European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

71 posts categorized "Czech Republic"

31 August 2023

Women in Translation Month 2023

August is Women in Translation Month, an initiative that celebrates and promotes literature by women from around the world in English translation. As in past years, members of our team have picked some titles to recommend. We hope they will inspire you! 

Cover of 'Under a Cruel Star', with a photograph of a woman and child

Heda Margolius Kovály, Under a Cruel Star: a Life in Prague 1941-1968, translated from the Czech by Franci Epstein and Helen Epstein with the author (London, 2021) YK.2012.a.24219
Chosen by Alice Pappon, British Library Trainee

Under a Cruel Star memoirs the life of author Heda Margolius Kovály who was born in Prague in 1919. In describing her experiences living in Auschwitz and Communist Czechoslovakia, this memoir offers a magnificent and raw account of human endurance in the face of the most brutal atrocities. Kovály provides a chilling recollection of operating under constant scrutiny and suspicion from the Communist regime and a life of constantly looking over one’s shoulder. This book was first published in 1973 with a British edition published the same year under the title I Do Not Want to Remember (X.809/18317). It has since been re-translated by Franci and Helen Epstein who worked with Kovály herself to capture the truest version of the author’s experience.

Cover of 'Mazel Tov' with a drawing of a pen in the corner

J.S. Margot, Mazel Tov: the Story of my Extraordinary Friendship with an Orthodox Jewish Family, translated by Jane Hedley-Prôle (London, 2020 ) ELD.DS.484114
Chosen by Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections (Dutch and Flemish Languages)

Margot Vanderstraeten’s memoir Mazel Tov (published in English under the name J.S. Margot) was one of the books in the goody bag at the launch in April this year of ‘Flip Through Flanders’, the campaign to promote translated Flemish literature in the UK. It is the story of the author as a student in 1987, when she tutored the children of an orthodox Jewish family in Antwerp. These people could almost not have been more different from herself. She knows nothing of Jewish orthodox culture, which leads to some embarrassing moments. Her having an Iranian boyfriend doesn’t help either. However, over time both parties come to understand and appreciate each other more and they even become friends. It is a story about identity and coming of age that feels very uplifting.
Mazel Tov is translated by Jane Hedley-Prôle who has translated books from Dutch into English for over ten years.

 

Cover of 'Freshta' with an abstract design featuring a woman's face and a butterfly

Petra Procházková, Freshta, translated by Julia Sherwood (London, 2012). H.2014/.5570.
Chosen by Olga Topol, Curator Czech, Slavonic and East European Collections

Petra Procházková is a Czech war correspondent, humanitarian worker and journalist, recipient of Medal of Merit awarded by President Václav Havel. She is known for her in-depth interviews with women struggling to survive in conflict-ridden areas of the post-Soviet world. Procházková covered news from Abkhazia, Ossetia, Georgia, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan. For reporting on the atrocities of Chechen War, she was forbidden to enter Russia for many years. In her novel Freshta, set in Afghanistan before the Taliban returned to power in 2021, Procházková explores Afghan culture following Herra, a Russian-Tajik woman who falls in love with an Afghan man. Colourful characters, and a sensitivity towards local culture and customs gained through the author’s personal experience, make Procházková’s book a captivating read.

 

Cover of 'Apple Cake and Baklava' with a picture of two children on a bicycle

Kathrin Rohmann, Apple Cake and Baklava, illustrated by Franziska Harvey, translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp (London, 2018) YKL.2019.a.17272
Chosen by Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

Kathrin Rohmann’s children’s story Apple Cake and Baklava, translated by Ruth Ahmedazi Kemp, is told from the perspectives of two children, Leila and Max. Leila is a Syrian refugee who has just arrived with her mother and brothers in the German village where Max lives. As her family try to settle into their new home, they wait anxiously for news of the children’s father and grandmother, still in Syria. Leila treasures a walnut from her grandmother’s garden that carries memories of home for her. When she loses it she is deeply upset and Max, who feels drawn to his new classmate, offers to help her find it. A friendship develops between the two, and also between Leila and Max’s grandmother Gertrud, who herself was a refugee from Pomerania after the Second World War. Gertrud still bakes apple cake and lebkuchen to her own grandmother’s recipes as a link with her lost home and family, just as Leila’s brothers try to recreate the baklava that their father used to make in his bakery (there are recipes for all three at the end of the book).
Apple Cake and Baklava is a touching story of friendship, family and food and a good introduction for younger readers to the themes of exile and loss.

 

Cover of 'The mauve umbrella' with two children in silhouette against a background of flowers

Alki Zei, The Mauve Umbrella, translated by Ian Barnes (London, 2016) H.2020/.5039
Chosen by Lydia Georgiadou, Curator Modern Greek Collections

In the summer of 1940, shortly before the Second World War reaches Greece, 10 year-old Eleftheria lives with her parents and twin brothers in Athens. She despises the household chores expected from women of the time, while she adores anything her father does not approve of: reading fanatically, going to the theatre, hoping to one day become a lawyer, inspired by Sophocles’ Antigone. One floor above, lives the Frenchman Mr Marcel, whose nephew Benoit becomes an inseparable friend of the children. Their toys are few, but their imagination endless. Their enchanting games are only constrained by the grownups’ harsh experiences.
A book about two completely different worlds – that of children and that of the adults – each one carrying its own truth. A book that puzzles and entertains at the same time. Through its pages, the beloved Greek novelist Alki Zei (1923-2020) depicts the characters’ ethos, childhood innocence, the agony of war and the upheavals in our lives. Yesterday meets today on a journey… with a purple umbrella.

30 December 2022

An A to Z of the European Studies Blog 2022

A is for Alexander the Great, subject of the Library’s current exhibition

B is for Birds and Bull fighting.

C is for Czechoslovak Independence Day, which marks the foundation of the independent Czechoslovak State in 1918.

D is for Digitisation, including the 3D digitisation of Marinetti’s Tin Book.

