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31 posts categorized "Poland"

13 March 2017

Polish Noir on the Rise

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This year Poland is the guest of honour at the London Book Fair. Consequently there will be a series of cultural events featuring Polish writers at the Fair and other locations. Within its rich programme the British Library is hosting the Crime Writing from Poland event on Tuesday 14th March with two outstanding writers, Olga Tokarczuk and Zygmunt Miłoszewski.

Crime fiction is one of the most popular and widespread literary genres in Poland. It has recently followed in the footsteps of Nordic Noir and includes some excellent writers whose novels are well received both at home and abroad. They represent all forms of crime writing from period drama through thrillers to modern crime addressing contemporary social issues. In 2003, only four thrillers were published, while ten years later over a hundred crime novels made their way into bookshops.

What makes Polish crime writing distinctive? It is inevitably the excellent use of Poland’s diverse and tumultuous 20th century history as a background, exhaustive research and credible characters – all combine in the attractive form of a crime story. The first recognised crime fiction writer of that generation is Marek Krajewski. He made his name with a retro series of four novels featuring Inspector Eberhard Mock masterfully solving criminal mysteries in pre-war Breslau, a German town, which in 1945 became Wrocław in Poland. Krajewski, a fan of the city, superbly recreated the spirit of Breslau, making it the second character in his series. As early as 2005 Krajewski received a literary reward for his crime novel The End of the World in Breslau (London, 2009; NOV.2010/950). This was the turning point – crime fiction, previously regarded as lowbrow literature, was now accepted as a distinct literary genre.

Polish Noir Krajewski

Cover of Dżuma w Breslau by Marek Krajewski. (Warsaw, 2007). YF.2008.a.704

One of the best-selling authors is Zygmunt Miłoszewski, famous for his trilogy with the phlegmatic Teodor Szacki, State Prosecutor, as the main character. He successfully investigates a murder case in modern Warsaw, Uwikłanie (‘Entanglement’; Warsaw, 2007; YF.2007.a.16937), and he next moves to Sandomierz, a provincial town in south-east Poland, to face the sensitive issue of Polish anti-Semitism Ziarno prawdy (‘A grain of truth’).  Miłoszewski also tackles Polish-German relations in Gniew (‘Rage’; Warsaw, 2014; YF.2015.a.6087), the last in the series, setting the plot in the provincial town of Olsztyn in north-east Poland, formerly a German territory.

Polish Noir Miloszewski
Cover of Ziarno prawdy by Zygmunt Miłoszewski (Warsaw, 2011). YF.2012.a.26350.

A rising star in the genre of crime fiction is Katarzyna Bonda, named the ‘Queen of Crime’ by Miłoszewski. She has so far published four crime novels featuring the Silesian police psychologist Hubert Meyer and the female profiler Sasza Załuska as the main protagonists. Bonda touches upon various social issues in her novels such as alcoholism in women, the trauma caused by the loss of a child, or problems concerning ethnic minorities. Her meticulously- researched books make use of police criminal records and the expert knowledge of consultants. She also wrote a non-fiction book, Polskie morderczynie (‘Polish female murderers’; Warsaw, 2013; YF.2015.a.8534), portraying women sentenced for heinous crimes.

Crime fiction appeals not only to readers but also to writers. Olga Tokarczuk, the most popular Polish author of her generation whose literary output includes over a dozen highly acclaimed books, applied crime conventions in Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych (‘Drive your plough over the bones of the dead’). As in her other novels she mixes mythology with reality to convey important messages about the condition of modern society.

Polish Noir Tokarczuk

Cover of  Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych by Olga Tokarczuk (Kraków, 2009) YF.2010.a.22348.

Crime writing, which explores all facets of human nature together with historical and social issues, is a very interesting and diverse form of Polish modern literature. So it is not surprising that some of the novels were made into films, e.g. Agnieszka Holland’s latest Pokot (Spoor), inspired by Tokarczuk’s book mentioned above. For the same reason a significant number of Polish crime novels have been translated into other languages, including English.

Magda Szkuta, Curator of East European Collections

27 January 2017

Lidia Zamenhof, a cosmopolitan woman and victim of the Holocaust

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Lidia_Zamenhof_(1904-1942)Photo

Lidia Zamenhof  (photo above from Wikimedia Commons) was a teacher, writer and translator and the youngest daughter of Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof, the creator of the international auxiliary language Esperanto. She was born on 29 January 1904 in Warsaw, then in partitioned Poland, and later became an active promoter of both the Esperanto language and the Bahá’í Faith.

Her story is told in Wendy Heller’s biography Lidia: the Life of Lidia Zamenhof Daughter of Esperanto.

[LidiaWendyHeller

Cover of Lidia : the Life of Lidia Zamenhof, Daughter of Esperanto. (Oxford, 1985) X.950/44270

After completing her university studies in law in 1925, Lidia Zamenhof dedicated herself totally to working for Esperanto and the humanitarian ideals connected with it. In the same year, during the 17th World Esperanto Congress in Geneva in 1925, she became acquainted with the Bahá’í Faith  of which she was soon to become an ardent promoter. Bahá’í is a relatively recent religion, founded in 19th-century Persia, which emphasizes the spiritual unity of the entire human race. Its founder, Bahá’u’lláh, taught that all religions come from the same divine source, and that the crucial need facing humanity is to find a unifying vision of the future of society, and of the nature and purpose of life.

As a professional Esperanto instructor Lidia Zamenhof made many promotional trips and taught over 50 Esperanto courses in various European countries using progressive, immersive teaching methods. In addition, she was a contributor to major Esperanto periodicals such as Literatura Mondo (ZF.9.b.266 ) and others. Her topics ranged from the teaching and promotion of Esperanto and the development of the Esperanto movement to studies on Polish literature and the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith. Her Esperanto translation of Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz was published in 1933. She also translated several volumes of Bahá’í writings, in particular John Ebenezer Esslemont’s Baha’u’llah and the New Era (London, 1923; 04504.g.27. ), considered the foremost introductory textbook to the religion, as Bahá’u’lláh kaj la Nova Epoko.

