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119 posts categorized "Germanic"

19 June 2019

Translating Ibsen: monstrous rare of attainment

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The Duke of York’s Theatre is currently playing Henrik Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, a play that Michael Meyer suggests ‘marks Ibsen’s final withdrawal as a playwright from the polemical field’. It is marked everywhere by a curious sense of withdrawal, as the protagonist John Rosmer, heir to the Rosmersholm legacy and former clergyman, stirs himself towards a revolutionary popular politics, before abruptly asserting its futility. Likewise, the complex love affair between Rosmer and Rebecca West reaches the possibility of marriage, before that becomes impossible because of Rebecca’s guilt over her complicity in the suicide of Rosmer’s first wife and her manipulation of Rosmer towards her radicalism. Hints of idealism amidst the angst-ridden interactions dissolve into a resignation to unchangeable political, psychological and moral realities. This kind of thematic disappointment works also on the level of language, and Toril Moi suggests it depicts a dark modernity ‘where language has come to seem untrustworthy’. This makes you wonder: if the play is about the impossibility of communication, what does it mean to read and experience it at one remove, in translation?

Rosmersholm First Ed Title Page

First edition of Rosmersholm (Copenhagen, 1896) BL 11755.bbb.34.

Ibsen is notoriously difficult to translate, hence the many translations and adaptations of his plays over the last century. This includes the new four-volume Penguin Ibsen, the third volume of which contains a new translation and critical apparatus for Rosmersholm and will be released in December this year. Mark Lawson reminds us of one of the problems of translating Ibsen: that he wrote in Danish in Norway at a time of linguistic transition, when Danish remained in use but was being superseded by Norwegian. ‘This means that the translator … needs two different sets of dictionaries and thesauri and a strong sense of the historical evolution of Scandinavian languages.’

Rosmersholm Parker Portrait

Portrait of Louis Napoleon Parker, National Portrait Gallery 1917

This combination of disappointed ideals and the thankless task of the translator emerge in the preface to the first English translation of Rosmersholm (London, 1889; 11755.e.13.) by the playwright, poet and musician, Louis Napoleon Parker. Parker writes how Ibsen was slowly becoming known to English audiences and, regarding his translation, ‘It claims only one merit: it is done from the original, and it is done as literally as my limited skill in juggling words would permit. An ideal translation is, like other ideals, monstrous rare of attainment. This is not an ideal translation; but that it is faithful I will pledge the word of one who has hitherto been considered indifferent honest.’ In his autobiography, Parker mentions an ‘obsession’ with Rosmersholm, ‘the only useful lesson in playwriting I ever had’. After first translating from an early German version, probably Marie von Borch’s (Berlin, 1887; 11755.c.2.), he returned to the original, feeling ‘instinctively that there were slips and lacunæ’ in the German.

Rosmersholm Parker Title Page

Title Page of Louis N. Parker’s translation alongside his dedication to H. Rowland Brown Cup.403.m.4.(7.)

The Ibsen Society of America see the first translations, including presumably Parker’s Rosmersholm, as being particularly faithful but also outdated: ‘older literary translations can impede meaning as much as they preserve it, as one soon discovers when struggling through any of the arch British-Victorian translations’. A couple of the tricky motifs to transmit into English, according to Toril Moi, are the verbs svælge (‘swallow’) and kvæle (‘strangle’). For Moi, these verbs ‘evoke ideas of forced or silenced expression’ in a play about the struggle to connect through language and the actual abyss between Rosmer and Rebecca, as well as between Rosmer and the outside world. These verbs are strange to a Norwegian reader in their contexts and therefore stand out. Rendering into comprehensible English, translators often miss the specific motifs of swallowing and suffocation, which Moi holds central to her understanding of the play.

Let’s compare a couple of passages from Parker’s 1889 work, Charles Archer’s 1891 translation (11755.df.45.), Michael Meyer’s 1966 version (X.908/8346.), Mike Poulton’s 2008 adaptation (YK.2009.a.18115), and Moi’s own renderings in her critical work.

The end of Act 2 sees Rosmer lament the impossibility of his political project due in part to his deep guilt over his wife’s death. Moi has it:

ROSMER: I shall never conquer this – not completely. There will always be a lingering doubt. A question. I’ll never again be able to bask in (svælge i) that which makes life so wonderfully delightful to live.
REBECCA: [leaning over the back of his chair, more slowly] What kind of thing is it you mean, Rosmer?
ROSMER: [looking up at her] Quiet, joyous freedom from guilt.
REBECCA: [takes a step back] Yes. Freedom from guilt.

Moi cannot retain the idea of swallowing but opts for a phrase that keeps a bodily sense, of absorbing something. This is lost in Meyer’s and Poulton’s translations, which go with the verbs ‘enjoy’ and ‘losing the one joyful thing’. Parker and Archer settle for ‘revel in’, retaining at least the preposition and therefore some idea of physicality.

The scene takes a turn when Rosmer asks Rebecca to become his second wife, a proposal she rejects for no clear reasons at this stage. Rosmer’s plea is about shaking off the burden of the past in marriage, demanding, according to Moi’s version, to ‘let us strangle (kvæle) all memories in freedom, in pleasure, in passion’. Meyer writes, ‘let us lay all memories to rest in freedom, and joy, and love’, a significantly more peaceful image. Poulton offers a more violent image in the verb ‘drown’. However, closer to the original, Parker and Archer prefer the verb ‘stifle’, a motif of suffocation.

One last example that provides interesting comparison is the word vidnesbyrd, the ‘testimony’ or ‘proof’ Rosmer asks of Rebecca to restore his faith, essentially demanding that she takes her own life. Moi prefers to see this as ‘bearing witness’ because the concept is distinct from ‘proof’, as it ‘has to do with a person’, whereas ‘proof’ ‘often refers to things or facts’. This word isolates one translator among our selection. The very first translation, the one that was a product of an obsession with the most faithful rendering, Louis Napoleon Parker’s work is the only version not to use the word ‘proof’. He employs the awkward formulation, ‘Let me have a token!’ The word ‘token’ insists on a visible and tangible manifestation of something in a way that ‘proof’ does not quite manage.

As strange as it sounds in Parker’s rendering, perhaps Parker’s ‘token’ is a more accurate translation after all, and, if anything, his version helps to remind us of Ibsen’s own strange language.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

References/Further Reading

Louis N. Parker, Several of my Lives (London, 1928), 010855.f.42

Toril Moi, Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism: Art, Theater, Philosophy (Oxford, 2006) YC.2006.a.19524

Mark Lawson, ‘The Master Linguist: The Problem with Translating Ibsen’, The Guardian (29 October 2014)

13 June 2019

‘The Father of German Calligraphy’: Johann Neudörffer

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In an earlier post I wrote about the use and long survival of ‘gothic’ typefaces and handwriting in the German-Speaking countries. It was surely no coincidence that, at the time when the printing press and the influence of humanist thought and teaching were beginning to popularise ‘Roman’ printing and writing styles, the first printed writing manuals for German scripts also began to appear.

One of the first and most influential creators of such manuals was the Nuremberg writing and mathematics teacher Johann Neudörffer (1497-1563), who published his first collection of alphabets, designed for his own students and usually referred to as the Fundament, in 1519 (1267.g.24.(3)). His major work, Ein gute Ordnung und kurtze Unterricht der furnemsten Grunde aus denen die Jungen zierlichs schreybens begirlich, mit besonderer Kunst und Behendigkeyt unterricht und geubt mögen werden, appeared 19 years later.

