European studies blog

12 posts from June 2016

29 June 2016

‘As a novel there is nothing like it ever again…’: Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe (1816)

‘Her subject was Adolphe, a short novel about failure’. These words occur in Providence (London, 1982; British Library H.84/692), a novel which might possibly be described in the same terms, by the British novelist Anita Brookner, who died in March 2016, shortly before the bicentenary of the publication of Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe in June 1816.

One of our recent posts noted the Russian dramatist Aleksandr Ostrovsky’s struggle to convince the censor that the figure of a tyrannical mother-in-law in his play The Storm did not represent Nicholas I. When Adolphe first appeared, Constant found himself embroiled in similar efforts to persuade his readers that he had not written a roman à clef based on his own turbulent affair with Germaine de Staël. The parallels were so close that his protestations in the press went largely disregarded.

Constant;s disclaimer about 'Adolphe' as printed in an English newspaper Letter Courier

  Constant’s letter about the interpretation of Adolphe, sent to various newspapers (here as printed in the London Courier of 25 June 1816)

The figure of Adolphe himself – the cultured, privileged and melancholy son of a government minister – resembles Constant both in personality and in his troubled relationship with his father, also a government minister. His mother had died within days of his birth, and at the age of four the young Benjamin was removed from his grandmother’s care and placed in that of a hated governess, whom his father secretly married, and a succession of singularly unpleasant tutors. His studies continued at the universities of Erlangen and Edinburgh, and were followed by an appointment in 1788 as Kammerjunker (Gentleman of the Chamber) to the Duke of Brunswick.

Infuriated by the stultifying pettiness of court life and his wife Minna’s equally unsympathetic attitude to his intellectual pursuits, Constant separated from her in 1793 and left Brunswick the following year, when he also met Madame de Staël. By 1795, having overcome her initial resistance, he established one of Paris’s most brilliant salons with her. Its members sought to establish a government based on the moderate and rational principles which represented the approach of the Revolution’s most able thinkers, but with Napoleon’s coup d’état of November 1799 and Constant’s election to the Tribunal he had little emotional energy left to deal with Germaine’s increasingly possessive and unbalanced behaviour and the melodramatic scenes which ensued when he hinted that the relationship had run its course. After a visit with her to Germany in 1803 where they met Goethe, Schiller and Wieland, he renewed his relationship with Charlotte von Hardenberg, whom he later married after some years of tacking back and forth between ‘l’homme-femme’ Germaine and the calm and gentle Charlotte.

Portrait of Benjamin Constant

Portrait of Constant, reproduced in Goethe und seine Welt ... herausgegeben von Hans Wahl und Anton Kippenberg (Leipzig, 1932) X.981/11934.

It was in 1806, the year when he and Charlotte began their affair, that Constant started work on Adolphe. His marriage in 1809 was followed by a final break with Madame de Staël in 1811, and in 1815, during Napoleon’s ‘hundred days’ before the final defeat at Waterloo, Constant accepted a post as his adviser. Following the fall of the Emperor, Constant spent several months in England (January to July 1816), where he gave readings of Adolphe at London salons. He was probably impelled by his lack of funds to publish the novel, which came out in London and Paris in June, with a framing correspondence between the ‘finder’ of the manuscript and its publisher to diminish the danger of readers identifying the author with Adolphe and Madame de Staël with the heroine, Ellénore. On his return to Paris, he was elected to the French parliament in 1819 and, until his death in 1830, enjoyed a brilliant political career supporting liberal causes such as Greek independence and the abolition of slavery.

Title-page of the first edition of Adolphe

Title-page of the first edition of Adolphe (London; Paris, 1816) C.57.a.47.]

For a comparatively short text (228 pages in the first edition ), the novel has inspired considerable critical discussion. Adolphe, aged 22 and having recently graduated from Göttingen, joins the court of an enlightened German prince and becomes involved with the Polish refugee Ellénore, ten years his senior and the mistress of the Comte de P***. Originally begun as an exercise in seduction, the relationship becomes a folie à deux which isolates them from society and threatens to ruin Adolphe’s career. Even after her break with the Comte and abandonment of her two children, the emotional pressure is only increased by Adolphe’s awareness of the sacrifices which Ellénore has made for him and the intransigence of his father, who drives her from his home town. Although they find a refuge on Ellénore’s restored Polish estate, a friend of Adolphe’s father coerces him into abandoning her in the interests of his career, and the shock of discovering Adolphe’s letter promising to do so causes a shock which leads to her fatal illness. In the aftermath of Ellénore’s death Adolphe remains in a state of almost Existentialist despair: ‘j’étais libre en effet; je n’étais plus aimé: j’étais étranger pour tout le monde’, an ‘outsider ‘ as isolated and alienated as Camus’s Meursault. Having longed for his lost freedom, he now regrets the claims and ties (liens) which had previously seemed so irksome to him.

The critic Dennis Wood in his study of Adolphe (Cambridge, 1987; YC.1988.a.7619) describes the novel as ‘the paradox of a German Novelle written in French’, with strong links to the 17th-century French moraliste tradition of La Rochefoucauld and the roman d’analyse represented by Madame de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves. Poised on the shift of consciousness between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it recalls the perceptive comment which Anita Brookner, herself an expert on Romantic art, offers in her character Kitty Maule’s tutorial on Adolphe: ‘for the Romantic, the power of reason no longer operates. Or rather, it operates, but it cannot bring about change’.

Susan Halstead, Content Specialist (Humanities & Social Sciences), Research Engagement

27 June 2016

All the World’s a Stage: Shakespeare in Europe and the Americas

On Friday 10 June, the British Library welcomed a host of expert speakers to discuss the global understanding of our ‘national’ poet. And it turns out Shakespeare is the poet of many nations. It would be impossible to do justice to the richness of the presentations in a blog post, yet all of our panels shared the fundamental idea that Shakespeare’s writing is at the heart of every culture. Adaptations and translations are not so much secondary to the original but offer a radically different entry into, and a potentially much more direct access to, a Shakespeare play that will always signify something particular to different nations in different social and temporal contexts.

Prof. Jerzy Limon (photo below) opened proceedings with a view into the establishment of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre, designed by Renato Rizzi, at once a huge black modernist edifice in stark contrast to the red brick Northern European architecture (its 90 tonne retractable roof opens fully in 3 minutes), and a gothic castle-like structure, alluding to the city’s mediaeval Bazylika Mariacka.  We saw videos of the theatre’s opening ceremony and of varied productions, showing how the space can be adapted to both traditional Elizabethan stage design and experimental avant-garde interpretations.

