THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

9 posts from August 2019

30 August 2019

Women in Translation Month: top picks from the European Studies team (Part 2)

Collage of book covers featured in the blog post

In this two-part blog post, the European Studies team have selected books by women authors in translation from across the continent. Ranging from 20th-century classics to contemporary fiction, the majority of these works were also translated by women, and several have won or been shortlisted for literary and translation awards.

Cover of Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

Olga Tokarczuk, Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017), ELD.DS.228759
Chosen by Magda Szkuta, Curator East European Collections

Olga Tokarczuk, the winner of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for her novel Flights, is one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful Polish writers of her generation, particularly noted for the hallmark mythical tone of her writing. The Polish title Bieguni refers to runaways, a sect of Old Believers, who believe that being in constant motion is a trick to avoid evil. Flights is a fragmentary novel consisting of over 100 episodes, each exploring what it means to be a traveller through space as well as time. Set between the 17th and 21st centuries, the novel includes some fictional stories and some fact-based, narrated from a perspective of an anonymous female traveller. It was translated by Jennifer Croft, an American author and critic who works from Polish, Ukrainian and Spanish. She is a founding editor of the Buenos Aires Review.

Cover of The Polyglot Lovers by Lina Wolff

Lina Wolff, The Polyglot Lovers, translated by Saskia Vogel (And other stories, 2019), ELD.DS.410017
Chosen by Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

Referred to as ‘feminism for the Fleabag generation’ (Spectator), Lina Wolff’s second novel takes down ‘myths of male authorship’ (FT) in this absurb book about love and loss. Both this and Wolff’s first novel, Brett Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs, were awarded PEN Translates awards by English PEN, thanks to the translations of Saskia Vogel, prolific translator of Swedish fiction, who recently wrote about how she has mainly translated women authors, who ‘question the shape of society and the assumptions we make, with a particular interest in sex and gender, language, economics, and power.’

Covers of Parts I and II of The time is out of joint: Shakespeare as philosopher of history by Ágnes Heller, featuring an owl

Ágnes Heller, The time is out of joint: Shakespeare as philosopher of history (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), translated by Magda Módos (Osiris, 2000), YC.2003.a.4129 (English) YF.2010.a.20242 (Hungarian)
Chosen by Andrea Déri, Cataloguer

‘The time is a sphinx in Shakespeare’s plays, but a sphinx whose secret will never be known, whose riddle will never be solved.’ ‘[…] for the secret of time is the meaning of life. A life has no meaning except for the question concerning meaning itself.’

Hungarian philosopher Ágnes Heller (1929–2019) interrogates time and temporality in Shakespeare’s plays in this book and engages her readers in doing the same in their life as well; challenges foreshadowed by Hamlet’s words in the title. An obituary in the Financial Times described Heller as ‘one of the most respected European philosophers of her generation’, ‘a life-long fighter for freedom’. Magda Módos, known for her interest in philosophy, translated the book from the English original into Hungarian.

Cover of Bad Roads by Natal'ya Vorozhbit

Natal'ia Vorozhbit, Bad Roads, translated by Sasha Dugdale (Nick Hern Books, 2017), ELD.DS.228387
Chosen by Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections

First performed at the Royal Court Theatre, London in 2017, Natal'ia Vorozhbit’s powerful and sometimes bitterly comic play focuses on the impact of the conflicts in Ukraine on women from different generations and backgrounds. A leading contemporary Ukrainian playwright, Vorozhbit is the co-founder of the Theatre of the Displaced in Kyiv and curator of the Class Act project in Ukraine. Bad Roads was translated from the Russian by the prolific poet, translator and editor Sasha Dugdale, who reflected on her experience of translating the play and its harrowing subject matter in an article for the Guardian.

Cover of Bitter Herbs by Marga Minco, featuring a drawing of a woman

Marga Minco, Bitter Herbs, translated by Roy Edwards (Oxford University Press, 1960)
Chosen by Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections

This autobiographical novella or chronicle about a Dutch Jewish family during the Second World War was published as Minco’s debut in 1957. Bitter Herbs was given a literary award in 1958 and has been translated into several languages. Minco became the Dutch voice in European war literature. The book’s sober, clear, direct style belies its deeper meanings. Minco’s themes are loss, loneliness, fear, guilt, and a longing for security. She and her uncle were the only members of her family to survive the war. Minco received the highest Dutch literary award, the PC Hooftprijs, for her complete oeuvre in 2019, at the age of 98.

Cover of The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern, featuring a figure sitting on a bench
 

Hélène Gestern, The People in the Photo, translated by Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz (Gallic Book 2014), Nov.2018/1771
Chosen by Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections

Hélène Gestern (born 1971) is a French writer and academic. One of her favourite themes is photography, and the power it exercises over memory. In The People in the Photo, Hélène is an archivist living in Paris. Her mother died when she was a baby, so she posts a newspaper ad requesting information about a mysterious photograph of her mother alongside two unknown men. This provokes a response from Stéphane, a Swiss scientist living in Ashford, who recognises his father. The People in the Photo revolves around the exchange of letters, emails and text messages between the two, and explores themes of memory, loss and the power of photography and images as the pair shares discoveries and speculate about their parents’ secrets. Published in 2011, the original French Eux sur la photo received the “Prix Coup de cœur des lycéens” de la Fondation Prince Pierre de Monaco and the Prix René Fallet in 2012.

27 August 2019

Women in Translation Month: top picks from the European Studies team (Part 1)

Collage of book covers featured in the blog post

Founded in August 2014 by book blogger Meytal Radzinski, Women in Translation Month (WITMonth) aims to celebrate and promote women writers in translation, as well as their translators and publishers. So why do we need WITMonth? As the organisers of the upcoming ‘Translating Women’ conference in London highlight, ‘translated literature notoriously accounts for only 3.5% of published literature in the English-language book market, and less than one-third of this is women-authored.’

In addition to WITMonth, initiatives such as the Translating Women project and associated conferences and events all help to redress the gender imbalance in the publishing industry. And there does appear to have been a shift in recent years, with the 2019 Man Booker International Prize shortlist featuring five women authors and six women translators.

In this two-part blog post, the European Studies team have selected books by women authors in translation from across the continent. Ranging from 20th-century classics to contemporary fiction, the majority of these works were also translated by women, and several have won or been shortlisted for literary and translation awards.

 

Cover of The Art of Joy by Goliarda Sapienza

Goliarda Sapienza, The Art of Joy, translated by Anne Milano Appel (Penguin Books, 2013), Nov.2015/2304
Chosen by Valentina Mirabella, Curator Romance Collections

Written between 1966 and 1976, rejected by many publishers and issued posthumously in Italian, The Art of Joy only sparked interest after its French and English (by award-winning translator Anne Milano Appel) translations appeared, in 2008 and 2013. The Art of Joy is, above all, a novel of instruction and liberation, feminist, socialist, anti-Fascist. Goliarda Sapienza, its provocative and nonconformist Sicilian author, has just recently been rediscovered, being the subject of an international conference organised by UCL in 2013.

