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

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09 December 2020

Celebrating New Poetry Pamphlets: The Michael Marks Awards 2020

by Ian Cooke, Head of Contemporary British Published Collections. The Michael Marks Awards were founded by the British Library and the Michael Marks Charitable Trust, and partners today include the Wordsworth Trust, the TLS, Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies, the National Library of Wales and the National Library of Scotland. Join us online to hear the winners announced on 14th December 2020.

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The shortlisted pamphlets for the Michael Marks Award for Poetry 2020

The Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets will be announced on Monday 14th December, at a free online event. Join us to hear from the publishers and shortlisted and winning poets.

The Awards are now in their 12th year and celebrate poetry pamphlets as a site for innovation, making new poetry accessible in a variety of inventive styles and formats.

Four Awards will be announced on the evening of 14th December: the Poetry Award, best Publisher, Illustrator and Poetry in a Celtic Language. The shortlists for the Poetry Award and best Publisher have been announced on the Michael Marks Awards website

At the start of 2020, we were uncertain about how the Awards would run this year. Over its history, the Awards has relied on people being able to travel and meet in person, whether for judging meetings or for the awards ceremony itself. The latter is a highlight, bringing together poets and publishers and hearing each other read and speak.

However, we quickly gathered very strong support for the Awards from the people that we spoke to, who emphasised the importance of celebrating new poetry and the role of independent publishers in this year particularly. The response to our call for entries was greater than ever before, with almost twice as many pamphlets submitted, and many new publishers. Although we wouldn’t be able to hold our celebration at the British Library as usual, we were excited that holding an event online would allow us to include far more people than we would usually be able to accommodate in our physical spaces. Poetry pamphlets are a fantastic way to bring exciting new poetry to a wide audience, and we wanted our online Awards to follow in that spirit.

Our shortlisted poetry pamphlets and publishers show that excitement, and demonstrate how poetry pamphlets reflect a very wide range of expression and experience. These include the first pamphlet from Sarah Wimbush, Bloodlines, and Alycia Pirmohamed’s second pamphlet, Hinge. But also pamphlets from poets with longer publishing histories, such as Jamie McKendrick’s The Years and Paul Muldoon’s Binge.

The poetry in the pamphlets reflect movement and changing perspectives, with Alycia Pirmohamed’s Hinge using themes of landscape, space and migration. Paul Muldoon’s Binge moves from detailed descriptions of place and experience in Northern Ireland to locations around the world and across history.

Fothermather, by Gail McConnell, describes change and formation in a different sense, from the development of a baby before birth, through to the change in identity of a new parent and — much more broadly — to the way that things are given form and names. Bloodlines incorporates a highly personal use of language and presentation of different characters, to explore and express Sarah Wimbush’s Gypsy/Traveller heritage. In Jamie McKendrick’s The Years, the relationship between the poems and pictures throughout the pamphlet allow a conversation between text and image, allowing one to influence how the other is read or viewed.   

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The shortlisted publishers for the Michael Marks Awards 2020

As with the poetry pamphlets, the shortlist for publishers show a commitment to representing a range of voices, coupled with a very careful attention to the form in which each poet and pamphlet is presented.

Guillemot Press, a former winner, gave each pamphlet its own clear identity, through choice of format, sustainable paper stock, and type face.

Face Press similarly use materials that reflect the character of each pamphlet, with the judges noting that ‘every pamphlet submitted by Face Press was an individual event’.

Broken Sleep Books show a strong commitment to inclusivity and community engagement in their publishing, with several initiatives designed especially for writers on low incomes.

Another former winner, the Emma Press, equally take an active interest in representing poets from different backgrounds and experiences, and in cultivating a love for poetry amongst new audiences. 

At our Awards event on 14th December, all our shortlisted publishers and poets will speak and read. We will also hear from our winners for the Illustration and Poetry in a Celtic Language awards, as well as from our judges and partners. We are very excited that this year’s awards ceremony can be opened up to a wider audience online, and hope you can join us to hear the winners announced

07 December 2020

New Acquisition: John Donne and the Melford Hall Manuscript

by Dr. Alexander Lock, Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts. The Melford Hall Manuscript is now available to view online, in full, on our website.

The British Library has recently announced its acquisition of the Melford Hall manuscript: a rare seventeenth-century volume containing the poetry of John Donne (1572–1631), one of the most popular poets of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Dating from the 1620s or early 1630s, the Melford Hall manuscript comprises over 130 poems by Donne and is one of the largest near contemporary scribal collections of his work. The manuscript has never been properly studied and was unknown to scholarship until it was discovered in 2018 in the library at Melford Hall, Suffolk. As one of the largest extant manuscript collections of Donne’s poetry, it covers the entire range of his poetical output, and – until its sale – was probably the most significant manuscript collection of Donne’s poetry to remain in private hands. 

 

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‘Elegy XIX: To his Mistress Going to Bed’ by John Donne from the Melford Hall Manuscript (Egerton MS 3884) © British Library Board.

The discovery of this manuscript is particularly exciting as it provides new evidence for the study of Donne’s work and the literary culture in which it was created. John Donne should be understood as a ‘coterie’ poet in the sense that his poetry was almost entirely distributed (or ‘published’) in manuscript copy amongst a select circle (or coterie) of privileged friends, acquaintances and potential patrons. These readers would, in turn, copy Donne’s lines to keep in their own private collections or to share with close friends. Only one English poem written in Donne’s own hand has survived and so much of what we know about his poetical output comes from these manuscript copies made for, and by, his ‘coterie’ of readers. The Melford Hall manuscript, therefore, is of outstanding literary significance because it provides new evidence as to how Donne’s poetry was written, copied, circulated, and received in the early seventeenth century. It also offers scholars important new evidence for the study of the manuscript transmission of poetry in the early modern period.

 

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Detail of ‘Fall of a Wall’ by John Donne from the Melford Hall Manuscript (Egerton MS 3884) © British Library Board.

Following its discovery in Melford Hall the manuscript was subsequently sold at auction where it was purchased by an overseas bidder. Following independent assessment of the importance of the manuscript the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced a temporary export bar on the work in a bid to save the manuscript for the nation. The British Library was ultimately able to raise the money to secure the acquisition of this manuscript and is delighted to announce that it can now be freely examined by readers online and will be available in the Library’s reading rooms from early 2021.

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The Melford Hall Manuscript (Egerton MS 3884) with seventeenth-century binding © British Library Board.

The manuscript retains its seventeenth-century binding and contains some of Donne’s most popular works including his songs and sonnets, elegies, epigrams, erotic verse, satires, epithalamia, verse epistles, obsequies, and divine poems. Alongside the poetry of Donne, the volume also features verse by other contemporary writers such as Francis Beaumont (1584–1616), Thomas Carew (1595–1640) and Sir Thomas Overbury (1581–1613). It also intriguingly contains a series of six currently unknown and unattributed seventeenth-century poems. Towards the back of the volume, and added in a later seventeenth century hand, are notes made on the sermons of Robert Meldrum (c.1653–1699) and a number of popular songs that were copied out in the mid-eighteenth century.

