European studies blog

12 posts from December 2013

30 December 2013

Anatomy of two anatomists

You probably know Rembrandt’s ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp’. Painted in 1632, it show Dr Nicolaes Tulp, praelector of the Amsterdam Surgeons’s Guild, dissecting the corpse of Aris Kindt (Adriaen Adriaenszoon), who was executed for killing a man in the course of stealing a coat. Dr Tulp is addressing seven beruffed gents, one of whom is taking notes. With his right hand he is securing the flexores digitorum with his forceps.  His left hand is raised to chest height in a modest pose of explication.

You may not know:

Anatomia completa del hombre con todos los hallazgos, nuevas doctrinas, y observaciones raras hasta el tiempo presente ... segun el methodo con que se explica en nuestro theatro de Madrid. Por el doctor don Martin Martinez  (Madrid, 1752) British Library RB.23.a.12905

It has 23 plates showing various grisly parts, but what catches my attention is the engraved frontispiece, signed ‘ F. Mathias Irala inv. et sculp.’.  (That is, Mateo Irala both designed and engraved it).

Anatomia completa del hombre 1
Frontispiece of Anatomia completa del hombre

Not for ‘doctor don Martín Martínez’ grubbling round in the innards of a corpse, possibly that of a lowly criminal. He leaves that to foreigners like Dr Tulp. In the ‘Amphitheatrum Matritense’ [of Madrid] Dr Martínez has a man to do that for him, leaving him free to point in lordly fashion at salient features with an outstretched finger in a pose reminiscent of that of a Roman general. Tulp stands up and Martínez sits down. The Dutch audience strain their necks to see; the Spanish students point  their fingers in rhetorical fashion.

Hands-on experience apparently still plays only a small part in the education of doctors in Spain in our own time: I understand they study largely with books.  By the way, in the etching of Rembrandt’s picture by Johannes de Frey (Baillieu Library Print Collection, University of Melbourne) a folio book has appeared in the bottom right-hand corner, so learning and experience both have a role to play.

It’s tempting to think of these two images as typifying practical Protestantism contrasted with theory-driven Catholicism, but we must resist the temptation. There was, for example, no Catholic ban on the dissection of corpses. A fairer contrast would I think be nation-based: Dutch versus Spanish, not Protestant versus Catholic.

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic studies

Dolores Mitchell, ‘Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp: A Sinner Among the Righteous’, Artibus et Historiae, 15 (1994), 145-56. DSC 1734.085000

27 December 2013

C'est ma chanson

A while ago I went to see Petula Clark in concert at the Barbican in York.  As a fan since the 1960s it was an emotional occasion as Petula turned 81 in November and may not give many more live concerts.
Petula was a child star and first performed on radio for the BBC during the Second World War. She was a popular singer in the UK and became world famous in 1964 with her hit ‘Downtown’. In the 1950s she began to record in French, eventually moved to France, and in 1961 married a Frenchman, Claude Wolff.

Petula Clark in 1960. (Photo by Henk Lindeboom / Anefo from Wikimedia Commons) w:en:Creative Commonsattributionshare alike

She didn’t like France at first but the French took her to their hearts and loved the way she spoke French with an English accent. She became friends with the singers Françoise Hardy, Charles Aznavour, Sacha Distel and the Belgian Jacques Brel, who wrote ‘Un Enfant’ for her, and she admired the work of songwriter Serge Gainsbourg for whom she recorded a number of songs. She wrote and recorded ‘La Chanson de Gainsbourg’ in his honour and her signature is among the famous tribute graffiti on the exterior walls of his Parisian home.

It is her French recordings that I love and listen to regularly to this day. The title of this piece is the French version of one of her most famous hits, ‘This Is my Song’, written for her by Charlie Chaplin. Most of her best French songs have been captured on a set of nine CDs entitled Anthologie which cover the years 1958 to 1976. She sometimes combined her love of England and France in her singing, as in ‘La Seine et la Tamise’, the music for which she wrote herself with lyrics by Pierre Delanoe, and in ‘Hello Mister Brown,’ which celebrated English pop culture.

