THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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299 posts categorized "Literature"

17 September 2018

Translating Cultures: French Caribbean History, Literature and Migration 

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On Monday 24 September 2018 we will be holding a French Caribbean study day in the British Library Knowledge Centre.
This event accompanies the British Library’s current free Entrance Hall Exhibition, ‘Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land’, and celebrates the rich history, heritage, literature and visual arts of the French Caribbean and its diaspora.

French Caribbean Maps K.Top.123.65 detail
The French Antilles. Detail from  Guillaume de l’Isle, Carte des Antilles françoise et des isles voisines (Amsterdam, between 1717 and 1730) Maps K.Top.123.65.

Our keynote speaker, H. Adlai Murdoch (Tufts University), introduces the multifaceted cultures and histories of the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Panels of leading specialists will explore the fascinating history and heritage of the French Caribbean as well as its rich literature. Our panellists will also discuss migration and its impact on postwar immigrants and their descendants.  There will be presentations on the graphic novel Peyi An Nou and on the British Library’s Windrush exhibition.

French Caribbean Peyi an nou YF.2018.a.5995
Cover of Jessica Oublié and Marie-Ange Rousseau, Peyi An Nou (Paris, 2017) YF.2018.a.5995

The programme for the study day is as follows: 

10.15-10.45  - Registration. Tea/Coffee (Dickens Room)
10.45-10.55  - Welcome: Janet Zmroczek (Head of European and Americas Collections, British Library)
10.55-11.40 -  Keynote: H. Adlai Murdoch (Tufts), ‘Introduction to the Francophone Caribbean: a comparative perspective’
11.40-11.45 -  Break
11.45-12.35  - Panel 1: History, heritage and migration
With Sophie Fuggle (Nottingham Trent), Antonia Wimbush (Birmingham), Emily Zobel Marshall (Leeds Beckett) (Chair: Gitanjali Pyndiah)
12.35-13.05 - Elizabeth Cooper (British Library) ‘Introduction to the British Library’s current Entrance Hall exhibition ‘Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land’’ (Chair: Phil Hatfield, Eccles Centre, British Library)
13.05-14.00 - Lunch. A sandwich lunch will be provided.
14.00-15.00 - Panel 2: Francophone Caribbean Literature
With Jason Allen-Paisant (Leeds), Vanessa Lee (Oxford), Kathryn Batchelor (Nottingham)
15.00-15.30 - Tea/Coffee
15.30-16.30  - Jessica Oublié (Author) and Marie-Ange Rousseau (Illustrator): Presentation of the graphic novel Peyi An Nou (‘Our Country’) (Chair: Charles Forsdick)
The presentation will be in French and an English version will be supplied.
16.30-17.00  - Jean-François Manicom (Acting Curator, International Slavery Museum, Liverpool) ‘Visual arts in the Caribbean’ (TBC)
17.00-18.00 - Wine reception sponsored by the Eccles Centre for American Studies

The study day has been organised by Professor Charles Forsdick (University of Liverpool/AHRC) and Teresa Vernon (British Library). in partnership with the AHRC ‘Translating Cultures’ theme, the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library and the Institut français.

French Caribbean Fort Royal Add. 28788  f.57
View of Fort Royal, Martinique, 1679. MS Add.28788, f.57.

The study day will be followed by a French Caribbean evening at the Institut français in South Kensington, organised in partnership with Festival America, the AHRC and the British Library, beginning at 19.00. This will be an exceptional opportunity to hear acclaimed Montreal-based Haitian writer Dany Laferrière talk about his writing and in particular his L’énigme du retour (The Enigma of the Return). The talk will be followed by a music session with Guadeloupean drummer Arnaud Dolmen, after an introduction to ‘jazz creole’ from journalist Kevin Le Gendre. 

Booking is open for both events. Please note that separate ticket are required for each. You can book for the study day online at https://www.bl.uk/events/translating-cultures-french-caribbean-history-literature-and-migration, or by contacting the British Library Box Office (+44 (0)1937 546546; box office@bl.uk). Bookings of for the evening event can be made at  https://www.institut-francais.org.uk/events-calendar/whats-on/talks/dany-laferriere/ 

Teresa Vernon, Lead Curator Romance Language Collections

04 September 2018

Byron’s ‘Breton cousin’: François-René de Chateaubriand

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Authors mindful of the Duke of Wellington’s notorious injunction ‘Publish and be damned!’ might profitably consider the advice of a famous contemporary of the Iron Duke who decreed that his memoirs were to be published only after his death. True, this means sacrificing potential royalties, but at the same time avoids the libel actions which might follow the publication of indiscreet or controversial recollections – of which François-René, vicomte de Chateaubriand, included plenty in his Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe (1849-50).

Chateaubriand Jeanne Marivel Woodcut of Chateaubriand by Jeanne Malivel (1922), reproduced on the cover of Chateaubriand 98 (Rennes, 1998) YA.2000.a.37359.

He was born in 1768 in St.-Malo, and grew up with nine older brothers and sisters in the family château at Cambourg. He was especially close to his sister Lucile, and her company, together with long walks through the Breton countryside, relieved a childhood overshadowed by his father’s sombre temperament. After retiring from a career at sea, the elder René had become a ship-owner and slave-trader, but had bequeathed to his youngest son a thirst for travel, and after considering the priesthood or the navy, René junior decided on a military career. He rapidly obtained a captaincy and, in Paris, moved in literary circles where he met André Chenier and other leading writers of his day. However, the outbreak of the French Revolution made his aristocratic origins dangerous, and in 1791 he set sail for America.

This was a time when naturalists such as Alexander von Humboldt were discovering the unique flora and fauna of the New World, and Chateaubriand was keen to learn more about its botany, but also about the customs of its native inhabitants. A broken arm provided him with an opportunity to do so when an accident which he suffered as he followed the Mohawk trail towards Niagara Falls left him unable to travel for a month which he spent with a local tribe. The observations which he made there inspired him to write two linked novellas set in the region, Atala (1801) and René (1802). Both these contain not only detailed descriptions of the landscape and life in a Native American tribe but also rebuttals of Rousseau’s ideal of the ‘noble savage’; the brutality of the indigenous peoples is contrasted with the saintly qualities of the missionaries working among them, not surprisingly in a work which would form part of his Génie du christianisme (Paris, 1802; 223.h.12).

