THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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275 posts categorized "Literature"

17 January 2018

Władysław Reymont’s Revolt of the Animals

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A recent Europen Studies blog post by Masha Karp examined the publication history of George Orwell’s Animal Farm  in the languages of Eastern Europe. That the book has maintained its canonical status worldwide for over 70 years is proof of its universal truth. But as Orwell sat down to write his tale – a warning against the creeping advance of Soviet Communism based on his growing awareness of its brutal reality – was he aware he was not the first modern writer to use the allegory of an animals’ revolt to capture the mad logic of revolution?

ReymontBunt2004

Cover of a recent edition Władysław Reymont’s Bunt (Warsaw, 2004) 

The question has been bugging me since I discovered Władysław Reymont’s Bunt (‘Revolt’) when it came out in Poland in 2004. While growing up in communist Poland in the 1970s I read Orwell’s Animal Farm in a samizdat edition, and while well acquainted with the rest of Reymont’s oeuvre, which was compulsory reading at school as well as being widely popular through TV and film adaptations, I never heard – and I’m sure very few in Poland at the time did – of Bunt. The similarity to Animal Farm was obvious. And another striking thing was that both stories are told as cautionary tales. I was very surprised it took the book so long to resurface, especially when its lesson seemed past its sell-by date. But apparently that’s how things are with truths and lessons.

ReymontPortrait

Władysław Reymont. Portrait by by Jacek Malczewski, painted in 1905 when Reymont was acknowledged as Poland’s foremost novelist, author of The Peasants and The Promised Land, both sweeping panoramas of late 19th-century rural and industrial Poland. (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Bunt is a story of a revolt among farm animals who work for their master and often love him but are spurned, ruthlessly exploited and cruelly beaten in return. The revolt is initially stirred up by the dog Rex who calls on animals to rise against the landlord and follow him to the land of justice and plenty for everyone, a land that lies somewhere in the east. Sadly, the poor beasts, worn out by the never-ending quest, eventually turn against their leader and plead with a gorilla, the nearest they can find to a human, to rule over them.

Of course the two stories are different, both in detail and in tone – one is bleakly tragic the other tragically funny, but the basic idea and the narrative mechanism that delivers the moral point is essentially the same – a parable of human ideals falling victim to animal instincts, a lesson revealing the inherent fault laying at the heart of a revolution, or indeed at the heart of all power and authority, which may change hands even from the oppressors to the oppressed but nevertheless remain the same mechanism of oppression, and there is no escape from it.

ReymontBuntBLcopyTitle-page of Bunt (Warsaw, 1924). YF.2018.a.342

Originally Bunt appeared in the Polish weekly Tygodnik Ilustrowany (Mic.A.4839-4844) in 1922, and then in book form in 1924, the year of Reymont’s Nobel Prize for Literature, and just before his untimely death at 58. Despite being one of the first literary echoes of the Russian Revolution, it barely registered on the critical circuit. Reymont’s great champion, his German translator Jan Kaczkowski, a Polish diplomat hiding under the pen-name Jean Paul d’Ardeschah, felt the book, being topical as well as universal, deserved a better fate. He managed to place Bunt with a Swiss publisher in 1926 as Die Empörung: eine Geschichte vom Aufstand der Tiere. Later, after being transferred by the Polish Foreign Office to Holland, Kaczkowski instigated and oversaw a Dutch publication in 1928 as De Rebellie. That was the last the world heard of Reymont’s Bunt.

Reymont BuntGermanedition

 Cover of a modern edition of Die Empörung (Frankfurt am Main, 2017). Awaiting shelfmark

For a long while I was combing through Orwell’s biographies looking for ways he might have come into contact with Reymont’s story. Was he familiar with Reymont as a Nobel Prize winner? Could translations of Bunt have passed through his hands while he was working at Booklover’s Corner? Orwell did not speak German or Dutch, and the story was not translated into French, a foreign language Orwell knew – after all he read Zamyatin’s We  in French translation.

Another possibility were his friends who did read German – or Dutch or Polish – who were also interested in Eastern European literature and Russian Revolution. They may have discussed Reymont and brought up the story as part of the revolutionary lore and connected it with Orwell’s interest in fairy tales, which he had apparently developed during his time at BBC, just before he started working on Animal Farm. Could it be his publisher friends, Victor Gollancz or Fredric Warburg? The German-born Tysco Fyvel or the Swiss-born Jon Kimche with whom he worked at the Booklover’s Corner? Or was it Arthur Koestler with whom he discussed extensively how revolutionary logic worked? Perhaps someone – a Pole? – he had met in Spain? Perhaps, but I haven’t found a direct link yet.

And then my detective work suffered an unexpected twist. Discussing it with my friends at the BL one of them told me of another tale about an animals’ revolt, this time Russian, and written years before Bunt – in 1880 in fact! Following the new lead I discovered that Nikolai Kostomarov’s Skotskoi Bunt (‘The Revolt of Farm Animals’) was indeed written in 1880 but published only posthumously in 1917, in the popular magazine Niva, just a few issues before October Revolution consigned it forever to history. How come nobody knew of this story for so long? Could Reymont possibly have known of it and how? Could it be it was in fact Kostomarov’s story that seeped into revolutionary lore and inspired both Reymont and Orwell? It could be. But that’s another story. Or is it? Watch this space.

Wiesiek Powaga, Polish translator.
Wiesek’s most recent translation ‘Inside Red Spain’ by Ksawery Pruszynski, appeared in Pete Ayrton's anthology No pasaran! Writings from the Spanish Civil War (London, 2016; YC.2016.a.6057)

 

14 January 2018

‘Do the Finnish people have a history?’ Zachris Topelius’s 200th birthday

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Last month the Finlandia Prize, Finland’s most prestigious literary prize, was awarded to Juha Hurme for his novel Niemi [‘Headland’]. In praising the work, the jury said that it ‘treats the myth of Finland and the Finns with all the knowledge that our culture contains. A scope of this breadth can only be explored with the magnificently dilettante literary style in which Hurme boldly challenges both the legendary Egon Friedell and Zachris Topelius’ (translation by Helsinki Literary Agency).

