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39 posts categorized "Czech Republic"

15 June 2018

From Sokol to Symbolism: the short life of Karel Hlaváček

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The tragic figure of the frail poet dying prematurely of consumption is one which haunts European literature from Keats to Jiří Wolker. Yet there can be few less likely candidates for this role than the Czech poet Karel Hlaváček. He was born into a solidly working-class family in Prague on 29 August 1874, the son of Josef Hlaváček and his wife Antonie. Bright and talented, the young Karel was educated at the high school in the Karlín district of Prague, where he became a keen member of the Sokol movement, founded in 1862 by Miroslav Tyrš and Jindřich Fügner. Ostensibly an organization aiming to promote physical fitness through gymnastics, this actually served as a cover for patriotic activities and provided a focus for national feeling among young Czechs under the oppressive regime of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Such was his enthusiasm that he was one of the founding members of a new branch of Sokol in his home district of Libeň and was chosen as its president.

Hlaváček’s parents could not afford to send him to university full-time, but he was able to attend lectures as an external student, and spent two years studying modern languages in this way. French held a particular attraction for him, and he soon became acquainted with the work of French Symbolist and Decadent writers including Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Verlaine and Mallarmé. At the same time his gifts as an artist were rapidly developing. His drawings and prints revealed his fascination with the morbid and demonic, including studies of devils, malevolent fauns and other supernatural beings. This made him a natural illustrator of works by authors who were in tune with the spirit of Decadence, including Arnošt Procházka, Otokar Březina, Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic and Stanisław Przybyszewski, as well as of his own poems. He had applied to the School of Applied Art (Uměleckoprůmyslova škola) in Prague, but predictably failed to gain admittance, and in fact never settled to any fixed occupation.

A fine physical specimen thanks to his Sokol training, Hlaváček was called up for his compulsory military service and despatched to serve in Trento in northern Italy in 1895. For the last two years he had been writing for the official Sokol magazine and in 1895 had acted as an organizer and publicist for the third pan-Sokol assembly in Prague. Although his departure for Trento interrupted this, it brought him into a new environment which confirmed his belief in the value of international contacts and active cooperation with writers of other nations on equal terms. It was also where he contracted the tuberculosis which was to kill him.

Hlaváček crystallized his ideas on this subject on an essay entitled ‘Nacionalism a internacionalism’, published in Moderní revue V (1896). He considered that Czech authors could only benefit from the spirit of internationalism, which would not dilute their Czech identity but would strengthen it. He had been contributing to this periodical (Prague, 1895-; P.P.4835.ub.) from its inception, and in doing so worked closely with some of the leading Czech literary figures of the fin-de-siècle, among them Antonín Sova, producing portraits and vignettes as well as illustrations.

His own first collection of verses, Sokolské sonety, came out in 1895, although he was later to repudiate it as his efforts to express Tyrš’s ideals in verse gave way to more daring experiments. Inspired by a collection of modern French poetry in translation published by Jaroslav Vrchlický (Prague, 1893; 1608/3839), he began to adapt the spirit of Symbolism and Decadence into Czech. In Pozdě k ránu (‘Late towards morning’; 1896), he created melancholy verses aiming to suggest the deep musical tones of the drum or viola, accompanied by his own illustrations in the spirit of Félicien Rops  and Edvard Munch.

Hlavacek Pozde k Ranu X.907-10067 Frontispiece from Pozdě k ránu (Prague, 1896) X.907/10067

The book subsequently inspired illustrations by other artists, including a series of lithographs by Karel Štik for a limited edition published to mark the 50th anniversary of Hlaváček’s death. The British Library’s copy, signed by the artist, includes a powerful portrait of the poet himself.

Hlavacek Pozde k Ranu LR.410.k.18 frontis Portrait of Hlaváček by Karel Štik from Pozdě k ránu (Prague,1948) L.R. 410.k.18.

In 1898, the year of his death, Hlaváček published one of his most famous works, Mstivá kantiléna (‘Vindictive cantilena’), widely regarded as the most significant verse work of Czech Decadent literature. Though comparatively short, it encompasses a wide range of European cultural references, including the Abbé Prevost’s Manon Lescaut and the Dutch Anabaptist rebels known as the Geuzen or Gueux, conjuring up a synaesthetic world of failed rebellion, bells which cannot ring, and legends of ‘the sin of the yellow roses’, ‘the moon which went blind through long weeping’ and ‘the beautiful dolphin’. Like his earlier poem ‘Upír’ which portrays an aristocratic vampire flitting through Prague and sorrowing as he plunges down on his pure victims, it captures the resonances of Decadence in a uniquely Czech fashion by exploiting the rhythms and resonances of the language.