Cover of The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann

Marion Poschmann, The Pine Islands, translated by Jen Calleja (Serpent’s Tail, 2019), awaiting shelfmark.
Chosen by Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2019, The Pine Islands follows a lecturer with a specialism in beards, as he decides to take off to Japan on a Bashō-inspired journey to the pine islands of Matsushima. It is a poetic exploration of nature and man, and of the potential for resisting conventional existence. This light but profound text is seamlessly reflected in the translation of Jen Calleja, the British Library’s first Translator-in-Residence and writer of fiction and poetry.

Cover of Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes by Guzel Yakhina,

Guzel Yakhina, Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes, translated by Lisa C. Hayden (Oneworld Publications, 2019), awaiting shelfmark.
Chosen by Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

Russian author and filmmaker Guzel Yakhina’s debut novel explores one of the most tragic periods in Russian and Soviet history – the large-scale repression of wealthier peasants, kulaks, who were stripped of their property and forcefully relocated to distant and uninhabited parts of the Soviet Union together with other groups of citizens, such as intellectuals, ethnic groups and peoples and ‘enemies of the state’. At the same time, this is a very personal story that relates to the experience of the author’s grandmother – a Muslim Tatar woman in the 1930s Soviet Union. This multi-award winning book is beautifully translated by Lisa Hayden, who described the process as an ‘enjoyable challenge’ due to the novel’s vivid characters and rich cultural and historical elements.

Cover of Sphinx by Anne Garreta

Anne Garréta, Sphinx, translated by Emma Ramadan, (Deep Vellum Publishing, 2015), YA.1987.a.16171 (French), English translation awaiting shelfmark.
Chosen by Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections

Born in 1962 in Paris, Anne Garréta currently teaches at Duke University as a Research Professor of Literature and Romance Studies. In 2000, she joined Oulipo (short for French: Ouvroir de littérature potentielle or workshop of potential literature), a loose gathering of (mainly) French-speaking writers and mathematicians who seek to create works using constrained writing techniques. Garréta’s first novel, Sphinx (Grasset, 1986) is a work of literary ingenuity: a love story between two characters, the narrator, “I,” and A***, written without any gender markers referring to the main characters, all the more difficult with the strict gender requirements of the French language. Sphinx is the first novel by a woman member of Oulipo to be translated into English. Emma Ramadan’s translation was nominated for the 2016 PEN Translation Prize and the Best Translated Book Award.

Cover of Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena

Nora Ikstena, Soviet Milk, translated by Margita Gailitis (Peirene Press, 2018), ELD.DS.269711
Chosen by Ela Kucharska-Beard, Curator Baltic Collections

Nora Ikstena’s bestselling and widely translated novel is set in Soviet Latvia and tells a story of three generations of women. The mother, a doctor, is banished for political reasons to rural Latvia and takes her daughter with her. Uprooted and separated from her loving grandparents, in a reversal of roles, the daughter cares for her psychologically damaged and suicidal mother. This novel by one of the most prominent and influential prose writers in Latvia not only explores the mother-daughter relationship (under-represented in literature, according to Ikstena) but also gives a powerful voice to women living under - and coping with - an oppressive regime. It is seamlessly translated from Latvian by translator and poet Margita Gailitis.

Cover of Nada by Carmen Laforet, featuring a woman walking down an alleyway

Carmen Laforet, Nada, translated by Edith Grossman (Harvill Secker, 2007), Nov.2007/1429
Chosen by Geoff West, Former Curator Hispanic Studies

Published in 1945, Carmen Laforet’s first novel tells how 18-year old Andrea comes to Barcelona to live with her grandmother’s family while studying at university. The Spanish Civil War has greatly impoverished her relatives and created a nightmarish household of conflict, domestic abuse and religious bigotry. This world contrasts with the better-off milieu of her university friend, Ena, who also becomes embroiled in the family’s personal hell. The novel was translated into English in 2007 by Edith Grossman, whose credits already included works by Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa.

23 August 2019

Raymond Roussel’s strange book

Where to start with the eccentric French poet Raymond Roussel? He was born into fabulous wealth, which he used to indulge his many idiosyncrasies. He threw lavish banquets just for himself. He more or less invented the modern electrified caravan, in which he travelled the world. Oh, and there’s a childhood photograph of him astride a swan.

Photo of Raymond Roussel, aged 3, sitting astride a swan

Photo of Raymond Roussel, aged 3, with a swan. Picture by Wilhelm Benque (1849-1903) & Cie (Paris) from Wikimedia Commons

He also produced a book with peculiar, unturnable pages, called Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique. There’s a first edition in the British Library’s collections, and it has quite a story attached to it. You can listen to a podcast I made about it here, featuring Dr Dennis Duncan of University College London, and Dr Sophie Defrance, Curator of Romance Collections at the British Library.

Nouvelles Impressions is a long poem written in rhyming couplets, which Roussel published in 1932 after spending over a decade writing it. Convinced it was a masterpiece, he wanted to it to be his lasting literary monument. The problem was that it wasn’t very monumental in length and so, possibly to turn it into a longer, more impressive looking tome, he decided to include some illustrations. But here’s where it starts to get weird: Roussel hired an illustrator using a private detective agency, keeping his own identity a secret and providing only a series of captions or one-sentence instructions. And so the artist, Henri Zo, produced a set of line drawings without ever seeing the actual poem, or even knowing whose book he was illustrating. What’s even weirder is that Roussel then instructed his printer to produce the book in such a way that the illustrations would be partially concealed, hidden in the folds of uncut pages.

Books with uncut (or ‘unopened’) pages used to be very common. They were a by-product of the way books were produced in the era before industrial printing. Handpress production involved printing several pages at a time on a single larger sheet, which was then folded, usually into quarters or eighths, depending on the format and size of the volume. When these folded sheets were then stitched together into a book, some of the pages would still be joined together at the top or along the fore-edge. (Try this with a sheet of paper and you’ll see what I mean). Often the first thing you would need to do as a reader is to slice open the pages in order to read.

Roussel turned this quirk of book production into a feature of his Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique. He made sure that the text and illustrations appeared on alternate leaves, and whereas the text is easily readable by turning the pages conventionally, the images could be seen only with difficulty, by prising apart two pages which are joined at the top. He even seems to have included an instruction to readers in later editions not to slice the pages, but to leave them joined. There’s something not only awkward but quite voyeuristic and intimate about this mode of reading, as Dennis Duncan has observed.