The manuscript has now been fully digitised and is freely available online on Digitised Manuscripts. The acquisition and digitisation of this manuscript was made possible with a grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) and with funding from the Friends of the National Libraries, the British Library Collections Trust, the T.S. Blakeney Fund, the Bridgewater Fund, and the American Trust for the British Library with thanks to Paul Chrzanowski and Patrick Donovan.

18 November 2020

What Have We Been Reading?

This week marks the second in our blog series What Have We Been Reading? where the English & Drama Blog canvasses a broad range of British Library departments and curators to pick their brains about what they've been reading in their spare time. Views -- as always in this series -- are their own.

Christian Algar, Curator of Printed Heritage Collections

There must have been a good few people separated from cherished books left on their office desks during lockdown. My Desert Island, or my “Stuck-on-the-Top-of-a-Tor” book, was amongst these: Charles Causley’s Collected Poems, 1951-2000.

Photograph of front jacket for Collected Poems by Charles Causley next to a British Library envelope

Charles Causley (1917-2003) was a Cornish poet and writer. Causley - who apart from the time he spent in the Navy during World War Two, lived all his life in the ancient Cornish capital, Launceston - captures the distinctive mind-set of the Devon & Cornwall borderland. There is an irresistible magnetism to and a connection with the Sea and with the meditations that its presence brings. Causley makes me think of my own Grandad, his brothers, sisters and friends of their generation. He keeps me in touch with my roots, he feeds and sustains my sentimentality for the otherness of the other side of Dartmoor.

Folklore, legend, traditions, close attention to characters and places, all feature in Causley’s poems. He took especial care to speak about the vulnerable, the damaged, the needy and the outcast. He admired the strengths of “the good” in people. He liked ballads and is well-known for his children’s poems. I read his poems to my young daughter; ‘Diggory Prance’; ‘Mrs Malarkey’, ‘Three Green Sailors’ are amongst our favourites. She laughs because my Westcountry accent is at its most sing-song and piratey when I read to her.

My personal favourite is perhaps ‘Dan Dory’:

    ‘Still spins the water and the land,
    I said, ‘as yesterday’ –
    And leaned to take his hand. But he
    Had vanished away.’

It makes me shudder every time I read it. I’m uncomfortable with showy and staged acts of Remembrance, but I always think about how those who survived remember their young comrades who died. How profoundly difficult to just carry on getting older when they did not, could not. My Pop (Grandad) was in the Navy for 36 years and I wonder how many a Dan Dory he saw every time he looked out over Plymouth Sound.

I read fewer and fewer books from cover to cover “these days”, books of poetry are perfect repose from reading heavy history that comes with the job. So I was very grateful when a kind co-worker, among the first back to the office, carefully packaged my book and sent it on to my home.

Eleanor Dickens, Curator of Contemporary Politics and Public Life

For work I have been reading my way through the works of Beryl Gilroy, which actually doesn’t feel like work at all. Sometimes the subjects of her books are difficult but at the same time she has a beautiful, frank way of writing that I really enjoy. At the moment I am on Gather the Faces. I was looking forward to visiting the London Metropolitan Archives before the end of the year to read a manuscript of Black Teacher which is out of print and hard to read elsewhere. Sadly, lockdown two has paused that for now. I have also just finished Richard Ryder’s Victims of Science. It is a tough read but a thought provoking one. Ryder is a psychologist and animal rights campaigner. Written in 1975, this is his first full length book exploring the ethical issues in contemporary animal rights debate. Our department holds a growing collection of archives on animal rights including the archives of Richard Ryder and Kim Stallwood.

Photograph of front jacket for Gather the Faces by Beryl Gilroy

Photograph of front jacket for Victims of Science by Richard Ryder

Outside of work, I tend to read Wuxia and Xianxia novels or Fantasy YA and during lockdown I’ve mostly read on online platforms like Wuxiaworld and Wattpad. I think there can be a bit of snobbery about this kind of writing but for me I love the vibrant community that comes with reading in this way, particularly in a time of isolation across the world. Often, the writers on these platforms are just big nerds for their subjects rather than writing to sell books and I find that a really joyful and unpretentious thing to be part of. In a year like 2020 sometimes you just need to be transported to a mad fantasy world or enjoy a bit of teen escapism. Or I do anyway!

Artwork for I Shall Seal the Heavens a Xianxia fantasy novel

Zoe Louca-Richards, Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts

I believe there are two types of person in this world, those who intently focus on one book at a time, and those who flit between many … currently I’ve four on the go. I recently added to the pile the incredibly fun, and monumentally pertinent, Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity from Bronze Age to Silver Screen by Horrible Histories historian Greg Jenner – and no, this one isn’t for kids! With an eclectic cast of 125 (according to Jenner) intriguing characters - from Pliny the Elder to David Attenborough – it teases out the definition of ‘celebrity’, what one is, and why they exist. I particularly enjoyed reading about the 18th century sensation Clara, who toured Europe for 18 years – SPOILER ALERT: She was a Rhinoceros. In today’s world, where celebrity is commodified, and often fleeting, and its influence so frequently affects activism and politics, it’s important we understand the social constructs and media channels that facilitate and create them. It’s also a pertinent discussion for the Library’s Modern Archives and Manuscripts collection too, which is filled with records of the illustrious and the lionized – for good and for bad.

Front jacket for Dead Famous by Greg Jenner

Cristian Necsulescu, Library Assistant, Manuscripts Reading Room

For me, Adam Kucharsky is our man in these strange times. A Fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, he works as a leading epidemiologist and analyst on infectious disease outbreaks. In his most recent book, he tries to understand how a virus transmits into the mass population and how we can get better at predicting what happens next. For this he looks for 'the hidden connections' between apparently unrelated phenomena such as epidemics, mob violence, financial crises and viral tweets. Plus, he focuses on the meme process of how the false media and false information spread online as much as a virus. A contagious book.

Front jacket for The Rules of Contagion by Adam Kucharski

One of the great novels of the post-war years, The Plague, written in 1947 by the Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus, is a timeless modern classic masterpiece. Suddenly decimated by a plague announced by rats, the coastal city of Oran has to confront the looming danger in apprehension and quarantine. The stoic doctor Bernard Rieux and his friends decide to stay in the city in order to help the people and alleviate their suffering. But their way will not be an easy one and everyone in the city will have to confront their fears and interrogate the human condition. The Plague is a compelling book about human beings and their endurance, their solidarity and their sense of responsibility. A timeless book for today and tomorrow.

