European studies blog

12 posts from July 2015

31 July 2015

The Following Story as a Matter of Life and Death

Cees Nooteboom’s 1991 novella Het volgende verhaal (The Following Story) attempts to narrate death as a process of becoming imperceptible, and the action in the novel takes place when the narrator is neither alive nor dead but somewhere in-between. The novel ends at the beginning: it is a story within a story, a cyclical narrative that does not have a clear-cut beginning or end. It portrays a world in which the states of life and death are not limited or quantifiable. Instead, the normally measurable dimensions of time and space become stretched and malleable in the strange and endless moment between living and dying.

Cees Nooteboom in 2007 (Photo by HPSchaefer via Wikimedia Commons

The philosopher Rosi Braidotti has strong words regarding the foregrounding of death as the ultimate other that has haunted much postmodern theory, writing that it “fuels an affective political economy of loss and melancholia at the heart of the subject”. She offers an alternative, freeing death from its anthropocentric perspective by conceptualising it as the experience of “becoming-imperceptible”. Rather than remaining in a static state of being, the subject is always undertaking a series of processural changes and is thus always becoming. A focus on the in-between spaces between one thing and another means, that the boundary between life and death itself becomes blurred.

Gilles Deleuze and Félix  Guattari write that a writer must “become a nomad and an immigrant and a gypsy in relation to one's own language”. Nooteboom’s works do this: they are widely available in translation, which is relatively unusual for the often domestic world of Dutch literature. Dutch is sometimes perceived as a small language and culture occupying a minority position within the majoritarian location of the European Union and its hegemonic languages. The Netherlands even has a difficult relationship with its own writing: a 2008 study of Dutch reading habits revealed that over half of books read in the Dutch language were translations, suggesting that Dutch literature had become minoritarian even in its country of origin.  As a successful travel writer as well as novelist, Nooteboom has escaped these intimate national, linguistic, and canonical borders.

 RCLemensHetVlgdVrhl  RClemensFollStory
Het volgende verhaall
in the original Dutch and in English translation

In Het volgende verhaal, systems of naming are playfully sabotaged. The self is no longer fixed and static; instead, identities become multiple and nomadic. The novella’s narrator has three names: his legal name, Herman Mussert, his pen name, Dr Strabo, and his nickname, Socrates. In all cases, the names do not singularly refer to the one bounded body of the narrator. Nooteboom shares Strabo’s occupation of a travel writer: nebulous identities can be passed from organic to literary body and exist within and without each other.

Even something as seemingly empirically stable as physical matter becomes open-endedly fluid in the novella. Herman remembers a pillar in a Spanish cathedral on which the touch of many pilgrims over many years had eroded the shape of a hand. The resulting relief in the marble is sculpted not by a sculptor but through the differing repetitions of a gesture, making imperceptible changes perceptible. The hand is perceptible despite it being “not there” from Herman’s perspective. It is both there and not there, remaining in a fixed state only until another pilgrim places their hand on it: human affective connective potential.

The dissolving matter and fragmented identities are part of Herman’s process of death, although it only becomes evident later in the narrative. Herman leaves his physical body in Amsterdam and embarks on a journey of becoming-imperceptible, eventually finding himself on a boat with other passengers who share their story of dying. Finally, Herman has to share “the following story”, bringing the reader back to the start of the book. Herman says that this is what remains of his subjectivity after it leaves his body: it exists as a story, or different stories to be told by the people he connected with. In Braidotti’s words, even though our nebulous selves die “we will have been and nothing can change that”, the present perfect continuous asserting the enduring continuum of life beyond the “I”.

Ruth Clemens


Cees Nooteboom, Het volgende verhaal : roman (Amsterdam, 2011) YF.2013.a.986 (English translation by Ina Rilke: The Following Story (London, 2014). H.2014/.7727)

Rosi Braidotti, , ‘The Ethics of Becoming Imperceptible’, in Deleuze and Philosophy, ed. Constantin Boundas (Edinburgh, 2006) pp. 133-159. YC.2007.a.12470

Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Cambridge, 2013) YC.2013.a.7861

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka : pour une littérature mineure (Paris, 1975) X.900/17435 (English translation by Dana Polan: Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (Minneapolis, 1986) 8814.628200)

Marc Verboord and Susan Janssen, ‘Informatieuitwisseling in het huidige Nederlandse en Vlaamse literaire veld. Mediagebruik en gelezen boeken door literaire lezers en bemiddelaars’, in Ralf Grüttermeier and Jan Oosterholt (eds.), Een of twee Nederlandse literaturen? Contacten tussen de Nederlandse en Vlaamse literatuur sinds 1830 (Leuven, 2008). Awaiting shelfmark

Ruth Clemens is a Postgraduate student in Comparative Literature at University College London. She won the Essay prize in the category Post Graduates, awarded by the Association for Low Countries Studies  for her essay ‘Becoming-Imperceptible in Cees Nooteboom’s The Following Story and Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman.

28 July 2015

Rationing and the Red Guard: a very British perspective

At the time of the October 1917 Russian Revolution there were thousands of European citizens, mostly British and French, living and working in Russia. Ranging from governesses and tutors to engineers, industrialists and their families, these men and women found themselves unwittingly caught up in the conflict and changes unfolding around them. While some, including the subject of this post, later published their recollections of the period, the stories and fate of these ‘expats’ do not feature prominently in narratives of the revolution.  

A detailed eyewitness account by a woman named Mary Field sheds light on the experience of being both a foreigner and a woman in Petrograd in the months immediately after the revolution. Published in the June 1919 edition of The Englishwoman, a journal originally established to ‘promote the Enfranchisement of Women’, Field’s article covers everything from the difficulties of finding food to the imprisonment of her brother by the Red Guard in August 1918.

