16 June 2023
Our current major exhibition, Animals: Art, Science and Sound, shows how the animal world has resulted in some of humankind’s most awe-inspiring art and science… But did you know that animals are also major characters in one of the best-selling books in history?
Le Petit Prince, YA.1996.a.20552
When I was a child, no long trip in the car was complete without listening to the tape of Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), read by famous French actor Gerard Philippe. First published in 1943, and since translated into hundreds of languages, few books have touched the world like Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s modern fable. It had first been published in English and French by Reynal & Hitchcock in the USA, where Saint Exupéry was in exile, in April 1943, so exactly 80 years before the opening of our exhibition. It was published posthumously in France in 1945, after the Liberation.
Le Petit Prince became Saint Exupéry’s most successful work, selling an estimated 200 million copies worldwide, which makes it one of the best-selling books in history; but it is also a bit mysterious, and like no other literary form. Maybe the book is so successful because it is both a fairy-tale, an adventure story, a social comedy, and a philosophical lesson on how to live ones’ life and live with others. And it is full of animals.
Le Petit Prince, YA.1996.a.20552
The story follows the dialogue between a narrator, an aviator stranded in the desert following the breakdown of his plane, and a strange young boy, a little prince who suddenly appears in the desert with a strange request: “Draw a sheep for me, please”. The Prince tells his story: he has travelled from a distant asteroid, where he lives alone with a single rose. The rose has made his life so difficult that he decides to take advantage of a passing flock of birds to travel to other planets. During his journey, he meets various characters (a King with no subjects, a drunkard, a businessman, a geographer…), before arriving on Earth.
There the Little Prince also meets a talking fox, who teaches him the nature of love and friendship, and that the important things can only be seen with the heart, not with the eyes. He also encounters a deadly snake, who speaks in riddle and who tells him that he can help him to go home. The little Prince tells his story to the Aviator, who becomes attached to him. In the end, however, the Prince is bitten by the snake, the only way, he believes, to return to his own planet; and to the narrator’s distress, he disappears. And while our Aviator manages to repair his plane, he ends the story by requesting to be immediately contacted by anyone in that area encountering a “small person with golden curls who refuses to answer any questions”.
Le Petit Prince, YA.1996.a.20552
The conversations between the adult, the mysterious interstellar youngster, and the animals, address themes of loneliness, friendship, love and loss. Although presented as a children’s book, using animals as archetypes of wisdom or cunning Le Petit Prince touches on deeper questions about adult life and human nature. And it ends on a bittersweet note: in spite of having been prepared to the disappearance of his friend, and in spite of knowing that when he will now look at stars, they will laugh for him, the Narrator/Aviator feels bereft and lost; but he has learnt the value of affection, and of dreams, and questions.
One of the reasons of the success of the book is the wonderful imagery, the watercolours painted by the author. Antoine de Saint Exupery had liked to draw and doodle since his childhood (that’s actually how the story starts!), and chose to illustrate the book himself. Today, these illustrations are part of our memories, and are maybe even more famous than the book itself. The art of the Petit Prince has become famous, and along with its golden-haired hero, the sheep and the fox are instantaneously recognisable; but there are also wonderfully unexpected illustrations of nature and animals, such as the tiger attacking the rose or the boa constrictor-who-has-swallowed-an-elephant-but-looks-like-a-hat, one the most famous doodles in the history of literature.
Le Petit Prince, YA.1996.a.20552
When the war started, Saint Exupéry joined the French Air Force, until the armistice with Germany in 1940. After being demobilised, he went into exile in North America. He spent just over two years in America, and it is there that he wrote his most famous work.
Like his hero, Antoine de Saint Exupéry just disappeared one day. In 1943 he had joined the Free French Air Force in North Africa, and he is believed to have died while on a reconnaissance mission over the Mediterranean in July 1944. Although the wreckage of his plane was discovered in 2000, the cause of the crash remains unknown. But also like his hero, he has left us with a tale: a most successful story based on affection for humankind, and commitment, and with dreams of tamed foxes, treacherous snakes and birds that can take you away.
Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance collections
25 May 2023
This year's Seminar on Textual Bibliography for Modern Foreign Languages will take place on Monday 12 June 2022 in the Eliot Room of the British Library’s Knowledge Centre (formerly Conference Centre). The programme is as follows:
11.00 Registration and coffee
11.30 IAN CHRISTIE-MILLER
Tyndale’s first New Testament fragment
12.15 Lunch (own arrangements)
1.30 EMILY DI DODO (Oxford)
A text in exile: towards a bibliographical history of Las cient novelas de Juan Bocacio
2.15 DAVID SHAW (Canterbury)
The BL’s French post-incunables
3.30 MARJA KINGMA (London)
The Dutch Church Library: a library with nine lives.
4.15 BARRY TAYLOR (London)
Foreign books in Dr Williams’s Library, London.
The Seminar will end at 5.00 pm.
All are welcome and the event is free, but please notify us by email if you are able to attend. If you know of others who might be interested, please pass on the invitation.
A depiction of an early printing shop from Joannes Arnoldus, De chalcographiæ inventione poema encomiasticum (Mainz, 1541) G.9963.
09 February 2023
Hélène Duchêne, Ambassador of France to the UK and writer Zadie Smith will open the 7th edition of the “Night of ideas” on Thursday 9 February 2023, at the Institut français in London.
This year’s edition will gather 40 leading figures from both sides of the Channel, including member of the House of Lords and former Paralympian Tanni Grey-Thompson, writer Constance Debré, Head of Literature and Spoken Word at Southbank Centre Ted Hodgkinson and Thomas Jolly, Artistic Director of the Olympic and Paralympic Games Paris 2024 ceremonies.
Exchanging French and British perspectives, writers, philosophers, artists, scientists, academics, journalists, activists and students will explore the recent changes in our world through a series of free discussions. The question that will drive the debate is “MORE?” More preoccupations and risks, but also more questions, and more discussions. All debates and events in the Night of Ideas are free to attend and open to all, but prior registration is required.
The audience will be able to engage and tackle contemporary issues, from the climate crisis to post #Metoo politics, to the new geopolitics, and to feed your reflection – before or after the event! – Here are a few of the books, in French, that you could find in our collections (you could also find all the books of the authors based in Britain, but let’s focus on the French ones!)
One of the panels at the event “Sexual (R)evolutions” deals with the politics of sex, which has considerably evolved in the past decade, and asks, “are we living through a new kind of sexual revolution, only this time more preoccupied with gender identity, consent and justice? How do we represent desire, break existing norms and reinvent relationships in its aftermath?” You can find the latest book by panellist Constance Debré in our collection at shelfmark YF.2022.a.24144 and her novel Love me tender at YF.2022.a.24114. Ivan Jablonka’s Des hommes justes: du patriarcat aux nouvelles masculinités is available at YF.2020.a.5611 while his Un garçon comme vous et moi has just arrived at the library, and is awaiting cataloguing.
The panel “You’ve reached maximum capacity” discusses issues such as environmental costs, political radicalism or algorithmic discriminations linked to the digital worlds and our ever-growing dependence to the internet - You can find panel participant Guillaume Poix’s novel Les Fils conducteurs, which described the situation of legal and illegal environmental dumping of electronic waste (or e-waste) from industrialized in Agbobloshie, a commercial district near the centre of Accra, in Ghana, at YF.2018.a.3342
The new edition of L’Atlas des frontières: murs, conflits, migrations, by Bruno Tertrais, is also awaiting cataloguing. Bruno Tertrais takes part in the panel “A More Cordial Entente?” on how Franco-British relations have always had their ups and downs, their successes and shares of misunderstandings. Against a challenging and fast-evolving geopolitical backdrop and in light of the war in Ukraine, the panel and the audience will be looking at what brings France and the United Kingdom together.
All these works are available to you when you are a reader at the British Library. Registration is free and gives you access to our collections and Reading Rooms in London and Yorkshire).
This exciting series of events organised by the Institut Francais highlights the relevance of our French collections at the British Library – and as ever, do not hesitate to contact the curator to recommend books that will allow you to participate in the next debate!
Meanwhile you can find details of the panels highlighted above and the rest of the programme at https://nightofideas.co.uk/whats-on/.
Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections
20 January 2023
The British Library has released a call for applicants for PhD placements in 2023–24. The PhD placement scheme supports the professional development of researchers for future career paths both within and outside academia.
One of these placements, ‘Enhancing access to manuscripts and archives in the French language’, offers an opportunity for a PhD student currently registered at a UK university to work alongside curators to make French language material in the archives and manuscript collections (after 1600) more accessible to researchers and members of the public.