Chateaubriand Atala Spanish

 The burial of Atala, from a Spanish translation, Atala y René. Episodios del “Genio del Cristianismo” (Barcelona, 1827) 1481.aa.16. 

In later years, though, Chateaubriand would heartily regret having written René at all. Its huge popularity threatened to make him into a one-book author who, like Goethe with his Werther, had captivated impressionable readers with his depiction of the world-weary wanderings of a hero whose ennui and near-incestuous relationship with his sister Amélie inspired not only Lord Byron but a host of lesser imitators. In a short time these tales were being not only widely translated but also parodied; in 1801 Louis-Julien Breton published Alala, ou les habitans du désert, satirizing readers’ obsession with the exotic world conjured up by Chateaubriand.

Chateaubriand Alala Louis-Julien Breton, Alala, ou les habitans du désert (Paris, 1801) RB.23.a.37562.

In 1792 Chateaubriand returned to France in such penury that he had to borrow money to pay the captain who had brought him across the Atlantic. He was persuaded by his family to enter into an arranged marriage with Céleste Buisson de la Vigne, the daughter of another Breton noble family; the bride was 17 and the couple had never met before their wedding, performed in secret by a ‘refractory’ priest followed by a second ceremony by one who had sworn allegiance to the new regime. Shortly afterwards the groom set off for Coblenz to join the Breton Regiment in the Armée des Princes, a corps of émigré nobles supporting the royalist cause. Until called to serve in the siege of Thionville, he passed his time working on Atala and acting as a cook; during the siege, he received a leg wound which could have been far more serious had the manuscript in his pack not protected him. He managed to limp to Brussels where, with the help of his brother, he set out for exile in England but was put ashore in the Channel Islands as the captain doubted that he would survive the voyage. Defying all expectations, he reached Beccles to teach French, and then moved to Bungay in Suffolk, where he met and fell deeply in love with Charlotte Ives, a clergyman’s daughter. The family would happily have accepted him as a suitor, but he was forced to confess that he was already married and flee to London.

Chateaubriand Only the Spring YA.2008.a.37359 Cover of Terry Reeve, Only the Springtime (Peterborough, 2011) H.2012/.7482, a novel inspired by Chateaubriand’s time in Suffolk.

In 1797 Chateaubriand finally completed his Essai historique, politique et moral sur les révolutions anciennes et modernes, considérées dans leurs rapports avec la Révolution Française, claiming to offer the compendium of his existence as poet, moralist, publicist and politician’.

Chateaubriand Essai 2  Title-page of  Essai historique, politique et moral sur les révolutions anciennes et modernes, considérées dans leurs rapports avec la Révolution Française (London, 1797) C.133.d.6.

On returning to France in 1800 under an assumed name, he achieved fame at last with Atala, and then as a defender of Christianity in his Génie du christianisme. Taken up by Napoleon, he was appointed secretary of the French Embassy in Rome, the beginning of a distinguished if turbulent diplomatic and political career which culminated in his ambassadorship to Rome. The outbreak of the July Revolution of 1830, however, led to his resignation and financial ruin which left him with little more to his name than the late Pope Pius VIII’s cat, especially when he refused to swear allegiance to the new king Louis-Philippe and resigned his status as pair de France

Chateaubriand Claudius LavergnePencil sketch by Claudius Lavergne of Chateaubriand in 1835, reproduced in Chateaubriand 98

Despite this, Chateaubriand’s final years were full of political and romantic intrigue surrounding the son of the murdered Duc de Berry, recognized by legitimists as Henri V, and the famous salonnière Madame Récamier, to whom the widowed Chateaubriand unsuccessfully proposed. He died shortly afterwards in 1848, having witnessed another revolution; his colourful life befits the founder of French Romanticism, who may indeed be regarded as a true ‘cousin à la mode de Bretagne’ to Byron.

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

 

30 August 2018

A diary as a form of art: Jiří Kolář

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The Czech poet, writer and artist Jiří Kolář (1914-2002) does not need a long introduction. He was one of the most prominent figures of the Czech avant-garde of the 1950s-70s and along with Ladislav Nová, Bohumila Grögerová, and her partner Josef Hiršal, one of the four founders of post-war Czechoslovak experimental poetry. Given his aesthetic views it is not surprising that Kolář, like many Czechoslovak intellectuals who lived through the communist regime, was a signatory of Charter 77 .

Having published his first collection of poems Křestní list (‘Birth Certificate’; YA.1996.a.15846) in 1941, by the mid-1950s Kolář started exploring new potentials of lyrical forms, reducing verbal expression to a bare minimum and concentrating on the capacities of visual expression. By the 1960s he developed his unique artistic style, using collage that would incorporate text as well as images as his main medium.

Kolar Self-portraitSelf Portrait by Kolář in Očitý svědek: deník z roku 1949 (Munich, 1983) X.958/30382

Having lived through all the major historical events with his nation, Kolář was very sensitive to them. Czech and Slovaks shared the turbulent history of Europe in the 20th century by marking it with events that were for some reason seemed to happen in the 8th year of decades: gaining independence in 1918, losing it to Nazi Germany in 1938, falling under the control of the Stalinist USSR in 1948 through a communist coup d’état, and unsuccessfully trying to shake off Soviet dominance in 1968. This strange coincidence makes this year extremely memorable for the Czech and Slovak republics. Only the Velvet Revolution of 1989 does not fit this pattern, but this means that we will have the whole of next year to dedicate to this great achievement.

It is especially interesting to note how the poet and artist developed a special interest in diaries and was meticulously devoted to this form. One of his critics observed that “considering Kolář’s permanent, insatiable thirst for facts, his undying passion for documenting the true pace of events and the truthfulness of impressions, we must admit that this autobiographical nature, this diary principle, committed to factography, permeates both his work and his deeds”. And this is very true. Kolář documented the year 1949, the beginning of the communist rule with a literary diary in verse and prose called Očitý svědek: deník z roku 1949 (‘Eyewitness, a diary of the year 1949’).

Kolar Ocity Svedek X.958-30382Cover of Očitý svědek 

The diary of the artists’s thoughts and emotions gives the readers the most faithful and honest impression of the time. On 11 July 1949 the diary entry begins:

Mě udolají snadno, neumím lhat, podobám se už červu, kterého přepůlili jen tak, pro podívanou a svíjím se. (I’m easy to destroy, /I cannot lie, / I’m like a worm, / Who was cut just so / for the show, and I’m curdling, / the soul is separate from the body).

