THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

On literature and theatre collections from the 16th century to the present day

Introduction

From Shakespeare’s First Folio to live recordings of experimental theatre, from Charlotte Brontë’s love letters to Wendy Cope’s emails, our collections offer unique, fascinating and unexpected sources for your research. Discover more about our manuscript, printed, digital and audiovisual collections here. Follow us on Twitter: @BLEnglish_Drama. Read more

15 April 2019

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

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

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.  

Harley_ms_4064_f257r

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.

Harley_ms_3991_113r

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.

Harley_ms_5110_f9r

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.

Harley_ms_6057_f1r

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

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.

15 March 2019

My Life is a Book: Escape from Coney Island at the British Library

a guest blog by Rafael Klein, a native New Yorker and artist.  For more information about Klein and his work, click here, and to learn more about the upcoming event at the Library, where Rafael looks back on Lost Americana - artist’s books and short films with Dr.Richard Price, Head of Contemporary British Collections British Library, click here. The Story of a Family Man is available to read here

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Coney Island book, 2002. Silkscreen hand printed

Who doesn’t love a book? How great to lose yourself in the inner world of an author. Turning the pages and revealing previously unknown thoughts and dreams.Turning more pages and finding surprises, unexpected emotions, unimaginable plot twists. Such pleasure also in the tender physicality in holding a book, in finding the corner of the delicate page, leafing over trying not to fold or tear. But this tiny physical movement is all in service of the thoughts being formed. A book is a journey for the reader as well as the writer. We are connected with someone else’s experience and therefore connected in a new way with our own experience.

Alphabetland
Alphabet Land, 2001

The Artists Book

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il benzinaio, 1992, Hand-tipped colour photocopy, cutouts, bronze embeddd in cover

Art is full of seductive surfaces, enticing details, intriguing techniques – but you mustn’t touch! However the appeal of a book is that it asks to be held, touched, for its pages to be turned for its ‘skin’ to be peeled back and to look inside. Not really surprising then that artists are drawn to the book as a form of expression.

Plus for an eclectic artist like myself, it is an opportunity to cross disciplines and unify very diverse approaches into a single entity. I am someone who makes sculpture, painting, prints and films. In the artist book, all of these impulses can be effortlessly combined and given voice. I have always seen the branches of my art as chapters in a book. The gentle physical reality of the book form is outweighed by the much large interior intangible aspect of its meaning. There are echoes of the nature of art itself. The artist book has has a physical form. But unlike the sometimes large, heavy and impressive form say, of a massive sculpture in heavy metal, the book has a tender physicality, and its meaning lives solely within our minds. The perfection of a brilliantly realised painting, exhibiting great skill, can feel closed and uninviting. But the artist book always has a more tender living aspect, the continuous invitation to ‘open me, fondle me’.

The Story
And who doesn’t love a good story. Not necessarily a story with the scope and grandeur of a Tolstoy novel. But maybe just the weird occurrences of everyday life, soon forgotten but sometimes narrated to friend or lover, maybe even entered in a diary. These insignificant fragments are the stuff of life. Are they connected, do they add up to a tale of grand wealth and power? Maybe not, but they are true to life.

Fun fair sketchbook

Tales of New York, 1998

A trip to the supermarket
A holiday trip
A visit to the fun fair
Visiting my parents in Florida
A walk in the country
Getting robbed while driving a taxi cab in New York.

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Tales of New York, 1998. Silkscreen print

Maybe not earth shattering events, but when lodged within an artists book they have resonance and seem like the stuff of personal myth.

The Book
And then there are the seductive techniques which make the artists book richer visually than a simple catalogue or ordinary book. The range of approaches are endless, but I have followed my own instincts. I have used cutouts, which coerce the reader into interacting and reveal hidden threads of story beneath. The popups, which hint at a third dimension. Diverse printing techniques – screenprint, monotypes, digital print, hand colouring, lithography. So many approaches are possible, many more than I myself have explored. And then there are the sculptural elements. This is a great pleasure to me as a sculptor. The tactile physicality of the production is an added satisfaction. The cover might have a small bronze sculpture inset, or a supermarket trolley embedded in it. The paper will be robust, textured, and rich. And the colours – none of that simple offset reproduction. No, it will be hand printed and hand bound, giving just that extra sense of an occasion.


It is simply the best medium an artist could choose to work in!

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Ruckus Rodeo by Red Grooms

The British Library Collection
In addition to rare and historically important works, the British Library has a wonderful collection of artists’ books. Here are some desk references for some suggestions.

  • Lexicon is an altered antiquarian Latin-Greek dictionary by South African artist William Kentridge – General Reference Collection YF.2012.a.4228

  • Nine swimming pools and a broken glass by Edward Ruscha does exactly what the title says, with the artist’s usual wry humour.  General Reference Collection RF.2017.a.56

  • Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, gets the artists’ book treatment by Peter Blake  -  General Reference Collection LC.31.b.13492

  • and a personal favourite, full of pop-ups and cutouts, is Ruckus Rodeo by Red Grooms  –  General Reference Collection YD.2005.b.1635

  • and two of my own works –  Coney Island  –  General Reference Collection YD.2007.b.1355 Florida – or you can’t fight progress  –  General Reference Collection RF.2007.a.68

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

18 January 2019

Graham Greene and the curse of the sausage roll: an image of class and disgust in Brighton Rock

by Barry Taylor, Curator of Romance Studies. You can read more about the Library's holdings related to Brighton Rock here

Brighton-Rock-dust-jacket

Students of Brighton Rock in the BL can read, in addition to the original novel, the French, Polish and Finnish translations, and consult the draft script of Terence Rattigan’s screenplay.