Front jacket for The Plague by Albert Camus

Ralf Dobelli is a Swiss author and entrepreneur best known for his bestselling non-fiction book The Art of Thinking Clearly, where he describes 99 of thinking most common psychological errors – from cognitive biases to envy and social distortions. In his most recent book, Stop Reading the News, he analyses the decision-making mechanism and comes up with examples on how to filter the important and the relevant news around us and why it is important to have a good grasp in understanding the form and content of information. His astute conclusion, though, could be read as a warning: 'News is to the mind what sugar is to the body.'

Photograph of Stop Reading the News by Ralf Dobelli

02 November 2020

Carmen Callil, Cats and Feminist Generations

by D-M Withers, Research Fellow at the University of Sussex and collaborator on the Business of Women's Words Project, which explores the dramatic story of the feminist publishing revolution that unfolded during the UK Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s and 80s. The exhibition Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women's Rights -- which includes material from the Callil Archive and elsewhere, is now open at the British Library.

"I remember, when I was still writing the PhD, going to Carmen’s home in Chelsea, the little jewel of a flat with these two magnificent white cats kind of, stalking around, you know, scrutinising us. I remember it being painted deep lime green […] like a jewel, but that could be a misremembering." [1]

Virago author Barbara Taylor’s memory of visiting Carmen Callil’s flat in the late 70s is one of many references to Callil’s cats that litter the feminist publisher’s history. In her recently published memoir A Bite of the Apple, Lennie Goodings – clearly not a cat person – offers another account of visiting Callil’s home for a Virago meeting. Upon entering the ‘jewel’ like flat, John or William – one of two grey half Siameses given to Carmen as kittens by Germaine Greer and named after two ‘lovely men’ she had worked with in her early publishing career – boldly jumped on Goodings’s shoulder, and proceeded to curl around her neck. ‘I protested weakly’, writes Goodings, ‘until it was removed by Carmen, who declared that not liking cats “showed a defect in your personality.” [2]

Many photographic portraits of Callil and her feline companion exist from the 70s and 80s, and were often used as illustration for newspaper and magazine features. I encountered these sources while working on the Leverhulme Trust-funded project The Business of Women’s Words: Purpose and Profit in Feminist Publishing, a partnership between the British Library, the University of Sussex and the University of Cambridge. Callil was profiled alongside several other ‘go it alone’ entrepreneurs, including a freelance management consultant, wine exporters and a restauranteur, in a feature for one of the final issues of glossy lifestyle magazine Nova that ran between 1965-75. Callil explained that the entrepreneurial route was attractive because she ‘had the wrong temperament to work for an employer, I think […] I just cannot tread the daily tightrope of compromise and gritting your teeth.’ [3] In a full-page portrait of Callil and her fabulous white Persian Mary – named after Mary Wollstonecraft (who else?) – taken by John Ferrara, both figures pose seductively, shooting forth an arresting look that doubles up the feminine gaze for the viewer, a celebration of fur, feminism and self-possession.

Joan Bakewell’s 1980 article ‘The feminist publisher’, published in Illustrated London News, offers a different configuration [4]. Here Callil is sat at home, crossed legged, adorned with knee-length boots that show she means business. Behind her is a desk strewn with books. In her arms is one of her grey half Siamese cats that, as soon as the shutter clicks, will likely struggle from her loving grasp, avoiding the burn of a cigarette held imperiously in the publisher’s right hand. The restless energy captured in the image seems appropriate for a domestic portrait in which the feminine interior, the private home, has been faced out, now transformed into a public space of work.

An article for the Telegraph Weekend Magazine from 1989 is more playful. We are introduced to two new additions to Callil’s household, sourced from a Sussex farm, the six-month old Augusta or ‘Gus’, named after friend Gus Skidelsky who bequeathed the kittens to Carmen, and Jessica or ‘Jess’, named after Carmen’s godchild, the daughter of the influential literary agent, Deborah Rogers. The article describes how the cats conquer ‘the 15-foot-high fence, entangled with greenery’ that frames Callil’s London garden ‘with ease. “I wish I could,” she smiles. “I locked myself out last week. I tried to scale the fence from a neighbour’s garden but fell off and bruised myself.”’ [5] The accompanying photograph is warm, with a comedic touch: Callil, wearing a dashing multi-coloured, pin-striped blouse, holds a tortoiseshell with white paws barely outstripping its kittenhood in her palms; her face reveals an irrepressible smile, the cat looks askance from the camera, stuck out tongue, insubordinate, naughty. 

These photographs evoke the fascination with feline imagery in the work of twentieth century female surrealists Maya Deren, Leonor Fini and Leonora Carrington (Carrington’s Seventh Horse & Other Tales and The Hearing Trumpet were of course recovered by Virago as Modern Classics, in 1989 and 1991 respectively). In the portraits, cats become Callil’s familiars, their co-presence conducting the power of feminine independence, metamorphic mischief, sensuality and self-sufficiency. The surrealist imagery, in Callil’s case, is not of the subversive artist, but the businesswoman: the self-styled entrepreneur who chose comradeship with a host of feline friends, and to do business with other women.       

In the Virago papers held by the British Library, we sometimes catch glimpses of Callil’s cats in her correspondence with publishing colleagues. Cat-lover Paul Berry, the literary executor of Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain, wrote to Callil to express his delight upon reading about her cats in an article published in the Sunday Telegraph. Callil responded, with exuberance: ‘I can’t believe I never told you I had three cats: my best friends for the last twelve years; you must meet them one day, each a remarkable personality.’ [6] Cats were also important to an author who kickstarted the Virago Modern Classics (VMC), Antonia White. White wrote two children’s books about her cats, Minka and Curdy (republished by Virago in 1992) and Living with Minka and Curdy. White was one of a number of living authors Virago published in the VMC that Callil befriended. Given their common interest in feline companionship, it seems likely that cats – and Catholicism – animated their conversations.

If, like me, you have a strange fascination with the who, what, where and why of other people’s grocery shopping, you’ll love the extensive collection of receipts and invoices held in Carmen Callil’s archives at the British Library. Among a host of other things (including the companies Virago used to print their books, where they sourced images for the VMC, membership receipts for the London Library, the Chinese restaurants they regularly frequented, the calculators they used in the office, among others) you’ll learn that in the late 70s, Callil bulk-bought her groceries from the wholesaler, Makro [7]. Alongside food and various items for the Virago office – circled or marked with an asterix to ensure specific items were included in the company’s accounts – are entries for tins of cat food and litter! A busy woman, such as she was, very wisely did not get bogged down by the regular need to shop for life’s essentials. Bulk-buying was a far more efficient choice.