The last of these comparisons is inevitable for any writer who attempts a history of the Finnish peninsula. The reference to Zacharius (Zachris) Topelius draws our attention to a great author perhaps not so well-known outside of the Nordic region, and on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his birth (14 January 1818).

Born in Kuddnäs in Ostrobothnia, Topelius wrote mainly in Swedish but was focal in Finland’s growing self-consciousness as a distinct nation. Since 1809, Finland had been a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire yet Finland managed to gain more freedom to develop a national movement in the 19th century, than it had been allowed to do under Swedish rule previously. First as editor of the Swedish-language Helsinki daily, Helsingfors Tidningar, and later as a writer of historical novels and as Professor of History at the Imperial Alexander University in Helsinki (1854-1879), Topelius crafted exceptionally popular, romanticized and patriotic national histories and thereby heavily shaped the future identity of the burgeoning nation.

Helsinki
A view of Helsinki from the North-West, steel engraving by Magnus von Wright in Topelius’s Finland framställdt i teckningar (Helsinki,1845-52) 1264.d.15

His first published book, Finland framställdt i teckningar, was the earliest book of steel engravings of the Finnish landscape, for which he wrote a commentary. In later works, such as En resa i Finland (1872-74) and Boken om vårt land (1875), he continued to offer comprehensive overviews of his country, bringing the whole of Finland to readers with the help of masterful engravings by the likes of, among others, Magnus von Wright (1805-1868), Johan Knutson (1816-1899), and perhaps Finland’s most famous landscape painter, Bernt Adolf Lindholm (1841-1914).

Åbo Castle
Åbo Castle, steel engraving by Johan Knutson in Finland framställdt i teckningar

Recently, the Society of Swedish Literature in Finland has created a digital portal for Topelius’s works, Zacharias Topelius Skrifter, which has so far published eight digital critical editions. This year, has released a digital critical edition of Boken om vårt Land (‘The Book of our Land’), which was and is still one of the most important history books in Finland, not least because it was, in the words of critic Pertti Haapala, ‘the foremost history textbook used in elementary schools between the 1870s and the 1940s, and it was read and commented on a great deal after the Second World War as well’ (Haapala, p. 26). The British Library has an 1886 copy of the Finnish translation, Maame kirja (first published 1876), which shows signs of being well-used by a young Finnish student, presumably the ‘Yrjä Hagelberg’ named on the inside cover. On the fly-leaf, you can make out a pencil drawing of a male figure coloured in red, lifting what apper to be weights. Later, we see several of the woodcuts coloured in (very capably) by young Yrjä. All in all, this Maamme kirja, a near 500-page textbook for young learners, full of lengthy verse quotations from the Kalevala and the Kanteletar, has however been treated with the respect that the seminal history text deserves.

Doodle
Above: Doodle on the first page of Maamme kirja (Helsinki, 1886), YA.1990.a.1111); Below: The Imatra river coloured in by a student

Imatra

Not only did Topelius frame his Finnish history from the perspective of a child’s experience, but he wrote a great many successful and enormously influential children’s books, which gave him the name ‘Mr Fairy Tale’. As Haapala notes, ‘it is easy to see that the child’s experience in reading The Book of Our Land is a metaphor for the emerging historical consciousness of a nation’ (p. 38). The children’s tales too are important in the development of the nation, as folk tales, myths, songs have always been in the foundation of national identities. Topelius’s Läsning för barn series (1864-1896, BL 12837.m.11) contains stories that continue to be translated into many languages. Each of the eight volumes contain around two hundred illustrations, some subtle and others of a more epic imagination.

Book Cover
Above: Cover of the first book of Läsning för barn (Stockholm, 1902), 12837.m.11. Below: ‘When you sleep amongst roses’, illustration by Carl Larsson, from Läsning för barn

Sleep amongst roses

For the centenary of Topelius’s birth in 1918, the Swedish Academy asked the eminent Nobel Laureate Selma Lagerlöf to write something on him. Topelius was a clear influence on the Swedish author of Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige (The Wonderful Adventure of Nils), which takes much from Topelius’s Boken om vårt Land, not least the idea to explain national geography from a child’s and bird’s eye view. Lagerlöf’s paean is to a writer of both Finland and Sweden, and ultimately ‘the North’ – its life and landscape. Zachris Topelius asks ‘Can you love a country, so hard, so cold, so full of neglect?’ His answer follows, ‘We love it because it is our roots, the essence of our being, and we are the ones our country has made – a hard, frosty, fierce people […]’ (En resa I Finland). The country that ‘made’ its people was itself created in the words of Topelius and fellow patriotic writers. And so, by extension, we might even say Topelius made a nation.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

References/further reading:

 Zacharias Topelius, The Sea King’s Gift and other Tales from Finland (Retold by Irma Kaplan; illustrated by Anne Knight) (London, 1973), X.990/4615.

Ibid., Sammy and the Mountain King (illustrated by Veronica Leo) (London, 1984), X.995/461

Selma Lagerlöf, Zachris Topelius. Utveckling och mognad (Stockholm, 1920), 011851.aa.54.

Pertti Haapala, ‘Writing our History: The History of the ‘Finnish People’ (As Written) by Zacharias Topelius and Välnö Linna’, in Pertti Haapala, Marja Jalava, and Simon Larsson (eds.), Making Nordic Historiography: Connections, Tensions and Methodology, 1850-1970 (New York, 2017), 5353.922500

Maija Lehtonen, ‘Un Finlandais du XIXème siècle face à l’Europe. Les récits de voyage de Zachris Topelius’, in On the Borderlines of Semiosis. Acta Semiotica Fennica 2 (Imatra, 1993) YA.2003.a.18418.  pp. 401-412

15 December 2017

Treasures of all nations in Esperanto

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The new international language Esperanto had not yet reached  its 20th birthday when the first anthology of national literature in it was published in 1905. Not surprisingly it was a Polish anthology (Pola antologio). The British Library holds the second edition of it, published in 1909 in Paris by the famous Librarie Hachette.

AntologioPola1909 Cover of Pola Antologio (Paris, 1909). F5/3997]

The choice of items and translations themselves were made by Polish Esperanto pioneer Kazimierz Bein, known amongst Esperantists worldwide under his pseudonym Kabe. This edition consisted from prose works of 14 prominent Polish writers (Henryk Sienkiewicz, Władysław Reymont, Eliza Orzeszko, Maria Konopnicka and others). Some of his translations from Polish, Russian and German were republished in later years while the translator himself lost interest in Esperanto and left the movement, leaving after himself the verb kabei (meaning “to disappear suddenly after being active”).