Hlavacek Mstiva Kantilena X989-8471Frontispiece to Mstivá kantilena (V Praze, 1916) X.989/8471; a copperplate engraving by the author.

In that same year Hlaváček’s condition worsened and he died on 15 June 1898, just two months short of his 24th birthday. His contribution to Czech literature far exceeds the modest compass of his published work in the inspiration which it gave to those who would go on to build up links between the rest of Europe, especially France, and a country which just 20 years later would achieve not only cultural but national independence.

Susan Halstead, Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services

 

23 May 2018

Do not lean out of the window – especially in Prague

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One of the phrases that eager young travellers embarking on an Interrail adventure speedily acquire is the injunction found on most European trains to avoid the perils of hanging out of the window – è pericoloso sporgersi and the like. As they cross the border into the Czech Republic they will see the warning Nenahýbejte se z oken – i.e. ‘do not lean out of windows’. To those familiar with the history of the area, this might well seem to be a particularly timely admonition.

In recent times there were at least two instances of notable Czech figures who met their end in this way: in February 1997 the author Bohumil Hrabal died after falling from a window on the fifth floor of Prague’s Bulovka Hospital, attempting to feed pigeons. More sinister was the death of the politician and diplomat Jan Masaryk, who on 10 March 1948 was found dead, dressed only in his pyjamas, in the courtyard of the Foreign Ministry in Prague. Although the initial investigation by the Ministry of the Interior stated that he had committed suicide by jumping out of the window, a second investigation, carried out in 1968 during the Prague Spring, ruled that it was an accident, while a third, held in the early 1990s after the Velvet Revolution, concluded that he had been murdered by the emerging Communist authorities.

These were only two examples of a tradition that had long been endemic to the Bohemian capital. Today marks the 400th anniversary of the dramatic events of 23rd May 1618 which launched the Thirty Years War. However, it was not the first time that something similar had happened there; the so-called First Defenestration of Prague had occurred in July 1419, when an angry crowd of Czech Hussites stormed the New Town Hall (Novoměstská radnice) on Charles Square and defenestrated the judge, the burgomaster, and several members of the town council, who were all killed by the fall. This demonstration of growing discontent at the inequality between the peasantry, the Church and the nobility led to the outbreak of the Hussite Wars, which lasted until 1436.

Defenstration Bohemia Maps K.Top.89.14. Map of Bohemia with costumes worn by royalty, nobility, merchants and peasants by Pieter van den Keere, from Bohemia in suas partes geographicē distincta (Amsterdam, 1620) Maps K.Top.89.14.

Almost 200 years later the scene was replayed in the imperial chancellery in Prague Castle, though this time with less immediately fatal consequences. For some time previously tensions had been growing between the Protestant nobles and the Catholic supporters of the Holy Roman Emperor. Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia (1576–1612), had increased Protestant rights, but as he became more and more eccentric and reclusive he was regarded as unfit to govern, and his younger brother, Matthias, was declared the head of the Habsburg family in 1606. In 1609 Rudolf ’s Letter of Majesty, which granted Bohemia's largely Protestant nobles the right to exercise their religion, essentially established a Protestant Bohemian state church controlled by the Estates, ‘...dominated by the towns and rural nobility.’

Defenstration RB.23.a.28233 Title page of Evangelische Erklärung auff die Böhaimische Apologia (1618; RB.23.a.28233), containing the text of the Letter of Majesty.

Matthias succeeded to the throne of Bohemia in 1612 and on the advice of his chancellor, Bishop Melchior Klesl, extended his offer of legal and religious concessions to Bohemia. As he was childless, he appointed his cousin Ferdinand of Styria his heir and had him elected king in 1617. Ferdinand, a staunch supporter of the Counter-Reformation, was less tolerant, and in 1618 he forced the Emperor to order the closure of two Protestant chapels on royal lands in the towns of Broumov and Hrob. A meeting was called in Prague to attempt to resolve the dispute, but the protest against the closing of the churches was rejected, and as the argument grew more and more heated the Protestant nobles, incited by Count Jindřich Matyáš Thurn-Valsassina, the deposed Castellan of Karlstadt, threw the Imperial governors Jaroslav Martinic and Vilém Slavata, as well as their secretary Philip Fabricius, out of a window on the third floor of the Castle.