The collection also includes some classic French songs such as ‘Pigalle’, ‘La Vie En Rose’ and ‘La Mer’. There are many other songs with soulful, haunting melodies like ‘Pierrot Pendu’ and ‘Pourquoi Dis-Tu Pourquoi?’, as well as lively, upbeat numbers such as ‘Ya Ya Twist’. A search for recordings by Petula Clark on the British Library’s catalogue brings up many of these French language recordings held in our Sound collections.

Petula Clark has also starred in many films, including Goodbye Mr Chips with Peter O’Toole and Finian’s Rainbow with Fred Astaire. She has had a notable career in stage musicals too, both in London’s West End and on Broadway. She has never permitted an official biography, but two unofficial ones have appeared in 1983 by Andrea Kon and 1991 by Stephen Warner, and she gave her blessing to an illustrated French book about her life and work in 2007.

She received a standing ovation in York and I hope to see her perform on stage again before she finally ends her long and glorious career. Meanwhile, as a festive touch, you can hear her singing a French version of ‘Silent Night’ here.

Trevor Willimott, former West European Languages cataloguer    


Anthologie. CDs 1-9. Paris: FGL Productions, 1998-2002.

Kon, Andrea. This is My Song: a Biography of Petula Clark (London, 1983) YM.1989.b.544

Warner, Stephen. Petula Clark: a Biography.(London, 1991) YK.1993.a.9035.

Piazza, Françoise. Petula Clark: une baladine (Paris, 2007.) YF.2008.b.2810

23 December 2013

BBC Ukrainian Book of the Year 2013

“And the winners are: Yaroslav Melnyk and Maryana and Taras Prokhasko!” On Friday 13 December BBC Ukrainian announced the winners of its Book of the Year 2013 awards at the Conference Hall of Hotel Vozdvyzhensky in Kyiv.  

16mar2013_yaroslav_melnykYaroslav Melnyk

The BBC Ukrainian Book of the Year award was established in 2005. Many prominent Ukrainian writers have been winners: Jury Vynnychuk in 2012 for his Tango smerti (‘Tango of Death’ ) , Volodymyr Rutkivsky in 2011 for his historical novel Syni vody (‘Blue Waters’),  Serhiy Zhadan in 2010 for Voroshylovgrad – to name just a few. All these books are available for our readers in the original in our Ukrainian collections. Hopefully English translations will follow, thanks to the publishing house Glagoslav and other publishers offering translations of literature from Central-Eastern Europe.
In 2012 the nomination “Children’s Book of the Year” was added. Both awards are now presented in the partnership with the EBRD Cultural Programme. The lovely illustrated Khto zrobyt’ snih (‘Who will make the Snow’) by Maryana and Taras Prokhasko  won this year’s Children’s Book award.

Далекий_простір_обкладинка-OKYaroslav Melnyk’s novel Dalekyi prostir (‘The Remote Space’ or in another  translation ‘The Distant Space’ - cover of the book on the left, reproduced by kind permission of the author) was named the BBC Ukrainian Book of the Year 2013.  First it was in the Long list of 20 publications, then in the Short list of alongside Za chvert' desiata (‘Quarter to Ten’ by Yuriy Makarov  and Frau Miuller ne nalashtovana platyty bil'she (‘Frau Muller Isn’t Disposed to Pay More’) by Natalka Sniadanko.

Artyom Liss, the Editor of BBC World Service Europe Hub, writes about the novel: "The winning novel by Yaroslav Melnyk is a dystopia which explores the issue of freedom. The novelist writes about the freedom to see - to escape the world of the blind - but also to escape the world of those who can see, and who rule the blind. These are themes found in literature around the world, and through its protagonist’s journey, this novel very effectively explores what freedom means and what is its price."

Yaroslav Melnyk  is the most cosmopolitan Ukrainian writer of the 21st century. Born in Ukraine in 1959 he graduated from the Lviv University and started his literary career as critic. He soon established himself as one of the best literary critics in Ukraine. The British Library holds his first book of literary portraits Syla vohniu i slova (‘The force of fire and word’ - Kyiv, 1991; shelfmark YA.1996.a.7452) as well as small book of deeply lyrical poetry Ridna (‘Kindred spirit’; Dubno, 1992 shelf mark YF.2013.a.6021) donated to the library during his visit to London at the invitation of the London Ukrainian Literary Club.