Photograph of Receipt from Callil Archive Showing Entires for Cat LitterReceipt taken from the Archive of Carmen Callil showing entries for cat supplies

To close this feline circuit, I want to share one, further, Virago-themed cat story. As an undergraduate at the end of the twentieth century, I studied English Literature at Swansea University, where I had the good fortune to be taught by Professor Ann Heilmann. I was captivated by Ann’s teaching and the source material she presented to us, especially for her course on Victorian Women Writers, which included books by many authors she had first encountered – Mary Elizabeth Braddon and the ‘New Women’ Olive Schreiner, George Egerton, Sarah Grand – through Virago’s Modern Classics. Ann is also a cat lover (when I was studying at Swansea, she had a cat called Sweetie, named after the Jane Campion film). Fast forward twenty or so years: Ann now has two cats. Their names are Angelica and Diavolo – inspired by the gender bending ‘Heavenly Twins’ in Sarah Grand’s 1893 novel (incidentally, Sarah Grand – whose The Beth Book was a VMC, and the biography Darling Madame: Sarah Grand and Devoted Friend by Gillian Kersley was published by Virago in 1983 – also chose to be photographed with her cats).

Photograph of two cats on cushions

Photograph of two cats standing at doorway window

Angelica and Diavolo at work and play

If it wasn’t for Virago, Ann’s cats would not be named after characters in The Heavenly Twins because her contact with Grand came through Virago’s reprint publishing. Without Ann’s academic study of niche Victorian women writers, in turn, I never would have studied them as an undergraduate, an experience which indelibly shaped my relationship to feminism. Ultimately, this is a story about how feminist knowledge is transmitted across generations, visible in the delicate details, of who we can name our favourite companions after. Callil after Mary Wollstonecraft, Ann the fictional characters popularised by a writer Virago plucked from obscurity and republished. Cats, as home-working companions, intrude upon Virago’s history in many different ways; their feline influence extends in a web of associations and references that give meaning to feminist life. 

DSC00367My own cat, Sanjay, looking over collection of Virago Modern Classics.

In recent years, Callil’s public companions are more likely be dogs rather than cats (proof, if ever it was needed, that one needn’t be forced to choose in life between such things). Indeed, you can hear current companion Effie barking enthusiastically in this episode of Backlisted, where Callil discusses The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor, one of her favourite novels. Discernible, too, is Callil barking back with fervour: ‘Shut. Up. Effie!’ Given my own penchant for cats, though, I will close this short article with Callil’s thoughts on these remarkable creatures. ‘I like them simply because they are not human. And I really love the shapes they make. My old cat was like a walking painting.’ [8]

Thank you to Ann Heilmann for feedback on this article and for the photograph of Angelica and Diavolo. Thanks also to Eleanor Dickens of the British Library for supporting my research into the Callil archives during this project. Finally, my thanks to Carmen Callil for article feedback and permission to quote from her letter to Paul Berry.

[1] Barbara Taylor interview by Margaretta Jolly (2011) Sisterhood and After: The Women’s Liberation Oral History Project, British Library Sound & Moving Image Catalogue reference, C1420/38/05, p. 141 © The British Library the University of Sussex.

[2] Lennie Goodings, A Bite of the Apple: A Life With Books, Writers and Virago, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 42.

[3] ‘Fresh start: make the break and go it alone, Carol Dix talks to four people who did’, Nova, August 1975, 57-59, 59. Add MS 89178/1/166.

[4] ‘The feminist publisher,’ by Joan Bakewell, Illustrated London News May 1980, 67-69. Add MS 89178/1/166.

[5] Sally Richardson, ‘Animal Passions’, Sunday Telegraph Magazine, 1 October 1989. Add MS 89178/1/166.

[6] Carmen Callil to Paul Berry, 28 Oct 1981, Add MS 88904/1-194

[7] Add MS 89178/1/124-165, Virago receipts, 1974-81

[8] Richardson, ‘Animal Passions’.

12 October 2020

Harold Pinter’s Drafts of The Proust Screenplay

a guest blog by Patrick Armstrong, PhD Candidate at the University of Cambridge.  Read more about the Library's collections relating to Harold Pinter on Discovering Literature.

‘In order that the film artist may create a work of art’, Rudolf Arnheim argued in his 1933 book, Film as Art, ‘it is important that he consciously stress the peculiarities of the medium’. When, in the early 1970s, Harold Pinter collaborated with Joseph Losey and Barbara Bray to write a screenplay of Marcel Proust’s novel A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (1913-1927), they were keen to find a means of foregrounding the peculiarities of the film medium while in some way maintaining a fidelity to the original text. How could they condense and distil Proust’s great novel into a (commercially viable) feature-length film? One answer is, simply, that they could not: to this day, the film has never been made (although there has been a sound broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 1995, adapted by Michael Bakewell, and a modified National Theatre production in 2000, directed by Di Trevis). To quote the resigned Pinter, who would remain in search of lost funding: ‘The money to make the film was never found’. With Pinter's what would have been Pinter's 90th birthday passing last weekend, however, Lady Antonia Fraser has recently spoken of her desire for his screenplays and films to be more widely known and appreciated. The prospect of producing the Proust film remains a tantalising one. Still, any attempt to bring the screenplay to filmic fruition would be a true labour of love. To give my two cents’ worth, I would welcome the unlikely extension of Luca Guadagnino’s beautiful ‘Desire Trilogy’ (into a ‘Desire Quadrilogy’) to incorporate a long-awaited cinematic realisation of Pinter’s Proust Screenplay (with, if you’re asking, Timothée Chalamet as the young and fragile Marcel, Ralph Fiennes as Charles Swann, Mia Goth as Albertine, and, à la Suspiria (2018), multiple roles for Tilda Swinton).

It would be misleading to call this work ‘Harold Pinter’s Proust Screenplay’ because it was, from the outset, a thoroughly collaborative project. In his 2015 article on The Proust Screenplay, Matt Harle explains how the first draft - now housed in the Harold Pinter Archive at the British Library - began to take shape:

    Working as a trio, they [Pinter, Losey and Bray] spent time in France visiting significant Proustian sites [Illiers, Cabourg and Paris] and planning the film before Pinter sat down to     write a draft of the script. The script was completed in just three months in November 1972, Pinter having adapted the entirety of Proust’s novel into a single four-hour script. This     was notably against the advice of Samuel Beckett, who suggested that the team start with Le temps retrouvé.

