of every language and nation.

Susan Halstead, Content Specialist (Humanities and Social Sciences), Research Engagement

The British Library's current exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts  is a landmark exhibition on the performances that made an icon, charting Shakespeare’s constant reinvention across the centuries and is open until Tuesday 6th September 2016. A study day, ‘All the World’s a Stage’ on 10 June will look at Shakespeare’s cultural presence in Europe and the Americas.

21 February 2016

To the Moon and back: Svatopluk Čech (1846-1908)

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Looking at portraits of several of the leading figures in 19th-century Czech literature, it is hard to reconcile their sober and often diffident appearance with the worlds of fantasy which they conjured up on the page. Svatopluk Čech (February 21, 1846 – February 23, 1908) was one of these. Born in Ostředek near Benešov as the son of the steward on a nobleman’s estate, he plunged into his father’s library to discover the works of the European Romantics and developed a strong sense of patriotism which coloured his writings but did not entirely obscure his critical vision.

Cech portrait
Svatopluk Čech, frontispiece portrait from his Pravý výlet pana Broučka do měsíce (Prague, 1889) British Library YA.1995.a.4931

After his studies in Prague he embarked on a career in law, but abandoned it in 1879 to live by his pen, and quickly established himself as a journalist, contributing to the nationalist periodicals Květy, Lumír, and Světozor, which he edited. He had already achieved success with his first poem, ‘Husita na Baltu’ (The Hussite on the Baltic), published in the almanac Ruch in 1868, contrasting the turmoil of the Hussite wars  with the bonds between human beings. His choice of historical themes often served to point up the uncertain situation of the Czechs in the 19th century, in thrall to the Habsburgs at a time when their nationalistic feelings were increasing in strength, as in Václav z Michalovic, a story of oppression by the Jesuits set during the Thirty Years’ War when the catastrophic Battle of the White Mountain marked the conquest of the Protestant Bohemian nobles by the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor.

Cech Vaclav z Michailovic
Title-page of Svatopluk Čech, Václav z Michalovic (Prague, 1882). X.902/777.

In his epic poem Evropa (1878) Čech describes an allegorical voyage on the ship Europa, where conflict breaks out among the passengers of different nationalities and is resolved by the union of two of them. In other works he adopts a more lyrical tone, both in poetry (Jitřní písně [Morning Songs], 1887) and in prose (Ve stínu lípy [In the shadow of the lime-tree], 1879), but blends his memories of an idyllic childhood in the Bohemian countryside with awareness of the social and political realities of his times. In his poem Lešetínský kovář (The Blacksmith of Lešetín; 1883 (confiscated); 1899) he addresses the problems of industrialization in a rural area, and his cycle of 23 poems Písně otroka (Songs of a Slave; 1895) attack the subjection of the Czechs to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

It is, however, as a satirist that he is best known outside his native country. Although his mock epic Hanuman (1884) recounts a civil war between clothed cosmopolitan and naked ‘natural’ (nationalist) apes based on the corrupt and bureaucratic milieu of the Habsburgs, it is equally applicable to any authoritarian regime, and was translated into English well before the end of the century.

While several of his works were dramatized and later filmed, it is on the operatic stage that one of his creations achieved particular fame. Matěj Brouček (his singularly unheroic name means ‘little beetle’) is a prosperous but small-minded and cowardly Prague landlord whose fondness for beer leads him to frequent his local tavern, from which he is fantastically transported to the moon (full of pretentious artists and poets, mocking contemporary trends in literature) where he hitches a ride on Pegasus and where Čech himself appears as an apparition.

Cech Vylet Pan Broucka
Brouček is transported back from the moon. Illustration by Viktor Oliver from Pravý výlet pana Broučka do měsíce

In another adventure Brouček travels through subterranean passages below the pub and emerges in the 15th century amid the Hussite warriors, where he fails to distinguish himself in battle and wakes up behind a barrel to discover that it was all a dream. These stories inspired Leoš Janáček to compose his opera Výlety pana Broučka (‘The Excursions of Mr. Brouček’ 1920), taking the pusillanimous protagonist on yet another journey and suggesting comparisons with another picaresque Czech anti-hero, Jaroslav Hašek’s not-so-Good Soldier Švejk

Cech Novy epochalni vylet pana Broucka
Cover of Svatopluk Čech, Nový epochální výlet pana Broučka tentokrát do patnáctého století (Prague, 1889) 1568/802.

The pan-Slav movement which inspired poems such as Slavie (1882), set on another ship where the Russian brothers Vladimir and Ivan discuss materialism and idealism, may seem remote nowadays, but represents only one of Čech’s many themes. Through trenchant satire and mordant humour, this solitary and introverted man was able to transcend both his own limitations and those of a narrow nationalism to challenge chauvinistic patriots and express a breadth of vision and humanity which is as topical as ever nowadays.