E is for Annie Ernaux, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in October.

Examples of Fraktur letter-forms from Wolfgang Fugger  Ein nützlich und wolgegründt Formular manncherley schöner Schriefften ... (Nuremberg  1533) C.142.cc.12.

Examples of Fraktur letter-forms from Wolfgang Fugger, Ein nützlich und wolgegründt Formular manncherley schöner Schriefften ... (Nuremberg, 1533) C.142.cc.12.

F is for Festive Traditions, from songs to fortune telling.

G is for Guest bloggers, whose contributions we love to receive! 

H is for Hryhorii Skovoroda, the Ukrainian philosopher and poet whose anniversary we marked in December.

I is for our series on Iceland and the Library’s Icelandic collections.

J is for Jubilees.

Cover of Abetka, a Ukrainian alphabet book for children

Abetka (Kyïv, 2005). YF.2010.a.18369.

K is for Knowledge systems and the work of Snowchange Cooperative, a Finnish environmental organisation devoted to protecting and restoring the boreal forests and ecosystems through ‘the advancement of indigenous traditions and culture’.

L is for Limburgish, spoken in the South of the Netherlands.

M is for Mystery – some bibliographical sleuthing.

N is for Nordic acquisitions, from Finnish avant-garde poetry to Swedish art books.

O is for Online resources from East View, which are now available remotely.

Pages from Giovanni Bodoni and Giovanni Mardersteig, Manuale tipografico showing letters M and N

Giovanni Bodoni and Giovanni Mardersteig, Manuale tipografico, 1788. Facsimile a cura di Giovanni Mardersteig. (Verona, 1968) L.R.413.h.17.

P is for our wonderful PhD researchers, current and future.

Q is for Quebec with a guest appearance by the Americas blog featuring the work of retired French collections curator Des McTernan. 

R is for Rare editions of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko’s Kobzar.

S is for Samizdat and the Library’s Polish Solidarity collection.

T is for Translation and our regular posts to mark Women in Translation Month.

Page from Alphabet Anglois

Alphabet Anglois, contenant la prononciation des lettres avec les declinaisons et conjugaisons (Rouen, 1639). Digital Store 1568/3641.(1.)

U is for Ukrainian collections and our work with Ukrainian partners.

V is for Victory – a contemporary Italian newspaper report of the Battle of Trafalgar. 

W is for Richard Wagner who wrote about a fictional meeting with Beethoven.

X is for... (no, we couldn’t think of anything either!)

Y is for You, our readers. Thank you for following us!

Z is for our former colleague Zuzanna, whom we remembered in February.

Church Slavonic alphabet from Azbuka, considered the first dated book printed in Ukraine.

Azbuka ōt knigi osmochastnye̡, sirěchʹ grammatikii (Lviv, 1574). Digital Store 1568/3641.(1.)

22 December 2022

Songs, games and fortune telling: the story behind Koliada

Having met some friends on their way to a Christmas carol concert, I thought that maybe it would be interesting to some of our readers to learn what East Europeans sing and recite for Christmas.

The word used for the ritual that happens around this time of the year is koliada, koleda (there are several other variants in Slavonic languages, as well as Lithuanian and Romanian, originating from the Old Church Slavonic form “kolęnda”). It is believed that the word originally comes from Latin “calendae” – the first day of the month – and over the years its initial pagan symbolism merged with the Christian tradition.

The rituals vary significantly among Slavonic and East European cultures, but the most stable elements in all areas include singing special songs, playing games and fortune telling. The celebration combines honouring both darkness and light, but heralds a new beginning. One period of life is complete and comes to an end (darkness), while a new start (star) is about to rise in the sky. Good wishes and a positive mood are shared within a close circle of loved ones, although it is traditionally important to remember deceased ancestors. It was also believed that animals during this time could speak with a human voice, which might be a sign of messages from the ancestors.

All these can be found in one of the most popular Ukrainian songs Oi Syvaia ta i zozulen'ka (commonly translated as “Oh, Grey Cuckoo”), where a cuckoo is going around with best wishes and sending them to the Clear Moon (father of the family), the Red Sun (his wife) and small stars (their children).

Page from Koliadky i shchedrivky with an illustration of a family

Page from Koliadky i shchedrivky

Page from Koliadky i shchedrivky

Koliadky i shchedrivky. (Kyiv, 1991). YA.1996.a.6899

In a modern Belarusian fairy-tale based on the traditional stories, a goat brings joy, prosperity and happiness, so people try to please it with songs and food.

Pages from Kazka pra handliara Piatra, Kazu i Kaliady

I. Kuz’minich. Kazka pra handliara Piatra, Kazu i Kaliady. (Minsk, 2014). YF.2015.a.21355.

A combination of old symbolic beliefs with the new Christian meaning of the celebration is a very distinct feature of many songs. Modern Czech writers continued the tradition of this celebration, creating new poems based on popular texts. As it says in the introduction to the book České vánoce: umění, poesie, tradice, we all become poets at this time of the year.

Koleda by František Jan Vavál

Koleda by František Jan Vavál, from České vánoce: umění, poesie, tradice. (Prague, 1957). YA.1993.b.3196.

Wishing you all to spend this season in a poetic spirit, and – of course – lots of love, happiness and joy.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European collections

28 October 2022

The spirit of freedom, or an episode in the life of a private person in the time of transformations

28 October is a National holiday in the Czech Republic. Independence Day (Den vzniku samostatného československého státu) marks the foundation of the independent Czechoslovak State in 1918. It followed the publication of the Declaration of Independence of the Czechoslovak Nation by Its Provisional Government (Prohlášení nezávislosti československého národa zatímní vládou československou) on 18 October 1918. As soon as military defeat became inevitable, the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire started to disintegrate. The Allies supported the breakaway demands of the minority nations within the Empire. The 1918 ‘Autumn of Nations’ led to fundamental changes in the configuration of Central Europe.