The Catholics hailed the fact that all three survived 70-foot (21-metre) fall without major injuries as a sign that they were protected by the Virgin Mary; the more prosaic Protestants, however, noted that they had landed on the castle midden which had broken their fall. However, the incident exacerbated the tensions between Protestants and Catholics throughout the entire Holy Roman Empire, culminating in the election of Ferdinand II as Emperor in 1619, and inflamed a conflict which left lasting scars across the whole of Europe. Its effects extended even to England, as James I’s daughter Elizabeth and her husband Frederick, the Elector Palatine, who had briefly ruled as the ‘Winter King and Queen’ of Bohemia, had to make a precipitate escape from Prague after the Battle of the White Mountain in November 1620 where the Imperial troops finally crushed the cause of the Protestant nobles.

Defenestration Theatrum Europeaum 800.m.3-5 The Second Defenestration of Prague, from Johann Philipp Abelin and Matthias Merian, Theatrum Europæum (Frankfurt, 1643) 800.m.3-5.

The effects of the Second Defenestration of Prague may not have proved fatal to its victims, but were nearly so for the culture and language of Bohemia. With increasingly rigid suppression of the Protestant cause and the Czech language, the area sank into the period simply known in Czech as doba temná - the Dark Age. German was imposed as the language of public life and Latin was used in the universities, leaving the clergy as the only educated speakers of Czech as they needed it to minister to their parishioners; it was not until the National Revival in the late 18th century that it once more gained ground as a medium for literature and scholarship. It would go on not only to survive but to flourish, proving that whatever was thrown out of the window that day in 1618, it was not the spirit and identity of the Czech people.

Susan Halstead Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services

21 May 2018

European Literature Night at the British Library: identity and translation

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The arrival of the month of May can only mean one thing: European Literature Night!

EUNIC  and the European Writers’ Tour, with additional support from the Czech Centre and Flanders House, organised this year’s event on May 10th. As always the British Library hosted the event whereby authors from continental Europe showcased their work translated into English. They  read passages from their books in English and their own language. The readings were followed by a panel discussion with a Q&A session. Afterwards the audience was invited to buy the guest authors’ books and have them signed.

So far, so traditional. However, this year saw some radical changes. There were three authors instead of six or eight, which did the authors more justice. It made the panel discussion possible, which wasn’t there in previous years. A smaller group of authors also made the event more intimate, and this was emphasised by the new location: not the big auditorium in the Knowledge Centre, but a cosy tent in front of it, on the Piazza.

ELN2018PanelfromEUNICTwitterDc6EPL1WsAICyxR
 Panel discussion at European Literature Night, Thursday 10 May 2018 at the British Library. From left to right: Peter Terrin, Sylva Fischerová, Meike Ziervogel, Scott Pack. Taken from EUNIC Twitter feed.

We had a new host: Scott Pack, who replaced the host for many years Rosie Goldsmith. She was still there, but rather enjoying the event, with a nice glass of wine. The theme of the evening was ‘Identity’. The choice of authors obviously reflected this. All three authors share a ‘multifaceted’ identity. Poet/philosopher Sylva Fischerova was born in what used to be Czechoslovakia and is now the Czech Republic. Nothing fundamental changed, life went on. People tell each other the story of the old woman who was born in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, grew up in Germany, lived in the Soviet Union and died in Ukraine, never moving away from her home town. Borders don’t determine one’s identity.

Maybe language plays a more important part in ‘identity’ than geographical borders.
Sylva objected to having her poetry translated into English. When her good friend Stuart Friebert offered to translate her poetry she dismissed it out of hand as being ‘impossible’, but eventually he persuaded her to give it a go. He then not only translated her poetry, but also commented on the poems themselves, sometimes resulting in changes to them. Sylva now thinks the translation is even better than the original Czech version. I can’t judge, because I don’t speak Czech, but I enjoyed Sylva’s readings from The Swing in the Middle of Chaos (YC.2011.a.678)

ELN2018booksSF
Three books by Sylva Fischerová: Bizom, aneb, Služba a mise. (Brno, 2016). YF.2017a24377; The Tremor of Race Horses, transl. by Jarmila & Ian Milner. (Newcastle upon Tyne, 1990). YC.1990.a.10283; The Swing in the middle of Chaos, transl by Stuart Friebert. (Newcastle upon Tyne, 2010). YC.2011.a.678

Next up was Peter Terrin. He read from his 2015 novel Monte Carlo. The story throws up many questions about ‘identity’, such as where the protagonist belongs: in his English village, where he earns a living, repairing cars or on the Formula 1 circuits, as one of the top mechanics?