LidiaZamenhofQuoVadis     Title-page of Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz, translated by Lidia Zamenhof (Amsterdam, [1934]) 12593.d.5.

In 1937 Lidia travelled to the USA for a teaching tour jointly sponsored by the Esperanto Association of North America and the American Assembly of the Bahá’í Faith. She was forced to leave when her visa expired at the end of 1938, and ignoring the pleas of her friends she returned to Poland shortly before the start of the Second World War. Less than a month after the German invasion, the Zamenhof home in Warsaw was bombed; Lidia was arrested together with her brother Adam, his wife Wanda, and her sister Zofia. Adam Zamenhof was shot in January 1940 as one of 50 prisoners killed in retaliation for a Resistance assault on a Nazi officer, while Lidia, Zofia and Wanda were released from prison after five months and sent to live in the Warsaw Ghetto. There Lidia endeavoured to help others receive medicine and food. She was offered the chance to escape by Polish Esperantists as well as by a German Bahá’í soldier, but not wanting to endanger others she refused.

LidiaPORKELATAGOJ

Title-page and frontispiece of the collected works of Lidia Zamenhof Por ke la tagoj de la homaro estu pli lumaj (Antwerp, 2008). YF.2010.a.2370

Her last known letter states: “Do not think of putting yourself in danger; I know that I must die but I feel it is my duty to stay with my people. God grant that out of our sufferings a better world may emerge. I believe in God. I am a Bahá’í and will die a Bahá’í. Everything is in His hands.” However, she died as a Jew, an Esperantist, and a member of the Zamenhof family. Hitler had made his opinion clear in Mein Kampf that Jews intended to use Esperanto to rule the world, and the head of the Gestapo in Warsaw received orders directly from Berlin that the Zamenhof family should be arrested.

The last that is known of Lidia is described by Esther Schor in her book Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language (New York, 2015; awaiting shelfmark).

Toward the end of September 1942, at the age of thirty-eight, she was among the 300,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto who were packed into cattle cars and sent to Treblinka. (Zofia had gone voluntarily, perhaps thinking she could be of service as a medic.) Eva Toren, then a fourteen-year-old girl who had met and befriended Lidia that spring at a Ghetto seder, would survive to remember Lidia’s final hours in Warsaw. In 1993 Toren recalled the Nazis whipping, shouting, and pushing Jews into the Umschlagplatz, where they stood without water from early morning until evening. In the afternoon, the Germans and their Polish minions arranged the Jews in lines five deep for the selection. Lidia was several rows behind Eva, and they exchanged a pregnant glance. When she was selected for deportation, Lidia “walked regally, upright, with pride, unlike most of the other victims, who were understandably panicked.” On the fifth of September, Lidia Zamenhof boarded the train to Treblinka, where, upon arriving, she was killed in the gas chamber.

LidiaZamenhofKONGRESO

Lidia Zamehof (second from the left) at the 22nd World Esperanto Congress in Oxford, 1930 (photo from: http://www.tolkiendil.com/langues/hors_legendaire/langues_primaires/valeur_educative_esperanto)

Renato Corsetti, Professor Emeritus of Psycholinguistics at La Sapienza University in Rome, former president of the World Esperanto Association, General Secretary of the Academy of Esperanto


Further reading/References:


Hugh C. Adamson and Philip Hainsworth. Historical dictionary of the Bahāʾā Faith. (London , 1998). HLR 297.93

Zofia Banet-Fornalowa. La Familio Zamenhof. (La Chaux-de-Fonds, 2000). YF.2008.a.17135

 

09 January 2017

European Literature Network Salon: Three Wise Women

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On 23 November 2016 I had the honour of chairing a conversation with two Polish writers: Julia Fiedorczuk and Magdalena Tulli, and the British author Deborah Levy, at Waterstones Piccadilly. I was invited to do so by Rosie Goldsmith and Anna Błasiak of European Literature Network, who masterminded this Salon to highlight the Polish Market Focus at the 2017 London Book Fair. The event was also supported by the British Council.

DZIUROSZJF_Fot_Radek-Kobierski-1024x575
Julia Fiedorczuk (photo by Radek Kobierski)

Julia Fiedorczuk has published five volumes of poetry, three collections of short stories and many critical and academic texts. A fragment of her debut novel, Nieważkość (‘Weightless’) – read by the author in Polish and by the translator Anna Zaranko in English – emphasised Fiedorczuk’s tender, yet unsentimental attention to all living creatures. There is a child, an ugly dog, some carefully observed plants; but also a charged mother/daughter relationship, sour small-town observations about a neighbour, and unsettling intimations of the adult world from a child’s perspective.

A question about Fiedorczuk’s ecological worries and interests, and the interconnectedness of characters and tropes in her writing, made her think of the metaphor of mycelium – a mass of ideas manifesting above the ground of consciousness as images, characters and so on.

FiedorczukBooks
Two books by Julia Fiedorczuk from the British Library's collections

As for Magdalena Tulli (author of seven novels), we read a fragment of Flaw in the original and in Bill Johnston’s beautiful translation: a meditation on a refugee family arriving to an imaginary town and being perceived as essentially alien in every way. Tulli’s clear-eyed description of the process of displacement is informed by wartime chaos, but her description of people finding themselves at the mercy of indifferent events strikes an awfully modern note in the times of Calais and Aleppo.