The main author of the Declaration was the first President of Czechoslovakia, Professor Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, sociologist, political scientist and philosopher.

Photograph of the reading of the Declaration

Reading the Declaration (Source: Wikipedia)

Although the whole process of independence revolutions in Central Europe had the American idea of national self-determination as its theoretical basis, the Czechoslovak Declaration of Independence or the Washington Declaration, as it is sometimes called, is evidently the most influenced by American political principles and President Woodrow Wilson’s 14-point programme for world peace:

We accept and shall adhere to the ideals of modern democracy, as they have been the ideals of our nation for centuries. We accept the American principles as laid down by President Wilson: the principles of liberated mankind, of actual equality of nations, and of the governments deriving all their jus power from the consent of the governed. We, the nation of Comenius, cannot but accept these principles expressed in the American Declaration of Independence, the principles of Lincoln, and of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. (Digital copy)

Although the British Library is not among the lucky few who own one of only 50 copies of the first edition, the 1933 edition with parallel Czech and English texts is a really fine piece of Czech book culture.

Pages from Declaration of Independence of the Czechoslovak Nation... in Czech and English

Prohlášení nezávislosti československého národa zatímní vládou československou, osmnáctého října, MDCCCCXVIII. (Declaration of Independence of the Czechoslovak Nation by its Provisional Government, October Eighteenth, MDCCCCXVIII). Prague, 1933. 5549.e.44

The links between the two nations and the presidents were promoted and emphasised in Czechoslovak society through imagery, such as, for example, this postcard published on the website of the US Embassy in the Czech Republic.

American political thought was of great importance for building a new nation state. Changing the focus from global political transformations to individuals, I tried to imagine a 30-year-old Czech banker and Doctor of Law, who, while on a state mission to London, came to the British Museum Library to work in its Reading Room. His name was Vladimír Dědek (1889-1941) and he is also known as an editor of research volumes on history and a translator from English. It would be good to learn more about his life, but for now I can only offer you his letter to the British Museum written in clear handwriting, where he thanks colleagues for their help and offers a donation: Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography in his translation into Czech.

Letter from Vladimír Dědek to the British Museum

Letter from Vladimír Dědek to the British Museum

Letter from Vladimír Dědek to the British Museum

BL archives, DH4, vol. 91, 1918-1920.

The book, which is signed by Dědek, is held in our main printed books collection (a digital copy is available through the National Digital Library of the Czech Republic).

Title page of Benjamin Franklin. Vlastní životopis. Přeložil Judr. V. Dědek signed by Dědek

Benjamin Franklin. Vlastní životopis. Přeložil Judr. V. Dědek. (Prague, [1918]). 10884.aaa.6.

In the preface to the book, having cited Franklin’s words about freedom, Dědek concludes that “the spirit of free America, great in the history of mankind, is blowing from these lines” (p. 24). However, in the words of the father of the nation, Tomáš Masaryk, “freedom is a hard responsibility” (Hovory s T.G. Masarykem. Věk mladosti / K.Č.; ZF.9.a.2782).

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

26 August 2022

Women in Translation Month 2022 (Part 1)

August is Women in Translation Month, a 2014 initiative aimed at celebrating and promoting women writers in translation, as well as their translators and publishers. As in previous years, we are highlighting a selection of books from across the European collections that we have recently enjoyed. We hope you enjoy them too.

Cover of Bianca Bellova's The Lake

Bianca Bellova, The Lake, translated by Alex Zucker (Cardigan: Parthian, 2022) ELD.DS.698424
Chosen by Olga Topol, Curator Czech, Slavonic and East European Collections

The Lake won the Czech Magnesia Litera Book of the Year Award and the EU Prize for Literature in 2017. It is a surreal coming of age story that questions the relationship between humans and nature. In a fictional world set somewhere in between a post-apocalyptic future and the post-USSR past, a boy is trying to uncover the mystery of his mother’s disappearance. It is a vivid tale about a devastated, cruel world in which a child is growing into a man while searching for his identity. Dark and beautiful.

Cover of Stefania Auci's The Florios of Sicily: a novel featuring a drawing of three people sitting by the sea

Stefania Auci, The Florios of Sicily: a novel, translated by Katherine Gregor (HarperCollins, 2020). Awaiting shelfmark
Chosen by Valentina Mirabella, Curator Romance Collections

Stefania Auci’s bestselling novel The Florios of Sicily tells the story of an entrepreneurial family that, starting from poverty in the early 19th century, built a fortune exporting Sicilian products such as Marsala wine and invented canned tuna as we know it. This is a well-documented saga, linking decades of Italian history to the Florio dynasty, which shook the feudal immobility and introduced industrialization in Sicily. Auci is particularly good at describing the places and underlining the role of women. We owe the English translation to Katherine Gregor who, impressively, is a literary translator from Italian, French and, on occasion, Russian.

Cover of Kiki Dimoula, The Brazen Plagiarist: Selected Poems

Kiki Dimoula, The Brazen Plagiarist: Selected Poems, translated by Cecile Inglessis Margellos and Rika Lesser (New Haven, Conn.; London: Yale University Press, 2012), YC.2013.a.11561
Chosen by Lydia Georgiadou, Curator Modern Greek Collections

The Brazen Plagiarist is the first English translation of a wide selection of poems from across Kiki Dimoula’s oeuvre bringing together some of her most captivating and poignant works. The highly-praised and multi-award winning Greek poet embarks on a journey to a ‘magnificent’ though ‘unknown to her’ language, ‘filled with apprehension’ but grateful to be ‘accompanied by an excellent letter of introduction – their translation’. Award-winning translators Cecile Inglessis Margellos and Rika Lesser, whom Dimoula herself considers ‘heroic’, indeed rise to the challenge of recreating the poet’s mysteriously uncanny yet inexplicably familiar writing.