Peter Terrin sees himself as a ‘European’, rather than as a Belgian, or Fleming. ‘Identity’ is big in Belgium and language plays a major part in this, Terrin doesn’t ‘do’ borders. He speaks Flemish, English, probably French too and writes in Dutch (Flemish is very seldom used in writing). He lives in Belgium and publishes in the Netherlands.

‘This is really good,’ Peter thought, reading David Doherty’s translation of Monte Carlo. It felt almost like a new work. In a certain sense translations are new works. Translators never merely translate word by word; there is a big creative effort involved in translating any text. Still, the question remains what made him think like that. Maybe a foreign language creates the distance required to see one’s own work in a different light.

ELN2018PT MonteCarloMonte Carlo, Peter Terrin.(Amsterdam, 2015).YF.2016.a. 19205 and Monte Carlo, Peter Terrin, David Doherty. (London, 2017) DRT ELD.DS.163792.

German novelist and publisher Meike Ziervogel certainly seems to think so. She moved from Germany to the UK thirty years ago and writes solely in English. She calls herself a ‘translingual’ writer. She noticed that when writing in German she was hiding her emotions behind complicated words and constructions. At the time her ‘beginner’s’ level of English forced her to write in simpler, more direct language, which did bring out her true emotions. After thirty years English has become a native language to her and I could not help wondering if she ever feels like writing in German, doing the reverse of what she did thirty years ago, to force herself to identify her true emotions.

ELN2018MeikeZ Magda Magda, Meike Ziervogel. (Cromer, 2013). H.2015/.5439

Ziervogel is now on her fourth novel, The Photographer, about her own grandfather living through the Second World War.

ELN2018MeikeZThePhcover
 The Photographer by Meike Ziervogel. (London, 2017). DRT ELD.DS.206566 

I look forward to reading the various books that were discussed this evening, including Ziervogel’s Magda, her debut, about the wife of Joseph Goebbels. I hope I’ll finish them all before next year’s European Literature Night!


Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections

 

06 April 2018

Singing in the rain with Vítězslav Nezval

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This year marks the centenary of the establishment of Czechoslovakia as an independent state. Today we also commemorate the 60th anniversary of the death of one of the new country’s most notable poets, Vítězslav Nezval. He belonged to the generation which found its voice as Czechoslovakia itself was finding its place on the international stage in culture as well as politics.

Nezval PortraitPortrait of Nezval by Josef Šíma from Menší růžová zahrada (Prague, 1926) YA.1997.a.5557

Many of the young poets of the First Republic were members of the left-wing avant-garde, in general strongly influenced by modern French poetry. They had made their acquaintance with it through Karel Čapek’s outstanding anthology of translations Francouzská poezie nové doby (Prague, 1920; Cup.410.f.663 ), and it would leave a lasting imprint on Nezval’s own development; in particular he was strongly influenced by Guillaume Apollinaire.

It was in this decade that the Poetist movement evolved as modernity’s recreational counterpart to Constructivism. Its leading figures included the writer on art and architecture Karel Teige (1900-51), who summed up its nature as ‘easy-going, mischievous, fantastic, playful, non-heroic, and erotic’, a spirit which Nezval gleefully evoked in polythematic poems such as Podivuhodný kouzelník (‘The Marvellous Magician’, 1922) and Akrobat (‘Acrobat’, 1927).

Nezval H

Nezval ABECEDA

 The dancer Milca Mayerová posing as one of the letters of the alphabet, and the cover of Nezval’s Abeceda (Prague, 1926) Cup.409.b.5.

Nezval, as the son of a musical and art-loving schoolmaster from Moravia, had displayed a talent for music early in life and was far more at home in artistic circles than at Charles University, where he studied philosophy but never graduated. His companions in Prague’s cafés and studios included not only Teige but also Jindřich Štyrský, Jaroslav Seifert and Toyen (Marie Cerminová), and in 1922 they bonded together to found the avant-garde group Devětsil (literally ‘nine forces’, the Czech name of the butterbur plant, but with an implicit reference to the nine founding members of the group). They frequently collaborated on artistic and typographical projects; Nezval’s poem Židovský hřbitov (‘The Jewish Cemetery’), for example, featured six original lithographs by Štyrský and typographic design by Teige.