Susan Halstead, Content Specialist (Humanities and Social Sciences), Research Engagement

 

07 September 2015

The Lion, the Wolf and the Wardrobe: Smil Flaška’s council of Bohemian birds and beasts

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As we commemorate the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta, it is interesting to reflect that England was not the only country in mediaeval Europe where the interests of the king clashed with those of his barons. When he succeeded his father Charles IV as king of Bohemia in 1361, Wenceslas IV faced a similar situation. Like his brother-in-law Richard II in England, he was of a temperamental disposition which did not make it easy for him to come to terms with the nobles who were concerned about his attempts to encroach on their ancient rights and organized themselves into a union of lords, the Panská jednota, to combat them. In 1402 Wenceslas was taken captive, leading to prolonged negotiations for his release and fighting between the nobility and the mainly German inhabitants of the royal towns. He was clearly in need of some sound advice about how to rule his turbulent kingdom.

It came from a somewhat surprising source – a man with a personal grudge against the Crown. Little is known about the early life of Smil Flaška of Pardubice except that he studied at the University of Prague in the 1350s, and in 1394 was appointed chief notary of the land court of the Panská jednota. It was also around 1394 that he composed the allegorical poem Nová rada (The New Council), the first example of its kind in mediaeval Czech literature.

Flaska, Nova Rada 1950 Ac.800.ba.(9)Cover of a modern edition of Nová rada (Prague, 1950). British Library Ac.800.ba(9).

Beast allegories were already widespread throughout Europe, both in Latin and the vernacular languages, from the tales of Reynard the Fox to Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls (c.1380), written to mark the marriage of Wenceslas’s sister Anne of Bohemia to Richard II. They were the successors to the classical fables of Aesop and Phaedrus,  in which amusing anecdotes about the follies of the animal protagonists could be used to point a moral which might have been unacceptable if expressed in another guise. This tradition was picked up in France by Gervais du Bus in a satire attacking the corrupt reign of Philippe IV, Le Roman de Fauvel (c.1310), where the run-down nag Fauvel represents the shabby condition of church and state.

Flaska, King LionThe king of the beasts, from an edition of Nová rada iIlustrated by Antonín Strnadl (Prague, 1940). Cup.502.aa.12.

Smil’s poem begins with the young king of beasts (recalling the double-tailed lion of Bohemia) summoning a council of forty-four birds and beasts to advise him. In a series of speeches each presents his views, based on the natural characteristics of their species. The beaver, for instance, advises the lion to build his castles of wood in watery places, a reference to Wenceslas’s well-known fondness for taking baths. The swallow, however, counters:

No, do not build in marsh or mire,
But where the air is healthy, higher;
With stone and mortar, dry and fast,
So what you build is sure to last.

Every aspect of kingly activity is covered, from the lynx’s tips on military strategy to the camel’s advice on charity towards those in misfortune and the elephant’s on the moral upbringing of the royal children. Not everyone is so high-minded, though; the peacock, understandably, urges the king to dress in a style more suited to his station (Wenceslas was notorious for slipping out in humble garb to enjoy the low-life pleasures of the town), and the horse enthusiastically agrees, advocating the splendours of the tournament surrounded by richly bedecked lords and ladies (though we may detect a satirical note in his decidedly unheroic account of the unhorsed knights rolling in the dust, shedding teeth and imploring aid with cries of ‘Rette, rette!’ – revealing their alien origins and tastes).

Flaska, Camel and Elephant            The elephant and the camel, from Cup.502.aa.12.            

Courtierly self-interest is also evident in the recommendations of the fox (if the king needs advisers at all, surely smaller ones with their wits about them are the best?) and the cat:

And, in addition, you’ll need spies
To watch at night with shrewd sharp eyes;
Murderers and thieves are apt, I think,
Softly in darkness to creep and slink;
But spies will seize them right on the stair
And drag them to court, for punishment there.
           (Translations by Susan Reynolds/Halstead)

The wolf, too, with his shoulders mantled in grey hair suggesting a cowl, symbolizes the rapacity of certain monastic orders, with an interpolated reference to the falsification of documents which caused Smil’s ancestral estates to be forfeited to the king, one of several cases where Wenceslas deprived noble families of their lands by the feudal right of reversion. He is also associated with the much-resented ‘new men’ whom Wenceslas had taken onto his council and allowed to buy positions in the land court, to the fury of the barons.

Flaska, Leopard, Bear and WolfThe leopard, bear and wolf from Cup.502.aa.12.

Perhaps the author could have used the lynx’s wise advice about how best to avoid an ambush; having taken an active part in the fighting on the side of the nobility, he was fatally wounded on 13 August 1403 during the siege of the royalist town Kutná Hora.

Smil was too astute to speak out unambiguously and counsel the king directly, even in an allegory, but the results make for a colourful and entertaining poem which was one of the first to be published in a new edition with a parallel text in modern Czech by Jan Gebauer, a pioneer of mediaeval Czech studies, in 1876 (Ac.800/7). In 1940 a new translation by František Vrba was published by Orbis in Prague, illustrated with woodcuts by . They prove that though Smil Flaška’s poetry originated from a specific time of personal and national crisis, its appeal is timeless and universal.