Prof. Jerzy Limon speaking about the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre brightned up

Stuart Gillespie and Graham Holderness offered us insights into the sources and settings of Shakespeare’s plays. Dr Gillespie explained how French and Italian were the languages of culture and how European (mainly Italian) sources – epics, essays (Montaigne’s predominantly), romances and novellas – were in the atmosphere around Shakespeare’s time and were inevitably absorbed and adapted in his works. Professor Holderness spoke of the ‘reciprocal relationship’ between Shakespeare and Venice and how the playwright had already created much of the myth around the city before it was (re-)created in 19th and 20th century literature.

The British Library’s Julian Harrison gave us a glimpse of the ‘Our Shakespeare’ exhibition currently at the Library of Birmingham, home to the second largest Shakespeare collection in the world. The collection was resurrected after a fire destroyed the old library building in 1879 and the collection was soon expanded thanks to donations from around the world. Julian highlighted the beautifully produced photo album of German Shakespeare scholars (1878), the photo album donated by Laurence Olivier, and a Russian edition of Romeo and Juliet presented by a Soviet delegation at the height of the Cold War. Julian also managed to show the importance of Warwickshire to the bard, just before the study day moved to more tropical climes.

Philip Crispin opened the afternoon’s proceedings with a rousing presentation on Une tempête (‘A Tempest’). In this ‘adaptation for a black theatre’, Aimé Césaire, one of the founders of négritude, recasts Ariel as a mulatto slave and Caliban as an articulate black slave in revolt, reflecting the racial politics of his native Martinique. Michael Walling, Artistic Director of intercultural, multimedia theatre company Border Crossings, presented an insider perspective of staging Shakespeare in India, and translating and staging Dev Virahsawmy’s Toufann, a Mauritian adaptation of The Tempest, in London. The linguistic choices made by both writer and translator in the case of Toufann were fascinating: the play is written in Mauritian creole, but the title is in Hindi – Prospero is from the dominant Indian diaspora community in Mauritius, and seeks to impose this new word into the play. Philip and Michael showed how these two postcolonial adaptations of The Tempest epitomise translation as creative interpretation.

Charles  Forsdick introducing Philip Crispin and Michael Walling

Charles  Forsdick introducing Philip Crispin and Michael Walling (Photo by Ben  Schofield)

From considering just three performances, Paul Prescott encouraged us to look at hundreds in his whirlwind road trip presentation across the United States. The phenomenon of the Shakespeare festival was plain to see in the sheer spread and eclectic formats of these festivals. The bard’s work is not just made for the Globe Theatre but is at home anywhere and perhaps more at home in the small and distant communities of the American West. The day’s underlying theme again: Shakespeare is accessible universally. The idea was explored further by Mark Burnett, who showed how a constant industry of Shakespeare adaptation in film across Europe and South America sees in the plays stories that apply to a vast array of national settings, from gypsy versions of Hamlet (Aleksandar Rajkovic, Serbia, 2007) and King Lear (Romani Kris – Cigánytörvény, Bence Gyöngyössy, Hungary, 1997), to a Brazilian Romeo and Juliet set in the favelas of Rio (Maré, Nosse Historia de Amor, Lucia Murat, Brazil, 1997).

Emily Olver speaking about Shakespeare in East Germany

The day concluded with a round table on the ‘cultural politics of European Shakespeare’. Aleksandra Sakowska talked about the long history of interaction between Poland and Shakespeare, a presentation which touched on the first black actor to play Othello in Britain, Ira Aldridge. Nicole Fayard drew our attention to Shakespeare’s relevance in modern French society from the Vichy regime to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, showing how even in the latter situation Shakespeare managed to force his way into public consciousness. Keith Gregor described how Shakespeare productions in Spain still far outnumber those of the Spanish Golden Age playwrights, and how, after Franco’s reign, Shakespeare began to be appropriated by Spain’s autonomous communities in overtly political avant-garde productions. Emily Oliver presented a view of Shakespeare around the time of German reunification, particularly through the challenging production of Hamlet/Machine in 1990, directed by Heiner Müller (photo above by Ben Schofield). Hamlet could be seen building and jumping over a wall on stage in a not-so-subtle allegory of the political context. Erica Sheen chaired the discussion that followed which situated Shakespeare as the most significant figure of international cultural exchange and at the heart of every nation’s self-expression. Shakespeare gives voice to political counter-currents and his work is continually adapted to inhabit alternative, minority, and simply ‘foreign’ positions.

Speakers on the closing panel of the seminar

 Final panel of the seminar. Photo by Ben Schofield

‘All the world is a stage’ begins Jacques’s monologue in As You Like It, and this study day left no doubt that will always be true for Shakespeare’s work.

This study day, organised by the European and Americas Collections department of the British Library, was supported by the AHRC ‘Translating Cultures’ Theme, the Polish Cultural Institute and the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Collaborative Doctoral Student, British Library/University of Bristol


23 June 2016

Literary Translation: Whose Voice is it Anyway?

Speaking about the translator who introduced Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov to the English reading audience, Joseph Brodsky, once wrote: “The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett.” On the other hand, there have been instances where a translation is said to be better than the original.

Cover of 'The Wedding' showing the head of a young woman with three people talking in the background

    Front cover of Ismail Kadare, The Wedding. Rendered into English by Ali Cungu. (Tirana, 1968). X.908/16616.

So, whose voice is the reader hearing when reading a novel, or a poem, in translation – the author’s or the translator’s? How faithful to the original should a translation be? To what degree should the translation be “adjusted” or “improved” to facilitate its reading by the target audience?

Typescript cover of the play 'The Ghost at the Wedding'

 Typescript. Front cover of  William B. Bland, The ghost at the wedding. Based on the novel “The wedding” by Ismail Kadare. (Ilford, 1969). X.950/13209.

These are questions that apply to literary translation from any language, of course, but they are especially relevant when translating from so-called smaller languages, where the context, references, and even style and rhythm may be alien to the foreign reading public.

Self-portrait of Tudor Arghezi

Frontispiece. Arghezi’s self-portrait. From Tudor Arghezi, Flori de Mucigai. Cu un autoportret inedit. (Bucharest, 1931). RB.23.a.20598.

On 24 June, Balkan Day at the British Library, I will be chairing a panel of literary translators who have introduced the English-speaking world to some of the best writing that Southeastern Europe has to offer. We will be discussing their approaches to literary translation and whether they think of literary translation as craft or creation. And who better to tell us than Christopher Buxton, author of two novels and translator of numerous contemporary and classical Bulgarian novelists and poets; the Turkish poet Melvut Ceylan, who lives in London and has translated both Turkish poetry into English and English poetry into Turkish; John Hodgson, who has brought us, among others, the work of Ismail Kadare and is one of only a few translators to be working directly from Albanian into English; and the poet Stephen Watts, whose many translations of poetry include the work of the surrealist Romanian poet Gellu Naum and Tudor Arghezi.