Gute Ordnung tp
Title-page  of Johann Neudörffer, Ein gute Ordnung und kurtze Unterricht (Nuremberg, 1538).  C.69.aa.18.

The Gute Ordnung contains not just alphabets and examples of how to form and join letters, but also models for the kinds of  documents his students would need to prepare in their later careers as court or civic scribes.

Gute Ordnung Puncte und Linien
Practical guidance on points and lines from Ein gute Ordnung

Gute Ordnung alphabet
An alphabet in capitals from Ein gute Ordnung

There are also models of scripts using prayers, Biblical quotations and educational maxims. Most are in German hands, although there are some samples of Roman and italic lettering. There are large and elaborate capitals, and texts in script almost too tiny to read, practical scripts for everyday work and decorative ones for special occasions.

Gute Ordnung outline
An outline script from Ein gute Ordnung

Gutr Ordnung flourishes
Decorative flourishes from Ein gute Ordnung

Perhaps the most complex model is a prayer presented as a labyrinth pattern.

Gute Ordnung pattern

Because of the method of reproduction used, many of the plates also appear in reverse, which were often bound in with the others. This, together with the fact that Neudörffer produced more plates in later years which were bound into some copies, makes the work a bit of a bibliographical challenge.

Gute Ordnung Bürgermeister
A page (above) and its reverse (below) from Ein gute Ordnung

Gute Ordnung Bürgermeister reversed

The British Library holds two copies, one (C.69.aa.18.) with 103 leaves of which 46 are accompanied by the reverse, and one (1256.kk.31.) with 101 leaves of which 45 are accompanied by the reverse and one appears in reverse only. Both copies show evidence of being owned by contemporary scribes. The first copy has an ownership inscription by a Hanns Lebzelter dated 1549, and the second has 18 manuscript leaves bound in, one of them signed by Veit Stoss (1533-1576) a grandson and namesake of the sculptor.

Gute Ordnung inscription
Ownership evidence: Hanns Lebzelter (above, C.69.aa.18) and Veit Stoss (below, 1256.kk.31.)

Gute Ordnung Veit Stoss

The 1519 Fundament and Ein gute Ordnung are copy-books with little or no explanatory text, but in 1549 Neudörffer published what was more of a descriptive textbook. Ein Gesprechbüchlein zweyer schüler, wie einer den andern im zierlichen schreyben untherweyst takes the familiar pedagogical form of a dialogue between instructor and learner, although rather than the more familiar model of a teacher or parent in the role of instructor, Neudörffer’s dialogue is between fellow students of a similar age. Stephan is keen to improve his calligraphy skills with the help of the more experienced Johann (based on Neudörffer’s own son). “I’m ashamed to let you see my handwriting,” Stephan explains at the start of the first lesson, but Johann reassures him, “It isn’t so very bad, at least one can read it,” and goes on to explain how to cut and hold a quill, how to make basic lines, points and letter-shapes, how to form and join up letters and so on.

Pen
Above: A perfectly cut quill pen, from Ein Gesprechbüchlein zweyer schüler (Nuremberg, 1549) 1267.g.24.(1).  Below: Guidance on how to hold a pen, from a 1601 reissue of the work under the title Schreibkunst (Nuremberg, 1601) 1477.dd.52.(1)

Schreibkunst 1601 pen

Under the title Schreibkunst, Neudörffer’s grandson Anton reissued the Gesprechbüchlein in 1601 with an additional collection of letters and alphabets, some of them so elaborate that it becomes almost impossible to decipher the basic letter-forms beneath the flourishes.

Schreibkunst 1631 A-L
Decorative letters A-L (above) and R-S (below) from  Schreibkunst

Schreibkunst 1631 RS2

Neudörffer helped to shape the style of both German handwriting and German printing types in the 16th century, and thus to influence German writing and printing styles for four centuries. Today he is recognised as the father of German calligraphy, and has inspired modern designers of gothic typefaces who have given his name to their fonts.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

References/further reading:

Oliver Linke, Christine Sauer, Zierlich schreiben: der Schreibmeister Johann Neudörffer d. Ä. und seine Nachfolger in Nürnberg (Nuremberg, 2007) YF.2011.a.17762

Werner Doede, Bibliographie deutscher Schreibmeisterbücher von Neudoörffer bis 1800 (Hamburg, 1958) 2739.c.6.

05 June 2019

Transcending Text in Print: Lothar Schreyer’s Kreuzigung

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The term Bauhaus evokes functionality, social utopia, maybe even novel pedagogical thinking, but this is often associated with its role as a school of design. However, the Bauhaus developed out of a movement that was split between the rational and what Pádraic E. Moore refers to as the ‘cosmically-inclined’. This year’s Bauhaus centenary gives pause for thought to the contrasting utopianisms at the heart of the school, and to the esoteric elements, which have been given less attention in its historiography.

These elements are often reduced to the influence of Wassily Kandinsky, who articulated a ‘spiritual vision’ for 20th-century art. Kandinsky sought to unite form, colour, sound, and movement in ‘the gradual forming structure of the new spiritual realm’. Der gelbe Klang (‘The Yellow Sound’) is one such ‘symphonic composition’ that paved the way for a new theatre. It first appeared in Der Blaue Reiter Almanac (Munich, 1912; C.107.h.16) and comprises six ‘pictures’ almost without dialogue, detailing elaborate staging and actor movements.

Kandinsky was a key influence on Lothar Schreyer, pioneer of expressionist theatre, who, according to David F. Kuhns, ‘built a whole theory of performance on the expressive process first suggested in The Yellow Sound’.

Title Page
Title-page of Lothar Schreyer, Kreuzigung (Hamburg, 1920) C.180.cc.8.

Where Kandinsky offers lengthy stage directions as a surrogate for synesthetic art experience, Schreyer’s Kreuzigung: Spielgang Werk VIII attempts to represent a spiritual experience in a singular score, employing a distinct set of signs and symbols, colours and forms. Its publication triggered Walter Gropius to invite Schreyer to the Bauhaus, where he led the stage workshop between 1921 and 1923.

SchreyerProfile
Lothar Schreyer  in 1918. (Picture from Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Kandinsky was influential but Schreyer’s Bauhaus experience was shaped more by Johannes Itten and Gertrud Grunow, two less familiar names. Schreyer’s thinking around rhythm maps onto ideas simiular to theirs. Itten led the Bauhaus Preliminary Course [Vorkurs] and Grunow the course in ‘Practical Harmonization’ [Praktische Harmonisierungslehre], both forming the foundation of a student’s education. Itten’s devotion to Mazdaznan opened his practice to regulating physical exercises, including breathing and rhythmic drawing. Likewise, Grunow encouraged rhythmic breathing and a response to colours through movement. Both were committed to strengthening students’ ‘self-awareness in relation to both the corporeal and the spiritual’ (Linn Buchert). In the focus on fundamental words, tones, colours, forms, Schreyer also encourages in each of his practitioners an inner harmony, sound, or rhythm, which pushes to a limit the experience of ‘word’. This is more than the ‘transmission of a message’; it is the evocation of spirit.

