European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

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Discover the British Library's extensive collections from continental Europe and read news and views on European culture and affairs from our subject experts and occasional guest contributors. Read more

29 July 2021

Inheritance Books: Annelies Dogterom, Cataloguer West European Languages

This post is part of our 'Inheritance Books' series, where colleagues choose an 'inherited' item that was already in the library when we started working here, and one that we have acquired or catalogued for our collections during our own time to 'pass on' to future users, visitors and colleagues, and explain why they're important to us.

When I started as a cataloguer, the debut novel De avonden by Simon van het Reve, pseudonym of Gerard van het Reve, was already in the collection. The subtitle ‘een winterverhaal’ (a winter’s tale) suggests sitting around a warm fireside telling stories of legends. Instead of being set in homely surroundings, the novel is set against the cold of winter outside and characters forever lighting a stove inside. The protagonist is called ‘de held van deze geschiedenis’ (‘the hero of this story’) but he is not heroic. The tone of the novel would have been much darker if it was not for the irony and humour as expressed by the subtitle and continued throughout the novel.

Cover of De avonden by Simon van het Reve showing a person entering a building

Cover of De avonden by Simon van het Reve (Amsterdam, 1947). YA.1991.a.15442

The story describes ten days in the life of Frits van Egters, a 23 year old office clerk, during December 1946. These ten days are written in ten chapters and are also the last ten days and evenings of the year. The strength of the novel lies in how it has been written rather than what happens. Ironically the ‘narrative’ of the story is that nothing happens: there is no action, everything is static ‘de lege uren’ (empty hours) and expressed for instance by constantly checking clocks and watches that hardly seem to move. It is static because the focus is on the introspection and self-analysis of the protagonist. This leads to a sense of entrapment, disillusionment, loneliness and is exaggerated by Frits’s cynicism. Much of this negativity is expressed in his relationship to animals and his parents but also in disturbing dreams. What makes the novel interesting is the way it has been written with a clear focus on realistic detail.

Portrait of Van het Reve

Portrait of Van het Reve (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Although De avonden has much to offer to any reader in any language, it took nearly 70 years for the novel to be translated into English. Tim Parks, novelist and translator, ends his review of the translation: “So, huge respect to Pushkin Press for finally doing the business, and in particular to Sam Garrett for a translation that avoids a thousand pitfalls to give us this enfant terrible of Dutch genius in an entirely convincing English.”

In the 15 years that I have been cataloguing Dutch books, there is one publication that stands out in particular. It is a six volume work of the complete letters by Vincent van Gogh: De brieven: de volledige, geïllustreerde en geannoteerde uitgave. This edition is the product of 15 years of research by the Van Gogh Museum  and the Huygens Institute.

There is also a freely available web edition of Van Gogh’s complete letters. All letters have been translated into English and are extensively annotated and set in their biographical and historical context.

Van Gogh regularly embellished a letter with a small drawing or enclosed a freehand sketch. “The value of the sketches lies in the fact that they forced him to depict the essence of a drawing or painting. He usually drew them with ordinary writing ink, and in some cases he added colour notations, which can be compared to the actual paintings.”

In a letter of 6 April 1885, addressed to his brother Theo, he wrote, “I desire nothing other than to live deep in the country and to paint peasant life … I plan to make a start this week on that thing with the peasants around a dish of potatoes”. In a letter written 3 days later, he includes a small drawing of the ‘Potato Eaters’.

Sketch of Potato Eaters in a letter

Sketch of Potato Eaters in a letter of 9 April 1885

The scene is set in Nuenen in his home country of the Netherlands. The colours are dark and earthy unlike the bright canvases that most people are familiar with and that belong to his later works. In this same letter, Van Gogh shows an awareness of characteristics of his work that will come to define in particular his later works. He writes: “I see a chance of giving a felt impression of what I see. Not always literally exactly — rather never exactly — for one sees nature through one’s own temperament”.