Susan Halstead,  Content Specialist, Research Engagement.

 

18 August 2015

Kafka’s Menagerie

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One of the exhibits in our current Animal Tales exhibition is a translation of Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (Metamorphosis) illustrated by Bill Bragg. In what is probably Kafka’s best-known work, travelling salesman Gregor Samsa wakes one morning to find himself transformed into – well, it’s never made quite clear. The German text initially refers to an ‘ungeheures Ungeziefer’, literally  ‘monstrous vermin’, and the description of Gregor’s transformed body definitely suggests some kind of insect. English translators sometimes refer to a ‘cockroach’ and illustrators tend to depict a beetle of some kind, although Kafka himself apparently vetoed any idea of showing an actual insect on the cover of an early edition.

Metamorphosis 1916The (insect-free) cover illustration from the 1916 edition of Die Verwandlung (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

If Gregor Samsa is the most famous ‘animal’ in Kafka’s work, he is not the only one. Indeed, Kafka’s stories contain a veritable menagerie of creatures, and Gregor’s is not the only case where metamorphosis plays a role. Ein Bericht für eine Akademie (A Report to an Academy), for example, is narrated by an ape who, having been captured by a hunting expedition, began learning to imitate his captors, continuing this ‘education’ as part of a music-hall act. He now considers that he has left ape-hood behind and become to all intents and purposes human.  In the short piece ‘Eine Kreuzung ‘ (‘A Crossbreed’) the narrator possesses a creature which is part lamb, part kitten, the kitten-like characteristics having increased since he inherited the beast from his father.

An uncertainty about the species depicted in Kafka’s animal stories is also a recurrent theme. The fragment  ‘In unserer Synagoge’ (‘In our Synagogue’) features a strange marten-like creature with blue-green fur which lives in the synagogue of a dwindling Jewish community, while in Der Bau (The Burrow) an unspecified tunnelling animal becomes obsessed with securing its elaborate burrow against a supposed enemy or predator. 

 Kafkadog
Franz Kafka with (appropriately blurred and undefined?) dog, 1905. Reproduced in Klaus Wagenbach, Franz Kafka in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten (Reinbek, 1965) British Libray X.908/8786

Like Ein Bericht für eine Akademie, Der Bau is narrated by its animal protagonist. The same device is used in Forschungen eines Hundes (Investigations of a Dog), where a dog tries to make sense of the world around it but is hampered by its inability to recognise the presence and influence of humans in its own life and those of other dogs. Another animal narrator is found in Josefine die Sängerin oder Das Volk der Mäuse (Josephine the Singer or the Mouse People), although here uncertainty creeps in again: only the story’s title makes a clear reference to mice, and without it we would not be able to clearly identify the community described as any particular species or type, animal or human.

Although we often associate animal stories with children, Kafka’s works are not generally seen as suitable childhood reading.  So I was surprised to come across a book called My First Kafka which retells three of his stories, including Metamorphosis and Josephine... in simplified versions and language, with striking and intriguingly detailed black-and-white illustrations. Kafka for the kiddies? Surely not! But the stories work surprisingly well in this format and the retellings do not talk down and do not shy away from Gregor’s death or Josephine’s disappearance.

My First Kafka
Cover of My First Kafka (Illustration © Rohan Daniel Eason, reproduced by kind permission of One Peace Books)

The book seems to recognise that, while adult readers may come to Kafka’s works primed to do anything but take them at face value, a child can read them simply as animal tales, as many have similarly done with Orwell’s Animal Farm, only understanding any deeper meaning in later years.  I saw a hint of this childish approach when walking round the exhibition: a little girl, held up in her father’s arms, was pointing and chuckling delightedly at the picture of Gregor-as-bug lying in his bed. Perhaps in 15 years’ time she’ll be a student of German, reading themes of alienation and family conflict into Die Verwandlung. But perhaps she’ll remember it simply as a strange nonsense tale of a man turned into an insect – and who knows which approach Kafka would have preferred?

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

References/further reading:

Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis and Other Stories, translated by Michael Hofmann ; introduced by Will Self ; illustrated by Bill Bragg. (London, 2010) Nov.2011/1170  [The edition displayed in ‘Animal Tales’]

My First Kafka: Runaways, Rodents, & Giant Bugs, retold by Matthue Roth, illustrated by Daniel Eason (Long Island City, NY, 2013) YD.2015.b.127

Richard T. Gray [et al.], A Franz Kafka Encyclopedia (Westport, Conn., 2005) m07/.28338

Kafka’s Creatures: Animals, Hybrids, and other Fantastic Beings, edited by Marc Lucht and Donna Yarri  (Lanham, Md., 2010) m10/.21890

‘Kafka’s Metamorphosis: 100 thoughts for 100 years’, The Guardian, 18 July 2015 http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/18/franz-kafka-metamorphosis-100-thoughts-100-years