Portrait of Gellu Naum

 Frontispiece. Naum’s portrait by Victor Brauner. From Gellu Naum, Culoarul somnului. Cu un desen de Victor Brauner. (Bucharest, 1944). YA.2000.a.8782.

I know this is going to be a very lively discussion. How do I know? I’m a literary translator myself.

Christina Pribichevich Zorić, Former Chief of Conference and Language Services at the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia


21 June 2016

An Unparalleled Authority on the History of Belarusian Literature

On 21 June Prof Arnold McMillin will celebrate his 75th birthday. Until he retired in 2006, he was a Chair of Russian Literature at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. He is particularly well known and loved for researching Belarusian literature. Prof McMillin is the author of the first English-language history of Belarusian literature, published in 1977. Since then, he has remained an unrivalled authority on the subject in the English-speaking world. His academic achievements are also a great witness to the work of small community-run libraries in Britain.

Photograph of Professor Arnold McMillin

Prof. Arnold McMillin by Alexandra Belookaya.  With a kind permission of the photographer. 

Prof McMillin’s contacts with the Belarusian community in London started soon after he began his doctoral dissertation in 1964. The topic was suggested by a slavist, Robert Auty: the vocabulary of the Belarusian literary language in the 19th century – a completely neglected field of Slavonic studies at that time.

The Belarusian community in Britain was not large, but active and intellectually strong. Many cultural activities then took place at the Belarusian Catholic Mission and its Marian House in north London, which are still in existence and maintaining their central role in the community. Marian House accommodated a rapidly-growing book collection started by few Belarusian priests who were passionate to preserve the Belarusian heritage which found its way to the west during and after the Second World War.

Here is how Prof McMillin describes his experience:

The librarian was Fr Haroška, a rather fierce man, but he truly helped me a lot – I needed texts of the 19th century for my research. The priests who lived in Marian House were very kind and learned. They were very helpful too, while I was quite ignorant of the subject. Some of the texts I needed were in the British Library, e.g. Czeczot, Rypiński, but by no means all. And Fr Haroška was very keen to help me. So between the two of them, the British Library and the Skaryna Library, I wrote my thesis. That was the beginning

By 1970, the book collection on the first floor of Marian House had grown to almost 7,000 volumes, among them many valuable and rare editions. On one occasion the floor of the room the library was housed in collapsed under the weight of books into the church directly underneath it. Soon after, a building across the road was purchased to house the newly established Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library and Museum; it incorporated the book collection from Marian House. Skarynaŭka was oficially opened in 1971 and it played a central role in supporting Belarusian studies in the west, as well as helping to re-publish authors and works forbidden under Soviet rule in newly-independent Belarus. Prof McMillin was not only the most committed user of the Library, but also its passionate advocate and supporter. When the Library became a registered charity, he joined its Board of Trustees and remains a member.

Soon after Prof McMillin’s dissertation appeared as a book, he was invited by a German academic publisher to write a history of Belarusian literature. A History of Byelorussian Literature: From Its Origins to The Present Day (Giessen, 1977; British Library X:0900/189(6)) provoked a lot of interest on its publication: it was the first academic work of such scale in English. Initially, the publication was met with silence in Soviet Belarus: someone had to work out how to react to writings from the west. Prof McMillin’s evaluation of some untouchable Soviet writers was damning while he praised others who didn’t make into the official literary pantheon. Eventually, a nine-page review appeared in the leading literary journal Polymia (PP.4842.dcs.) in 1980. It was written by Prof Adam Maldzis of the Institute of Linguistics of the Academy of Sciences of BSSR. He was allowed to publish that review on two conditions: to accept the collaboration of two state-approved scholars and to include serious criticism of McMillin’s work. Eventually the review appeared under the names Ivan Navumienka, Michaś Mušynski and Adam Maldzis. McMillin’s approach was characterised as “bourgeois objectivist” – a made-up description to calm the editors’ fears.

Cover of 'A History of Byelorusian Literature'

Despite this meaningless characterisation, the two scholars developed a cordial and productive friendship. Prof Maldzis was the first Soviet scholar to visit the Belarusian Library in London in 1982. His travel diary published in Minsk five years later contained extensive excerpts from publications and manuscripts he could not access often – on account of censorship – in the BSSR.

Meantime, for Prof McMillin A History of Byelorussian Literature was only the beginning. In the following years he published another four outstanding books surveying the Belarusian literary landscape. Belarusian Literature in the 1950s and 1960s (1999; ZA.9.a.4768(28)), Belarusian Literature of the Diaspora (2002; YC.2003.a.5621), Writing in a Cold Climate (2010; YC.2011.a.1614) and Spring Shoots (2015) continued his first monograph with newly emerging materials. All four books were translated into Belarusian soon after appearing in English: no other scholar, even in Belarus, had attempted such monumental and ground-breaking publications before. Only collective works from academic institutions covered some of those periods and authors.

Cover of 'Belarusian Literature of the Diaspora

In addition to books, Prof McMillin authored dozens, if not hundreds, of articles, conference papers and book reviews. He brought to the light many names forgotten or intentionally ignored in Soviet Belarus. He has been passionate about discovering talented young authors and has pioneered many themes in the Belarusian literary studies; to take one example, he was the first to talk about the phenomenon of Belarusian prison literature.

For decades, Prof McMillin supported the Belarusian community and academic Belarusian studies in Britain. He edited the Journal of Belarusian Studies (ZC.9.a.9127), published by the Anglo-Belarusian Society since 1965, and delivered many talks organised by the Society.

Finally, any serious biographical article about Prof McMillin must mention his ingenious humour. Amusing and even shocking in his interviews, Prof McMillin is a curious example of a profound scholar never failing to captivate the hoi polloi with his broad knowledge and wisdom.

 Ihar Ivanou, Head of Learning Resources, QA Higher Education, London 

A symposium to mark Prof. Arnold McMillin's 75th birthday will be held at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies on June 24-25.  

Cover of 'Spring Shoots'


20 June 2016

An Introduction to Bulgarian Literature

In advance of this year’s Balkan Day at the British Library on 24 June 2016, Christopher Buxton offers an overview of Bulgarian literature past and present.

