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285 posts categorized "Literature"

13 April 2018

Esperanto – not what you thought?

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Today is the opening day of the British and Pan-Celtic Esperanto Conference in Aberystwyth.

EsperantoBlogoceltic-dragonLogo of the Conference

Esperanto speakers? You’re probably thinking there can’t be many of them – and moreover that the few who do exist are probably crazy as well. Yes, you’re right that they are far fewer in number than the people who are learning English or, these days, Chinese. But how many are there? The truth is that nobody knows. If the figure of “more than 100,000” is good enough for Encyclopaedia Britannica, far be it from me to contradict it by giving my own estimate.

In any case, we can confidently say that there are a few million Esperanto speakers scattered throughout the world. If there weren’t, the Esperanto Wikipedia would not now be the 32nd largest in terms of the number of articles (as recorded in June 2016). Not to mention the 1.6 million learners who have signed up for the Esperanto courses with the language-learning site Duolingo

Esperanto speakers are everywhere. The World Esperanto Association has members in over 120 countries. Esperanto speakers can also be found in the sort of places where you would never think of looking, such as East Timor and New Caledonia, and there are fascinating stories about the development of Esperanto in various countries, from China to the Czech Republic. The British Library’s Esperanto Collections reflect the history and diversity of the Esperanto movement and its publications.

EsperantoBlogHistoriesMontage
 Books from the British Library Esperanto Collection on the Esperanto movement in different countries and regions

Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, belonged to those 19th-century visionaries who dreamt of universal brotherhood, peace and understanding. But during the very first World Congress in Boulogne-sur-Mer in France in 1905, a more practical group came to the fore, asserting that Esperanto was just a language, a means of facilitating international communication, and had nothing to do with airy-fairy dreams of a better world.

These are not the only divisions among Esperanto speakers. There are those who are working for it to become the world’s universal second language, and those who are happy for it to remain a niche interest and prefer to concentrate on developing its cultural potential. This second approach has a name: Raŭmismo, the Rauma movement, after the Finnish town where the World Esperanto Youth Congress  was held in 1980.

As a world-wide phenomenon the Esperanto community is exposed to many influences. During the last century numerous special-interest groups were founded, contributing to a truly colourful panorama. One of the earliest was the International Union of Catholic Esperantists. But unsurprisingly the Catholics were followed by the Protestants, then by the Orthodox Christians, to say nothing of Buddhists, Ōmoto (a Japanese religion), Muslims, Bahá’í and Mormons. Naturally, in response to all this religious activity the atheists could not fail to put in an appearance – but oddly enough, there is no Jewish association at the moment, although there is no lack of Jews in the movement as a whole. All these diverse groups have found common ground between the Esperanto movement and their own ideals.

EsperantoBlogoKoranoCxapitro1Opening ot the Koran in Esperanto translation: La Nobla Korano, translated by Italo Chiussi (Copenhagen, 1970). YF.2009.a.5354

Afterwards came the Communist Esperanto speakers, the Socialists, Anarchists and other splinter groups who even fought in the Spanish Civil War, but now are more likely to fight amongst themselves. At the same time professional associations came into being, who used Esperanto as their working language and published specialist periodicals. You may be surprised to learn that there are doctors who discuss surgery in Esperanto.

MedicinaInternaciaRevuo1974
Cover of  Medicina Internacia Revuo. (July 1974)  5533.51000

 Then there are the railway workers, the journalists, the ecologists, the feminists and numerous others. Teachers are particularly important in a movement whose aim is to teach a language. Their association is the International League of Esperantist Teachers.

EsperantoBlogoKunvojagxuCover of Paul Gubbins, Kunvojaĝu: Internacia kurso de Esperanto (Pisa, 2006). YF.2008.a.23702

You might well ask yourself what all these diverse groups have in common. In fact, there is something.

The first general trait is being interested in “the other”. Esperanto was born with the aim of facilitating communication between people speaking different languages, and so curiosity about other cultures is part of its DNA.

EsperantoBlogoIntervjuoj Books of interviews with Esperantists wordwide about their reasons for learning Esperanto

The second trait is tolerance. No one cares if you support some cranky fringe movement; you will be accepted anyway. The Esperanto-speaking world is open to groups who may be subject to some rather odd looks in the rest of society. Nobody in the UK now finds anything remarkable about being a vegetarian, but that was not the case as recently as the 1960s. The British Esperanto movement contains a higher proportion of vegetarians than society as a whole, as was shown in Peter G. Forster’s study The Esperanto Movement (The Hague, 1982; X.0900/323(32)). Homosexuals were welcome in the Esperanto movement at a time when homosexuality was still a crime in many countries.

In the 130 years since the first book in Esperanto was published, Esperanto speakers have been creating their own culture of novels, poetry, songs and jokes. Hundreds of thousands of books have been published, both translated and original. Many Esperanto authors are known for their writing in their own languages as well as Esperanto, for instance the British writer Marjorie Boulton

  EsperantoBlogBeletraAlmanako

Literary serial Beletra almanako (New York, 2006-). ZF.9.a.7847

Musicians singing in Esperanto can be heard online (e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=27BP5sXwuTs), and many of the thousands who have started learning with Duolingo create videos for YouTube. You will also find many Esperantists on social media platforms.

EsperantoBlogoKajtoKajto (Ankie van der Meer and Nanne Kalma from Netherlands) singing at the London Esperanto Club (Photo by Olga Kerziouk).

And finally, the last trait that all Esperanto speakers share, whatever their backgrounds or beliefs, is their love for the language itself and for the Esperanto-speaking community. For many couples Esperanto has even become their family language, particularly when they belong to different nationalities. They chat in Esperanto over the dinner table and use it to talk to their children.

Renato Corsetti, Professor Emeritus of Psycholinguistics at La Sapienza University in Rome, General Secretary of the Academy of Esperanto / Anna Lowenstein,  Esperanto author and journalist

Further reading

Esperanto in the New York Times: 1887-1922, edited by Ulrich Becker. (New York, 2010).YD.2010.a.12499

Roberto Garvía Soto. Esperanto and its rivals: the struggle for an international language. (Philadelphia, 2015) m15/.11262

Esther H. Schor, Bridge of words: Esperanto and the dream of a universal language (New York, 2015). Waiting for shelfmark.

Geoffrey  Sutton, Concise encyclopedia of the original literature of Esperanto, 1887-2007  (New York, 2008). YC.2008.a.12495

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.

03 April 2018

Literature of the Baltic countries in English translation

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In this centenary year of the independence of each of the Baltic republics, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, great efforts are being made to promote the three very distinct literatures of those countries in translation. Until now, when lists of works appearing in translation were produced by the literature-promoting agencies of each country, English translations made up the shortest list among the European languages.