A good example of a ‘felt impression’ of what Van Gogh saw is the painting of his bedroom. Vincent was living in Arles, France at the time. In a letter to Theo of 16 October 1888, he gave a very detailed description of his bedroom in particular of the colours used and also included a detailed sketch:

The walls are of a pale violet. The floor — is of red tiles.
The bedstead and the chairs are fresh butter yellow.
The sheet and the pillows very bright lemon green.
The blanket scarlet red.
The window green.
The dressing table orange, the basin blue.
The doors lilac.

Sketch of bedroom by Van Gogh

Sketch of bedroom in a letter of 16 October 1888

Vincent van Gogh died on 29 July 1890. In the last few years before his death, the range and intensity of colours in his paintings increased dramatically confirming what he had stated five years earlier: “for one sees nature through one’s own temperament.”

References:

Gerard Reve, The Evenings: a Winter’s Tale, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (London, 2016). Nov.2018/1916

Tim Parks, “The Evenings by Gerard Reve review – a masterpiece, translated at long last” (The Guardian, 9 November 2016) 

Vincent van Gogh, De brieven: de volledige, geïllustreerde en geannoteerde uitgave, onder redactie van Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten en Nienke Bakker (Amsterdam, 2009). LF.31.b.6957

 

22 July 2021

Ten Years on from 22 July: The Cultural Imperative to Remember

Like other contemporary acts of terror, the traumatic events that befell Norway on 22 July 2011 are commonly referred to in Norway by their date alone. As we approach the tenth anniversary of that day public, cultural, and scholarly reflections continue to abound, a decade’s distance precipitating not just further responses to the awful act but also reflections on the responses themselves. The purpose of this post is not to describe or focus on the traumatic events of 22 July 2011 but to attempt an overview of these responses, with an expanded list of references, and discuss how the cultural memorial process has developed.

Two publications recently acquired by the British Library go some way towards anthologising the artistic and literary responses that have figured in the shaping of the cultural memory, a concept which Astrid Erll defines broadly as ‘the interplay of present and past in socio-cultural contexts’. The compilation of attempts to come to terms with 22 July captures the multiplicity, the plenitude, and the unending nature of memorialisation, or what Erll simply calls ‘different modes of remembering identical past events’. Norway’s official memorial processes and their inevitable complication, or sometimes rejection, are testament to the tensions between individual and collective memory, between progressive and tragic memory narratives, and between symbolic expressions and the urge to return to the raw facts.

Cover of Ingvild Folkvord’s Stemmene etter 22. Juli

Cover of Stemmene etter 22. Juli (‘Voices after 22 July’) by Ingvild Folkvord

Bearbeidelser: 22. Juli I ord og bilder (edited by Anne Gjelsvik), where ’bearbeidelser’ might be translated as ‘processings’ or ‘comings to term with’, includes responses to the tragedy by writers such as Vigdis Hjorth and Karl Ove Knausgård alongside analysis of these contributions by academics. Ingvild Folkvord’s Stemmene etter 22. Juli (‘Voices after 22 July’) again looks at the responses to the event through ‘voices’, whether in poetry, on the radio, social media, or the courtroom. They build on and contextualise earlier anthologies such as Respons 22/7, which brought together immediate reflections in 2011. These are books ‘about and with artistic attempts to come to terms’ (Gjelsvik), embodying the idea that memories of collective trauma necessitate a simultaneous interrogation of memorialising, as society is anxious to do justice to the victims and to perfect a process to ‘never forget’.