The novel tells the seamy tale of Pinkie Brown, murderous teenage micro-gangster, his marriage to the innocent waitress Rose in order to prevent her testifying against him, and his pursuit by good-time girl Ida.

You might expect the chief alimentary image in Brighton Rock to be Brighton rock itself:

    [Rose to Ida:] ‘People change,’she said.

    ‘Oh, no they don’t.  Look at me.  I’ve never changed.  It’s like those sticks of rock: bite it all the way down, you’ll still read     Brighton.  That’s human nature.’  (200)

But a more persistent food image which escaped me when I first read the novel, but which haunted me on a recent second reading is that of the sausage roll. The criminals live in a guest house (Frank’s), where Pinkie’s bedsit, which he inherited from his predecessor, is the common room.

Here is an anthology (page references are from the 1998 Penguin paperback edition (BL H.98/1446))

    'The Boy went to his bed and swept off the crumbs of Cubitt’s sausage roll.  ‘What’s this,’ he said, ‘a meeting?’ (54)

    The Boy got up.  A few crumbs stuck to his wet suit.  (55)

    ‘That’s right, Pinkie,  He’s [Colleoni] running the business in a big way.’  A big way – it was like an accusation, a reminder     of the brass bedstead at Frank’s, the crumbs on the mattress.  (58)

    Don Colleoni is a big-time gangster who stays at the swell Cosmopolitan Hotel.  Brass bedsteads also have a traumatic     sexual charge for Pinkie as they remind him of sharing a room with his parents.

    The Boy lay on the bed. A cup of coffee went cold on the washstand, and the bed was sprinkled with flakes of pastry.  (61)

    His sleep was functional.  When Dallow opened the door he woke at once.  ‘Well?’ he said, lying there without moving, fully     dressed among the pastry crumbs.  (62)

    Ida to Rose: ‘I suppose you talked to him [Spicer]?’

    ‘I didn’t talk to him.  I was rushed.  I just fetched him a Bass and a sausage roll, and I never saw him again.’  (76)

    When he [Spicer] got to Frank’s there was no one there.  He creaked his tortured way up the stairs, past the rotten banister,     to Pinkie’s room: the door stood open, vacancy stared in the swing mirror: no message, crumbs on the floor …   He moved     away: flakes of pastry under his foot  (83-84)

    [Pinkie is rebuffed by Colleoni:] The gold cigar-lighter, the grey double-breasted waistcoat, the feeling of a racket     luxuriously successful for a moment dominated him: the brass bedstead upstairs, the little pot of violet ink on the     washstand, the flakes of sausage roll.  (99)

    [Pinkie consults with Cubitt and Dallow:] Life was a series of complicated tactical exercises, as complicated as the     alignments at Waterloo, thought out on a brass bedstead among the crumbs of sausage roll.  (113)

    The Boy led the way into the bed-sitting-room and turned on the single globe.  He thought of Colleoni’s room in the     Cosmopolitan.  But you had to begin somewhere.  He said [to Cubitt], ‘You’ve been eating on my bed again.’

    ‘It wasn’t me, Pinkie.  It was Dallow…’  (116)

These were the hours – when the races were not on, when there was no one to see on business – that he [Pinkie] spent stretched on the bed at Frank’s.  He’d eat a packet of chocolate or a sausage roll … (177)

The sausage roll isn’t mentioned again: the novel extends to page 250 but the milieu of Frank’s is well established by this point.

As an author famed for his Catholicism, Greene could of course have chosen the sausage roll as another image of original sin, the meaty soul enwrapped in the pastry body of degradation.

But his interest is as much social as theological.  John Carey notes how snobbish writers of Greene’s generation defined their social inferiors by their food.  No cooking goes on at Frank’s, as the residents subsist on takeaways. When Rose moves in she goes to light the stove first thing and meets Dallow:

    She said: ‘I thought maybe I’d better light the stove.’

    ‘What for?’

    ‘Breakfast.’

    … He went to a dresser and pulled open a drawer.  ‘Why,’ he said, ‘what’s got you?  You don’t want a stove.  There’s plenty     here.’  Inside the drawer were stacks of tins: sardines, herrings. 

    She said: ‘But tea.’

    He looked at her oddly.  ‘Anyone’d think you wanted work.  No one here wants any tea.  Why take the trouble?  There’s beer     in the cupboard, and Pinkie drinks the milk out of the bottle.’  (193)

In more recent times, we must remember the ‘pasty tax’ of 2012, seen by some as an act of class war.  Greene is often said to have been fascinated and repelled by popular culture: the novel refers to Woolworths, Warwick Deeping, seances, corned beef tins, tinned salmon (on which see Carey, p. 21, with reference to Greene), buns in paper bags, beer breath, slot machines, , the twopenny library, Film Fun, ‘Guinness Is Good For You’.

His unease, to my mind, is made concrete in the cold, congealed fat of the working man’s food.

REFERENCES

Terence Rattigan’s film treatment and outline for Brighton Rock (Add MS 74316)

The third shooting script for Rattigan’s Brighton Rock film (Add MS 74317)

Brighton Rock, 1st edn (London: Heinemann, 1938) Cup.410.f.384.

John Carey, The intellectuals and the masses : pride and prejudice among the literary intelligentsia, 1880-1939 (London: Faber, 1992) YC.1992.a.2014