THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

69 posts categorized "Literature"

15 April 2019

‘What Do I Know About Beckett?’: B.S. Johnson’s Beckett Notebook

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a guest blog by Patrick Armstrong, a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge.The Papers of BS Johnson are available to consult in the Manuscripts Reading Room (Add MS 89001).  Learn more about some of the Libraries collections related to Beckett and Johnson here

B.S. Johnson’s Samuel Beckett notebooks perform an act of remembering. Principally, Johnson wonders what it is possible for him to know about Beckett, an epistemological problem he tries to work out through writing. The scraps of paper and notebook entries show Johnson trying to remember all he can about his onetime friend and major influence: when he read his work, who he was with, what it meant to him at the time.

Johnson’s idea of writing a literary biography of Beckett aligns with his famous authorial declarations. In The Unfortunates (1969), for example, he writes ‘in general, generalization is to lie, to tell lies’, while similarly, in Albert Angelo (1964), the narrator states that ‘telling stories is telling lies’. The notes, written mainly between 1971 and 1973, show Johnson instructing himself on how to write truthfully, without 'generalisation': 'Work conversation into this – as exactly as I can remember – use as interludes in conjecture material, in different type – that is, it is part of the “no generalisation” idea, which […] stated very carefully – somewhere – It was in MURPHY […] that I first saw the word SOLIPSISM'.

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A page from Johnson's small pocket-book detailing his first encounter with 'solipsism' (Add MS 89001/8/8). All images reproduced with the kind permission of the BS Johnson Estate.


In philosophical terms, solipsism is the theory that one’s own self or consciousness is all that exists or all that can be known. Initially encountered in Beckett’s witty early prose (Murphy is described as a ‘seedy solipsist’), the word offers Johnson ‘a mode of being’ and, crucially, ‘a mode of GOING ON’ (a reference to Beckett’s later, post-war prose). The evocative term is then connected with the process of biographical writing, as Johnson states:

'Experiment/Venture into BIOGRAPHY
What do I know about BECKETT?
Solipsistically
i.e. only what he told me/what I saw for myself CAN BE ACCEPTED as true.'

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A page from Johnson's small pocket-book where he thinks through the limits of the biographical form (Add MS 89001/8/8)All images reproduced with the kind permission of the BS Johnson Estate.

 The confessional mode seems to have become the only truthful method of writing, as for Johnson all that can be known about Beckett is what he himself saw and heard. Thinking about Beckett sharpens Johnson’s own conception of his literary project; it allows him to work out his own position, offering a means of finding an acceptable form, as Beckett put it, ‘to accommodate the mess’. The ‘idea’ (one small green notebook purchased in Paris is simply entitled ‘Beckett Idea’) of writing a biography becomes an expansive, Proustian process of remembering one’s own life: ‘How everything gets tied in with everything, how here I am trying to write about Sam, and it is [he lists other friends] - just to get it down before I forget it, for some bits of it no one else could get down, obviously. […] All is digression’. The potential biography becomes a kind of autobiography, a project in both solipsistic remembrance and Sternean digression. Does Johnson genuinely consider writing a biography of Beckett, or does he instead use the ‘venture’ and ‘experiment’ of doing so as a prompt for memory and material, as a mode of ‘going on’?

Evidently, Johnson had a deep affinity with Beckett’s thought, and the Irish writer’s life and work seems to intimately intertwine with Johnson’s own. The latter even associates space with Beckett’s company: ‘The way B came to the Hotel […] the way I associate that little waiting room with him – no, with his PRESENCE.’ The writing is self-corrective, as ‘him’ becomes the more impressive and aggrandizing ‘his presence’. As Jonathan Coe writes in his biography of Johnson, Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson (2004), ‘the friendship of Beckett, his unfailing kindness and supportiveness, would become one of the cornerstones of Johnson’s life’. On several occasions, Beckett’s work uncannily ‘fitted’ Johnson, connecting to his own experiences in unexpected ways. On seeing Waiting for Godot for the first time in Autumn of 1955, Johnson modestly recalls how it ‘echoed (+ said more + better than I could) things I had been talking […] about before we went in’. Another time, when he telephones his girlfriend to say that it is ‘all finished’, Johnson remembers holding his colourful copy of Watt in the phone box, describing its ‘splendid purple/blue/pink’ jacket and ‘bloodred cut paper’. In reference to his separation, Johnson declares: ‘Beckett’s solipsism/stoicism fitted! […] I read him with an intensity to try to shut out what she had done’. The two ‘isms’ separated by an oblique stroke, stoicism and solipsism, are arguably two of the most important concepts that Johnson takes from Beckett.