That process began in the immediate aftermath of the attacks as thousands gathered outside Oslo Cathedral with flowers and candles, the ‘blomsterhavet’ (sea of flowers). This spontaneous manifestation of mourning and defiant collectivity developed into more such acts like the ‘rose marches’ on the mainland near Utøya, all of which were embraced and encouraged early on by officials tasked with developing a memorial process. Five months after the attacks, the Norwegian government announced that two national memorial sites would be created in Oslo and in Hole near Utøya, a process led by KORO (the body responsible for the ‘production, collection management and public-engagement activities relating to art in public buildings and other public settings’. Memorial sites have emerged over the decade, none more famous and divisive than Jonas Dahlberg’s Memory Wound, the winner of the main memorial competition. Dahlberg set out to cut through the Sørbråten peninsula creating a new inaccessible island, on which the names of the victims could be carved, visible from the headland but unreachable. The project met with huge resistance from the local community leading to its eventual abandonment. The fate of this and other memorial sites are detailed by the 22 July Centre, part of the research project ‘July 22 and the Negotiation of Memory’ based at Norwegian University of Science and Technology, focusing on the ‘cultural afterlife of the terror attacks’. Their websites are an excellent source of information on all the memorial initiatives that exist and continue to be inspired, including the programme for this year’s anniversary.

Photograph of the Lysning memorial

Lysning (The Clearing)

In different ways, two of the more universally appreciated memorials focus on the specific event, the ‘reality of suffering’, rather than the aesthetic of an ‘epic symbol’ of trauma, as critic Kjetil Røed says of Memory Wound. Lysning (The Clearing), designed by architects 3RW, is a large, raised metal ring featuring the names of the victims, positioned in a contemplative, private spot on Utøya. Ahmad Ghossein’s Relocating the Past resurrects on the opposite side of the street a newspaper display panel smashed by the bomb in the first attack at Oslo’s government quarter, with copies of newspapers published on 22 July 2011. Both are quiet, powerful and harrowing, one an almost spiritual memorial to the victims, the other integrating catastrophe into the banal and everyday. Both take you to 22 July 2011.

Newspaper Display Panel 22 July

Relocating the Past memorial

Undoubtedly ‘different modes of remembering’ in approaches to public memorials also play out in what is referred to as the sub-genre of ‘22 July literature’. A best-selling example of the sobre, detailed, journalistic recapitulation of events is Åsne Seierstad’s En av oss (One of Us). Seierstad states that, ‘Everything in this book is based on testimony. All the scenes are constructed according to witnesses’ accounts.’ The account plots the history of several victims against the perpetrator’s own before precisely detailing the events of 22 July, the aftermath and the trial. Seierstad comprehensively rejects any suggestion that the perpetrator was ‘one of us’, a product of Norwegian society like the victims themselves: ‘This is also a book about looking for a way to belong and not finding it. The perpetrator ultimately decided to opt out of the community and strike at it in the most brutal of ways’.

En av Oss has been challenged for that rejection, ruling out as it does the idea that something fundamental within Norwegian politics and society gave rise to the attacks, or even that they were ideologically motivated rather than the aberration of a pathological character. Books such as Sindre Bangstad’s Anders Breivik and the Rise of Islamophobia argue ‘not that Norway is a society that is exceptionally racist, but rather that Norway should be seen as unexceptional in this respect, and therefore as confronting the same challenges regarding racism, intolerance and discrimination as other western European societies in the modern era’. Given the success of the right-wing Progress Party in the first elections after 22 July 2011, commentators point to the attacks being an extreme manifestation of the negative views of social democracy, women’s rights, migrants and Islam that ‘have gained popularity and become increasingly mainstream’ (Rees).

En-av-oss

Cover of En av Oss by Åsne Seierstad 

Seierstad’s objective is however to centre the event and to platform victim testimonies. As Karl Ove Knausgård writes in his positive review, ‘that day becomes something concrete, not a phenomenon, not an affair, not an argument in a political discussion but a dead body bent over a stone at the water’s edge. And, once again, I cry. Because that body has a name, he was a boy, he was called Simon. He had two parents and a little brother. They will mourn him for the rest of their lives’. Knausgård’s conclusion marks the difference between a cultural memorial process and socio-cultural analysis, both of which are surely necessary in the national process of coming to terms.

