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254 posts categorized "Literature"

22 May 2017

The problem with Berlin Alexanderplatz

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The current season of films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder at the BFI has included his adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s ‘unfilmable’ novel Berlin Alexanderplatz. Here former BL cataloguer Trevor Willimott reflects on his experience of reading the original work.

For someone reading the original text whose first language is not German, Berlin Alexanderplatz is a formidable challenge. Just a few pages in I realised this, partly because of the stream of consciousness nature of Döblin’s writing and partly because of the passages of colloquial language. The stream of consciousness technique has never been practised as much in German as in English or American literature but Döblin’s book is often seen in those ‘greatest novels of all time’ lists alongside other exponents of the genre, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner. Often compared to Joyce’s Ulysses, Berlin Alexanderplatz  is amorphous and turbid and in many ways untranslatable, although Eugène Jolas did translate it into English in 1931 (British Library. 012554.dd.26), a work which was not well received at the time. This is still the only available English translation of the novel.

Berlin Alexanderplatz DJ
Dust-Jacket of the first edition of Berlin Alexanderplatz (Berlin, 1929) YA.1988.a.21631

Regarded as one of the greatest German novels of all time, it tells the story of Franz Biberkopf, a murderer who upon release from prison resolves to become a respectable member of society in 1920s Berlin. Despite this, because of his past and the community he is released into, he is unable to free himself from the criminal underworld which has been his life. He lives in a grubby world of criminals and prostitution, with the lengthening shadow of Nazism falling over Germany. He is very much in and of Berlin and common, at one point considered a sort of ‘Vieh’ (in the contemptuous sense, animal or beast), a keyword throughout the novel, because humans are seen as little more than animals.

Berlin Alexanderplatz Döblin
Alfred Döblin around 1930 (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Normally, I like stream of consciousness fiction, and Virginia Woolf is my favourite novelist, but it was a struggle to enjoy this book. Gloomy and oppressive like the U-Bahn below, the dialogue sometimes moves to the same monotonous rhythm. The main reason I didn’t like it was its heavy reliance on Berlin slang and colloquialisms, which tested my German skills greatly, and the mundanity of it all. True to the stream of consciousness form because it credibly reflects the commonplace thoughts and ruminations which daily obtrude into people’s minds, it completely failed to lift me to the sublime levels of Virginia Woolf’s poetic prose in To the Lighthouse, for example. She could create a beautiful image of how someone sees a newspaper swirling down a blustery street, whereas Döblin will describe in detail Biberkopf’s spiel on the differences between a tie and bow-tie when working in a high-class men’s tailors, which may well serve to develop his character and Berlin’s social life, but is ultimately totally uninspiring prose. It is that unrelenting use of direct speech to reveal the character’s mind that I found so unappealing.

The most striking aspect for me in Döblin’s writing came from the darker side of life, for example his description of the slaughterhouse. In those days it wasn’t a bullet through the head; it was clubbing and hacking. The submissiveness with which the animals entered the abattoir moved me deeply.

While the plot is unremarkable, as is the case with many stream of consciousness works, Berlin Alexanderplatz is undoubtedly a great novel because it is a brilliant exposition of an ex-convict’s mind, his world, and Berlin of the 1920s. I think it has to be read in the original German to appreciate fully the book’s greatness, and while my expectations fell short it’s no doubt because that appreciation can only be attained by someone who has been immersed in the German language and its literature at a high level for a long time.

Further reading:

Materialien zu Alfred Döblin "Berlin Alexanderplatz", herausgegeben von Matthias Prangel (Frankfurt am Main, 1975)  X:907/15849

Harald Jähner, Erzählter, montierter, soufflierter Text : zur Konstruktion des Romans Berlin Alexanderplatz von Alfred Döblin (Frankfurt am Main, 1984) YA.1987.a.13595

David B. Dollenmayer, The Berlin novels of Alfred Döblin : Wadzek's battle with the steam turbine, Berlin Alexanderplatz, Men without mercy, and November 1918 (Berkeley, 1988)  YH.1988.b.839