Since English is more widely spoken in Europe than the other languages into which translations are made, it is a matter of urgency to rectify this, and now, in this centenary year, being marked by ‘market focus’ status at the London Book Fair in 2018, there is a chance to showcase the rich diversity of Baltic literature – in translation.

The reverse side of the coin is the huge competition for the attention of English-speaking readers in the marketplace. Only a small proportion of each country’s literature is seen as worth translating into English, given the relative unpopularity of translated literature among Anglophones.

Part of the problem in the Baltic case is that there are practically no opportunities to study these literatures, either in the original or in translation, at British universities. At the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (part of University College London), from 2018 it will be possible to study an undergraduate course introducing the literatures of these three countries in English translation. The range of available texts is now at last expanding rapidly.

Each of the Baltic republics’ governments operates a state-subsidised translation programme; these have existed almost since the countries regained their independence in 1991. With the centenary celebrations and the market focus at the London Book Fair, English is being emphasised as a target language this year. Both modern works and the classical canon are being represented, and the introductory course will try to give at least a taste of as many genres and generations of writing from each Baltic country as possible.

BalticKalevipoegCoverCover (above) and titler-page (below) of Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald, Kalevipoeg (Tartu, 1935). Ac.9076/19. 
BalticKalevipoegTitlepage

The languages are ancient, but the literary traditions are relatively young. To present the ‘folk’ literature of each nation is to be thrust into the 19th-century National Awakening which followed in the wake of Enlightenment scholars such as Herder and their influence filtered through the Baltic German nobility (at least in Livonia, the northern half of the region). In Estonia the national epic Kalevipoeg (The Son of Kalev) was largely the work of 19th-century authors Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald and Friedrich Robert Faehlmann, inspired by the more genuinely ancient folk poetry of the Kalevala in Finland.

In Latvia, too, the work of epic ancient heroism Lāčplēsis (The Bear Slayer) was the work of one 19th-century author, Andrejs Pumpurs. The germ of this creation, however, lay in much older oral verse, as gathered by Krišjānis Barons in his vast collection of dainas – short rhymed verses reflecting folk wisdom on various aspects of life, love and the annual cycle of the seasons.

BalticBlogLatviansongsTitle page of Latwju dainas (Jelgawa, 1894). X.900/4488

The situation in Lithuania was slightly different, the result of different historical processes and the long political association with Poland. The first notable Lithuanian work available in any kind of English translation is Kristijonas Donelaitis’ 18th-century poetical cycle Metai (The Seasons) – there were earlier poets and writers, but their work is still virtually inaccessible to the English speaker.

From the 19th century onward certain trends are detectable that reflect European literary movements of the time, but the works are also specific to each country’s situation. 19th-century literature is inextricably linked to the struggle for recognition and development of the languages as literary vehicles in their own right.

Early examples of the novel genre, such as the Latvian Kaudzīte brothers’ Mērnieku laiki (The Time of the Surveyors), are not readily available in English. In fact, any literature written before the first independence period (1918-1940) is hard to come by in English translation. Breaking away from foreign cultural models was linked to the prevalence of Russian and German in education in the Baltic countries. The full flowering of the novel came with independence, with authors such as A.H.Tammsaare and Friedebert Tuglas in Estonia and Andrejs Upītis in Latvia. Among the most prolifically translated Baltic authors is Jaan Kross of Estonia.

BalticBlogTuglasTitlepage

Title-page and frontispiece of  Friedebert Tuglas, Riders in the sky (Tallinn, 1986). YA.1992.b.648

Poetry in translation is mostly confined to anthologised work, but it spans both of the independence periods. Some poets have achieved international distinction, such as Tomas Venclova from Lithuania and Jaan Kaplinski from Estonia. What is more difficult to obtain in English is drama – very few plays from the Baltic republics have appeared in English, not even the works of the Latvian Rūdolfs Blaumanis, and thus the survey of literature in translation is a little lopsided as to genres.

Kaplinski Through the Forest YK.1997.a.3737Cover of Jaan Kaplinski, Through the Forest, translated by Hildi Hawkins (London, 1996). YK.1997.a.3737

Contemporary literature is much more widely available in translation. Writers who lived into the second independence period, or are writing now, are making their literatures known more than ever before. In Lithuania, Ričardas Gavelis and Jurgis Kunčinas; in Latvia, Pauls Bankovskis and Zigmunds Skujiņš; in Estonia, Andrus Kivirähk and Indrek Hargla have recently become available in English, to name but a few.

Baltic literature in English translation is still patchy in its coverage. Certain writers who are central to the canon in their own countries – Oskar Luts in Estonia, Jānis Rainis in Latvia and Vincas Krėvė in Lithuania, are still sorely under-represented. But this is an exciting time to become acquainted with this previously little-known corner of Europe and the literary treasures it holds.

Baltic montage

Christopher Moseley, Teaching Fellow in Estonian, SSEES, UCL

On 9 April the British Library will be hosting ‘Being Baltic’, a discussion with three leading Baltic writers – Mihkel Mutt (Estonia), Nora Ikstena (Latvia) and Kristina Sabaliauskaitė (Lithuania) chaired by Rosie Goldsmith. You can find more details and book online here.

 

29 March 2018

Obe Postma and Emily Dickinson’s bees

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In 2018 Leeuwarden is not only capital of the province of Friesland, but also European Capital of Culture

To celebrate this special year I shall be writing a series of blog posts on our holdings of Frisian literature throughout the year. As it happens today (29 March) is the 150th anniversary of the birth of one of Friesland’s best known and most prolific poets: Obe Postma.

OPostmaportrait
Portrait of obe Postma from his collection Fan wjerklank en bisinnen (Drachten, 1957) 011565.h.8.

He was the son of a farmer from Koarnwerd, Friesland. The Frisian landscape in which he grew up became his life-long inspiration for his poetry, even when he moved to Amsterdam to study mathematics and physics. He would never live in the countryside again, teaching mathematics and mechanics at the HBS (Higher Civil School) in Groningen for his whole working life. After retirement he moved to Leeuwarden, where he died in 1963.

OPostmaNieuwebrug
A Frisian landscape: ‘Nieuwebrug ‘, oil on canvas by Bonne Dijkstra, reproduced in Sjouke Visser (ed.) Het Friese landschap (Harlingen, 1986) LB.31.b.309

Postma’s career as a poet took off relatively late, at the age of 34, but continued right up to his last days, spanning six decades. In 1918, at the age of 50, he published his first collection of poetry: Fryske Lȃn en Fryske Libben

OPostmaFryskeLAnfrontcover
Cover of Fryske Lȃn en Fryske Libben (Snits, 1918) 011557.l.33

His early career is characterised by poetry about the Frisian landscape, which earned him the accolade of ‘Poet of the Frisian Landscape’. Postma is sometimes seen as a ‘naïve’ and nostalgic, even ‘provincial’ poet, but this ignores the fact that he was deeply influenced by literature and philosophy, as well as by his scientific background. He knew what was going on in the world of poetry, both in Friesland and beyond. He combined a sharp eye for the simple day-to-day realities, such as a flower meadow, with a feeling for the sublime, with ‘beauty as living principle within the cosmos, the infinite that penetrates the finite, the absolute in the relative.’

