THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

3 posts from February 2019

19 February 2019

Remembering Andrea Levy

By Zoë Wilcox, Curator of Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts

It was with great sadness that I heard the news of Andrea Levy’s death on Friday. She had been very supportive of our Windrush exhibition, for which she lent the Library a number of items including drafts of her novel Small Island. It was a pleasure to meet Andrea several times over the course of the exhibition planning period. Even sitting in her kitchen last December over cups of tea and chocolate biscuits, knowing she didn’t have much longer to live, there was still a warm atmosphere and plenty of laughter.

Not that Andrea hadn’t been a little reticent about her manuscripts being shown in the exhibition. ‘What archive? Are all those boxes of papers in my cellar an archive?’ she asked me initially. And the idea of letting anyone see a first draft sent a shudder through her. As she told Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs in 2011, for her those first attempts were embarrassing. ‘I write absolutely the first thing that comes into my mind… longhand. And they’re bad. The first things I write down, ooh no, they’re not good.’ But as any literary archivist knows, the fascinating thing is to see the progression of successive drafts as a novel takes shape, to be able to pinpoint where the magic happens, the key decisions where things fall into place. In the case of Small Island, the drafting process brought her gradually closer to her four protagonists Hortense, Gilbert, Queenie and Bernard:

I love writing in the first person. I did actually start the book in the third person but it felt like I was writing behind a screen. It was only when I let the characters speak themselves and saw the world entirely through their eyes and I wasn’t anywhere present in the book (and I hope I’m not present) [that] they really came to life for me. It’s like acting. Trying to take historic generalities and make it about humans. (Radio 4 Bookclub)

This for me is Levy’s overwhelming talent. Her knack for embodying and inhabiting her characters so completely. To walk in other people’s shoes, to see things from multiple perspectives. To appraise people clearly, with an uncompromising and unsentimental humour which nevertheless finds the strands and sinews of humanity that make everyone’s lives of interest, however modest. This talent is present as much in her three early novels (Every Light in the House Burnin’, Never Far From Nowhere and Fruit of the Lemon) as it is in Small Island and The Long Song, though it’s in the latter two that she really stretches her imagination to weave plots on a much larger canvas encompassing the broad sweep of history from slavery to the aftermath of World War II.

It’s difficult to face the truth that there will be no more novels from Levy’s pen and that she is no longer with us, but we do have those five novels and a handful of short stories to return to (plus the essay ‘Back to My Own Country’ which can be read on the British Library website Discovering Literature), and also the excellent Imagine documentary which aired for a second time last night (and which features Andrea getting the better of Alan Yentob on more than one occasion, and Rufus Norris for good measure).

For more on Andrea Levy, the British Library collection includes her interview for the Authors’ Lives series, which you can read more about on our Sound and Vision blog. Our Discovering Literature site offers Hannah Lowe’s ‘An introduction to Andrea Levy's Small Island’ which discusses Levy’s role as a second-generation migrant bearing witness to the trauma which had silenced her parents’ generation. There are also teaching resources for secondary students, and digitised images of the objects which were displayed in Windrush: Songs In a Strange Land – selected pages from the manuscript of Small Island, Winston Levy’s ‘Jamaica shirt’, his postcard of the Empire Windrush bought on board ship, and a family photograph of the Levys on a rare trip to the British seaside.

I will leave you with this clip from the Imagine documentary in which Andrea visits the Library to see the Windrush exhibition. Here she points out her father in the Pathé news footage playing in the gallery - though she confessed to me later that she wasn’t sure it really was her father. More likely it was his twin, the more attention-seeking of the two brothers, whom she’d never met but had clearly been the inspiration behind the character of Kenneth in Small Island.

Like her father, Andrea did not seek the limelight but she was proud to find herself there, proud to be telling the story of the Caribbean and the Black British experience, and proud to represent Black writers in a society that has too often overlooked others like her.

08 February 2019

P.G. Wodehouse in Translation

by Rahul Bery, Translator in Residence at the British Library for 2018-19. The British Library’s Translator in Residence scheme, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), offers a translator the opportunity to become part of the British Library’s multilingual community of staff, readers and visitors for one year. The exhibition, P.G. Wodehouse: The Man and His Work, runs until February 24th. 

One thing I feel not sufficiently covered by the BL’s otherwise wonderful mini-exhibition on the life and works of P.G. Wodehouse, currently running in the treasures gallery, is his appeal beyond the Anglo-American world, both in English and in translation. Wodehouse’s popularity in India is well-known: a childhood friend of my father’s – and an avowed superfan of Jeeves and Wooster, Blandings & co – once recalled the sage advice given them by the English teacher at their Himalayan boarding school: “Want to write good English? Read P.G. Wodehouse!” But far less has been written about his appeal beyond the Anglosphere.

Initial research on Google revealed, among other things, a thesis by one Petronella Stille which was quite rightly concerned with the question of how Wodehouse’s Japanese translator, Morimura Tamaki, had  “adapted such…expressions such as Right ho’, ‘By Jove’, ‘Tinkerty Tonk’, ‘Dash it’ or ‘What ho’?”  Well, in case you are curious, the answer for the first example is ‘Yoshikita’. She also handily highlights some of the unique features of Wodehousian prose that make it so enchanting and absurd, and also difficult to translate, including my personal favourite, the ‘transferred epithet’, that is, the ‘strained forkful of salmon’, the ‘astonished cigarette’ falling from Bertie Wooster’s lips. Overall, she acknowledges both the heroic attempts of the translator whilst exploring in depth just what it is about this brand of humour that is so hard to recreate.