Bulgaria lies at the south-eastern tip of Europe, and Bulgarians are painfully conscious of this, particularly in the context of their 500 year subjugation by the Ottoman Empire. Their history, before and after this subjugation, has its glorious and inglorious aspects, typical of every country’s history. It is a story of resilience, bravery and faith alongside darker themes of betrayal and massacre. The dualism of the Bogomil heresy, arguably one of Bulgaria’s significant contributions to Medieval European ideas, permeates Bulgarian writing to this day. While 19th-century novelists and poets stoked the fires of revolution, they also never stopped lamenting the perceived passivity, hypocrisy and backwardness of their compatriots. Hristo Botev, famous for his stirring nationalist call to arms, would rhyme patriots with idiots. Petko Slaveikov would declare: we are not a nation, we are carrion.

Hristo Botev in his poem dedicated to the freedom fighter Hadzhi Dimitur, and Ivan Vazov in his great novel Under the Yoke helped create the binary opposites of Bulgarians struggling against the intolerably cruel Turkish subjugation. During communism, these stereotypes were reinforced by writers like Haitov and Donchev. These binary opposites extended to Partisans combating the dastardly reactionary forces.

Every country’s literature has its more uncomfortable stereotypes: Spain – Don Quixote, the Czech Republic  – Švejk . The satirical writer Aleko Konstantinov created Bai Ganyo, the Bulgarian travelling salesman, let loose on the capital cities of civilized Europe. Ignorant and cunning in equal measure, a source of embarrassment and hilarity for his better educated compatriots, Bai Ganyo casts a long shadow over Bulgarian consciousness..

After liberation in 1878 Bulgaria saw a succession of wars, a heartbreaking diminution of homeland, the rise of a terrorist organization which would play a profound political role, a series of coups, a bomb outrage, a white terror from 1924 and an even more savage red terror from 1944, and a second “liberating” invasion by the Soviet Union which led to 45 years of Communist rule.

Cover of cover of Geo Milev's 'Septemvri' with an image of a red flagFront cover of Geo Milev, Septemvri. (Sofia, 1948). YA.2001.a.38809.

These years saw the emergence of strong poetic voices. They include Bulgaria’s Great War poet, Dimcho Debelyanov, who was killed in action in 1916. His poem One Dead bears comparison with Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting. A veteran who barely survived the Great War, Geo Milev, was murdered by Macedonian vigilantes, after his radical poetry upset the authorities. Two other poets, Hristo Smirnenski and Nikola Vaptsarov, reflected the political turbulence of the times. This same turbulence was to fatally affect Bulgaria’s greatest poet, Peyo Yavorov, on both a personal and political level. His poem, Refugees, on the victims of Balkan ethnic cleansing, is sadly relevant today. His love poetry, for which he is justly revered in Bulgaria, poses quite a challenge for the translator with its hypnotic rhythms and internal rhymes. In the area of personal relationships, there are three strong female voices – Mara Belcheva, Dora Gabe and Elisaveta Bagryana – I would dare to suggest singing over the heads of their male competitors. The spirit of pre-war modernism is reflected in the dark symbolic poetry of Atanas Dalchev.

Photograph of Elissaveta Bagryana seated at a desk

Elissaveta Bagranya, portrait from Elissaveta Bagryana Ten poems, in the original and in an English translation. (Sofia, 1970). X.989/8515.

Alongside the poets, three masters of the short story deserve attention – Yordan Yovkov, Elin Pelin and Chudomir. These writers convey the comedy and tragedy of close community, in eloquent economy. They have their present day counterparts – notably Deyan Enev, whose short stories have been translated by Kapka Kasabova and published by Portobello Books.

There has been a tendency to ignore the writers who were active during the Communist period. Working within the tight censorship of the USSR’s most faithful satellite, some writers produced works of outstanding genius. I would point to Ivailo Petrov’s novel, Wolf Hunt, a tragic comic village blood-letting reminiscent of Faulkner. I should also mention the brave Stanislav Stratiev, whose plays highlighting the absurdities of Communist bureaucracy have been performed on the London stage.

Post-communism, there is now a flowering of Bulgarian writing, much of which waits to be translated and published. Two books by Alec Popov  Mission London and The Black Box have been published by Istros Books and Peter Owen  respectively. Each portrays the pathos of Bulgarian existence in the west with sympathetic black humour. The Physics of Sorrow, Georgi Gospodinov’s poetic disquisition on existence published in English by Open Letter, offers a unique insight into Bulgarian self deprecation, playful humour and otherness..

Still awaiting a publisher, is Milen Ruskoff’s masterpiece, The Heights, which won its author the European Prize for Literature in 2014. A truly significant re-examination of Bulgaria’s revolutionary brigand past, it eschews patriotic clichés, and provides world literature with two new heroes, comparable to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Bulgarian writers have begun the important task of re-examining their country’s turbulent past, so long misrepresented by ultra patriots and the Communist regime. Alec Popov has written a poignant and hilarious novel about the partisan movement, The Palaveevi Sisters. Hristo Karastoyanov’s One and the Same Night is a painstakingly researched recasting of the state-sponsored murder of Geo Milev. Vladimir Zarev, who began his career in the dusk of communism has written a series of powerful sagas reflecting on the drastic political changes Bulgaria has endured. These changes are also eloquently described by Teodora Dimova, Eli Aleksieva, Emil Andreev, Mikhail Veshim and Kristin Dimitrova.

I am currently working on a translation of Kerana Angelova’s wonderful work of magic realism, Inside Room, a timely cry for the preservation of nature from human depradation.

Younger writers, Yordan Svezhenov, Vasil Georgiev, Peter Dushkov and Radoslav Parushev look to the dystopian present and immediate future for their inspiration in writing well-plotted, arresting satire. The crime genre (with a unique Bulgarian conspiratorial twist) is well served by Lora Lazar and Dimana Trankova.

Finally one should not overlook the growing numbers of Diaspora writers, who capture the comic discomfort and wonder of the Bulgarian abroad:  Kapka Kasabova, Zack Karabashliev, Miroslav Peikov, Isabella Shopova, Victor Tzvetanov and Nevena Mitropolitska.

Autograph manuscript of a poem by Elissaveta Bagryana

Elissaveta Bagryana’s autograph, from Elissaveta Bagryana, Ten poems ... 

Christopher Buxton, Author and translator of Bulgarian literature 

Selected references:

New Testament. Новый Завѣтъ на Господа нашего Іисуса Христа, вѣрно и точно прѣведенъ отъ пьрвообразното. Transposed to the Eastern dialect by Petko R. Slaveikov and N. Mikhailovski. Revised by E. Riggs and A. L. Long.] (Constantinople, 1866). 3061.a.7.(1.).  (Available online)

Petko Slaveikov, Габровско-то училище и неговы-тѣ пьрвы попечители. (Constantinople, 1866-67). (Available online)

Ivan Vazov, Under the Yoke. With an introduction by Edmund Gosse ... A new and revised edition. (London, 1912). 12590.e.33.