Both Losey and Bray made extensive comments on Pinter’s first draft in 1972. Losey, for instance, expressed his concerns about the practicalities of using a pure white screen (later replaced by the Vermeerian ‘yellow screen’), because of the likelihood of it becoming scratched and dirty. The archive shows that Bray, who was close friends with Beckett, and the project’s main authority on Proust, made a number of helpful suggestions relating to the structure of the film. The adaption also bears the imprint of Beckett’s own work, including his early essay on Proust, simply entitled Proust (1931). Pinter was surely under the spell of Beckett’s forays into film and television in the 1960s. The latter had made his own short film, entitled Film, in New York in the summer of 1964, while, with Eh Joe, a piece for television that was also completed in 1965, Beckett made use of filmic techniques by incorporating close-ups of the protagonist’s face (a device Pinter frequently uses in The Proust Screenplay). The ‘fresh and shrill’ garden gate bell that sounds at the beginning and end of Pinter’s screenplay, moreover, is reminiscent of the piercing bell in Beckett’s Happy Days (1961).

Photograph of file containing Pinter’s drafts towards his Proust screenplay

Pinter’s drafts and notes towards the screenplay are available to view in our Reading Rooms at Add MS 88880/2/82.

The drafts of the adaptation show how Pinter gradually selected the more distinctly filmic aspects of Proust’s novel and made them central to his screenplay: the patch of yellow wall in Jan Vermeer’s View of Delft (c.1559-1660), the romanticised visions of gondolas and palazzos in Venice, the dining room and sea at Balbec, and so on. For three months of 1972, Pinter read A la Recherche du temps perdu every day, taking ‘hundreds of notes’ along the way. When reading through these many notes and drafts, Pinter’s keen eye for detail becomes apparent: he draws attention to Albertine’s many rings, to the simple aigrette in the Duchesse de Guermantes hair, and, more broadly, displays a Proustian attentiveness to jewellery and clothing. ‘Clothes’, as Diana Festa-McCormick argues in her 1984 book Proustian Optics of Clothes, ‘act as the revealing factor for often unavowed psychological responses on the part of the narrator and as indications of the wearer’s social roles’. After all, Proust’s narrator ultimately resolves to construct his book, ‘not say ambitiously like a cathedral, but quite simply like a dress’. Comparably, Pinter tries to find the structural elements that are essential to the whole, the seams that join the carefully made garment together.

Proust’s own suspicion of the relation between the novel and the cinema is made clear in a parenthetical remark from the final volume, Time Regained:

    (Some critics now liked to regard the novel as a sort of procession of things upon the screen of a cinematograph. This comparison was absurd. Nothing is further from what we have     really perceived than the vision that the cinematograph presents.)

Correspondingly, Pinter writes about the difficulties of adapting Proust’s great novel, concluding that a fidelity to the text must be retained through the distillation of its essence. This is an understandable position given that the word count of Proust’s novel is somewhere in the region of 1,267,069 words. Despite the daunting challenges of radically condensing the original, Pinter found working on the adaptation ‘the best working year’ of his life, as he wrote in the introduction to the 1978 Metheun edition of the screenplay. Reading through Pinter’s reams of notes allows us to perceive the slow process of distillation. As one reviewer for the New Statesman put it, the finished screenplay is ‘a beautiful working model in which Proust’s million and a half words have been brought lucidly down to 455 shots’.

At the early stage of the screenplay composition, the notes offer an accumulation of images and snatches of dialogue, as if Pinter were peering in through one of the windows of the Parisian drawing-rooms frequented by the narrator, half-hearing conversations and half-seeing figures from the world of fashion. Proust’s novel demands that the reader imagines themselves seeing, leaving space for the individual’s imagination to give the scenes and characters shape. We are invited to read the novel through the lens of our own experiences, comparing them with those recounted by the narrator. Yet, the difficulty for Pinter is representing through film the workings of the narrator’s mind. As Walter Benjamin suggested in his 1929 essay, ‘The Image of Proust’, ‘the important thing for the remembering author is not what he experienced, but the weaving of his memory, the Penelope work of recollection’. For Michael Billington, Pinter’s official biographer, the ‘screenplay was based on a chain of visual and aural motifs, and interlocking images’. In this sense, the adaptation is true to the original in its attempt to foreground the workings of involuntary memory. As you read through Pinter’s many notes, the same images and impressions (the napkin, the sea, the steeples, etc.), familiar to any reader of Proust’s novel, appear and reappear throughout the drafts. These become the central images of the finished screenplay, the luminous fragments that disrupt the paralysing effects of habitual perception.  

The early notes show Pinter carefully working out the chronology and order of the book, including the ages of the characters at various stages in the narrative. Though onerous, plotting the ages of the characters at different stages of the narrative is an important task because, as Benjamin writes, ‘to observe the interaction of aging and remembering means to penetrate to the heart of Proust’s world, to the universe of convolution’. Pinter’s many lists of the narrative’s key events and images can be compared with Beckett’s incomplete cataloguing of the crucial, epiphanic moments of involuntary memory in his essay Proust:

  • 1. The Madeleine steeped in an infusion of tea.
  • 2. The steeples of Martinville, seen from Dr. Percepied’s trap.
  • 3. A musty smell in a public lavatory in the Champs-Elysees.
  • 4. The three trees, seen near Balbec from the carriage of Mme. de Villeparisis.
  • 5. The hedge of hawthorn near Balbec.
  • 6. He stoops to unbutton his boots on the occasion of his second visit to the Grand Hotel at Balbec.
  • 7. Uneven cobbles in the courtyard of the Guermantes Hotel.
  • 8. The noise of a spoon against a plate.
  • 9. He wipes his mouth with a napkin.
  • 10. The noise of water in the pipes.
  • 11. George Sand’s François le Champi.

Many of these ‘fetishes’, as Beckett calls them, are central to Pinter’s adaptation, which foregrounds the narrator’s revelatory impressions and memories. Undoubtedly, Pinter would have been familiar with Beckett’s dazzling early reading of Proust’s epic, in which he points out that the narrator’s ‘eye functions with the cruel precision of a camera’ – an idea that seems to lurk behind the numerous close-ups of faces and the shots from Marcel’s point of view.

Pinter’s screenplay is an attempt to dislocate and reorder time, true to Proust’s project of immobilising and recovering fragments of lost time in their pure state. Pinter dislocates narrative time in order to focus on the connections between images and sounds. In so doing, Pinter is able to stress the peculiarities of the film medium while remaining true to the original text. Aware of the opportunities as well as the restrictions of adaptation, Pinter realises that film offers the possibility of cutting swiftly between, or even overlaying, some of the key motifs and artistic figures of Proust’s novel: namely music, as represented by the composer, Vinteuil, and literature, as represented by the writer, Bergotte. Shot 31, for instance, succinctly blends visual art, literature, and music (which Beckett called the ‘catalytic element’ in Proust): ‘Flash of yellow screen. Music of Vinteuil’. The opening montage provides an opportunity to cross-cut between the vital moments of involuntary memory in the novel: the Proustian epiphanies, though there are no famous madeleines or teacups in sight. It is a non-verbal sequence of thirty-four shots (some would argue thirty-five or more), resembling the symphonies of visual movement created by the montagist Slavko Vorkapich. Yet, as the many drafts indicate, a considerable number of words – read, written, rewritten, erased – were considered to create this iconic, though as yet unseen, wordless opening.