A year after first seeing Godot,Johnson remembers being in a Parisian bookshop unable to afford a copy of Molloy. Still drawn to the book, he sifts through the first few pages in the bookshop: ‘read and felt the first few pages’. Like the memory of holding his copy of Watt, the experience seems both tactile and emotional. This emotive episode is ironic given that the notes reveal how Beckett, well-off after winning the Nobel prize, later offered and sent money to the struggling writer in London. This is the same kind and generous Beckett that we find in his letters, and in André Bernold’s portrait of the author in Beckett’s Friendship (2015). Johnson’s note that Beckett ‘again offered financial help’ are eerily the last words recorded in the notebook. In fact, when reading through these notes, their temporal closeness to Johnson’s suicide in November of 1973 is hard to ignore. Of a notebook with 144 leaves, just ten are written on, and there is a sadness about the mostly empty book. Johnson and Beckett eventually fell out after the former assured his publishers that they could use some of Beckett’s enthusiastic comments about his work (‘a most gifted writer’) as an endorsement on the dust jacket of Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973).

Yet, Beckett’s influence permeates Johnson’s notes - one loose scrap of paper could be mistaken for one of Beckett’s mirlitonnades, an irregular small poem. In addition, there are notes (something about Joyce and Yeats) on the back of receipts from French restaurants, specifically ‘Le Moulin Noyé’ in Glénic (Creuse), which is, appropriately, a ‘Hôtel isolé’: a solitary, solipsistic residence. On another scrap of paper Johnson reveals how significant he finds Beckett’s ‘idiosyncratic’ use of words: 'once when I rang him about 11.30am he said “Could you ring back? I’m trying to wash myself” Am I alone in finding that idiosyncratic? Or does all he say seem significant for me in the light of what I know he is, of what I believe him to be?'


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A collection of receipts and loose-leaf scraps on which Johnson recorded his thoughts about the biography of Beckett (Add MS 89001/8/8)All images reproduced with the kind permission of the BS Johnson Estate.

Again, there is the sense of doubt about what Johnson knows of Beckett, as he corrects himself with the verb ‘believe’. Yet, it is arguably this belief in the significance of Beckett’s language and thought that provided Johnson with a fitting mode of writing.   

 



05 April 2019

17th-century English literary manuscripts in the Harley collection: Donne and more

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by Sara Hale, AHRC Innovation Placement Fellow at the University of Manchester, working as part of the British Library's Heritage Made Digital project and the Modern Archives and Manuscripts department.

The British Library is currently undertaking a project to catalogue the Harley manuscripts collection for the first time since the early 19th century. Although one of the library’s foundation collections, the catalogue has not been updated since a four-volume printed edition was published in 1808­–1812. Improved descriptions in ‘Explore Archives and Manuscripts’ will make these items more easily discoverable by researchers and users.

This huge manuscript library was amassed by Robert Harley (1661–1724) and his son Edward Harley (1689–1741), 1st and 2nd earls of Oxford and Mortimer, and sold to the nation when the British Museum was established in 1753. Both Harleys were important literary figures and patrons of the arts, and their wide-ranging collection includes – among many other things – a number of important English literary manuscripts.  

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Harley MS 4064, f. 257r: a copy of ‘To Sir Robert Wroth’ by Ben Jonson.

 

Among the items recently catalogued are a number of 17th-century verse miscellanies containing some of the best known authors of the period. Of these John Donne is by far the most prevalent. Known for writing for a small group (or ‘coterie’) of readers and preferring the privacy of manuscript to print, Donne was one of the most widely circulated poets of the 17th century. Other writers that frequently appear in these miscellanies include Ben Jonson, Thomas Carew, Thomas Randolph, William Habington, Sir Walter Ralegh, Francis Bacon, Robert Herrick, to name but a few. These manuscripts tell us much about how their poems were read, circulated and responded to.

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New Harley Image

Above: Harley MS 4064, f. 286v: Donne’s ‘Songe’. Below Harley MS 6057, f. 15r: an imitation of the same poem.