AntologiojKazimierz_Bein_(Kabe)

Kazimierz Bein (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The compilation, translation and publication of treasures of native culture became a task of honour for Esperantists of all countries. Other anthologies followed after the First World War: Catalan (YF.2005.a.5977) and Bulgarian (012264.aaa.12) in 1925, Belgian (Belga antologio) in 1928, Estonian (YF.2006.b.2354) in 1932, Hungarian (Hungara antologio; on order) in 1933, Swedish in 2 volumes (ZF.9.a.6406) in 1934, Czechoslovak (YF.2017.a.1323) in 1935, Swiss (YF.2006.a.30968) in 1939.

AntologiojEstonaNewCover of Estona Antologio (Tallinn, 1932). YF.2006.b.2354

The best Esperanto poets and writers contributed to the translations of many of them. A very good example is the volume of Hungara Antologio, the first edition of which appeared in 1933. It has 473 pages and features 50 Hungarian authors. Famous Esperantists, well-known for their own original works, engaged in the programme of translation: Kálmán Kalocsay), Julio Baghy, Lajos Tárkony and others. Another edition, with some new authors added, was published 50 years later, in 1983 (YF.2008.a.21429), by Vilmos Benczik.

Persecution of Esperantists by Nazi and Stalinist regimes and the Second World War stopped activities and publishing once again. Only in 1950s the publishing restarted: an English anthology (Angla antologio 1000-1800; X22/0305) was published in 1957 (but the second volume Angla antologio II: 1800-1960 appeared 30 years later, in 1987; YC.1990.a.4395). More anthologies followed in the 1980s: Macedonian (YF.2010.a.21783) in 1981, German (YF.2006.a.31533) in 1985, Italian ( YF.2006.a.9512) in 1987, Australian (YF.2008.a.19828) in 1988.

AntologiojItalaGermana
 Covers of Itala Antologio (1987) and Germana antologio (1985)

Some anthologies have lovely illustrations, made especially for Esperanto editions, as for example Ĉina Antologio (1919-1949).

AntologioCinaImage From: Ĉina Antologio (Pekino, 1986). YF.2017.a.1307

In the 1990s more anthologies were published: Romanian (YF.2006.a.31163) in 1990, French (Franca antologio) and Occitan (Okcitana antologio) in 1998. There are now almost 100 anthologies, some of them limited to certain period or genre (as Antologio de portugalaj rakontoj; X25/4091 or Nederlanda antologio. Antologio de Nederlanda poezio post la mezepoko; YF.2008.a.29548) or language (Latina antologio; ZF.9.a.6591) or even region (Podlaĥia Antologio; 2009; YF.2010.a.1053)

When some journalists still wonder about the survival of Esperanto teams of Esperanto translators are working compiling and translating new anthologies or planning new editions of old ones. The British Library holds many of the anthologies which can show to unprejudiced researcher the richness of the so-called “artificial language” in which all treasures of humankind can be rendered by gifted translators.

AntologioSkota

Title-page and frontispiece from Skota antologio (Glasgow, 1978). X.909/43134

As Burns – and New Year’s Eve – festivities are approaching, I leave you with a famous poem by the Scottish bard translated by Reto Rossetti (from Skota antologio):

La prakonatojn ĉu ni lasu
Velki el memor'?
Ĉu ni ne pensu kare pri
La iamo longe for?

(Rekantaĵo)

Iamo longe for, karul',
Iamo longe for, karul'!
Ni trinku en konkordo pro
La iamo longe for!

La kruĉojn do ni levu kaj
Salutu el la kor',
Kaj trinku simpatie pro
La iamo longe for!

Montete iam kuris ni
Kaj ĉerpis el la flor'
Sed penan vojon spuris ni
Post iamo longe for.

Geknabe ni en fluo vadis
Ĝis vespera hor'
Sed maroj muĝis inter ni
Post iamo longe for.

Do jen la mano, kamarad'!
Ni premu kun fervor',
Kaj trinku ni profunde pro
La iamo longe for!

You can listen to it performed by a Chinese youth choir here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GVCzONYXZL0

Olga Kerziouk, Curator,  Esperanto studies

21 November 2017

Orwell in Translation

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George Orwell’s Animal Farm was first published on 17 August 1945 and on 28 August the Russian scholar and critic Gleb Struve wrote to Orwell to say that he found the book “delightful” and would like to translate it for the benefit of Russians, “who could read the truth about their country only when outside it”. Replying to this letter on 1 September, Orwell wondered “what the procedure is. Are books in Russian published in this country, i.e. from non-official sources?” He told Struve that, at about the same time, he had received a letter from a Pole who wanted to translate the book into Polish. Orwell’s main worry was how to pay his translators, but he said he was “anxious that the book should find its way into other languages. If translations into the Slav languages were made, I shouldn’t want any money out of them myself (The Complete Works of George Orwell (CWGO), vol. 17, pp. 274-5). 

Animal Farm Polish

Cover page of Polish translation: Zwierzęcy folwark ....(London,1947). 012642.pp.100.

The first translation of Animal Farm into a Slavic language – in fact, into any language! – was into Polish. It was made by Teresa Jelenska, the wife of a Polish diplomat, and published at the turn of 1946 and 1947 in London by the League of Poles Abroad.

Teresa Jelenska was also instrumental in putting her son’s friend, a young Polish-born Ukrainian Ihor Szewczenko  in touch with Orwell. Szewczenko, then aged 25, wrote to Orwell in April 1946 immediately after he had read Animal Farm and saw at once, as he put it, “that a translation of the tale into Ukrainian would be of great value to my countrymen” (CWGO, vol. 19, p. 72). Szewczenko (who later changed the spelling of his name to Ševčenko, the heading under which his works can be found in the British Library’s catalogue), translated Animal Farm while commuting between Munich, where he lived with his wife and mother-in-law, both Soviet-Ukrainian refugees, and Quackenbrück in the British zone of Germany, where he worked for a Polish newspaper.

