English and Drama blog

3 posts from January 2013

21 January 2013

From Agatha (Christie) to the Zodiac Murders - an A-Z of crime fiction

Whether you're a crime fiction fan or not, you're almost certainly familiar with great icons of the genre - Miss Marple, Inspector Morse, Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade... but you might not know that the British Library also has crime novels written by people as incongruous as Pelé, Terry Venables or Gypsy Rose Lee. 

Surprising crime novels... The World Cup Murders, by Pele; Hazel and the Three Card Pack, by Terry Venables and Gordon Williams; The Striptease Murders, by Gypsy Rose Lee
Left to right: British Library shelfmarks H.90/2091; H.97/270 and 12655.bb.51

I especially love the tagline on the Gypsy Rose Lee cover which dramatically proclaims 'Tangled... in their own G-strings'. Awkward.

The greatest hits and the lesser-known side of the genre are equally celebrated in our new, free exhibition, 'Murder in the Library: An A-Z of Crime Fiction', which opened last Friday and runs till 12 May. The exhibition has been curated by Kathryn Johnson, with audio selections curated by Eva del Rey (more on that in a future post). 

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Kathryn and our exhibitions team unearthed some amazing collection items to show in the exhibition - including a 1933 novel where you had to solve the crime yourself - and if you got stuck, you could get the solution by completing a jigsaw puzzle: 

The Jigsaw Puzzle Murders (1933), an intriguing book with an real jigsaw puzzle providing the solution

British Library shelfmark Cup.935/1435

To be honest, though, I'm none the wiser for seeing the jigsaw completed. Especially as it looks like Lenin is pointing a bayonet at Dracula, which surely can't be what it's all about.

Although the exhibition's only been open a few days we've already had some good reviews, like this one on Londonist. Murder in the Library is accompanied by a series of special events, starting tonight with the intriguingly named 'Real Crime, Real Fiction', and there are still some tickets left. You can find more details on our events page.

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11 January 2013

New Year, New Acquisition

This week we took delivery of our most recent acquisition, the archive of Michael Meyer, best known for his translations of Ibsen and Strindberg. The archive contains drafts and annotated proofs of Meyer’s translations of Norwegian, Swedish and Danish authors. His work as novelist, playwright, adaptor, biographer, editor and reviewer (in a literary capacity as well as for The Good Food Guide) is also well represented in the collection which includes annotated books from his Library as well as archival papers. It’s a timely addition to the national collection following on from the Literary Translators conference held at the Library in 2011, which brought the creativity of translators into greater focus.

Before Meyer’s translations, English-speaking theatre audiences knew Ibsen primarily through the efforts of William Archer, whose lengthy versions in rhyming verse had given Ibsen a reputation for being old-fashioned and tedious. That changed when Meyer met the Finnish director Caspar Wrede who asked him to translate Ibsen’s The Lady From the Sea and John Gabriel Borkman for television, followed by Brand for his 59 Theatre Company. Today Meyer is credited with establishing Ibsen as a modern master in the eyes of Anglophone audiences, thanks to his understanding of the nuances of the Norwegian language and his sensitivity to Ibsen’s sub-text.

Whilst it’s easy now to take Meyer’s pre-eminence for granted, his initial attempts at translation from Norwegian were something of a struggle. He accepted his first Ibsen commission for a radio adaptation of Little Eyolf on the basis that Norwegian sounds much like the Swedish language (which he had learnt while lecturing at Uppsala University after the war). Unfortunately for Meyer the two languages look quite different written down and he had to engage a Norwegian friend to help him – an experience which set him firmly against the use of crib translations ever afterwards.

With the help of Caspar Wrede who coached him through The Lady From the Sea and John Gabriel Borkman, and Michael Elliott, who directed the 1959 production of Brand, Meyer quickly learnt his craft as translator and dramatist. Some of the most interesting letters in the archive on the subject of translation are Michael Elliott’s letters to Meyer commenting on his act-by-act drafts of Brand. Ironically enough they show that restoring Ibsen’s reputation involved rather a lot of irreverence; Elliott repeatedly urged a ruthless approach to the original. Pictured is a spread from Meyer's copy of Brand, in which all but 12 lines were cut.

Cuts to Brand

Michael Meyer is important not only for his legacy as a translator but for his position in the literary and theatrical circles of postwar London - and Stockholm too. His special correspondence file reads like a Who’s Who of writers, actors and directors, but the star items are undoubtedly a collection of 90-odd letters from Graham Greene, the majority of which are unpublished. Meyer and Greene had become good friends together in the mid 1950s – embarking on a round-the-world trip together in 1959-1960. It was Meyer who introduced Greene to the Swedish actress Anita Björk, with whom Greene had a significant affair and many of the letters from Greene make mention of Anita.

Other highlights include letters from George Orwell from the time he was writing 1984 and a variety of material concerning the poet Sidney Keyes who was Meyer’s friend at Oxford and sadly died in World War II at the age of twenty-one. Meyer posthumously edited a collection of his verse and hung onto his his friend’s books and a poetry notebook, which now form part of the archive here. His correspondence reveals a good deal of appreciation for Keyes’s work among his acquaintance, not least from Ted Hughes who carried a copy of Keyes’s poems with him whilst on National Service. 