Otto Keller, Döblins Berlin Alexanderplatz: die Grossstadt im Spiegel ihrer Diskurse (Bern, 1990) YA.1993.a.8319

Frauke Tomczak, Mythos und Alltäglichkeit am Beispiel von Joyces ''Ulysses'' und Döblins ''Berlin Alexanderplatz''  (Frankfurt am Main, 1992) YA.1993.a.4008

Sang-Nam Park, Die sprachliche und zeitkritische Problematik von Döblins Roman "Berlin Alexanderplatz”. (Berlin, 1995)  YA.1995.a.10150

Peter Jelavich,  Berlin Alexanderplatz : radio, film, and the death of Weimar culture (Berkeley, 2006) YC.2006.a.2302

 Rainer Werner Fassbinder und Harry Baer, Der Film Berlin Alexanderplatz: ein Arbeitsjournal (Frankfurt am Main, 1980) X.944/411.

Fassbinder: Berlin Alexanderplatz, edited by Klaus Biesenbach (Berlin, 2007) LF.37.a.184. 

  Berlin Alexanderplatz Arbeitsjournal
Cover of the ‘Arbeitsjournal’ by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Harry Baer documenting their work on the film of Berlin Alexanderplatz  

 

17 May 2017

Short words strike home

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A monosyllable is a long word that means a short one. Some tongues have more of them, some less; some are rich, some poor. English and Catalan (Eng and Cat in the MARC language codes used by library cataloguers) have more than Spanish (Spa).

Some think they’re the soul of Eng: all the words we spell with * are short and stark.

But what a punch the short can deal! To quote:

Basic English, produced by Mr C. K. Ogden of the Orthological Institute, is a simple form of the English language which, with about 1,000 words, is able to give the sense of anything which may be said in English.

The Bible in Basic English:

1 At the first God made the heaven and the earth.
2 And the earth was waste and without form; and it was dark on the face of the deep: and the Spirit of God was moving on the face of the waters.
3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
4 And God, looking on the light, saw that it was good: and God made a division between the light and the dark,
5 Naming the light, Day, and the dark, Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Now, Cat or Spa? Let’s try some.

Spa             Cat
bueno         bo
cabeza         cap
lejos             lluny
plano           pla
vino             vi

And of course names such as Pep, places such as Vich and El Clot and shops such as Pans.

Ausiàs March (1400-59) loved short words:

Qui no es trist de mos dictats no cur
ó en algun temps que sia trist estat
é lo qui es de mals apassionat
per ferse trist no cerque lloch escur
lija mos dits mostrant pensa torbada
sens algun art exits d’hom fora seny,
é la rahó qu’en tal dolor m’enpeny
Amor ho sab quina es la causa estada.

Monosyllables March C.62.c.5.
Les obres de Mossen Áusias March ab una declaratio en los marges, de alguns vocables scurs. (Barcelona, 1543) C.62.c.5. fol. 1r

His Spanish translator, Jorge de Montemayor (1520-61) lived a short life but did a good job:

No cure de mis versos, ni los lea
quien no fuere muy triste, o lo aya sido;
y quien lo es, para que más lo sea
lugar no pida escuro, ni escondido.
Mis dichos puede oýr, y en ellos vea
cómo sin arte alguna me han salido
del alma, y la razón de mi querella
muy bien la sabe Amor qu’es causa d’ella

Monosyllables March trans 1072.c.18
Las obras del excelentissimo poeta Mossen A. March ... Traduzidas de lengua Lemosina en Castellano por J. de Montemayor. (Saragossa, 1562). 1072.c.18 fol. 1r

Here’s a punt of my own:

If
you’re
not
sad,
don’t
heed
my
verse,
or
if
you
weren’t
sad
once,
and
if
you’re
burnt
with
lover’s
ills
don’t
slink
to
dark
holes
to
make
you
sad,
but
read
my
words
that
show
tormented
thoughts ...