Milk line
Milk queue at Sytnyi Market in Petrograd, 1920s (Image from the Bain Collection, Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons)

From Field’s account we can assume that she was part of a family of textile mill owners in the country, an industry that attracted many British industrialists and engineers to Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Field refers to herself as the mistress of the house and, indeed, the main focus of the article is her daily struggle in managing her household and carrying out the necessary tasks associated with this role, such as preparing for a trip to the market amid shortages and rationing.

I carried a market basket, several small linen bags – as the sellers would probably have no paper – and a milk-can, in the forlorn hope of getting a pint of milk, liberally diluted with bad water, at a price not exceeding eight shillings the pint.

Field also conveys a sense of what it was like to be a woman in the city during this time:

Of course we never ventured out after dark – and it is dark indoors by three o’clock in November and December. There were many tales of women rash enough to do so who had been stripped of their clothes and allowed to return home dressed only in a shift.

While some of Field’s observations and complaints may seem trivial when compared to the far greater struggles of many less fortunate than herself, her account must be read in the context of the changes she had experienced following the revolution:

Looking out over the city, I realised suddenly that everything was different… The change had come gradually, but even a new-comer could not fail to remark the grass growing in the streets, the absence of traffic, how slowly the solitary cart with its child-driver crept over the unmended cobble-stones, how the pedestrians hobbled along, their ankles swollen out of all shape, their fingers bandaged, thin and anxious-looking…

However, Field herself notes that ‘…all these troubles were small compared to our horror when one night a party of Red Guards came and carried off my brother.’ Touching upon wider political changes, Field writes that her brother was arrested ‘…the night after the assassination of [Moisei] Uritski, the wounding of Lenin and the attack on the British Consulate’. She is describing the beginning of the ‘Red Terror’, a campaign of mass killings, torture and oppression by the Bolsheviks, which began in response to an assassination attempt on Lenin and the murder of Uritski, a commissar in the Bolshevik Secret Police or ‘Cheka’, in August 1918.

Guards at the grave of Moisei UritskiGuards at the grave of Moisei Uritski. Petrograd. The banner reads: ‘Death to the bourgeois and their helpers. Long live the Red Terror.’ September 1918. (Image from: Wikimedia Commons)

As Field notes, ‘that night the Red Guard were arresting all Englishmen and Frenchmen, all men with German names, all officers of the old (Imperial) army…’ Like many other British male citizens living in Petrograd at the time, Field’s brother was imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress. Describing her attempts to bring food and blankets to the prison, Field remarks that so many of her acquaintances were waiting at the prison for news of their loved ones that ‘it might have been an English gathering’.

                            Peter and Paul fortress
Peter and Paul Fortress. (Photo by Alex Florstein from Wikimedia Commons)

Then, ‘as suddenly as he had been arrested’, Field’s brother was released. The family left Russia shortly after on a ‘refugee train’, taking with them the few belongings they could hurriedly gather together and likely never to return.   

Katie McElvanney, CDA PhD student

References and further reading

Mary Field, ‘Petrograd, 1918’, The Englishwoman, No. 126 (June 1919). P.P.1103.bag.

For a list of memoirs and first-hand accounts by Westerners resident in Russia at the time of the revolution, see Jonathan D. Smele (comp., ed. & annot.), The Russian Revolution and Civil War, 1917–1921: An Annotated Bibliography (London; New York, 2003). YC.2005.b.2224


26 July 2015

Letter from Donbass miners

“Dear Comrades,” the letter began, “On the 18th anniversary of the October revolution, we send you our greetings.” Dated 10 October 1935 and signed by Soviet Esperantists working in the Donbass region of the Soviet Union, the letter endeavored, via the formulaic ardour of Stalinist homage, to “tell how the miners used to live before the revolution, and how they live now freed from the capitalists, thanks to the Communist party and the genius of the revolutionary leader Lenin, and the wise leadership of our beloved comrade, friend and leader Stalin.”

Translated from Esperanto into English and entitled “From a Russian Miner” (although it was in fact sent not from Russia but from Postyshevo, now Krasnoarmiisk, in Ukraine), this hearty missive appeared in the pages of a 1936 issue of La Laborista Esperantisto (The Worker Esperantist; British Library P.P.3558.ibl.) – the periodical of the British Section of the global Esperantist organization known as Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda (S.A.T.) [World Anational Association]. As the standard inside cover of La Laborista Esperantisto reliably explained, S.A.T.’s primary aim was “to utilize in practical ways the international language, ESPERANTO, for the class aims of the working class throughout the world.”  S.A.T. insisted that Esperanto allowed workers to share ideas and educate one another; to collaborate in pursuit of the revolutionary aims of the worldwide proletariat; and to foster “a strengthened feeling of human solidarity” among Esperantist workers otherwise separated not merely by spatial distance, but also by national borders, languages, and citizenship regimes.

For its own part, “From a Russian Miner” carried the imprimatur of a regional outpost of the Union of Soviet Esperantists. When in 1921 the Union of Soviet Esperantists was established in Petrograd, its founding members devoted themselves to the popularization and deployment of Esperanto as a means of fostering cultural exchange, revolutionary networks, and friendly relations between Soviet workers and their comrades abroad. The global solidarity of proletarian Esperantists would thus advance the global solidarity of the proletariat as a whole.

Throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s, Soviet Esperantists sought to realize this broad internationalist goal largely through the increasingly regulated practice of what the Soviets called “workers’ correspondence.” Soviet Esperantists adapted this method of propaganda, committing themselves to flooding foreign news outlets and workers’ associations with carefully crafted missives like the one that appeared in La Laborista Esperantisto in 1936. The point was to extol Soviet achievements and squash anti-Soviet “rumours” propagated by deceitful capitalists – and to do so via the international auxiliary language of Esperanto. Esperantist leaders abroad could then, in the hoped-for scenario, translate and reprint the Soviet Esperantists’ letters in the foreign press, thereby transmitting official Soviet ideology to workers abroad.