Mara Belcheva, На прага стъпки.. (Sofia, 1918). 11303.d.40.

Dora Gabe, Нѣкога. (Sofia, 1924). 012590.b.89.

Peio Iavorov, P. K. I︠A︡vorov. Jubilee collection. (Sofia, 1938). YA.2002.a.20998.

Chudomir. Alaminut: veseli razkazi. (Sofia, 1940). YA.2001.a.20227.

Iordan Iovkov, Short Stories. Translated by Marco Mincoff and Marguerite Alexieva. (Sofia, 1965). X.909/5413.

Elin Pelin, Short Stories. Translated by Marguerite Alexieva. (Sofia, 1965). X.909/8913.

Hristo Botev, Poems. Translated from the Bulgarian by Kevin Ireland. (Sofia, 1974). YA.1992.b.4827

Aleko Konstantinov, To Chicago and back. Translated from the Bulgarian by Robert Sturm. (Sofia, 2004). YD.2005.a.4865.

Dimcho Debelianov, Svetla viara. Jubilee edition. (Sofia, 2012). YF.2013.a.7791.


18 June 2016

From Deluge to the Digital: Fifty Years of Research and Conservation in Florence since the 1966 Flood.

On 27 June the Italian Studies Library Group’s annual lecture will be held at the British Library. Here the speaker, Dr Donal Cooper, introduces its subject, the Florence flood of 1966.

The majority of today’s visitors to Florence surely do not notice the modest plaques dotted around the city’s streets, set well above head height, marked with a simple horizontal line and bearing the same standard legend: “Il 4 novembre 1966 l’acqua d’Arno arrivò a quest’altezza”. Florentine history is peppered by repeated floods of the Arno – at once the silvery river, the “Arno d’argento”, of popular song and Dante’s “accursed ditch” – but 1966 was the highest and most violent. The grim hierarchy is inscribed on the corner of Via San Remigio, where the 1966 plaque stands well clear of the 14th-century inscription marking the 1333 flood. The human toll in 1966 is generally accepted as 101 fatalities, compared to the several thousand that are thought to have perished in 1333. The devastation wreaked on the city’s historic centre, artistic heritage, archives and libraries was severe and captured the attention of the international media.

Wall plaques marking the height reached by the River Arno in the floods of 1933 and 1966
The 1966 and 1333 flood markers in the Via San Remigio

This autumn marks a half century since the 1966 flood. Commemoration is more muted than the events staged for the 40th anniversary in 2006, a sign perhaps that the first-hand experience of the flood is gradually slipping from the city’s collective memory. Arguably, however, the flood remains central for understanding today’s Florence, for the catastrophe forced a new appreciation of the city itself as an historic artefact, with buildings and books, archives and artworks as an integrated and ultimately fragile whole. The scale and urgency of the conservation challenges in the flood’s aftermath also led to new approaches in the conservation of books, sculpture and paintings, areas where Florence has since developed world-leading expertise.

In my lecture I will return to the days of the flood as captured in photography, film – most notably Franco Zeffirelli’s Florence: Days of Destruction voiced by Richard Burton – and other contemporary testimonies as the so-called “angeli del fango” salvaged Florence’s past from the toxic mud. Beyond the immediate experience of the catastrophe, I also consider the international collaborations that were established with unprecedented speed in its wake to address the needs of the city’s libraries and museums. Both the Florentine Archivio di Stato, then located on the ground floor of the Uffizi, and the city’s Bibilioteca Nazionale, facing the river in the low-lying Santa Croce district, were badly affected. Well over a million books in the Biblioteca Nazionale had been submerged and the library became the focus of the British Italian Art and Archives Rescue Fund’s efforts in Florence. Historic books had to be carefully dried, unbound, washed folio by folio, resewn and rebound. The quantity of material and multinational personnel necessitated new procedures for standardising and prioritising the conservation effort, innovations that can now be seen to have had significant influence internationally.

Flood waters in front of the Church of Santa Croce in Florence
The Basilica of Santa Croce in the flood waters (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Numerous paintings and artworks were damaged, the great Franciscan basilica of Santa Croce being particularly badly hit. In response, new laboratories for the conservation of paintings were established in 1967 at the Fortezza da Basso, the vast and previously vacant sixteenth16th-century fort that became a hub of activity in the wake of the flood. Known since 1975 as the Opificio delle Pietre Dure (so named after the hard-stone workshops established by the Medici during the Renaissance), this institute now leads the world in the conservation of historic panel paintings and frescoes. Its most iconic flood-related project was the great crucifix by Cimabue from Santa Croce, restored using the ‘chromatic abstraction’ method. Cimabue’s cross became the international face of the ongoing conservation effort as it toured a number of international venues, including London’s Royal Academy in 1983. The Opificio’s work – which has since broadened beyond projects associated with the 1966 flood – has been especially important for our knowledge of Italian panel painting, transforming scholarship on Giotto through its conservation of the artist’s Santa Maria Novella cross, unveiled in 2001.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the flood, the Opificio with help from the Getty Trust are completing one of the most difficult conservation challenges bequeathed by the waters of November 1966: Giorgio Vasari’s vast Last Supper from the Museo dell’Opera at Santa Croce, whose five poplar panel boards were submerged for over 12 hours. The project has a digital dimension in the form of a virtual reconstruction of the original setting for which Vasari painted the image in 1546.

This project and a number of similar initiatives bring the story into the digital present, but the application of new technologies still draws on the legacy of the flood, especially the awareness in the face of destruction of the full scope of the city’s heritage and records, which has consolidated the sense of Florence as a unique laboratory for historical research, as well as a city of art and culture.

Dr Donal Cooper, University of Cambridge

References/further reading

Franco Nencini, Florence: the days of the flood (London, 1967) X.802/894.

Umberto Baldini and Ornella Casazza, The Cimabue crucifix  ([Italy, 1982?]) m02/22395

Giotto : la Croce di Santa Maria Novella, ed. Marco Ciatti e Max Seidel. (Florence, 2001).  YA.2002.b.3931. (English edition YD.2007.b.26.)

Conservation legacies of the Florence flood of 1966 : proceedings of the Symposium commemorating the 40th anniversary, edited by Helen Spande. (London, 2009). m10/.26687.