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies

12 May 2017

A feisty Finnish feminist: Minna Canth

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In 1820 James Finlayson, a Scottish Quaker and self-taught engineer, received permission from the Senate of Finland to build a textile factory in Tampere using water power from the Tammerkoski rapids. Three years earlier he had been invited by Tsar Alexander I to set up a similar factory in St. Petersburg, and he was now bringing modern industrial methods to Finland, then under Russian rule. Finlayson, a passionate philanthropist as well as a good businessman, was zealous in providing the best possible conditions for his employees; the enterprise throve and grew to become Tampere’s biggest provider of employment, with considerable benefit to the town’s social conditions. Finlayson founded not only an orphanage but also a school for the workers’ children, and it was here that Minna Canth, one of the most important figures in the Finnish women’s movement received her early education.

Minna Canth portrait

Portrait of Minna Canth from Hilja Vilkemaa, Minna Canth: elämäkerrallisia piirteitä (Helsinki, 1931) 10797.b.40.

Ulrika Wilhelmina Johnsson was born in Tampere on 19 March 1844, the elder daughter and first surviving child of Gustav Vilhelm Johnsson, whose hard work in the Finlayson textile factory enabled him to become a foreman there. At home and at school she was strongly influenced by the emphasis on industry and piety, and when in 1853 her father was promoted to manager of the Finlayson textile shop in Kuopio, she continued her education there, doing so well that she was allowed to enter a school for daughters of the upper classes and, in 1863, to enrol at the newly-founded teacher training college in Jyväskylä  (now the University of Jyväskylä), the first institute in Finland to admit women to higher education and to deliver teaching in Finnish.

However, before completing her studies, Minna married the college’s natural sciences teacher, Johan Canth, who was nine years her senior, and over the next thirteen years produced a family of seven children. Nevertheless, this was not the end of her ambitions, which developed in a literary direction. Canth became the editor of the newspaper Keski-Suomi (Central Finland), and his wife contributed articles on matters particularly relevant to women, including temperance, which she saw as a means of combating the addiction to alcohol which reduced many families to poverty. Her polemical attitude, which her husband shared, compelled them to leave Keski-Suomi in 1876 and to move in 1877 to a rival newspaper, Päijänne, which began to print her stories. Two years later her first collection of these, Novelleja ja kertomuksia (‘Novellas and Tales’) appeared in print.

Minna Canth did not shrink from taking on prominent public figures such as churchmen and authors when the occasion demanded. In 1885 she published one of her most famous plays, Työmiehen vaimo (‘The Wife of a Workman’), the story of a spirited and capable woman, Johanna, whose shiftless husband Risto ruins the family by drinking her money away while the laws governing women’s property render her helpless to prevent him. Set in contemporary Kuopio, the drama created a considerable scandal; that same year, its author spoke out robustly against a bishop who claimed that emancipation was against God’s law and the writer Gustaf af Geijerstam who supported him by arguing that men’s different needs and nature made it impossible for them to achieve feminine purity. Before the year was out, the Finnish Parliament had passed a new law allowing married women to hold property in their own right.

Minna Canth Työmiehen vaimo

Title-page of Työmiehen vaimo (Porvoo, 1885) 11755.df.20

Canth wrote many other plays and works of fiction, but her last drama, Anna Liisa  is among the greatest and is still often performed. Seduced by Mikko, a local youth, the fifteen-year-old heroine conceals the resulting pregnancy and stifles her baby in a fit of panic. Mikko’s mother Husso buries it secretly, but she and Mikko resort to blackmail when, some time later, another suitor, Johannes, proposes marriage to Anna Liisa. Refusing to give in even if it means sacrificing her happiness, Anna Liisa confesses and goes to prison, but with a calm mind and clear conscience. Although critics have argued against the unfairness of a conclusion in which Mikko escapes punishment and Anna Liisa bears it alone, she emerges as a strong woman capable of making moral choices and determining her own future on the basis of their integrity.

Minna Canth Anna Liisa
Title-page of Anna-Liisa (Porvoo, 1895) 11758.df.32

Johan Canth had died in 1879, and while pursuing her literary career his widow continued to manage not only her household and family of seven but the draper’s shop which she had taken over from her father. Her vitality and outspokenness made her a tireless worker for women’s rights and human rights at a time when the Grand Duchy of Finland was striving towards independence from Russia, and her birthday is marked every year as a celebration of social equality throughout Finland.