 

MTulli_A Błachut
Magdalena Tulli (photo by A.Błachut)

Tulli pointed out that the world has always been full of refugees, but societies ignored them – and now it is impossible not to see them. She also said that although she does not like history, it cannot be forgotten, especially in Eastern Europe.

DziuroszTulliBooks  Some books by Magdalena Tulli from the British Library's Collections 

Deborah Levy read Placing a Call from her short story collection, Black Vodka (High Wycombe, 2013; YKL.2015.a.5196): a lyrical account of a difficult encounter, which – in its obsessive concentration on detail that may serve, paradoxically, as an evasion of reality – seems to weave in and out of focus and leads to a moving finale.

Levy discussed her European and Polish inspirations – Black Vodka, Swimming Home (High Wycombe, 2011; H.2013/.8738) and Hot Milk (New York, 2016, ELD.DS.71605) share vivid continental landscapes and settings, and Polish accents throughout (as it turns out, she travelled widely in Poland and is a devotee of Tadeusz Kantor’s theatre). She mentioned that she finds hybrid identities interesting because she herself identifies as a hybrid, and her personal story and artistic lineage are complex, indelibly entwined with the history of Europe.

DziurorzDeborah-Levy-by-Sophia-Evans

  Deborah Levy (photo by Sophia Evans)

I was fascinated to hear my guests’ views on whether they perceive themselves as representatives of a certain literary heritage or if they aim for universality. Tulli’s answer, “My country is Polish language”, found an echo in Levy’s comment that continental modernism is really her language. Fiedorczuk mentioned her love-hate relationship with the Polish literary tradition.

We also discussed a theme that all three writers have explored: the relationship between mothers and daughters. It features in Tulli’s as yet untranslated Włoskie szpilki (‘Italian Pumps’; Warsaw, 2011; YF.2012.a.26877), in Fiedorczuk’s Weightless and her short stories, and in Levy’s Hot Milk and Swimming Home. Fiedorczuk talked about her view of it as reproduction of trauma, one that daughters inherits from mothers. The mother in Tulli’s (autobiographical?) book is, as she said, rendered so empty by her trauma that she has nothing left to give to her daughter. The characters of Isabel in Swimming Home and Rose in Hot Milk explore the cost of the mother/daughter relationship to both sides. Related to this is the unsentimental perspective of childhood the authors share, which we also discussed.

ThreewisewomenDziurosz

From left to right: Deborah Levy, Julia Fiedorczuk, Magdalena Tulli and Marta Dziurosz  (photo by Rosie Goldsmith, via Flickr)

We finished the discussion by exploring whether there is a difference between male and female writers creating the sort of experimental, unapologetically literary writing that my three guests excel at. Fiedorczuk pointed out that the genre considered “appropriate” for female writers is middle-brow fiction, and those reaching beyond are frequently punished – however, she is not ready to betray her own style by conforming to those expectations. Tulli, on the other hand, emphasised the importance of being able to communicate her ideas; she discussed the changes she made to her style to make it possible. Levy pointed out that a reading experience is not diminished if the reader floats in and out of understanding.

The lively Q&A session proved that the topics discussed resonated with the audience – and, I hope, meant that the “wise women” found new readers for their unique writing. A full recording of the discussion can be heard on the European Literature Network Soundcloud page: https://soundcloud.com/eurolitnetwork/eurostars-three-wise-women-with-deborah-levy-magdalena-tulli-and-julia-fiedorczuk

Marta Dziurosz, literary translator and interpreter from and into Polish, Free Word Centre Associate. 

You can find all the books mentioned and much more modern Polish literature and secondary literature about it in the rich Polish collections at the British Library.

 

15 November 2016

The Year of Henryk Sienkiewicz

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Henryk Sienkiewicz, the most popular Polish writer of historical fiction, was born in 1846 in Russian-partitioned Poland. He started his literary career as a journalist writing for a few periodicals under the pseudonym Litwos.

Henryk Sienkiewicz

Portrait of Henryk Sienkiewicz from Album jubileuszowe Henryka Sienkiewicza  (Warsaw, 1898) British Library 1870.c.21

The suppression of the January Uprising (1863-4) against Russian rule was a turning point in the political, ideological and cultural movement in Poland. It marked the end of the Romantic period in Polish culture. Positivism with its ideas of social, political and economic progress through education, the arts and sciences fell on fertile ground in Poland and was also reflected in Polish literature. Sienkiewicz, like other Polish positivists, believed that the national identity should be maintained not by fruitless uprisings against the overwhelming power of the occupying neighbours (Russia, Prussia and Austria) but by common effort called at the time the organic work  and constructive patriotism of the whole society. In his early works he explored the plight of the peasants, education and emigration, the last inspired by his American experiences in 1876-8. After his return from America Sienkiewicz turned to historical studies that resulted in the great historical epic Trilogy, set in mid-17th century Poland. The three novels which compose it, Ogniem i mieczem (‘With Fire and sword’), Potop (‘Deluge’) and Pan Wołodyjowski (‘Sir Michael’), published in 1884-1886, became extremely popular both at home and abroad. They describe consecutively the war with the rebellious Cossacks (1648-1657), the Swedish invasion of Poland (1655-1660) and the war with Turkey (1668-1673).

Sienkiewicz Deluge

Kmicic company (The deluge) from Album jubileuszowe Henryka Sienkiewicza, (Warsaw, 1898) 1870.c.21

Sienkiewicz was praised by critics for his epic talent, great narrative power, rich language, vivid description, the ability to develop the plot and diversify characters as well as convey period details and style. Yet some critics objected to the lack of historical accuracy. Nevertheless, the patriotic tone of the novels, the belief in the survival of the nation and the glorification of the past achievements, which were skilfully combined with the plot, gave comfort to the Polish readers. Sienkiewicz was considered a national icon writing to raise the spirits in the dark times of history. Another historical novel, regarded as his greatest achievement, was Krzyżacy (‘The Teutonic Knights’; Warsaw, 1900; 012590.cc.2). The heart of the novel is the victorious battle of Grunwald (1410)  which brought down the Teutonic Knights as a military power. It had a contemporary political context in the ongoing Germanization of the Poles in German-partitioned Poland.