Illustrated flyer advertising the 2016 ISLG lecture

16 June 2016

What’s in a Name? Looking forward to Balkan Day 2

The Balkans have had some bad press: from the verb ‘balkanize’, frequently used during the wars of the 1990s, which describes the process of fragmentation or division of a region to the frequent coupling with pejorative words like ‘feud’ or ‘bloodshed’. But when you look at it more objectively, why should a region as rich and varied as the Balkans be classified by violence any more than a area like Alsace-Lorraine, which has surely seen its fair share?

Map of the Balkan Peninsula in 1920
The Balkan Peninsula (detail) by Jovan Cvijic (London, 1920). Maps X.4391

In the end, it all comes down to PR and perception. While Alsatian wine, gastronomy and chateaux are well-known tourist attractions, the Balkan countries also have their culinary delights, their liqueurs and their share of palaces, be they Austro-Hungarian or Venetian. When Istros published Faruk Sehic’s transformational novel based on memories of his beloved river Una, the title of the book had to be changed from the original Book of the Una to Quiet Flows the Una in order to indicate the name of a river unfamiliar to English readers. The same problem would not have occurred for a book written about the Rhine. Likewise, people feel alienated by stories from Skopje and Sofia, simply because they reach our public consciousness far less often than Strasbourg.

Photogrqaph of a mountain landscape in the Balkans
“Balkan Mountains (© iStock) 

Balkan Day 2014 was billed as ‘a celebration of culture and identity’ and featured regional writers like Dubravka Ugresic, Andrej Nikolaidis and Muharem Bazdulj, among others. This was the first step of an initiative on behalf of Istros Books and the British Library to promote and raise awareness of the region and its culture here in the UK and to raise awareness.

Balkan Day I was greatly appreciated in academic and literary circles, and it is our great hope that this year’s follow-on event  will be just as popular, as we welcome Bulgarian/British writer Kapka Kassabova and the poet Fiona Sampson as well as translators Christopher Buxton, Mevlut Ceylan and Stephen Watts to Balkan Day II: A Rich Heritage of Stories. It will also be an opportunity to view the screening of Hermann Vaske’s riotous documentary film, Balkan Spirit, a film which is rarely shown in the UK but which goes a long way towards breaking down stereotypes and highlighting the positives. The director himself is coming along to this special screening and will be available for a Q&A afterwards, before an open-mike session where all participants and guests can voice their own experiences and thoughts.

In both events, we focused on local literature and translation of those stories into English, in order to highlight the links between the cultures, and the efforts being made to build cultural bridges to further understanding of a much-maligned region. At the recent UK launch of the above-mentioned Bosnian novel, Joseph Cock of Today’s Translations gave us an historical reminder of those links:

Perhaps translation in the Balkans has a far greater historical pedigree than we recognise. After all, Jerome, the patron saint of translators, hailed from Illyria, the name given to the Balkan Peninsula in Classical Antiquity.

However, he goes on to point out a fact we know too well:

Yet despite the multitude of stories waiting to be told from the recent history of this region, the literature remains woefully underrepresented to English-speaking audiences.

A Bulgarian rug in blue, green, yellow and red being woven on a loom
Bulgarian rug  (© iStock)

On 24 June the British public will have the rare opportunity to hear the only two Albanian to English literary translators working today: Robert Elsie and John Hodgson, without whom the UK reader would not have been introduced to the novels of Nobel-nominated Ismail Kadare, or heard the voice of one of Albania’s best-known political dissidents, Fatos Lubonja. There will also be the chance to hear about how the stories of their respective homelands affect the writings of Bulgarian comic author, Alek Popov, and Romania’s Ioana Parvulescu, who is also an historian at Bucharest University. Her broad knowledge of fin-de-siecle Bucharest, of the whims and charms of people of that age, make this an enchanting book and a wonderful example to life in Europe at that time. In both cases, the stories these authors have to tell open new worlds and new perceptions to readers who may have shied away from literature in translation.

Susan Curtis-Kojakovic, Istros Books


14 June 2016

Sheepskins and Shakespeare: Aleksandr Nikolaevich Ostrovsky (1823-1886)

 Visitors to the current exhibition Russia and the Arts at the National Portrait Gallery (until 26 June) may find themselves pausing, among portraits of well-known figures such as Tolstoy, Chekhov and Tchaikovsky, before that of a less familiar author. Painted in 1871 by Vasilii Perov, it shows a man in his late forties but looking considerably older, wearing a fur-lined coat and gazing at the viewer with an expression combining weariness with compelling intensity. This is Aleksandr Ostrovsky, who died 130 years ago on 14 June 1886, and is widely credited with almost single-handedly creating the Russian realist school of drama.

  Photograph of Aleksandr Ostrovsky Portrait of A.N.Ostrovsky  from N. Dolgov, A. N. Ostrovskii: zhizn' i tvorchestvo 1823-1923 (Moscow, 1923) 010795.a.26.

The age in which he lived provided him with rich opportunities to portray the snobbery, corruption and ludicrous pretensions of the rising Moscow merchant class and the efforts of former serfs to gain a foothold in society following their emancipation in 1861 by Alexander II. His 47 plays represent a link between Gogol’s satirical Revizor (The Government Inspector; 1836) and the dramas of Chekhov, combining skilful use of dialect with a diction which Turgenev praised as ‘glorious, tasteful and clear’.

Born on 12 April 1823 in the Zamoskvorechye district of Moscow, Aleksandr was destined for a legal career like his father and enrolled on a law course at the University of Moscow in 1840. However, his literary experiments and growing passion for the theatre distracted him from his studies, and in 1843 he failed his Roman Law examinations and became a legal clerk. His experiences provided him with a wealth of material as he observed cases in which bribery and other abuses were rife, and in the late 1840s he began to publish scenes and sketches based on the life of the local merchant community. Although his readings of his works were popular, gaining him a wide following among every class of society, he faced a perpetual struggle with the censors when he attempted to get his plays published, and it was not until 1850 that the first, Svoi liudi - sochtemsia!  (‘Keep it in the family!’) appeared in print. It was another ten years before it was licensed for performance in the imperial theatres, and he had no better luck with his translation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (1852), condemned by the censor for its coarse language. As the decade progressed, though, he gained increasing success, with his plays being staged in the Maly and Bolshoi theatres and even winning the approval of Nicholas I.

Certain critics, however, continued to object to Ostrovsky’s depiction of the seamy side of Moscow life, immorality and drunkenness, avarice and duplicity, as in Bednost' ne porok  (‘Poverty is no Crime’; 1853). Popular culture became a major element in his plays as his Slavophile sentiments grew stronger, with elements such as carnival customs and folktales featuring prominently, and the presence of peasants clad in sheepskin coats and similar humble garb was considered a hallmark of his work.