Study of manuscript circulation demonstrates how different versions of a text could co-exist outside of the certainty offered by print. Variations in wording or titles could result from a mistake or deliberate alteration by the copier, or have been duplicated from a variant manuscript copy. Harley MS 4064 (the ‘Harley Noel MS’) is a particularly important miscellany. It contains just under 50 poems by Donne and eight by Jonson in the hands of two professional scribes, including a copy of Donne’s ‘Song. Goe, and catch a falling starre’ attributed to ‘J.D.’. This poem appears in another form in the verse miscellany Harley MS 6057. Although attributed to ‘John Dunne’, an epigram beginning ‘Goe catch a starre that’s falling from the skye’ (indicated by the manicule in the top right corner in the image above) is actually a loose imitation of Donne’s original poem.

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Harley MS 3991, f. 113r: short extracts from various poems by Donne.

The advent of print publication also impacted manuscript practices. Harley MS 3991 gives an indication of the ways in which the two mediums could interact. Once owned by Thomas Rawlinson (1681–1725) and known as the ‘Harley Rawlinson MS’, this late 17th-century verse miscellany includes various poems, songs and extracts from plays transcribed by several hands. One section entitled ‘Donnes quaintest conceits’ (ff. 113r-115r) presents short extracts from 30 poems including ‘Woman’s Constancy’ and ‘A Valediction: of weeping’. In this case the reader has gone through the printed text of the 1635 and 1639 editions of Donne’s poems and transcribed passages they found particularly elegant or witty to read at their will.  

Collected alongside the literary heavyweights of the period are the works of lesser known and anonymous authors. As well as three of Donne’s satires, Harley MS 5110 also includes an anonymous English tragedy entitled ‘Pelopidarum Secunda’, verse paraphrases of the Psalms and Book of Proverbs and a collection of Latin letters, poems and translations by schoolboy Milo Hobart. This composite volume contains an interesting range of texts. Also recorded are copies of late 16th-century Latin speeches by Elizabeth I (f. 9r-v), one delivering a forceful extempore rebuke to a Polish ambassador and another addressing academics at Oxford University.

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Harley MS 5110, f.9r: Latin speeches by Elizabeth I.

In many cases it can be hard to trace the ownership of these miscellanies, but some were clearly compiled by or for particular people. Harley MS 3511, for instance, was compiled by English statesman Arthur Capell (1631–1683), 1st Earl of Essex. Capell inscribed his name at the beginning of the volume (f. 1*), which includes many poems by Donne, Carew, Habington and Randolph. Such inscriptions sometimes took unusual forms. In the 1630s one Thomas Crosse inscribed his name in Harley MS 6057 in the form of ‘An Acrosticke upon my name’ – a poem in which the first letter of each line forms his name. Unfortunately nothing further is known about Crosse, but this volume shows how miscellanies could move between various different owners. The previous folio contains a deleted acrostic on the name ‘Edward’, and the name ‘Samuell Snoden’ is inscribed towards the end of the volume and dated 1670.

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Harley MS 6057, f.1r: an acrostic poem on the name Thomas Crosse.

Even this small selection gives an insight into the practice and importance of manuscript circulation in 17th-century literary culture, and the private literary world built on social relationships that poets such as Donne, Jonson, Carew and their readers inhabited.

Further reading:

Peter Beal et al, ‘John Donne, (1572–1631)’, Catalogue of English Literary Manuscripts 1450-1700 (CELM).

21 March 2019

World Poetry Day – listen to new readings from Michael Marks Awards

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To celebrate World Poetry Day, and 10 years of the Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets, we have added four new readings to our Michael Marks playlist.

Michael Marks Image

The judges and shortlisted poets and publishers for 2018 Michael Marks Awards. Photograph by Jonathon Vines

The readings are from four of the five shortlisted poets for the 2018 Michael Marks Poetry Award. In each of the recordings, our poets read from their pamphlet and also talk about the poems and the pamphlets.

Carol Rumens reads from ‘Bezdelki’, winner of the 2018 Michael Marks Award for Poetry. The title of the pamphlet, meaning ‘small things’, refers to a poem by Mandelstam, and the poems in the pamphlet are written in memory of Carol’s partner, Yuri Drobyshev. In this recording, Carol describes the pamphlet, and reads the poems ‘Vidua’, ‘Shapka and spider’, ‘He drank to naval anchors’, and ‘King Taharqa’s Last Thoughts’.  ‘Bezdelki’ is illustrated by Emma Wright and published by the Emma Press.