Postma saw in Emily Dickinson a kindred spirit. He placed her alongside Elizabeth Browning, Christina Rossetti and Emily Brontë as one of the greatest female poets. Dickinson’s lack of sentimentality, her sober choice of words, range of subject matter, but perhaps most of all her love of nature appealed to him. In his literary notes Postma writes: ‘She has played a unique role in restoring to poetry those important characteristics of simplicity, sensuousness, and passion.’ Like no other poet Dickinson expressed most clearly his ideas about what ‘nature’ is and what ‘culture’. He writes that in order to grasp this, ‘ I need to go to Emily Dickinson’s bees.’ 


OPostmaEMDMurm
Above: Emily Dickinson’s ‘The Murmuring of Bees’, from The complete poems of Emily Dickinson (London, 1975) X.909/40625. Below: Obe Postma’s translation, ‘Ut Natûr’, from Samle fersen (Baarn, 1978) X.950.11642.

OPostmaUtNatur

The British Library holds one anthology of Postma’s poems in English translation, published in 2004. ‘Easter Monday’ is an example of Postma’s early work in which he shows signs of his later philosophy, setting his senses wide open to the wider context in which his beloved Frisian landscape sits.

OPostmaEasterMonday
‘Easter Monday’, originally published in 1927, in De Ljochte Ierde (Snits, 1929) X.909/88993. Translated into English by Anthony Paul and published in What the Poet Must Know (Leeuwarden, 2004) YK.2006.a.1764.

Marja Kingma , Curator Germanic Collections.

References/further reading:

De dichters en de filosofen, ed. Philippus Breuker en Jan Gulmans. (Leeuwarden, 2008). YF.2009.a.25393

Emily Dickinson in leven en dood, ed. Philippus Breuker and J. Gulmans. (Leeuwarden, 2009) YF.2011.a.6038. I am particularly indebted to Albertina Soepboer’s article on Postma and Dickinson in this collection (pp. 62-75)

In útjefte ta gelegenheid fan de ûntbleating fan de búste fan de dichter en wittenskipsman Obe Postma (1868-1963) ed. Geart van der Meer, Jan Gulmans. (Ljouwert, 2014). YF.2017.a.9947

 

 

13 March 2018

Konstantin Somov and Hugh Walpole in Russia

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One of the curious aspects of working with the material book is the sudden confrontation of its physical properties, the weight of proofs, the storage of sheets and missing gatherings – and its combustibility.

I was reading a work by Hugh Walpole, written in Russia during the First World War. A copy of the first edition of this novel, The Dark Forest, published in 1916 is in the British Library, and contains two curious pieces of evidence: a printed dedication to Konstantin Somov, and a pencil annotation stating that almost the whole of the edition was destroyed in a fire at the printer’s warehouse.

Walpole Dark forest dedicationHugh Walpole, The Dark Forest (London, 1916) C.134.c.9. Front endpapers with a note describing the fate of the edition and a handwritten dedication by Walpole to Sir Gerald Kelly.

Fires were not, unfortunately, uncommon in the printing trade at that time and accounts abound with records of losses or inventories depleted by smoke damage. More commonly mice or cats are blamed for the loss of sheets or full gatherings. However, I had been reading about Walpole’s experiences writing a novel and attending to proofs in the conflagration of the Eastern front, so a fire in what was the safe shores of ‘home’ was all the more shocking.

Walpole was a popular, though now largely forgotten, English writer who, in the First World War, travelled to Eastern front as a volunteer for the Russian Red Cross. He stopped in Petrograd before joining his ‘Otriad’ on a tour of duty near Lviv in May 1915. He managed to get a position as a ‘sanitar’ (medical orderly) and in his memoir ‘The Crystal Box’ he vividly described the conditions in which he wrote his novel at the Galician front:

Standing beside some carts in the Galician lane, my knees trembling with terror, the wounded moving restlessly on their straw, the afternoon light like the green shadow of a dried-up conservatory, I found a pencil and, steadying my shaking body against the cart, I wrote.

After his tour ended in October 1915 Walpole returned to the UK to publish his novel, excited by what he had achieved. The Dark Forest and his second novel The Secret City: ‘capture an atmosphere that would I know escape me afterward. … they are not bad books because as records of a foreigner’s apprehension of a country at its most critical time, they are true.’ In 1916 he went back to Russia to found the Anglo-Russian Bureau in Petrograd, part of a British initiative to counteract German propaganda.

Walpole’s time in Russia was formative of his literary taste. On 28 March 1915 he noted in his diary that he was with Arthur Ransome, Hamilton Fyfe, Konstantin Somov, and other Russian friends debating that ‘realism no good any more for Russia – Symbolism also dead. Alexis Tolstoi most interesting new novelist.’

Ransome Truth about Russia After Walpole left the Anglo-Russian Bureau, his friend Arthur Ransome continued to report on the situation as in this pamphlet, The Truth about Russia (London, 1918) 8286 f. 17.

Walpole’s mentor in Russia was the acclaimed painter Konstantin Somov. A former member of the ‘Pickwickians of the Neva’, the circle whose ideas were to be key in the creation of innovative magazines such as Mir Isskusstva (‘The World of Art’), and of the Ballets Russes, Walpole was a sentimentalist and his reaction to the Russian Modernists is complex: in his appreciation of plays at home or in Russia he frequently mentions the emotion of specific scenes, individual actors or joint performances. He was not ‘highbrow’ and also went with Somov to watch wrestling and barebacked riding, and his enthusiastic observations are drawn into his novel: ‘I adore a circus; and when I can find one with the right sawdust smell, the right clown, and the right enthusiasm, I am happy.’ Yet he was drawn to the idealism of the Russian Revolution.

Somov Lesebuch der Marquise
 Illustration by Somov from Frans Blei Das Lesebuch der Marquise: ein Rokokobuch (Munich, 1923) YA.1994.a.19985. Somov was working on this book when Walpole was in Russia.

Somov had not followed Diaghilev to the West, finding for the time being artistic fortune in his own country. Escorted by Somov, Walpole was thus able to socialise with leading representatives of Russia’s new culture, such as Sologub, Glazunov and Scriabin, and to see legendary stars such as Tamara Karsavina in La Fille Mal Gardée, recording that she ‘seemed inspired’. In addition to the Anglo-Russian Bureau in Petrograd, Walpole set up a small office in Moscow with R.H. Bruce Lockhart which had good relations with Moscow’s cultural life. As Karsavina recalled in her memoir Theatre Street, entertainments continued, Lockhart gave banquets, wrote stories for the wide-circulation Russian trench newspapers and took propaganda films to the Russian troops. Walpole himself reported on the build-up to the October Revolution, writing the official report for the British government, and portraying it in his second novel The Secret City which won the inaugural James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction in 1919.