However, the book that earned him international fame was Quo Vadis (Warsaw, 1896; 012591.f.59), a depiction of Nero’s Rome and the rise of Christianity. In 1905 Sienkiewicz received the Nobel Prize in Literature for his outstanding merits as an epic writer. At the turn of the 20th century he was the most popular writer in Poland and was widely recognized abroad due to the numerous translations of his historical works. Sienkiewicz’s last novel was a book for young readers, W pustyni i w puszczy (‘In Desert and Wilderness’) published in 1911. It was based on his experiences during his African trip, and became a classic in its field.

Sienkiewicz Quo Vadis 1

Ubi tu Gaius, ibi ego Gaia (As you are Gaius, I am Gaia) from Henryk Sienkiewicz, Quo vadis, (Warsaw, 1910) LR.430.u.25

Sienkiewicz was also involved in social and political activities. His last major initiative was The Relief Committee for the Victims of the War in Poland which he established together with Ignacy Jan Paderewski  in Switzerland in 1915. Sienkiewicz died in Vevey on 15 November 1916. After the war his ashes were returned to Poland.

Sienkiewicz Quo Vadis 2Quo vadis Domine? From Henryk Sienkiewicz, Quo vadis,

 Magda Szkuta , Curator of East European Collections

Further reading:

The Trilogy companion: a reader's guide to the Trilogy of Henryk Sienkiewicz, edited by Jerzy R. Krzyżanowski (Ford Washington Pa., 1991) YA.1992.a.17375

Ruth Scodel and Anja Bettenworth, Whither Quo vadis? Sienkiewicz's novel in film and television (Malden, 2009) m08/37942

Henryk Sienkiewicz, With fire and sword (Ford Washington Pa., 1991). YA.1992.b.5508

Henryk Sienkiewicz, The deluge (New York, 1991) YA.1992.b.5507

Henryk Sienkiewicz, Fire in the steppe (New York, 1992) YA.1992.b.5747

 

20 September 2016

Ira Aldridge's Polish Journey: Developing the Shakespearean Canon and Influencing Local Politics

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I was delighted to discover that the British Library’s recent exhibition Shakespeare in 10 Acts chose to tell the remarkable story of Ira Aldridge’s career – albeit only part of it. Although the famous black Shakespearean actor acquired star status in the UK provinces, he was never fully accepted in London by the cultural elites. Nevertheless his acting was celebrated on the Continent wherever he went. He toured extensively from 1852 to 1867: he went as far as Imperial Russia, including Poland and Ukraine, and visited Mongolia and Turkey.

Aldridge’s contribution to Shakespeare’s performance history was not limited to the question of race and his pioneering acting feats as Othello or King Lear (in whiteface). In the non-Anglophone reception of Shakespeare Aldridge is a very special case in the dissemination of his work. At the time not many proper translations were available to non-English speakers and thus Shakespeare was not staged frequently, in some places not at all (for example, in 1858 Aldridge brought Shakespeare to Serbia for the very first time with his Richard III) .

Ira Aldridge Lear 11797.a.32
Ira Aldridge as King Lear, from  S.Durylin, Aira Oldridzh  (Moscow, 1940). 11797.a.32

I will relate only one of Aldridge’s many continental success stories, one not mentioned in the exhibition, which took place in Poland (then occupied by Russia, Prussia and Austria). Some Polish scholars believe that Ira Aldridge is of unique importance in the reception of Shakespeare in Poland as his six visits, over the period 1853-1867, may not only have inspired more and better Polish translations of Shakespeare’s plays but also influenced the acting style of many Polish actors for years to come. Undoubtedly his first performances of Othello with German companies motivated Józef Paszkowski (1817-1861) to prepare a Polish translation of the original, which was used for the first time by a Warsaw troupe during Aldridge’s visit in 1863.

Ira Aldridge Othello
Othello and Desdemona from an edition of  Paszkowski’s Shakespeare translation (Warsaw,1875-1877). 11765.g.3. 

Most Polish reviews of his performances praised his realistic renditions of the roles. When touring, as a rule he performed in English with actors from a given country playing in their native languages but it is often claimed that because of his acting genius he proved that the imposed barriers of languages and cultures could be transcended, which he achieved by the ‘sweetness and softness of his voice’ and passion too.

In continental Europe Aldridge was awarded medals and honours wherever he went, including honorary memberships of many academies and arts societies. He consorted with kings, queens and emperors. But the famous black tragedian was also sensitive to the somewhat delicate political situation in partitioned Poland. When Poles boycotted him in Cracow because he played in a German theatre, for the first time he leaked to the press news of his involvement with the abolitionist movement in the USA, to prove that he sided with the oppressed, including Poles. As a result he was under constant surveillance by officials of Tsarist Russia who did not like it that Poles identified with Aldridge as an oppressed man in his self-professed exile. In the press he was often referred to as ‘our brother’ and his performances quickly became political events.

