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32 posts categorized "Czech Republic"

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.


 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)

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 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 of a modern edition of Nová rada (Prague, 1950). British Library

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. 

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

11 August 2015

A Scotsman abroad: Walter Leslie in the Habsburg lands

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I am always interested in the connections between different people, places, things - so my trips abroad can be like a game of “Six Degrees of Separation” in history!  Very boring for travelling companions, possibly, but it helps me place and understand the things I see. Recently, a friend’s Facebook posts on the fabulous Czech castle Nove Mesto nad Metuji  got me excited. It wasn’t just the beautiful interiors with painted ceilings and art deco bathrooms, or the circular tower room with windows on all sides and views for miles around. It wasn’t just the covered walkway in the perfectly-kept gardens. What caught my interest was the fact that the castle had once belonged to a Scot named Walter Leslie. 

Walter Leslie 1048.b22  Walter Leslie, towards the end of his life, from Paul Tafferner, Caesarea legatio ... Walterus S.R.I. Comes De Leslie ... Succincta narratione exposita ...  (Vienna, 1672) British Library 1048.b.22

I have “met” Walter Leslie before. He was a Scottish aristocrat who crossed the Channel as a young man to become a mercenary in assorted continental armies. This was a popular choice of career for younger sons with few expectations of inheritance, and the rewards, as far as young Walter was concerned, were phenomenal.  By 1630, he was in the entourage of the Habsburg generalissimo, Albrecht von Wallenstein, fighting the Thirty Years’ War across Bohemia.  There was no chance of Leslie feeling isolated: entire regiments of Scots and Irishmen surrounded Wallenstein, and when his motivation and loyalty became suspect to the Emperor Ferdinand II, they decided to prove their own loyalty by murdering their boss. Walter Leslie did not issue the fatal blow, but he admitted to killing the bogyguard, allowing an Irishman named Devereux to kill the now-defenceless Wallenstein. The dramatic event gave rise to countless rumours and speculation about what exactly had happened and about the motives of the foreign killers. It is possibly best known as the subject of a play by Schiller, which, ironically, fails to name Leslie, alone among the ringleaders.

Death of Wallenstein 1853.e.5.(34.)
The murder of Wallenstein, from a contemporary broadside (ca. 1634)  1853.e.5.(34)

Leslie set off for Vienna to report, and was richly rewarded for his efforts. He became an imperial chamberlain and subsequently a count (Reichsgraf), receiving the estate at Nove Mesto (then Neustadt an der Mettau) and other lands around Hradec Kralove (Koeniggratz).  He engaged in much diplomatic work involving his native Britain, with a particular interest in promoting Stuart interests on the continent (he was involved with the so-called “Winter King”, Friedrich of Bohemia, and his wife Elizabeth Stuart, as well as with their famous son Rupert of the Rhine), and continued to work as a Habsburg commander, eventually taking charge of troops on the Military Frontier  against the Ottoman Empire. Leslie bought himself new lands convenient to his posting, in the Styrian cities of Graz and Ptuj (Pettau), and married Anna Franziska von Dietrichstein, a daughter of one of the Holy Roman Empire’s most powerful families.

It was at Ptuj castle in present-day Slovenia that I first encountered Walter Leslie’s name. Built on and around a hill overlooking the wide sweep of the Drava/Drau river and its plain, Ptuj occupies a prime defensive and trading position, and it was there in Roman times. The Romans left some interesting archaeological remains, including several Mithras shrines, and one particular legacy of continuing economic importance: miles and miles of vines, covering the rolling green hills all around the city and across eastern Slovenia. Later, Ptuj belonged to the Archbishops of Salzburg, and was as important in the Emperor’s internal power struggles with them as with the Ottoman invaders to the east. Leslie’s family would live there for two centuries, and are today the castle’s most “visible” owners, for they remodelled it extensively and left an art gallery full of their portraits of Habsburgs and Stuarts. The building is now part of Ptuj's regional museum. They continued to intermarry with the highest Habsburg nobility, and acquired several more castles in the Ptuj area (there were certainly plenty to go around, and all of them are highly evocative).

Ptuj Castle (photo, Janet Ashton)

I’ve also encountered Leslie family history in Moravia, at Mikulov, his wife’s family seat, for the Dietrichsteins eventually inherited the Leslie lands and titles as collateral descendants. This is yet another small, charming central European town built around a castle, and the terrain here is remarkably similar to Ptuj: rolling green hills covered in vines. What this says about the family’s tastes I am not quite sure!