 

If Possible’, by Ian Parks and published by the Calder Valley Press, is a collection of translations of Constantine Cavafy, and poems inspired by Cavafy’s understanding and engagement with the stories and literature of Classical Greece. In this recording, Ian Parks reads, ‘Candles’, ‘Windows’, ‘Ithaka’, ‘The god abandons Antony’, ‘Come back’, and ‘The shades’.

The republic of motherhood’ records Liz Berry’s experience of becoming a mother, and the support from other women during the early weeks and months of motherhood. In this recording, Liz Berry talks about the pamphlet form as accessible, a ‘passport to this strange new Queendom’. Liz reads her poems, ‘Horse heart’, ‘The visitation’, and ‘Placenta’. ‘The republic of motherhood’ is published by Chatto and Windus.

Gina Wilson reads from her pamphlet, ‘It was and it wasn’t’, published by Mariscat Press. Gina explains that the poems in the pamphlet reveal the ‘rich uncertainty of all things’, with the poems often being about more than one thing at the same time. Gina reads, ‘Grit’, ‘Child’s play’, ‘I haven’t seen this boy before’, and ‘Reunion’.

These new readings join our recordings from the past four years of the Michael Marks Awards, including from past winners Richard Scott, Gill McEvoy and Charlotte Wetton.

19 February 2019

Remembering Andrea Levy

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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

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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.

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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’!

11 January 2019

Harold Pinter: A Line, A Word, An Image

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Today we launch a Harold Pinter retrospective in our Second Floor Gallery as part of the wider anniversary season of events marking ten years since his death. Focusing on Pinter’s creative process, this free display of manuscript reproductions from his Archive offers glimpses of some of his most famous plays at various stages in their development.

Antonia Fraser and The Pres and an Officer
Antonia Fraser and 'The Pres and an Officer', the Pinter sketch about a trigger-happy US president which she discovered in 2017. ‘The Pres and an Officer’ is © Fraser52 Limited.

In his Nobel Prize speech of 2005 Pinter noted that ‘most of the plays are engendered by a line, a word, or an image’. It was usually, in fact, a word or phrase – ‘What have you done with the scissors?’ in the case of The Homecoming - that was the starting point, closely followed by an image, typically of a configuration of characters in a room. Inspiration having struck, Pinter would put pen to paper in pursuit of the fleeting figures, working out who they were through the circuitous evasions and revelations of quotidian dialogue though always resisting too deep a probe into their backstories. These adventures on paper are what is on show in this new display.

Seeing Pinter’s large, energetic handwriting filling the pages of his yellow legal pads transports us back to the moment of creation. There are intriguing false starts and changes of mind in evidence, such as a deliberation over where to set the opening scene of Betrayal (a tea shop, flat or a pub) and a diagram suggesting a third presence in the enigmatic two-hander Landscape. The naming of characters (always a secondary act for Pinter) is revealed on the page as initially anonymous As and Bs are christened in later annotations. And there are, of course, many pauses peppering the manuscript pages, always denoted by a lower case ‘p’. According to Pinter in his 1962 speech to the National Student Drama Festival it was in these silences that his characters became most evident to him.

Taking the structure of Pinter’s great play Betrayal as a model, the display offers a selective reverse chronology of Pinter’s playwriting career, taking in the last lines of his final stage play Celebration (written in 1999) as well as early prose pieces that influenced his theatre writing. For those who’ve seen any of the ongoing Pinter at the Pinter season by the Jamie Lloyd Company there are numerous resonances with our selections: we have reproduced the notecard on which Pinter scribbled the threatening lines from One For The Road, performed so memorably by Anthony Sher in the recent 'Pinter One', as well as a number of other drafts which will be familiar to fans of the season. My favourite inclusions, though, are perhaps the early prose pieces which contain the seeds of Pinter’s playwriting career. The pieces in question are a 1955 short story called ‘The Examination’ in which the menacing figure ‘Kullus’ can be seen as a prototype of the threatening interlopers of later plays, and a first draft of Pinter’s biographical novel of competitive male friendship The Dwarfs begun in 1952. Both offer crucial clues to the dramatist that Pinter became and both deserve to be better known.