The Modern Archive and Manuscript collections (1601–1950) contain a wealth of exciting historical, scientific, political, and literary material. They include letters and manuscripts by French writers and historical figures such as Voltaire, the Chevalier d’Éon, Napoleon, George Sand, and Charles Baudelaire, and Royal, scientific, and diplomatic correspondence.
Charles Baudelaire, 'Les sept vieillards' and 'Les petites vieilles' . Fair copy made for Victor Hugo to whom the poems are dedicated. Zweig MS 136, f1r
You will undertake research into the manuscript collections and write a structured collection guide for the website that provides an overview of the main collections of French manuscripts and archives (after 1600) in the British Library and guidance about how to find them in the catalogue and access them (online or in the Reading Room). The placement also offers opportunities to catalogue or enhance the description of a small archive or group of manuscripts, to write a blog post to promote the guide and/or one of the collections, and to deliver a staff talk or contribute to an event to promote the French collections.
Please see the project description on the website for further information and read the Application Guidelines carefully before applying.
The deadline for this call is: 5pm on Monday 20 February 2023.
30 December 2022
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.
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.
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.
Giovanni Bodoni and Giovanni Mardersteig, Manuale tipografico, 1788. Facsimile a cura di Giovanni Mardersteig. (Verona, 1968) L.R.413.h.17.
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.
T is for Translation and our regular posts to mark Women in Translation Month.
Alphabet Anglois, contenant la prononciation des lettres avec les declinaisons et conjugaisons (Rouen, 1639). Digital Store 1568/3641.(1.)
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.
Azbuka ōt knigi osmochastnye̡, sirěchʹ grammatikii (Lviv, 1574). Digital Store 1568/3641.(1.)
20 October 2022
On 10 October 2022, the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to the French author Annie Ernaux “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory.”
A major literary presence in contemporary France, and the author of more than 20 books, Ernaux has been writing since the 1970s, and is no stranger to literary recognition. Her autobiography Les années won both the Prix Marguerite Duras and the Prix Francois Mauriac in 2008 as well as the Italian Premio Strega in 2016; it was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2019 when it was translated into English by Alison L Strayer – on this occasion Ernaux gave an interview to the Institut Francais in London. She had also received the Prix Renaudot for La Place. In 2017, Ernaux was awarded the Marguerite Yourcenar Prize for her life’s work. The British Library holds her books both in French and in English translation, from the earliest, Les armoires vides (1974) to the latest, Le Jeune Homme (2022).
Cover of Annie Ernaux, Ecrire la vie (Paris, 2011). YF.2012.a.18786
As brilliantly demonstrated by Elise Hugueny-Leger in an article from 2018, Ernaux has been the subject of academic publications since the early 1990s, and notably, very early on, in the English-speaking world, via a chapter by Loren Day in Contemporary French Fiction by Women: Feminist Perspectives (1990) and Diana Holmes in French Women's writing 1848-1994 (1996). She has since become an academic subject of study in her own right, while slowly becoming more accessible to the general public, through her becoming more prominent in the media and, also, through a change in her style. She is now a figurehead of contemporary French Women writers, but one of Ernaux’ wishes is that her books “may be read and received by a great number of readers who don’t necessarily have a university background” (E Hugueny-Léger).
Melding the biographical and the sociological, deploying an array of autobiographical novels, illustrated photographic diaries, and biographical narratives, some of her publications are referred by Michel Tournier’s term “Journaux extimes,” because, despite being in the format of a personal journal, they focus on the external and on the observation of the author’s surroundings. Ernaux’s genre is difficult to define in one word, but it is based on and around her life, and her experiences, and what she observes, recounted in a deliberately pared down and at times clinical voice. “Her work is uncompromising and written in plain language, scraped clean,” said Anders Olsson of the Swedish Academy on Thursday as he announced her accolade.
Cover of Annie Ernaux, Le jeune homme (Paris, 2022) YF.2022.a.24142
Annie Ernaux was born in 1940 to working-class parents in Normandy. In 1958, she spent a summer looking after children in a summer camp and her sexual awakening during that time is recounted in Memoire de fille (2016). In 1960, she left home to study in Rouen. In the following years she married, had two sons, and qualified as a secondary school teacher. In 1974 she published Les armoires vides, a fictionalised account of the illegal abortion she had undergone ten years earlier. Ernaux continued to teach until she retired in 2000, and now devotes herself to writing.