Kreuzigung developed out of Schreyer’s work with Der Sturm, the most influential journal of German expressionism, an offshoot of which, Die Sturm-Bühne, he edited in collaboration with the Hamburg Kampfbühne, his parallel theatre project. Schreyer’s expressionism went against the overly literary dramatic tradition, which he declared defunct: in his 1916 essay ‘Das Bühnenkunstwerk’, he wrote: ‘It is necessary to forget theatre. […] A stage art [Bühnenkunstwerk] is necessary’. That stage art privileged performance over print, synesthetic experience over dialogue. Kreuzigung then returns to the print medium in order to explode the representative possibilities of literature.

The book is not described as a playscript [Theaterstück], rather Schreyer prefers the neologism Spielgang. Whereas the usual term refers to a piece, the new term draws attention to the mobility of the text through Gang (path, walk, derived from the verb gehen, to walk or go). It is the only Spielgang to materialize from a workshop process that was usually reserved for the Kampfbühne’s community of artists. Schreyer only rarely allowed outsiders into performances and practically no reviews. Yet Kreuzigung became the exemplary work ‘to grant others the knowledge’ of this creative experimentation through, in Schreyer’s own words, ‘the system and sign, in which a stage work was given the stability of form [die Beständigkeit der Gestalt]’.

The text is evocative rather than wholly readable. It works in connection with the representation of movement, figures (as coloured forms), and sound. That is apparent from the title page, headed with the motto, ‘Sturm dir Sturm allen Sturm’, which might be translated as ‘Storm to you Storm to all Storm’ but also works on the level of sonic rhythm and visual symmetry, especially in the heightened artistry of the wood-block setting.

What the reader must know
‘What the reader must know‘, from Kreuzigung

The next page sets out what the reader, performer, and spectator ‘must know’. Schreyer writes in the essay ‘Bühnenwerk Spielgang und Spiel’ that ‘in order to learn the Spielgang system and its signs, no particular course of study is necessary’. Yet, the universal pretensions are qualified in the work itself as ‘Anyone can read the score who can hear word-tones [Worttone] internally and see the movement of coloured form’. Likewise, ‘The play can only be seen and heard with a circle of friends as a shared experience, as a shared act of devotion, as a shared work’. On one level, Kreuzigung acts as a representation of performance but, on another, it points to the impossibility of that very representation. It is at once readable by all and penetrable only by the initiated.

Symbols
The system and symbols from Kreuzigung

The system is unpacked on the following page. Three levels are represented on a stave: word sequence, tone sequence and movement sequence. A zigzag line on the tone sequence denotes pitch based on its position and on the yellow (high) or blue (low) lines. The bracket symbols refer to volume and the target signs to pauses in both sound and movement. Words are stretched and contracted as appropriate to the bar by way of the woodcut text. The cross-like symbol relates to the ‘Man’ character, the single red circle to the ‘Mother’ character, and the two red circles to the ‘Beloved’ character.

Man&beloved
The figures of ‘Man’ and ‘Beloved’ from Kreuzigung

These symbolic referents point to the ‘de-individuated “art-body” stripped of socially conditioned speech and movement patterns […] capable of expressing universal truths’ (Buckley). In fact, the Spielgang was a communal creation based on an original process of meditation and vocal practice to identify the performer’s ground-tone [Grundton], becoming word-tones [Wortton] when applied to language and Sprachtonspiele when in sentence combinations.

Schreyer glosses the play itself as a ‘desperate struggle for humanity against daemonic forces’. It evokes a post-war apocalypse, around which man wanders wounded in the company of two female characters in the conventional guises of mother and mistress, ultimately seeking escape through spiritual transcendence.

Wounded feet
‘Man: Wounded feet of men carry us | Woman: My heart is blood’, from Kreuzigung (all translations by Mel Gordon)

Ultimately, while salvation is demanded, it does not arrive, as the figures are left to call for the world to wake, to realize itself beyond the material desperation. Yet, Kreuzigung is not just the representation of some failed transcendence; that would neglect the formal purity of a project less concerned with content. Rather, ‘the actual logic of the work of word art [Wortkunstwerk] is more of an artistic logic’. Spiritual transcendence is a process entered into in the performance and experience of such universal stage art.

Complex movements All tasks we perform
Complex movements: ‘Beloved: I am (Beloved alternately moves arms up and down four times) | Man: All tasks we perform. Flames break at midnight. (Mother quarter turn left, right arm horizontal sideways. Hand behind, then in front, opens left hand on breast; Beloved quarter turn right, right arm horizontal sideways. Hand behind, then in front, opens left hand on left breast; Man forearm on cross, straight in front; Mother right hand on right breast; Beloved right hand on right breast)

Saviour
‘Saviour!’ (All together)

The End Awake
The End: ‘Awake. World. Awake.’ (All together)

Kreuzigung is an attempt to encapsulate the anti-literary in print, what Buckley terms the manifestation of Schreyer’s ‘anxious utopianism’, which enacts the tensions ‘between its knowledge and its hopes – between the Werk as commodity and the Arbeit of the community, between mediation and immediacy’. A contemporary of Schreyer, Robert Musil, articulated this negotiation between spirit and rationality a year after the publication of Kreuzigung, as ‘an abiding miscommunication between the intellect and the soul. We do not have too much intellect and too little soul, but too little precision in matters of the soul’. In the urge to leave something material, ‘out of which creative people in the future could understand what forces had moved and shaped our plays’ (Schreyer, Erinnerungen), Schreyer and the Kampfbühne showed their precision in works of the soul and underlined that tension at the heart of the Bauhaus. Kreuzigung is thus the result of precise printing craft and a meticulous pedagogical process that might just also tend towards the divine.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

References / Further Reading

Wassily Kandinsky, On the Spiritual in Art, edited and translated by Hilla Rebay (New York, 1946), 7813.b.1.

Lothar Schreyer, Theateraufsätze (Lewiston, 2001), YC.2002.a.12966

——, Erinnerungen an Sturm und Bauhaus. Was ist des Menschen Bild? (Lewiston, 2002), YK.2002.a.21881

Robert Musil, Precision and Soul: Essays and Addresses (Chicago, 1990), YC.1991.b.1058

Hans M. Wingler, The Bauhaus: Weimar, Dessau, Berlin, Chicago (Cambridge, MA, 1979), f80/0186

Mel Gordon, ‘Lothar Schreyer and the Sturmbühne’, The Drama Review, vol. 24, no. 1 (1980), pp. 85-102. 3623.197000

David F. Kuhns, German Expressionist Theatre: the Actor and the Stage (Cambridge, 1997), YC.2002.a.15612

Jennifer Buckley, ‘The Bühnenkunstwerk and the Book: Lothar Schreyer’s Theatre Notation’, Modernism.modernity, vol. 21, no. 2 (2014), pp. 407-24. 5900.120000

Pádraic E. Moore, ‘A Mystic Milieu: Johannes Itten and Mazdaznan at Bauhaus Weimar’, bauhaus imaginista, edition 1

Elizabeth Otto and Patrick Rössler (eds), Bauhaus Bodies: Gender, Sexuality, and Body Culture in Modernism’s Legendary Art School (New York, 2019), ELD.DS.381646

Linn Buchert, ‘The spiritual Enhancement of the Body: Johannes Itten, Gertrud Grunow, and Mazdaznan at the early Bauhaus’, in Bauhaus Bodies

21 May 2019

P. G. Wodehouse under Continental Covers

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Some time ago our Translator in Residence, Rahul Bery, wrote a post for the BL English and Drama blog about translations of the works of P.G. Wodehouse. As an unexpected but welcome response to this we were contacted by Wodehouse expert Tony Ring, who asked if we would be interested in a donation of Wodehouse novels in various European languages. We were of course delighted to accept and recently the collection of 100 books, in Danish, Dutch, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Norwegian, Russian and Swedish, arrived in the Library.