09 October 2020

‘A Dittie most Excellent’: Catholic songs and poems from time of King James I

by Tabitha Driver, Cataloguer Modern Archives & Manuscripts. Add MS 15225 is a collection of largely religious songs and poems, many on Catholic themes, dating from the early years of the 17th century. It has now been made available online through the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts, as part of the Heritage Made Digital programme’s project to digitise the Library’s collection of Tudor and Early Stuart manuscripts. An introduction to the project can be found here

The contents of the quarto sized volume are written in a cursive secretary hand, probably by a single writer. Some of the pieces take a moralising tone, while others are broadly Christian in character, but it is quite clear from several of the songs that the compiler was a Catholic (e.g. “A songe of foure Preistes that suffered death at Lancaster” ff. 31r–33r). It has been suggested that the volume was compiled at Birchley Hall, Lancashire, home of the Catholic Anderton family. The collection is of particular interest for the study of Catholic recusancy and the role that music played in the clandestine practice and dissemination of the faith, at a time when being a Catholic or harbouring a Catholic priest were treasonable offences in England.

Just as is the case with most printed broadside ballads, the words of the songs are presented without any musical notation. They were set to popular secular tunes which would have been familiar to both singers and audience. For instance, “A dittie most excelent for euerie man to reade, that doth intende for to amende & to repent with speede”, was to be sung to the tune of “A rich merchant man, or, John come kiss me now” (ff. 56r–58r). This tune was used for several ballads, several of which can be seen and heard in the online English Broadside Ballad Archive.  Despite their profane connotations these melodies had the benefit of instant recognition and ease of assimilation and may have added an element of good cheer to the performance.

Photograph of Add MS 15225 f. 56

A dittie most excellent for euerie man to reade that doth intend for to amende & to repent with speede, to the tune of a rich marchant man or John come kiss me now. Add MS 15225 f. 56

Some of the songs have identifiable authors, and date from earlier decades. For example, “My mynde to me a kyngdome is”, by Sir Edward Dyer, f. 43, was first published as two separate songs in William Byrd’s Psalmes, Sonets & Songs (London, 1588); and “A song in praise of a Ladie” (“Giue place, yea ladies, and be gone”), by John Heywood, f. 16v, was previously published in Songes and Sonettes, edited by Richard Tottel (London, 1557).

Other ballads mark recent events, such as the martyrdom of the four priests at Lancaster 1600-1601 (ff. 31-33) and the execution of John Thewlis in 1616 (ff. 25-27).

Add MS 15225 f. 31

A songe of foure Preistes that suffered Death at Lancaster to the tune of Daintie come thou to me. Add MS 15225 f. 31

Besides martyr ballads, the collection includes a Christmas carol (f. 47v), poems focusing on the passion of Christ, and the believer’s readiness for suffering, as well as simple verses suitable for children’s religious education. “In dayes of yore when words did passe for bands” (ff. 29v-30v) is a satirical attack on puritans which takes particular delight in targeting the puritan women (“Rachell, Maud, Jane, Doll and Grace, / Kate starchèd with a Ruff half an inch longe; / and Mistris Mince-pepin with her mumpinge face”), whose “puer, unspotted” ways are a hypocritical cover for lasciviousness.

The volume was purchased on 18 June 1844, at the sale of manuscripts belonging to the deceased antiquarian Benjamin Heywood Bright (1787-1843). Bright’s remarkable collections (including many treasures which have ended up in the British Library) were dispersed in three sales from 1844 to 1845, of which this was the first. The Gentleman’s magazine reported the sale in detail the following month, censuring Bright for alleged “dog in the manger” secrecy over his hoard of treasures, and rejoicing that many items previously hidden from sight were now publici iuris, “safely brought to an anchor in the National Collection” (the British Museum library).

Photograph of Gentleman’s magazine (August 1844) p. 147

Gentleman’s magazine (August 1844) p. 147

Now not only is Add MS 15225 safely made fast in the national library but it is available freely online. The Gentleman’s magazine would certainly have approved.

Further reading

Emelie K M Murphy, “Music and Catholic culture in post-Reformation Lancashire: piety, protest, and conversion”. In British Catholic History, Volume 32, Issue 4 (October 2015), pp. 492-525.

23 September 2020

In Memory of Sir Ronald Harwood (1934-2020)

by Eleanor Casson, Cataloguer for Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts. The Ronald Harwood Papers are available to consult, for free, in the Manuscripts Reading Room at St. Pancras.

 

Photographic portrait of Sir Ronald HarwoodSir Ronald Harwood © Terry O'Neill

Sir Ronald Harwood, celebrated playwright, novelist and award-winning screenwriter sadly died this month, at the age of eighty-five. Author of over thirty fiction and non-fiction books, over twenty plays, twenty screenplays and knighted by the Queen for services to drama in 2010, he was one of Britains most notable playwrights and screenwriters. The British Library was privileged to acquire his archive in 2004, where it sits beside the collections of some of his most notable contemporaries, such as Peter Nichols, Sir Tom Stoppard, and Harold Pinter.

The Ronald Harwood Papers (Add MS 88881) is a hybrid archive encompassing material in paper and electronic form comprising three hundred and forty-five items of manuscripts, papers, correspondence and news cuttings relating to his life and work. The collection Includes: drafts of The Dresser and Quartet with autograph annotations, papers and correspondence relating to awards won by The Pianist, and drafts of his novels as well as correspondence and works from his friends and associates, including Harold Pinter, Simon Gray, Dame Judi Dench, Peggy Ramsey and André Previn. Access to the Born Digital material is also available in the British Library Manuscript Reading Room. Harwood is represented in the Modern Playscript collection with copies of his works, Poison Pen, The Dresser and Quartet, and others. The Library also holds an oral history from Harwood in its Sound Archive, titledHarwood, Ronald: An Oral History of Theatre Designand split over eighteen parts.

Harwood was born in Cape Town, South Africa on 9 November 1934 to Isaac and Isobel Horowitz neé Pepper; his father was a Jewish Lithuanian refugee and his mother was also Jewish, born in London. As a child he had dreams of becoming a theatre actor, moving to London in 1951 to study drama at RADA and eventually joining Donald Wolfits Acting Company as a business manager and part time actor. Harwood spent six years at the company before his marriage to Natasha Riehle. He began writing after his father-in-law gave him a typewriter as a wedding present, writing his first novel All the Same Shadows about racial injustice in South Africa in just a few weeks.