A year later, when the translation was ready for publication by the Munich publisher Prometheus, Szewczenko wrote to Orwell again asking him for a preface for the book and Orwell, although he was “frightfully busy”, did indeed write the preface to the Ukrainian edition, which remains his most detailed explanation of his motives for writing the “fairy story”. He was particularly glad to find out from Szewczenko, who published his translation under the pseudonym of Ivan Cherniatynskyi, that his publishers in Munich were the Soviet Ukrainians, who defended the “acquisitions of the October revolution”, but turned against the “counter-revolutionary Bonapartism” of Stalin and the Russian nationalistic exploitation of the Ukrainian people. Orwell was “encouraged to learn that that kind of opposition exists in the USSR” (CWGO, vol. 19, p. 73).

Animal Farm Ukrainian

Cover of  the Ukrainian translation. Kolhosp tvaryn: kazka. Translated by ‘Ivan Cherniatynskyi’ with an introduction by George Orwell. ([Munich, 1947?]) 12593.f.40.

The first Ukrainian edition was not very lucky. Orwell informed his friend, writer Arthur Koestler on 20 September 1947 (CWGO, vol. 19, pp. 206-7), that “the American authorities in Munich have seized 1500 copies of it and handed them over to the Soviet repatriation people, but it appears 2000 copies got distributed among the DPs (Displaced Persons) first”. In the same letter Orwell told Koestler that he had given Szewczenko his address and added: “I have been saying ever since 1945 that the DPs were a godsent opportunity for breaking down the wall between Russia and the West”. Shortly before that, in his review of James Burnham’s book The Struggle for the World (London, 1947; 8011.ee.32.), he expressed a similar thought even more directly: “one of the most important problems at this moment is to find a way of speaking to the Russian people over the heads of their rulers” (CWGO, vol. 19, p. 105).

It was precisely the plan to send Animal Farm into the Soviet Union that made Orwell agree to fund the publication of Gleb Struve’s translation into Russian by the DP publisher Possev. Approached by Possev six months before his death, Orwell immediately supported the idea of publishing the translation in a book form (it had already been serialized in the publisher’s weekly magazine of the same name (no. 7-32, 1949) and smuggling it into the USSR, but he still wanted to know for sure who he was dealing with. “I suppose the editors of this paper are bona fide people and also not Whites?” – he asked his recent acquaintance, a German communist Ruth Fischer in a letter of 15 July 1949 (CWGO, vol. 20, p.146). The first part of his question could easily be confirmed, but it was more complicated with the second. As Orwell had feared Possev, unlike the Ukrainian publishers of Animal Farm, were indeed “Whites”. They enjoyed Orwell’s satire of the Soviet regime, but could not stomach him satirising the church and religion and the role they played in society. That is why – as it became known much later, in the 1980s – they censored Orwell and cut out from Animal Farm two paragraphs describing the role of Moses, the tame raven, who tells the animals about “Sugarcandy Mountain, to which all animals went when they died.”

Animal Farm Russian

Title-page of the  Russian translation. Skotskii khutor. ([Frankfurt am Main], 1950). 12654.de.12.

This was of course only the beginning. Eventually Animal Farm was translated into at least 70 languages, including Esperanto, but it is worth stressing that the Slavic languages (Polish, Ukrainian, Russian) were among the first. The French publication appeared later than expected, only in October 1947, because, as Orwell wrote to Koestler in January 1946, “The French publisher, who had signed a contract to translate Animal Farm, has got cold feet and says it is impossible «for political reasons»” (CWGO, vol. 18. p.28) – this no doubt was the result of the 1945 elections in France, when the Communists became the largest party in the French National Assembly. But those whose countries were directly under the Communist rule continued publishing the book abroad – in 1952 Animal Farm came out in Lithuanian and in 1955 in Serbian.

Animal Farm Lithuanian

Cover of the  Lithuanian translation. Gyvulių ūkis. Fantastině apysaka. (London, 1952). X.950/31145

Masha Karp, editor of The Orwell Society Journal and author of a forthcoming  Russian biography of George Orwell

References/Further reading

The Complete Works of George Orwell edited by Peter Davison (London, 2000-2002). Vols. 17 (YC.2001.a.13719), 18 (YC.2001.a.16202), 19 (YC.2002.a.23095) and 20 (YC.2002.a.23177)

Masha Karp. ‘The Raven Vanishes’. The Orwell Society Journal. No. 9, December 2016, pp. 16-19

Ksenya Kiebuzinski. ‘Not Lost in Translation: Orwell’s Animal Farm Among Refugees and Beyond the Iron Curtain’, The Halcyon: Newsletter of the Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library, no. 59, June 2017.  

17 November 2017

A woman for all seasons: Halldis Moren Vesaas

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To English-speaking readers, the name Vesaas is perhaps best known through the work of the Norwegian poet and novelist Terje Vesaas (1897-1970), whose most famous work, Is-slottet (‘The ice palace’: Oslo, 1963; X.908/1343) was filmed in 1987 by Per Blom, winning the Grand Prix at the Flanders International Film Festival in 1988. In Norway, however, it equally calls to mind his wife, the poet, translator and children’s author Halldis Moren Vesaas, who was born on 18 November 1907 in Trysil, in the county of Hedmark.

  Moren Vesaas house
View of Trysil from Halldis Moren Vesaas, Sven Moren og heimen hans (Oslo, 1951) 10763.a.20.

Both of them came from farming backgrounds in rural Norway, but broke away to pursue a teaching career. Terje Vesaas suffered pangs of guilt for years over his decision not to take over the family farm in Telemark, but Halldis grew up in an environment more favourable to her literary gifts, as her father was Sven Moren, a poet and playwright. The eldest child and only daughter in a family of five, she showed a natural aptitude for teaching and went away to train in Elverum before taking posts in Hamar and Oslo. However, after publishing her first collection of poems, Harpe og dolk (‘Harp and Dagger’: Oslo, 1929; YF.2011.a.23158) at the age of 22, she set off for Switzerland the following year to work as a secretary; her next volume of poetry, Morgonen (‘Morning’)  came out in this year.