Centring victim perspectives and supporting survivors has been the approach of film responses to the event. Two films were released in 2018: Paul Greengrass’s July 22, based on Seierstad’s book, and Erik Poppe’s Utøya: Juli 22. While the first decided to feature the perpetrator, Poppe’s film is a near-single-shot of events solely through the eyes of those attacked. In 2020 six-part TV drama 22 Juli brought journalists, police and medical professionals into the picture. Perhaps the most well-received film project has been Reconstructing Utøya, in which ‘four of the survivors relive their painful memories, convinced of the importance of remembering’. They are joined by twelve young Norwegians and a psychologist in an empty monochrome film studio, as the trauma of 22 July is reconstructed, processed and documented on screen without any frills. Of course, these films are insertions into the national mourning narrative but, especially in the case of Reconstructing Utøya, they remind us of the very real and specific trauma of the survivors. As the recent outputs from a long-running research project at the Norwegian Centre for Violence and Traumatic Stress Studies show, many survivors struggle with post-traumatic stress a decade on.

The focus on testimony and fidelity to the events and experiences is one way of doing justice to the victims and of processing the trauma. It runs the risk, as indicated above, of evading analysis of the political and ideological threads that also need to form part of that processing. The focus also risks doubling down on trauma so that the victims become victims again and again. Lastly, it might also narrow the possibilities of working through trauma, something creative fiction might work against. Jan Kjaerstad’s Berge (2017) is on the face of it about a murder case from 2008 but it is considered firmly a part of 22 July literature, arguably acting as a ‘literary experiment capable of “opening up” the public debate on what happened on and after 22 July’ (Folkvord and Warberg). Likewise, Vigdis Hjorth’s Leve posthornet focuses on events prior to 22 July, yet its references to it are unmistakable. The selection of ‘22 July literature’ listed below includes texts that show how creative approaches, narratives that allow themselves to go beyond the events or to spin off them obliquely, complicate the official cultural memory process, with its progressive national ‘vi-et’ (we-one) narrative and its potential towards ‘national innocence’.

This blog is only a selective overview of the cultural memory of 22 July, which will continue to build and reshape itself as years pass. Official memorial sites, journalistic, forensic accounts of the events, trauma narratives, and creative fiction are all necessary layers of a necessarily complicated collective and individual process. Any single approach is insufficient in itself, requiring the ecosystem of conflicting interpretations to reflect the full picture. And yet always ‘det er noe som mangler’ (there is something missing), as Kjaerstad writes in Menneskets vidde. And the sheer loss brought on Norway on 22 July resonates through the loss, the lack at the heart of those attempts to come to terms. There is always something missing.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections 

Further reading:

The sources below represent a selection of material available online or in the British Library’s collections.

Official

NOU 2012: 14, Rapport fra 22. juli-kommisjonen [Government Report from 22 July Commission], published 13 August 2012, in Norwegian

Research Projects

‘July 22 and the Negotiation of Memory’

July 22 Centre 

Norwegian Centre for Violence and Traumatic Stress Studies (NKVTS), ‘The terror attack: Experience and reactions among Utøya survivors’

‘22 July Literature’

Tiril Broch Aakre, Redd barna (Oslo, 2015), awaiting shelfmark.

Gunstein Bakke and Eirik Ingebrigtsen (eds.), Respons 22/7 (Oslo, 2011), YF.2013.a.50.

Sindre Bangstad, Anders Breivik and the Rise of Islamophobia (London, 2014), ELD.DS.142586.

Brit Bildøen, Sju dagar i august (Oslo, 2014), YF.2018.a.14963.

Aage Storm Borchgrevink, En norsk tragedie: Anders Behring Breivik og veiene til Utøya (Oslo, 2012), YF.2013.a.10433, English translation by Guy Puzey, A Norwegian Tragedy: Anders Behring Breivik and the massacre on Utøya (Cambridge, 2013), SPIS364.152354092

Tomas Espedal, Bergeners (Oslo, 2013), YF.2014.a.12373

Eivind Hofstad Evjemo, Velkommen til oss (Oslo, 2014), awaiting shelfmark.