Unpacking them I was fascinated by the range of different cover designs. I always associate Wodehouse with the gently humorous drawings of ‘Ionicus’ (J.C. Armitage) which adorned the British Penguin editions for many years. but readers abroad would encounter Wodehouse under many different covers, some of them quite surprising.

To start with some straightforward ones, in the 1970s and 80s, the Dutch publisher Spectrum issued a number of Wodehouse novels in its ‘Prisma’ series with covers by the well-known political cartoonist Peter van Straaten and there are nine of these in the collection. Straaten’s lively drawings clearly represent characters and situations from the books – not as common as you might think! Here are two, from Summer Lightning (De ontvoerde zeug), translated by W. Wielek-Berg, and Something Fresh (Nieuwe Bezems), translated by W.N. Vandersluys.

Wodehouse Dutch 1

Van Straaten’s illustrations show the characters dressed more or less appropriately for the period when the books were set. However, this is not always the case. This 1962 cover by Georges Mazure for Dokter Sally, translated by Henriëtte van der Kop, reflects the fashions of the day rather than of its original publication date thirty years before.

Wodehouse Dutch 2

Likewise, Ulrich Lichtenhardt’s cover for this 1980 German edition of Spring Fever (Frühlingsgefühle) bears all the hallmarks of the late 1970s rather than of 1948 when the book first appeared. Incidentally, all seven German translations in the collection bear the rider ‘Heiterer Roman’ (‘light-hearted novel’) on their covers – playing to a stereotype of an earnest German reader needing to be assured that laughter is allowed?

Wodehouse German

If the Germans want to emphasise humour, some of the Russian covers seem to imply a darker side to the tales. The Angler’s Rest and its regulars have surely never looked as louche as on the vaguely expressionistic cover of this 2011 translation by I. Gurova of Mulliner Nights (Vechera s misterom Mullinerom). This is probably my favourite cover in the whole collection.

Wodehouse Russian 2

Two other Russian Mr Mulliner collections also use expressionist artwork on the cover, to rather angst-ridden effect, but most worrying is this bleak 2002 cover for A Damsel In Distress (Deva v bede), which to my mind looks better suited to Tess of the d’Urbervilles than to the world of Wodehouse. I can only think that the designer was given nothing to go on but the title.

Wodehouse Russian 3

I find there’s also something slightly threatening about this Italian cover by Stefano Tartatrotti for Adriana Motti’s translation of Uncle Dynamite (Zio Dinamite) from 1998, but as with the Russian Mulliner Nights, the humour wins out.

Wodehouse Italian 3

Another Italian cover is very literal: a 1966 edition of Young Men in Spats (Giovanotti con la Ghette), translated by Zoe Lampronti.

Wodehouse Italian 1

To my mind one of the most attractive covers in the collection is this Swedish dust-jacket by Björn Berg for Birgitta Hammar’s translation of Full Moon (Fullmåne), one of a number of Wodehouse covers that Berg illustrated in 1984. He also includes a brief portrait sketch of Wodehouse on the back of the jacket (and one of the Empress of Blandings on the title page).

Wodehouse Swedish 1

The back cover is also put to good use in Birgitta Hammar’s 1956 Swedish translation of French Leave (Fransysk visit), describing the characters and outlining the plot of the story on a ‘menu’ from the Hotel Splendide in the fictional French town where the story is set.

Wodehouse Swedish 4b

As for the French themselves, this 1947 translation of My Man Jeeves (Mon valet de chambre) has a vignette by J. Jacquemin which I think nicely captures Jeeves’s imperturbability.

Wodehouse French 1

A later series of Jeeves stories in French all use the same cover image of British actor Arthur Treacher playing the role, but change the colour of his cravat and buttonhole for each cover. I’m not sure Jeeves would really have approved of this sartorial frivolity; perhaps that’s why he looks rather troubled here.

Wodehouse French 2

But for sheer oddity, I think the prize goes to the Dutch for this 1974 cover for Jan Wart Kousemaker’s translation of Plum Pie (Plumpudding) which at first glance looks more like a cheap thriller than a collection of humorous stories.

Wodehouse Dutch 3Of course, we should never judge a book by its cover, and there is much more to say about this wonderful donation and the ways in which translators have tackled Wodehouse’s distinctive style. For now the books will go to be accessioned and catalogued so that they can be available for students of literary translation and reception – and for interested Wodehousians – in our reading rooms.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

Wodehouse Swedish 2
P.G. Wodehouse, ‘the world's most popular humourist’. Sketch by Björn Berg from the dustjacket of Fullmåne  

13 May 2019

Script, history and ideology: German fonts and handwriting

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In the 15th century the earliest European printers used what we commonly call ‘gothic’ or ‘black-letter’ typefaces, reflecting contemporary handwriting styles. In Italy, however, humanist scholars had been developing a new ‘roman’ handwriting based on the lettering of classical inscriptions, and the first printers in Italy were quick to design typefaces based on this style.

Over the next two centuries, roman types and handwriting gradually became standard in most European countries, but in some parts of northern Europe black-letter types survived much longer.

Verbreitung der Schriftarten 1901
Map showing the distribution of script styles in Europe at the end of the 19th century, from Petermanns geographische Mitteilungen (Gotha, 1901) P.P.3946. German letters. marked in blue, are shown as dominant in Germany, Austria, Norway and Estonia, although they were already falling out of use in the last two countries

In Germany these forms remained dominant until well into the 20th century, alongside a handwriting style, called ‘Kurrentschrift’, based on late mediaeval models.

Kurrent C.142.cc.12
A sample of 16th-century Kurrentschrift from Wolfgang Fugger, Ein nützlich und wolgegründt Formular manncherley schöner Schriefften ... (Nuremberg, 1533) C.142.cc.12.

Black-letter types are generally called ‘Fraktur’ in German, although technically the term refers only to one of four families of black-letter type, the others being Schwabacher, Textura and Rotunda.

Fugger Fraktur
Examples of Fraktur letter-forms from Wolfgang Fugger, Ein nützlich und wolgegründt Formular manncherley schöner Schriefften ..

Roman types were not unknown in Germany, and were often used for printing Latin and other foreign-language texts. Latin quotations and foreign loan-words were also typically printed in roman type within a Fraktur text to highlight their difference. Sometimes different fonts appeared in a single word if it had a Latin suffix or root, as in the word ‘vegetabilischen’ in the example below.

Two scripts 1568-1368
Title-page using both Fraktur and roman fonts, from Angelo Sala, Hydrelæologia, darinnen, wie man allerley Wasser, Oliteten, vnd brennende Spiritus der vegetabilischen Dingen ... distillieren vnd rectificiren soll ... (Rostock, 1639) 1568/1368.