Although it has been ten years since Pinter’s death on Christmas Eve 2008, his plays continue to speak to us about today’s world, sometimes in astonishingly prescient ways. Pictured above is Antonia Fraser who came to the Library this week for a preview of the exhibition. She stands alongside a dramatic sketch she discovered in 2017 when turning the page of one of Pinter’s old legal pads kept by the phone for messages. There to her astonishment was ‘The Pres and an Officer’, a short piece in which a trigger-happy President of the United States is eager to ‘nuke London’. Donald Trump was entirely unknown to Pinter, but now we know what Pinter would have made of him, so to speak. It seemed fitting to include ‘The Pres’ in our display as a ‘first last look’ (to quote Samuel Beckett’s words about Betrayal) among the other drafts and photographs now on show.

Harold Pinter: A Line, A Word, An Image is on display in the British Library Second Floor Gallery until 17 March 2019.

Join Antonia Fraser and Michael Billington in conversation for Remembering Harold Pinter on Monday 4 March 2019.

04 January 2019

The Sun-Artist, the Typewriter and Bridge of the Ford

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A guest blog by Susan Connolly, whose poetry pamphlet, The Sun-Artist, was published by Shearsman Books in 2013, and was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets. The Sun-Artist will be on display in the Treasures Gallery until the end of February as part of an exhibition which celebrates the 10 year anniversary of the Michael Marks Awards.

Sunlight, a big window, ruler, pencil, compass and tracing paper were the tools I used to write my first visual poems on sheets of white A4 paper – cutting and pasting, not on the computer, but with scissors and Prittstick. Written in 2005, these were freehand word-drawings of poems called ‘Mirrors’, ‘Many Selves’ and ‘Like Leaves on a Tree’.

Some of these early visual poems were published in Shearsman magazine in 2008. In early 2009 Shearsman Books published Forest Music, my second full-length collection of poetry. The collection is in two sections: Forest Music and Walking the Seawall. Walking the Seawall contains twenty-three visual poems.

In October 2009 a friend showed me the Olympia portable typewriter which she had bought in a charity shop. I looked at this object and a whole range of possibilities opened up in my mind. I borrowed her typewriter and set to work. The first poem I typed was ‘The Sun-Artist’. It required a huge amount of concentration not to make a mistake and have to start all over again. Later I copiedThe Sun-Artist’ onto my computer.

The idea for this poem came from a visit to the Cross of Muiredach in Monasterboice, near Drogheda, one July evening in 2009. This is an elaborately carved High Cross made of sandstone, dating to the 10th century. Its sides are covered with panels of interlace reminiscent of the Book of Kells. The interlace usually looks faded, but the way the sun shone on it that evening made it look new again. I wanted to depict this interlace in a poem. I wrote the line ‘deepshadowed sunset renews fading patterns’. Then I used these words re-creating how the interlace appeared,  renewed by the evening sun.  

My poetry moved increasingly from word-drawings to poetry which could be made on the typewriter and copied from there to computer. The best font for my work is Courier New, a font which gives equal space to each letter of the alphabet, just like the typewriter. I also realised that there were other possibilities on the computer: changing the size of the letters, line spacing, colour. Nowadays I use only the computer. However, my visual poems have been greatly influenced by my earlier engagement with the typewriter.               

In 2013 Tony Frazer of Shearsman Books asked me if I had enough visual poems for a chapbook. I had and so I concentrated on gathering individual poems into a collection. The Sun-Artist was the title I gave to the chapbook. Several poems had already been published in poetry journals, which was great, but sometimes they were printed too small so that the reader could barely see the letters. The chapbook was my chance to put things right, to have the poems on the page exactly as I wanted them. I made a mock-up of the book and went in search of the right order for the eighteen poems I had chosen.

The manuscript became proofs which were emailed back and forth until everything had settled into place. The cover image is from a poem which was originally in red and black. About six weeks later the first copies of The Sun-Artist arrived in the post. It was an incredible feeling to turn the pages of this very slim book and read the poems again.

 

Susan Connoly Blog

 

Cover page of The Sun-Artist.

With thanks to Susan Connolly for permission to use this image.

The Sun-Artist eventually led to the publication in 2016 of a full-length collection of visual poetry; eighty pages complete with introduction and notes. The main dilemma for me when approaching my third collection was whether it should contain visual poetry only or whether it should also include lyric poems many of which had been published in poetry journals. In the end I decided that Bridge of the Ford would consist entirely of visual poetry.

Bridge of the Ford has thirty-three visual poems. The book is in a larger than usual format to give the poems plenty of space. There are two sections: Bridge of the Ford and The Dream-Clock. The poems in the first part are arranged so that the reader can imagine drifting down the river Boyne in a boat, past the Neolithic tumulus of Dowth, past the mediaeval town of Drogheda (Droichead Átha / bridge of the ford) and out towards the sea. These sites are in my blood as I grew up and still live in this area.