His most well-known play was The Dresser, which opened on Broadway in 1981 to critical acclaim and won a Tony nomination for best play in 1982. The Dresser was based on Harwoods own experience of working in English theatre, exploring the relationship of an ageing actor and his backstage dresser and assistant. Harwood had been the dresser for Donald Wolfit in his late teens and early twenties; in later life he wrote a biography of Wolfit, Sir Donald Wolfit, C.B.E.: his life and work in the unfashionable theatre, and acted as the administrator for his will and settlement. In 1983, the play was adapted in to a film which Harwood wrote the screenplay for starring Albert Finney and Sir Tom Courtney, earning Harwood his first Oscar nomination.

Harwood also found great success with screenwriting after receiving lessons from Alexander Mackendrick. His most successful and critically acclaimed screenwriting endeavour was The Pianist. In 2003, the film won three Oscars for Best Actor, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for Harwood. His last screenwriting credit, in 2012, was an adaption of his own stage play Quartet (1999), directed by Dustin Hoffman with a cast of British national treasures, including Sir Tom Courtney. Harwood was extremely talented at adapting stories to different mediums; he adapted Evelyn Waughs novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold for the stage (1977), Terence Rattigans play The Browning Version into a film (1994), and his own novel All the Same Shadows in to a radio play (1960-1961).

Alongside his distinguished career Harwood was also known for being an active member of English PEN, the President of PEN International (1993-1997) and the chairman of the Royal Society of Literature (2001-2004). He was a long-term member of the Garrick club and had close friendships and working relationships with Harold Pinter, Simon Gray and Sir Tom Stoppard. Harwood and Pinter had a mutual love of cricket and squash, with Pinter recording weekly squash matches with Harwood. As a group they were all involved with a cricketing team the Gaieties Club, founded in 1937 by music hall artist Lupino Lane and named after the Gaiety Theatre in London, of which Pinter was the Chairman. In contrast to his active involvement in sports, Harwood was also a prolific and unapologetic smoker. In 2004 he refused to direct The Dresser in Canada because of Canadas anti-smoking laws. Ultimately, he quit smoking in 2013. 

With a career spanning six decades his influence was long lasting with The Dresser seeing sixteen major stage revivals in Britain, most recently in 2016. His archive encapsulates how illustrious his career was for a man that was so quietly successful.

Sources

William Baker, Pinters World: Relationships, Obsessions, and Artistic Endeavors, Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (2018)

W. Sydney Robinson, Speak Well of Me: the authorized biography of Ronald Harwood, London (2017)

Matt Schudel, Ronald Harwood, Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Pianist,dies at 85, The Washington Post. Accessed 13 September 2020: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/ronald-harwood-oscar-winning-screenwriter-of-the-pianist-dies-at-85/2020/09/09/ee121754-f2b9-11ea-999c-67ff7bf6a9d2_story.html

Steven Kurutz, Ronald Harwood, Oscar-Winning Screenwriter, Is Dead at 85, The New York Times. Accessed 13 September 2020: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/10/movies/ronald-harwood-dead.html

Michael Coveney, Sir Ronald Harwood Obituary, The Guardian. Accessed 13 September 2020: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2020/sep/09/sir-ronald-harwood-obituary

02 September 2020

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: A Lifelong Refugee (1927-2013)

By Pauline McGonagle, Collaborative PhD candidate with the British Library and University of Exeter working on the Ruth Prawer Jhabvala archive. Pauline's work on Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has recently appeared in Wasifiri and formed part of a case-study on collaborative PhDs at the Library.

A Jewish refugee child of Polish origin, who escaped to England in 1939 from Cologne under Nazism, without any spoken English, left a remarkable legacy to international literary and cinematic culture.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s contribution is celebrated along with many prominent Jews in the biographical dictionary of the Jewish Lives Project within the Jewish Museum in London. Her literary archive, thanks to her bequest, is housed at the British Library. Within this collection are hand-written notebooks, scrapbooks, printed typed drafts, digital material and letters. These relate to her 13 published novels, over 100 short stories (some unpublished), several plays and nonfiction articles. Her scripts and screen play archives (21 in total) are housed in the USA.

History Remembered

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala recounted her Cologne childhood memories of being called a “dirty Jew” and chased by other German children in 1983 profiles and interviews. She remembered the notices on the city’s cinemas which stated, “Jews are not desired”. In 1934, the year after she started school, she witnessed the Nazis parade past their apartment before Nazi troops came to arrest her parents who were taken into protective police custody. She spoke of walking to her segregated Jewish school in 1938 past gangs smashing windows, and how once friendly shopkeepers “grew very cold and turned away from you”. She told Harriet Shapiro in 1987: “Other children would scream after us and throw stones”.

Ruth Prawer fled with her father Marcus, mother Eleanora and brother Siegbert, by the “smallest fluke” in April 1939, when US visas were declined, and they found Polish-born sponsors in Coventry. They later discovered, that at least forty of their relatives had perished. When Ruth Prawer was twenty-one and a student at Queen Mary College, London (1948), her father committed suicide. She later emigrated to Delhi, after she married the Parsi architect Cyrus Jhabvala in 1951, where she spent the next 25 years before moving to New York in 1976.

Destined to Write

Jhabvala told Dorothy D. Horowitz in an interview for Oral History how she constantly wrote stories as a child, in German, about Jewish life and with settings based on an imaginary Palestine; but “I can’t recall a single one”. Her mother was accused by her school of writing the stories and these were read out loud in the house of her grandfather, Elias Cohn, a bass Ober-Kantor at the conservative synagogue in Cologne. But, she recounted, someone threw these stories away and no-one thought to keep them.

The British Library has the photocopies of her first two published stories in her English school magazine Microcosm, ‘Der Fuchs un der rabe’ (1939) and ‘The Wonder Pot’ (1940). The copies were posted to Jhabvala in 1987 by the friend who had shared a childhood bedroom with this refugee stranger in Coventry in 1939. The letter attached to them said: “Herewith proof of your early promise–so elegantly fulfilled”. 

Photocopy of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's first publication in German, 'Der Fuchs Und Der Rabe'

Front cover of Summer 1939 edition of Jhabvala's school magazine, Microcosm
Ruth Prawer’s first publication in German and the cover of the School Magazine Microcosm, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Add MS 89348 © British Library Board

In 2005 Maya Jaggi explained how other writers described Jhabvala’s skill and ability in terms of her unique outsider perspective. Caryl Phillips identified her postcolonial positioning: “She understood loss of language, land and history in a brutal and visceral way, and reinvented herself…”

Jhabvala told a Canadian radio interviewer in 2012 when asked about the link between her refugee background and her ability to detach herself from the subjects of her work:

    I’m not interested in who am I, … I’m interested in what’s gone, the disinheritance, what I’ve     been able to become or learn or fuse with or not fuse with. A certain freedom comes… I like it     that way.