Aldridge died  in Łódz in provincial Poland where he was given a splendid funeral. A long funeral procession crossed the city, with members of the local theatre society carrying his medals and orders on red velvet cushions and a laurel wreath, while local people covered his grave with flowers. The grave is cared for by the Łódz Appreciation Society and many anonymous citizens decorate his grave on a regular basis with fresh flowers and candles. His tomb was renovated in 2001. In November 2014 a commemorative plaque designed by a renowned Polish artist, Professor Marian Konieczny, was unveiled at the entrance to the Museum of Cinematography in Łódz  (the former location of the theatre and Hotel Paradyz in which Aldridge was invited to perform); you can see a recording of the event made by Professor Sławomir Kalwinek of the National Higher School of Film, Television and Theatre in Łódź, here

Ira Aldridge memorial plaque Memorial Plaque to Ira Aldridge, Museum of Cinematography, Łódz [Image from http://www.polskaniezwykla.pl/]

Two plays about Ira Aldridge in Poland have been written and staged to date: Maciej Karpiński’s Otello umiera [‘Othello Dies’], first published in Dialog monthly, 2003, no. 1/2 (P.P.4838.kob); and Remigiusz Caban’s Murzyn może odejść [‘The Negro must leave’] (2010). Both plays were staged.

Dr Aleksandra Sakowska (MA University of Warsaw, PhD King's College London) 

References:

Krystyna Kujawinska-Courtney and Maria Łukowska, eds., Ira Aldridge 1807-1867 on the Bicentennial Anniversary of His Birth (Frankfurt am Main, 2009) YD.2009.a.9405

Krystyna Kujawinska-Courtney, Ira Aldridge 1807-1867: dzieje pierwszego czarnoskórego tragika szekspirowskiego (Krakow, 2009)


You can find out more about all aspects of Shakespeare’s life and works, including famous performances and performers on our Shakespeare web pages

08 August 2016

Helena Modrzejewska, a Polish Shakespearean actress

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Legend has it that she was a daughter of the aristocrat Prince Władysław Sanguszko. Born on 12 October 1840 in Kraków as Jadwiga Benda, she was later baptised Helena Opid after her godfather’s surname. Raised in an open-minded family, she experienced poverty during her childhood and youth. An eager reader since her early years, Helena also displayed great talent for acting. She adopted her stage name after marrying her former guardian Gustaw Zimajer, an actor performing under the pseudonym Gustaw Modrzejewski. In her early career Helena played in the provincial towns of southern Poland before moving to Kraków where she separated from Gustaw.

Modjeska autobiography
Helena Modrzejewska’s a postuhmously published autobiography, Memories and impressions of Helena Modjeska (New York, 1910). British Library 010795.i.22

In 1868 Modrzejewska married Count Karol Bożenta Chłapowski, a politician and critic, and moved to Warsaw. After seven successful years on the stage there Modrzejewska, together with her husband and a few friends, emigrated to the USA. Among the party was Henryk Sienkiewicz, future author of Quo Vadis and the Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1905. They bought a ranch in California and formed a utopian colony. When the experiment failed Modrzejewska returned to the stage, acting in Shakespearean roles that she had performed in Poland. She played in San Francisco and New York, having modified her name to Modjeska in order to facilitate the pronunciation for English speakers. Despite her imperfect knowledge of English and a heavy Polish accent Modjeska rose to fame and achieved great success on the American stage.

Modrzejewska Viola
Modrzejewska as Shakespeare’s Viola. From Memories and Impressions. 

In 1880 she went to England to improve her English and try her luck on the stage. To play Shakespeare for an English audience was her dream. Through her husband’s connections Modjeska was introduced to London society and met some influential people. With the help of Wilson Barrett, the manager of the Court Theatre (today the Royal Court Theatre), Helena made her debut on the London stage in an adaptation of La Dame aux Camélias by Dumas under the title Heartsease. She was received by the audience with a thundering ovation. The success surpassed her expectations and paved the way for her to play Juliet in Romeo and Juliet in Shakespeare’s homeland. She also made a trip to Poland from London and played her repertoire in her native Kraków, Lwów (now Lviv) and Poznań.

Modrzejewska Heartsease
Modrzejewska in Heartsease, the play in which she made her London debut. From Memories and Impressions.

Helena returned to America in 1882 and continued her acting career until her death in 1909. She developed a reputation as the leading female interpreter of Shakespeare on the American stage. Numerous theatre critics praised Modjeska for her magnetic personality, excellent acting techniques and innovative style of interpretation. Her repertoire included 260 roles from comic and romantic to tragic characters. However, she was best known for her performances of Shakespearean and tragic parts, including Lady Macbeth, Ophelia, Cleopatra and Mary Stuart.

Modrzejewska Cleopatra
Modrzejewska as Cleopatra, from Memories and impressions.

Magda Szkuta, Curator East & South-East European Collections

Further reading

Marion Moore Coleman, Fair Rosalind: the American career of Helena Modjeska. ( Cheshire, Conn., 1969) X.981/1443.

Mabel Collins, The Story of Helena Modjeska-Madame Chłapowska. ( London, 1883). 10790.bbb.14.

Andrzej Żurowski, Modrzejewska Shakespeare Star (Gdańsk, 2010). YF.2011.a.14470

Beth Holmgren, Starring Madame Modjeska : on tour in Poland and America (Bloomington, 2012). YK.2011.a.41430

 

Find out more about Shakespeare performance through the ages in our exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts, open until 6 September

27 June 2016

All the World’s a Stage: Shakespeare in Europe and the Americas

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On Friday 10 June, the British Library welcomed a host of expert speakers to discuss the global understanding of our ‘national’ poet. And it turns out Shakespeare is the poet of many nations. It would be impossible to do justice to the richness of the presentations in a blog post, yet all of our panels shared the fundamental idea that Shakespeare’s writing is at the heart of every culture. Adaptations and translations are not so much secondary to the original but offer a radically different entry into, and a potentially much more direct access to, a Shakespeare play that will always signify something particular to different nations in different social and temporal contexts.