Karsavina Portrait

Picture by Edmund Dulac of Tamara Karsavina in the ballet Parade in 1920, reproduced in Karsavina’s memoir, Theatre Street (London, 1930) 010795.d.46. in which she records her friendship with Walpole.

The development of his taste in Russia would lead to Walpole’s re-evaluation of the role of cultural production and his desire for a ‘broadbrow’ view of the arts. He recalled his Russian experiences in the forewords to his works on Russia, recommended Lockhart’s A British Agent to the British Book Society, and wrote an introduction for an edition of Saki's Reginald and Reginald in Russia. His experiences also gave him a lifelong collecting habit; he filled his house in Cumbria with paintings, books and sculptures and later donated works to the Tate and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

On his return to Britain Walpole helped Russian friends who came over after the Revolution, seeing Somov again on his way to New York for an exhibition of Russian revolutionary art in January 1924. Somov urged Walpole to support the artists by writing magazine articles, but Walpole had moved on.

Somov was disappointed in their US reception: the American public were more interested in prerevolutionary art and icons. He moved to France he continued to paint and produce illustrations. He corresponded briefly in his later years with Walpole, offering to sell him paintings to add to his collection, something Walpole could not resist.

Daphne Somov p127
Illustration by Somov from Longus Daphnis et Chloé translated by Paul Louis Courier. Grande Collection du Trianon, No.8 (Paris, 1931) 012403.f.38.

Giannandrea Poesio and Alexis Weedon, University of Bedfordshire

This work is part of a larger project and forthcoming article ‘The origins of the ‘Broadbrow’: Hugh Walpole, Konstantin Somov and Russian modernism’ co-authored by Giannandrea Poesio and Alexis Weedon.

References

Hugh Walpole, ‘The Crystal Box: Fragments of Autobiography’, in The Bookman (Feb 1923) PP.6479.e.

Hugh Walpole, The Secret City: a novel in three parts. (London, 1919) NN.5340

09 March 2018

Mr Inkblot’s Academy – A Polish Children’s Classic

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Each generation of children has its own favourite book which defines their childhood. For children growing up in Poland in the 1950s and 60s it was a book about a school for wizards called Akademia pana Kleksa (‘Mr Inkblot’s Academy’) by Jan Brzechwa, first published in 1946.

AkademiaCover1960Jan Brzechwa, Akademia pana Kleksa (Warsaw, 1960) X.990/537

The book tells the story of incomparable eccentric Ambroży Kleks (Ambrose Inkblot), headmaster of an equally nonpareil school for wizards based in Fairylandia at the very end of Chocolate Street. Fairylandia lies not far off but is not that easy to find unless one is invited and guided there, just as one day an unhappy, bullied 12-year-old boy, Adaś Niezgódka (Adam Contrary), is by a learned blackbird which communicates words by dropping their first syllables.

Inkblot MathewMathew the blackbird on the phone

The school is a three-storey building with classrooms, refectory and dormitories, and the top floor, to which there are no stairs, housing all Mr Inkblot’s secrets. It stands in the middle of a large unkempt park, surrounded by a wall lined with iron gates leading to other fables. Nobody knows how many of these gates there are, but all are locked with silver locks, and Mr Inkblot keeps the keys in a silver casket.

The 24 boys in the school – all of whose names begin with A – are taught by Mr Inkblot the subtle art of wizardry in subjects ranging from inkblotography and letter-spinning to un-breaking broken things. Mr Inkblot also helps the boys improve their dreams by selecting the best of them from dream-reflecting mirrors at each boy’s bedside: He also cooks for them: brightly-coloured beads which turn to delicious soups and juices, but also huge roasts, prepared with the help of a magnifying pump. But he can cook anything a boy can fancy by painting the dish with his magic brush. He himself gets by on hair-growing pills but loves flavoursome colours and for elevenses treats himself to a handful of butterflies, a special kind which he plants and grows like beans.

Inkblot clockMr Inkblot examining the broken clock

Mr Inkblot, who knows and sees everything, is the epitome of goodness and always tries to make everyone happy with themselves. He is a tall man, though he can control his size with the magnifying pump, making himself teeny-weeny for going to bed. He has a mop of hair gleaming with all colours of the rainbow and a vast bushy beard as black as soot. He wears an old-fashioned velvet frock coat with a lemon-bright waistcoat full of pockets, the contents of which could easily fill three rooms.

Inkblot expeditionMr Inkblot taking his pupils on a school expedition

Jan Brzechwa, started writing Mr Inkblot’s Academy in 1944, when war was still raging outside the window of his Warsaw flat. As a Jew he was hiding on the ‘Aryan’ side, somewhat contrarily, by not hiding at all and trying to live a ‘normal’ life. Writing was for him a way to escape the horrors of war by sticking to what he was good at: writing children’s stories and rhymes. He was an acknowledged master of the art.

Yet the horrors seeped into the narrative, most vividly in the story of Alojzy Bąbel (Alois Blister), a boy-marionette brought to Mr Inkblot for schooling by Philip the barber, Mr Inkblot’s nemesis. Mr Inkblot brings Alois to life but the boy grows wickeder and wickeder, spewing hate and destruction, until he has to be dismantled. This enrages Philip, who steals Mr Inkblot’s secrets, sending him and his Academy on a course to total annihilation. Not surprisingly, given the circumstances surrounding the creation of Mr Inkblot’s Academy, Brzechwa originally named the wicked boy Adolf, but, wanting to protect the innocence of his young readers, or just driven by his wicked sense of humour, changed the name to that of Hitler’s father, thus neatly blaming it all on the parents.

Inkblot Alois BlisterMr Inkblot bringing the boy-marionette Alois Blister to life.

The character of Mr Inkblot also had his real-life counterpart. Franz Fiszer was a real character, legendary in the literary circles of pre-war Warsaw. A Socrates and a Falstaff, a practicing metaphysician and the last of true alchemists, if by such we mean not quack-chemists but serious searchers for the philosopher’s stone, Fiszer dined and drank during legendary symposia, which convened spontaneously wherever he sat at a table. It would be an inconsolable waste if Franz Fiszer were to recede into oblivion without a trace. Luckily for him his memory has not been totally blotted out – he transmogrified into Mr Inkblot. Thanks to Jan Marcin Szancer – another Polish Jew hiding in occupied Warsaw, who created Mr Inkblot’s definitive image much as E.H. Shepard did for Winnie-the-Pooh – Fiszer/Mr Inkblot became a great friend to generations of Polish children.