Yaroslav Melnyk with members of Literary Club in London in March 2013

After studying in Moscow at the Maksim Gorki Institute of Literature Melnyk settled in Lithuania where he soon became a well-known writer and a member of the The Lithuanian Association for Writers. His works have been translated into French from Lithuanian (Les parias d'Éden in French translation was published in Paris in 1997 by Robert Laffont Publishers). The British Library holds a book of short stories in Lithuanian Labai keistas namas (‘Very Strange House’) published under the Lithuanian form of his name Jaroslavas Melnikas (Vilnius, 2008;YF.2009.a.7219). In 2012 Melnyk returned to writing in Ukrainian with his book of philosophical stories Telefonui meni, hovory zi mnoiu (Call me, talk to me’; Kharkiv, 2012;  YF.2012.a.25352).

You can find the fragments of an English translation of the Lithuanian version of The Distant Space by Diana Bartkute Barnard  and a synopsis of the novel  in the issue 34 of the  bi-monthly review of books and writing from around Europe Transcript,  published by Literature Across Frontiers.

Congratulations to the winners!

Olga Kerziouk, Curator of Ukrainian Studies


20 December 2013

Deventer does Dickens - and much more: literary heritage in a Dutch city

Deventer  is a town of about 100,000 souls, situated on the banks of the river IJssel in the East of the Netherlands. It was founded by the English missionary Lebuinus around 768. In the Middle Ages it was part of the Hanseatic League, which brought great wealth to the city. This can still be seen in the many beautifully restored old houses in the city centre.

One of these is the building of the Latin School (1300), where famous mediaeval scholars like Erasmus and Geert Grote, founder of the Devotia Moderna movement, studied and taught. Under the direction of Alexander Hegius, who introduced new study methods, the Latin School reached its peak. His new curriculum included Greek and required new text books, which were printed nearby by Richard Pafraet and Jacob van Breda.

Parfraet Conjugationes verborum graecae
Conjugationes verborum graecae (Deventer, [1488?]). British Library G.7536. One of Pafraet's textbooks; the authorship is sometimes ascribed to Alexander Hegius.

Deventer had been quick to adopt the new technique of printing with movable type and became a centre of the printing and publishing industry that continues to this day with offices of Wolters Kluwer publishing based in the city. Deventer also harbours the oldest scholarly library in the country: the Stadsarchief en Athenaeumbibliotheek (SAB), founded in 1560.

With such a strong tradition in learning, printing and publishing it may not come as a surprise that Deventer has two major book festivals. In August it hosts the biggest second hand book fair in Europe, with 6 km of stalls lined up along the banks of the  IJssel.  

In December there’s the Dickens Festival. This takes place in the medieval quarter of the city centre, the Bergkwartier, with its many beautifully restored houses. In 1990 the local inhabitants and businesses wanted to attract more visitors and custom to their area and came up with the idea to have a Dickens Festival, featuring concerts, Christmas markets and of course street performances by participants dressed up as Dickens characters, 950 in total this year.

Last weekend (14-15 December) saw the 23rd Festival, which attracted around 140,000 visitors, from all over the country and beyond. With a total city population of just under 100,000 that’s not bad going. Photos of the event are available on Flickr.

Almost exactly coinciding with the Dickens Festival in Rochester, Kent, it is rather  like a tale of two cities! 

Marja Kingma, Curator, Dutch studies


The British Library holds 115 titles published by Richard Pafreat, between 1477 and 1511, as listed in Johnson, A.F. and Scholderer, V.  Short-Title Catalogue of Books printed in the Netherlands and Belgium and of Dutch and Flemish books printed in other countries from 1470 to 1600 now in the British Museum (London, 1965) YD.2011.a.3918; RAR 094.209492 BL

18 December 2013

“This country called Belarus”: our latest Belarusian acquisition

In June 2013 I saw some information about the book  This Country Called Belarus: an Illustrated History  on the website of the Belarusian newspaper Nasha Niva. I contacted our supplier MIPP, a firm based in Lithuania, to buy a copy of the book straight away, because some books are so popular they sell out very quickly. In July 2013 the book arrived at the British Library and I catalogued it; it is now available at shelfmark YD.2013.b.892.
Nasha Niva 1908
Nasha Niva
from 1908 (Facsimile edition (Minsk, 1992) at BL shelfmark ZA.9.d.369

Nasha Niva was the first Belarusian-language newspaper; it was published by two major Belarusian cultural figures, Ivan Lutskevich and Anton Lutskevich, and appeared weekly between 1906 and 1915 in  Vilnius [Polish: Wilno, Belarusian: Vilnia]. Publication ceased when the Germans occupied the city in the First World War and was renewed briefly in 1920. The newspaper appeared once again in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The editor at the time was Andrei Skurko.