Prof. Jerzy Limon (photo below) opened proceedings with a view into the establishment of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre, designed by Renato Rizzi, at once a huge black modernist edifice in stark contrast to the red brick Northern European architecture (its 90 tonne retractable roof opens fully in 3 minutes), and a gothic castle-like structure, alluding to the city’s mediaeval Bazylika Mariacka.  We saw videos of the theatre’s opening ceremony and of varied productions, showing how the space can be adapted to both traditional Elizabethan stage design and experimental avant-garde interpretations.

ShakespeareSeminarLimon brightned up

Stuart Gillespie and Graham Holderness offered us insights into the sources and settings of Shakespeare’s plays. Dr Gillespie explained how French and Italian were the languages of culture and how European (mainly Italian) sources – epics, essays (Montaigne’s predominantly), romances and novellas – were in the atmosphere around Shakespeare’s time and were inevitably absorbed and adapted in his works. Professor Holderness spoke of the ‘reciprocal relationship’ between Shakespeare and Venice and how the playwright had already created much of the myth around the city before it was (re-)created in 19th and 20th century literature.

The British Library’s Julian Harrison gave us a glimpse of the ‘Our Shakespeare’ exhibition currently at the Library of Birmingham, home to the second largest Shakespeare collection in the world. The collection was resurrected after a fire destroyed the old library building in 1879 and the collection was soon expanded thanks to donations from around the world. Julian highlighted the beautifully produced photo album of German Shakespeare scholars (1878), the photo album donated by Laurence Olivier, and a Russian edition of Romeo and Juliet presented by a Soviet delegation at the height of the Cold War. Julian also managed to show the importance of Warwickshire to the bard, just before the study day moved to more tropical climes.

Philip Crispin opened the afternoon’s proceedings with a rousing presentation on Une tempête (‘A Tempest’). In this ‘adaptation for a black theatre’, Aimé Césaire, one of the founders of négritude, recasts Ariel as a mulatto slave and Caliban as an articulate black slave in revolt, reflecting the racial politics of his native Martinique. Michael Walling, Artistic Director of intercultural, multimedia theatre company Border Crossings, presented an insider perspective of staging Shakespeare in India, and translating and staging Dev Virahsawmy’s Toufann, a Mauritian adaptation of The Tempest, in London. The linguistic choices made by both writer and translator in the case of Toufann were fascinating: the play is written in Mauritian creole, but the title is in Hindi – Prospero is from the dominant Indian diaspora community in Mauritius, and seeks to impose this new word into the play. Philip and Michael showed how these two postcolonial adaptations of The Tempest epitomise translation as creative interpretation.

Shakespeare Seminar Postcolonial panel

Charles  Forsdick introducing Philip Crispin and Michael Walling (Photo by Ben  Schofield)

From considering just three performances, Paul Prescott encouraged us to look at hundreds in his whirlwind road trip presentation across the United States. The phenomenon of the Shakespeare festival was plain to see in the sheer spread and eclectic formats of these festivals. The bard’s work is not just made for the Globe Theatre but is at home anywhere and perhaps more at home in the small and distant communities of the American West. The day’s underlying theme again: Shakespeare is accessible universally. The idea was explored further by Mark Burnett, who showed how a constant industry of Shakespeare adaptation in film across Europe and South America sees in the plays stories that apply to a vast array of national settings, from gypsy versions of Hamlet (Aleksandar Rajkovic, Serbia, 2007) and King Lear (Romani Kris – Cigánytörvény, Bence Gyöngyössy, Hungary, 1997), to a Brazilian Romeo and Juliet set in the favelas of Rio (Maré, Nosse Historia de Amor, Lucia Murat, Brazil, 1997).

Shakespeare SeminarGDR

The day concluded with a round table on the ‘cultural politics of European Shakespeare’. Aleksandra Sakowska talked about the long history of interaction between Poland and Shakespeare, a presentation which touched on the first black actor to play Othello in Britain, Ira Aldridge. Nicole Fayard drew our attention to Shakespeare’s relevance in modern French society from the Vichy regime to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, showing how even in the latter situation Shakespeare managed to force his way into public consciousness. Keith Gregor described how Shakespeare productions in Spain still far outnumber those of the Spanish Golden Age playwrights, and how, after Franco’s reign, Shakespeare began to be appropriated by Spain’s autonomous communities in overtly political avant-garde productions. Emily Oliver presented a view of Shakespeare around the time of German reunification, particularly through the challenging production of Hamlet/Machine in 1990, directed by Heiner Müller (photo above by Ben Schofield). Hamlet could be seen building and jumping over a wall on stage in a not-so-subtle allegory of the political context. Erica Sheen chaired the discussion that followed which situated Shakespeare as the most significant figure of international cultural exchange and at the heart of every nation’s self-expression. Shakespeare gives voice to political counter-currents and his work is continually adapted to inhabit alternative, minority, and simply ‘foreign’ positions.

ShakespeareSeminarDiscussion

 Final panel of the seminar. Photo by Ben Schofield

‘All the world is a stage’ begins Jacques’s monologue in As You Like It, and this study day left no doubt that will always be true for Shakespeare’s work.

This study day, organised by the European and Americas Collections department of the British Library, was supported by the AHRC ‘Translating Cultures’ Theme, the Polish Cultural Institute and the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library.

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

 

25 May 2016

All the World’s a Stage: Shakespeare in Europe and the Americas

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No writer’s work has been translated, performed and transformed by as many cultures across the world as Shakespeare's. As part of the programme of events accompanying the current British Library exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts, the British Library is holding a seminar ‘All the World’s a stage: Shakespeare in Europe and the Americas’ on Friday 10 June from 10.15-17.15 in the Conference Centre.