Roussel’s text itself seems well aware of this, and one of the illustrations depicts a man who is reading in exactly this way, looking rather furtive as he prises apart the leaves of an uncut book. It creates a funny kind of regression, placing us in the same position as the man in the illustration, even as we look at him.

Illustration of a man reading an un-opened book

An illustration of the art of reading an unopened book, in Raymond Roussel’s Nouvelles impressions d’Afrique. (Paris, 1932) 11397.aaa.2. 

Except that in this British Library copy, it doesn’t work in quite the way Roussel intended. He might have been meticulous in planning what the book would look like, and how readers would have to navigate it, but his plans were derailed once it was out in the world. At some point, possibly as late as 1983, the pages of this edition in the British Library were sliced open and disbound, so that they could be coated in a peculiar protective tissue layer that conservators were once fond of, in a process called lamination, or the ‘technique/process of manufacturing a material in multiple layers, so that the composite material achieves improved strength and stability’. Lamination was used to conserve very fragile or acid paper and was rather a common habit in libraries that cared about conservation from the 1950s to the early 1980s.

Not only were the pages of the British Library edition cut, but it was rebound wrongly, so that Roussel’s masterpiece was interrupted mid way through by the accidental inclusion of some publishers’ blurb and critical endorsements, including a glowing review of one of Roussel’s previous works, La poussière de soleils by the Daily Mail

Pierre Bazantay’s study on Roussel’s aesthetics describes how this booklet, or “cahier” of praises to Roussel was prepared by his editor, Lemerre, in the 1930s (certainly at the request of Roussel himself) and inserted in all the re-editions of his works. For the modern reader, it is ever so slightly poignant to read these reviews, which were not always clearly laudatory, but were cut just the right amount to almost look so. As a point of comparison, the booklet was correctly inserted in a now digitised edition of another of Roussel’s works, Chiquenaude

A promotional booklet produced by Roussel’s publisher, Lemerre, wrongly inserted in the rebound book in Raymond Roussel’s Nouvelles impressions d’Afrique.

La critique et Raymond Roussel, a promotional booklet produced by Roussel’s publisher, Lemerre, wrongly inserted in the rebound book in Raymond Roussel’s Nouvelles impressions d’Afrique. (Paris, 1932) 11397.aaa.2.

Poor old Roussel tried so hard to control how his poem would be encountered and read. But the British Library copy is testament to the fact that books just don’t work like that. How they are preserved depends on the vagaries of conservators, collectors and readers. Subsequent publishers have also largely ignored his original design, taking all kinds of liberties with the layout of Nouvelles Impressions, and even bumping all the illustrations to end of the book. Laurent Busine’s study, Raymond Roussel: contemplator enim, described the composition process, Roussel’s relationship with his publisher, and reproduced and discussed the 59 images created by Zo. If you want to read the book as Roussel envisaged, you need to get hold of the 2004 English translation published by Atlas Press. It’s the only edition to scrupulously replicate its unopened pages and give you the original, peculiar reading experience. It even includes a stern warning note to its readers: ‘You are advised to cut only the pages containing the introduction, and to read it before deciding whether to cut the remaining pages’.

Gill Partington, 2018–2019 Munby Fellow in Bibliography at Cambridge University (with Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance collections).

References/further reading

Pierre Bazantay, 'Roussel: une esthétique de la crise?' in Cahiers de l'Association internationale des études françaises, 2004, no. 56. pp. 113-126. W.P.d.475.

Laurent Busine, Raymond Roussel: contemplator enim: sur les «Nouvelles impressions d'Afrique», ouvrage orné de 59 illustrations d’Henri-Achille Zo. (Brussels, 1995). YA.1996.a.1668.

Raymond Roussel, La poussière de soleils. Pièce en cinq actes et vingt-quatre tableaux. (Paris, 1926) C.104.dd.30.

Raymond Roussel, New impressions of Africa; with 59 illustrations by H.-A. Zo; translated & introduced by Ian Monk with the assistance of Henry Matthews. (London, 2004). YK.2007.a.15117.

20 August 2019

Learning to read Cyrillic from 13th century Novgorod to the USSR

We do not know much about how children learned to read and write Slavonic languages in Cyrillic script in the 11th-15th centuries. The most popular teaching method was learning Psalms and copying manuscripts. Near the Russian city of Novgorod, among birch bark manuscripts, archaeologists found a tablet with a wax surface for writing on the right and the Cyrillic alphabet carved on the left.

Novgorod tablet, 13th - early 14th century

Novgorod tablet, 13th - early 14th century. Reproduced in A.F Medvedev, Drevnerusskie pisala X-XV vv., in Sovetskaia arkheologiia, 1960, issue 2

It definitely looks like a school exercise book, but who keeps their jotters? Children learning to read Cyrillic did not, and nor did they even care much about their textbooks, passing them from one to another until the books disintegrated. That is why only two copies of the first Eastern Slavonic printed primer, published in Lviv by Ivan Fedorov in 1574, are known. The copy held at the British Library has been digitised and is freely available. 

The first page of the 1574 Azbuka

The first page of Ivan Fedorov’s primer (Lviv, 1574). C.104.dd.11(1)

It starts with listing Cyrillic letters three times: in the direct and reverse order, and in columns rather than lines. Then the book suggests that learners could put together consonants and vowels. As Russian is primarily a phonetic language, where written symbols directly correspond to spoken sounds, it is quite an easy exercise. Try it yourself: M+A=MA, B+A=BA, etc. Elementary grammar and texts for reading were also included.

Such books were called Azbuka, for the first two letters of the Cyrillic alphabet: A – was called Az and B – Buki. Another name for them was Bukvar’, from the word ‘bukva’ – letter. Soon, educators started separating such alphabet books from more advanced grammars. Also, the power of images in teaching and learning was recognised and more educators started to include pictures in their textbooks.

The most remarkable example of an illustrated primer was created by Karion Istomin, one of the first Muscovite enlighteners, who was editor of the Moscow Printing House, court poet and tutor to the royal children. The book was published in Moscow in 1694, but previously two manuscript copies had been presented to the royals for Peter the Great’s son and two young nieces.

The book opens with a short introduction illustrated by an engraving showing Christ teaching schoolchildren. Each page is devoted to one letter, which is drawn symbolically as a picture, and then in various other ways – print and shorthand. Istomin also wrote short poems that would help learners remember the letter, and included images of objects and animals whose names started with that letter. The book was too complex to be printed with moveable type and therefore was engraved by Leontii Bunin. He seems to have worked on it for about two years, between 1692 and 1694.

First page of Karion Istomin's Bukvar

Letter A from Karion Istomin's Bukvar. Includes drawings of animals and objects beginning with the letter A.

Letter Zh from Karion Istomin's Bukvar. Includes drawings of animals and objects beginning with the letter Zh.