From the late 18th century onwards some printers began to produce German texts wholly in roman type and some Germans adopted roman handwriting. The question of whether Germany should move over to roman types and scripts or maintain Fraktur and Kurrentschrift grew into a national debate in the course of the 19th century. Philologists came out on both sides, with Jacob Grimm a notable supporter of roman styles, and the lexicographer Daniel Sanders a staunch defender of Fraktur and Kurrentschrift.

Sanders 002
Detail of working notes (in German script) by Daniel Sanders from an interleaved copy of his Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache (Leipzig, 1860-1865) L.R.276.a.3.

Some arguments were practical: both sides claimed that their preferred style caused less eye-strain, and advocates of roman type argued that its use would make German easier for foreign learners. Supporters of German type and script deployed the romantic argument that these were an innate part of the German character. This association had a long history: in his 1533 handwriting manual, Wolfgang Fugger claimed that “It does not look well when we write German in Latin letters”.

In 1876 a German Orthographical Conference came out cautiously in favour of a move towards roman letters (Daniel Sanders was one of four delegates who voted against) but this never became official policy. In 1911 the Reichstag debated a petition to teach roman letters alongside German ones in schools, but defenders of German styles lobbied strongly against such a move and, despite initial support, the motion was defeated. In the same year, graphic designer Ludwig Sütterlin was commissioned to design a new form of Kurrentschrift for use in schools. This was adopted in most of the German states and was known by the designer’s name.

Sütterlin 7947.b.17
Ludwig Sütterlin’s handwriting style, from W. Jungk, Mit Sütterlin zur Schul- und Lebensschrift (Berlin, 1928) 7947.b.17.

Although German letters still had official status, the first decades of the 20th century saw an increase in books printed using roman types. In the 1920s the typographical experiments of the Bauhaus and of designers like Jan Tschichold gave roman types an added aura of modernity.

Bauhaus prospectus 11911.aa.23
Prospectus designed by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy for a series of Bauhaus books, reproduced in Jan Tschichold, Die neue Typographie (Berlin, 1928) 11911.aa.23.

Tschichold saw ‘national’ scripts such as Fraktur as symbols of a backward-looking nationalism to be rejected in an increasingly internationalised world. The early years of Nazi rule seemed to confirm this view as Fraktur received official blessing, but the Nazis’ attitude to type and scripts was in fact ambivalent. They used both roman and Fraktur types in their propaganda material, and Hitler, in a speech given on 5 September 1934, actually criticised ‘street signs and typewriting in original Gothic lettering’ as examples of a ‘pretended Gothic internalisation’ unsuited to a modern nation.

In 1941, the Nazi government formally banned the use of German fonts and scripts. This move was partly driven by Germany’s conquests in the early part of the Second World War, which created a need to publish and communicate in a form more easily understood by non-Germans. However, the document declaring the ban gave the totally false explanation that Fraktur types were a Jewish invention (‘Schwabacher Judenlettern’) and were therefore not ‘German’ at all.

Kampf um Deutschland 1939    Kampf um Deutschland 1941
Philipp Bouler, Kampf um Deutschland (Berlin, 1939 [left; 12254.c.10.] and 1941 [right; 9386.c.39]), issued by the Nazis’ central publishing house and showing the change from Fraktur to roman type.

Although the ban was a product of the Nazi regime and backed by a spurious antisemitic argument,  German type and handwriting remained linked in the minds of the post-war occupying forces with extreme nationalist ideology, and there was little enthusiasm for reviving them. Fraktur did not completely disappear: some publishers continued to use it in the late 1940s, and it survived in publications such as Bibles and hymn-books into the early 1970s. Some West German states taught Kurrentschrift in schools in the 1950s, although in addition to roman rather than as an alternative. But gradually roman became the norm, and today it is the dominant style in Germany as in the rest of Western Europe

However, Fraktur remains a part of the German landscape on shop and restaurant signs and in commercial logos, contexts where its use suggests tradition and authenticity. It has also become a hallmark – not just in Germany – of music scenes such as heavy metal. But there are also more serious uses: type designers continue to create and work with Fraktur fonts, and the Bund für deutsche Schrift und Sprache promotes the study and use of German letters. And of course anyone wanting to study older German literature, history or bibliography needs a knowledge of the typefaces and scripts used in books and manuscripts. Fortunately there are many guides both printed and online (such as this one) to help those keen to learn these skills.

𝕾𝖚𝖘𝖆𝖓 𝕽𝖊𝖊𝖉, 𝕷𝖊𝖆𝖉 𝕮𝖚𝖗𝖆𝖙𝖔𝖗 𝕲𝖊𝖗𝖒𝖆𝖓𝖎𝖈 𝕮𝖔𝖑𝖑𝖊𝖈𝖙𝖎𝖔𝖓𝖘*

References/further reading:

Gerald Newton, ‘Deutsche Schrift: the demise and rise of German black letter’, German Life and Letters 56:2, April 2003. P.P.4748.ls.(2.)

Albert Kapr, Fraktur: Form und Geschichte der gebrochenen Schriften (Mainz, 1993) YF.2018.a.16367

Christina Kilius, Die Antiqua-Fraktur Debatte um 1800 und ihre historische Herleitung (Wiesbaden, 1999) YA.2001.a.30739

Silvia Hartmann, Fraktur oder Antiqua: der Schriftstreit von 1881 bis 1941 (Frankfurt am Main, 1998) YA.2000.a.34566

*Font converted using the YayText website

12 April 2019

Poets in Power: the 1919 Bavarian Soviet Republic

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In April 1919, Munich was briefly the seat of one of the strangest governments in the history of any country. Led initially by men who were writers and thinkers first and politicians second (if at all), the Munich Räterepublik – a ‘Soviet’ or ‘Council’ Republic – was the culmination of Bavaria’s revolution of 1918-19, and its defeat would see Bavaria turn decisively to the political right.

München auf dem Kopf
Cover of O. Estée, München auf dem Kopf: die Geschichte einer Räterepublik in 40 Bildern (Munich, 1919) 12316.w.1. A collection of drawings of Munich and its people during the Soviet Republic with an ironic commentary from a conservative perspective. The image of the city's iconic Frauenkirche turned upside down reflects the chaos of the period.

Revolution had broken out in Bavaria, as elsewhere in Germany, during the last days of the First World War. Journalist and Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) member Kurt Eisner had seized the initiative ahead of more established politicians, declaring a People’s State of Bavaria on 8 November and becoming its first Prime Minister. However, he faced opposition not only from the political right but also from other left-wing factions: too radical for the mainstream Social Democrats (SPD), not radical enough for the Communists. Elections in January 1919 saw his party come a humiliating last, with less than three per cent of the vote.

In February Eisner was assassinated, inflaming an already chaotic political situation. Johannes Hoffmann of the SPD was elected Prime Minister, but there were still deep divisions over whether the new state should be a parliamentary or soviet-style republic. On 6 April, a group of idealistic pacifists and anarchists decided for the latter and, as Hoffmann and his government retreated to Bamberg, proclaimed a Bavarian Soviet Republic. At its head was the poet and playwright Ernst Toller, supported by, among others, fellow-writers Gustav Landauer and Erich Mühsam.

MNN 7 April
The proclamation of a Bavarian Soviet Republic on the front page of the newspaper Münchener Neueste Nachrichten (MFM.MF461)  on 7 April 1919.