Travelling players
A troupe of travelling players in 17th-century Germany. From the Album Amicorum of Franz Hartmann, British Library MS Egerton 1222. From our Discovering Literature Shakespeare site

This study day brings together leading specialists to explore Shakespeare’s global cultural presence from Europe to the Americas via the Indian Ocean. Themes include Shakespeare's source material; postcolonial adaptations; performance on stage and film; and the cultural politics of European Shakespeare.

The programme for the study day is:

10.15-10.45 Registration; Tea/Coffee

10.45-10.55 Welcome: Janet Zmroczek (Head of European and Americas Collections, British Library)

10.55-11.40 Keynote: Presentation and Interview (Chair: Aleksandra Sakowska, Worcester)
Jerzy Limon (Gdańsk), ‘“The actors are come hither” - 400 years of English theatrical presence in Gdańsk’

Gdansk Shakespeare theatre
The Gdánsk Shakespeare Theatre 

11.40-11.45: Break

11.45-12.35 Panel 1: European Sources and Settings (Chair: Line Cottegnies, Sorbonne Nouvelle)
Stuart Gillespie (Glasgow), ‘Shakespeare’s European Sources: Epics, Essays, Romances, Novellas'
Graham Holderness (Hertfordshire), ‘Shakespeare and Venice’

Hecatommithi G.9875 titlepage
Giovanni Battista Giraldi, De gli Hecatommithi (Mondovì, 1565), G.9875-6, a collection of stories including sources of Othello and Measure for Measure, from our Discovering Literature Shakespeare site

12.35-13.00 Julian Harrison (British Library) ‘“Our Shakespeare” exhibition at the Library of Birmingham’ (Chair: Janet Zmroczek, British Library)

13.00-14.00: Lunch.  A sandwich lunch will be provided.

14.00-14.50 Panel 2: Translating The Tempest: Postcolonial Adaptations (Chair: Charles Forsdick, Liverpool/AHRC)
Philip Crispin (Hull), ‘Aimé Césaire’s Une tempête’
Michael Walling (Border Crossings), ‘Storm-tossed in the Indian Ocean - from Indian Tempest to Mauritian Toufann’

14.50 – 15.40 Panel 3: Shakespeare in Performance (Chair: Ben Schofield, King’s College London)
Paul Prescott (Warwick), ‘Bard in the USA: the Shakespeare Festival Phenomenon in North America’
Mark Burnett (Queen’s University Belfast), ‘Shakespeare on Film: Europe and Latin America’

15.40-16.00 Tea/Coffee

16.00-17.15 Roundtable: The Cultural Politics of European Shakespeare (Chair: Erica Sheen, York)
Short presentations followed by a roundtable discussion with Keith Gregor (Murcia), ‘Shakespeare in post-Francoist Spain’; Nicole Fayard (Leicester), ‘Je suis Shakespeare: The Making of Shared Identities on the French Stage’; Emily Oliver (King’s College London), ‘Shakespeare Performance and German Reunification’;  Aleksandra Sakowska (Worcester), ‘Shakespearean Journeys to and from Poland’

17.15- 18.00 Wine reception sponsored by the Eccles Centre for American Studies

The study day has been organised by the European and Americas Collections department of the British Library in partnership with the AHRC ‘Translating Cultures’ Theme, The Polish Cultural Institute, and the Eccles Centre for Americas Studies at the British Library.

You can book by following the link to our What’s On pages or by contacting the British Library Box Office ( +44 (0)1937 546546; boxoffice@bl.uk). Full price is £25 (concessions available: see ‘What’s On’ for full details).

 

03 March 2016

Champion of the smallest Slavonic nation: Jan Arnošt Smoler (1816-84) and the Sorbs of Lusatia

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‘What’s in a name?’ asked Shakespeare’s Juliet. A lot, when the choice of name implies a political or ideological statement; at the time of the Czech National Revival, young patriots whose parents had had them christened plain František or Karel added more resonantly Slavonic names such as Ladislav or Jaromír to proclaim their solidarity with the nation’s glorious past and with Slavs of other countries.

However, members of a much smaller nation surrounded by alien territory faced particular problems; to adopt an outlandishly Slavonic name would cause all kinds of trouble with the authorities and neighbours who did not share their enthusiasm or even the ability to pronounce such words. In the case of the Sorbs of Lusatia, living in an area of Germany around Bautzen, the solution which they generally adopted was to use their given names but in a distinctively Sorbian form – and so Johann Ernst Schmaler grew up to become Jan Arnošt Smoler.

Smoler portrait Jan Arnošt Smoler, reproduced in Peter Kunze, Jan Arnošt Smoler: ein Leben für sein Volk (Bautzen, 1995) YF.2005.a.19362

He was born in 1816 in Merzdorf, a village in Boxberg, Saxony, as the son of a village schoolmaster, Jan Korla Smoler, and was educated at the Bautzen Gymnasium with the aim of entering the Church. The family later moved to Łaz (Lohsa) in Prussia, where in 1835 a new pastor was appointed and stayed there for the remaining 38 years of his life. This was the poet Handrij Zejler, the leading figure in the Sorbian Romantic movement and one of the great figures of Sorbian literary history. A former pupil of the Gymnasium, he visited the schoolmaster and his 19-year-old son, who for the previous three years had been firing his fellow students with enthusiasm for the Sorbian language and the concept of Sorbian nationhood.

Smoler Map
Map of Lusatia from L. Haupt and J.A. Smoler,  Pjesnički hornych a delnych Łužiskich Serbow = Volkslieder der Wenden in der Ober- und Nieder-Lausitz (Grimma, 1841-1843). 1461.k.1.  