Letter O from Karion Istomin's Bukvar. Includes drawings of animals and objects beginning with the letter O.

Letter S from Karion Istomin's Bukvar. Includes drawings of animals and objects beginning with the letter S.

First page, letter A, Zh, O, S. Images from the facsimile edition: Bukvar’ sostavlen Kariononm Istominym; gravirovan Leontiem Buinym; otpechatan v 1694 godu v Moskve. Leningrad: Avrora, 1981. X.955/980.

Although most scholars agree that so many variations in the letter shapes could confuse rather than help learners, this primer set up a tradition of illustrated textbooks for learners.

By the beginning of the 19th century, textbooks and learning materials were in demand by a network of various educational establishments and private tutors. Not only royal children could get books with pictures (although of course not so lavishly printed!). An Azbuka published in 1818 for public schools, was called Dragotsennyi podarok detiam (‘A Precious Present for Children’). It also introduced the alphabet in various types and shorthand, illustrating it with pictures, elementary reading exercises and texts for further reading, such as moral instructions and prayers.

As part of our Google Books project the British Library’s copy of the fourth edition of Dragotsennyi podarok detiam published without changes from the 1818 edition was digitised

Title-page of 1830 Azbuka

Title-page of the fourth edition of Dragotsennyi podarok detiam, ili novaia i polnaia rossiiskaia azbuka (Moscow, 1830) RB.23.a.23374

The cheap popular editions that mushroomed at the end of the 19th century could not afford many pictures, but at least tried to include some under colourful and attractive paper covers.

Collage of late 19th century Azbuka covers

Collage of late 19th century Azbuka covers

Most of the reading materials were still prayers, adaptations from the Gospels, and some simple statements and proverbs. Leo Tolstoy, who established a school for village children, was also concerned with education. He wrote his own Azbuka, where he aimed to offer exercises suitable for any learning method, including the ‘word method’ (reading not syllable by syllable, but memorising whole words), which, as he wrote in the introduction, was popular in England and America. It is interesting to note that Tolstoy thought pictures to be a luxury feature that could only distract pupils.

Cover of L. Tolstoy's Novaia Azbuka

L. Tolstoy. Novaia Azbuka . 25th edition (Moscow, 1908) 12975.m.33

In the new Soviet state this idea of Tolstoy’s was definitely not accepted. Primers illustrated with new communist propaganda became quite popular and were issued for adult learners. In 1921 Dmitrii Moor illustrated an Alphabet for a Red Army Soldier where he applied the same principle as in standard textbooks – introducing letters with a two-line verse and a picture. For example, letter ‘B’ showed a miserable bourgeois, begging for mercy.

Letter B from Dmitrii Moor's Red Army Alphabet. The illustration shows a worker, a peasant and a Red Army soldier standing over a 'bourgeois capitalist'.

Dmitrii Moor, Azbuka krasnoarmeitsa, (Moscow, 1921) Cup.401.g.25.

The campaign “Down with illiteracy!”, which started almost immediately after the October revolution in 1917, also required new textbooks, where learners’ first texts would be citations from Lenin and Trotsky instead of prayers.

Cover of a textbook for adults with an image of adults learning

Doloi negramotnost’. Bukvar’ dlia vzroslykh, (Moscow, 1920). 12975.n.15.

The Soviet primary school textbook had Lenin and a map of the USSR as the first pictures that children would see when they started learning to read and write. This is what the last Soviet edition of primer looked like; it was reproduced in more or less the same way for decades, so I also recognise the cover as my first schoolbook.

Last Soviet bukvar' with an image of Lenin and map of the USSR

Bukvar’. 9th edition (Moscow, 1989). YA.1996.a.6783.

Meanwhile, Russian-speaking children abroad also needed primers. Their parents, who had fled the Soviet regime, wanted them to keep their heritage language. It is interesting to see how old fashioned the YMCA-Press edition of 1957 looks. Children born in the early 1950s were introduced to reading through pictures of a 10 kopeks coin of 1911, a samovar, a horse-drawn carriage, and birch-bark shoes. As well as modern Russian, émigré children were also supposed to learn Church Slavonic so that they could read Christian Orthodox books.

Double-page spread from the 1957 reading book for Russian émigré children

V.P.Vakhterov. Russkii Bukvar’ dlia obucheniia pis’mu I chteniiu russkomu i tserkovno-slavianskomu. (Paris, 1957). 12993.w.1

To learn more about reading and writing in various countries, languages, alphabets, and societies, visit our exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark which is still open until 27th August.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

References/further reading:

Christine Thomas, ‘The East Slavonic Primers: Lvov, 1574 and Moscow 1637,’ The British Library Journal, 10 (1984), 32-47.

E. Rogatchevskaia, ‘“A Beautiful, Tremendous Russian Book, and Other Things Too”: An Overview of Rare Russian Books from the Diaghilev-Lifar Collection in the British Library’, Canadian-American Slavic Studies, Volume 51 (2017) Issue 2-3, 376-397.

Ivan the Terrible, primers, ballet and the joys of curatorship

16 August 2019

‘C’est un détournement’: Mezioud Ouldamer’s copy of Guy Debord and Asger Jorn’s Mémoires

In 1959 Guy Debord and the Danish artist Asger Jorn published Mémoires, ‘a work entirely composed of prefabricated elements’ with ‘supporting structures’ by Jorn. In the jargon of the Situationist International (SI), the avant-garde anti-authoritarian movement they helped form in 1957, it is a work of détournement:

Détournement is the opposite of quotation, of appealing to a theoretical authority that is inevitably tainted by the very fact that it has become a quotation — a fragment torn from its own context and development, and ultimately from the general framework of its period and from the particular option (appropriate or erroneous) that it represented within that framework. Détournement is the flexible language of anti-ideology. (Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, thesis 208)

Double-page spread from Mémoires featuring fragments of text and photographs with red splodges

Double-page spread from Mémoires (Copenhagen, 1957; RF.2019.b.63), section 2, bright red indicating Debord’s creative energy

Double-page spread from Mémoires with fragments of maps struck through with blue lines, facing a nebulous blue splodge

Double-page spread from Mémoires section 3, fragments of maps struck through with blue lines, facing a nebulous blue splodge

Wrenched from their original contexts, fragments of texts and isolated images are linked and obscured by roughly applied, bright inks. Not always ‘supporting structures’, Jorn’s paintwork draws connections between fragments, but ‘then Debord’s words and pictures change Jorn’s avenues into labyrinths […] A connection is made, a connection is missed, the reader is lost, the reader enters another passageway, then another’ (Marcus, p. 128).