Mikulov Castle (photo, Janet Ashton)

Walter Leslie was not particularly popular with contemporaries, who derided him as a boastful foreigner, but his story appeals to me as an instance of Britons’ cosmopolitan connections to Europe several hundred years ago. His castles aren’t too bad, either. Nor, it must be said, is the wine.

Janet Ashton, West European Cataloguing Team Manager


David Worthington, Scots in Habsburg service, 1618-1648 (Leiden, 2004). ZA.9.a.9590

Polona Vidmar, ‘Under the Habsburgs and the Stuarts: the Leslies’ portrait gallery in Ptuj Castle, Slovenia’, in British and Irish emigrants and exiles in Europe, edited by David Worthington (Leiden, 2010). 6151.340000


12 June 2015

The guinea-pigs of a new era: Ludvík Vaculík (1926-2015) and the Czech dissidents

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Ludvík Vaculík  died on 6 June at the age of 88 – exactly three weeks before the anniversary of the manifesto which established him as one of the most significant figures of the Prague Spring in the fight for a more free and open political climate which ended as the Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia on 21 August 1968.

Ludvík Vaculík in 2006 (photo by Vitjan from Wikimedia Commons

Vaculík was born on 23 July 1926 in the Moravian village of Brumov as the son of a carpenter, and worked in a shoe factory before moving to Prague after the Second World War. He embarked on a literary career, and as a member of the Czechoslovak Communist Party he attended the fourth Congress of the Union of Writers in July 1967, a year after the publication of his first major novel Sekyra (‘The Axe’: Prague, 1966; British Library X.909/8373). This account of a middle-aged journalist revisiting his Moravian childhood home in the country and discovering letters which cast a new light on his father’s past and cause him to re-evaluate their relationship, with its portrayal of the pressures on family loyalties in a changing world, foreshadowed the speech which Vaculík made at the congress. His criticism of the Party’s restrictive cultural attitudes and failure to tackle social issues led to his being expelled from it, and a year later he continued his attack on its moral bankruptcy in his manifesto Two Thousand Words to Workers, Farmers, Scientists, Artists, and Everyone, published in several  Prague newspapers. Although his fellow writers had welcomed his outspoken address but doubted whether it would have any lasting effect, many of them signed the manifesto, setting themselves firmly against the conservative stance of the country’s president Antonín  Novotný, who had tried but failed to control the union’s activities.

Vaculík’s fears that Warsaw Pact forces might intervene in Czechoslovakia’s internal affairs proved only too well founded. He called on his readers, if this should happen, to hold their own and not indulge in any provocation, but his outright rejection of the Communist Party’s leading role attracted the attention of Leonid Brezhnev and his followers  and led to the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’ of applying force when socialism was perceived to be under threat.

As censorship tightened following Gustáv Husák’s rise to power in 1969, Vaculík launched the samizdat  press Edice Petlice (‘Padlock Editions’) in 1973, publishing works by Václav Havel and other dissident authors. (The British Library holds several examples of Vaculík’s own feuilletons in its Czech samizdat collections at Cup.410.f.816, YA.1996.a.2010 and YA.1991.a.6612.) In 1977 they banded together to formulate and sign Charter 77, leading to police interrogations of Vaculík, Havel and other signatories. Vaculík was aware of the danger that the charter might lose its relevance to those outside Prague intellectual circles, and did much to prevent this through his lively criticism.

Vaculik montage

Although the ban on Vaculík’s writings was lifted in 1989 and he continued to address cultural and political questions in his weekly column in the newspaper Lidové noviny, it is the novels which he wrote before this which have been most widely translated in the West. These include, as well as The Axe, Morčata (‘The Guinea Pigs’; Toronto, 1977; X.907/18130; English translation X.989/30871), the story of a banker whose increasingly arbitrary experiments on his sons’ pets (spinning them on revolving gramophone records and forcing them to swim under water) mirror the manipulative practices of the Czechoslovak authorities under Communism. His memoirs of his experiences as a dissident, A Cup of Coffee with my Interrogator: the Prague chronicles of Ludvík Vaculík  (London, 1987) is also available to English-speaking readers (YH.1988.a.401). They bear witness to the resilience of spirit and acute sense of the absurd which enabled him to survive the soul-crushing repression of the Novotný and Husák years, and to support the people of Czechoslovakia in their progress towards a society where freedom of speech and truth could finally prevail.

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