Moren Vesaas Morgonen
Cover of Morgonen (Oslo, 1930) YF.2012.a.6610

After spending three years in Switzerland, she returned to Norway and married Tarjei Vesaas in 1934. They returned to his home district of Vinje and settled on the Midtbø farm there when he took up an appointment at a local school. For both of them, nature and the Norwegian landscape in all its pitiless grandeur were important sources of inspiration and a reminder of the timeless renewal of the natural world during the dark days of the German occupation. Their use of the Norwegian Landsmål (Nynorsk) fully explored its potential as a world literary language, capable of expressing with subtlety and directness the darker psychological themes of guilt and mortality as well as the eerie splendour of an ice-cave or the beauty of the mountain pastures in spring.

Halldis Moren Vesaas’s poetry celebrates every stage of woman’s life from girlhood through marriage and motherhood to the sorrow and solitude of widowhood (Terje Vesaas died in 1970) and the joy of discovering new love in later years. As well as composing eight books of poetry, she wrote and translated for the theatre, acting as a consultant for Det Norske Teatret in Oslo and sitting on the board of the Riksteatret (1949-69). One of her most notable translations is her version of Racine’s Phèdre (Fedra: Oslo, 1999; YF.2011.a.5500), where her poetic language fully conveys the passion and drama of the original. Her fascination with Greek subjects is also evident in Den gode gåva (‘The good gift’: Oslo, 1987; LB.31.a.2374), a retelling in verse for children of the myth of Demeter and Persephone with exquisite illustrations by Kaja Thorne. Her achievements were recognized not only in Norway, where she was awarded the Bastian Prize (1961) and the Norsk kulturråds ærespris (1982) and made a Commander of the Order of St. Olav in 1984, but also in France, where she was honoured with its second-highest order as a Knight of the National Order of Merit. She died in 1995.

Halldis Moren Vesaas had the ability to speak not only to adult audiences on the world stage but also to children. In 2007 a  a lively and playful collection of poems for the young by both Halldis and her husband, Eg sette brillene på min katt (‘I put spectacles on my cat’), was published, colourfully illustrated by Inger Lise Belsvik. 

Moren Vesaas Katt
Cover illustration by Inger Lise Belsvik from Eg sette brillene på min katt  (Oslo, 2007)  LF.31.a.2134

Halldis's experience as a teacher had equipped her to write for younger readers with verve and charm, without a trace of condescension but with an intuitive understanding of the child’s world and emotional and psychological needs, in verse and stories such as Hildegunn (1942) and Tidleg på våren (‘Early in spring’: 1949).

Her poetry evokes the joy of life with such sensuous vigour that it seems only fitting to allow it to speak for itself:

That you laughed aloud with gladness
when the rain came, and the first drop
fell, so strangely heavy and warm
and lay on your cheek a second or two –

that the wind which whirled the leaves
so brusquely round the trunk of the tree
sent a wave of happiness
and frost through all my blood –

that something that was nothing
still can follow me everywhere,
so that you know that nothing
as happened to me since that time –

Just because we were together?

Halldis Moren Vesaas, ‘At du –’, from I ein annan skog (‘In another forest’) Translation © Susan Reynolds Halstead, 2017).

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

Moren Vesaas En annan skog
Cover of  I ein annan skog (Oslo, 1955) 01565.e.107

 

09 November 2017

Alberto Savinio. The social utility of Surrealism

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One day in 1937, in Paris, André Breton, read to me a page in which he wrote that in the time before WWI, the name of my brother, Giorgio de Chirico, and mine, stand among the leaders of that art-form which later took the name of “Surrealism”’.

This is how Alberto Savinio begins the preface to his collection of short stories titled Tutta la vita (‘A whole life’). The stories were published in various newspapers and magazines between 1942 and 1944, before being gathered and published under that title in 1946. The British Library holds the edition published in 1953, which contains in addition 13 illustrations of his paintings and drawings.

Savinio tp
Title page with the author’s self-portrait from Alberto Savinio, Tutta la vita (Milan, 1953) 12472.e.9.

Now, what happens then when a surrealist painter transfers his skills into writing?

Pieces of furniture talk among themselves revealing uncomfortable secrets to Candido Bove about his wife, while he is sitting on the sofa, sleeplessly overcome with grief as she died just the day before. This is what happens! (In the story ‘Poltrondamore’ [Lovesofa])

Savinio Nonna

‘La nonna’ picture by Savinio reproduced in Tutta la vita (facing p. 49).

A taxidermist, nicknamed God Almighty, kills and embalms his wife and his assistant, after finding them naked under the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden he made in his house. This is what happens! (In the story ‘Il Paradiso Terrestre’ [Heaven on Earth]).

Savinio Adamo Eva

 ‘Adamo ed Eva’, picture by Savinio reproduced in Tutta la vita (facing p. 96)

When Miss Fufù receives the piano she ordered, she notices that it looks bigger; the morning after she finds it breathing heavily and surrounded by little pianos: the piano was pregnant. This is what happens! (In the story ‘La pianessa’ [Miss Piano]).

Savinio Sorelle
 ‘Le due sorelle’, picture by Savinio reproduced in Tutta la vita (facing p.257)

In Savinio’s short stories “A whole Life” is injected in pretty much everything, in fact, we could say that objects are more alive than people. What these short stories have in common is that the surreal events their main characters experience have a formative function, that is, surrealism here has a social purpose: it aims at shaking the reality of the main characters, whose life is flattened by loneliness, self-absorption, surrender. As Savinio continues in his preface:

... surrealism, as many of my literary works and paintings demonstrate, does not content itself with representing the shapeless and expressing the unconscious, but it wants to give shape to the shapeless and consciousness to the unconscious

This becomes clearer in Anima, the story of Nìvulo, a child described by his father as a typical old house in Milan, where façades do not face the street, but the rear garden: a child with the face turned inward. Nìvulo has the soul of his brother, who died at birth 32 years before, trapped in his body, this has prevented him to live his life, in fact, has prevented him from even learning to talk.

The social purpose of Savinio’s work is more explicit in the tale titled ‘Scendere dalla collina’ (Walking down the hill).

Parents, do not let your children grow up under the shadow of a great man… Equally, do not let them grow up under the shadow of a memorable event or a remarkable idea, and, let me also add: do not let your children grow up under the shadow of a famous name.