EsperantpForWorrkers           An Esperanto class for workers, From Esperanto dlia rabochikh:  uchebnik dlia kruzhkov i samoobrazovaniia (Moscow, 1930), p. 56.

By the time “From a Russian Miner” appeared, the Union of Soviet Esperantists was in crisis. On the eve of the Stalinist terror that would devour many of the organization’s members, the problems that bedevilled it  ranged widely. While an analysis of these problems goes beyond the scope of this blog entry, “From a Russian Miner” highlights certain flaws in the Union’s  approach to fostering global proletarian solidarity under the conjoined red star of the Soviet Union and green star of Esperanto.

“From a Russian Miner” adopted the format of a letter, but reads like a singsong recitation of talking points issued from a bureaucratic office. As promised in its opening paragraph, it first enumerates the horrors and indignities of miners’ pre-revolutionary life in tsarist Russia, and then celebrates their  joyful new Soviet life. Living and working conditions prior to the revolution, the letter explains, were miserably inhumane as workers inescapably sacrificed themselves to “create riches for an army of parasites.” Production was not only punishing and humiliating, but also shamefully primitive “as nothing was known of machinery.” Clean drinking water was denied the sickened workers, as was even a rudimentary education.

Soviet poster "Work conditions of miners and workers in the Don Basin" (image from Wikimedia Commons)

The narrative arc marches stalwartly onward in such fashion to the revolutionary climax: the dawning of the “bright and sunny day” that is the contemporary Soviet Union. The life of the Soviet miner, the letter explains, is one of fresh air, clean water, and nutritious food. Electricity illuminates the workplace and modern machinery powers industrial production. First-aid stations, bathhouses, classrooms, and a Palace of Culture ensure good health and enlightenment. “In comparison with our past life, our present life is scarcely credible,” the letter explains.  “Every miner has his little house surrounded with greenery. He has a vegetable garden, pigs, birds, and perhaps a cow.” All of this is owed, the letter concludes, to the wise revolutionary leadership of Lenin and Stalin.

No doubt the so-called “workers’ correspondence” that Soviet Esperantists transmitted abroad in the 1920s and 1930s did energize and inspire foreign workers, igniting their imagination of everyday Soviet life as a model to be emulated globally. In this way, Esperanto did serve the Soviet Union in pursuit of its internationalist aims. Yet the formulaic missives authorized by the Union of Soviet Esperantists for foreign consumption also obstructed the organization’s stated effort to facilitate relationships between Soviet workers and their comrades abroad. Taking “From a Russian Miner” as a representative example of permissible Soviet Esperantist correspondence in the Stalinist 1930s, it is impossible to overlook not only its unnuanced presentation of an entirely unblemished Soviet life, but also its unrelenting monologic approach. The letter’s gaze focuses resolutely inward while its tone is conspicuously incurious about life abroad. “From a Russian Miner” poses no questions to foreign Esperantists, nor does it invite questions from them. The letter’s portrait of Soviet working life is numbingly generic and depersonalized; the collective workers’ “we” is narratively flattened into the faceless beneficiary of the October Revolution. The letter thumps with triumphal celebration of Soviet achievements, but palpably lacks the human touch of the Soviet citizens who wrote it.

“From a Russian Miner” concludes with a plea for a reply from fellow Esperantists abroad – “a letter by which we can feel the brotherhood and solidarity of the world’s workers.” It asks, in other words, for something that “From a Russian Miner” itself failed to deliver.

Brigid O’Keeffe

Brigid O’Keeffe is an Assistant Professor of History at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York.  In June 2015, she joined The Reluctant Internationalists project at Birkbeck College as a Visiting Fellow. During this time, she conducted research at the British Library, using its extensive collection of materials that document the global history of Esperanto and Esperantism.

24 July 2015

What European Studies owe to J. M. Cohen (1903-1989)

We’re always hearing how the UK publishes a shamefully small number of  translations compared with other nations: 3 per cent?

This is probably true of new bestsellers, but is it true of long-sellers? In my formative years, and possibly yours, the sole locus of European literature on the high street was the Penguin Classics, much more visible than the World’s Classics or Everyman.  There’s a good history of the collection in the 1987 festschrift for Betty Radice. Founded in 1946, its first authors included Homer, Voltaire and Maupassant. The introductions were non-academic – Aubrey De Sélincourt’s  prologue to Herodotus is four pages – and the translations middle-brow (W.C. Atkinson translating Camões: “Venus is now Cytherea, now Erycina, now Dione, now the Cyprian goddess, now the Paphian.  It is in short a mark of erudition [...].  For such learning the modern term is pedantry, and it becomes a service to the reader of today [...] to call things by their names and ask of each divinity that he or she be content with one.”)  The translators were rarely university lecturers (unlike today): in fact they seemed to me mostly to be schoolteachers.

The series was edited by people with names whose pronunciation a London teenager could only guess at: Betty Radice I now assume is pronounced like Giles Radice MP; but what of E. V. Rieu:  ‘REE-oo’ or ‘ ree-YERR’?

Penguin Quixote 2

One of my school-leaving prizes was J. M. Cohen’s translation of Don Quixote (in print 1950-1999, my well-read copy shown above).  The biographical (as opposed to bibliographical) information on the half-title was meager: ‘J. M. Cohen was born in 1903 and has been writing and translating since 1946.’  As I read more Romance literature, again and again these works were translated by Cohen: Rousseau (in print 1953-), Rabelais (1955-1987),  Montaigne (1958-1993), Teresa of Avila, The Penguin Book of Spanish Verse, Bernal Diaz’s Conquest of New Spain, Columbus, Rojas.

These were reprinted again and again.