05 August 2022

A Bibliographical Mystery Solved

A while ago I was alerted by a colleague to a German item in our collections that appeared to have no catalogue record. It was bound with a list of books censored by the Austrian Empire in the late 18th century, so when I ordered the volume up, I assumed that the uncatalogued item would be something similar, perhaps even a continuation of the previous list.

However, when it arrived, it was obvious that, although only a fragment of a larger work, it was not at all similar, let alone related, to the other work in the volume. It began with a half-title page bearing the title ‘Zusätze, Verbesserungen und Druckfehler’ (‘Additions, improvements and printing errors’), so it was obviously an appendix to a larger work, and from the first two pages of text it was clear that the larger work was a guide to a spa town.

Two pages of text from an unidentified fragment

Opening of the mysterious fragment (818.d.9.(2))

Since the town was not named anywhere in the few pages of text, it might have been impossible to identify the place and therefore the book. However, a long-ago cataloguer had obviously had a better knowledge of spa culture than I did as there was a pencil note reading ‘K Carlsbad’. The letter K was used in the British Museum Library to indicate that an item had been catalogued, and the word after it denoted the heading used for it in the catalogue. So this was presumably a guide to the famous spa at what was then known as Karlsbad (anglicised as Carlsbad), and is today Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic. From the look of the typeface and the style of writing – and based on the date of the other item in the volume – it seemed likely that it dated from the late 18th or early 19th century.

Half-title page with a cataloguer's note

I knew from the pencil note that there had been a catalogue record made for the fragment, so went to the version of the printed catalogue published between 1979 and 1987 (known as BLC) to check it out. Perhaps it had been one of those odd records that had somehow fallen off the radar when the printed records were converted to an online format. But there was no heading in the catalogue for ‘Carlsbad’. There was one for the German spelling ‘Karlsbad’, which was a cross-reference to ‘Karlovy Vary’, but there was nothing there that could conceivably match the item in question.

So I had to go further back in time, to the first general catalogue of the British Museum Library, published in the 1890s and known as GK1. Here there was a heading ‘Carlsbad’ with a number of mainly anonymous works listed, including the item in hand. However, the record didn’t get me much further in identifying the book the fragment came from, describing it simply as ‘a fragment of some work on the mineral waters of Carlsbad’ with a speculative date of 1803.

Catalogue entry for an unidentified fragment

At this point I had two options. I could either create something similar to the GK1 record on our current catalogue, giving approximate details and date, or I could see whether I could find an item that would match our fragment by searching online and create a fuller record. I thought I would try the latter and turned to one of my all-time favourite websites, the Karlsruhe Virtual Catalogue, which can be used to search a wide range of German and other library catalogues. By typing in ‘Carlsbad’ along with other keywords that might conceivably appear in the title of a German travel guide I found various possibilities, and the increasing availability of digitised editions enabled me to check for matches in most cases.

I was on almost my last attempt when I finally found what looked like a match in the collections of the Austrian National Library. Ironically, this copy didn’t have the ‘Zusätze, Verbesserungen und Druckfehler’ to make a direct comparison, but by cross-checking the corrections and additions with the page references from the original given in our fragment I was able to confirm that I had indeed found the right book, and to create a full catalogue record for it with a note explaining that we only hold a small part of the whole.

Engraved title-page of 'Ansicht oder neueste Beschreibung von Carlsbaad wie es jetzt ist'

Engraved title-page of the complete work, from a copy in the Austrian National Library

Although I’m rather proud of myself for having solved this little bibliographical mystery, I doubt anyone will ever know why two such different items ended up bound together. But at least the fragment that we have is now identifiable.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

01 February 2022

In Memoriam: Zuzanna Krzemien (1987-2021)

As January draws to a close, we remember our dear colleague, Zuzanna, who passed away a year ago. In her short time at the British Library, as a cataloguer and curator of Slavonic and East European collections, she made a lasting impression on both the people and collections she worked with. As well as being a talented linguist and researcher with a PhD in Hebrew and Jewish studies, she is also remembered for her generosity of spirit, quiet humour and beautiful smile.

Photograph of Zuzanna

Photograph of Zuzanna. With kind permission of her family. 

Zuzanna’s regular contributions to the Library’s European Studies blog were always popular due to her accessible, interesting, and often witty, writing style and choice of subjects. From art and book design to Holocaust studies and the forgotten histories of women, her natural ability to tell stories and engage readers helped to open up the Polish, Czech and Slovak collections to wider audiences.

In June 2020 she organised an important collaborative blog post to mark Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month and to highlight collection items written by or related to members of the Roma community in Europe. One of our favourite pieces she wrote was the first in a series of blog posts in which colleagues described items in the collection that held a significant meaning for them. Zuzanna chose a Polish samizdat edition of George Orwell’s 1984, which she first came across aged 13 on her father’s bookshelf, and a book devoted to the Roma community in Slovakia.

In one of her blogs on book design, Zuzanna explained that Czech cubists believed that objects, including books, had their own inner energy. The way she worked with books and wrote about them suggests that she also believed in their inner energy.

Zuzanna's ex-libris

Zuzanna’s ex-libris

Zuzanna’s family have kindly donated 14 books from her personal collection to the British Library. Each title includes her ex-libris. An avid traveller and bibliophile, the design features a scene with books next to a wide-open window. There is a vase of flowers on the windowsill and a flock of birds is flying over the vast, mountainous landscape. We hope that it will bring a smile and sense of calm to all those who read Zuzanna’s books in the Library.