A page from from Mémoires featuring fragments of text, including a 'Guinness is good for you' advertisement. There is a large red splodge covering some of the fragments

‘Guinness is good for you’: détourning advertising as the slogan is placed next to the fragment ‘in the daily struggle’

Through his creative reinterpretation of the autobiographical genre, the author enacts the process by which the ‘society of the spectacle’ and the commodification of experience might finally be blown apart to uncover again the unique everyday amidst the alienating capitalist superstructure. As Mémoires’ final fragment puts it, ‘I wanted to speak the beautiful language of my time’.

Final page of Memoires featuring the words 'I wanted to speak the beautiful language of my time' (in French) and a large red splodge.

Final page of Mémoires

The British Library’s copy of Mémoires has an inscription by Mezioud Ouldamer (1951-2017), an Algerian political activist and author of a number of works inspired by the Situationists and his friendship with Debord.

Inscription by Mezioud Ouldamer in Mémoires

Inscription by Mezioud Ouldamer in Mémoires

Ouldamer writes: ‘It is a détournement | It was in Ecclesiastes. | And even in Proverbs. | There is still a belief in this rotten “God”. There is nothing, Evy. I love you. | Le Singe [the monkey or the imitator]’. It isn’t clear when Debord gave Ouldamer the copy, of which there were perhaps one thousand in small circulation amongst associates, but their friendship appears to have flourished in the early 1980s. Ouldamer’s presence in our copy shifts the frame of the work and provokes us to think about race, ethnicity and the Algerian crises that were part of the context of both the original publication and Debord’s subsequent gift to Ouldamer.

Algerian intellectuals were already part of the Lettrist International, the SI’s forerunner, including Hadj Mohamed Dahou, who continued into the SI. Compatriot Abdelhafid Khatib wrote a fragmentary first example of a psychogeography in 1958. Thus the Algerian Situationist context was well established when the next generation came to maturity. Between 1953, the year of ‘The Manifesto of the Algerian Group of the Lettrist International’, and Ouldamer’s early activism came Algeria’s hard-won independence in 1962. From this point onwards, the violent suppression of native Algerian rights by French colonists transformed into the suppression of Berber rights by the single-party leadership Front de liberation nationale (FLN) with their exclusive focus on Arabization. This eventually led to the Berber mass activism and strikes of 1980, known as the ‘Berber Spring’.

Ouldamer, a native of the largest Berber region, Kabylia, co-edited a pamphlet entitled L’Algérie brûle! [‘Algeria is on fire’], attributed to ‘un groupe d’autonomes algériens’. In it, they pay homage to the activists for restoring to millions of Berber people a long-restricted freedom of expression. They reveal the illusion of Algeria being the standard-bearer for third world revolution, when it has reproduced ‘all the mediocrities and ignominies shared across all the world’s police states’. The incendiary pamphlet then evokes our inscription as it continues, ‘Les insurgés de Tizi-Ouzou n’ont fait que cracher sur toute cette pourriture’ [the insurgents of Tizi-Ouzou have done nothing else but spit in the face of this rottenness].

Cover of L’Algérie brûle!

L’Algérie brûle! (Paris, 1981) X.809/55238

L’Algérie brûle! was published by Debord’s longstanding publisher and friend Gérard Lebovici at éditions Champ Libre, Paris. It appeared early in 1981, by which time Ouldamer had been arrested, ultimately to serve one year in prison for breaking article 144 of the Algerian penal code, which is cited on the back flap of his next book, Offense à President. The law forbids citizens to attack the honour of authorities ‘by words, gestures, threats, […] even by writings or drawings not made public’. This book was written in Paris, Ouldamer’s new home following his release, where his friendship with Debord developed. In March 1984, Lebovici was assassinated. Debord rigorously investigated the circumstances of his friend’s death, all the while encouraging Ouldamer to publish his work with the same publisher, now run by Gérard’s widow Floriana under the name éditions Gérard Lebovici.

Cover of Offense à President

Mezioud Ouldamer, Offense à Président (Paris, 1985), YA.1987.a.18728

The success of Offense à President led Ouldamer to work on the book that would spark the most reaction, Le Cauchemar immigré dans la decomposition de la France [‘The Immigrant Nightmare in the Decomposition of France’]. Debord again offered advice throughout. One letter from Debord on 9 May 1985 invites Ouldamer to the small hamlet of Champot, adding that his girlfriend would also be welcome. Is this the ‘Evy’ mentioned in Ouldamer’s inscription in Mémoires?

Cover of Le Cauchemar immigré dans la décomposition de la France

Le Cauchemar immigré dans la décomposition de la France (Paris, 1986), YA.1987.a.3700

Le Cauchemar immigré inspired Debord to pass his own comments on the politics of immigration that had risen to the surface, especially since 1983’s March for Equality and against Racism. Debord’s ‘Notes on the “immigrant question”’ were written in response to Ouldamer’s ideas and are probably more famous today than the work that inspired them. Ouldamer’s matter-of-fact delivery is similar to Debord’s as he writes ‘the spectacle of a nightmarish immigration dominates every mind, to the extent that immigrants themselves have begun to give in to this image’. The last lines of Le Cauchemar immigré are indeed taken from Debord’s last lines of his notes to Ouldamer. The gist is, will the earth’s future inhabitants emancipate themselves from the current hierarchical and repressive system, or ‘will they be dominated by an even more hierarchical and pro-slavery society than today?’ Sharing a militancy, Debord and Ouldamer close by saying, ‘we must envisage the worst and fight for the best. France is assuredly regrettable. But regrets are useless.’

Ouldamer’s inscription in the BL’s copy of Mémoires arguably offers a détournement of its own to Debord and Jorn’s détournement. At the very least, this contextual history reinserts global and racial dynamics into a work of the European political avant-garde, in which the Algerian crises of the 20th century arguably often only played a sub-textual role. If Mémoires ‘wanted to speak the beautiful language of my time’ then that language was surely not just the fragmented artistry of Paris, but also the Arabic and the Berber languages of Algeria.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

References / Further reading

Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York, 1994), YC.1994.b.6105

Guy Debord, Correspondance [vol. 6, Janvier 1979 – Décembre 1987] (Paris, 1999-2010), YF.2008.a.37298

Nedjib Sidi Moussa, ‘In Memoriam Mezioud Ouldamer’, in Textures du Temps

Erindringer om Asger Jorn, ed. by Troels Andersen and Aksel Evin Olesen (Silkeborg, 1982), X.425/4198

Greil Marcus, ‘Guy Debord’s Mémoires: A Siutationist Primer’, in On the passage of a few people through a rather brief moment in time: The Situationist International 1957-1972, ed. by Elisabeth Sussman (Cambridge, MA: 1989), YC.1992.b.1936

Boris Donné, Pour mémoires: un essai d’élucidation des Mémoires de Guy Debord (Paris, 2004), YF.2004.a.15028

Tom McDonough, ‘The Beautiful Language of my Century’: Reinventing the Language of Contestation in Postwar France, 1945-1968 (Cambridge, MA: 2007), YK.2007.a.9440

Bart Lans and Otakar Mácel, ‘The Making of Fin de Copenhague & Mémoires: The tactic of détournement in the collaboration between Guy Debord and Asger Jorn’ (Delft, 2009) 

Ella Mudie, ‘An Atlas of Allusions: The Perverse Methods of Guy Debord’s Mémoires, Criticism 58 (2016), pp. 535-63

13 August 2019

Max Havelaar: the Novel that Killed Colonialism

“The book is multifarious… disjointed… straining for effect… the style is poor… the author inexperienced… no talent… no method…” Fine, fine, all of it fine! But… THE JAVANESE ARE MISTREATED! THE MAIN POINT of what I have written is irrefutable!