In 1968, Kolář expressed himself through a series of 52 collages (one per week) that became an amazing artistic document of the year leading to the Prague Spring and its aftermath.

Kolar Tydenik 1968 YA.1994.b.1036 Title page of Týdeník 1968 = Newsreel 1968 (Prague, 1993) YA.1994.b.1036

The book is in a way a political pamphlet and reflects life in all its hectic variety, for example:

Week 2: Each day in the new year is a puzzle. Especially when one’s head is in a wire.
Week 10: Antonín Tomalík (a Czech artist) is Dead
Week 15: A liquid triumph of death [is] available at every crossroad. Take your pick!
Week 27: Homage to Ingres … or, the banner of a students’ revolt.
Week 39: Birthday. I was born in the First World War and guns have not fallen silent since.
Week 48: A week of Hands. A rejected hand often turns into a clenched fist.
Week 52: A Face of 1969. Alas, I am a poor prophet – and Utopia? Old men used to usher the world into Paradise. Our masters have long been drowned in mud.

The diary that documented the 1980s is Kolář’s correspondence. The two-volume publication of his letters Psáno na pohlednice (‘Written on postcards’) has the subtitle ‘correspondence in the form of a diary’, as it contains postcards that were sent every day over several years from Paris, where Kolář lived in exile, to his wife in Prague.

Kolar Psano na pohlednice YF.2004.a.6387
One of Kolář’s postcards, reproduced on the endpapers of Psáno na pohlednice (Prague, 2000). YF.2004.a.6387

More books by Jiří Kolář, material about him and catalogues of his works can be found in the British Library catalogue and consulted in the reading rooms.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

Further reading:

A. J. Samuels. ‘Jiří Kolář: The Czech Poet's Life, Work & Cultural Significance’ .

Arsén Pohribný, ‘Jiří Kolář’s Tower of Babel’, afterword in Týdeník 1968 (cited above).

18 August 2018

A Bohemian bicentenary: Václav Bolemír Nebeský and the Národní Muzeum

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It is a truism that in choosing a name one should consider whether it is likely to date – how many Kylies approaching their mid-thirties regret being given one which marks them out as children of the early 1980s? A similar phenomenon could be observed in Bohemia in the early 19th century – but with an unusual twist. Many parents who had presented their offspring for baptism with such solid Czech names as František, Josef or Magdalena must have been perplexed when their growing sons and daughters announced that they would no longer use these but in future preferred to be known as Ladislav or Dobromila. Far from being new-fangled inventions, their choices were drawn from the ancient Czech chronicles and legends and simultaneously stated the bearer’s identification with the Bohemian nation’s glorious past and rejection of alien (i.e. German) cultural influences.

Young Václav Nebeský was such a one. Born on 18 August 1818 on the Nový Dvůr estate just north of Kokořín, he was given the name of the king who became Bohemia’s patron saint (‘Good King Wenceslas’), but even that was not patriotic enough for him. He went to high school in Litoměřice, where he proved a gifted student who learned Greek and Latin with ease and went on to study in Prague at Charles University. This was a time when the National Revival was in full swing, and under the influence of its reverence for Bohemian history he decided at the age of 20 to adopt the ultra-Slavonic Bolemír as a second name – a statement all the more emphatic in confirming his sympathies while he was living in Vienna after graduating.

Nebesky portrait 010790ee3Portrait of Václav Bolemír Nebeský from Život a spisy Václava Bolemíra Nebeského by J. Hanuš (Prague, 1896)  010790.ee.3.

Like many talented young men without private means in those days, he earned his living as a private tutor. This could involve occupational hazards such as those experienced by Friedrich Hölderlin – being treated like an inferior servant or becoming emotionally entangled with the lady of the house – but Nebeský was more fortunate. He secured a post in the household of Jan Norbert z Neuberka (Neuberk), who in 1841 had become president of the Národní Muzeum. This National Museum had been established in 1818 by the nobleman and palaeontologist Kaspar Maria, Graf von Sternberg, whose letters contain frequent but unsuccessful appeals to his friend Goethe to visit Prague. Nebeský had already made a wide circle of friends among the generation who would lead the National Revival, both in literature and politics, including the dramatist Josef Kajetán Tyl, Karel Jaromír Erben, whose Kytice remains one of the best-loved works of Czech poetry, the poet and journalist Karel Havlíček Borovský, and Karel Sabina, who provided the libretto for Smetana’s Prodaná nevešta (The Bartered Bride), but was also a notorious police spy. Life in the Neuberk household introduced him to still more eminent figures and helped to develop his political awareness in a practical direction.

Nebesky National Museum 7801.d.6
The Národní Muzeum, Prague, from Národní museum 1818-1948, ed. by Gustav Skalský and others (Prague, 1949) 7801.d.6.

In his early twenties Nebeský had already begun to publish poems in almanacs such as Česká Vcela (The Czech Bee) and Vesna (Spring). His great success came comparatively early with the publication in 1844 of Protichůdci, a long poem whose title is difficult to translate but conveys the sense of ‘those who go against the grain’ or in a direction opposed to conventional ideas of progress, as exemplified by its protagonist, the world-weary Wandering Jew Ahasuerus.

Nebesky Protichudci X.907-8652
Illustration by Jan Konůpek from Václav Bolemír Nebeský, Protichůdci (Prague, 1924) X.907/8652).

He was also an exceptional translator, and his classical training enabled him to produce fluent and highly readable versions of authors including Aeschylus, Aristophanes, and Plautus’s Captivi (Pleníci; Prague, 1873; 11707.b.5.). Indeed, he was heard to say that he often wished that he had been born a modern Greek, a desire which led him in 1864 to publish an anthology of Greek folk-songs in his own translations, Novořecké národní písně. He also brought out a similar collection of Spanish romances, Kytice ze španělských romancí (Prague, 1864; 11452.b.9).

Nebesky binding 1568-4251Binding of Václav Bolemír Nebeský, Novořecké národní písně (Prague, 1864) 1568/4251.

At the same time, Nebeský was involved in many areas of public life. During 1848, the Year of Revolutions, he was politically active and was elected to the Austrian Parliament; the following year he qualified as a university lecturer in Greek and Czech literature, although he never exercised this function professionally. In 1850 he was appointed editor of the Museum’s journal Muzejník, and the following year he became Secretary of the Museum itself, continuing in office until ill-health forced him to step down in 1874.