 It’s not surprising that Michael Meyer’s Archive contains so many gems about other literary greats. His memoir Not Prince Hamlet tells more of the lives of his friends than it does about Meyer himself – he liked to stay in the background as he admits in the book and translating suited him for that reason. Whilst that may be a common feeling among translators we hope the acquisition of the Meyer Archive will open the way for greater appreciation of literary translation in its own right.

 Zoë Wilcox, Curator of Modern Literary and Theatrical Manuscripts


03 January 2013

'Putting a bomb under Scottish literature'


Somewhat overshadowed by the more spectacular cultural events of this past Olympic year, the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1962 Edinburgh International Writers' Conference, considered the world's first literature festival, passed with a relatively modest share of media attention.

The introduction of a literary element to the Edinburgh Festival was the idea of Jim Haynes, an American transplanted to Edinburgh who opened Britain's first paperback bookshop and founded the Traverse Theatre, and John Calder, publisher of Samuel Beckett and others. After successfully pitching the idea to Festival Director Lord Harewood, they persuaded Sonia Orwell to join them in planning the Conference.

As Jim Haynes put it in his 1984 memoir Thanks for Coming!:

             I took care of the Edinburgh end of it, of accommodation for people, arranging parties and arranging for the building and all that. John dealt mainly with Lord Harewood and keeping the Festival happy, and with certain writers. Sonia got all her pals to come up, including people like Mary McCarthy and Nicolo Tucci, whom I fell in love with, and we have remained friends ever since.

The conference drew an unprecedented line-up of Scottish and international writers to Edinburgh University's 2300-seater McEwan Hall. Among the 60 or so writers speaking over the five days of talks and discussion were Hugh MacDiarmid, Edwin Morgan, Alexander Trocchi, Muriel Spark, Khushwant Singh, William S. Burroughs, Lawrence Durrell, Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, Angus Wilson, Rebecca West, L.P. Hartley, Colin MacInnes and Simon Raven. In his 2001 memoir Pursuit John Calder noted that only a handful of the biggest names were subsidised by the conference budget (which had to be covered by ticket sales), with the costs of bringing in most of the writers absorbed by the British Council, foreign embassies or individual publishers.

Each day was devoted to a particular theme. Day two was concerned with 'Scottish Writing Today', and featured a lively spat between the anarchist bohemian Alexander Trocchi ('I am only interested in lesbianism and sodomy') and Scotland's best-known living poet (an 'old fossil', in Trocchi's opinion) Hugh MacDiarmid ('I resent the preponderance of paper and ink that is wasted on issues that seem to me peripheral and undesirable').

Going somewhat against the political grain of day three's addresses on the theme 'Commitment', English novelist Simon Raven was mainly concerned with making a living:

    I find from my notes that during the whole course of the afternoon everyone has been too polite to mention one subject and that is money. To listen to the talented ladies and gentlemen who have spoken, one would have thought that they never had, any of them, squirmed with delight at the prospect of a £5 note, that they had never seen money at all.

    Now, I wish to be quite honest about this. I count myself in a very minor way, as an old-fashioned professional novelist who writes to make a livelihood and pay for his expensive tastes.

Day four, on 'Censorship' featured a coolly logical address by the then little-known American William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch was still two years away from its British publication by John Calder). 'What would happen if all censorship were removed', mused Burroughs, 'I think not very much'. 

The Conference made the front pages of the Scottish newspapers ('Writers' Conference Goes into Orbit' was a headline in The Scotsman) and in many ways served as an early indicator of the cultural revolution that would erupt fully into the public consciousness just a few years later.

Jim Haynes had no doubts as to the event's success:

            It was wonderful - lots of people, lots of parties, lots of gossip. We had delightful, buzzing parties virtually every night. The alcohol flowed and everyone had a good time. I know I did. Altogether it was a great five days. The McEwan Hall, at Edinburgh University, a great barrel of a building, was filled every day with people, which made it exciting, and people came for lots of different reasons. I think we were well satisfied. The public enjoyed it, the writers enjoyed it and enjoyed meeting each other.

            For me the most important part of the Festival, with the Writers' Conference and, later, the Drama Conference, was just bringing people together. That has been one theme in everything I have done in my life: I think people should be brought together and that we have to create environments and situations to bring people together.

Haynes and John Calder were invited back to Edinburgh last August, to formally open the 2012 World Writer's Conference at the Edinburgh International Book Festival with a look back at the events of 1962 in a public discussion titled 'The Edinburgh Writers’ Conference 1962: The Legacy: Putting a Bomb Under Scottish Literature'. The organizers of this discussion, Dr Eleanor Bell and Dr Angela Bartie (both are academics from the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow), have produced a book to commemorate the original event: International Writers' Conference Revisited: Edinburgh 1962 (Cargo Publishing, 2012) featuring transcripts, new interviews and previously unpublished archive photographs.

For researchers wishing to dig even deeper, the British Library holds a copy of the original programme (front cover shown above, BL ref. Cup.21.ee.41.), a complete transcript (11881.g.1.), and the complete BBC audio recordings of the proceedings (NP550-NP561).