  Title-page of 'Bednost' ne porok'Title-page of Bednost' ne porok (Moscow, 1854) RB.23.b.4335.

A journey down the Volga in 1856 as part of a team of writers gathering demographic information for naval recruitment reforms furnished him with material for the play for which he is possibly best known outside Russia, Groza (‘The Storm’; 1859). Once again Ostrovsky clashed with the censor, struggling to convince him that the tyrannical mother-in-law Kabanicha was not a portrayal of Nicholas I. The Czech composer Leoš Janáček would in 1921 bring the play to new audiences in his opera Káťa Kabanová, the name of its tragic heroine whose thwarted love sends her to her death in the Volga.

Illustration from 'Grozna' showing Katya Kabanova sitting at a windowIllustration by Ivan Andreevich Maliutin showing Katia Kabanova from Groza, from V.  G. Sakhnovskii,  Teatr A. N. Ostrovskago (Moscow, 1919) X.908/14152.

The lively folkloristic colouring of Snegurochka (‘The Snow Maiden’; 1873), with incidental music by Tchaikovsky, inspired adaptations for the ballet as well as Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera (1880-81), and enabled the story to travel outside Russia. English translations began to appear as early as 1898, with Constance Garnett’s version of The Storm (, though his plays were slow to gain ground on the British stage despite their verve, pungency and merciless mockery of the universal vices of hypocrisy and ignorance. Student or amateur theatre groups, however, were inspired to try them, as in the case of Diary of a Scoundrel, which was not only staged by the Central School of Speech and Drama  in 1964 but by the Abingdon Drama Club  in November 1960, where a review in the club’s magazine noted the subtle and fierce satire of ‘this Ostrovsky goulash’, and ‘the impassioned cry of a liberal protesting against the injustice and corruption of his own society’.

Throughout his life Ostrovsky was dismayed by the moral corruption of the imperial theatres and its effect on their actors, the growing discrepancy between social and political values in Russia and the West which he observed on his travels through Europe in 1862, the stranglehold exerted by censorship on freedom of expression, and the philistinism and want of taste of those who preferred vaudeville and operetta to serious drama, as when Tsar Alexander II paid a surprise visit to the Alexandrinka theatre in January 1872 to see Ne vse kotu maslennitsa (‘Not All Shrovetide for the Cat’), a satire about a domestic tyrant, but appeared lukewarm.

Exhausted by his struggles and financial cares, and by the attacks launched on his work by critics in the 1870s, he developed angina, not helped by the taxing duties which he assumed on being appointed repertoire director to the imperial theatres in 1885 as a result of his bold plans for theatrical reform, including advocating the establishment of independent theatres. Not until 1884 was he finally granted a personal pension, though a modest one, which came too late to save his declining health. On 14 June he died at his desk a few days after a serious asthma attack, working on his translation of Antony and Cleopatra – a fitting conclusion to a life spent in the service of the theatre.

Susan Halstead, Content Specliast (Humanities and Social Sciences), Research Engagement

13 June 2016

A Full Circle around Shakespeare

The Russian national poet Alexander Pushkin is often called ‘the Shakespeare of Russia’. For Pushkin, Shakespeare represented an art that was in tune with the ‘spirit of the age’ and put the people at the centre of the concept of the world. Pushkin admired the ‘truthful’ presentation of Shakespeare’s characters, as although they were part of the grand scale of historical events, they were captured by the playwright as individuals.

In 1825, just before the Decembrist uprising, Pushkin wrote the tragedy Boris Godunov ‘according to the system of our Father Shakespeare’. Set in Russia at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries, when the Rurik dynasty terminated with the death of Tsar Fedor Ioanovich, who inherited the throne after his father Ivan the Terrible, the play is focused on the problem of the struggle for power and responsibility for it. Being Fedor’s brother-in-law and having de facto ruled instead of him for a number of years, Boris Godunov is ‘appointed’ tsar.

Icon of Tsar Boris Godunov
Icon of Tsar Boris Godunov (image from Wikimedia Commons)

In Pushkin’s tragedy Boris is shown as an ambitious but competent ruler who feels remorse for allegedly giving orders to kill a child – Tsarevich Dmitrii, Fedor’s younger brother and legal heir. In the last months of his life Boris has to deal with claims to the Russian throne made by an imposter claiming to be Dmitrii, who had apparently miraculously survived the assassination. Boris dies suddenly in the midst of political turmoil, but his son and heir Fedor II becomes a victim of this ‘False Dmitrii’. The play ends with Fedor’s death while the False Dmitrii is ascending the throne. The full circle of the power struggle is completed, and ‘the people are silent’ – the words with which Pushkin chose to end his play.

By dramatizing the historical power struggle Pushkin referred to the current state of play and the political situation in Russia, and it is not surprising that the play was not published until 1831 (with a print run of 2000 copies) and first performed only in 1870.

Cover of the first edition of Pushkin's 'Boris Godunov'
The first edition of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov (St Petersburg, 1831) C.114.n.8

The British Library copy has its own fascinating history. It comes from the famous collection put together by Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929)  in the last years of his life. Most of Diaghilev’s books were bequeathed to his friend and protégé Serge Lifar, who then sold the collection at auction in 1975. The Diaghilev copy was acquired by the Library for 12,000 francs (= £ 1,333.19).

It is interesting to note that Diaghilev normally did not mark his books. Lifar did so inconsistently, but on this copy one can see his stamp and a label for the exhibition “Pouchkine 1837-1937” (Paris,  Salle Pleyel, 16 March-15 April, 1937), organised by S. Lifar.

Sergei Lifar's ownership stamp on the bottom right hand corner of a page     Bookplate with Sergei Lifar's signature and a collection number
Lifar's ownesrhip marks

Before Diaghilev owned it the book was part of a collection of 3,500 items assembled by Vladimir Nikitich Vitov, an economist and member of the Moscow Bookplate Lovers Society.

Vladimir Vitov's bookplate with a monogram of his initials in a decorative border   Blind-stamp ownership mark of Vladimir Vitov
Vitov’s bookplate and stamp

His ownership stamp was designed by the graphic artist Vladimir Belkin (W. Bielkine) (1895-1966), who was at some point close to the circle around Serge Soudeikine (1882-1946), an artist and set-designer associated with the Ballets Russes and the Metropolitan Opera. Belkin left Russia in 1918, travelled around Europe, and in the late 1920s settled in the Netherlands. Some of his theatre designs for Dutch companies are now held in the Theatre Museum in Amsterdam.