It is difficult not to read here a certain autobiographical reference since Alberto Savinio, whose real name was Andrea Francesco Alberto de Chirico, changed his last name so that he would not be eclipsed by his more famous brother.

Savinio L45-2089 cover

The British Library also holds a copy of the prestigious first edition of Alberto Savinio, pittura e letteratura (Milan, 1979; L45/2089, pictured above), a volume with black silk covers printed in gold, the pages printed in Bodoni characters on azure blue paper, and numerous beautiful plates of Savinio’s paintings glued on the pages.

Giuseppe Alizzi, Acquisitions South Support Manager

References/Further readings

Filippo Secchieri, Dove comincia la realtà e dove finisce – Studi su Alberto Savinio. (Florence, 1998). YA.2202.a.24958

Matteo Marchesini, Soli e civili – Savinio, Noventa, Fortini, Bianciardi, Bellocchio. (Rome, 2012) YF.2017.a.21214)

Alberto Savinio, musician, writer and painter (Milan, New York, 1995.) q95/27443

25 October 2017

Storm in October: Theodor Storm at 200

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In her biography Theodor Storm. Ein Bild seines Lebens, the poet’s daughter Gertrud describes how one day in 1848 his friend Harthmuth Brinkmann happened to meet him and asked, ‘What’s the matter with you, Storm? Why are your eyes shining like that?’ Storm took his friend’s hand with the words, ‘I have just written an immortal poem’. That poem was Oktoberlied:

Der Nebel steigt, es fällt das Laub;
Schenk’ ein den Wein, den holden!
Wir wollen uns den grauen Tag
Vergolden, ja vergolden!

(The mist arises, the leaves fall,
Pour wine of seasons olden!
And we will turn the gloomy days
To golden days, aye golden! – Translation: Carlyle F. MacIntyre).

In the remaining five verses, the poet reflects on the need to keep one’s spirits up and maintain a stout heart in the grey days ahead until the spring returns and ‘the world is full of violets’. The simple stanzas are full of a joyous appetite for life and a dauntless defiance of all that could blight or limit it; on one level it can be read as an Anacreontic challenge to relish the pleasures of wine and friendship, but on another it may be interpreted as Storm’s personal credo.

Storm Portrait

Portrait of Theodor Storm  as a young man from Gertrud Storm, Theodor Storm. Ein Bild seines Lebens (Berlin, 1912; 010709.df.93)

In conventional terms it could be said that Theodor Storm (1817-88) did not subscribe to a religious creed at all, despite the reference to ‘unchristlich oder christlich’ in the poem’s second verse. This was unusual in the North German town of Husum where he was born as the eldest child of the lawyer Johann Casimir Storm and his wife Lucie. Storm was destined to follow his father’s profession; by the time he enrolled in the faculty of law at the University of Kiel in 1837 he was already writing poetry. On qualifying he returned to Husum and began to practise as an advocate, founded a choral society, and seemed set for a career of bourgeois stability. All that was lacking was a wife, and in 1844 he proposed to his cousin Constanze Esmarch. Although this came as a surprise to his parents, his father wrote to Constanze’s that though his son was ‘moody’ he was industrious, and the young couple’s prospects were promising. They married in 1846.

But before long, the life described by Thomas Mann as a ‘passionslose Heiratsidylle’ was to be shaken by forces both personal and political. Constanze was in many ways an excellent wife, tirelessly preserving beans and cucumbers, providing peace and stability for her husband and ably managing a growing family. However, even during their courtship Storm’s letters to her hint at a cultural and temperamental disparity which he endeavoured to bridge by suggesting reading-matter for her, including Wilhelm Heinse’s Ardinghello and the Song of Songs. There is also an implication, which he expressed more explicitly later in his ‘great confession’ of 1866 to Brinkmann, that the lack of passion in Constanze’s nature had been a drawback.

Through his sister Cäcilie, Storm had become acquainted with Dorothea Jensen, a delicate blonde girl who sang in his choir, and an immediate affinity spring up between them. Constanze faced this out serenely, befriended Dorothea, and was even prepared to take her into their home, but the probable scandal would have ruined Storm’s career, and early in 1848 Dorothea left Husum to live with relatives.

Storm Constanze portrait

Portrait of Constanze Storm, née Esmarsch, from Theodor Storm. Ein Bild seines Lebens

That year, of course, was marked by revolutions throughout Europe, and in contrast to events in Italy, Prague and Poland, the Germans actually supported the uprising in Schleswig-Holstein. International treaties guaranteed that the Duchy of Schleswig would remain united with the Danish crown, and late in October church bells rang out for peace. Moreover, on 22 September Frederik VII of Denmark had abolished slavery in the Danish colonies. It was in this jubilant atmosphere that Storm wrote ‘Oktoberlied’.

Within a few years, though, political events had overturned Storm’s career by splitting the judicial and administrative functions in Schleswig under Danish rule, and in 1853 he moved to Berlin as an Assessor in the service of Prussia. In Berlin he had joined the literary society Tunnel über der Spree,  become a friend of the writers Eduard Mörike and Theodor Fontane, and published his first volume of poems. Finally, in 1864, he was appointed to a magistracy in Husum and settled there with Constanze and their six children. A seventh, Gertrud, arrived the following May, but two weeks later Constanze died of puerperal fever; Storm blamed himself for returning to an area where the disease was endemic. Like Thomas Hardy, he expressed his guilt and regret at his wife’s death in a sequence of his finest poems, ‘Tiefe Schatten’ (Deep Shadows).

Storm and family

Storm and his family, from Theodor Storm. Ein Bild seines Lebens.

In the months that followed Storm sought consolation in music and literary friendships, staying in Baden-Baden with Ivan Turgenev, ‘one of the handsomest men I have ever seen – rather strange, but extremely kind’. By the end of the year he had resumed contact with Dorothea, and in June 1866 she became his wife and stepmother to seven children aged between one and eighteen. When her own daughter was born in 1868 Dorothea suggested naming her Constanze, but Storm demurred, and she was christened Friederike and nicknamed Dodo.

With domestic peace restored, Storm continued to write. Immensee, the novella by which many readers first come to know Storm, had appeared in 1849, and was followed by many others evoking the countryside around Husum with its dykes and coastline haunted by the cries of sea-birds. These culminated in Der Schimmelreiter  (1888), a ghostly tale of conflict in a rural community where the outsider Hauke Haien rises to the position of dykegrave but encounters personal tragedy and a dramatic end amid the floods.