Whenever I was faced with the question from the man in the street, “Oh, is there any Spanish literature?”, my rock and refuge were the Penguin Classics, and Cohen the prophet.

But of Cohen’s translations, only Rousseau, St Teresa and Columbus, I believe are in print any more.  It’s a maxim of the translation industry that each generation needs its own Cervantes et al.  This may or not be true (it isn’t true, but I want to appear broad-minded) but that’s no reason to consign earlier translators of the callibre of Cohen to a damnatio memoriae: M.A. Screech never refers to Cohen in his Rabelais or Montaigne.

A project is now underway to catalogue Cohen’s  papers, which are in Queens’ College Cambridge.  But his true legacy is in the minds of people like you and me.

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Collections

Penguin classics editions translated by J.M. Cohen:

Miguel de Cervantes, The Adventures of Don Quixote (1950) W.P.513/10a.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions (1953) W.P.513/33.

François Rabelais, The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel (1955) W.P.513/47.

St Teresa of Ávila, The Life of Saint Teresa of Ávila (1957) W.P.513/73.

Michel de Montaigne, Essays (1958) W.P.513/83.

Blaise Pascal, The Pensées (1961) W.P.513/110.

Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The Conquest of New Spain (1963) W.P.513/123.

Fernando de Rojas, The Spanish Bawd. La Celestina (1964) W.P.513/142.

Benito Pérez Galdós, Miau (1966) W.P.513/181.

Agustín de Zárate, Discovery and Conquest of Peru (1968) X.708/3888.

The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1969) X.808/6013.


‘J. M. Cohen, Gifted translator of foreign prose classics’ (Obituary), The Times (London), 22 July 1989

‘Obituary of JM Cohen: An opener of closed books’, Guardian, 20 July 1989

The Translator’s Art : Essays in Honour of Betty Radice, edited by William Radice and Barbara Reynolds (Harmondsworth, 1987).  YC.1988.a.329

Vladimir Alexander Smith-Mesa, ‘Making Our America Visible.  J. M. Cohen (1903-1989): El Transculturador’, Aclaiir Newsletter, 23 (2014), 14-17.  P.525/398; a version of the article as a blog post can be read here

22 July 2015

A stitch in time: embroidery as a force for social change

With just a few days left to catch Cornelia Parker’s magnificent reinterpretation of the Magna Carta through embroidery, it is time to reflect on the curious paradox which it illustrates. Although embroidery may conventionally be regarded as a cosy domestic pastime with little relevance to issues of social or political importance, it has in fact served throughout the centuries to express, covertly or openly, messages about national identity, economic and gender issues, and human rights in their broadest sense. Rozsika Parker’s study The Subversive Stitch: embroidery and the making of the feminine  (London, 1983; British Library X.520/36489) ensured that it could no longer be belittled or dismissed as beneath the interest of serious historians.

Cornelia Parker's Magna Carta (An Embroidery) on display at the British Library. Photograph © Tony Antoniou

The materials and threads in which embroidery is worked reflect the climate and culture of its origin, as until the 19th century dyes were derived from plants which grew locally; rare or imported substances such as madder and indigo retailed for considerable sums. It was not until the industrial production of aniline dyes  that a wider (and gaudier) palette became available to the needlewoman as  ‘Berlin woolwork’  (see Jane Alford, Beginner’s guide to Berlin woolwork, Tunbridge Wells, 2003; YK.2004.b.2338)  was exported worldwide and with it commercial patterns facilitating the widespread transmission of designs conceived for the mass market.

This reversed the tradition by which distinctive forms of embroidery had evolved in rural communities, such as Hardanger  in Norway (Sue Whiting (comp.), The Anchor book of Hardanger embroidery; Newton Abbot, 1997; YK.2001.a.17530), Hedebo in Denmark (Hanne Frøsig Dalgaard, Hedebo; København: [1979]; X.419/4281)  and Mountmellick  in Ireland (Pat Trott, Beginner’s guide to Mountmellick embroidery;  Tunbridge Wells, 2002; YK.2003.b.7757 ). These were worked exclusively in white thread on linen with a variety of intricate cutwork and drawn-thread techniques which often produce a lace-like effect and, as in the case of Hardanger aprons, still worn as part of Norwegian folk costume, identify the wearer’s place of origin, like the Aran knitting patterns which had the slightly macabre property of enabling the identification of drowned fishermen.  

Emrboidery Books 2Books about embroidery from our collections

In other areas, such as Ukraine (Olena Kulynych-Stakhursʹka, Mystetstvo ukraïnsʹkoï vyshyvky: tekhnika i tekhnolohiia = The art of Ukrainian embroidery: techniques and technology; L'viv, 1996; YA.2001.b.341), whitework existed alongside other types of embroidery executed in cross stitch, predominantly in red and black, which, as in Hungary where the same colours frequently appeared, featured stylized motifs from nature such as birds, animals and the eight-pointed star which is found as far away as Iceland.

UKRAINIANFINALDSC_5870Traditional Ukrainian embroidery patterns, from A. and N. Makhno, Sbornik" malorossiiskikh" uzorov" (Kiev, 1885) J/7743.i.5.

The samplers worked by young girls often included edifying sentiments or Bible verses, and were not merely fancy-work but served the dual purpose of imparting moral virtues and the skills needed to mark and repair household linens. A particularly practical example of this is the samplers, which command high prices nowadays, made by the children taken into the care of George Müller’s orphanages in Bristol. Stitched in red, these provided evidence of the makers’ abilities, so that when they left the orphanage the girls would be well equipped for posts in domestic service as well as the running of their own homes one day.