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

08 May 2017

Seminar on Textual Bibliography for Modern Foreign Languages 2017

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The annual Seminar on Textual Bibliography for Modern Foreign Languages will take place at the British Library on Monday 5 June in the Eliot Room of the Library’s Conference Centre, with the usual varied range of speakers and topics. The programme is as follows.

11.00     Registration and Coffee

11.30     David Shaw (Canterbury): The impact of the Aldine octavos on sixteenth-century paper for printing the classics.

12.15     Lunch (Own arrangements).

1.30     Pardaad Chamsaz (London): A murky business: the composition of Honoré de Balzac’s Une Ténébreuse Affaire.

2.15     Rhiannon Daniels (Bristol): Where does the Decameron begin? The editorial ‘problem’ of the paratext and the question of rubrics.

3.00     Tea

3.30     W. A. Kelly (Strathclyde): The Book trade in Moravia.

4.30     Barry Taylor (London): Allegorical title pages.

The Seminar will end at 5.15 pm.

The seminar is open to all and attendance is free, but please let Barry Taylor (barry.taylor@bl.uk) or Susan Reed (susan.reed@bl.uk) know if you would like to attend.

Narrenschiff 1499 Unnutzen Bücher

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

 

25 April 2017

French Medieval Tales in the 19th Century

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A two-volume copy of the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles, a collection of tales delivered by different historical characters, has recently been acquired for the British Library French collections. 

Robida Fig 1
Cover of the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles illustrated by Albert Robida, (Paris, 1888) RB.23.a.37261

This collection of 100 entertaining and often licentious short stories was written at the court of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, who was presented with a now-lost manuscript copy of the text in the 1460s. The main surviving manuscript copy of the work is in Glasgow University Library, (Hunter, 252 (U. 4. 10)), also produced in the 1460s at the court of Burgundy. The collection is anonymous, though it was (wrongly) attributed to Antoine de la Salle, author of the late medieval chivalric novel Jean de Saintré, by Antoine Vérard, who published the first (illustrated) edition of the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles in 1486. The text was reprinted by Vérard in 1498-99, and led to new editions throughout the 16th century.

Robida Fig 2
Antoine Vérard’s 1499 Paris edition of the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles, IB.41194

In the first half of the 20th century, the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles have been attributed by their editor Pierre Champion to ‘Mgr de la Roche’, Philippe Pot, Chamberlain to the Duke of Burgundy, who is responsible for the highest number of short stories in the compilation (15 in total). The text, which bears the influence of the medieval genre of the fabliau, is modelled on Boccaccio’s highly influential Decameron, which was disseminated in French through its translation by Laurent de Premierfait in the 1410s, published by Vérard in 1485, and reprinted c. 1499-1503.

The newly acquired copy of Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles is a merger of two items: 50 leaves of colour illustrations by Léon Lebègue, dating from 1900, have been inserted into the 1888 first edition of the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles originally illustrated with over 300 black and white engravings by Albert Robida.

Robida Fig 3
Illustrations in Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles, by. A. Robida (left) and L. Lebègue (right)

Robida was a well-known caricaturist. He wrote and illustrated a science fiction trilogy imagining life in the 20th century, featuring modern warfare and scientific inventions (Le Vingtième Siècle, La Guerre au vingtième siècle, Le Vingtième Siècle: La vie électrique, 1883-1890).

Robida Fig 4
Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles
, ill. A. Robida, 1888

Robida had a particular interest in the Middle Ages and contributed to several works relating to the period. He engaged in illustrated youth fiction, authoring Le roi des jongleurs (1896) and Les Assiégés de Compiègne, 1430 set around the story of Joan of Arc, and illustrating Georges Trémisot’s Le bon roi Dagobert  (1918).  He also illustrated the collection Contes et Fabliaux du Moyen Age (1908), as well as the works of the 15th century poet François Villon (1897;  12237.k.5.). In Les escholiers du temps jadis (1907), Robida tells the story of students in Parisian and provincial universities from the Middle Ages to his own time.