Nezval Cemetery

Above: Lithograph by Jindřich Štyrský from Židovský hřbitov (Prague, 1928) Cup.410.g.577. Below: the author’s signature from the flyleaf.

Nezval signature

It was natural that Nezval’s interests should lead him to visit France, where he made contact with many of the most significant figures in the Surrealist movement, including André Breton and Paul Éluard. As a result of this a specifically Czechoslovak Surrealist group was established in 1934; Nezval had already translated Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto in 1930, and he went on to edit the group’s journal Surrealismus. His collections from this period, such as Praha s prsty deště (‘Prague with Fingers of Rain’; Prague, 1936; Cup.408.zz.27) reflect this influence, while a later collection, Absolutní hrobař (‘Gravedigger of the Absolute’; Prague, 1937; X.989/38352), was strongly influenced by the paintings of Salvador Dali and might be said to be his most Surrealist work.

Nezval Surrealismus RF.1999.b.2

 Cover of Surrealismus (Prague, 1936) RF.1999.b.2.

Initially the young Poetists had been eager for more extreme political action than that advocated by President Masaryk and his followers, and had identified with the international Marxist and proletarian movements. Nezval subsequently rejected André Breton’s doctrine, and returned to a less experimental poetic style which was linked to his staunch support for Communism. Unlike his contemporary Jaroslav Seifert, for example, who left the party in 1929 and went on to become one of the signatories of Charter 77 , Nezval remained loyal to it and from 1945 to 1950 even headed the propagandistic film department at Czechoslovakia’s Ministry of Information. He also composed an effusive poem in praise of Stalin, which makes uncomfortable reading when one considers the worst excesses of the era following the Communist takeover of 1948.

However, when his writings of this nature have been justly forgotten, it is perhaps for his evocations of Prague itself, its people, buildings and landscapes, that Nezval will be remembered. He portrays in loving detail its shop-windows at Christmas-time, its office girls waiting for a tram, its bridges, chimneys, markets and acacia-trees, and Prague in the midday sun, ‘beautiful as the mystery of love and improbable clouds’. And, summing up the quirky contradictions of Poetism, here is one of the best-loved poems from his collection Sbohem a šáteček (‘A Farewell and a Handkerchief'; 1933), ‘Pocket Handkerchief’:

I’m taking off today; I feel like crying—
Just time to wave my handkerchief, I see;
If all the world were one great gaudy poster,
Cynic, I’d tear it, throw it in the sea.

Just like a fish, this vale of tears absorbed me,
Its image, broken thirty times, composed;
Now leave me, skylark, your great glorious error,
If I must sing, I’d sob a bit, one knows.

The kerchief flutters down; the city opens—
Grotesquely, at the tunnel’s mouth, it breaks;
A pity death’s not just a long black journey,
From which, in some unknown hotel, I’d wake.

You whom I loved like Andrea del Sarto,
Turn a silk kerchief for fair women’s eyes;
And, if you know death’s just a leap, a moment—
Don’t flinch, now—Good day, goshawk!—up one flies!
(Translation © Susan Reynolds, 2011.)

Susan Halstead (Reynolds), Subject Librarian (Social Sciences) Research Services.

12 October 2017

Righteous Gentile and honorary Irishman: Zdeněk Urbánek

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When Václav Havel, playwright and future president of the Czech Republic, was imprisoned in the 1970s, he came across a novel entitled The Road to Don Quixote (Cestou za Quijote; 1949), freely based on Cervantes’s experiences in an Algerian prison. As he read it, admiring the prophetically modern quality of the book and the author’s imaginative grasp of what it felt like to be a prisoner, he realised that he had actually met the author. At that time, when he was a young man in his early twenties attempting to break into the world of Czech literature and drama, the older man – a writer of short stories and essays, and a translator of Shakespeare and Joyce – inspired his respect, but little more. It was not until later, as they worked together as friends and co-signatories of Charter 77, that Havel came to appreciate the true qualities of Zdeněk Urbánek.