Nebesky Museum 1609-4911 Dějiny Musea Království Českého (Prague, 1868) 11852.g.2, Nebeský’s history of the National Museum

Nebeský married comparatively late in life, in 1859, but before then he had had a close relationship with another of the National Revival’s most beloved authors, Božena Nemcová (1820-1842), best known for her novel Babička (1855). Unhappily married, she found an outlet in her friendship with Nebeský, with whom she shared not only literary but patriotic interests. Her tomb is close to the gates of Prague’s Vyšehrad cemetery where many of the great cultural figures of 19th-century Czech cultural life are buried, and when he died on 17 August 1882, the day before his 64th birthday, Nebeský himself was laid to rest nearby in the company of Karel Hynek Mácha, the poet whom he so much admired, and many of the friends who, with him, had done so much to shape their country’s future.

Susan Halstead (Subject Librarian, Social Sciences) Research Services

 

06 August 2018

Devout diplomat and dramatist: Paul Claudel (1868-1955)

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Visitors to the recent exhibition Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece at the British Museum will have seen, among the photographs of the sculptor at work in his studio among his disciples, the image of a dark-haired young woman whose gaze was equally intense when fixed on the master or on her own work – Rodin’s pupil, model and mistress Camille Claudel.  Her stormy relationship with him and her reputation as a pioneering woman sculptor, depicted in biographies, plays and films, have raised her profile outside her native France, where, despite this, the name Claudel is more readily associated with her younger brother Paul.

Together with their sister, Camille and Paul grew up in Villeneuve-sur-Fère (Aisne) in a family with solid roots in farming and banking. The young Paul’s approach to spiritual matters was equally rational and prosaic, tending towards atheism, until at the age of 18 he underwent a profound conversion experience while hearing the choir of Notre-Dame singing Vespers on Christmas Day. He remained a devout Catholic for the rest of his life, and considered becoming a Benedictine monk. Instead, however, he went into the diplomatic service, and found an outlet for his religious fervour in poetry and drama.

At the same time, his experiences of living in other countries provided him not only with inspiration but also with a deeper understanding of their cultures than the mere taste for exoticism. and especially for Oriental culture, common in France at the turn of the century. He made rapid progress in his career, rising from first vice-consul in New York and Boston to become French consul in China, living in Shanghai, Fuzhou and Tientsin, before being posted to Prague in December 1909.

Claudel Portait YF.2016.a.2114

 Paul Claudel during his time as consul in Prague, reproduced in Paul Claudel et la Bohême: dissonances et accord, ed. Didier Alexandre & Xavier Galmiche (Paris, 2015) YF.2016.a.2114

Czech artists and authors had already established a thriving community in Paris in the 19th and early 20th century, and Claudel’s time in Prague similarly contributed to the deepening of cultural relationships between France and Bohemia. One of his most important contacts was with the Czech artist Zdenka Braunerová, who introduced him to her circle of friends, including Vilém Mrštík, Julius Zeyer and Jan Zrzavý. She had spent part of every year in Paris during the period 1881-1893, promoted Czech culture in France, and invited Auguste Rodin to visit Bohemia and Moravia in 1905. Claudel chose her as godmother to his daughter, born during his residence in Prague, and their lasting friendship enhanced the understanding of Czech art in France and of French literature in Bohemia.

Inspired by his exploration of the Czech spirit and its expression in art, Claudel composed a sequence of poems, Images saintes de Bohême, of which the British Library possesses a bilingual edition in French and Czech a testimony to the deep impression made on him by a city which he had initially greeted with distaste as an ‘icy bivouac’.

Claudel St Ludmila

 ‘St Ludmila’, illustration by Miroslav Šašek from Paul Claudel, Images saintes de Bohême = Svaté obrázky České (Rome, 1958) 11517.p.35.

Claudel subsequently served as consul in Frankfurt am Main and Hamburg, as ministre plénipotentiaire in Rio de Janeiro and Copenhagen, and as ambassador in Tokyo, Washington, D.C. and Brussels. Several of his works were published abroad, including his translation of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (Fuzhou, 1896; YA.1986.a.1815) and the exquisite edition of his poem ‘Sainte Geneviève’, composed in Rio de Janeiro in July 1918 and issued in a limited edition with Japanese woodcuts executed in Tokyo from drawings by Claudel’s friend Audrey Parr.

Claudel Ste Genevieve tpTitle-page (above) and illustrated fold-out page (below) from Sainte Geneviève (Tokyo, 1923) Cup.410.c.170

Claudel Ste Genevieve Cup.410.c.170

Although initially influenced by Rimbaud and the Symbolists, Claudel struck out in a different direction, deeply imbued with his Catholic faith. Not surprisingly, the saints frequently figured in his work; for example, he provided the text for his friend Arthur Honegger’s oratorio Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher (s.l., [1935]; Music Collections I.1650), and also wrote a poem on St Thérèse of Lisieux, published in another limited edition with illustrations by Maurice Denis.

Claudel Ste Therese 11483.h.49 Opening of Sainte Thérèse ([Paris], 1916) 11483.h.49.

Among the treasures in the British Library’s Stefan Zweig Collection of Manuscripts  is a fair copy of Claudel’s play L’Annonce faite à Marie (1911), signed by the author and presented to Zweig in 1913. Like his other dramas, such as the Everyman-like Le Soulier de satin (Paris, 1929; 12516.v.27), set in the age of the Conquistadores, it explores the timeless themes of human responsibility, guilt and divine grace.

Claudel zweig_ms_139_f002v dedication

 Dedication to Zweig and opening of the prologue, from the manuscript of L’Annonce faite à Marie. Zweig MS 139. Ff.2v, 3r  (below)

Claudel zweig_ms_139_f003r

The careers of Camille and Paul Claudel appeared to diverge widely; while one plunged into an unconventional milieu and died in an asylum, the other was outwardly a pattern of respectability, representing his country abroad and forming part of the Catholic literary tradition continued by Mauriac and Gide. Yet both, equally controversially, pursued their chosen forms of art with a passion and intensity which sought to transcend the banalities of everyday life and infuse it, even at its humblest, with a spark of the divine, as may be glimpsed from a few lines of one of Paul Claudel’s poems in the metre that he devised:

Now winter has come in earnest, and St Nicholas trudges again
Through the firs; two sacks on his donkey, full of toys for the young of Lorraine.
There’s an end to mouldering autumn, and the snow is here with good reason;
There’s an end to the autumn and summer, and all the other seasons.
(O all that was still not finished, where this black soaked path, yesterday, went
Under the ragged birch in the mists, and the great oak with its strong scent!)
[…]
But in a white world there are only angels completely at ease;
There is not a living man in all of the diocese,
There is not a soul awake, not even a small boy breathing,
O mighty Bishop of Myra, at the hour of your coming at evening!

