European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

14 posts categorized "Film"

04 April 2014

From Vietnam to Vichy and beyond: Marguerite Duras

An artist who was constantly preoccupied with the theme of memory, true or false, Marguerite Duras had no shortage of such material to draw upon. Born on 4 April 1914 in Gia-Dinh (now Saigon) to parents attracted by government incentives to settle in French Indochina, the exotic nature of young Marguerite Donnadieu’s life bore striking resemblances to that of Madame de Maintenon; the colonial adventure turned out badly, her father died leaving her mother to raise her four-year-old daughter and two other children in relative poverty following a calamitous business investment, and at seventeen  Marguerite returned to France to study at the Sorbonne, but not before embarking on a colourful affair with a wealthy Sa Dec merchant, Huynh Thuy Le. Although she returned to this period of her life in various memoirs and works of fiction, her most famous treatment is in her novel L’Amant (The Lover: BL shelfmark YA.1986.a.10677), with which she won the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary award, in 1984.

After studying mathematics, political sciences and law, Duras joined the French Communist Party and subsequently worked for the French government office representing Indochina. From 1942 to 1944, she worked for the Vichy government in an office that allocated paper to publishers (virtually acting as a book censorship system), but was also, together with her first husband Robert Antelme, a member of the French Resistance. He was deported to Buchenwald, and although he survived, the marriage did not. In 1943 she published her first novel, Les Impudents under the surname Duras, the village in the Lot-et-Garonne département which had been her father's home.

  Plain text cover of 'Les Impudents'The first edition of Les Impudents (Paris, 1943). British Library YA.1993.a.26454

Although her early works were reasonably traditional in form, in her later novels she achieved an increasingly streamlined style of prose in which even the characters are stripped to essential qualities, sacrificing even the need for names and appearing simply as ‘Elle’ and ‘Lui’. The immediacy of her dialogue lent itself particularly well to cinematic adaptations, and she was also a gifted scriptwriter. Perhaps her best-known work in this capacity is the screenplay for Hiroshima mon amour (Paris, 1960; 11455.a.16), directed by Alain Resnais  in 1959, a dialogue between a Japanese architect and French actress who, analysing the breakdown of their relationship, explore the truth and fallacy of memories and the analogy with the Japanese catastrophe of the Second World War.

Her explicit treatment of sexual relationships, her idiosyncratic use of dialogue and her distinctive prose style inevitably made Duras’s work the object of parody and pastiche, notably at the hands of Patrick Rambaud in Virginie Q. (Paris, 1988; YA.1989.a.8242) a skilful and witty treatment which is based on a sound knowledge of her writings. Yet she also inspired more serious works in other media; a recent exhibition at the Maureen Paley Gallery in London featured paintings and drawings by Kaye Donachie based on Duras’s novella La Maladie de la mort (Paris: Editions de minuit, 1983;  X.958/26494).

These are only a limited selection of the works held by the British Library from the many which Duras produced during an outstanding creative life which drew to a close after a struggle with alcoholism and cancer of the throat on 3 March 1996. We hope that readers will be encouraged to embark on their own voyage through her strangely compelling world and, in doing so, to gather memories of their own.

Susan Halstead, Curator Czech and Slovak Studies

28 March 2014

Suffering from boredom? Get a raccoon – or read Hrabal!

Mystery surrounds both the beginning of Bohumil Hrabal’s life on 28 March 1914 and its end on 3 February 1997. Although he was always known by the surname Hrabal, this actually belonged to his stepfather František Hrabal, who married Marie Božena Kiliánová in February 1916, and was a friend of his putative biological father Bohumil Blecha, according to the latter’s daughter Drahomíra. The family, including Bretislav, born eight months after the wedding, moved in 1919 to Nymburk, a small town on the Labe (Elbe), where František Hrabal managed the local brewery. The atmosphere of the place is lovingly evoked in Hrabal’s novels Postřižiny (‘Cutting It Short’) and Městečko, kde se zastavil čas (‘The Little Town Where Time Stood Still’), both published in 1974 by Edice Petlice, the secret anti-Communist publishing house.  Postřižiny was filmed in 1980 by Jiří Menzel, and recaptures the period charm of the original without sentimentality. The characters are closely based on members of Hrabal’s family (his mother Maryška and the garrulous Uncle Pepin, who comes for a short visit and stays for forty years), and the eccentricities of the town’s residents are portrayed with freshness and humour.