This Country called Belarus
Cover of the book This country called Belarus (Bratislava, 2013). YD.2013.b.892

The author of the book — the first Belarusian edition of which appeared in 2003 — is Uladzimir Arlou, a well-known Belarusian historian and writer; the artistic designer is Zmitser Herasimovich. The translator is Jim Dingley, Acting Chairman of the Anglo-Belarusian Society. The book was published in Bratislava, Slovakia. The presentation of this book to the world was thus a truly international effort.

The book covers art, history, culture, famous historical figures and facts, biographies, all of which combine to make this book into a most beautiful publication about Belarus.

I hope our readers will enjoy reading it!

Rimma Lough, Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian Cataloguer

16 December 2013

Christmas Music and Popular Songs: Free Concert at the British Library

When: Mon 16 Dec 2013, 13.00 - 14.00
Where: Entrance Hall, British Library
Admission free

Join the British Library & British Museum Singers for a programme of Christmas Music and Popular Songs. This concert has become an annual fixture and, as always, the programme will consist of a sprinkling of European Christmas music including items sung in the original French, German, Spanish, Czech, Polish and Russian alongside a generous helping of familiar English carols and popular songs from all ages. The concert will be conducted by Peter Hellyer.

BL & BM Singers
The British Library & British Museum Singers

The Polish carol to be performed in the concert is ‘W zlobie lezy’ (‘Jesus lying in the manger’, better known to English-speakers as ‘Infant holy, infant lowly’). It is believed that this carol originated in the 17th century and it is attributed to Piotr Skarga, a Polish Jesuit, preacher and the leading figure of the Counter-Reformation. The music is based on the polonaise composed for the coronation of King Ladislaus IV Vasa.

‘Il est né, le divin enfant’ (‘He is born, the divine child’) is a traditional French carol,  which was first published in 1862 in a collection of Christmas carols entitled Airs des noêls lorrains compiled by a church organist, Jean-Romary Grosjean. And the Austrian carol ‘Stille Nacht’ is, of course, familiar in both its original German, and in English as ‘Silent Night’; during the First World War, in the Christmas truce of 1914 German, English and French soldiers are said to have sung it together, all in their own languages, across the lines.

Peter Hellyer, Musical Director British Library & British Museum Singers and Curator Russian Studies 


13 December 2013

From the Parnassus of the Peoples

 As the year 2013 numbers its last days in the calendar, I would like to say a few words about a very special anniversary not widely known. Yet it should be commemorated and cherished as a great manifestation of human spirit and hope, and especially remembered on 15 December – the birthday of L.L. Zamenhof, creator of Esperanto, also celebrated worldwide as Esperanto Book Day.

Antoni_GrabowskiPHOTO-OKThe book to be celebrated today was published 100 years ago by the great idealist, polyglot and prolific translator Antoni Grabowski (1857-1921, portrait (right) from Wikimedia Commons).  Antoni Grabowski was a chemical engineer and the author of the first Polish chemical dictionary Słownik chemiczny (1906). He is known as “the father of Esperanto poetry”, although his main contribution to the development of literary language in Esperanto was his work as a translator. Modern writers, such as the prolific Icelandic Esperanto poet Baldur Ragnarsson, trace their fascination with Esperanto poetry to Antoni Grabowski.