Storm Weihnachtsidyllen 012554.e.21

Illustration from Theodor Storm, Zwei Weihnachtsidyllen (Berlin, 1865) 012554.e.21, showing  the north German coastal landscape of many of his stories

Shortly after its publication Storm died of cancer on 4 July, surrounded by his children; his last words were addressed to Dorothea: ‘My sweet wife…thoughts, thoughts, thoughts!’ No priest accompanied his coffin to the family vault in Husum’s St.-Jürgen-Friedhof, to rest deep in the land which he had loved so well and brought to life so vividly.

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

 

17 October 2017

Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata

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In the 1880s Leo Tolstoy mainly focused on writing non-fiction; his novella The Kreutzer Sonata is one of the few exceptions. In February 1876 a woman calling herself ‘Slavyanka’ had written to Tolstoy her thoughts on the appalling situation of women in contemporary Russian society. This was one source of inspiration for the novella. Another was a story told to Tolstoy by a friend who had heard a fellow train traveller talking about his wife’s infidelity.

When the first draft had been written, a family friend performed Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata (Sonata No. 9 in A Major for piano and violin, Op. 47) at Tolstoy’s house in Moscow. Immediately afterwards, Tolstoy suggested that the actor Andreev-Burlak and the artist Ilya Repin, who were present, could help him express the feelings evoked by this music. Tolstoy’s original plan was to have his story read in public with Repin’s visual response to the music in the background, although this performance never took place. It occurs to me that had such a recital happened, we could have think of Tolstoy as one of the founding fathers of conceptual performance art.

1-Ilya Repin's picture of Tolstoy and his daughter Alexandra

Ilya Repin’s picture of Tolstoy and his daughter Alexandra at the piano

Tolstoy continuously reworked the plot of the story and it went through many transformations. In the final version, the protagonist tells his story as part of a conversation on a train concerning marriage, divorce and love. Although he loved his wife at first, he became unhappy with her when she was preoccupied by motherhood, but was also displeased when she started to prevent pregnancies. Nonetheless, having noticed his wife’s admiration for a violinist, he became consumed with jealousy which led him to kill her. Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata triggers all the emotions in the story, as this is what unites the protagonist’s wife with the violinist when they play it together, filling him with rage and misery. He blames the conventions which force people to stay together even after love has turned into hatred, and believes that women and men will never enjoy equal rights as long as men view women as objects of desire. Yet he also claims that women have a form of power over men, since much of society is geared towards women’s pleasure and wellbeing. Tolstoy’s message is confusing, but is usually interpreted as questioning the institution of marriage and celebrating the ideals of chastity and sexual abstinence.

Zweig MS 19 f1r

 Draft page of The Kreutzer Sonata, Zweig MS 191

In November 1889, the story was read in public at the publishing house owned by Tolstoy’s friend Chertkov. It made such an impression that, against Tolstoy’s will, the manuscript was copied on the same night. Three days later 300 lithograph copies were already in private circulation in St. Petersburg and many more were created on hectograph machines. In December 1889, rumours that the censors would ban publication were confirmed. Tolstoy had decided in 1879 to renounce his copyright and potential royalties for anything written thereafter, so was relieved that he did not have to deal with a moral dilemma: to allow his wife to support the family by publishing his work commercially or to publish it gratis according to his own principles.

2-KreutzerSonataClandestineEditionBeginning large

Opening (above) and last two page (below) of a clandestine edition of The Kreutzer Sonata ([St Petersburg?, 1889]) RB.23.b.6954.

3-KreutzerSonataClandestineEditionEnd large

In 1890, when it became obvious that The Kreutzer Sonata would not be published in Russia, the Bibliographic Office in Berlin published the story in four languages – Russian, German, French and English – simultaneously. At least two other different English translations, by H. Sutherland Edwards and by Beni R. Tucker, were published in 1890 in England and America respectively.

4-KreutzerSonataBerlin large

Above: The Berlin edition of The Kreutzer Sonata  (1890) 1608/5228. Below: English translation of The Kreutzer Sonata. (London, 1890) 012589.e.34.

5-KreutzerSonataEnglish large

In 1891, Tolstoy’s wife Sofia Andreevna was granted personal permission by Tsar Alexander III to publish the novella in Russia. She did so to prove to herself and others that she had not been hurt by the story, although she admitted in her diaries that it was aimed at her life with Tolstoy, which certainly made her feel uneasy about it. She even wrote a “reply” to Tolstoy, a novella Ch’ia vina? (‘Whose was the blame?’), not published until 1994.

An almost immediate response to Tolstoy’s ideas on marriage and sexuality came from the German author Dagobert von Gerhardt, known under his pen-name Gerhardt von Amyntor. In 1891 he published his story Die Cis-moll-Sonate in which travellers on a train discuss Tolstoy and his Kreutzer Sonata, and one describes how Tolstoy’s ideas influenced his life in a negative way.

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Against The Kreutzer Sonata, by G. von Amyntor in Russian translation: Za pravdu i za chest’ zhenshchiny [For the truth and women’s honour]  (St Petersburg, 1898) 8410.ff.18.

Tolstoy’s son, Lev L’vovich, also argued with his father in his novella Preliudiia Shopena (‘Chopin ’s Prelude’). In 1890 Leonard Terry, writing as ‘Margrave Kenyon’ published a play entitled Madansema, Slave of Love; re Tolstoi, a counter-song to anti-marriage (London, 1890). On the inside cover of the British Library copy there is an inscription: “Tolstoi thinks – marriage is a sin (essay in “Universal Review”, 1890)”. Apart from the title, the play has only a loose connection with Tolstoy’s story. Mrs James Gregor’s novella, like Sofia Andreevna’s entitled Whose was the blame?, was published in London in 1894 and is subtitled A woman’s version of the Kreutzer Sonata. These are just some examples of contemporary responses to The Kreutzer Sonata.

The Czech composer Leo Janaček’s String quartet No. 1, “Kreutzer Sonata” was also inspired by Tolstoy’s story. When he wrote it in 1923, the composer’s own private life was tense and difficult: he had informally divorced his wife, and was passionately in love with Kamila Stösslová, who neither sought nor rejected his devotion. An image of a “tormented and run down” poor young woman from Tolstoy’s novel was very close to Janáček’s heart at that time.