Landauer was made commissar for education and culture, and dreamed of creating progressive schools and free museums. He wrote to a friend: “If they give me a couple of weeks, I hope to achieve something; but it’s possible it will only be a couple of days, and then all a dream.” His pessimism was well founded: for all its conviction and high ideals, the new regime was ill-equipped to govern, especially in an already confused and chaotic situation. Landauer himself claimed that he had no time for the everyday work of government since he was too busy reshaping society. Toller was besieged in his office by petitioners asking every kind of favour, many of them far beyond his remit. The behaviour of the commissar for foreign affairs, Franz Lipp, grew increasingly eccentric; after he sent a telegram to the Pope claiming, among other things, that Hoffmann had stolen the key to his lavatory, Toller was forced to remove him from office.

Toller frontispiece
Ernst Toller, frontispiece portrait from his autobiography, Eine Jugend in Deutschland (Amsterdam, 1933) 10709.a.29

Meanwhile the Communist leader Eugen Leviné was accusing Toller of leading a “pseudo-soviet” and demanding a harder line more in keeping with that of Lenin’s Russia. On 13 April he succeeded in ousting Toller and began to impose what he saw as more genuine soviet rule, confiscating weapons, houses and food from the ‘bourgeoisie’, and calling a general strike. Ironically, the committed pacifist Toller ended up commanding a unit of Bavaria’s newly-formed ‘Red Army’ against the right-wing Freikorps militias with which Hoffmann’s Bamberg government had allied itself in the hope of regaining power.

Als Rotarmist vor München X.700-10339
Cover of Erich Wollenberg, Als Rotarmist vor München: Reportage aus der Münchener Räterepublik (Berlin, 1929)  X.0700/10339. Wollenberg was Infantry Commander of the Bavarian Red Army. As a committed Communist, his account of the struggle to defend the Soviet Republic is critical of more moderate figures such as Toller.

Despite initial Red Army successes against the Freikorps, it was clear that the Soviet Republic could not hold out, not least because of schisms caused by factional infighting: by the end of April, Toller recalls in his autobiography, “two separate governments were operating at once in Munich.” The general strike was exacerbating food shortages, and the people were growing tired of and angry at the ongoing chaos. When Freikorps troops finally entered and re-took the city at the beginning of May, they were welcomed by many as liberators, but the liberation was a brutal one. Street fighting left over 600 dead, more than half civilians, and the retaliation against the supporters of the Soviet Republic saw some 2200 people imprisoned or executed. Landauer was murdered in prison and Leviné executed for high treason.

Toller wanted
Police poster offering a reward for the capture of Toller, wanted for high treason. Reproduced in Edward Crankshaw’s translation of Toller’s autobiography, I was  a German (London, 1934) 2402.a.14

Toller faced the same charge, but was comparatively fortunate in receiving only a five-year prison sentence. Although he was judged to have committed high treason, the court believed that he had done so “with honourable intent”. In his case at least, then, the high initial ideals of the Bavarian Soviet Republic were given a kind of official, if grudging, respect.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator, Germanic Studies

References/Further reading

Volker Weidermann, Träumer: als die Dichter die Macht übernahmen. (Cologne, 2017) [Awaiting shelfmark] English translation by Ruth Martin, Dreamers: When the Writers Took Power, Germany 1918 (London, 2018) ELD.DS.338669

Kurt Kreiler, Die Schriftstellerrepublik: zum Verhältnis von Literatur und Politik in der Münchner Räterepublik: ein systematisches Kapitel politischer Literaturgeschichte (Berlin, 1978) X:709/28448

Gerhard Schmolze (ed.), Revolution und Räterepublik in München 1918/19 in Augenzeugenberichten (Düsseldorf, 1969) X.809/9992.

Richard Dove, He was a German: a Biography of Ernst Toller (London, 1990) YK.1990.a.7

Herbert Kapfer, Carl-Ludwig Reichert (ed.), Umsturz in München : Schriftsteller erzählen die Räterepublik (Munich, 1988)

02 April 2019

John Bull, or the English People in their Great Peculiarity

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It’s English Tourism Week and what better to guide prospective visitors to these shores than an anonymous compilation of English customs published nearly 200 years ago in Stockholm. John Bull eller Engleska folket i sin stora Besynnerlighet was recently acquired by the British Library and appears to be a translation from multiple contemporary sources of anecdotes and summaries of Englishness. It contains all manner of veritable traditions, half-truths and fake news that you might expect.

John Bull Title Page
Title page from John Bull eller Engleska folket i sin stora Besynnerlighet (Stockholm, 1826) RB.23.a.28622

In no seeming order, the book takes us from Charles I to the Lord Mayor’s Day via brief glimpses at the Fairlop Fair, ‘Riding the Stang’, football and funeral ceremonies, and anecdotes that illuminate British attitudes under titles such as ‘The Compassionate Traveller’, ‘Paternal Tenderness’, or ‘Exceptional Orderliness’, all in just over 50 pages.

John Bull Contents
Contents from John Bull, eller Engelska folket...

One possible source for the work is Popular Pastimes, being a selection of picturesque representations of the customs & amusements of Great Britain, in ancient and modern times (London, 1816; 785.h.8), which includes drawings by F. P. Stephanoff and historical descriptions by Edward Wedlake Brayley. A second source could be the less structured but equally enjoyable John Bull ou Londresiana, attributed to a ‘C.D’

John Bull Engraving
Engraving from
John Bull ou Londresiana, Recueil d’originalités et de singularités anglaises, avec les anecdotes, bons mots, plaisanteries, sarcasmes, et railleries particulières à ce peuple (Paris, [1820?]) 12314.df.4.

Both the French and Swedish John Bull refer to the peculiarity of their subject and understandably so given the stories they recount. In ‘En besynnerlig Ursäkt’ (‘A peculiar excuse’) we read a dark tale about a day-labourer who twice tried to drown himself but was twice saved by a peasant. He waits for his moment and on the third occasion hangs himself off a barn door. When the owner of the farm questions the peasant, who had in fact seen the whole thing, the peasant says that, since the labourer had been thoroughly soaked in the first two plunges, he thought he was hanging himself out to dry.

The book shares a chapter with Popular Pastimes on what the English publication calls the practice of ‘Selling a Wife’ and the Swedish more modestly refers to as ‘Åktenskaps-handel’ (‘Marriage trade’). Both condemn the activity, which is said to prevail among the ‘lower classes’ (John Bull) or ‘the illiterate and vulgar’ (Popular Pastimes). Our English historian finds space however to celebrate the songs that have been derived from the practice: ‘this practice, immoral and shameful as it is, has given rise to various pleasant Jeu d’esprits […]’. The examples they give differ, possibly exposing the fact that John Bull was paraphrased from various sources.