F_urbanek_zdenek_1917_0001

 Portrait of Zdeněk Urbánek (Image from The Archive of Fine Arts, Creative Commons non-commercial use-Share-Alike 3.0)

Urbánek was born on 12 October 1917 in Prague. After graduating he became an editor, first at the publishing house Evropský literární klub and in 1945 of the periodical Svobodné slovo, before working in the Ministry of Information and the Czechoslovak state film company as a script reviewer. In 1957, however, he contracted tuberculosis and left full-time employment to devote himself to translation. He had a special affinity with Irish literature, describing himself as an ‘honorary Irishman’; his translation of James Joyce’s Dubliners (Dubliňané; Prague, 1959; 011313.kk.22) testifies to this.

Among the many British and American authors whom he translated were T. S. Eliot, Eugene O’Neill, Scott Fitzgerald and Charles Dickens, but his crowning achievement was his translation of seven of Shakespeare’s plays; the British Library holds a three-volume edition of these containing Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, Richard III, Julius Caesar, Hamlet and all three parts of Henry IV (Brno, 1992-95; YA.2002.a.740). Of these, Hamlet retained a place in the repertoire of the National Theatre in Prague from 1959 to 1965.

Urbanek Romeo and Juliet

Frontispiece and tittle-page from Romeo a Julie (Prague, 1964; 11760.a.6),translated by Urbánek, illustrated by Ota Janeček.

The British Library is also privileged to own a copy of Urbánek’s earliest published work, a collection of short stories entitled Jitřenka smutku (‘Mourning star’), which bears a dedication in the author’s own hand.

Urbanek Jitrenka smutku inscription

 Manuscript dedication on the flyleaf of Jitřenka smutku (Prague, 1939; X.909/81940).

At the same time as he was embarking on his literary career and establishing himself in publishing, Urbánek was also becoming active in a very different sphere. Since the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia the previous year he had been living in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and the growing persecution of the Jews was brought home to him in a particularly forceful way when his friend Jiří Ohrenstein, a Jewish poet who wrote under the name of Jiří Orten, was knocked down by a German ambulance in 1941 and died after being denied hospital treatment on racial grounds. Urbánek could not save him, but he could at least preserve his work and his literary reputation, and wrote an introductory essay for a collection of his writings, Eta, Eta, žlutí ptáci (‘Eta, Eta, yellow birds’ ; Liberec, 1966; X.909/8664). On a more practical level, Urbánek and his wife Věra provided temporary shelter in their two-room apartment for several Jewish fugitives on their way to safer refuges, and also offered a collection-point for food parcels being sent to others who had already been dispatched to Terezín. In recognition of his efforts, Urbánek was subsequently designated as a ‘Righteous Gentile’ by the State of Israel.

Urbanek Jitrenka smutku cover

  Cover of Jitřenka smutku.

Urbánek never hesitated to put his personal safety at risk in the service of both humanitarian and literary causes. He was frequently subjected to police questioning, and even his work as a translator exposed him to danger through his choices of authors and the ideas which they expressed, leading him to publish them anonymously or under borrowed names. From 1972 onwards he contributed to various samizdat and exile literary publications, as after 1968 he had been placed on the list of banned writers.

In one of his short stories, ‘The Visit’, translated by William Harkins in On the Sky’s Clayey Bottom: Sketches and Happenings from the Years of Silence (New York, 1992; YA.1993.a.20757), he describes a visit from a State Security representative hoping to recruit Urbánek’s wife to spy on a guest coming to stay with their neighbours. When it turns out to be a mistake (the man was looking for a Party member with a similar name living two floors down), the unwelcome caller departs, grumbling; ‘We’re already loaded down with work and they send me another two floors up. Goodbye then. And keep quiet or you’ll get it.’ In just three short pages Urbánek pithily and trenchantly captures the atmosphere of claustrophobia and distrust which prevailed immediately before the end of communism in Czechoslovakia (the story was first published in May 1992, only months before the ‘Velvet Divorce’ which divided the Czech Republic from Slovakia). He himself had made a significant contribution to the downfall of the old regime through his work with the human rights declaration Charter 77, signed by many leading cultural figures who were punished by imprisonment or dismissal from their posts; Urbánek was forbidden to leave Czechoslovakia after returning in 1969 from a six-month stay at All Souls College, Oxford, and did not do so again until October 1989, when he was finally able to visit the USA as a guest of the Charter 77 Foundation.

Despite the fact that Urbánek was 90 when he died in 2008, Havel declared that he had died before his time. ‘Without him,’ he stated, ‘I can hardly form an adequate conception of what Czech fiction, Czech essay writing, or Czech translation today have to tell us’.

Susan Halstead, Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services

 

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