While the Industrial Revolution made the large-scale production of textiles possible, handmade items retained a certain status because of the hours of intense labour and dexterity which they required. The comparative crudity of colour, texture and design already noted in mass-produced embroidery materials did nothing to raise the prestige of the medium, and it fell to William Morris to reverse this trend. His wife Jane and daughters Jenny and May were all gifted embroiderers and executed many of the designs which he created. In keeping with his belief in the importance of arts and crafts as a means of social reform, the Ladies Work Society was established in 1875 as part of the wider Arts and Crafts movement which  aimed to foster the applied arts, including textiles,  as worthy artistic disciplines. The Society provided a respectable means of employment for gentlewomen who had needlework skills and education but no other means of making a living and were commissioned to produce decoratively embroidered clothing and textiles through the Society or for sale at its premises in Sloane Street, London. By ensuring fair payment, the Society replaced the exploitation of female textile workers by recognizing and rewarding their talents and helping them to achieve autonomy and economic independence.     

Fittingly, in view of this vision of needlework as a means of stitching one’s way to dignity and self-respect and of the message conveyed by Magna Carta itself, much of the embroidery in Cornelia Parker’s project was carried out by members of Fine Cell Work, an organization set up in 1997 to send volunteers into prisons to teach the inmates, both male and female, needlepoint as a way of enabling them not only to pass the long hours in their cells profitably but to earn an income while in custody. Lady Anne Tree, its founder, also believed strongly in the therapeutic and meditative quality of needlework, and after many years of lobbying the Home Office changed the law to allow prisoners to earn money during their sentences. While the discovery that such activities have physiological benefits, lowering the blood pressure and heart rate, is comparatively recent, the ethical and social values which Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta embroidery transmits are timeless, and it continues the message of those who throughout history have understood that craft and creativity serve a purpose far beyond the mundane and material.

Chris-parsons-embroidery-magna-carta-cornelia-parkerChris, a member of Fine Cell Work, at work on Magna Carta (An Embroidery) by Cornelia Parker. Photograph by Joseph Turp

 Susan Halstead, Content Specialist Humanities & Social Sciences

20 July 2015

From Boulogne-Sur-Mer to Lille

In a week’s time an important event will take place in the northern French town of Lille. Esperantists worldwide will meet again for their biggest annual gathering, the World Congress of Esperanto  – and this year for the 100th time.

As a curator of Esperanto Collections I am asked more often than I would like: “Is Esperanto still alive? Does anybody speak Esperanto these days?” and other rather annoying questions. I usually congratulate the person on meeting their first Esperantist (i.e. me) and invite them to check our rich Esperanto Collections. Type the word “Esperanto” in our electronic catalogue “Explore the British Library” and you will be surprised to find a lot of books, journals, musical scores in Esperanto (original literature, translations, history of Esperanto clubs, biographies of famous Esperantists etc.) and about Esperanto and Esperantists.

SedHomojkunhomoj                        Cover of Sikosek’s book  Sed homoj kun homoj (Rotterdam, 2005) YF.2006.a.30996

No lack of information about World Congresses of Esperanto either. In 2005, to mark the 90th Esperanto Congress in Vilnius, Lithuania, Ziko Marcus Sikosek compiled  a good guide, Sed homoj kun homoj. Universalaj kongresoj de Esperanto 1905-2005, in which you can find most useful information about the history of the congresses and their chronology. The title of the book comes from the famous speech by L. L. Zamenhof, creator of Esperanto, in 1905 in Boulogne-Sur-Mer, where the first congress took place. It emphasises the fact that during Esperanto  congresses all language barriers fall apart and everybody communicates with each other just as “a human being with human beings”.

The British Library holds various booklets and guides about some World Congresses of Esperanto.  Quite a few of them took place in Britain: the 3rd in Cambridge (1907), the 18th in Edinburgh (1926), the 22nd in Oxford (1930), the 30th in London (1938), the 46th In Harrogate (1961), the 56th in London (1971), the 74th in Brighton (1989).

LLKOxfordMembers of the Organisation Committee for the 22nd World Congress of Esperanto in Oxford (from XXIIa Universala Kongreso de Esperanto...; Oxford, 1930; 12902.aa.62) 

For each congress the Organization Committee (called in Esperanto LKK - La Organiza Komitato, picture of above) prepares a guidebook about the host country (some of these guides are part of our collections – photo below) 

Postcards, and sometimes stamps, are issued for each congress. The biggest collection of congress memorabilia is held in the Esperanto museum in Vienna, now part of the Austrian National Library.

EsperantoStamps_of_Lithuania,_2005-18                         Stamp of Lithuania for the 90th World Congress of Esperanto  in Vilnius, 2005 (From Wikimedia Commons)

The Esperanto movement has a rich history of prominent people from many countries who took an active role in organising the congresses. Amongst the pioneers I would like to mention Hippolyte Sebert, the French general and scientist, who learned Esperanto in 1898 and then dedicated many years of his long and active life to the organization of the Esperanto movement and congresses. The British Library holds his early books in French (about artillery, and a treatise about trees in New Caledonia), as well as edition of his letters to Zamenhof during 1909-1913, compiled and edited in Japan (Kial ludoviko abdikis? 1990; YF.2009.a.15613)

Nowadays many people researching their ancestors consult guides and books about the congresses, looking for their family members known to be enthusiastic Esperantists and travellers in their youth (or later years). Here is what the list of participants for the 4th Esperanto Congress in Dresden looked like (from Kongresa Libro;  Dresden, 1908;  YF.2012.a.27394).

These days the programme of 100th World Congress of Esperanto is easily available to all on the Internet.  At the moment 2485 Esperantists from 82 countries have joined the congress in Lille. Some will join on arrival. If you happen to  be in Lille between 25 July and 2 August 2015 pay attention to the languages spoken on the streets, hotels, in public transport.  You have a lot of chances to meet your first Esperantist and find out how very much alive and kicking the language is! And, as very recent events show, citizens are ready to be taken into custody and pay fines, as during the protests against the renaming of Esperanto Street in Kazan, the Russian Federation.