The following books were kindly donated to the British Library by Zuzanna’s family

Chloe Benjamin, The Immortalists (London, [2018]). YD.2022.a.275

Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain (London, 2006). YD.2022.a.273

Antonio Damasio, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain (London, 2012). YD.2022.a.278

Angela Gallop with Jane Smith, When the Dogs don’t Bark: a Forensic Scientist’s Search for the Truth (London, 2020). YD.2022.a.279

Georgi Gospodinov; translated by Angela Rodel, The Physics of Sorrow (Rochester, 2015). YD.2022.a.281

Adam Kay, This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor (London, 2018). YD.2022.a.276

Jonah Lehrer, Proust was a neuroscientist (Edinburgh, 2012). YD.2022.a.277

Shannon Moffett, The Three-Pound Enigma: the Human Brain and the Quest to Unlock its Mysteries (Chapel Hill, 2006). YD.2022.a.282

Heather Morris, The Tattooist of Auschwitz (London, 2018). YD.2022.a.274

Erin E. Murphy, Inside the Cell: the Dark Side of Forensic DNA (New York, 2015). YD.2022.a.283

Henry Jay Przybylo, Counting Backwards: a Doctor’s Notes on Anesthesia (New York, 2018). YD.2022.a.280

Christopher See, Succeed in your Medical School Interview: Stand out from the Crowd and get into your Chosen Medical School (London, 2015). YD.2022.a.285

Tom Zoellner, Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock that Shaped the World (New York; London, 2009). YD.2022.a.284

Ruslan Russian, 1. Student Workbook. Exercises by John Langran ([Birmingham, 2013]). YD.2022.b.73

21 January 2022

“Only your work will be remembered”: the 150th anniversary of Jože Plečnik’s birth

On 21 July 2021, UNESCO added four new cultural sites to its World Heritage List. One of these four was the work of the architect Jože Plečnik on Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana in the years between the world wars, transforming it from a provincial town into a celebrated example of modern, “human centred design” that nevertheless maintained a “dialogue” with the older elements of the city centre.

Portrait of Jože Plečnik

Portrait of Jože Plečnik by Alenka KhamPičman. Reproduced with kind permission of the artist. 

A few months later, the Slovenian government declared that 2022 would be considered “the year of Plečnik”, emphasising this honour and the 150th anniversary of his birth. There will be exhibitions, tours and new publications focusing on his oeuvre, which extends far beyond Ljubljana and can be found in every corner of the country. It will kick off with a series of events in the historic yet industrious town of Kamnik, where among other things he designed a memorial chapel to soldiers of both world wars, renovated the station, and – in the forest nearby – erected a hunting lodge for the first King of Yugoslavia, Alexander.

Hunting lodge in Kamnik designed by Jože Plečnik

Hunting lodge in Kamnik designed by Jože Plečnik for the first King of Yugoslavia, Alexander. Photo: Janet Ashton 

Slovenia is justly proud of Plečnik as the architect of a very recognisable national style, but he was also a true son of Central Europe, born in 1872 as a subject of the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph and educated also in Graz and Vienna, where he studied under Otto Wagner. To Vienna he contributed the immediately noticeable Zacherlhaus in the city centre, and enjoyed a certain measure of favour in highest quarters, working on a fountain in honour of the mayor Karl Lueger, and collaborating with Lueger and the ill-fated Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg on building a church in the district of Ottakring, whose working class inhabitants they hoped to inspire with religious feelings that would immure them against radical activities. Plečnik had instinctive sympathy for the Christian Social movement Lueger represented, and throughout his life was interested in popular expressions of Catholicism and their links with national identity.

Given his success and his position in the political mainstream, he even hoped to succeed Wagner as professor of Architecture at the School of Fine Arts, but the style of the Holy Ghost Church fell foul of the heir to the throne, Franz Ferdinand, whose tastes were far more conservative and who likened the church to a stable crossed with a sauna. Plečnik found his appointment blocked.

Obelisk designed by Plečnik on the Moravian Bastion of Prague Castle

Obelisk designed by Plečnik on the Moravian Bastion of Prague Castle. Photo: Janet Ashton

Convinced that his career in Vienna was over, he moved to Prague at the invitation of Jan Kotěra, another of Wagner’s pupils, and took up a post at the college of arts and crafts. He was teaching in Prague when the Habsburg empire split apart and the cities in which he had made his life and career found themselves in three separate countries. On a personal level, this was a traumatic experience for many people, never again sure to which nation they belonged, but for Plečnik it also afforded new opportunities in developing national styles with specific political overtones. His first major project for the successor states was to renovate Prague Castle, transforming the dilapidated and forbidding Habsburg fortress into a “democratic” residence for the new President of the Czechoslovak Republic, a seat and symbol of the liberal, middle class nation its leaders aspired to create. Whereas his contact with hereditary royalty was always awkward, he developed a great rapport with both the President, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, and with Masaryk’s daughter Dr. Alice Masaryková, who shared a profound involvement in the project. Symbolic of their complex national history, he and Alice corresponded in German, the language of the vanished empire, because despite his years in Prague Plečnik lacked confidence in his own Czech-speaking abilities.

Interior of the Sacred Heart Church in Vinohrady

Interior of the Sacred Heart Church in Vinohrady designed by Jože Plečnik. Photo: Janet Ashton

In 1921 he was invited to return to Ljubljana and take up a post at the School of Architecture at the new University. He was reluctant at first, fearing that he was moving to a backwater, but he also felt a patriotic obligation to the Slovenian people, and in the end he accepted. This post would lead to his celebrated impact on the whole of the Slovenian capital, where he remodelled bridges, built churches, and designed the national library, city stadium and cemetery. But at the same time, he also worked on projects in far more modest locations, renovating a church in the tiny north-eastern town of Bogojina, for example, simply in the hope of inspiring its townsfolk. He had limited impact on the wider Yugoslavia of which Slovenia was a component part, but did undertake two projects for the Yugoslav royal family for their visits to Slovenia. His relationship with the military-minded King Alexander was as awkward as that with Franz Ferdinand had been, however, and nothing ever came close to the rapport he had enjoyed with Masaryk and Alice.

Drawing of the National/University Library and Napoleon memorial in Ljubljana

Drawing of the National/University Library and Napoleon memorial in Ljubljana by Alenka KhamPičman. Reproduced with kind permission of the artist. 