‘St. Nicolas’, from Corona benignitatis anni Dei (1915).
This translation © Susan Reynolds, 2011.

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

30 July 2018

Wuthering around the world: Emily Brontë in translation

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It is a cliché in the world of publishing that nobody loves a one-book author, but one which Emily Brontë  proved wrong with a defiance wholly in keeping with her character. When Maria, the wife of the Irish-born clergyman Patrick Brontë, gave birth to her fifth child and fourth daughter on 30 July 1818, she also unwittingly contributed to a legend which would put the Yorkshire moors well and truly on the map and send hordes of tourists scurrying to the bleak and remote village of Haworth.

200 years later, the flood shows no sign of abating. The short lives of Emily and her siblings Charlotte, Branwell and Anne continue to capture the imagination of readers throughout the world, and their writings are studied by scholars, dissected as set books in schools and colleges, and devoured by those captivated by the fortunes of Jane Eyre or the passions of Heathcliff and Cathy. Still others know the Brontës’ works through dramatizations, films or Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’; Emily Brontë’s novel of the same name, first published in 1847, would inspire operas by Bernard Hermann, Carlisle Floyd ([United States], 1958; 11792.bb.78) and, in French, by Thomas Stubbs to a libretto by Philippe Hériat (Paris, 1961; 11303.i.103), as well as a 1996 musical starring Cliff Richard as a somewhat unlikely Heathcliff.

Later novelists drew on them for fantasies such as Rachel Ferguson’s The Brontës went to Woolworths (Harmondsworth, 1940; 12208.a.1/245) and Jennifer Vandever’s The Brontë Project (London, 2006; H.2007/2870), while others wittily satirize the Brontë industry. In Milly Johnson’s White Wedding (London, 2012; H.2013/.5979) the sparky heroine Bel visits Haworth and is startled to discover Isabella’s Chilli Con Carne, Linton Trifle and Wuthering Heights Bakewell Tart on the menu in Cathy’s Café, while Charlie Rhymer, the narrator of Trisha Ashley’s Every Woman for Herself (Long Preston, 2002/2003; LT.2013.x.1215) and her siblings are the products of her eccentric father’s ‘breed your own Brontës’ project, designed to prove his theory that Branwell actually wrote his sisters’ works (it goes awry – his own Branwell turns out to be an expert on Amharic and Anne no meek governess but a feisty war correspondent).

Before any of this, however, the first medium by which Wuthering Heights conquered the hearts of readers worldwide was translation. The British Library holds a wide selection of versions in 13 languages, including Assamese and Burmese, Polish and Hungarian, testifying to the novel’s power to overcome the boundaries of space, language and culture. It shares this with the work of an author equally skilled in evoking the landscape of northern England on the other side of the Pennines – Beatrix Potter. Yet while the biggest hurdle facing Potter’s translators might be the unusual names invented for her characters, those attempting to tackle Emily Brontë’s novel are confronted with a major obstacle in the very first word on the title-page: how best to convey the eerie, haunting and very specifically Yorkshire nature of ‘wuthering’? Add to this the impenetrable dialect of the old servant Joseph, which many a native English speaker finds barely intelligible, and you have a challenge capable of reducing even the most skilful linguist to wails as despairing as those of Cathy’s ghost as she seeks to find a way back into her old home.

The names of the characters are less of a problem; they mostly remain as they are, with the only question being whether to leave Cathy and young Catherine, her daughter, with their original names or transform them into a Slavonic Katka and Kateřina Lintonová, as Květa Marysková does in her translation Na Větrné hůrce.

Wuthering Heights Czech tpAbove: title-page and frontispiece by Zdeněk Brdlík from Emily Bronteová, Na Větrné hůrce (Prague, 1960; YF.2012.a.25773). Below: a brooding Heathcliff by the same artist, pictured later in the book.

Wuthering Heights Czech YF.2012.a.25773

Marysková opts for a translation of the title which suggests the windswept nature of the landscape, something which is also conveyed by the stormy notes of the Russian Grozovoĭ pereval (Moscow, 1990; YA.1994.a.3286), the Italian Cime tempestuose (Milan, 1926; 012604.cc.1) and the Spanish Cumbres borrascosas (Barcelona, 1963; W23/2895).

None of these, though, achieves the splendid onomatopoeia of the French translation by Frédéric Delebecque, Les Hauts de Hurle-Vent (Paris, 1925; 012601.dd.23), although the ‘traduction nouvelle de Georges-Michel Bovay’ (Lausanne, 1944; YA.1994.a.8093) breaks off in a completely different direction with Les Hauteurs tourmentées – an allusion, perhaps, to the proud and stubborn spirits of Heathcliff and Cathy? This, however, proved too much for the more prosaic Dutch translator Elisabeth de Roos, who simply rendered the heights ‘desolate’ or ‘bleak’ (De Woeste Hoogte).

Wuthering Heights Dutch X.950-11265

Title-page (above) and vignette (below) from De Woeste Hoogte (Amsterdam, 1941; X.950/11265); wood engravings by Nico Builder. 

Wuthering Heights Dutch vignette

Fittingly, in view of the Brontës’ Irish ancestry, the British Library possesses a copy of a translation into Irish by Seán Ó Ciosáin which very sensibly interferes with the title as little as possible:

Wuthering Heights Irish 875.k.58 Seán Ó Ciosáin’s Irish translation of Wuthering Heights (Baile átha Cliath, 1933; 875.k.58.)