These words fill the final pages of Max Havelaar or, The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company. Written by Multatuli -- pen name of Eduard Douwes Dekker – and causing a political storm on publication in the Netherlands in 1860. Max Havelaar remains required reading for students of Dutch literature in the Netherlands and Belgium and is to the Netherlands what Harriet Beecher-Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851) is to the United States. Just this year, New York Review of Books published a new English translation of this masterpiece of Dutch fiction which paints a damning picture of 19th-century Indonesia under Dutch colonial rule.

Portrait of Multatuli

The so-called ‘Sjaalman portrait’ of Multatuli. Reproduced in: Dik van der Meulen, Multatuli: leven en werken van Eduard Douwes Dekker . (Amsterdam, 2002). YA.2003.a.41440

Perhaps it’s Max Havelaar’s explosive nature that attracts contemporary readers – Multatuli’s book was considered so controversial by the first publisher, Jacob Van Lennep that he set about altering the novel to tone down its political volatility. A copy of the first edition as censored by Van Lennep, with dates and the names of people and places crossed out, is housed in the British Library. It wasn’t until 1875 that Multatuli was able to buy back the copyright of his own novel and to have Max Havelaar published with the original names and dates re-inserted.

Title page of the 1860 edition of Max Havelaar

Title page of Max Havelaar, of de Koffij-veilingen der Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij, (Amsterdam, 1860) RB.23.a.35956

The cover image of the latest English edition clearly hints at the explosiveness of Multatuli’s work: Indonesian artist Raden Saleh’s painting of Indonesia’s most active volcano, Merapi, meaning “the one making fire” in old Javanese, occupies the front cover. A fitting choice for the book that, according to the Indonesian writer Pramoedya Anata Toer, “killed colonialism.” What made Max Havelaar so politically charged was Multatuli drawing attention to the suffering of those dominated by colonial rule. Multatuli was considered an extraordinary thinker for his time – he wrote about his experiences with the local population in Indonesia not as their oppressor, but as someone determined to be their ‘saviour’ – although this sense of white responsibility is of course also part of the colonial mindset.

Cover of the 2019 English edition of Max Havelaar with a painting of Indonesia’s most active volcano, Merapi

Cover of Max Havelaar or, The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company (New York, 2019). Awaiting shelfmark.

Whether Multatuli’s motivations for writing Max Havelaar were purely self-serving – he wanted his job as a colonial administrator back – or whether he wrote to campaign for better conditions for the Indonesians, it was essential for him to present Dutch colonial rule in Indonesia in a negative light. One of his most effective tools was altering the perceptions of the native Indonesian; utilising Orientalist descriptions and portraying them as victims of colonialism. A key example of this is the enduring story of Saidjah and Adinda, which depicts a pair of Indonesian star-crossed lovers. This tale is perhaps the most well-known from Max Havelaar and has been published as a separate story numerous times.

Title page of a 1956 edition of Saîdjah en Adinda

Saîdjah en Adinda. Toespraak tot de hoofden van Lebak ... (The Hague, 1956). 12586.a.24.

A tragic tale of love and loss at the hands of ruthless oppressors, the story of Saidjah and Adinda awarded the Indonesians a sense of humanity they had previously been denied. Multatuli contradicts earlier descriptions of the Indonesians as threatening and violent by depicting them as peaceful, close to nature and, thanks to their unsophisticated life goals of owning buffaloes and pleasing their families, less corrupt than the Europeans who ruled over them.

Multatuli’s writing style, which sees him break into the narrative as the righteous omniscient narrator who speaks truth to power, made Max Havelaar all the more persuasive. This style, innovative to readers back in colonial Europe and still so fresh today, earned the text its reputation as a literary masterpiece. Nearly 160 years on, the themes of the novel still resonate – questioning those that hold power and bringing about emancipation for the subjugated remain ever-significant. Max Havelaar continues to entice readers worldwide, both as a novel and as an indictment of oppression that brought about a decisive change in policy and national mindset.

In 1948, less than a century years after its first publication, Communist publisher Pegasus issued its own edition of Max Havelaar, edited by the editor of ‘De Waarheid’, the newspaper of the Dutch Communist Party. At the start of the Indonesian War of Independence, Pegasus’goal was to raise awareness of the colonial history amongst the Dutch soldiers sent to suppress the independence fighters. This plan did not succeed, because Dutch bookshops and libraries refused to stock it. There are very few copies held by libraries in the Netherlands, which makes it all the more special that the BL received a copy in donation in 2017.

Title page of the 1948 edition of Max Havelaar

Title page of the 1948 edition of Max Havelaar, published by Pegasus in Amsterdam. YF.2018.a.8223

Megan Strutt, University of Sheffield

Written as part of the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) scheme, working in collaboration with Marja Kingma (Curator Germanic Collection BL) and Filip De Ceuster (University of Sheffield).

09 August 2019

A Letter to Panizzi with Echoes and Sparks

In May 1921 staff at the British Museum Library must have been rather surprised to receive a letter addressed to Sir Anthony Panizzi, the Museum’s famous 19th-century Principal Librarian, who had been dead for some 42 years. The letter was from Victor Patzovsky, a former officer in the Austrian army, who had been stationed at the Sigmundsherberg Prisoner of War camp in north-eastern Austria during the First World War, and it accompanied a parcel containing issues of newspapers produced by the Italian prisoners in the camp.

Newspaper masthead showing the Sigmundsherberg Camp
The camp at Sigmundsherberg, from the masthead of camp newspaper L’ Eco del Prigioniero, no.3 (21 January 1917)  NEWS12832 

Such newspapers were produced in many internment and prisoner-of-war camps in the First and Second World Wars. They served various purposes: to communicate the latest news from the camp and the wider world, to publicise sporting and cultural societies and events organised by the prisoners, to alleviate boredom and frustration, to share experiences, memories and jokes, and to maintain a common cultural identity while in enemy captivity.