InkblotFranciszek_FiszerPortraitPortrait of Franciszek Fisher by Aleksander Żyw. Reproduced in Roman Loth, Na rogu świata in Nieskończoności, wspomnienia o Franciszku Fiszerze (Warsaw, 1985) YA.1988.a.1331

Mr Inkblot’s Academy was the first of a trilogy, followed by Mr Inkblot’s Travels and ending with Mr Inkblot’s Triumph, which rounds up the story with Adam’s graduation from the Academy and his last journey with Mr Inkblot in search of the disappeared tribe of Fairytalers (and his own parents). It all ends well – despite continued machinations by Alois Blister – with Adam’s engagement to a lovely girl named Reseda.

Inkblot Adam and ResedaAdam and Reseda

The books’ enduring promise of escape, renewed interest in Mr Inkblot and his academy when Poland was drowning in the greyness of the martial law imposed in 1981. Three films made in the 1980s relaunched the imperishable Mr Inkblot’s career and brightened the years of yet another generation of Polish children, and perhaps not just Polish, as the films were shown on European television well into the 1990s. One can only wonder why Mr Inkblot’s Academy’s film potential was discovered so late. Brzechwa himself wrote film scripts, among them an adaptation of another classic, The Two who Stole the Moon, the horrid twins of the title played by Kaczyński brothers, later president and prime minister of Poland. Sadly, an earlier project of turning Mr Inkblot’s Academy into a Hollywood film came to nothing, even though it was scripted by Erika Mann, daughter of Thomas. Although her treatment was the first English version of Mr Inkblot’s Academy, and can be read online via the website of the Münchener Stadtbibliothek, there has never been a published translation – a challenge perhaps for a publisher today?

Wiesiek Powaga, Polish translator

 

20 February 2018

Chekhov, Sakhalin and the Russian Famine of 1891–92

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In 1890, the 30-year-old Anton Chekhov made the long and arduous journey from Moscow through Siberia to the remote island of Sakhalin. There he spent three months recording his observations and carrying out a census of the some 10,000 convicts and settlers who lived in the Russian penal colony on the island. An accredited correspondent, Chekhov in part financed his trip by writing a series of articles while en route to Sakhalin for the newspaper Novoe vremia (‘The New Times’; MFM.MF1223), which was owned by his acquaintance Aleksei Suvorin. The first six articles appeared in the paper in June 1890 under the title ‘From Siberia’ (Iz Sibiri) and a further three were later published in July and August under the heading ‘Through Siberia’ (Po Sibiri).

Chekhov image 1

 Portrait of Chekhov around the time of his visit to Sakhalin, from V. A. Brender, O Chekhove. Vospominaniia i statˊi (Moscow, 1910). 010795.i.19.

During his stay on Sakhalin, Chekhov witnessed the appalling conditions and treatment many of the inmates and settlers were forced to endure. He took a particular interest in the intellectual needs of the colony’s children, later collecting and sending a library of over 2,200 books to Sakhalin. He also came into contact with the island’s indigenous peoples and observed first-hand the devastating effects of colonialisation on their communities.

Chekhov image 2The famous Sakhalin inmate Sofia Bliuvshtein, known as Zolotaia Ruchka (‘Golden Hand’). Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Returning to Moscow in December 1890, Chekhov began writing an account of his time on Sakhalin, which would later be published in full in 1895 as Ostrov Sakhalin (Sakhalin Island; BL 10011.l.21). Initially Chekhov is said to have been reluctant to publish sections of his book in literary journals, preferring instead for the book to appear as a complete work. This changed, however, in 1892 when he agreed to publish Chapter 22, ‘Beglye na Sakhaline’ (Escapees on Sakhalin), in Pomoshchˊ golodaiushchim (‘Aid for the Hungry’), a collection of works published to raise money for victims of the Russian famine that had begun along the Volga River the year before. 6,100 copies of the anthology were published and its other contributors included Leo Tolstoy (who was an outspoken critic of the government’s handling of the famine), Konstantin Balmont  and Dmitry Merezhkovsky.

Chekhov image 3Image from the inside cover of Pomoshchˊ golodaiushchim. (Moscow, 1892) YA.2002.a.2793

The famine had arisen following bad weather in 1890-91 and a subsequent poor grain harvest. However, despite the severely reduced harvest, there was in fact enough food available to feed the population. Problems with infrastructure and government policy meant that food supplies were not fairly and adequately distributed. As a result, almost half a million people are believed to have perished by the end of 1892, the majority from disease triggered by the famine.

Chekhov image 4An illustration printed in Pomoshchˊ golodaiushchim. The caption reads: ‘A hungry man understands the hungry’.

The British Library’s rare copy of the first and only edition of Pomoshch’ golodaiushchim not only provides information on the horrific famine and the attempts to aid its victims, but it is also particularly noteworthy as it contains the first appearance in print of any part of Chekhov’s book on Sakhalin Island. The chapter in question deals with runaways in the penal colony and later formed the penultimate chapter in the full version of his 1895 book in revised and abbreviated form. For example, an evocative passage describing the natural obstacles facing those attempting to escape the island appears in the 1892 and 1895 publications as follows:

Но среди препятствий, удерживающих людей от побегов, не так страшны морские волны, как путь к морю. Переплыть море не трудно, не страшно и утонуть в нем, но трудно и страшно подходить к нему. Непроходимая сахалинская тайга, горы, постоянная сырость, туманы, голод, безлюдье, а зимою страшные морозы и метели – вот истинные друзья надзора.
But among the obstacles which restrain people from escaping, the path to the sea is more formidable than the waves. It is not the crossing of, or even the fear of drowning in, this sea that is difficult and frightening, but the route to the sea itself. The impassable taiga, the mountains, the permanent damp, the mists, hunger, the lack of human beings, and in winter, the dreadful frosts and snow-storms – it is these things that are the true allies of surveillance.
(‘Beglye na Sakhaline’, 1892, Pomoshchˊ golodaiushchim, p. 228)

Но среди препятствий, удерживающих людей от побегов, страшно главным образом не море. Непроходимая сахалинская тайга, горы, постоянная сырость, туманы, безлюдье, медведи, голод, мошка, а зимою страшные морозы и метели – вот истинные друзья надзора.
But among the obstacles which restrain people from escaping, it is not the sea that is primarily so terrible. The impassable taiga, the mountains, the permanent damp, the mists, the lack of human beings, bears, hunger, mosquitoes, and in winter, the dreadful frosts and snow-storms – it is these things that are the true allies of surveillance.
(Ostrov Sakhalin, 1895, p. 475)

Following the publication of Pomoshchˊ golodaiushchim, Chekhov published several other chapters from Ostrov Sakhalin in the Russian periodical Russkaia myslˊ (‘Russian Thought’; P.P.4842.dc.) prior to its full publication.