I wonder how often you would find poems by Thomas Moore, Richard Wagner, Paul Verlaine, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Aleksandr Pushkin, Taras Shevchenko, Adam Mickiewicz, Sandor Petofi – to name just a few – under one cover ? Not often, I guess. Antoni Grabowski, prominent Polish pioneer of Esperanto, achieved precisely this: he united them all in a book called El Parnaso de Popoloj (‘From the Parnassus of the Peoples’). He himself translated 116 poems, from 30 languages, into a language itself only 26 years old. The modest-looking book was published in Warsaw in 1913 (BL shelfmarks: 1913 edition:F5/3998; facsimile reprint from 1983 YF.2008.a.112020)


Memorial plaque to Antoni Grabowski in Wroclaw (from Wikimedia Commons)

Do people still write poetry in Esperanto? Yes, they do. As soon as the new language was created and the first manual published in 1887  it started to inspire poetical souls in many nations. And it never ceased to inspire. Another interesting phenomenon is now observed worldwide: poetry originally written in Esperanto is more and more translated into other, “proper” languages. I came back in October from Kolomea not only with love and admiration for this small Galician town full of history and culture, but with a lovely book entitled Verda Antologio. Part 1. Poezio ('Green Anthology, part 1. Poetry'; awaiting shelfmark), published in Ukraine in 2013. For the first time this anthology presents to readers 33 Esperanto poets (including Antoni Grabowski, of course) from the 19th-21st centuries in Ukrainian translations.

How to celebrate Esperanto Book Day? Here are just a few  suggestions: by reading some poetry in Esperanto (the first collection of Esperanto poetry, edited by Antoni Grabowski, La liro de la Esperantistoj [The Esperantists’ Lyre] (1893), has been digitised by the Austrian National Library  or by listening to the original poem by Antoni Grabowski on YouTube.

During the terrible years of World War One in Warsaw Antoni Grabowski, ill and separated from his family, survived by translating the Polish epic poem by Adam Mickiewicz Pan Tadeusz (1834).


Illustration by Andriolli  from an edition of Sinjoro Tadeo (Warsaw, 1955) 11588.r.17.

The translation Sinjoro Tadeo was first published in Warsaw in 1918 ( YF.2004.a.24909). “It profoundly influenced the style and vocabulary of later poets, and it is for this reason that Grabowski, although primarily a translator, is important for the study of early original Esperanto literature, both poetry and prose,” writes Geoffrey Sutton. On Esperanto Book Day the first stanza of Sinjoro Tadeo addressed by Mickiewicz to his homeland Litwa (translated into English as Litva or more often Lithuania, to describe the historical region in Eastern Europe) resounds in my mind:

Litvo! Patrujo mia! simila al sano;
Vian grandan valoron ekkonas litvano
Vin perdinte. Belecon vian mi admiras,
Vidas ĝin kaj priskribas, ĉar hejmen sopiras.

Litva! My country, like art thou to health,
For how to prize thee he alone can tell
Who has lost thee. I behold thy beauty now
In full adornment, and I sign of it
Because I long for thee.

(English translation by Maude Ashurst Biggs. From Master Thaddeus, or The Last foray in Lithuania (London, 1885)

Further reading:
Banet-Fornalowa, Zofia. Antoni Grabowski: eminenta Esperanto-aganto (Warsaw, 2001) YF.2006.a.29512
Sutton, Geoffrey. Concise Encyclopedia of the Original Literature of Esperanto 1887-2007. (New York, 2008). YC.2008.a.12495

Olga Kerziouk, Curator Esperanto Studies

11 December 2013

Straight man, funny man

The Latin Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolf dates back to the 11th century. Solomon appears in his traditional guise of the sage, uttering dicta of impeccable orthodoxy and solemnity. The peasant Marcolf lowers the tone; he ripostes with earthy, carnavalesque sayings:

Solomon: Ex habundancia cordis os loquitur
Marcolf: Ex saturitate ventris triumphat culus
[Solomon: The heart speaks from the fullness of the heart [Mt 12:35]
Marcolf: The arse trumpets from the fullness of the belly].

I see Marcolf’s banter as no more threatening to the status quo than the schoolboy parodies of my childhood: ‘Little things please little minds.’ ‘And little trousers fit little behinds.’

Solomon and Marcolf was translated into pretty well all the European languages (see Ziolkowski). But nothing has survived in Spanish or Catalan, so far as I know. It may well be that such texts existed once. In fact, the shade of Marcolf can be perceived in the Llibre de tres (Catalan, 14th century). There, beside the cynical but sententious ‘Tres condicions són de persones qui poden dir falsies a lur guisa: gran senyor denant sos vassals e veyls denant jóvens e qui parla de luny terra.’ (no. 160) [Three conditions of persons can say falsehoods at will: a great lord before his vassals, and old people before the young, and he who speaks of distant lands], we find the earthy ‘Tres coses fa la oreneyla ensemps: vola, caga, menja’ (no. 107) [The swallow does three things together: flies, s***s and eats.]