Other chapters shared between the two books include ‘Milk Maids’ Garland‘ (‘Mjölkflickans Krans‘), ‘Riding the Stang’ (‘Rida på Stången‘) and ‘St. Valentine’s Day’, which our Swedish observers tell us ‘is quite extraordinary in England. The youth yearn for it [längtar otåligt efter det] every year.’ ‘Rida på Stången’ is more or less a direct translation from its source in Popular Pastimes, which describes a practice of vigilante justice, referred to otherwise as ‘charivari’ or ‘skimmington’. The accused is forced onto a long pole, or stang, and carried through the streets to expose his dishonour. The criminal associated with this treatment was traditionally  ‘a man who had debauched his neighbour’s wife’, but not exclusively so, as ‘the virago who had beaten her husband was also subjected to riding the Stang’ (Popular Pastimes, p. 17). The method was also used in Westmoreland and Cumberland, we read, to deter anyone from conducting any business at all on New Year’s Day. While, Popular Pastimes does not delve deeper, John Bull interrogates this Cumbrian variation:

Man hwart taga dessa böter wägen? Jo, man super upp dem, man fyller sig, wältrar sig i sanden, öfwerlastad af Öl, Rumm, Win och Brännwin. — Det är ett nöjsamt tidsfordrif for Engelska folkshopen. (p. 38)
Where do the fines go? Yes, they guzzle it up, they have their fill, roll about in the mud, full of beer, rum, wine and brandy. It is a pleasurable pastime for the English crowds.

I wonder how different today’s portrait of John Bull and the peculiar English would be…

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Studies

27 February 2019

The Cats’ Newspaper: or the Cat’s Pyjamas?

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A month after our current exhibition Cats on the Page opened, its lead curator passed me a donation of a number of issues of De Poezenkrant, or ‘The Cats’ Newspaper’, that came with a letter from its editor, P. Schreuders, who donated the issues as a ‘Thank You’ for the exhibition. These are currently being catalogued and shelfmarked and will be available on our CATalogue ‘Explore’  soon.

This blog is a ‘Thank You’ in return for Schreuders’ generous donation.

P. Schreuders started De Poezenkrant as a sort of newsletter about his family and the family cat R. van Plezier. (The ‘R’. stands for ‘Red’ as in ‘ginger’.)

PK21 Cover 1977
Cover of De Poezenkrant Nr 21, February 1977, featuring R. van Plezier, P. Schreuders’ ginger cat. (Awaiting shelfmark)

Schreuders would send the newsletter to a select group of friends, but soon the mailing list expanded to a few hundred subscribers. Now it has fans all over the world. It sure looks like it has nine lives!

In 2015 Het Grote Boek van de Poezenkrant (‘The Big Book of The Cats’ Newspaper.’ ) was published to celebrate the 41st year of the newspaper/magazine. Why 41 years and not 40 is all explained in the book. It has the complete issues 1 -49BIS”A” (1974–2004) and is dedicated to R. van Plezier.

PokraHetGroteBoek
Cover of Piet Schreuders, Het Grote Boek van De Poezenkrant (Amsterdam, 2015) YF.2018.b.808.

The Cat’s Newspaper is a strange little beast. Is it a magazine, or a newspaper? Is it about cats, or literature? How often does it appear and what will the next issue look like?

Mr. P. Schreuders likes to play a game of cat and mouse with his readers. De Poezenkrant is published irregularly and in ever-changing formats – just as a cat would behave. The cover of issue 62 is a case in point. It says ‘2017 à 2018’.

PK62 Cover 2017-18
Cover of De Poezenkrant, vol. 44, No 62, 2017 à 2018.

De Poezenkrant has a whiff of Facebook about it. Readers from all over the world (global reach) submit their news, photos and stories (posts) for publication in the newspaper. Well known authors write literary articles for the newspaper, which results in a hugely varied content, in Dutch, English and sometimes other languages. This stimulates endless browsing. Add to that the fact that cats are, of course, one of the most popular themes on social media and you have a social media platform.

Several Dutch authors have contributed to De Poezenkrant over time. One of the most prolific contributors, almost from the beginning, was Willem Frederik Hermans who was a big fan of cats. Schreuders read an interview with Hermans in the newspaper NRC of 20 March 1971, in which Hermans only talked about cats, so Schreuders sent Hermans the next issue of De Poezenkrant. This was the beginning of a long collaboration between the two.

PKboek-p4 Postcards
Postcards sent by W.F.Hermans to P. Schreuders in May and June 1974, commenting on De Poezenkrant, reproduced in  Het Grote Boek van de Poezenkrant

On Christmas Day 1975 Hermans sent Schreuders a copy of the famous engraving by J.J. Grandville of the characters in the fable ‘Le Chat, la Belette et le petit Lapin’, by Jean de la Fontaine, from an 1838 edition of the Fables.

Hermans included a short note, in which he states that in his opinion the image deserved a place in De Poezenkrant. He points out the clogs on the feet of the rabbit, whom he compares to a Dutch author he doesn’t like very much. He also expresses his disappointment that the carved mouse heads on the chair of the cat Raminagrobis aren’t lion heads. The note was printed in De Poezenkrant nr 24 of July 1978.

WFH-25dec1977 Letter
Detail of the typed note from Hermans to Schreuders, 25 December 1977, reproduced in  Het Grote Boek van de Poezenkrant

A few years later De Poezenkrant Nr 33 featured a full article on the cat Raminagrobis from La Fontaine’s fable, entitled ‘Op zoek naar Raminagrobis’ (‘In search of Raminagrobis’), in which Hermans’ copy of the Grandville engraving was included. The article discusses various editions of the fable, and their illustrations of the unreliable ‘judge’ Raminagrobis. Gustav Doré and Benjamin Rabier are mentioned, but the verdict is clear: ‘By far the most beautiful illustrations are those in the edition by Fournier Ainé (Paris, 1838) and are by Grandville’; this is indeed the edition on display in the Library’s exhibition.

La Fontaine-Granville C.152.g.7.
Ms Weasel and the little Rabbit before Raminagrobis, published in Fables de La Fontaine. Édition illustrée par J. J. Grandville. (Paris, 1838) C.152.g.7.

Neither the exhibition, nor De Poezenkrant would be complete without the Cheshire Cat. The cover of issue 30, Autumn 1982 is in the style of 18th-century book title pages, but with modern concepts. The Cheshire Cat sits in the centre of the page, almost like a printer’s device. It is taken from the engraving by Sir John Tenniel made for the ‘dream play for children in two acts’ (London, 1886) adapted by H. Savile Clarke from Lewis Carroll’s Alice books

PKboek-PK30 Cheshire
Cover of De Poezenkrant Nr 30, reproduced in Het Grote Boek van de Poezenkrant

De Poezenkrant has an online presence, too and several issues are available on ISSUU.

Go and have a look; curiosity won’t kill the cat!

Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections.

The British Library’s free exhibition Cats on the Page and the accompanying events season continue until 17 March.

19 February 2019

It All Adds Up: a Quick Look at Chronograms

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For centuries writers and printers have enjoyed using words on a page to make patterns and puzzles. Acrostics, rebuses and pattern poems are all examples of this. Another is the chronogram.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a chronogram as “a phrase, sentence, or inscription, in which certain letters (usually distinguished by size or otherwise from the rest) express by their numerical values a date or epoch.” Chronograms exist in many different writing traditions, including Arabic and Hebrew where each letter of the alphabet has a different numerical value. In Europe they enjoyed their greatest popularity from the 16th to the 18th centuries, particularly in the territories of the Holy Roman Empire and in the Low Countries, where they appeared in commemorative or dedicatory inscriptions, on coins and medals, and in print.