Jože Plečnik lived an ascetic and fairly reclusive life according to his own motto, “Minljiv si, le tvoja dela so tvoj spomin” (“only your work will be remembered”) at his home in Ljubljana (which is now a museum). He survived the occupation of the city by first Fascist Italy and then Nazi Germany, and continued to teach until the last days of his life. Alenka KhamPičman, now an artist who often paints her tutor’s buildings, recalls that he came on foot to the University every day and sat all morning marking projects and sketching out ideas for his students to take up. She admired him for his “imagination, knowledge, perseverance and discipline” and for his strict commentary on his pupils’ work.

Plečnik died aged 85 in 1957. Under Communism his architecture was unfashionable and often ignored (“he was pushed away by the modern world” says Alenka KhamPičman sadly), but from 1991 the independence of Slovenia brought a new focus on his work and the national spirit he had tried to embody, elevating him to the status of a national hero and symbol of his country.

Janet Ashton, West European Cataloguing Team Manager

With particular thanks to Alenka KhamPičman for her memories and permission to use her paintings

References/further reading:

The British Library holds a very large number of books and journals in various languages that throw light on Plečnik’s life and work. They range from beautifully illustrated city guidebooks and exhibition catalogues to critical academic studies to facsimiles, memoir by associates, and biographies. A mere sample is as follows:

Maja Avguštin, Saša Lavrinc. Plečnik na Domžalskem in Kamniškem, [fotografije Drago Bac]. (Ljubljana, 2010). YF.2012.a.19139

Noah Charney. Eternal architect: the life and art of Jože Plečnik, modernist mystic. (Ljubljana, 2017). LD.31.b.4492

Great immortality: studies on European cultural sainthood, edited by Marijan Dović, Jón Karl Helgason [includes studies on the cultural and Catholic admiration for both Gaudi and Plečnik]. (Leiden, 2019). YD.2019.a.5108

Andrej Hrausky. Plečnik’s architecture in Ljubljana (Ljubljana, 2017). YF.2019.a.8928

Andrej Hrausky. Jože Plečnik: Dunaj, Praga, Ljubljana. (Ljubljana, 2007). LF.31.b.8502

Ivan Margolius. Church of the Sacred Heart. (London, 1995). LB.31.b.24563

Josip Plečnik: an architect of Prague Castle. [compiled by] Zdeněk Lukeš, Damjan Prelovšek, Tomáš Valen. (Prague, 1997). LB.31.b.17345.

O plečniku: prispevki k preučevanju, interpretaciji in popularizaciji njegovega dela. Tomáš Valena ; prevod iz nemščine Marjana Karer, Špela Urbas ; prevod iz češčine Nives Vidrih. (Celje, 2013). LF.31.b.10948

Plečnik na Loškem: Galerija Loškega muzeja Škofja Loka, 8. 6.-31. 10. 2007. besedila Damjan Prelovšek et al.; uvod Jana Mlakar; fotografija Damjan Prelovšek ... et al.. (Skofja Loka, 2007). YF.2011.a.12830.

Jože Plečnik, Jan Kotěra. Jože Plečnik--Jan Kotěra: dopisovanje 1897-1921, uredil, komentiral in prevedel Damjan Prelovšek. (Ljubljana, 2004). YF.2010.b.2359.

Jože Plečnik, Dunajske risbe =The Vienna drawings. text by Peter Krečič. (Ljubljana, 1994). HS.74/1194

Damjan Prelovšek. Josef Plečnik, 1872-1957: architectura perennis, aus dem Slowenischen von Dorothea Apovnik. (Salzburg, 1992). LB.31.b.17818

Lukeš Zdeněk. Jože Plečnik: průvodce po stavbách v České republice; současné fotografie Jiří Podrazil. (Prague, 2012). YF.2013.a.1546

23 December 2021

Festive Feasts

It’s the festive season again! Conversations in our multi-national department invariably turn to colleagues’ national Christmas and New Year traditions, especially what we have to eat in our home countries. In today’s post colleagues share some Christmas Eve cuisine from Central Europe, Ukraine and France

Christmas Carp 

In Central Europe, carp is a popular traditional dish for Christmas. ‘The queen of rivers’, as it was called by the 17th-century English writer Izaak Walton, this fish is quite oily and bony. So the first thing to do is to remove as many bones as possible, so that your Christmas dinner is not spoilt by a call to the ambulance. Choking on carp bones was a typical Christmas accident and is the source of many songs and anecdotes. However, you really should risk it, as carp scales are a symbol of wealth, so don’t forget to place them under plates before dinner, or hold in the palm of your hand, or put them in your wallet.

If you want your taste-buds get excited this Christmas and are seriously concerned about your wealth, why not visit your fishmonger and then indulge in a quality family time removing bones together during dark December evenings? Once the bones are out of the way, you can be creative with rubbing salt, spices, and pepper into the fish. Some recipes suggest using mustard and lemon juice or eggs to mix with flour or breadcrumbs for wrapping. Each household in Czechia or Poland would have their own traditional recipe, but the most important thing is to fry carefully and not overdo it.

Of course, carp is not only for Christmas, it is a really big part of Central European culture all year round. Books have been written about this wonderful and really tasty fish, as for example this one, promoting carp from the southern regions on the Czech Republic in national and foreign cuisines.

Book cover with a cartoon of a carp wearing a chef's hat

Cover of Vilém Vrabec, Jihočeský kapr v naší a zahraniční kuchyni (České Budějovice, 1979) X.629/16113

In fact, in Polish territories neighbouring the Czech lands carp was popularized by Czech Cistercians in 12th century. Although it became one of the staples of Polish cuisine, for a long time it was not considered as an essential part of the Christmas Eve table. Other fish dishes were equally, if not more popular. However, after the Second World War when freshwater fish farming could not come back to its former glory and the Baltic fleet was depleted, the Polish Minister for Industry and Trade, Hilary Minc, came up with an ingenious trade and marketing strategy. First, he decided that the answer for the ‘fish crisis’ was to set up carp breeding ponds which would offer fish-starved Poles a cheap but hefty chunk of protein. The slogan ‘Carp on every Christmas Eve table’ became a reality. Since 1947 almost every Polish child has been able to pet their own carp, held for days in bathtubs, in a run up to Christmas. Live carp were often offered to workers as a festive bonus.