Ingvild Folkvord, Stemmene etter 22. Juli (Oslo, 2020), awaiting shelfmark.

Anne Gjelsvik (ed.), Bearbeidelser: 22. juli i ord og bilder (Oslo, 2020), awaiting shelfmark.

Cato Hemmingby, The dynamics of a terrorist targeting process (Basingstoke, 2015), ELD.DS.40121 .

Jan Kjaerstad, Menneskets vidde: essays, artikler, tekster (Oslo, 2013), YF.2014.a.2273.
--, Berge (Oslo, 2017), awaiting shelfmark.

Geir Lippestad (with Jon Gangdal), Det vi kan stå for (Oslo, 2013), YF.2013.a.17579. Reflections from the lawyer who represented the perpetrator.

Åsne Seierstad, En av oss: En fortelling om Norge (Oslo, 2013) YF.2014.a.15979 English translation by Sarah Death, One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway (London, 2014) ELD.DS.12045.

Kjetil Stormark, Da terroren rammet Norge. 189 minutter som rystet verden (Oslo, 2011), YF.2013.a.55.

Henrik Syse (ed.), Norge etter 22. Juli. Forhandlinger om verdier, identiteter og et motstandsdyktig samfunn (Oslo, 2018), Open Access

Unni Turettini, The mystery of the lone wolf killer: Anders Bering Breivik and the threat of terror in plain sight (New York, 2015), YC.2017.a.2138.

Mattis Øybø, Elskere (Oslo, 2016), YF.2018.a.3462.

Articles and Essays

Dorthe Refslund Christensen and Kjetil Sandvik, ‘Death in Times of Secularization and Sacralization: The Mediating and Re-Mediating of the Utøya Tragedy in the Norwegian Public Sphere’, in ibid. (eds.), Mediating and Remediating Death (London, 2016), ELD.DS.62556.

Cora Alexa Døving, ‘Homeland Ritualized. An Analysis of Written Messages Placed at Temporary Memorials after the Terrorist Attacks on 22 July 2011 in Norway’, Mortality, vol. 23, no. 3, pp. 231-246.

Ingvild Folkvord and Silje Warberg, ‘Jan Kjærstads roman Berge. En åpning av den offentlige samtalen om terrorangrepene 22. juli 2011?’, Edda, vol. 106 (2019).

I Hjorth and L Gjermshusengen, ‘Et minne i bevegelse’, Tidsskrift for Kulturforskning (2) (2018). 

I Hjorth, ‘Hvorfor minnesteder? En undersøkelse av den minnepolitiske håndteringen av 22.juli-terroren’, Nordisk kulturpolitisk tidsskrift, vol. 21 (2018).

I Hjorth, ‘Memory Wound: Minnested mellom virkelighet og virtualitet’, Norsk medietidsskrift, vol. 26 (2019), https://www.idunn.no/nmt/2019/03/memory_wound

Knausgård, Karl Ove, ‘The Inexplicable: Inside the mind of a mass killer’, New Yorker, May 25, 2015. 

Unni Langås, ‘“22. Juli” Litterære konstruksjoner av et nasjonalt traume’, European Journal of Scandinavian Studies, vol. 46, no. 1, 2016, pp. 81-101. 

Ellen Rees, ‘Åsne Seierstad’s En av oss: Perpetrator and Victim in the Construction of National Innocence’, Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 90, No. 1 (Spring 2018), pp. 1-22.

James E. Young, ‘Utøya and Norway’s July 22 Memorial Process: The Memory of Political Terror’, in The Stages of Memory: Reflections on Memorial Art, Loss, and the Spaces Between (Amherst, MA, 2016), YC.2017.a.192.

Cultural Memory

Astrid Erll and Ansgar Nünning (eds.) with Sara B. Young, Cultural Memory Studies: An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook (Berlin, New York, 2008), 5525.239250 no.8

 

16 July 2021

Poets and pen-pushers

In the past authors were commonly men of means, churchmen or the servants of great houses. In times nearer our own they’ve had to turn to working in offices.