Chekhov’s reasons for travelling to Sakhalin have long been a source of debate for scholars (Karlinsky, pp. 152-154). It is clear, however, that the trip and his subsequent book had a profound impact on both him and Russian society. To this day, the island and Chekhov’s work continue to hold a poignant fascination, as a photo essay  by Oleg Klimov for the 120th anniversary of the 1895 publication of Ostrov Sakhalin demonstrates.

 Katie McElvanney, Curator Eastern European Collections

References and further reading:

Anton Chekhov, Ostrov Sakhalin (Moscow, 1895). 10011.l.21

Anton Chekhov, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem A. P. Chekhova. Volume 10. ‘Ostrov Sakhalin, 1891-1894’. ‘Iz Sibiri, 1890’. 1948. 12266.l.1.

Anton Chekhov, Sakhalin Island, translated by Brian Reeve (Richmond, 2013). YC.2014.a.1499

Anton Chekhov’s life and thought: selected letters and commentary, translated from the Russian by Michael Henry Heim in collaboration with Simon Karlinsky; selection, introduction, and commentary by Simon Karlinsky (Evanston, Illinois, 1973). YC.1999.a.3087

Donald Rayfield, Understanding Chekhov: a critical study of Chekhov’s prose and drama (Bristol, 1999). YC.1999.a.3685

 

14 February 2018

Rainbow sickness: Beauty and despair in Carlo Levi’s ‘Christ stopped at Eboli’

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Writer, poet, painter, doctor, banished to a small village in Lucania in 1935 for his anti-fascist activities, Carlo Levi (1902-1975) wrote about his experience as a political prisoner in the then remote and extremely poor south Italian towns Grassano and Aliano.

This work, Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (Christ Stopped at Eboli) – a combination of diary, novel, sociological study and political essay – was published in 1945 and translated into English by Frances Frenaye in 1948.

Carlo levi Map Map of Southern Italy, with Lucania in the centre, from Carlo Levi Christ stopped at Eboli ... Translated by Frances Frenaye. (London, 1948). 010151.k.6. 

As Levi explains from the very beginning, the title signifies the peasants’ sense of loss:

We are not Christian – they say. ‘Christ stopped short of here, Eboli’. ‘Christian’, in their way of speaking, means ‘human being’, and this almost proverbial phrase that I have so often heard them repeat may be no more than the expression of a hopeless feeling of inferiority. We are not Christians, we are not human beings…

In 1979, the book was adapted into a film featuring also some of the paintings Levi made during that time.

Carlo Levi Dipinti

Cover of Carlo Levi e la Lucania, dipinti del confino. (Matera, 1990) LB.31.b.5511

Christ Stopped at Eboli has the poetic narrative of a world seen by peasants – a world of superstitions, spells, where respect for the Madonna precedes religion, and the doctors from town are mistrusted. In describing how people lived Levi gives the paradoxical impression that he is the only free man in those villages. This marks a distance between him and that world, but at the same time reveals an empathic calm and love for it; as Italo Calvino says in a preface to the novel: ‘The love for things he talks about is a characteristic which we must bear in mind if we want to succeed at defining the singularity of Levi’s literary work’.

During the first days of my stay whenever I happened to meet … an old peasant who did not know me, he would stop the donkey to greet me and ask ...: ‘Who are you? Where are you going?’
‘Just for a walk: I am a political prisoner,’ I would answer. ‘An exile? (They always said exile instead of prisoner.) Too bad! Someone in Rome must have had it in for you.’ And he would say no more, but smile at me in a brotherly fashion as he prodded his mount into motion.
This passive brotherliness, this sympathy in the original sense of the word, as suffering together, this fatalistic, comradely, age-old patience, is the deepest feeling the peasants have in common, a bond made by nature rather than by religion.

The description of how peasants see the world reminds us somehow of the mythopoetic vision of the primitive societies described in a collection of essays first published in the same year with the title The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man and later reissued as Before Philosophy.

They could reason logically; but they did not care to do it. For the detachment which a purely intellectual attitude implies is hardly compatible with their most significant experience of reality.

That same impossibility of intellectual detachment is observed by Levi:

… And in the peasants’ world there is no room for reason, religion, and history. There is no room for religion, because to them everything participates in divinity, everything is actually, not merely symbolically, divine: Christ and the goat; the heavens above, and the beasts of the fields below; everything is bound up with magic. Even the ceremonies of the church become pagan rites, celebrating the existence of inanimate things, which the peasants endow with a soul, and the innumerable earthy divinities of the village…

Carlo Levi strada delle grotte page 11 ‘La Strada delle Grotte’, painting by Levi reproduced in Carlo Levi e la Lucania

The dramatic description of Matera gives a clear idea of the conditions people lived in at that time:

In the gully lay Matera… The gully had a strange shape: it was formed by two half-funnels, side by side separated by a narrow spur meeting at the bottom… The two funnels, I learned, were called Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano. They were like a schoolboy’s idea of Dante’s inferno… They were caved, dug into the hardened clay walls of the gully, each with its own façade, some of which were quite handsome, with eighteenth-century ornamentation… The houses were open on account of the heat, and as I went by I could see into the caves, whose only light came through the front doors. Some of them had no entrance by a trapdoor or a ladder… On the floor lays dog, sheep, goats, and pigs. Most families have just one cave to live in and they sleep all together: men, women, children, and animals. This is how twenty thousand people live. Of children I saw an infinite number. They appeared from everywhere, in the dust and heat, amid the flies, stark naked or clothed in rags: I have never in all my life seen such a picture of poverty.

When Levi describes the peasant woman Giulia we see again a distance between him and the world he observes – similar to the one between the writers of Before Philosophy and the ancient world they observe – but also a close, lucid enchantment:

Giulia was a tall and shapely woman with a waist as slender as that of an amphora between her well-developed chest and hips. In her youth she must have had a solemn and barbaric beauty… Her face as a whole had a strongly archaic character, not classical in the Greek or Roman sense, but stemming from an antiquity more mysterious and more cruel which had sprung always from same ground, and which was unrelated to man, but linked with the soil and its everlasting animal deities…

Carlo Levi Giulia ‘Giulia’, painting by Levi reproduced in Carlo Levi e la Lucania

Levi’s empathy and commitment to help are also very tangible. Although initially reluctant, he used his medical knowledge to help and cure the sick, gaining the respect of the people but also making the local ‘doctors’ jealous. Still, Carlo Levi the doctor is not immune to the peasants’ magic vision of the world as he is also the poet and painter who immerses himself in it:

The peasant called jaundice male dell’arco or rainbow sickness, because it makes a man change his colour to that which is the strongest in the spectrum of the sun, namely, yellow. And how does a man catch jaundice? The rainbow walks across the sky with its feet on the ground. If the rainbow’s feet step on clothes hung out to dry, whoever puts them on will take on the colours of the rainbow, with which they have been impregnated, and fall ill.