The following year the young Smoler went to study at the University of Breslau, and while still a student published collections of folk-songs, Volkslieder der Wenden in der Ober- und Niederlausitz (Grimma, 1841-43), a Sorbian phrasebook entitled Mały Serb (‘The little Sorb’), and a German-Upper Sorbian dictionary. Like other Slavonic collectors of folk material such as Karel Jaromír Erben and Božena Nemcová, he gathered a huge fund of songs and stories, such as the charming ‘Wolf’s Ill-Fated Attempt at Fishing’, in which the greedy but dim-witted wolf is tricked by the wily fox into dangling his tail into a pond as bait and ends up losing it when he is trapped as the water freezes.

Smoler Pjesnicki
Parallel title-pages in Sorbian and German of Pjesnički hornych a delnych Łužiskich Serbow

Unlike Zejler, who became a close friend despite a 12-year difference in age, he was not notable for his literary activities, but made a considerable contribution to the development of the Upper Sorbian literary language and to the Sorbian-language periodicals Jutrnička (‘Morning Star’; P.P.4881.b.) and Tydźenska Nowina (‘Weekly News’). He became editor of the latter in 1849, a post which he retained until his death in 1884.

At Easter 1845 Smoler called a meeting at the Winica (Vineyard), an inn near Bautzen, to discuss the foundation of a Sorbian scientific and cultural body similar to those established in other Slavonic countries on the model of the Matica Srpska, set up in Serbia in 1826. He had already drawn up a provisional constitution, but as it needed the approval of the German authorities the association did not begin its official existence until 7 April 1847. In the next seven years its membership grew from 64 to 220 so that separate sections had to be organized for various branches of Sorbian studies, including literature, national history, pedagogics, demography, music and economics.

Smoler Casopis
The first issue of Časopis Maćicy Serbskeje (Bautzen, 1848) Ac.8954

Its main activity, however, was the publication of Sorbian literature and its own journal, the Časopis Maćicy Serbskeje, which appeared regularly from 1848 onwards. By 1923 its membership numbered 413, including foreigners as well as Sorbs – mainly Slavs, though with one British exception, William Morfill, Oxford’s first professor of Russian and other Slavonic languages. In 1873 the enterprising Smoler purchased, on his own initiative, a site in Bautzen for a ‘Serbski Dom’  (Sorbian House), as the Maćica Serbska’s headquarters, which finally opened its doors on 26 September 1904.

Although Smoler did not live to see this day, having died 20 years earlier, he had the satisfaction of knowing that he had strengthened the position of the Sorbian language and helped to preserve its culture at a time when, with the unification of Germany in 1871, the Sorbian minority in Prussia was subject to the increasing threat of Germanization. He achieved this through his tireless work to raise awareness of the Sorbian heritage and ensure, by acquiring his own publishing house and bookselling business in 1850, that the printing and publishing of Sorbian material rested in Sorbian rather than German hands. 200 years after his birth, he would be gratified to witness the activities of the Ludowe nakładnistwo Domowina  (Domowina People’s Press), founded in 1947, in continuing his work and promoting knowledge and understanding of the Sorbs and their language and culture.

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

 

23 December 2015

Vodka - a panacea for all illnesses?

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The lack of physicians and apothecaries throughout 16th century Poland on one hand and of medical guidebooks in the Polish language on the other  were Stefan Falimirz’s motives for undertaking the compilation of a book on herbal medicine O ziołach y o moczy gich. The herbal is a compilation of texts from Latin sources with the author’s added information on plants native to Poland.  It is the first book to use Polish botanical and medical terminology.  For this reason the book is also considered important for the development of Polish medical lexicography. Very little is known about the author. He was a friend of the publisher Florian Ungler and courtier to a Polish voivode. It is not clear whether he was a physician or botanist by training, but he obviously had a great interest in natural science.

Falimirz Image 1
Title page of Stefan Falimirz’s O ziołach y o moczy gich (Kraków, 1534) British Library C.185.a.1

The herbal is regarded as a treatise on pharmacology, medicine and botany as well as a practical medical guide, which was meant to help save lives in the context of the inadequate healthcare provision of the time. The book consists of five chapters, of which the first one provides the title for the whole work: On herbs and their potency.  Other subjects covered include the medicinal properties of birds, animals and fishes, blood-letting, obstetrics and infants’ ailments, surgery, etc.  

In the second chapter Falimirz describes some seventy brands of vodka and their health benefits.  He initially gives  instructions on the process of distilling vodka and then lists the different kinds alphabetically.  The chapter concludes with a list of illnesses cured by them.  Thus a well-supplied home apothecary was the guarantee for curing each illness. We learn that violet vodka is good for tuberculosis while the sage one is linked to curing headaches, but the honey vodka is supposed to clear the blood. On the other hand, hetmans and captains were given  wormwood-infused vodka but only when they were heading for war. The author recommends grass vodka for the sufferer from jaundice as well as for alleviating wrist pain. Disorders of the head can be cured by ten different brands of vodka such as marjoram, lavender, sage and peony. Against memory loss, fennel vodka is supposed to help. Heart disease can be treated with  lavender, borage or St. John Wort infusions. 

Falimirz image 2Frontispiece to chapter 2 of O ziołach y o moczy gich, on herb-infused vodkas

Some of Falimirz’s recommendations seem universal and timeless. He has, for example, a remedy for the citizens of a modern city exposed to noxious air either in air-conditioned offices or in the polluted streets. His advice would be a shot of oak-tree vodka. With the festive season just a few days away, Falimirz would recommend a small glass of peppermint or sage vodka to treat stomach disorders as it is reputed to aid digestion.

It is not surprising that it proved the most popular book of its time. 12 copies which are recorded in Poland are imperfect, but   the British Library copy is faultless. The herbal is lavishly illustrated and contains over 600 woodcuts.

   
Sage 1     WORMWOOD 3
Entries on sage (left) and wormwood (right)  from O ziołach y o moczy gich

Magda Szkuta, Curator East European Collections