In recent years animal rights activists launched a very successful campaign ‘Uwolnić karpia!’(‘Free the Carp!’) to put a stop to animal suffering which for years has been a part of the festive season. The campaign, which is ongoing, does not aim to fight the Polish Christmas tradition, but to get rid of the part which is unnecessarily cruel to animals. So let us celebrate with a cheerful: Happy Carp – Happy Christmas!

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator and Olga Topol, Curator, Slavonic and East European Collections

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Ukrainian Christmas Dishes

In Ukraine the whole family gathers at the table for the Christmas Eve dinner. Traditionally they wait for the first star to be appear in the sky. It reminds them of the star of Bethlehem which once announced to the Magi the birth of the Son of God. Only after that (and after prayer) can they start dinner.

Since Christmas Eve is the last day of the Advent fast, all meals should be lean. Traditionally it is 12 festive dishes in honour of the 12 apostles.

Chief among these are kutia and uzvar. The dinner starts with kutia – a porridge made from wheat or barley grain which symbolize eternal life and prosperity. Before cooking, the grain is soaked in cold water. Traditionally some people cook it in clay pots. Cooked porridge is placed in a deep, preferably earthenware, bowl or makitra and crushed poppy-seeds, walnuts, raisins and honey are added. Everything is mixed thoroughly.

Kutia recipe from the book 'Ukraine: Food and History'

Recipe for kutia from Ukraine: Food and History, edited by Olena Braichenko (Kyiv, 2020). Awaiting shelfmark.  

The traditional Christmas drink Uzvar is made from dried fruits. Uzvar means ‘boil down’ because the fruit is boiled over a low heat. First of all it is apples, pears, plums and cherries which give it an intense and warm colour. It could be also dried apricots and raisins or other fruits depending of the area of Ukraine.

Cover of the book 'Ukrainian Christmas Feast'

Cover of Igor Stassiouk, Ukrainian Christmas Feast = Ukraïnsʹke Rizdvo (Kyïv, 2010) YK.2012.a.9322

The other 12 dishes are not so prescriptive, and among them could be holubtsi (stuffed cabbage with mushrooms), lean borsch, vinaigrette, deruny (potato pancakes), varenyky (dumplings with cherries or grated poppy seeds), baked apples, etc. Recipes for these and other festive dishes can be found in the British Library’s collections, for example in the works illustrated above and cited below.

For Christmas and Easter: religious holiday dishes = Na Rizdvo i na Velykdenʹ: zakarpatsʹki sviatkovi stravy. Compiled by Valentyna Dzioba English translation by Valentyna Babydorych. (Uzhhorod, 2002) YF.2007.a.29847

Olha Verbenets, Vira Manko, Obriady i stravy sviatoho vechora (Lviv, 2007) YF.2008.a.30595

Lidiia Artiukh, Zvychaï ukraïntsiv u narodnomu kalendari (Kyïv, 2015) LF.31.a.5017

Nadiia Strishenets, British Library Chevening Fellow

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A ghost and thirteen desserts

Christmas is associated with many things: seasonal food and drink, dancing, games and a festive generosity of spirit. Since Charles Dickens, maybe, it has also been associated in literature with ghost stories and  just supernatural retribution for mistakes, past and present.

French author Alphonse Daudet (1840-1897), who was instrumental in reviving and creating a canon of Provençal folklore, somehow managed to combine food and ghosts in his story of the ‘three low masses’, which was part of his work Lettres de mon moulin (Letters from my Mill; Paris, 1879; 11483.aaa.13).

Published in 1875, Daudet’s short story ‘Les trois basses messes’ imitates the tradition of folk-tale and evokes the delicious food of Christmas with a celestial retribution that sees gourmand Priest Dom Balaguère so impatient for his Christmas réveillon feast of truffled turkeys, pheasant, eels, trout, and wine that he succumbs to the Devil’s tricks and rushes through the required three low masses for Christmas Eve… As a punishment, God decrees that the priest shall not enter heaven until he has celebrated 300 Christmas masses in his chapel, where for centuries his ghost will be heard saying the masses he had first botched because of his gluttony. The British Library has several recordings of readings of excerpts from Lettres de Mon Moulin including some by French actor Fernandel (Sound Archive 1LP0095903), and in English by British actor Stephen Fry (Sound Archive 1CA0029425).

It has been argued that Daudet, following Provencal Poet Frederic Mistral’s success, deliberately exaggerated his links to Provence to further his literary career and social success; but Provence has been, and still is, an acknowledged source of Christmas traditions, be they religious, musical or culinary.

The true Provençal Christmas delicacy, is nowadays considered to be the tradition of the ‘thirteen desserts’ (Occitan: lei tretze dessèrts), the traditional table of delights arranged for the celebration of Christmas in the South of France. In Provence particularly, the ‘Réveillon de Noel’ (Christmas Eve supper) ends with a ritual of thirteen desserts, representing Jesus Christ and the 12 Apostles – you can read a nostalgic and love-filled description of this in Marcel Pagnol’s Le Chateau de ma mère (Paris, 1958; F9/5843).

Reveillon

Definition of the reveillon, from Petit almanach perpétuel de gastronomie (Paris, 1859). Source: Gallica

The food should be presented on Christmas Eve and remains on the table for three days. The precise composition varies in each province, town, or even family. There are only six compulsory items including the four mendiants (‘beggars’), evoking religious orders that had taken a vow of poverty (walnuts or hazelnuts for the Augustinians, dried figs for the Franciscans, almonds for the Carmelites and raisins for the Dominicans), black and white nougat (which counts as one dessert) and the famous pompe à l’huile d’olive, a sweet focaccia-type brioche made with olive oil and flavoured with orange blossom water. Other treats might include calissons (a sweet made of almonds and candied melon), fresh fruits, oreillettes (a type of light doughnut) and all sorts of delicious things.