It may be that the exigencies of attempting to grapple with the title or render Joseph’s Yorkshire fulminations comprehensible in plain language (‘Honte sur vous! Asseyez-vous, méchants enfants!’) left translators with little energy for the flights of fancy inspired by another Brontë sister’s most famous creation  but with the British Library’s Translating Cultures study day on the French Caribbean coming up  it is worth noting that in her novel La Migration des coeurs (Paris, 1995; YA.1996.b.3850) Maryse Condé transposes the story of Heathcliff and Cathy (Razyé and Catherine Gagneur) to her native Guadeloupe. It bears the dedication: ‘À Emily Brontë qui, j’espère, agréera cette lecture de son chef-d’oeuvre. Honneur et respect!’ – a sentiment surely shared by Emily Brontë’s readers, translators and admirers throughout the world on her 200th birthday.

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

06 July 2018

‘Youngest of the seven brothers’: Eino Leino (1878-1926)

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‘Once upon a time, in a distant northern country, there lived a man who had seven sons and three daughters…’ This might be the beginning of a folk-tale – and indeed young Armas Einar Leopold Lönnbohm, the youngest of the seven, born on 6 July 1878, would grow up to lead a life shaped by myth and poetry.

Leino Portrait 2404.g.20 1Eino Leino as a young man. From L. Onerva, Eino Leino: runoilija ja ihminen (Helsinki, 1932) 2404.g.20.

At the time of his birth in Paltamo, Finland was still a Grand Duchy under Russian control, and as he grew up he became aware of the increasing friction between the Finnish people and their oppressors, culminating in the assassination in 1904 of Nikolai Bobrikov, the Governor-General of Finland, by the young Finnish patriot Eugen Schauman. Helen Dunmore’s novel House of Orphans (London, 2006; ELD.DS.193298) vividly evokes the atmosphere of that period and the fervour of the conspirators, afire not only with revolutionary zeal but with love of their country’s culture and literature.

Our hero’s father had changed his surname from the plain Finnish Mustonen (Black) to the Swedish Lönnbohm in the interests of his career, but as a loyal Finn the seventh son could not accept this, and it was under a new name of his own choice that he achieved fame as the poet Eino Leino.

Orphaned while he was still at school, the boy was taken in by relatives in Hämeenlinna, where he was educated at the local grammar school and subsequently entered the University of Helsinki. He was already showing signs of a precocious literary talent; at the age of 12 he published his first poem, and in 1896, when he was just eighteen, he brought out his first collection, Maaliskuun lauluja (‘Songs of March’). Two years later he and his elder brother Kasimir founded a literary magazine together; Kasimir became not only a poet in his own right but also a critic and theatre director.

Leino Maaliskuun laulujaCover of Maaliskuun lauluja (Helsinki, 1896) 011586.b.52.

Eino soon decided that academic study held little attraction for him, and left the university to become a journalist and literary critic for various Finnish newspapers. He also embarked on a career as a novelist, writing both historical fiction and works of social satire. In 1909-10 he travelled through Italy, Germany and Sweden, absorbing influences from European literature, including those of Gabriele D’Annunzio, Gerhart Hauptmann and Maurice Maeterlinck which inspired him to create a new Finnish theatrical tradition based on pure poetry rather than the naturalist drama typified by Ibsen. His poetry drew inspiration from Heinrich Heine and Johan Ludvig Runeberg, the poet whose words became the text of Finland’s national anthem, but also from the Kalevala, linking Finland’s present striving for independence with motifs from ancient legends. At the same time he sought to build bridges between Finland and the wider cultural legacy of Europe though his translations of Schiller, Racine, Corneille, Dante’s Divina Commedia (made in Rome in 1908-09) and Goethe’s Iphigenia auf Tauris (Helsinki, 1910; Ac.9080) and his essays on contemporary authors including Anatole France, Tolstoy, Ibsen and Strindberg.

Leino Dante 011420.d.22 Cover of Leino’s translation of Dante’s Paradiso (Porvoo, 1912) 011420.d.22

However, he experienced a constant tension between nationalist objectives and individualistic ideologies. Like W. B. Yeats, in his poetry he frequently uses symbols from folk poetry to contrast the heroism of the mythical past with the squalor and disillusionment of modern politics, and his early Symbolist dramas such as Sota valosta (‘War over light’: Helsinki, 1900; 11758.bbb.43) introduce the theme of decadence into a world peopled by heroes such as Väinämöinen, Ilmarinen and Lemminkäinen who are betrayed and rejected by a fickle populace greedy for material benefits rather than the light symbolized by Väinämöinen’s flaming sword.

When in 1905 political strike action against Russian rule brought into focus the differing political interests of the intelligentsia and the working classes, Leino’s pessimism increased as he witnessed the rise of the radical socialist workers’ movement and the clashes which occurred during the strike. From being an enthusiastic member of the Young Finland movement and ardent neo-romanticist, he became increasingly cynical; with the outbreak of the Finnish Civil War in 1917, Leino’s idealistic faith in national unity collapsed, and his influence as a journalist and polemicist diminished, although he was granted a state writer’s pension in the following year.

Leino’s personal life was similarly turbulent; he married three times, but possibly his most significant relationship was with the novelist L. Onerva (Hilja Onerva Lehtinen) whose two-volume biography of him, Eino Leino: runoilija ja ihminen (‘Eino Leino: the poet and the man’) reflects the complex intertwining of their equally strong creative personalities.

Leino Portrait 2404.g.20 2 Eino Leino in 1922. Portrait by Antti Favén, reproduced in L. Onerva, Eino Leino: runoilija ja ihminen.

After suffering years of health problems and financial instability, Leino died on 10 January 1926 in Tuusula and was buried in Helsinki’s Hietaniemi cemetery. His birthday is celebrated throughout Finland on 6 July, when the national flag will be flying all over the country in honour of Eino Leino Day, ‘the day of poetry and of summer’.

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

 

21 June 2018

Put on your sky-blue hat for a day at the races with Adèle Hugo

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As the eyes of the racing world turn towards Royal Ascot this week, we may reflect that the British fascination with horse-racing is far from new. ‘Every year, the people of Jersey and the English feel the need to organize races,’ remarked Adèle Hugo in 1855. The circumstances in which she witnessed this phenomenon were not, perhaps, those which she might have wished, but her observations remain sharp and witty.

Life is not always easy for the children of famous writers, especially girls. We may recall the daughters of John Milton, diligently copying out their father’s work as his sight faded, or the tribulations of Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge, described by Katie Waldegrave in The Poets’ Daughters (London, 2013; DRT ELD.DS.199292). Subjected to their fathers’ eccentricities, overbearing authority or intermittent neglect, they also suffered from the restrictions imposed on women of talent and spirit by the conventions and expectations of 19th-century society. When these were compounded by the disruption to family life resulting from a father’s political views, the outlook could be grim indeed.