And what happened to those lyric poems? Shearsman Books published them separately in a chapbook called The Orchard Keeper in 2017.

10 December 2018

‘Some little language of their own’: English and Scottish dialects, and the desire for a private language

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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.

Earlier this year, I found myself vigorously agreeing with a Guardian Long Read article which effectively argued that the English language was not so much a liberating lingua franca as a highly successful virus, an invasive species; the linguistic equivalent of a grey squirrel or cane toad. Around the same time, I was reading Olga Tocarczuk’s Booker-winning Flights, and reacted even more strongly to this passage:

“There are countries out there where people speak English…It’s hard to imagine, but English is their real language. Oftentimes, their only language…How lost they must feel in the world, where all instructions…all the menus, all the excruciating pamphlets and brochures ­– even the buttons in the lift! – are in their private language. They may be understood by anyone at any moment, whenever they open their mouths. They must have to write things down in special codes. Wherever they are, people have unlimited access to them…I heard there are plans in the works to get them some little language of their own…so that for once they can have something just for themselves.”

This is something I’d been feeling for a while, but I’d never seen it expressed so clearly before.  It encompassed so many of my frustrations: the experience (probably shared by many first language English speakers who speak another language) of being spoken back to in English when abroad, even when you’ve clearly demonstrated your competency or fluency; having to convince writers whose work you’re translating that, however good their English is, your choice of words *is* the best one; even my occasional sense of doubt that literary translation into English is something I should be doing. After all, does the world really need more English?

And yet, I’ve spent the vast majority of life in the UK, speaking English. I love the way the language looks and sounds, its idiosyncrasies, the way it sounds in Cardiff, Derbyshire, Birmingham, not to mention the wider Anglophone world. Given its status as an international language, as Tocarczuk suggests, it is easy to forget that English is just another West Germanic language, and the (only) private language of hundreds of millions of people. As translator-in-residence here at the BL, I’m interested in exploring not only linguistic diversity in general, but diversity within languages, especially as spoken in different areas of modern Britain. Additionally, my selfish desire to have a truly private language has got me wondering about forms of English that cannot be easily understood by non-natives, or even other English speakers.

So I was delighted to read first line in Liz Berry’s poem ‘Birmingham Roller’, written in Black Country dialect - ‘Wench, yorwm the colour of ower town’ – or a line in another of her poems simply listing words: ‘bibble, fettle, tay, wum’. I had a similar feeling looking at the first line of Hugh McDiarmid’s Braid Scots epic A drunk man looks at the thistle: ‘I amna fou' sae muckle as tired - deid dune.’

 

Bery Translation Blog Photo

Before I start getting complaints, I’m aware that Scots is not so much a version of English as a sister West Germanic language, which evolved alongside, rather than from, its southern neighbour. All the same, it comes as a relief to know that there are utterances that look and sound like English, but which the Polish narrator of Flights—with their privileged access into the private lives of hundreds of millions of Anglophones—would struggle to comprehend. In fact, many native speakers may struggle to comprehend them; think of initial reactions to Trainspotting or the Gallagher brothers having to be subtitled on US TV. The BL’s Head of Contemporary British Collections and Scottish Poet, Richard Price, recommended another great example of this kind of writing to me. Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Glasgow Beasts an a Burd, as well as being a beautiful artefact, with papercut images by John Picking and Pete McGinn (due to its small print run I also had to make my first trip into the Rare Books Reading Room to see it), is a gloriously irreverent journey written in a tongue that is certainly not the international language of airports and lift instructions. It documents the poet’s transmogrification into various animal forms, all the while retaining a strong grasp of Glaswegian:

syne

ah wis a midgie

neist a stank

foon that kin o

thankless

I love not only the sounds, but also the spellings he uses, like ‘Didjye’, which could be Somali word, or ‘hail simmer’, which could be so many things (in this instance, it’s ‘whole summer’).

English has become dominant partly due to its incredible ability to evolve over time, and absorb the syntax and vocabulary of the languages it supplants, from Welsh to Urdu. Maybe those of us who wish to regain some sense of ‘privacy’ in our speech will have to harness this power and create new Englishes, at least until some other language replaces it on the international stage, and we can go back to merely being speakers of an obscure West Germanic tongue.