“Important event”, I said? Yes! It proves that the neutral “artificial” language, created in 1887, lives and prospers, bringing joy and all kind of social activities to its users (picture below from the 4th congress in Dresden in 1908), and starts to attract more researchers to study this  unique socio-linguistic phenomenon in depth.

Olga Kerziouk, Curator Esperanto Studies

16 July 2015

The Lost Fame of Heinrich Böll?

When Heinrich Böll died on 16 July 1985 he was one of the best-known and best-regarded German writers of the postwar era, winner of the 1972 Nobel Prize for Literature as well as Germany’s own prestigious Georg Büchner Prize in 1967, whose works were translated into some 30 languages.

Bundesarchiv_B_145_Bild-F062164-0004,_Bonn,_Heinrich_BöllHeinrich Böll in 1981. (Image Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F062164-0004 / Hoffmann, Harald / CC-BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons)

However, popularity, critical acclaim and even a Nobel Prize in a writer’s own lifetime are no guarantee of enduring fame. Fast forward to 2010, and no less a figure than Germany’s ‘Pope of Literature’, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, despite warm personal memories of Böll and an acknowledgement of his importance, pronounced his poetry and plays “worthless” and most of his novels “a disappointment” in an interview with the newspaper Die Welt. This was part of a general consensus among German critics and journalists that Böll was now largely forgotten; when a large part of his archive was destroyed in the collapse of the Stadtarchiv in Cologne in 2009 it seemed almost symbolic of the author’s own posthumous fate.

This 30th anniversary of Böll’s death is a good moment to revisit him, not least given the death earlier this year of Günter Grass, with whom Böll was often linked during his lifetime. Although very different writers, they moved in the same literary and political circles, and their works show the same concern with confronting Germany’s past and holding up a critical mirror to the country’s present. 

For Böll, of course, the German present did not extend to the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification. This seems to be one of the reasons for loss of interest in his work, which is seen by some contemporary writers, critics and teachers as firmly rooted in the Federal Republic of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, and no longer relevant to the very different world of the 21st-century ‘Berlin Republic’.

Böll for schoolsBritish schools' editions of some of Böll’s works. Böll was  a staple of the A level German curriculum in the 1970s and 80s, but is less read and studied in Britian today.

Despite the specific social and historical setting, however, many of Böll’s underlying themes do have contemporary relevance. For example, he often evokes the sense of a spiritual void and lack of humanity in a materially successful society. A short story like ‘Es wird etwas geschehen’, where the frantically busy staff of a company are forever discussing what they will achieve while never truly achieving  anything, could be a satire on today’s business methods and management-speak.  In ‘Doktor Murkes gesammeltes Schweigen’ (described by Reich-Ranicki as “perhaps his best work”), a radio editor collects and listens to recordings of silence as a contrast to the self-important yet often trivial programmes which his station broadcasts – and silence in the face of a self-important and trivial media is an even rarer commodity today.

Böll’s most famous novel, Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum, also has contemporary echoes. Inspired both by German press coverage of the Baader-Meinhof Gang and by the hounding of Böll himself as an apologist for terrorism after he published an essay criticising the tabloid Bild-Zeitung in particular, it tells how Katharina Blum’s life and reputation are ruined after she spends the night with a petty criminal and helps him to evade the police. The press falsely depicts the man as a ruthless bank-robber, murderer and potential terrorist, and Katharina as his cold, calculating and promiscuous accomplice. Statements in her defence are twisted against her, friends and family are pursued, strangers send hate mail, and eventually Katharina is driven to shoot the journalist who has led the witch-hunt against her. In a modern version Katharina would be lynched on social media as well as in print, but that is the only difference.

Even if not all of Böll’s work has stood the test of time so well, he deserves  also to be remembered as a humanitarian who supported dissident writers and political prisoners and spoke up for what he considered to be right. In the words of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, a Green political foundation named in his honour:

he embodied that rare combination of political awareness, artistic creativity, and moral integrity which remains a model for future generations. The courage to stand up for one's beliefs; encouragement to meddle in public affairs; and unconditional activism in support of dignity and human rights. (

Not a bad legacy.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections


Heinrich Böll, Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (Cologne, 1974) X.989/36213

Heinrich Böll, Doktor Murkes gesammeltes Schweigen, und andere Satiren (Cologne, 1958) X.989/70833 (collection includes ‘Es wird etwas geschehen’)

14 July 2015

Pleasure and Death in Revolutionary Paris

The Palais-Royal, which still survives today in Paris, just north of the Louvre, was built between 1637 and 1641, and remodelled between 1781 and 1784, when it belonged to the Orléans family and operated as a garden surrounded by an arcade of shops and restaurants. It became notorious as a resort of prostitutes, and five editions of an eight-page guide to ladies of pleasure can be found in the French Revolutionary tracts (shelfmark F.441.(1).)

Tarif des Filles F441(1)
The Tarif des filles du Palais-Royal was published in 1790, for the benefit of the many strangers drawn to the capital by their love of liberty and desire to participate in patriotic festivals. Many such visitors are being scandalously over-charged by the ‘Commerçantes de Cythère’ so these ladies, some of whom actually resided in the Palais-Royal, are listed, with their charges, which vary considerably, from six to two hundred livres, or more.  Sophie and her sister are willing to entertain you for the night, with supper, for two hundred livres in the rue basse du Rempart.  Duchausour and her sister lodge with a tapestry-maker in the rue de Fers, and charge one hundred and eighty livres. Stainville, nicknamed the Maréchale, has a brothel of six girls in the rue neuve des bons enfans (rather ironic as they are not good children, unless at their profession). Issue three mentions the trades followed by some of the ladies, such as sellers of dress or jewellery, actress or singer.