These things were particularly important in a camp like Sigmundsherberg where conditions were poor and prisoners particularly likely to succumb to the ‘barbed-wire disease’ that accompanied long, difficult and tedious incarceration. The camp had originally housed Russian prisoners, but after Italy entered the war against her former Austrian and German allies most of the Russians were moved out, and by the autumn of 1916 some 56,000 Italians were interned there. Since this was a far greater number than the camp had been built for, overcrowding was a constant problem, exacerbated by sickness, and shortages of food and fuel, creating miserable conditions for the prisoners.

In his letter Patzovsky writes of the prisoners’ ‘sad lot’ and says that he was ‘a real friend’ to them, enclosing testimonials from some of them to support this claim. He goes on to explain that he has now fallen on hard times himself, and is hoping to sell the newspapers to the Library to raise some money. He must have heard of Panizzi and, not realising that he was long dead, thought that an Italian-born librarian would have a particular interest in the newpapers and sympathy with a man who had tried to help Italians in distress. The letter was passed on to A.W. Pollard, one of Panizzi’s successors as Keeper of Printed Books, and a pencilled note on the first page, signed with Pollard’s initials, shows that the Library offered £2 for the collection. Clearly Patzovsky was content with this as the newspapers remain in the British Library today, although the testimonials were presumably returned to Patzovsky as he requested.

Easter 1917 issue of L' Eco del Prigioniero
Easter issue of L’Eco del Prigioniero (8 April 1917)

The run of newspapers is far from complete. As Patzovsky explains, ‘the few copies that were printed went from hand to hand among the thousands of Italians until the paper fell to pieces.’ The earliest in the collection is no. 3 of the weekly L’Eco del Prigioniero (‘The Prisoner’s Echo’), dated 21 January 1917. L’Eco del Prigioniero was reproduced from manuscript using a machine known as an opalograph and each issue has a different illustrated masthead.

Newspaper masthead image of two monkeys

Newspaper masthead with stylised image of three faces

Newspaper masthead picture of Milan Cathedral
Some examples of mastheads from L’Eco del Prigioniero. Two  bear a label addressed to Patzovsky, suggesting that they were his subscription copies

The first editor was an A. Gori, but from no. 15 (6 May 1917) the role was taken over by Guido Monaldi. The content generally includes news and comment, essays poems and stories, and reports of camp activities, while a monthly supplement, L’Eco Umoristico/L’Eco Caricaturista, is devoted to jokes and cartoons.

Page from L'Eco Caricaturista with cartoons, verses and portraits
Page from L’Eco Caricaturista, May 1917, with self-portraits of the artists. HS.74/734

In August 1917 L’Eco del Prigioniero became La Scintilla (‘The Spark’), but Monaldi remained as editor, the content was much the same, and there was still a humorous supplement, La Scintilla Caricaturista. Initially the same form of reproduction from manuscript was also used, but the difficulty of obtaining the chemicals needed for the process and the low quality of the available supplies made it impossible to keep up with the demand for copies and to maintain the quality of the reproduction.

Front page of 'La Scintilla' 2 September 1917
La Scintilla, 
no, 3 (2 September 1917)  HS.74/734

By the beginning of November Monaldi and his team had succeeded in acquiring a proper printing press, and the remaining issues are all printed, losing somewhat in visual charm and variety but gaining greatly in legibility. A new and permanent masthead image soon appeared, with the image of a goddess-like figure striking sparks.

First printed issue of La Scintilla, 4 November 1917
The first printed issue of La Scintilla (4 November 1917), showing the kind of wear and tear described by Patzovsky

Somewhat confusingly, the series numeration restarts at 1 from the first printed issue; the last issue which we hold is no. 15 in this numeration (7 April 1918), although La Scintilla is recorded as having run until August 1918.

La Scintilla masthead
Masthead for the printed issues of La Scintilla 

Incomplete as our holdings are, we must be grateful to Patzovsky for offering them to the Library and to Pollard for being willing to buy them from him.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

Further reading:

Rudolf Koch, Im Hinterhof des Krieges: das Kriegsgefangenenlager Sigmundsherberg (Klosterneuburg, 2002) YA.2003.a.43771

06 August 2019

The three lives of the Georgian alphabet

The Georgian alphabet is very old and is used only by the Georgian language. Its origins lie hidden in the depths of the past and are the subject of several theories.

According to the Georgian chronicles, King Parnavaz I was recognised as the creator of the Georgian alphabet. Among scholars, some suggest that the Georgian alphabet derived from Phoenician, while others propose Semitic and Aramaic origins. However, the majority of researchers consider that the Greek alphabet served as the basis for the Georgian one. In strictly structural terms, Georgian alphabetical order largely corresponds to the Greek alphabet with the exception of letters representing uniquely Georgian sounds, which are grouped at the end.

The oldest Georgian inscriptions date back to the fifth century AD. However, it is unlikely that the Georgian alphabet first appeared then as the written culture was by then long established and highly developed. According to the Georgian historian Ivane Javakhishvili, the Georgian writing system had been in use since the 7th century BC.

Inscription from Bolnisi Sioni Cathedral, dated to 494 AD

Inscription from Bolnisi Sioni Cathedral, dated to 494 AD, Simon Janashia Museum of Georgia (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The evolution of Georgia’s written language has produced three scripts: Asomtavruli (5th-9th centuries), Nuskhuri (9th-11th centuries) and Mkhedruli (11th century onwards). The appearance of the letters at each stage is very different. Despite their obvious visual differences, all three scripts are closely interrelated and show a gradual evolution. Their letters share the same names and alphabetical order and are written horizontally from left to right. Originally consisting of 38 letters, Georgian today is written using a 33-letter alphabet, as five letters were dropped as a result of reforms proposed by Ilia Chavchavadze in the 1860s. All three Georgian writing systems are phonemic; every sound is represented by its corresponding letter and almost every written letter is pronounced in speech.

The three Georgian scripts

The three Georgian scripts: Asomtavruli, Nuskhuri, and Mkhedruli (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Asomtavruli (‘capital letters’) is a monumental script, and represents the oldest form of the Georgian alphabet. It is also known as Mrgvlovani (‘rounded’). The geometry of the Asomtavruli script is simple and plain. The first examples date back to the 5th century. From the 9th century, Asomtavruli was mainly employed for capital letters in religious manuscripts. Despite its name, this script is unicameral, i.e. it does not distinguish between upper and lower case, like the two later scripts, Nuskhuri and Mkhedruli.