Carved bench with the figure of Hrabal at one end and an cat at the other
A  bench commemorating Hrabal in Nymburk (Photo by Jan Polák from Wikimedia commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Despite an undistinguished school career, Hrabal enrolled at Charles University in Prague to read law, but as the universities closed during the Nazi occupation he did not complete his degree until 1946 after working as a railway labourer and dispatcher in Kostomlaty. He was later employed as an insurance agent, commercial traveller, steel-worker and, after a serious industrial accident, as a paper-worker and stage-hand. These experiences provided him with plentiful material for his writings; his best-known novel,  Ostře sledované vlaky (‘Closely Observed Trains’) was based on his experiences on the railways and was also filmed by Jiří Menzel, while  Příliš hlučná samota (‘Too Loud a Solitude’: [Prague], 1976; Cup.410.f.104) draws on his time in the paper-recycling mill.

Hrabal’s first efforts as a writer were poems, published in 1948 as Ztracená ulička  (‘The Lost Lane’), but the Communist coup that year  forced him underground to join a group run by the artist and critic Jiří Kolář, and his prose works of the 1950s and 1960s appeared in samizdat editions. After the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, he was banned from publishing, and in 1975 an interview in which he made ‘self-critical’ remarks allowing limited publication of his writings attracted fierce criticism from dissidents who felt that he had compromised his integrity. Nor, unlike Václav Havel and other prominent authors, did he sign Charter 77

It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss him as a hopelessly apolitical writer more skilled in creating larger-than-life characters and nostalgic pictures of Czech small-town life than in criticizing a repressive regime. The idyllic atmosphere of the little country station which forms the setting of Ostře sledované vlaky is literally exploded by an attack on a German ammunition train which costs the young narrator Miloš Hrma his life. Even the solitude of the plant where the narrator of Příliš hlučná samota  works on destroying and compressing books provides merciless comments on the danger and ultimate futility of censorship. The absurd and farcical blends with the tragic in comments on the human condition which give Hrabal’s work its universal appeal and validity.

These qualities naturally led not only to film versions but to Polish samizdat editions (Przerwy w zabudowie,  a translation of Proluky (‘Vacant Lots’/‘Gaps’; Sol.137.r) was published in 1988 by Niezależna Oficyna Wydawnicza  Warszawa), and translations into French, Hungarian, German, Ukrainian and English, despite the challenges of rendering Hrabal’s inimitable hrabalština  (Hrabalese) and Uncle Pepin’s broad Moravian dialect, cleverly conveyed by broad Scots in James Naughton’s  translation of Cutting It Short (London, 1993; H.93/2258).

Montage of book covers
A selection of works by and about Hrabal in various languages (clockwise from top left: Czech, French, Ukrainian, English, Welsh, Polish)

The partnership with Menzel produced a final cinematic triumph, Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále  (‘I served the King of England’, 2006), based on Hrabal’s picaresque story of the same title (1973; 1993 edition YA.1994.a.14374) chronicling the adventures of an opportunistic waiter under the Nazi regime and Communism. Once again, this belies any notion that Hrabal was a mere raconteur with its penetrating juxtaposition of black humour and acid observation of the follies and compromises to which human beings are driven by totalitarianism.

In later years Hrabal was often to be seen at his favourite Prague pub, U zlatého tygra (‘The Golden Tiger’), imbibing generous quantities of beer and regaling fellow-drinkers with tales to rival Uncle Pepin’s account of childless relatives who emigrated to the USA and responded to a newspaper advertisement, ‘Suffering from boredom? Why not get yourself a raccoon?’, only to acquire a creature who wreaks havoc in their home. The circumstances of his end might have been the stuff of such a story; apparently trying to feed pigeons from a fifth-floor window in the Bulovka hospital in Prague, he toppled out and fell to his death, prompting speculation which he might well have relished.

Suffering from boredom? Get yourself a raccoon – or alternatively, read Bohumil Hrabal. At least your watch will be safe…

Susan Halstead, Curator Czech & Slovak


Bohumil Hrabal, Postřižiny (Prague, 1976) X.989/37869

Bohumil Hrabal, Městečko, kde se zastavil čas (Innsbruck, 1978)  X.989/83712

Bohumil Hrabal, Ostře sledované vlaky (Prague, 1965)  X.989/9422

Bohumil Hrabal, Příliš hlučná samota ([Prague], 1976) Cup.410.f.104

07 October 2013

Alain-Fournier and Proust film adaptations. Part I

There have been two film adaptations of Alain-Fournier’s novel Le grand Meaulnes, by Jean-Gabriel Albicocco in 1967 and by Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe in 2006,  and several adaptations of  Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu  or parts of it. There have also been some other fascinating attempts to bring these two novels to the screen which failed despite the tireless efforts of two remarkable women – Isabelle Rivière and Nicole Stéphane.