As Calvino wrote in his preface, Levi witnessed the presence of a time within his time, of another world within his world, where myth and reality clash. Here again there is a similarity with what H. and H. A. Frankfort wrote in the introduction to Before Philosophy:

Myth is a form of poetry which transcends poetry in that it proclaims the truth; a form of reasoning which transcends reasoning in that it wants to bring about the truth it proclaims; a form of action, of ritual behaviour, which does not find its fulfilment in the act but must proclaim and elaborate a poetic form of truth.

Carlo Levi coversEnglish and Italian editions of Cristo si è fermato a Eboli

Christ stopped at Eboli is both a great literary work and an important historical text. It is worth reading to have an understanding of the North and South difference within Italy before and after the Second World War.

Giuseppe Alizzi, Acquisitions South Support Manager

References/Further reading:

Carlo Levi, Cristo si è fermato a Eboli; con saggi di Italo Calvino e Jean-Paul Sartre. (Turin, 2010). YF.2012.a.18391

Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli. (Harmondsworth, 1982 ) X.950/13018.

Before Philosophy ... An essay on speculative thought in the ancient Near East. By H. and H. A. Frankfort, John A. Wilson, Thorkild Jacobsen. (Harmondsworth, 1949). 012209.d.4/198

The voices of Carlo Levi, Joseph Farrell (ed). (Oxford, 2007) YD.2008.a.5166

Daniela Bartalesi-Graf, Voci dal sud, a journey to Southern Italy with Carlo Levi and his Christ stopped at Eboli (London, 2011) YC.2010.b.2403

 

07 February 2018

Exporting the Animals’ Revolt: Kostamorov - Reymont - Orwell

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People say that there are only 3? (7? 11?) basic plots in the whole of world literature. Goethe claimed it was 36, but apparently he nicked the idea from a guy named Gozzi. I suspect the exact number will be argued as long as people tell stories but they can spin yarns of such striking likeness it makes one wonder how these plots travel, cropping up in different times and places, in seemingly disparate worlds.

Orwell’s Animal Farm is a good case in point. As discussed in two previous blog posts, for close on 60 years it was the prime example of a political allegory using the ancient form of animal fable to comment on 20th century politics, but the rediscovery of two earlier stories of animal revolutions, Władysław Reymont’s Bunt, and Nikolai Kostomarov’s Skotskoi Bunt  in recent years has raised the question of whether the three stories share the same genetic lineage. If they do, the next question is: how did the original idea travel from Russia to Poland to Britain?

The first possible route that immediately comes to mind is via Sonia Brownell, “the girl from the Fiction Department”, Julia from 1984, and Orwell’s future wife. They met in the early 1940s at Horizon magazine where Sonia was working as a secretary to Cyril Connolly, but already had solid editorial experience as assistant to Eugene Vinaver, a Russian post-revolutionary émigré and another specialist in fairy tales, though in his case they were Malory’s Arthurian tales.

Eugene was the son of Maxim Vinaver who was born, raised and educated in Warsaw before making a career as a lawyer in St Petersburg. He played an active role in the Russian Revolution but escaped to France before it could swallow him up. While settled in St Petersburg, the Vinaver family would almost certainly have subscribed to the legendary magazine Niva, which published Kostomarov’s story in 1917, as no respectable bourgeois family could function in society without it.

Maxim Vinaver RB.31.c.577
Maxim Vinaver as a member of the first Russian Parliament in 1905, from Pamiatnaia knizhka pervoĭ Gosudarstvennoĭ dumy (St Petersburg, 1906). RB.31.c.577

It’s practically certain too that Maxim Vinaver knew Reymont’s work; after all they went to school in Warsaw at the same time, a fact which wouldn’t have been lost on Maxim when Reymont won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925. As a sociologist and a lawyer fighting for Jewish rights, he must have been familiar with Reymont’s rural and industrial novels of the Russian Empire, Chłopi (‘The Peasants’; Warsaw, 1904; 12591.b.52.) and Ziemia Obiecana (‘The Promised Land’; Warsaw, 1899; 12591.cc.39) and also with his journalism dealing with the rights of Polish minorities subjected to heavy Russification in the Lublin Governorate after 1912. Maxim might have even read Bunt, and would have shared both its anti-revolutionary sentiment and its interest in folklore – he was a founding member of the Russian Jewish Ethnographical Society and apparently infected his son with his interests badly enough for the young Eugene to study mediaeval literature and eventually to become an academic specialist in fables.

Clearly both Vinavers had good first-hand knowledge of both the mechanics of revolution and the art of fairy tales. Just as Orwell had towards the end of his spell at the BBC when he was working on radio adaptations of fairy tales. At that time he had already met Sonia Brownell. Could it be it was then she passed Vinaver’s infection (in-fiction?) on to Orwell?

Another possible route from 1920s Poland to 1940s Britain for the story of animal revolt as a parable of Russian Revolution could be via Teresa Jeleńska, Animal Farm’s Polish translator (in fact the first translator of Animal Farm into any language). Jeleńska was an aristocratic socialite in pre-war Poland, moving in European literary and political circles, who found herself as a refugee in London in 1941. Working as a journalist she met Orwell and the two became friends.

TeresaJelenska2
Photo of Teresa Jeleńska (Rome, 1924) from:  Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, Teresa Jeleńska, Konstanty A. Jeleński, Korespondencja (Warsaw, 2008). YF.2011.a.6916 

Jeleńska’s son, Konstanty, or Kot, later an influential essayist and translator of Witold Gombrowicz, after the war ran the Eastern European division of Congress for Cultural Freedom (its Manifesto was drafted by Arthur Koestler, a close friend of Orwell). In a letter to Jonathan Brent of 7 August 1985,  explaining the biographical introduction to his first collection of essays Zbiegi okoliczności (‘Coincidences’; Paris, 1982; X.950/16831), Konstanty recalled, “During my war years in England I discovered the Horizon and Partisan Review and met some English writers like Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman, Cyril Connolly, Raymond Mortimer and George Orwell (a friend of my mother…)”. It must have been at the same time that he met and befriended Sonia Brownell, though their shared interest then was probably more in painting than literature.