Robida Fig 5
Cover of A. Robida, Les Assiégés de Compiègne, 1430 (Paris, 1906) 12518.p.1.

Robida illustrated the very successful play by Frédéric Gaillardet and Alexandre Dumas, La Tour de Nesle, first performed in 1832, which tells the scandalous story of the daughters-in-law of Philip IV of France (the plot reappears in Maurice Druon’s 1955 bestseller Les Rois Maudits, 011306.gg.15.). The British Library holds a copy of the play, printed for the Société des Amis des Livres, donated and signed by its president, Henri Beraldi.

Robida Fig 6
F. Gaillardet / A. Dumas, La Tour de Nesle (Paris, 1901) 11739.g.106.

Robida also produced several series of books encompassing the history and architecture of old European cities (Les Vieilles Villes 1878-1880, 10129.ee.1.) and regions of France (La Vieille France) as well as of Paris, about which he was particularly prolific. He was the instigator of the monumental and hugely successful ‘Vieux Paris’ reconstituted historical quarter at the International Exhibition of 1900.

Robida fig 7
Cover of A. Robida, La Vieille France: La Bretagne (Paris, 1890-1893) 2362.dd.1.

Our copy of the Lebègue plates for the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles, issued by Charles Carrington, is number 104 of an edition of 120 copies. A folded advertisement for this edition is bound at the end of the second volume, along with its preface by Jules de Marthold.

Robida Fig 8
Advertisement for Lebègue’s 50 illustrations of the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles

The pages of the Lebègue volume fit within four red lines which delimitate a central space, a feature which is strongly reminiscent of the rulings on the folios of medieval manuscripts.

Robida Fig 9
Cover of Lebègue’s illustrations of the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles

This concerted medievalism, which agrees with the content and setting of the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles is immediately apparent on the book cover, with a Gothicising script printed in red ink, framed by two tournament spears and a scroll at the bottom. At the centre of the page are depicted a lady with a distinctive headdress and a knight in armour jointly reading a book in between two rose windows. On top of the illustration, the title is printed in a vegetal frame and ornamented by two lilies, and under the image feature the names of the artist, the writer of the preface and the printer, as well as the date of publication. Despite the anonymity of the author of the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles, the front cover designed by Lebègue contains a wealth of information, which contrasts with the paucity of bibliographic information provided in medieval manuscripts.

Irène Fabry-Tehranchi, Curator Romance Collections.

References:

Les Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles, ed. Pierre Champion (Paris, 1928) W.P.8406/5.

Les Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles, ed. Franklin P. Sweetser (Geneva, 1966) W.P.2063/127.

Philippe Brun, Albert Robida, 1848-1926: sa vie, son œuvre: suivi d'une bibliographie complète de ses écrits et dessins (Paris, 1984) YV.1986.a.430.

Daniel Compère (dir.), Albert Robida du passé au futur : un auteur-illustrateur sous la IIIe République (Amiens, 2006) Awaiting shelfmark.

Albert Robida et son blog… http://albert-robida.blogspot.co.uk

14 April 2017

La Majstro mortis!

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L. L.Zamenhof, creator of Esperanto, died in Warsaw on 14 April 1917. Warsaw was at this time occupied by German troops as the war in Europe still raged and the Russian empire was already engulfed in the flames by the February Revolution.

“Normally the funeral of Ludovic Zamenhof would have been attended by at least representatives of the Esperanto Movement from most European countries; war made this impossible”, notes Marjorie Boulton  in her book Zamenhof, Creator of Esperanto.

ZamenhofBoultonTitle-page and frontispiece of Zamenhof, Creator of Esperanto by Marjorie Boulton (London, 1960). 10667.m.13

Here she describes the funeral procession:

At three o’clock on April 16th the funeral procession set out from 41 Krolewska Street, with those members of the family who were able to come, the Warsaw Esperantists and many of Zamenhof’s poor patients. Foreign Esperantists were represented by Major Neubarth and one other German. As slow procession passed through the Saxon Square and along Wierzbowa Street, Bielanska Street, Nalewki Street, Dzika Street and Gesia Street to Okopowa Street and the Jewish cemetery, the slow black serpent grew longer and longer.