In 1960, Annie Ernaux had spent several months as an au pair in London looking after two boys, Jonathan and Brian Portner. During this stay, she started writing her first novel, which remains unpublished. In the anthology Ecrire la vie, a few pages are devoted to this period in Ernaux’s life, with photographs and extracts from her diary.
Annie Ernaux in the 1960s. Photo credit: L’Inventoire
The following touching and surprising story, which is recounted on the website Annie Ernaux, focuses on the author and her work and, through its largely bilingual construction, attempts to bring her work to the attention of the anglophone world. The site is maintained by Elise Hugueny-Léger (University of St Andrews) and Lyn Thomas (University of Sussex).
I see a miraculous convergence of coincidences. First there is a writer and translator, Anthony Rudolf, who reads Mémoire de fille the year after its publication. He is struck by the mention of the Portners, in Finchley, as among his acquaintances there is a certain Jonathan Portner, a dentist located a few miles away. Informed by Anthony Rudolf, Jonathan Portner tells his daughter Hannah about this discovery. Now Hannah Portner is studying French with Elise Hugueny-Léger, a lecturer at the University of St. Andrews, whose thesis focuses on my work and who has participated in many conferences I have attended. Thanks to Elise Hugueny-Léger, Hannah has read and loved one of my books, Journal du dehors, which inspired her to create a beautiful text about Paris and Madrid: Journal de deux voyages. Observation et mise en mots du réel. Things could not have come full circle in a more wonderful way… From one woman’s writing – it was in the summer of 1960, au pair with the Portner family, that I started a novel – to another woman’s writing…
Some might say that this observation of life as a wonderful circle might be uncharacteristic. But the impression, the mark left by London on Ernaux is also recorded in her usual clean, sharp and yet somewhat poetic style:
‘L’Angleterre, Londres anesthésiant et doux, eaux éternellement couleur d’étang, maison des Portner, feutrée. Si j’ai eu vingt ans là-bas, je ne m’en suis jamais vraiment aperçue.’ (Mai 1970)
“London, London soft and narcotic, waters eternally the colour of marshes, The Portners’ house, hushed and elegant. If I ever were twenty there, I never realised”. (May 1970)
Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections
Annie Ernaux, Les armoires vides (Paris, 1974) X.908/29849.
Annie Ernaux, La place (Paris, 1983) X.958/33342
Annie Ernaux & Marie, Marc, L’usage de la photo (Paris, 2005) YF.2006.a.37419
Annie Ernaux, Les années (Paris, 2008) YF.2008.a.14343
Annie Ernaux, Mémoire de fille (Paris, 2016) YF.2016.a.23982
Annie Ernaux, Le jeune homme (Paris, 2022) YF.2022.a.24142
Contemporary French fiction by women: Feminist perspectives, edited by Margaret Atack and Phil Powrie (Manchester, 1990) YC.1991.a.445
Elise Hugueny-Léger, ‘Annie Ernaux’, French Studies: a Quarterly Review, 72 (2018) 256-269. ELD Digital store, doi: 10.1093/fs/kny014
D. Holmes, French Women’s Writing, 1848–1994 (London, 1996), pp. 246–65. DRT ELD.DS.419322
26 September 2022
The Institut français regularly addresses issues and perspectives on women’s rights through events, film screenings and discussions.
On Tuesday 27 September, it will host a conversation between acclaimed writers Maylis de Kerangal and Shumona Sinha, together with translator and author Lauren Elkin, and Russell Williams, Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at the American University of Paris. Kerangal and Sinha will be discussing their newly translated short novels, Eastbound (translated by Jessica Moore) and Down with the Poor! (translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan).
Maylis de Kerangal by Francesca Mantovani © éditions Gallimard, and Shumona Sinha © Patrice Normand
Published in France one year after Kerangal’s award-winning novel Naissance d’un pont, (Birth of a Bridge), Eastbound (originally published as Tangente vers l’Est) tells the story of Aliocha, a very young and desperate Russian conscript bound for Vladivostok, who hopes that a chance encounter with a French woman on the train will offer him a chance to flee. The short novel was born as a radio story, ‘Lignes de fuites’, written for France Culture and broadcast in August 2010, which was inspired by a real-life trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway between Novosibirsk and Vladivostok.