If only poor Dom Balaguère could have waited for a few hours…

Thirteen desserts

The traditional thirteen desserts served for the celebration of Christmas in the South of France. Photo by Jean-Louis Zimmerman from Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections

17 December 2021

Vaclav Havel’s Pokouseni - Temptation of a bibliophile

I am sure that every bibliophile can recall the feeling of excitement that accompanies us when we take a new book into our hands. The sensation of moving fingers along the surface of the cover, flipping through pages, the distinctive scent of a new book. However, what is even more rewarding and satisfying, is to find a book that has lived well and aged beautifully bathed in genuine interest and love received from its readers.

There are many special books in the British Library collections. However, for me there is one which evokes the very feeling of joy I felt as a child visiting a bookshop or a library. It is Vaclav Havel’s Pokouseni (‘Temptation’). Havel, Czech writer, dissident and former president, who passed away ten years ago this month, wrote this play inspired by the story of Dr Faust.

Photograph of Vaclav Havel

Vaclav Havel, black-and-white photograph of the author mounted on the cover's verso of Pokouseni. Hra o deseti obrazech (1985). Awaiting shelfmark

His intellectual interest in the tale was ignited by Goethe’s and Thomas Mann’s literary adaptations that he read while being imprisoned. This prompted him to consider philosophical questions on the relativity of truth and how it can be transformed into a lie. Olga Tokarczuk once said that to write a book she needs to get obsessed with the story first. It was definitely the case with Vaclav Havel and Pokouseni. In published letters written from prison to his wife Olga, Havel explains: ‘As you know, I’m a man obsessions, and I hate giving anything up before I’ve exhausted all (my) possibilities. And so, in fact – though at a distance – I remain with the theatre.’

Cover of the samizdat edition of Pokouseni. Hra o deseti obrazech

Cover of the samizdat edition of Pokouseni. Hra o deseti obrazech (1985). Awaiting shelfmark

Eda Kriseova in her authorised biography of the Czech writer describes the creative process that lead to the birth of Temptation. It took Havel ten nights to finish the work. He was physically and mentally exhausted and ended up falling down the stairs and hurting his head. He was staying in his country house in Hradecko at the time. Feverish, hurt, trembling the playwright was cut from the world by a sudden snow storm without any food and no way out. Once Havel came back to the world he felt like he had got away from the devil himself. This strenuous yet cathartic creation process resulted in a play that many found disturbing. Presenting the clash of a metaphysical view of the world with a rational one – inflated to surreal and absurd – the play reflected a contemporary Czechoslovakian existence.

Title leaf designed by Viktor Karlik, Pokouseni

Title leaf designed by Viktor Karlik, Pokouseni. Hra o deseti obrazech (1985). Awaiting shelfmark

Havel wrote Pokouseni in 1985, after he had been released from prison. He was imprisoned three times for a total of almost five years under the communist regime. Following his incarceration, Havel became an even more internationally recognisable public figure. His works, banned in Czechoslovakia, were smuggled out of the country to be read around the world. Pokouseni was promptly translated to German and premiered in Vienna in 1986.

An illustration to Pokouseni by Viktor Karlik

An illustration to Pokouseni by Viktor Karlik

It is actually fitting that the literary work whose conception took such a toll on Havel’s body and mind was published as samizdat. The physicality of the copy we are lucky to have almost mirrors the process the writer went through to create it. It is not the clinical, perfectly cut and immaculately bound product of a mass manufacturer, but rather a raw body of paper turned with love and care into an artefact testifying to the tender effort of a craftsman. Every little detail adds to the story. Were it not for it, the book would look like a plain, boring file folder. Original and unique tape binding has the author’s name typed directly into the fabric before it was closed. What makes this edition exceptional is a collage on the cover and hand-printed linocut illustrations by another Czech dissident Viktor Karlik. Both the artist and the writer were a part of a close-knit circle of friends forming anti-regime opposition in Czechoslovakia. Although Karlik later fell out with Havel over his engagement in politics, his illustrations to Poukuseni complement and enrich the story. The linocut technique fits perfectly Havel’s imaginary universe achieving it through the otherworldly look, stark lines and abstraction. Rarely in samizdat publications that relied on fast printing can we find such a beautiful companionship of imagery and text – the book is a work of art itself.

An illustration to Pokouseni by Viktor Karlik

An illustration to Pokouseni by Viktor Karlik

Vaclav Havel’s most prolific years as a writer came before his presidency. Although his political legacy is sometimes contested, he was committed to all the roles he came to play in his life. One may speculate that he was able to achieve this thanks to his very personal understanding of hope, which according to Havel’s conviction is ‘this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed’. See the book Disturbing the peace: a conversation with Karel Hvizdala (London, 1990; YC.1991.a.1826)

When I hold the Havel-Karlik copy of Pokouseni in my hand, I am taken back to this place of hope once occupied by those who wanted to change the world by the sheer power of words and art.

An illustration to Pokouseni by Viktor Karlik

An illustration to Pokouseni by Viktor Karlik

Olga Topol, Curator, Slavonic and East European Collections

References/further reading:

Vaclav Havel, Pokouseni. Hra o deseti obrazech (1985). Awaiting shelfmark

Vaclav Havel, Letters to Olga: June 1979-September 1982 (London, 1988). YC.1989.a.2933

Vaclav Havel, Disturbing the peace: a conversation with Karel Hvizdala (London, 1990). YC.1991.a.1826

Eda Kriseova, Vaclav Havel (Prague, 2014). YF.2015.a.17320

 

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