In the woodcuts of Solomon and Marcolf, Marcolf looks very like Aesop. You may know Velázquez’s painting of Aesop in the Prado, which to my eye looks very much like the woodcuts. Aesop looks like he was done from the life. Did the master scour the streets of old Spain until he came upon someone who fitted the part?
Aesop & Marcolph rotated
Aesop (left, from an edition of the fables published in Basel, ca. 1489; British Library G.7831) and Marcolph with Solomon (right, from The dialogue or communing between the wise King Solomon and Marcolphus, ed. by E. Gordon Duff (London, 1892) British Library 12204.e.15)

There may be a subtle reflection of Solomon and Marcolf in Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Don Quixote is in most respects a clean book, particulary if you compare it with Rabelais. Quixote himself is famously high-minded. Sancho is a man of the people – in some senses he is the people – but his earthiness is healthy rather than destructive. When he says to Quixote, ‘the dung of your words has fertilised the barren ground of my understanding,’ (II, 12) he’s paying his respects to high culture and acknowledging that dung is a valuable commodity to a farmer.

In Don Quixote Sancho is famous for spouting proverbs. (There was a tradition of books of Sancho’s proverbs.) But Cervantes, so far as we can divine his intentions, isn’t opposed to such folk wisdom but rather to the excessive use of it to no particular purpose. In a favourite passage of mine, Quixote demonstrates that he is fluent in Sancho’s language (II, LXVII):

“A truce to thy proverbs, Sancho,” exclaimed Don Quixote; “any one of those thou hast uttered would suffice to explain thy meaning; many a time have I recommended thee not to be so lavish with proverbs and to exercise some moderation in delivering them; but it seems to me it is only ‘preaching in the desert’; ‘my mother beats me and I go on with my tricks.’”
“It seems to me,” said Sancho, “that your worship is like the common saying, ‘Said the frying-pan to the kettle, Get away, blackbreech.’ You chide me for uttering proverbs, and you string them in couples yourself.”
“Observe, Sancho,” replied Don Quixote, “I bring in proverbs to the purpose, and when I quote them they fit like a ring to the finger; thou bringest them in by the head and shoulders, in such a way that thou dost drag them in, rather than introduce them; if I am not mistaken, I have told thee already that proverbs are short maxims drawn from the experience and observation of our wise men of old; but the proverb that is not to the purpose is a piece of nonsense and not a maxim.”

Sir Walter Scott in The Talisman (ch. XI) describes the ‘Spruch-Sprecher’ and ‘Hoff-Narr’, servants of the court of Leopold, Grand Duke of Austria, contemporary of Richard I:

… his SPRUCH-SPRECHER – that is, his man of conversation, or SAYER-OF-SAYINGS – who stood behind the Duke’s right shoulder.
This personage was well attired in a cloak and doublet of black velvet […] bearing a short staff to which also bunches of silver coins were attached by rings, which he jingled by way of attracting attention when he was about to say anything which he judged worthy of it. This person’s capacity in the household of the Archduke was somewhat betwixt that of a minstrel and a counsellor. He was by turns a flatterer, a poet, and an orator; and those who desired to be well with the Duke generally studied to gain the good-will of the SPRUCH-SPRECHER.
Lest too much of this officer's wisdom should become tiresome the Duke’s other shoulder was occupied by his HOFF-NARR, or court-jester, called Jonas Schwanker, who made almost as much noise with his fool’s cap, bells, and bauble, as did the orator, or man of talk, with his jingling baton….
Sometimes they became rivals for the conversation, and clanged their flappers in emulation of each other with a most alarming contention; but, in general, they seemed on such good terms, and so accustomed to support each other’s play, that the SPRUCH-SPRECHER often condescended to follow up the jester’s witticisms with an explanation, to render them more obvious to the capacity of the audience, so that his wisdom became a sort of commentary on the buffoon's folly.  And sometimes, in requital, the HOFF-NARR, with a pithy jest, wound up the conclusion of the orator's tedious harangue.