At the funeral Polish poet and Esperantist Leo Belmont spoke warmly about Zamenhof in Polish and the president of the Polish Esperanto Society, poet and translator Antoni Grabowski  paid tribute to the great man in Esperanto.

ZamenhofFunebraProcesio Funeral procession from La Lastaj Tagoj de D-ro L.L. Zamenhof kaj la Funebra Ceremonio. Eldonis Adolfo Oberrotman kaj Teo Jung (Cologne, 1921). YF.2008.a.12302

The news about the death of Zamenhof spread worldwide. In the memorial service in London at Harecourt Church on 6 May 1917, Belgian Esperantist Paul Blaise, married to British Esperantist Margaret Jones and living in England as a refugee, read from the yet unpublished translation of Isaiah by Zamenhof himself.

ZamenhofTheBritishEsperantistNEW The British Esperantist. Issue for May 1917. Announcement of Zamenhof’s death. P.P.4939ka.

The most famous poem about the death of Zamenhof ‘La Majstro mortis’ (The Master is Dead) was written by the Hungarian Esperantist, professional actor and writer Julio Baghy, then a prisoner of war in Siberia.

ZamenhofLaMajstromortisNEW.4322
 La Majstro mortis by Julio Baghy and the first tomb of L.L.Zamenhof in Warsaw (From La Lastaj Tagoj de D-ro L.L. Zamenhof kaj la Funebra Ceremonio).

The extraordinary life of Zamenhof, his language and his ideas attracted and will attract a lot of attention now and in the future. In 2007 the sixth edition of the biography of Zamenhof (first published in 1920) by prominent Swiss Esperantist Edmond Privat was published by the Universal Esperanto Association, based in Rotterdam. On this day, 100 years after the death of Zamenhof, Esperantists from Albania to Zimbabwe and many non-Esperantists remember his life and achievements. Zamenhof’s testament from his poem ‘La Vojo’ (‘The Way’), written in 1896, is still echoing in their memories:

Straight forward, with courage, not veering nor stopping
Pursue we this Way of our own:
Ne’er faileth the water, by dropping and dropping,
To wear through a mountain of stone:
For Hope, and Persistence, and Patience together
Are watchwords in all kinds of weather;
So, step after step – such is ever the story-
We’ll come to the goal of our glory.

L.L. Zamenhof ‘La Vojo’ translated by D.O.S.Lowell, published in Star in a Night Sky. An Anthology of Esperanto Literature (London, 2012). YKL.2014.a.2549

ZamenhofPrivatNEW

Above: New edition of Edmond Privat, Vivo de Zamenhof (Rotterdam, 2007; YF.2013.a.18901), Below: new books about the life of Zamenhof (from France, Poland and Lithuania).

ZamenhofNewbiographis

Olga Kerziouk, Curator, Esperanto studies

 

07 April 2017

Nature and naturalism: the short life of J. P. Jacobsen

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On 7 April 1847 Chresten Jacobsen, a merchant of Thisted in Jutland, and his wife Bente Marie welcomed their first child into the world. The boy was christened Jens Peter, but it was under his initials, as J. P. Jacobsen, that he achieved a reputation far greater than his modest literary output – two novels, seven novellas, and one posthumous volume of poetry – might suggest.

JakobsenPhoto

Portrait of Jacobsen from Niels Georg Christensen, J. P. Jacobsen (Copenhagen, 1910) 010761.de.1/4.

His education began at the age of four, when he entered the local infant school. He rapidly proved to be an apt pupil; in 1862 he passed his school certificate examination, was sent to a crammer in Copenhagen to prepare for university entrance, and passed the first part of the qualifying examination the following year. It was all the more surprising, then, that two years later he failed the second part and only received a third-class grade when he eventually passed it in 1867. His health was fragile, but a more likely reason for his failure was the growth of his creative interests; in 1867 he had founded a literary society named Agathon in honour of the Greek poet, and he was further distracted by falling in love with the actress Betty Hennings.