Sinha, who was born and grew up in India, started learning French at the age of 22 and moved to Paris a few years later. She has translated and published several anthologies of contemporary French and Bengali poetry. Her first novel, Fenêtre sur l'abîme, was published in 2008. Down with the Poor! is Sinha’s second novel. Originally published as Assommons les pauvres! in 2011, it won the Prix du roman populiste 2011 and the Prix Valéry-Larbaud 2012. Sinha’s work addresses themes of immigration, exile, and identity, and poetry (‘Assommons les pauvres!’ was the title of a prose-poem in Charles Baudelaire’s Petits Poemes en prose. In very short chapters, Sinha’s Assommons les pauvres! describes the work of a translator working with migrants somewhere in a suburb of Paris:
‘Les mots s’ajoutaient aux mots. Les dossiers s’entassaient. Les hommes défilaient sans fin. On ne distinguait plus leur visage ou leur corps.’
Words were added to words. Files piled up. An endless procession of men. You could no longer distinguish their faces or bodies.
Both novels tell stories of separation, of exile, of fleeing by different means and of searching for one’s place in the world. They both touch upon the very act of translating – emotions into words, or without words (Eastbound is a novel without dialogues), of writing when one is not in one’s country (Sinha is an acclaimed exophonic writer, i.e. one who writes in a language that is not their own), or of the different ways that one can flee, physically or not, the infinite confinements and boundaries imposed by the world.
Join us for what promises to be a fascinating exploration tomorrow evening at 6:30 pm at the Institut français du Royaume-Uni.
Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections
Maylis de Kerangal, Naissance d’un pont, (Paris, 2010) YF.2011.a.20739; English translation by Jessica Moore, Birth of a Bridge (London, 2010) H.2018/.7466
Maylis de Kerangal, Tangente vers l’Est (Paris, 2011) YF.2013.a.23272; English translation by Jessica Moore, Eastbound (London, 2022) [on order]
Shumona Sinha, Assommons les pauvres! (Paris, 2011) YF.2013.a.26285; English translation by Teresa Lavender Fagan, Down with the Poor! (London, 2022) [on order]
31 August 2022
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.
Lize Spit, The Melting, translated by Kristen Gehrman (London: Pan Macmillan, 2021) ELD.DS.611746.
Chosen by Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections
‘It wasn't a good day, but at least there's a story in it.’ Lize Spit consoled herself as a child with writing when life was against her. After a long, hard struggle she entered the literary world in Flanders and the Netherlands with her debut novel Het Smelt, or The Melting. It is part coming-of-age novel, part thriller about a young woman who takes revenge on her childhood friends for things done to her 13 years before. Spit doesn’t pull any punches, doesn’t flinch from cruelty. Just how good it is can be seen from the number of languages Het Smelt was translated into: Arabic, Bulgarian, Catalan, Danish, German, French, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Croatian, Norwegian, Polish, Spanish, Czech, Swedish and English. The English translation is by Kristen Gehrman, who translates from Dutch into English, German and French.
Contemporary Georgian Fiction, translated and edited by Elizabeth Heighway (Champaign, Ill., 2012), Nov.2013/1985
Chosen by Anna Chelidze, Curator Georgian Collections
Published in 2012, this volume brings together stories by 20 prominent contemporary Georgian writers. It affords a view into a vibrant literary world that has been largely inaccessible to English-speaking readers. Written over the last 50 years, the selection of stories offers a very broad mix of writers with different literary styles. Some of the writers are well known, while others have only recently entered the literary world. Among them are five female authors, all from different generations and backgrounds, and each with a distinct authorial voice. They have achieved success in a number of literary competitions and have been awarded literary prizes, both Georgian and international. Some have previously been translated into other languages, for others this is their first published translation. Their names are: Mariam Bekauri, Teona Dolenjashvili, Ana Kordzaia-Samadasvili, Maka Mikeladze, and Nino Tepnadze. They succeed in creating powerful images of Georgia and its inhabitants, seen from different perspectives. The variety of contexts reflects changes in Georgian society in recent years, while the variety of narrative styles highlights the challenges presented to the translator, Elizabeth Heighway.