And what are Blackadder and Baldrick but but  modern-day versions of Solomon and Marcolf?

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic Studies


Jan M. Ziolkowski,  Solomon and Marcolf . (Cambridge, Mass., 2008).  YC.2009.a.3555.

Natalie Zemon Davis, Society and culture in early modern France : eight essays (London, 1975).  X.809/40500.

Cervantes, Miguel de, The ingenious gentleman : Don Quixote of La Mancha : a translation with introduction and notes by John Ormsby. (London, 1885). 12489.k.4. (Available online at:

Llibre de tres, ed. Martí de Riquer (Barcelona, 1997).  YA.2000.a.26779

09 December 2013

Coming to England with Alfred Kerr

2013 has seen many well-deserved tributes on the 90th birthday of the children’s writer and illustrator Judith Kerr. Although I never encountered her wonderful picture books as a small child, when I was about 10 I read her novel When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit which tells the story of a family exiled from Nazi Germany. I have loved it ever since, and as an adult I still find that it and its two sequels reward re-reading.

I knew that the novels were based largely on the author’s own experience and that she, like Anna in the books, was the daughter of a famous writer. As a student reading German I occasionally wondered who this writer was; the name Kerr never appeared on my reading lists or on the shelves of the university library. But I didn’t pursue the question until a couple of years later when, working in what was then the Institute of Germanic Studies Library, I came across a book called Ich kam nach England by one Alfred Kerr. In the opening paragraphs the author describes fleeing Berlin with a high fever and living in Switzerland and Paris before coming to England. A little further on he writes that, if the family had stayed in Berlin “my son would never have won the Prix d’excellence at the Lycée Michelet …[and] my eleven-year old daughter would never have said … ‘Daddy, it’s wonderful to be a refugee.’” (p. 26). All this I recognised from When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit: these children were the ‘Anna’ and ‘Max’ of the books, and the author was their father.

But he was, of course,  much more too: Alfred Kerr (1867-1948) was best known as a brilliant and influential theatre critic but he was also a poet and editor and wrote about a range of political and cultural topics and about his travels in Europe, America and Africa. He knew many of the major cultural and intellectual figures of his day and was indeed counted among them: the list of contributors to a ‘Book of Friendship’ published in Kerr’s honour in 1928 reads like a who’s who of contemporary German letters.

Book cover with a portrait of Alfred Kerr
Chapiro, Joseph (ed.) Für Alfred Kerr: ein Buch der Freundschaft (Berlin, 1928). British Library 01703.df.16. A collection of essays and tributes from Kerr’s contemporaries and friends, with a cover portrait of Kerr by Emil Stumpp

Kerr was outspoken in his opposition to the rise of Nazism, and it is proof of the influence of his writing and opinions that his arrest was ordered as soon as Hitler  came to power and that his books were among those publically burned in May 1933. Fortunately Kerr was forewarned of the planned arrest, and he and his family were able to escape in time. From his exile he published a collection of  attacks on Germany’s new rulers entitled Die Diktatur des Hausknechts (‘The Dictatorship of the Servant Boy’).

Cover of 'Die Diktatur des Hausknechts' with a caricature of a thuggish Nazi embraced by a skeleton
Alfred Kerr, Die Diktatur des Hausknechts (Brussels, 1934)

Ich kam nach England is not a straightforward autobiography or diary but a series of impressions and sketches of England as seen through the eyes of an outsider. Sometimes Kerr comments with wry humour on English manners and customs (such as the arcane traditions of his son’s boarding school or the confrontational language of MPs in the House of Commons), but he also takes a serious critical look at the country and is often concerned at the apparent blindness of many of its people towards the true state of affairs in Germany; he is bitterly disappointed, for example, when his friend Bernard Shaw expresses admiration for Hitler. However he ends, writing in the dark days of 1940, by praising England as the country which “has saved humanity for humankind – from Hitlerism which is the cruellest form of idiocy given life.” (p. 199).

The book is written in Kerr’s typical highly accomplished and individual style with brief and often aphoristic sentences combined into short, numbered paragraphs; he frequently incorporates dialect or foreign words or phrases, quotations and snatches of conversation. It’s a difficult style to translate and his work is therefore little known outside Germany - which is one of the reasons why, despite his many years in England, Kerr found it hard to make a living as a writer here.