The Kreutzer Sonata remains one of the most popular of Tolstoy’s works and continues to attract new translations and adaptations.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

References / Further reading:

Lawrence Kramer, “Tolstoy’s Beethoven, Beethoven’s Tolstoy : the Kreutzer Sonata” in his collection of essays Critical musicology and the responsibility of response : selected essays (Aldershot, 2006) YC.2008.a.856

Europäisches Ereignis "Kreutzersonate" : Beethoven - Tolstoj – Janáček, Ulrich Steltner … et al. (Jena, 2004) YF.2006.a.12001

Dawn B. Sova, Literature suppressed on sexual grounds (New York, 2006) YC.2007.a.2777.

Alexandra Popoff, Sophia Tolstoy: a biography. (New York, 2010) m10/.18612

The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy, translated by Cathy Porter. (London, 2010) YC.2011.a.630

 

12 October 2017

Righteous Gentile and honorary Irishman: Zdeněk Urbánek

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

F_urbanek_zdenek_1917_0001

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

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

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

Urbanek Romeo and Juliet

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

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

Urbanek Jitrenka smutku inscription

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

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

Urbanek Jitrenka smutku cover

  Cover of Jitřenka smutku.

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

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

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

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

 

10 October 2017

Text into image: Quevedo and the Table of Cebes

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The Greeks had two words for us: ekphrasis (the verbal description of a work of art) and topothesia (the description of an imagined place).

As topothesia is the less common, look it up in your copy of Erasmus De copia:

Quae si verae sint, τoπoγραφιας appellari volunt, sin fictae, τoπoθεσιας. Prioris formae sunt: Carthiginis et portus apud Maronem descriptio; apud Plinium in Epistolis Laurentis villae; apud Statium Surretinum Polii et Tibertinum Manlii; posterioris: sedes Somni apud Ouidium; domes Famae et regia Solis apud eundem; inferorum et Caci domus apud Vergilium; Tenari apud Statium; domus apud Lucianum; regia Psyches apud Apuleium.
[If these descriptions are true, they are called topographias; if imagined, topothesias. In the first category are: the description of Carthage and its port in Virgil; of his Laurentine villa in the letters of Pliny; the villas of Polius in Sorrento and Manlius in Tivoli in Statius. The imagined include: the House of Sleep, the House of Fame, and the Palace of the Sun in Ovid [Met. 11.592; 12.39; 2.1]; Hell and the House of Cacus in Virgil [Aen. 6.268; 8. 225 ss]; Taenarum in Statius [Thebaid 2.32]; the house in Lucian [De domo]; and the Palace of Psyche in Apuleius [5.1-2].]

As nobody has seen the next world and lived to tell the tale, descriptions of the Other Side count as imagined descriptions.

A once well-known ekphrasis is the Table (or Tablet) of Cebes, alias Pinax. This describes a metal plate on which is depicted the whole life of man:

It was rather a circular enclosure, with two other such enclosures within it, one larger than the other. On the first circle was a gateway, near which was pictured a crowd of folk, and within it we saw a multitude of women. [...]
[An old man explains:]
This circle is called life. The great crowd you see standing beside the gate are those about to journey into life. The old man standing above the crowd holding a paper in his hand [...] is called Genius. He is giving advice [...]
That woman of affected appearance and smooth, plausible manner [...] is called Deceit and leads all men astray [...]

So, decidedly a text: what image could incorporate so much teeming detail?

But many people took ekphrasis as a challenge: various sculptors attempted the Shield of Achilles on the basis of Homer’s text; and some tried to make visual the Table of Cebes.

An example is the image below:

Cebes
Theatro moral de toda la philosophia de los antiguos y modernos, con el enchiridion de Epicteto (Brussels, 1669-73) 28.g.11.

All educated people in the 17th century knew the Pinax: Milton, in his treatise Of Education includes it among the ‘easy and delightful books of education’.

Francisco de Quevedo was no exception.

In 1627 he issued his Sueños (Dreams), apocalyptic visions, loosely arranged but always biting vignettes of the folly and sins of man and woman, grotesque in a very baroque way. They were censored in subsequent editions because among other things Quevedo attacked priests. Like the Good Lord, he was no respecter of parsons (Acts 10.34), a biblical pun that would have been OK in the 15th century but would have got me into trouble in the 1600s.

They were translated by Sir Roger L’Estrange.

The first illustrations of the Dreams came in Brussels in 1669 in vol. I of Quevedo’s works.

Quevedo 1
Above and below: illustrations from Francisco de Quevedo, Obras ... Nueva impression corregida y ilustrada con muchas estampas muy donosas y apropriadas à la materia. [Edited by Pedro Aldrete Quevedo y Villegas.] (Antwerp, 1699)  635.g.3-5#

Quevedo 3

The plates are by Gaspar Bouttats (1640?-96?), who ‘invenit et fecit’, i.e. they are his own designs.

I was struck by the resemblance between the engraving of the Table and the depiction of Hell and the Last Judgment in the Dreams, particularly the numerous figures crowded into a steeply raking landscape.

The resemblance is almost certainly because both images are the work of artists from the Low Countries. Perhaps when reading the text of the Dreams Bouttats’s visual memory recalled images of the Pinax.

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies

References

The Characters of Theophrastos. The Mimes of Herodas. The Tablet of Kebes. Translated with an introduction by R. Thomson Clark and 34 full page illustrations from Francis Howell’s edition of 1824. (London, [1909]) 8464.aa.28.

 Sagrario López Poza, ‘La Tabla de Cebes y los Sueños de Quevedo’, Edad de Oro, 13 (1994), 85-101. P.901/3635

Erasmus, De copia verborum ac rerum, ed. Betty I. Knott, Opera omnia Desiderii Erasmi Roterodami, Ordo I, tom. 6 (Amsterdam, 1988), p. 214

Enrique Gacto Fernández, ‘Sobre la censura literaria en el s. XVII: Cervantes, Quevedo y la Inquisición’, Revista de la Inquisición, 1 (1991), 11-61. ZA.9.a.6465