Issue four advises readers of either sex that they can consult La Dame le Large, midwife, at her office near the Opéra over their health, for a subscription of three louis a year. All ‘damaged’ persons can be ‘made new’. This issue also adds some descriptions of the ladies, such as ‘black, crinkly hair’, ‘soft and inactive’ and ‘warning that she sleeps all night’. Other ladies are described as ‘very pretty’, having ‘a beautiful throat’, or having ‘seductive features but too large a mouth’. One is ‘very clean and has a bidet’. Another is no longer in business since her last child. Georgette is a little ‘mignarde’ (mannered), but loosens up after she has drunk a bowl of punch. Issue five details some of the refreshments provided, such as cakes, vanilla ices or beer.  Others offer gambling or card games such as biribi and bouliotte. Mademoiselle Grand-Jean offers a ‘chansonnette’, a light-hearted or satirical song.  A lady called Saint-Fard is ‘polissonne’ (‘teasing’ or ‘licentious’) if well paid.

Guillotine Permanente F437(9)

A stark contrast is provided by tract F.437.(9), an eight-page attack on saints and aristocrats by L. Boussemart, known as ‘Moustache’. On the first page ‘La guillotine permanente’ [above] is an engraving of the guillotine in action, which a footnote informs us is the guillotine at the Carousel (next to the Louvre) drawn from life, an illustration which can be purchased separately as a print.

Boussemart admits he was a former monk, and launches a virulent attack on saints Laurence and Bartholomew for being aristocrats. Now, he says, we have saints Rousseau, Voltaire and Francklin [sic – ie Benjamin Franklin] who have revealed the people’s rights.  As it is too late to guillotine Laurence and Bartholomew, they should be erased from history. He ends with words for a bloodthirsty song calling for a quick trial for traitors leading straight to the guillotine, so that their heads should pay for the cost of the machine. The last verse calls La Fayette to the guillotine so that this ‘monsieur blondinet’ should also pay the price of his treachery.  The Marquis de La Fayette, hero of the struggle for American independence, was a moderate revolutionary, and his support for the king and a constitutional monarchy resulted in his denunciation as a traitor by the time this pamphlet was written, probably in 1793.

Morna Daniels, Former Curator French Collections

10 July 2015

Basque and Georgian – are they related?

Basque, the only non-Indo European language in Western Europe, is an isolate, a language unrelated to any other living or dead. Nonetheless attempts have been made to demonstrate a relationship with a variety of languages including ancient Iberian, Pictish, Etruscan, and Berber. The most consistently proposed kinship has been with the Kartvelian family of Caucasian languages, in particular with Georgian.

The origin of Basque has been bound up with theories about the origin of the Basque people themselves. Greek and Roman historians referred to the region corresponding to modern Georgia as eastern Iberia, as distinct from western Iberia, i.e. Spain and Portugal. The Greek geographer Strabo referred both to the Iberians of the Caucasus and to the ‘western Iberians’ (Geographica, bk. XI, ch. II, 19). Appian of Alexandria later wrote ‘some people think that the Iberians of Asia were the ancestors of the Iberians of Europe; others think that the former emigrated from the latter’ (Historia Romana, bk. XII, ch. XV, 101). However, he continued ‘still others think that they merely have the same name, as their customs and languages are not similar’. The Georgian language was also known, confusingly, as Iberian.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Basque historians adopted the prevalent Spanish legend according to which after the Flood, Tubal, a son of Japheth, was the first settler in the Peninsula, but they added that he settled first in Cantabria, i.e. the Basque region. Esteban de Garibay (born 1525) found evidence for this claim in similarities between place names in northern Spain and in Armenia, e.g. Mount Ararat (in modern Turkey) = Aralar, the mountain range in Gipuzkoa and Navarra. He also links the Basque Mount Gorbeia  to an Armenian peak ‘Gordeya’. He considered Basque the first language of the whole Peninsula and, presumably, the language of Tubal. Other writers followed Garibay, notably Andrés de Poza and Baltasar de Echave. Garibay’s identification of similarities between toponyms, however fantastical, can be seen as a forerunner of the Basque-Caucasian hypothesis.

Garibay2Esteban de Garibay, Los XL libros del Compendio historial… de todos los reynos de España (Antwerp, 1571) British Library C.75.e.4.

In the early 20th century philologists developed more scientific arguments for a link between Basque and Caucasian languages. Typological similarities certainly exist between Basque and Georgian. For example both are ergative languages. Put at its simplest, this means that the subject of a transitive verb appears in the ergative case (or ‘agentive’), while the object is in the absolutive case and is unmarked. Thus, in Basque we have ‘gure aitak etxe berria erosi du’ (‘our father has bought a new house’) contrasted with ‘gure aita Donostian bizi da’ (‘our father lives in Donostia’).  In Georgian, ‘father’ in the first sentence would be rendered by ‘mamam’ and by ‘mama’ in the second. However, the ergative construction would not be employed in subject-direct object-verb constructions in all tenses and aspects. In Basque the ergative is more regularly employed.

Another notable similarlity is that the verb morphology of both languages is pluripersonal, i.e. the form of the verb may encode not just the subject of the sentence, but any direct or indirect objects present. In Basque this is illustrated in the examples:

Nere semeak kotxe berri bat erosi du = My son has bought a new car
Nere semeak bi kotxe erosi ditu = My son has bought two cars.

The infix it in the auxiliary verb in the second example agrees with the plural object bi kotxe. However, the verb morphology of Georgian is extremely complex and functions very differently from Basque.