As far as I can discover, to this day none of his works have been translated into English. It would be wonderful if a brave translator could take up the challenge with Ich kam nach England for a start, and introduce Alfred Kerr also to a nation already brought up on his daughter’s books.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

References/further reading:

Kerr, Alfred, Ich kam nach England: ein Tagebuch aus dem Nachlaß, herausgegeben von Walter Huder und Thomas Koebner (Bonn, 1979). X:909/88514

Dove, Richard, Journey of no return : five German-speaking literary exiles in Britain, 1933-1945 (London, 2000)  YC.2006.a.20750

Kerr, Michael, As Far as I Remember (Oxford, 2002) YC.2002.a23013 (A memoir by Alfred Kerr’s son)

Kerr, Judith, Out of the Hitler Time (London, 2002) H.2002/4250 (An omnibus edition of the three autobiographical novels, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Bombs on Aunt Dainty, and A Small Person Far Away)

06 December 2013

Not only for Christmas: St Nicholas in East and West

If you happen to be a schoolboy, a sailor, a thief, a pawnbroker or a victim of injustice today is your lucky day. 6 December is the feast of St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, who is the patron of all these as well as having assumed a very different mantle from his episcopal cope in his alias as Santa Claus.

Throughout Europe today, children will be enjoying the gifts left by the good saint in their shoes or other strategic places the night before (see postal stamp below from Ukraine from Wikimedia Commons), often after a rigorous catechism or the threat of receiving something less pleasant (a switch or a lump of coal) from his sidekick Black Peter, Krampus or a handy devil.


Those who bemoan the commercialisation of Christmas nowadays would have found a kindred spirit in the Czech author Karel Čapek, who in the 1930s was already observing that it was a long time since he had seen a ‘real’ St Nicholas rather than one parading a sandwich-board around the streets of Prague. ‘His devils are employees of the Baťa shoe firm, and yet another rival St. Nicholas is flaunting himself in the shop window of what I take it is the Moravia factory,’ he complains in his Kalendář  (Prague, 1940 ; British Library YF.2005.a.31518). He proposed the setting-up of a Central St Nicholas Bureau, where a first, second or third-class St. Nicholas could be ordered by telephone to enliven family festivities, with a real or a cotton-wool beard, according to price.

In the 19th century the gifts brought by the Saint were usually edible, especially gingerbread, as a whole chapter, ‘Saint Nicolas, pâtissier céleste’, describes in the exhibition catalogue Un Saint-Délice: pain d’épice et Nicolas published in 2002 by the Bibliothèque royale de Belgique (LF.31.b.3256). His festive activities have been the subject of countless songs, illustrations and even a psychological study by the Dutch author Pieter van der Ree in Sinterklaas en het geheim van de nacht [‘St Nicholas and the mystery of the night’] (Zeist, 2012; YF.2013.a.19234).

From earliest times legends clustered about the historical personage of St Nicholas (270-343), including his resurrection of three small boys pickled by an unscrupulous butcher, secret provision of dowries for three poor maidens, his rescue of seafarers in distress and men unjustly condemned, and his boxing the ears of the heretic Arius at the Council of Nicaea. In this centenary year, we may recall Benjamin Britten’s cantata St Nicholas (1948), which tunefully commemorates several of these.

On a more serious note, the British Library holds a volume dating from 1662 which was acquired by the British Museum before the end of 1834 from the collection of Thomas Smith. The Old Church Slavonic Sluzhby i zhitīe i chiudesa Nikolaa Chiudotvortsa [‘Services, life and miracles of St Nicholas the Wonderworker’] is thought to have been printed in Moscow, and testifies to the widespread devotion to one of the most attractive and popular Saints, loved and venerated in both the Eastern and Western traditions of Christianity. 

St Nicholas C.127.a.4(3)
Sluzhby i zhitīe i chiudesa Nikolaa Chiudotvortsa
 ([Moscow], 1662). C.127.a.4(1)

It is especially appropriate, perhaps, as St. Nicholas is also the patron of students, to wish our readers happiness on his feast-day, and, as Karel Čapek concludes, ‘may gifts be yours in abundance’.

Susan Halstead,  Curator Czech/Slovak Studies