Letter მ (M) in Asomtavruli script, 12th century New Testament MS

Letter მ (M) in Asomtavruli script, 12th century New Testament MS (Gelati Gospel) (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Book of prayers, 17th century (Sloane MS 1338). The manuscript is written in Nuskhuri, with Asomtavruli letter ‘M’ as a capital

Book of prayers, 17th century (Sloane MS 1338). The manuscript is written in Nuskhuri, with Asomtavruli letter ‘M’ as a capital

The second Georgian writing system, which derived from Asomtavruli, was Nuskhuri (‘minuscule’). Nuskhuri was soon combined with Asomtavruli illuminated capitals in religious manuscripts. The combination was called Khutsuri (‘clerical’) and was largely used in religious writings.

Lives of Holy Fathers, 11th century (Add. MS 11281). The manuscript is written in Khutsuri

Lives of Holy Fathers, 11th century (Add. MS 11281). The manuscript is written in Khutsuri

From the 10th century, Nuskhuri was employed in many texts. Nuskhuri developed as a written style because of the need to write faster and the increased demand for books. Nuskhuri letters have an angular shape, vary in height and slant to the right. They could be written without lifting the writing tool from the page. The oldest known inscription in Nuskhuri is the collection of sermons known as Sinuri mravaltvavi (‘Sinai Homiliary’) dated 864 AD.

These two scripts were followed by Mkhedruli, the modern Georgian script. It first appeared in the 10th century. The name Mkhedruli comes from the word mkhedari which means ‘knightly’. Mkhedruli can be seen as the product of the complex development of previous writing systems. It maintained the rounded design of Asomtavruli and, like Nuskhuri, facilitated faster writing. Letters, as in Nuskhuri script, can also be joined up. Due to its style and flexibility, it is also used for headlines and titles.

Mkhedruli has changed very little since its arrival in the 10th century and has become the standard script of modern Georgian and related Kartvelian languages. Mkhedruli first appeared in print in two books published in Rome in 1629.

Title page and opening of Sefano Paolini’s Dittionario giorgiano e italiano

Title page and opening of Sefano Paolini’s Dittionario giorgiano e italiano (Rome, 1629) 622.e.34.(2.)

The three writing systems co-existed for several centuries and all remain in use today. They were originally used for both religious and secular literature. Gradually, however, Mkhedruli came to be used only for state and secular purposes while Nuskhuri and Asomtavruli were limited to ecclesiastical use.

Georgian scripts were granted the national status of intangible cultural heritage in Georgia in 2015 and inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2016. The decision recognised the value of the three writing systems that live together in harmony and mark out the Georgian language.

Anna Chelidze, Curator, Georgian Collections

Further reading

Tʿamaz Gamqreliże, Alphabetic writing and the Old Georgian script: a typology and provenience of alphabetic writing systems (Delmar, N.Y., 1994). ORW.1995.a.283

Michael Kurdiani, Georgian language and script (Tbilisi, 2008). YD.2011.a.5239

Elene Mačavariani, The Old Georgian Script (Tbilisi, 2015). YD.2016.a.2180

Georgian scripts & typography (Tbilisi, 2016). YF.2019.b.1408

The British Library Exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark continues until 27 August 2019. 

01 August 2019

Pérák, the only Czech superhero

During the Second World War, a strange rumour spread among the residents of Prague. A mysterious masked character dressed in black was said to be seen jumping at great heights over the rooftops and streets of the occupied city. He would suddenly leap out of a dark corner to attack Czech collaborators, or to save Czech civilians from the hands of the Gestapo.

An image of Pérák. He has springs on his feat and is holding a gun. In his other hand is a torn Nazi flag.

Jiří Gruss, Projekt Pérák (2003) reproduced in Petr Janeček, Mýtus o pérákovi. Městská legenda mezi folklorem a populární kulturou (Prague, 2017), awaiting shelfmark.

According to the urban legend, Pérák, the Spring Man (from Czech péro, 'spring'), was an inventor turned superhero. Thanks to springs attached to his shoes, he was able to startle and escape Nazi soldiers who tried in vain to capture him. That’s how popular belief has it. However, in his Mýtus o pérákovi. Městská legenda mezi folklorem a populární kulturou, Petr Janeček shows that, in fact, the myth of the Spring Man did not start with the Second World War, but that for a century before it had been part of Czech and international folklore, and its origins could be traced back to Spring-heeled Jack, a spectre popular in Victorian England, who was believed to torment the inhabitants of London, Sheffield, and Liverpool. He had claws and red eyes and, just like Pérák, he was able to make enormous leaps.

Cover of Spring-heel'd Jack: the Terror of London. The image shows Jack jumping from a window with a woman in his arms.

Cover of Spring-heel'd Jack: the Terror of London. Issue 1 (London, 1867) 12620.h.26

In fact, the early oral tradition also presented the Spring Man as a sinister figure who posed a threat to common Czech people, as he would murder or rape defenceless civilians. As a result, many Czechs refused to work night shifts, which had a detrimental effect on the production of weapons in Nazi factories. During the peak of the Pérák myth, almost every incident would be attributed to the Spring Man. Gradually, Pérák evolved from a terrifying phantom into a positive hero who fought the Nazi army by blowing up military vehicles and who would defend the innocent residents of Prague, as well as writing anti-Nazi graffiti on walls to raise the morale of Czech civilians. And that’s how he became the only superhero in Czech history.

Cover of Petr Stančík’s Pérák. Pérák is crouching in the top left-hand corner of the cover.

Cover of Petr Stančík’s Pérák (Brno, 2008), YF.2008.a.33809

Being a symbol of Czech resistance against Nazi Germany, Pérák was an important part of Czech wartime culture. While he was almost certainly an imaginary character rather than a real person, he provided Czech civilians with hope and a feeling that someone out there was protecting them against the Nazi occupiers. Although his activity ceased completely with the end of the war, the career of Pérák as an urban legend was not over, and since then he has evolved from a hero of gossip stories into part of Czech popular culture, including cartoon animations, comic books and novels.

Cover of magazine Pionýr. Cover of magazine Pionýr is depicted here as a boy with springs on his feat jumping through the night sky.

Cover of magazine Pionýr (May 1980) reproduced in Petr Janeček, Mýtus o pérákovi

Being a symbol of resistance against the oppressor, the character of the Spring Man has been adopted by various political movements, including Czech nationalists, anti-globalists and anti-fascists - and in this way, the same spectre turned superhero has fought different enemies for the past eighty years.

An antifascist sticker with Pérák reproduced in Petr Janeček, Mýtus o pérákovi

An antifascist sticker with Pérák reproduced in Petr Janeček, Mýtus o pérákovi

Zuzanna Krzemien, SEE Cataloguer

References/Further reading

Petr Janeček, Mýtus o pérákovi. Městská legenda mezi folklorem a populární kulturou (Prague, 2017). Awaiting shelfmark.

Petr Stančík, Pérák (Brno 2008). YF.2008.a.33809