However, he had developed an interest in botany, and after passing a general examination in philosophy he registered to study biology in 1868. It seemed that he had found his vocation: in 1870 he was commissioned by the Danish Botanical Society to carry out a survey of the islands of Laesø and Anholt which was subsequently published in its journal (Ac.3353). He won a microscope for a research project on algae and began to publish essays on biological topics. Several of these were inspired by his growing fascination with the theories of Charles Darwin, which aroused as much controversy in Denmark as in Britain, and in 1872 he published his Danish translation of The Origin of Species, followed in 1874 by The Ascent of Man.

JacobsenDarwinTranslation7003.aaa.12Illustration from Jacobsen’s translation of The Ascent of Man (Copenhagen, 1874-75) 7003.aaa.12.

At the same time he was at work on a dissertation on algae which was awarded a gold medal by the University of Copenhagen in 1873, the year when, on 25 June, he embarked on his first trip abroad, planning to set out from Lübeck and travel through Prague, Vienna and Munich to Italy. Four months later, though, he was back at his parents’ home in Thisted, convalescing after a serious lung haemorrhage, a symptom of the tuberculosis which would eventually kill him.

 

JacobsenBiographyGeorgChristensen

Title-page of Niels Georg Christensen’s biography J. P. Jacobsen (Copenhagen, 1910) 010761.de.1/4.

 

It is possible that overwork was a factor in weakening his health: while involved in this ambitious programme of research and translation Jacobsen had been steadily devoting himself to writing of a different kind. As early as 1868 he had submitted a cycle of poems to the publishing-house of Gyldendal but had met with rejection both then and when he sent his poetry to the famous critic Georg Brandes. Turning to prose, he fared better, publishing his novella Mogens in 1872, which encouraged him to begin work on his first novel, Fru Marie Grubbe (1876). Based on the true story of a 17th-century Danish noblewoman who, after a notorious career involving two marriages and two divorces, finally achieves happiness as the wife of a ferryman, the novel was finally published in December 1876 and was unusual for the frankness with which it depicted the heroine as an independent and strong-willed woman with vigorous erotic desires – her red-blooded nature in marked contrast to the author’s failing health which broke down again in 1875.

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Illustration from an edition of Fru Marie Grubbe (Copenhagen, 1909) 12581.t.1.

Jacobsen had already begun work on another novel, Niels Lyhne, in 1874, completing it in December 1880. The novel and his disease progressed in parallel, and a stay in Montreux in 1877 failed to prevent yet another haemorrhage; perhaps it was no coincidence that the novel’s hero, enlisting in the army as a volunteer after a life of disillusionment, dies of a bullet wound in his right lung. It was this novel which would exert a profound influence on Rainer Maria Rilke, who learnt Danish in order to read both Jacobsen’s fiction and his scientific works in the original. It was also a favourite with Sigmund Freud, who wrote in 1895 that Niels Lyhne had moved him more deeply than any other book which he had read in the last ten years. Thomas Mann, too, claimed in 1904 that Scandinavian literature, and especially Jacobsen, had shaped his work far more than his reading of French authors. Yet in Denmark Jacobsen may be viewed as the equivalent of Zola in his pioneering of Naturalism, not surprising in view of his scientific training and capacity for unsparing observation. He brings this to bear as mercilessly on man’s spiritual condition as on the natural world, typified by his portrayal of the crisis which confirms Lyhne’s atheism, a view which Jacobsen himself shared.

Although both T. E. and D. H. Lawrence held Jacobsen’s work in high regard, English-speaking readers may know him as a source of inspiration for composers including Delius and Schoenberg. Frederick Delius’s opera Fennimore and Gerda (1919; G.1044.(3.)) is based on Niels Lyhne and takes its title from two of the women in the hero’s life – the consul’s daughter who marries Niels’s cousin Erik, is seduced by Niels and rejects him after Erik’s death in an accident, launching him on years of wandering, and the gentle Gerda whom he marries, only to lose her and their infant son. Arnold Schoenberg’s cantata Gurre-Lieder (1910; I.558.c.) similarly deals with a triangle of doomed love – this time between King Waldemar, the beautiful Tove, and the jealous Queen Helvig who orders her murder – and sets German translations of poems by Jacobsen recounting this legend from Danish history.