Adele Hugo 3
Portrait of Adèle Hugo, reproduced in Leslie Smith Dow, Adèle Hugo: La misérable  Journal d’Adèle Hugo (Fredericton, N.B., 1993) YA.1995.a.4832

Such was the situation of Adèle Hugo. She was born on 28 July 1830, at the time of the fateful events leading to the overthrow of Charles X, and political turbulence was to mark her passage through life. Her early life was comfortably affluent; the youngest of the family, she grew up with her sister Léopoldine and brothers Charles and François-Victor in a cultured home where her talent for music was fostered. However, she never ceased to be aware that Léopoldine was her father’s favourite, and the feeling of inferiority was deepened when in 1843 the newly-married Léopoldine and her young husband drowned in a boating accident. Victor Hugo never recovered from the loss, which he explored in some of his most impassioned poetry.

His emotional suffering, however, did not prevent him from engaging in political activity as a pair de France and Member of Parliament, and penning outspoken pamphlets in which he opposed the death penalty and attacked Louis Napoleon’s seizure of power. In protest at the anti-parliamentarian constitution of 1851 Hugo left France, first for Brussels, then for Jersey, and finally for Guernsey.

Marine Terrace
Marine Terrace, where Victor Hugo and his family lived on Jersey from 1852-1855. Reproduced in Le Journal d’Adèle Hugo vol. 1 (Paris, 1968). X.906/288

At the time of her father’s decision to leave France Adèle was 21, and the relocation occurred at a point when she might reasonably have been expecting to marry and establish a position in Parisian society. Instead, she found herself living on a remote island whose social life did not provide the diversions and company to rival that of the City of Light. Nevertheless, in her diary she proved an apt and observant chronicler and critic of the circles in which she was obliged to move.

Adele MS facsimile
Manuscript pages from Adèle Hugo’s, journal reproduced in Le Journal d’Adèle Hugo vol. 1 

Among the amusements on offer were the races which she describes in her journal for June 1855 under the heading ‘Les Courses de Jersey’. Three months in advance posters could be seen advertising ‘Jersey Races: Cup de la Reine’, giving the local belles plenty of time to prepare their outfits: ‘delicious sky-blue hats’ worn with ‘superb green dresses (a ‘fashionable’ style only for the countryside)’ she remarks tartly, going on to describe ladies whose costumes of red, green, and yellow gave them the appearance of splendid parrots, topped off with ‘provincial marabou and diadems in artificial velvet, worthy of adorning the brow of a princess of the blood royal, and consequently in poor taste. It is not a steeple-chase for horses; it is a steeple-chase for women’. She gleefully notes the subterfuges of an Englishwoman who affects extra-long skirts to conceal her big feet, while another goes to the other extreme to display a skinny leg which she mistakenly believes slender.

Jersey Races 1862
An advertisement for the Jersey Races of 1862, a few years after Adèle’s visit, from the Jersey Independent and Daily Telegraph, 23 June 1862 (MFM.M86750-51)

As for the jockeys, she mocks them as ‘awful cretins, which provides the somewhat curious spectacle of donkeys on horseback’. Watching them from the grandstand are the young men belonging to the clubs: ‘beaux, English dandies, cretins, collectors of cretinous cravats, surmounted by side-whiskers (usually red). Here is the menagerie: geese, turkeys, ducks and donkeys assuming the names of lions, tigers and jackals’, braying and neighing in a cloud of malodorous breath as they place their bets:

“Look – a shilling (26 sous) if so-and so comes in with so-and-so,” says a lion, squeezed into an implacable suit.
“No,” replies a tiger, his neighbour, with an insurmountable stove-pipe of a hat on his head, and afraid of losing his 26 sous, “I’m not betting.”

Below the grandstand is an area where the visitors’ carriages are stabled; ‘from time to time starving horses try to gobble up a spectator, taking him for hay’; while above, Hugo’s fellow-exiles parade and an English officer, ‘the rossable Major Ross’, jockeys for position with the Hungarian General Perczel and comes off the worse. Alarmed at the prospect of a duel and possibly fighting for the first time in his life, the ‘false major’ apologizes profusely to the ‘genuine general’ and creeps away.

Adele Hugo Horse race 012627.m.19
A 19th-century horse-race, from G. Finch Mason, The Tame Fox, and other stories (London, [1897]) 012627.m.19.

Those who know Adèle Hugo chiefly through Isabelle Adjani’s portrayal of her in François Truffaut’s film The Story of Adèle H. (1975), crossing the Atlantic in desperate pursuit of yet another officer, the perfidious Lieutenant Pinson, may be agreeably surprised by the Jane Austen-like acuity of her diaries. She outlived her father, dying in 1915 in the asylum where she had been under treatment for schizophrenia. Painfully frustrating as her life may have been, it could not extinguish her capacity to express herself with piquancy and perception.

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

15 June 2018

From Sokol to Symbolism: the short life of Karel Hlaváček

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

01 June 2018

Silver Darlings, Icelandic Gold: Herring in the Northern Imagination

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It’s been food season for the last 2 months at the British Library and sweeping through the Nordic collections with a gastronomic lens, there is of course only one thing on the menu: herring. The herring has formed the backbone of societies over the ages and, as Jonathan Meades says in his jaunt across the Baltic coast of continental Europe, Magnetic North, the herring’s own backbone has formed an even more literal foundation:

When excavations are made in Flanders for roads and railways, the bones of men slaughtered in the First World War constitute the first stratum that the diggers encounter. Further down are multitudinous herring skeletons. The people of Arras ate between two and three million herrings per year. That’s two to three hundred per every person.

From the material ubiquity of herring springs the idea or symbol of herring; it is not only the most important driver of socio-historical and political in the story of Northern Europe but it also stands for the cultural identity of the North.

Clupea Harengus - Skandinaviens Fiskar
The Herring — Clupea Harengus — in Bengt Fredrik Fries et al. A History of Scandinavian Fishes vol. 2 (Stockholm, 1895), J/7290.k.29
.