Typological parallels are all very well, but ergativity and pluripersonal agglutinative verbal morphology are not exclusive to Basque and Georgian, and doubt concerning possible kinship between them arises when lexical coincidences are cited. According to Basque philologists today, the majority of those seeking similarities have cast their nets very wide, claiming cognate fish when most should have been thrown back. Cognates with Basque have been sought among several Caucasian languages, although a genetic relationship between the Northern and Kartvelian groups remains unproven. Furthermore, in many cases proto-Basque forms have not been matched with proto-Georgian forms; many coincidences are thus anachronistic. The philologist R.L. Trask also stressed that the Basque, in its hypothetical early form, had a vastly impoverished consonantal system in contrast to the wealth of consonants of the Northern Caucasian groups in particular. Today, Georgian has 28 consonants, Basque 21.

Georgian1 The 36 letters of the Georgian alphabet according to Alphabetum ibericum, sive georgianum… (Rome, 1629); 621.c.33.(1.)

The case for a relationship between Basque and other languages intensified in the early 20th century with the philologists Hugo Schuchardt, C.C. Uhlenbeck and Alfredo Trombetti. Much of the debate was conducted in scientific periodicals, particularly the Revue Internationale des Etudes Basques (P.P.4331.aeb.). We might add here the Georgian linguist Nikolai Marr who developed the so-called Japhetic theory linking Kartvelian with Semitic languages and subsequently the theory that all languages had a common origin. He also found parallels between Kartvelian languages and Basque.

MarrandBasquesMarr (third from right) with a group of Basques, reproduced in Nikolai Marr, Basksko-kavkazskie leksicheskie paralleli (Tbilisi , 1987) YA.1991.a.23022

The case for possible Basque-Caucasian cognates continued to be advanced in the second half of the last century by linguists such as René Lafon and Antonio Tovar. However, later scholars, notably Luis (Koldo) Michelena and Trask, firmly rejected the Caucasian link.  This has not stemmed the tide of speculation, which in fact has widened to include Basque in a macro-language family (Dené-Caucasian) and even beyond in the hypothetical single language of the so-called proto-world. This notion seems to bring us back to Nikolai Marr. These last speculations find approval also among those still hoping to prove a common ethnic origin for the Basques and the Iberians of the Caucasus. Given that the Basque language remains alone in a class of one, it is wisest to conclude that the case for a link remains unproven.

Geoff West, Former Curator Hispanic studies and Anna Chelidze, SEE Cataloguer Russian/Georgian


Itzia Laka, A Brief Grammar of Euskara ([Vitoria-Gasteiz], 1996); available at

Juan Madariaga Orbea, Anthology of Apologists and Detractors of the Basque Language (Reno, 2006). YC.2007.a.857.

R.L. Trask, The History of Basque (London, 1997). YC.1997.b.547

José Ramón Zubiaur Bilbao, Las ideas lingüísticas vascas en el s. XVI. Zaldibia, Garibay, Poza (Donostia, 1989). YA. 1993.a.5626.

La Prensa Iberica interview with Davit Turashvili:


08 July 2015

Before & During

A few weeks ago the $10,000 Read Russia Prize 2015 was won by Vladimir Sharov’s Before & During, translated by Oliver Ready and published in 2014 by Dedalus books. The novel beat new translations of novels by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky; Sharov is a towering intellectual presence who stands comparison with these greats of Russian literature.  

SHAROVMoscow_International_Book_Fair_2013_-_113Vladimir Sharov at the Moscow International Book Fair in 2013. Photo by Dmitry Rozhkov from Wikimedia Commons

Dedalus prides itself in publishing books which are different and unlikely to be picked up by another English-language publisher. Bizarre, fantastical, intellectual game-playing novels appeal to us, books which are very European in style and content. We use the term ‘distorted reality’ to describe such works, but Before & During must be the most extraordinary novel which we have published in the last 30 years.

Vladimir Sharov, Before & During                      Vladimir Sharov, Before & During (Cambridge, 2014) British Library H.2014/.9215

Before & During blends Soviet communism with religion, a hundred years of history with the drama of everyday life, and gives a voice to individuals denied one in the Soviet era. The most unusual character in the book is Nikolai Fyodorov the ascetic philosopher, who believed the human race was to be saved by the self generation of its ancestors replacing human reproduction. Indeed the heroine of the novel is the self-replicating Madame de Staël. We start off with the 19th-century Madame de Staël and end up with the 20th-century begetter of the revolution, mother and then lover of Stalin. Tolstoy and his followers for a time take centre stage in the novel, and we learn that Tolstoy’s oldest son is in fact his twin brother whose gestation was delayed and was carried on by Tolstoy’s wife.

Although Sharov’s writing has been described as magical historicism and is full of fantastical occurrences it does not read like science fiction or fantasy. The quality of the writing transcends all else. It is, as Rachel Polonsky writes in a July 2015 article in the New York Review of Books  “at times funny, at times so piercingly moving, so brimful of unassuaged sorrow, that it causes a double-take.”

Whatever I say cannot prepare the reader for what he or she will read, especially for readers not versed in Russian culture and history, so get ready to be surprised and start reading.

Eric Lane, Dedalus Books

Other works by Vladimir Sharov in the British Library

Mne li ne pozhaletʹ ...  (St Petersburg,  2014). YF.2015.a.7961

Vozvrashchenie v Egipet  (Moscow, 2013). YF.2014.a.17277

Staraia devochka (Moscow, 2013). YF.2014.a.4620

Do i vo vremia  (Moscow, 2009). YF.2013.a.9691

Iskushenie revoliutsiei (Moscow, 2009). YF.2010.a.31651

Budʹte kak deti (Moscow, 2008). YF.2009.a.24255

Repetitsii (St Petersburg, 2003). YF.2004.a.24060

Voskreshenie Lazaria  (Moscow, 2003). YF.2004.a.24053

Sled v sled (Moscow, 2001). YA.2003.a.29041

Stikhi (Moscow, 1996). YF.2004.a.8145