Madeleine Bourdouxhe, A Nail, a Rose, translated by Faith Evans (London, 2019) ELD.DS.439385 and Marie, translated and with an afterword by Faith Evans (London, 2016) H.2018/.7905
Chosen by Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections
After years of neglect, the fiction of Belgian author Madeleine Bourdouxhe is undergoing a revival with new editions of her work appearing in the UK, the US and Germany. In her stories, Bourdouxhe explores the themes of resistance, but also the life, routine, sexuality, and ennui of women in the 20th century. First rediscovered in France with the reissue of La femme de Gilles in 1985, she has since become something of a feminist icon. Faith Evans’s recent translations of two of Bourdouxhe’s books into English put her works into their historical, political and stylistic context. She also shares with us her translator’s impressions, feelings and reasoning; and perhaps even more surprisingly, as it is so rare, the author’s impressions at being translated.
Iryna Shuvalova, Pray to the Empty Wells, translated by Olena Jennings and the author (Sandpoint, Idaho: Lost Horse Press, 2019). Awaiting shelfmark
Chosen by Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections
Presented in dual-language format, Pray to the Empty Wells is Ukrainian poet Iryna Shuvalova’s first book-length collection of poems in English. Drawing heavily on Ukraine’s folk culture and themes ranging from memory, the natural environment and Russia’s war in Ukraine, Shuvalova’s poems are meditative, intimate, unflinchingly direct and often visceral. The collection is beautifully translated from Ukrainian by Olena Jennings and Shuvalova, and forms part of Lost Horse Press Contemporary Ukrainian Poetry series.
Shuvalova will be appearing in the Worldwide Reading of Ukrainian Literature event at the British Library on 7 September, along with a host of other award-winning Ukrainian writers and translators. The event is free to attend and will also be live streamed on the LKN website.
14 July 2022
One of the most influential artists of the last century, Christian Boltanksi, died one year ago today. Although, he would have had you believe he actually died many times before: ‘When you are asked to make a retrospective, it basically means you’re dead’ (from an interview with Alexis Dahan for the Brooklyn Rail). The son of Holocaust survivors, Boltanski was born in 1944 in Paris, where he continued to be active throughout his life. His work was often preoccupied with memory, memorialisation and the archive, using everyday objects, personal or administrative material, and the concepts of listing and cataloguing to evoke the profundity of what is lost by displaying the infinity of what we know, have and record.
For an exhibition at Malmö Konsthall in 1994, Boltanski made the artist’s book Les Habitants de Malmö, a copy of which has recently entered the British Library’s collections. It comprises the city’s real telephone directory from 1993 only with a new cover displaying its new title and a four-page insert of errata that Boltanski introduces with the line: ‘You can’t reach these inhabitants of Malmö on the phone anymore. They died in 1993.’
Cover of Christian Boltanski, Les Habitants de Malmö (Malmö, 1994) YF.2022.b.994
Looking at it now, this directory (if not all phone directories) has lost its functionality in the internet age, as its function is more aesthetic and metaphorical. However, Boltanski’s point was that its pragmatic function was already in question in 1994 when he issued a bunch of them with his front cover. As Ernst van Alphen has suggested, ‘the finiteness of pragmatic listing is illusionary’, the directory is merely ‘the temporary fixation of an ongoing process’, which soon ‘over time […] becomes a memorial of all the former inhabitants of Malmö’. Besides, when removed from its original context, the 90s Malmö phone box say, the hundreds of pages of names and numbers lose any referentiality. We simply take stock of a long list of people who may now have joined the ranks of the errata list of deceased. This is what van Alphen terms the ‘Holocaust effect’, an experience of a certain aspect of the Holocaust, here evoked somewhere between the sheer mass of names (like public memorials that list the names of the deceased in full) and the memorialisation of these former inhabitants.
Title Page of an 18th-century Danish auction catalogue for the possessions of …, 821.b.11.(4.)
As Boltanski’s work stages the archival, making once functional lists into memorials, we might ask ourselves at the library about the endless lists and catalogues housed in our collections. For example, some 17th- and 18th-century catalogues for auctions of the estates of deceased persons have recently come to light via our collection audit colleagues. Cataloguing these lists of personal effects, whose title pages list every single category of item for sale, you can’t help imagining them in a Boltanski exhibition. With their referential function lost in time and space, we might see these lists more symbolically as the things that represented someone’s life as opposed to items for sale. At the very least, Boltanski’s lists allow us to dwell on the natural imperfection of our own archives, lists and catalogues, reminding us of the ongoing process of describing our items for new times and new readers.
Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections
Ernst van Alphen, Staging the Archive: Art and Photography in the Age of New Media (Chicago: 2014) YC.2016.a.1489
23 December 2021
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
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.
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
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.
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 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
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).
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…
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
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