Herring has really always been fished, well, ‘since the Mesolithic era but commercial fisheries for these species developed only in the Middle Ages’ (Holm, p. 19). Its abundance in the marine area stretching from the Baltic across the North Sea and to the Atlantic around Iceland made it a vital commodity traded and controlled by various powers across the centuries. Abundance may be an understatement if we take Saxo Grammaticus’s words at face value in the Gesta Danorum, first written around 1204. Writing of the sound between Zealand and Scania, he notes: ‘the whole sound contains such plentiful shoals that sometimes boats striking them have difficulty in rowing clear and no fishing-gear but the hands is needed to take them.’ In fact, one possible etymological root for the word herring is from the Germanic Heer (army, troops) but the etymology of the common name for Clupea harengus is full of red herr… I won’t go there.

Olaus Magnus 152.e.9.
Herring-fishing in Scania, woodcut from Olaus Magnus, Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus, (Rome, 1555) 152.e.9.

It goes without saying then that with such a central presence in Northern life the herring is equally abundant in the Northern literary and artistic imagination. A scan of the British Library catalogue reveals a huge number of historical surveys, reports on methods of preservation, regional studies of the impact of fishing, but also such oddities (or not) as an announcement in 1785 by the Swedish Academy pertaining to, in the gloss provided by the BL’s Scandinavian Short-Title Catalogue of works published before 1801, ‘roof slates and herring fisheries’ (British Library, Ac.1070/20), or even the very recent (anti-)comic book by Antti and Esa Hakala, Sven’s Herring, or their graphic novel Lord of Herrings (2017).

Hakala combined
Exhaustive and exhausting jokes about herring in Anti and Esa Hakala, Sven’s Herring ([Great Britain], 2014) YKL.2016.b.5527

Douglas S. Murray’s comprehensive Herring Tales: how the silver darlings shaped human taste and history (London, 2015; DRT ELD.DS.80434) points us in the direction of a museum on the topic, “one of the finest of its kind”, namely the Herring Era Museum in Siglufjörður on the Northern coast of Iceland, once the bustling centre of herring fishing and processing in the country, the ‘Atlantic Klondike’ of the early 20th century. Murray sees in this unique museum a reminder of “the fact that without herring, Iceland – like so many other places on the edge of Norway, Scotland and elsewhere – would not have possessed a modern society.” The museum itself is fully aware of the historical, literary, artistic, film and musical impact of herring, listing numerous sources that show the expanse of work that sparkles herring-silver.

Gunnlaugur Blöndal - The Herring Worker
The lyrical beauty of ‘Icelandic gold’ in paintings by Gunnlaugur Blöndal. Above: ‘The Herring Worker’ (1934); below: ‘Herring Packers’ (1935-1940), reproduced in Gunnlaugur Blöndal (Reykjavik, 1963), Cup.20.w.13

Gunnlaugur Blöndal - Herring Packers

A three-volume history of herring in Iceland, Silfur hafsins: gull ĺslands: síldarsaga ĺslendiga (‘Silver of the sea: Iceland’s gold: the history of herring in Iceland’; Reykjavik, 2007; YF.2014.b.1514) has appeared in the last decade, adorned with epigraphs by the great Nobel Prize winner and herring champion Halldór Laxness. All three epigraphs are from Laxness’s 1972 Guðsgjafaþula (Reykjavik, 1972; X.989/30910.), which loosely translates as ‘The Song of God’s Gifts’—the book has not been translated into English. “God’s gifts” is another euphemism for the now not-so-humble herring and Laxness does not shy away from elevating them to an object of the aesthetic sublime:

‘Norðurlandssíldin er aðalborin skepna bæði að fegurð og vitsmunum, kanski það dásamlegasta sem guð hefur skapað.’
[The Scandinavian herring is a creature noble-born to beauty and wisdom, perhaps the most wonderful thing God has created]

And,

‘… þá munu margir men tala að þessi fagri fiskur hafi verið sannkölluð dýrðargjöf, já ein sú mesta sem himnafaðirinn hefur gefið þessari þjóð.’
[… then many will say that this beautiful fish has been the true glory, yes, one of the greatest things the Heavenly Father has given this nation.]

Guðsgjafaþula, about the fate of a fishing community who have entrusted their lot to a brilliant herring speculator, took as its source material the first history of herring in Iceland written by Matthías Þórdarson from Móar in 1934. The latter was the great-grandfather of contemporary Icelandic great, Sjón, who in turn used his ancestor as a model for the protagonist of the novel Argóarflísin (‘The Whispering Muse’; Reykjavik, 2005;YF.2007.a.24658). In Sjón’s novel we are introduced to Valdimar Haraldsson, who in 1933 published Memoirs of a Herring Inspector, immediately evoking Laxness and Þórdarson before him. One of Haraldsson’s early articles from his journal Fisk og Kultur, to which he refers at length at the beginning, espouses the link between fish consumption and Nordic racial superiority:

It is our belief that the Nordic race, which has fished off the maritime coast for countless generations and thus enjoyed a staple diet of seafood, owes its physical and intellectual prowess above all to this type of nutrition, and that the Nordic race is for this reason superior in vigour and attainments to other races that have not enjoyed such ease of access to the riches of the ocean.

The triumphal racialist rhetoric is antiquated and self-undermining in the context of the novel but the year of publication of Haraldsson’s memoirs is not lost on the reader. God’s gifts make for a chosen people it seems. At the same time, the maritime Nordic people is deliberately drawn in stark contrast to the ‘blood and soil’ rhetoric of continental fascism. Sjón’s novel is not the only place where fish and racial politics are brought into conversation. For the other notable example, we need to travel back to the Baltic and the shores of Danzig as imagined and lived by Günter Grass. But that is for another post…

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator, Germanic Collections

References and further reading:

Saxo Grammaticus, The History of the Danes (vol. 1) [translated from the Latin by Peter Fisher] (Cambridge; New Jersey, 1979) X.800/28439

 Halldór Laxness, Brekkukotsannáll (Reykavik, 1957/1973) X.909/37610. (English translation by Magnus Magnusson, The Fish can Sing (London, 2000) H.2000/2872)

Sjón, The Whispering Muse [translated by Victoria Cribb] (London, 2012) H.2013/.5955

James H. Barrett and David C. Orton (eds.), Cod and Herring: The archaeology and history of medieval seas fishing (Oxford; Philadelphia, 2016), YC.2017.b.2914; especially the essay by Paul Holm, ‘Commercial Sea Fisheries in the Baltic Region c. AD 1000-1600’