KonstantyJelenski

Title-page and frontispiece of Konstanty A. Jeleński. Chwile  oderwane (Gdańsk, 2008). YF.2009.a.16241

Jeleńska’s name doesn’t register in any biography of Orwell as one of his friends but only as a translator. Yet their paths apparently crossed quite frequently (probably after Jeleńska and Kot moved to Scotland in 1942), and their friendship, or at least their working relationship, was close enough for Orwell to trust her with the typescript of Animal Farm before publication. They may have been also Orwell’s Polish liaison behind his piece in Tribune (Sept. 1944) on the Warsaw Rising, in which he denounced the West for not helping the insurgents and Stalin for holding up the offensive and waiting for the Uprising to bleed to death. They corresponded regularly until Orwell’s death in 1950.

It’s unlikely that the Jeleńskis would not have known of Reymont’s story but whether they talked about it with Orwell remains unknown, as does whether Sonia Brownell regaled Orwell with stories heard from Eugene Vinaver about his years in St Petersburg or his father’s knowledge of a fellow Varsovian’s work on revolution. The readily available literature is mute on the subject, perhaps the secrets are still buried in the archives? These are mostly uncharted waters but perhaps one day someone out there will map them out. Sails up.

 Wiesiek Powaga, Polish translator

24 January 2018

The Adventures of ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’

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Of the comparatively few German-language children’s books that have become enduring classics in the English-speaking world, two are by Swiss authors: Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, and The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss, who died 200 years ago this month.

Robinson 1st ed tp
Title-page of the first edition of  Der schweizersiche Robinson (Zürich, 1812) C.108.aaaa.7

Like many famous children’s books, The Swiss Family Robinson originated as a tale told aloud to real children – Wyss’s four sons. He wanted both to entertain and to inform the boys, and also to depict their different characters (and hint at ways in which these could be improved). Indeed, his own title for the story was ‘Characteristics of my children. In a Robinsonade’. He did not intend the story for publication, but in 1812 one of the now adult sons, Johann Rudolf, edited the manuscript and published it as Der schweizersiche Robinson, oder, Der schiffbrüchige Schweizer-Prediger und seine Familie (‘The Swiss Robinson, or the Shipwrecked Swiss Preacher and his Family’). This was the first of many changes that Johann David’s original work would undergo.

Robinson shipwreck
Shipwreck! The family commend themselves to God in the storm. Illustration from the first French translation Le Robinson Suisse (2nd edition; Paris, 1816) 122835.c.21.

The book tells how the shipwrecked family of the title survive and create a new home on a desert island, involving many adventures and discoveries. Wyss describes in great detail how they salvage material from the wreck, build shelters and other amenities, and find (and later cultivate) food, all intended as a lesson in practical skills for young readers. Natural history lessons also have their place, with long discussions and lectures on the flora and fauna of the island, which is surprisingly varied: the place is home to an unlikely international menagerie of animals, including jackals, porcupines, buffalo, ostriches, tigers, kangaroos, walrus and even a duck-billed platypus. Most of these creatures are either domesticated or shot by the family.

Robinson Kangaroo
Shooting a kangaroo (clearly based on George Stubbs’s 1772 painting of ‘The Kongouro from New Holland’) from the first English edition The Family Robinson Crusoe (London, 1814) C.117.b.78. 

Less exciting and exotic are the lessons in morality and piety. The father in the story frequently reminds his sons to say their prayers, whether of supplication or thanks, and to be honest and hardworking. 

Robinson preaching
The father leads his family in Sunday worship, from The Family Robinson Crusoe

Despite its didacticism, the story is engaging and some of the passages of dialogue between the boys and their parents – such as a discussion of names for different sites around the island – seem to carry an echo of the way the Wyss boys might indeed have talked and joked together. The book certainly appealed to young readers and enjoyed great success.

Robinson Montolieu
Title-page of  Le Robinson Suisse. The frontispiece shows the translator reading the book to her grandsons and great-nephews, to whom she dedicated the translation.

Translations soon followed and further altered the original tale. The first English and French translations (1814 and 1813 respectively) both made some changes to the sequence of events and chapter numbering, but the French translator, Isabelle de Montolieu, went further still. When, over a decade after the first German edition, a promised continuation had not yet appeared, she wrote her own, based on brief notes provided by Johann Rudolf Wyss and published in 1824. Wyss’s own last two volumes appeared in 1826-7, but Montolieu’s continuation served as a basis for several other translations, including the most successful 19th-century English version, ascribed to the bestselling children’s author W.H.G. Kingston but actually the work of his wife Agnes.

Robinson map
Map of the island, from an 1826 edition of Le Robinson Suisse. 12807.bbb.26

Other changes were made to the book as time went on. Chapters were merged, split or rearranged, new adventures and characters were added, and the conclusion varied in different versions and translations. Names were often changed in translation, with different translators into the same language sometimes using different variants. There have been many retellings and abridgments, picture-book and comic-strip versions, and even a Swiss Family Robinson in Words of One Syllable (London, 1869; 12808.g.20). Modern editions jettison most of the religious and moral lectures, and I suspect that, in the 21st century, the family’s trigger-happy attitude to the animals they encounter may also be played down.

Robinson Kingston 012803.f.40
Cover of an 1889 English edition  (012803.f.40). 

Cinema and TV have also played a role in changing the story. A 1960 Disney film added pirates and a love triangle involving the older boys and a female castaway to the story. A 1980s Japanese animated series had as its main protagonist a newly-invented daughter of the family. In both of these versions Robinson is the family’s actual surname, a false assumption no doubt made by many English readers over the years. Robinson is not, of course, a Swiss surname, and in the original no family name is given (although Montolieu, in a short play appended to her translation, calls them ‘Bonval’). ‘Robinson’ in Wyss’s title simply refers to the fact that the preacher and his family were Crusoe-like castaways.

For most readers –in any language – in the two centuries since in its publication, the Swiss Family Robinson that they encountered has most likely been at several removes from the work of either Johann David or Johann Rudolf Wyss. But, despite all the accretions and alterations, the core of the original tale has survived and continues to appeal to young readers, unlike most other didactic Robinsonades of the period. A tribute, perhaps, to Johann David’s skills as a father and a storyteller.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator, Germanic Collections

References/further reading:

Entry for ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’ in Daniel Hahn, ed. Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature (Oxford, 2015) YC.2015.a.15862

Hannelore Kortenbruck-Hoeijmans, Johann David Wyss’ “Schweizerischer Robinson”: Dokument pädagogisch-literarischen Zeitgeistes an der Schwelle zum 19. Jahrhundert. Schriftenreihe der Deutschen Akademie für Kinder- und Jugendliteratur Volkach; Bd. 23 (Baltmannsweiler, 1999) YA.2002.a.4961

J. Hillis Miller, ‘Reading. The Swiss Family Robinson as Virtual Reality’, in Karín Lesnik-Oberstein (ed.) Children's literature: new approaches (Basingstoke, 2004) pp. 78-92. YC.2006.a.4061 

John Seelye, Introduction to Johann David Wyss, The Swiss Family Robinson. Penguin Classics (London, 2007) H.2008/132