Inspired by this, I moved on to the BL catalogue to find out what translations there were in the collections, if any. Starting with a pre-1973 physical catalogue, I found a smattering of translations into Esperanto (La Princo kaj Betty), Italian (Jim di Piccadilly) Polish (Wielce zobowia̢zany Jeeves), and –in keeping with the Indian theme- Marathi, before finally finding some in a language I could understand, Portuguese.

Wodehouse pic 2

The front cover of Edmundo Paula Rosa's Portuguese translation of Leave it to Psmith (1938)

Isso é comigo! is the title of Edmundo Paula Rosa’s 1938 translation of Leave it to Psmith, originally published in 1923. From what I could tell, Rosa’s translation is fluid, and he seems to have had the skills to match not only the liveliness of the dialogue, but also the convoluted wit of Wodehouse’s descriptive prose. When translating Portuguese writing myself I often find myself marvelling at how the sentences can just go on and on, before then cursing the writer as I find myself torturously unpicking and reconstructing the sentences back into equally convoluted English. Perhaps, then, Portuguese is an equal match for Wodehouse’s opening, single-sentence paragraph:

“At the open window of the great library of Blandings castle, drooping like a wet sock, as was his habit when he had nothing to prop his spine against, the Earl of Emsworth, that amiable and boneheaded peer, stood gazing out over his domain.”

Rosa tackles this sentence admirably, adapting the wet sock simile, but preserving the structure of the sentence. But he leaves out ‘boneheaded’ entirely! And the quintessentially Wodehousian ‘Right ho!’ is paraphrased out of existence, leaving us with ‘Nesse caso, esta bem’ (“In that case, fine” or less literally, something like ‘As you see fit’). The meaning of ‘Right ho!’ in this context is more or less captured, but precious little else is. Rather interestingly, ‘your lordship’ is translated not into a Portuguese equivalent but into another English word, ‘milord’. One can only assume that for whatever the latter would have been more recognisable than the former to the Portuguese reader of 80 years ago.

There is, I’m sure, far more work to be done on this. But don’t believe people when they claim that Finnegans wake  or a similar tome is ‘untranslatable’. I suspect that even Joyce himself would have been flummoxed by ‘tinkerty tonk’!

01 February 2019

Creating Havana

A guest blog by artist and designer Leslie Gerry. To coincide with the forthcoming evening Artists’ Books Now: América Latina, Gerry talks about his fascination with architecture, urban spaces and street life. He charts these interests into his artist book Havana, which was made by a process of painting and printing digitally. Read more about Leslie Gerry's work hereA copy of Havana is held at pressmark HS.74/2301 and can be consulted in the British Library Reading Rooms.

Havana title Page

Arriving at Havana in the dark, we made our way from the airport through dimly lit streets to a hotel overlooking Central Park. The following morning, I emerged, with cameras, sketchbook and map in hand, into a bright sunlit chaotic street full of vintage American cars spewing out clouds of fumes and bicycle taxis shouting out for business.

 

Havana Spread 1

The first hurdle was coming to terms with the city, the topography, getting my bearings. It was daunting. I just started walking, trying to take it all in, gradually absorbing the atmosphere. The narrow streets of La Habana Vieja, the Old Town, colourful, vivacious, with crumbling tenements, colonial edifices and faded grandeur. A city with an earthy authenticity, full of contradictions. Cuban music would spill out onto the pavements from the many bars and cafes.

Havana Spread 2

I generally limit my trips to a new city from 2-3 weeks, as that first exposure to a place is so intense; with fresh eyes and heightened senses, you see things locals are often unaware of and that you will not notice on subsequent visits. I try to capture this intensity in my paintings. Walking an average of 14 miles a day, I use my camera to “take notes”, recording the colours, light, shadows and patterns of Havana for future reference, often revisiting many of the streets or buildings several times in a day to view the changing light and shade.

Gradually a narrative of the city develops; subjects and compositions begin to form in my mind: a book starts to take shape. At this point I can relax a little and even start sketching in the open, although I find this increasingly difficult with the attention it invites.

At the end of my stay I felt totally exhausted, having absorbed as much as possible, and could only look forward to returning home with memories in tow.

Back in my studio, a long process of going through my photographic notes and sketches, then a year of painting begins. With a stylus and Wacom tablet, I paint on the computer in Illustrator.  Working only with flat areas of colour and no tone, I “cut out” the shapes with the stylus, arranging them on different layers, creating a collage. In fact, I first began working this way years ago by cutting out sheets of coloured paper with scissors, similar to the way Matisse created his paper collages. Starting by sketching a composition in blocks of colour as I would have done painting in oils and using photos as reference only, I gradually build up the painting with darker areas first and then lighter shades. The paintings end up as digital files; vector images which can be reduced or enlarged to any size and are then printed with a flat bed UV ink jet printer on a hand or mould-made paper.

 

All three images reproduced with the kind permission of Leslie Gerry