Isabelle Rivière (1889-1971), Alain-Fournier’s sister and dedicatee of Le grand Meaulnes, owned Photograph of Isabelle Rivièrethe film rights to the novel. In 1933 she met André Barsacq (1909-1973), a young Ukrainian-born stage designer with some experience in film as assistant director to Jean Grémillon. Barsacq later became the director of the Théâtre de l'Atelier and for some forty years he was a major theatre director in Paris, staging the work of, among others, Luigi Pirandello, Jean Anouilh, Marcel Aymé, Paul Claudel, and Félicien Marceau, and adapting the works of Chekhov, Dostoevsky and Turgenev for the French stage.

Isabelle Rivière 

Barsacq and Rivière drafted a screenplay and in the 1940s there were location searches and screen tests, but plans foundered several times due to prohibitive financial costs. Rivière turned down proposals from other film makers, notably from Julien Duvivier, who first expressed an interest in 1937 and again in 1954. By the latter date Duvivier’s commercially successful Don Camillo films would have probably helped to raise money for the film of Le grand Meaulnes but Rivière’s faith in Barsacq remained unshakeable and the correspondence between the two continued for some 32 years until 1965, when she  finally realised that Barsacq’s theatrical commitments would always be his first priority, and offered the film rights  to Jean-Gabriel Albicocco, a young director who had already successfully adapted Balzac’s La Fille aux yeux d’or (1961). Albicocco’s film is rightly dedicated to Rivière and she was pleased with the result, as it is very faithful to the novel. Had she lived to see Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe’s  2006 adaptation she would have certainly disapproved of it, as it takes liberties with the text, notably by having Meaulnes, like Alain-Fournier, killed in the First World War.

Photograph of Nicole StéphaneNicole Stéphane (left) was an actress best known for her remarkable performance in Jean-Pierre Melville’s film of the Jean Cocteau novel Les Enfants terribles in 1950.  Her acting career having been cut short by a car accident, she became a film producer, and her credits include To Die in Madrid (1962), Frédéric Rossif’s documentary about the Spanish Civil War. In 1962 she acquired the film rights to A la recherche du temps perdu. Her epic attempts to turn Proust’s novel into a film lasted nearly as long as those of Isabelle Rivière, and she finally had to content herself with Volker Schlöndorff’s 1984 film Un Amour de Swann (Swann in Love) an adaptation of a more or less self-contained part of the novel. All her attempts to interest French film directors - René Clément, François Truffaut, Alain Resnais, and Jacques Rivette – had previously failed.

More frustrating were the failed projects of Luchino Visconti and then of Joseph Losey between 1969 and 1977, both of which had to be abandoned at a late stage. It is a small consolation that both these aborted projects left behind them two remarkable screenplays by Suso Cecchi d’Amico (for Visconti) and Harold Pinter (for Losey) to which I would like to return in a later blog.

Chris Michaelides, Curator Italian Studies


Martine Beugnet / Marion Schmid. Proust at the Movies (Aldershot, 2004). YC.2006. a.5329.

André Barsacq: Cinquante ans de théâtre. (Paris, 1978).   X:900/20339.

Michel Autrand. ‘André Barsacq et le Grand Meaulnes au cinéma’ in  Bulletin des Amis de Jacques Rivière et d’Alain-Fournier, no118 (2007), p.93-106 and no.120 (2008), p. 81-110.  P.901/1770

Luchino Visconti, Suso Cecchi d'Amico. A la recherche du temps perdu [scénario d'après l'œuvre de Marcel Proust]. ([Paris], 1984). YA.1987.a.8894 

Harold Pinter. A la recherche du temps perdu: the Proust screenplay with the collaboration of Joseph Losey and Barbara Bray. (London, 1978). YC.1991.a.2249



09 September 2013

Spanish film and the British Library

We’re always interested in how people use our collections in their research. The Library recently launched a series of films which tell the stories of people who have been inspired by the Library: Made with the British Library. One of these researchers, Shelagh Rowan-Legg, gives a great example of some of the unexpected things that you can do with our collections.

Shelagh is a PhD student at King’s College London, researching contemporary Spanish fantasy cinema. She is also a writer and film critic. Her research explores common threads that run through Spanish fantasy films; how have they been influenced by cinema from around the world, and what makes them uniquely Spanish? You might not expect the British Library to be her first port-of-call, but in the video she explains the crucial role it has played in her research.

Research into contemporary film requires access to a wide range of sources in a number of languages. We collect published scripts and monographs in Spanish on directors, film festivals and genres, as well as works on the broader cultural background. These are complemented by publications, monographs and serials, on film in other European languages and by the English-language material. It might save you a trip to Spain! Search our Spanish collections, using the ‘language’ option to refine your search results, in Explore the British Library.

We’d love to hear about how the Library has inspired you, or about your discoveries in our collections. Write a comment below, or send us an email: [email protected]

Melissa Byrd, Marketing Manager Arts and Humanities

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