Jacobsen died at Thisted on 30 May 1885. He left no descendants and a comparatively modest literary output, but his legacy as the founder of Danish Naturalism and part of the ‘Modern Breakthrough’ in his country’s literature was of incalculable value.

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

29 March 2017

Celebrating the Stefan Zweig Collection

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Zweig in 1912
Stefan Zweig in 1912

You’d be forgiven for thinking the British Library’s Stefan Zweig Study Day, which took place on Monday 20 March, would be a sombre occasion. Beginning with Klemens Renoldner, esteemed Director of the Stefan Zweig Centre in Salzburg, and his presentation entitled ‘When Europe was destroyed’ and ending with translator and poet Will Stone’s readings from the essay collection, Messages from a Lost World: Europe on the Brink (London, 2016; ELD.DS.115440), the programme might have struck a warning rather than warming tone. Yet the Library’s day of events brought together experts and fans – old and new – in a true celebration of Stefan Zweig and his collection of manuscripts around the 75th anniversary of his death.

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Dr Kristian Jensen, British Library Head of Collections and Curation opening the Study Day

In the sold-out Eliot Room of the Library’s Knowledge Centre, guests were presented a programme that united the very latest research – namely on Zweig’s personal library, and on the relationship between Richard Strauss and Zweig –, the anecdotal and personal aspects of Zweig’s experiences across Europe, as well as the writer’s own words in the most recent translations of his more political essays. As Will Stone read from the concluding essay in Messages from a Lost World, ‘In this Dark Hour’, written in 1941, the day approached its end with the lines: ‘Darkness must fall before we are aware of the majesty of the stars above our heads’.

As darkness fell on Monday and on the study day, the shining stars of the Stefan Zweig Collection took centre stage at the Library’s ‘Evening of Music and Poetry from the Zweig Collection’. As Samuel West spoke the first lines in the role of Zweig himself, the audience was welcomed into a different era.

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Samuel West as Stefan Zweig (photograph © Samantha Lane Photography)

In the words of West, and Zweig, following the performances of Schubert’s ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ and ‘An die Musik’ by soprano Ilona Domnich and baritone Simon Wallfisch respectively, accompanied on the paino by Simon Callghan, we forgot ‘time and space in our passionate enthusiasm, truly transported to a better world’.

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Baritone Simon Wallfisch and pianist Simon Callaghan (photograph © Samantha Lane Photography)

Our performers navigated the often turmoiled life of Stefan Zweig through diary entries and letters, piercing the darkness of war and exile with moments of hope and friendship, and by bringing to life the sublime moments of creativity present in the manuscript collection.

Zweig MS 56 Das Veilchen
W.A. Mozart, ‘Das Veilchen’, a setting of words by Goethe (Zweig MS 56), one of the pieces performed at the evening event

From Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, via Keats, Verlaine and Wilde, to Mahler and Richard Strauss, Europe’s cultural heritage was on show, so that we for a moment could only share Zweig’s feeling that in the collection was the whole universe. As Zweig exited the stage, disillusioned with collecting and with a Europe lost to him forever, it was left for Ilona Domnich to bid us goodnight and to let the darkness fall once again with Strauss’s ‘Beim Schlafengehen’.

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Soprano Ilona Domnich and Simon Callaghan (photograph © Samantha Lane Photography)

We thank all those involved in bringing the Zweig Collection to life and we hope to become aware once more in the near future of the majesty of those stars above our heads and in our collections.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Collaborative Doctoral Student, British Library / University of Bristol

The Catalogue of the Literary and Historical Manuscripts from the British Library Stefan Zweig Collection is now published and can be purchased through BL Publishing. A display of manuscripts from the Zweig Collection will be in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures of the British Library Gallery until 11 June.

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