Poet Laureate Simon Armitage worked in the probation service, and describes how when looking over his papers, now in the Brotherton Library in the University of Leeds, he found drafts he’d written on the back of probation service stationery.

Spain’s greatest Romantic poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer (1836-70) lived and wrote the life romantic. He took a copyist’s job in the Dirección de Bienes Nacionales. When the boss went on a parish visit he found Bécquer drawing.

‘What’s this?’ he asked.
Without looking up, and assuming he was talking to one of his comrades, Bécquer said, ‘It’s Ophelia, scattering her garland. And the man is her grave-digger.’
He was sacked on the spot. (López Núñez, pp. 28-29)

J.-K. Huysmans was a junior clerk in the French Ministry of the Interior for 32 years, writing reports for the Sureté Générale:

On the stroke of eleven, he arrived at the offices of the Sureté Générale in the Rue des Saussaies. Here he spent the next six hours, copying out official letters, adding up columns of figures, and – like so many other young writers employed in various French ministries – working on his own books and articles. (Baldick, p. 66)

Statue of Fernando Pessoa outside Café A Brasileira in Lisbon

Statue of Fernando Pessoa, by sculptor Lagoa Henriques, outside Café A Brasileira in Lisbon, Portugal. Source: Wikimedia Commons 

Fernando Pessoa too lived the life of the pen-pusher, living in digs and eating in cafés. His command of English, nurtured during his boyhood in South Africa, qualified him well for commercial correspondence. (He presented his English poems, with his compliments, to five libraries in Britain, including the then British Museum Library (C.127.c.30).)

A case even nearer home was Sir Henry Thomas. He took a PhD. in French at Birmingham and was recruited to the BML in 1903 and put to cataloguing its early Spanish books. He served the BML in peace and war, giving a radio talk on Cervantes contra Hitler in 1943 (012301.m.49).

Portrait of Sir Henry Thomas

Portrait of Sir Henry Thomas by Walter Stoneman, 1938. © National Portrait Gallery, London

He was also a literary scholar of accomplishment, author of Spanish and Portuguese Romances of Chivalry (1920), still used today. Margaret Drabble in her life of Angus Wilson rather dismissively says:

Henry Thomas, Hispanologist, bachelor and bibliographer, was Deputy Keeper: he was a devoted pilgrim on the road to Santiago de Compostela, and wrote about miracles, translated his own work into Spanish, and was suspected of being very pro-Franco. (p. 80)

He studied early English translations of Góngora, and was himself a published translator. His Star of Seville (La estrella de Sevilla), from the Spanish of Lope de Vega (or at least attributed to him) came out in 1935.

Title page of The Star of Seville

Title page of The Star of Seville (Newtown: Gregynog Press, 1935) C.102.e.16.

And here I can put on record that I’ve seen the rough draft which he wrote on the back of the eggshell-blue title slips which were used for cataloguing in the BML.

Bibliographical note in the minute and particular hand of Sir Henry Thomas
Bibliographical note in the minute and particular hand of Sir Henry Thomas.

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Collections

References:

Simon Armitage, ‘Writing was just for fun then’, Guardian, 19 Sept 2020

Juan López Núñez, Bécquer: biografía anécdótica (Madrid, 1916) 10632.p.28

Robert Baldick, The Life of J.-K. Huysmans (Oxford, 1955) 010665.f.94

R. W. Howes, ‘Fernando Pessoa, Poet, Publisher, and Translator’, British Library Journal, 9: 2, 1983, pp. 161-70 http://www.bl.uk/eblj/1983articles/pdf/article12.pdf

Victor Scholderer, ‘Henry Thomas, 1878-1952’, Proceedings of The British Academy, 40 (1954), 241-46.

Margaret Drabble, Angus Wilson: A Biography (London, 1996) YC.1997.a.399