To wrap up my pretty random stream of associations, I would just say that of course one of these productions that Belkin designed in Holland was The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare. Through the history of the book we made a full circle, and the tragedy of a medieval power struggle turned into our favourite comfortable and funny comedy. It is life, I hope.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

References/further reading:

S. Lifar. Serge Diaghilev: his life, his work, his legend. An intimate biography. (New York, 1940) 010790.i.76.

N. Mar, “Knizhnyi auktsion v Monte Karlo: rasskazyvaet doctor iskusstvovedeniia I.S.Zil’bershtein,” Literaturnaia gazeta, February 11, 1976, 6.

Catherine O’Neil, With Shakespeare’s Eyes: Pushkin's Creative Appropriation of Shakespeare. (Newark, Delaware, 2003) m03/27059.

The Salon album of Vera Sudeikin-Stravinsky, edited and translated by John E. Bowlt. (Princeton, 1995) LB.31.b.12787.

Sjeng Scheijen, Diaghilev: A life, translated by Jane Hedley-Prôle and S.J. Leinbach. (London, 2009) YC.2010.b.205.


09 June 2016

‘The rhythm of free speech’: Boris Pasternak translates Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s Hamlet has been filmed on numerous occasions, but surprisingly the version which many of the world’s greatest Shakespearean actors consider to be the finest of all was performed not in the original English but in Russian. In the 1964 film Gamlet, directed by Grigorii Kozintsev with a score by Dmitrii Shostakovich, the Prince of Denmark was played by Innokentii Smoktunovskii, whose account of the role was acclaimed by Sir Laurence Olivier.

The translation of Hamlet used for the film was by the poet Boris Pasternak, and dated from 1940. At this time restrictions on artistic freedom led him to confine himself largely to translation, and knowing that if he were to have any hope of seeing it performed in the Stalin era he would have to modify the plot, he suppressed certain tragic aspects of the play. The obvious parallels between the corruption rife in Elsinore (‘something is rotten in the state of Denmark’) and the equally pernicious political and moral climate of the USSR allowed him at the same time to point up the likenesses between them in a form of subtle commentary, and this appealed to Kozintsev, whose Hamlet is the antithesis of the generic heroes of socialist realism. His letters to Pasternak reveal, often at his own risk, the vision which he sought to present in an age of rigid and paralysing censorship.

Painting of Boris Pasternak leaning against a tree
Boris Pasternak in 1967. Portrait by Yuri Pimenov from Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence)

Translations of Shakespeare into Russian had fallen foul of the authorities ever since Nikolai Karamzin’s version of Julius Caesar was banned for political reasons in 1794 and Wilhelm Küchelbecker translated Macbeth and a selection of the history plays in prison following the Decembrist revolt of 1825. Although it was not until 1865-68 that the first complete Russian translation of Shakespeare’s plays appeared (11764.i.6), his works proved a powerful influence on authors throughout the 19th century from Pushkin to Turgenev, whose Hamlet and Don Quixote (1860) described the decline of the ‘Hamlets’ of the 1840s into scepticism and egoism which rendered them incapable of fighting evil. A notable exception, however, was Tolstoy, whose contempt for Shakespeare led him to remark to Chekhov ‘You know, I cannot stand Shakespeare, but your plays are even worse’.

Pasternak, though, had been inspired and fascinated by Shakespeare from the time when he first began to write. His first collection of poems Sestra moia-zhiznʹ (‘My Sister Life’, 1917; the BL has a 1922 edition, X.908/25229.) includes ‘English Lessons’, in which the figures of Desdemona and Ophelia sing their lives away, while at the other extreme of his creative life his ‘novel in prose with a supplement in verse’, Doktor Zhivago (Milan, 1957; YF.2007.a.31460), concludes with a sequence of poems purportedly written by the hero. One of these, ‘Hamlet’, expresses the existential loneliness of the solitary figure who pleads, like Christ, for the cup of his inexorable fate to pass away from him, and concludes,

But the plan of action is determined,
And the end irrevocably sealed.
I am alone; all round me drowns in falsehood:
Life is not a walk across a field.

In the first issue of the almanac Literaturnaia Moskva (1956; W.P.13695), Pasternak also published an essay entitled ‘Translating Shakespeare’ (an English translation is included in his autobiography I Remember (Cambridge Mass., 1983) X.950/34754) which provides valuable insights into his working methods and perspectives on the eight plays which he translated: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Othello, Henry IV (I and II), King Lear and Macbeth. Although he acknowledges the ‘inward and outward chaos’ which shocked Voltaire and Tolstoy in Shakespeare’s blank verse, he suggests that his poetry derives its strength from its abundant and disorderly nature. He analyses the use of rhythm to characterize individual figures, comparing it to a musical leitmotif, whereas he claims that in Romeo and Juliet music plays a negative part. While some of his assessments may be controversial, as when he describes Antony and Cleopatra as ‘the story of a rake and a temptress’, they are never glib or hackneyed. Above all, he allows the reader access to the translator’s mind as he ‘finds himself reliving the circumstances of the author’ and being drawn into his secrets through experience.

Covers of Pasternak's translations of Translations of 'Othello', 'King Lear' and 'Romeo and Juliet'
Translations of OthelloKing Lear and Romeo and Juliet by Pasternak from the British Library’s collections

Pasternak’s translations in their turn inspired other artists. The composers Sergei Prokofiev, Sergei Slonimskii and Rodion Shchedrin drew on them for settings of Shakespeare’s words and incidental music for the plays, bringing Cleopatra, King Lear and Hamlet to life in new guises. This was especially fitting as Pasternak, himself a gifted musician, compared tragedy and comedy in Shakespeare to the minor and major keys in music, and the transitions between poetry and prose to musical variations.

Though brief and epigrammatic, the essay contains messages about Shakespeare’s dramas which are still fresh and challenging today. Pasternak places him firmly within the European tradition as ‘the father and prophet of realism’, a major influence on Pushkin, Goethe and Victor Hugo, and the predecessor of Chekhov and Ibsen. He roundly rejects the hypothesis that Bacon could have written the plays, detects a Dostoevskian spirit in Macbeth, which ‘might well have been called Crime and Punishment’, and claims that productions of King Lear are ‘always too noisy’. On the one hand, he compares the milieu of Shakespeare’s early years in London with the Tverskoy district of Moscow in the mid-19th century, with its ‘troikas, publicans, gipsy choirs and educated merchants who patronized the arts’, appropriating him for a Russian public; on the other, he emphasizes his timeless universality, as ‘so great an artist must inevitably sum up everything human in himself'.

Susan Halstead  Content Specialist (Humanities and Social Sciences), Research Engagement