The lecture which she gave on receipt of the Neil Gunn Fellowship awarded by the Scottish Arts Council in 1979 tackled this topic and was published in Blackwood’s Magazine under the title ‘Disinheritance’.  In it, she distinguishes the loss of “ancestral memories” from what she sees as inherited craftsman’s tools, which “were given, gifted to me, happened to me”. The drafted plans for the lecture clearly delineate her life into distinct phases.

photograph of a notebook containing plan outline of a lecture for receipt of Neil Gunn Fellowship in Edinburgh 1979 given by Ruth PrawerJhabvala

From Notebook containing plan outline of lecture for receipt of Neil Gunn Fellowship in Edinburgh 1979, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Add MS 89348 © British Library Board

Try and try and try again

Jhabvala worked at her craft with a daily routine of morning writing and was driven by inner confidence and resilience. An annotated typed piece entitled ‘Why I Write’ (undated) from the archive, reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1946 essay, illustrates this. It may have been written after 1976, as the final page addresses her last writing phase. She describes “the double spur” of inner and outward ambition and the increasing thrill that writing brings. Yet the assuredness and self-reflection on how Jhabvala the writer was formed is balanced by a self-critical voice, one which speaks after completing every story or book : “I didn’t get it right…” and then a persistent: “let me try again, and again, and again”.

Photograph of undated annotated typed essay Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Undated annotated typed essay Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Add MS 89348© British Library Board

Jhabvala never mentions screen writing here. If ‘Why I Write’ is dated close to the papers with which it was packed (1980-1983) she had already written five screenplays by then, all set in India, and had adapted both Henry James’ The Europeans (1979) and Jean Rhys’ Quartet (1981). Her inspiration for screen writing was always literary and she admired those artists who shared this influence in their work, most of whom had a deep rootedness in their own soil, something which, for her, was absent.

When discussing her favourite Satyajit Ray film, Charulata, based on the Rabindranath Tagore novel, this ambition features:

    All great works stimulate a hopeful emulation that ends occasionally, as in the films of Satyajit Ray, in radiant success —     ensuring the business of influence and inspiration that makes us all try and try and try again.

Ray supervised the music production of Jhabvala’s first Merchant Ivory adaptation of her novel The Householder (1963), he re-cut the film, and his cameraman directed the photography. James Ivory also recalls her saying “Let’s climb a big mountain” when she wanted them to make EM Forster’s Howards End (the adaptation which won her one of two Oscars in 1993).

Jhabvala, who died in 2013 in New York, had no ambition or desire to return to Cologne. In the ‘Disinheritance’ essay she speaks about her feelings after twenty-four years in India: “a terrible hunger of homesickness that I cannot describe it was so terrible, so consuming”. She articulates it as a desire for no specific ‘home’ but for a generic Europe, where people spoke, thought, and looked like she did. New York provided this homecoming for her in 1976, because it seemed like a bucolic Europe, reaching backward and “untouched by the events of the 1930s and 40s”. When Bernard Weinraub interviewed her in 1983 for The New York Times Magazine she explained: “To anyone of my generation… Europe now does smell of blood”.

Once a Refugee, Always a Refugee

“A person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten” (the Talmud). This quote is cited by Gunter Demnig, the Cologne artist, as the inspiration for his work. He remembers those who fled, were deported or murdered as victims of Nationalist Socialism, by installing commemorative brass plaques in the pavement in front of their last address of choice. These stolpersteine (‘stumbling stones’) now exist in 2,000 locations, and the 75,000th was placed in Frankfurt in December 2019. The stones give individual names to those considered “subhuman” by an ideology which promoted Aryan racial purity, one that propagated Fascist movements right across Europe.

In September 2019, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s daughter Ava Wood and I went to Cologne where four stones were being laid in memory of the Prawer family, commissioned by the generosity of a local art gallery owner, Norbert Arns and his book group. This group, formed in 2013, were reading Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day in May 2019, when a member, Thomas Schuld, Director of the Edith Stein Archive, realised that Prawer Jhabvala who adapted the novel for the screen was a former resident. They researched the family and discovered the great achievements of both Ruth and her brother Siegbert, a scholar and Professor of German and Comparative Literature; located their last known address from the City council’s registers, and traced family members.

Our very brief visit was to a city which none of the Prawers would have recognised. The book group’s hospitality included; visits to the Jewish Cemetery gravestones of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s grandparents, to the original site of the orthodox synagogue on Glockengasse, which was razed in 1938 during Kristallnacht, where now sits the opera house, and a personal tour of the Roonstrasse synagogue with Boris Rothe.

On the morning of 26th September 2019 four granite setts with brass plates fixed on top, hand-engraved by the craftsman Michael Friedrichs-Friedländer, were silently and swiftly laid by Gunther Demnig outside a five-storey 1950s building on 35 Hochstadenstrasse. We witnessed a moving but simple tribute with some residents, the book group members and passers-by, in the drizzling rain. These stones were the first four of 50 that were laid later that day in Cologne. Among other groups considered ‘a-social’, whose names will not be forgotten, are Roma and Sinti gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and disabled people.

The stolpersteine are not always welcome and some Jewish leaders and groups consider them disrespectful, while a few residents find it distasteful to have such painful reminders outside their front doors. Munich has only permitted wall panel memorials as alternatives. It seems to me, that the humility of bowing down to honour the victims of persecution as we stumble upon them has its own dignity; a dignity not offered to other victims of perpetrators of injustice, the offenders honoured with statues, and to whom we look upwards as we walk under their shadows.

Ruth Prawer, who was almost twelve when she left Cologne, could only dream of being the writer she would become, but Cologne now remembers her and her family as survivors who fled from what was their home. These memorials, created and placed with respect by human hands, and stumbled on by human feet, carry the name she was born with next to those of her dearest, thanks to the generosity and humanity of strangers.

Photograph of commemorative stones placed in memory of the Prawer family

Photograph by Ava Wood stolpersteine laid on Sept 26, 2019 outside 35 Hochstadenstrasse, Cologne. © Ava Jhabvala Wood

 

References

Apperly, Eliza. “‘Stumbling stones’: a different vision of Holocaust remembrance” The Guardian February 18, 2019.

Etzioni, Amitai “‘Kristallnacht’ Remembered: History & Communal Responsibility” Commonweal June 15, 2014.

Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer. 1979. ‘Disinheritance’. Blackwood’s Magazine

Horowitz, Dorothy.1983. ‘Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Oral History Memoir’ (November 16) from William E. Wiener Oral History Library of the American Jewish Committee at New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Shapiro, Helen. ‘The Teeming Imagination of Novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is Her Window on a World She Avoids’.  People, September 28, 1987, 48–53.

Weinraub, Bernard.  ‘The Artistry of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’. The New York Times Magazine Sept.11, 1983.

Woo, Elaine. ‘Jhabvala saw herself as a “lifelong refugee”’ Los Angeles Times April 05, 2013.