In these European chronograms the date is expressed with the letters used as Roman numerals: I, V, X, L, C, D and M (for 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, 500 and 1000). Most of us are familiar with dates in this form from inscriptions or from the closing credits of films and TV programmes. Some chronograms give the letters in the order that they appear in the full written date, for example an epitaph for Queen Elizabeth I reading “My Day Closed Is In Immortality”, where the initial letters represent MDCIII (1603) the year of her death. However, most of them require more mathematical dexterity in both writer and reader, since they involve identifying the numeral letters in a phrase and adding them together to give the date.

Let’s look at some examples. Here’s a fairly easy one to start, with the chronogram highlighted:

Chronograms RB.23.a.28370
Antonius Kalckstein, Theses theologicae ex universa theologia Scotistica ex littera Scoti deductae authoritate Sacrae Scripturae et SS. Patrum ac Conciliorum firmatae et rationibus comprobatae ...  (Wrocław, 1714) RB.23.a.28370

On the title-page of this dissertation, the chronogram for the year is cleverly tucked into the information about the day and month when it was publicly defended: “Anno CVrrente ab ortV ChrIstI DIe 12 SepteMbrIs” (“In the current year after the birth of Christ on the 12th day of September”). This gives us C+V+V+C+I+I+D+I+M+I = 100+5+5+100+1+1+500+1+1000+1 = 1714. (Note the use of a v where we would generally use a u in written Latin today; the ancient Roman alphabet did not distinguish between the two.)

In the next example, the year is similarly encoded in the statement of publication: “IohannIs RhaMbae typI eXCVDebant” (“Johann Rambau’s types printed [this]”), giving I+I+M+I+X+C+V+D = 1+1+1000+1+10+5+500 = 1618:

Chronograms 11409.f.37
Elias Cüchler, Ἀνθολογια διαφορων Ἐπιγραμματων παλαιων = Florilegium diversorum epigrammatum veterum in centurias distributum ... (Görlitz, 1618) 11409.f.37

The author of this book of astrological predictions for the year 1602 came up with two different chronograms to give the publication year of 1601:

Chronograms 1609-748(10)
Georgius Caesius, Prognosticon astrologicum, oder Teutsche Practick: auff das Jahr ... M.DCII ... (Nuremberg 1601)  1609/748.(10.)

Relying as they do on Roman numerals, Chronograms can be made to work most easily with a Latin text, but they appear in vernacular languages too, as we saw in the Elizabeth I example. Here’s one in German in a work describing various celestial phenomena seen in 1622. The German chronogram, “NVn Ist In Vnsern LanDen groß EnDerUng baLD zV besorgen” suggests that these, and by implication the very date of 1622, are heralds of “great change”.

Chrongrams Cup.409.c.2
Jacob Bartsch, Himmlische zeiterinnernde Wunder-Sonn- vnd WeckVhr, das ist ... Bericht von den NebenSonnen vnd Regenbogen ... (Strassburg, 1622)  Cup.409.c.2 

Again, a v is used here where we would expect a u to make the chronogram work. The same is true of this 1632 broadside commemorating the entry of the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus into Nuremberg during the Thirty Years’ War: both ‘vu’ and ‘w’ are transcribed as two v’s: “GVstaVVs ADolphVs MIt Gott erVVehLter KönIg”.

Chronograms 1750.b.29.(54.)
Andeutliche kurtze Beschreibung und Figurliche entwerffung, welcher gestalt, der  ... Herr Gustavus Adolphus, der Schweden, Gothen und Wenden König, ... Neben andern bey sich gehabten Christlichen hohen Potentaten ... zu Nürnberg, am 21. Tag Monats Martii, dieses lauffenden 1632. Jahrs ... eingeritten  (Nuremberg, 1632) 1750.b.29(54)

In all these examples, the letters doubling as numerals are highlighted by being capitalised, but here’s a relatively late example, from 1856 (as I’m sure you can all work out by now), where they have been printed in red:

Chronograns Hung.1.f.3.(22)
Istrograni templi auspiciis. augusto poli festive adstat augusta Austriæ aula prona gens, et venerati prælati (Trnava, 1856)  Hung.1.f.3.(22)

To finish, here’s a broadside containing an impressive 20 chronograms on various significant dates in the life of Martin Luther. It comes from an album compiled by James Hilton, an avid collector and chronicler of chronograms. His collection, particularly strong in German examples, was bequeathed to the British Museum Library in 1931, and offers hours of fascination for lovers of the genre.

Chronograms Luther
Johannes Stolsius, Reverendi viri Dn. Martinus Lutheri ... vita atque res gestae viginti eteostichis docte comprehensa ... (Bremen, 1617)  From a collection of engravings and single printed leaves containing chronograms, made by James Hilton. L.R.22.c.18

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

References/further reading:

James Hilton, Chronograms, 5000 and more in number, excerpted out of various authors, and collected at many places … (London, 1882-1895) 011899.k.54.

Alastair Fowler, The Mind of the Book: Pictorial Title Pages (Oxford, 2017) YC.2018.a.3272 (pp. 49-51)

Veronika Marschall, Das Chronogramm: eine Studie zu Formen und Funktionen einer literarischen Kunstform, dargestellt am Beispiel von Gelegenheitsgedichten des 16. bis 18. Jahrhunderts aus den Beständen der Staatsbibliothek Bamberg (Frankfurt am Main, 1997) YA.2000.a.16760

 

29 January 2019

Kater Murr at 200: ‘the cleverest, best and wittiest creature of his kind ever beheld’

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Visitors to the British Library’s current exhibition Cats on the Page may have caught sight of a curious creature who first saw the light in Prussia 200 years ago – Kater Murr, the famous tomcat created by E. T. A. Hoffmann and based on his own much-loved pet, a handsome striped tabby. While British audiences may be more familiar with works by Hoffmann which provided the inspiration for the ballets The Nutcracker and Coppélia and for Offenbach’s opera Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Murr himself is no mean performer – a worthy companion for his master, the gifted but reclusive musician Johannes Kreisler, who inspired Robert Schumann’s Kreisleriana.

Kater Murr 1820 12548.bbb.17

 An early edition of Lebens-Ansichten des Katers Murr  (Berlin, 1820) 12548.bbb.17

Lebens-Ansichten des Katers Murr nebst fragmentarischer Biographie des Kapellmeisters Johannes Kreisler in zufälligen Makulaturblättern was first published in two volumes in 1819-21 (a third volume was promised but never completed). The author claims that Murr taught himself to read by perusing books and papers in the study of his original owner, Master Abraham, and went on to learn calligraphy from the manual compiled by Hilmar Curas. This enabled him to compose such masterpieces as a political treatise entitled Mousetraps and their Influence on the Character and Achievement of the Feline Race, the tragedy Cawdallor, King of Rats, and the ‘philosophical and didactic novel of sentiment’ Thought and Intuition, or, Cat and Dog. By a publisher’s error Murr’s ‘life and opinions’ (not for nothing was Hoffmann influenced by Laurence Sterne) were interleaved with a biography of Kreisler himself and bound into a single volume.

The resulting narrative is an inspired parody of the Bildungsroman, charting Murr’s development from a kitten rescued from drowning by the kind-hearted Master Abraham to a cat of letters and high culture – at least in his own eyes. In the tradition of Wilhelm Meister and his like, Murr encounters a wide variety of characters and falls into some highly dubious company. He joins a cats’ Burschenschaft, a fraternity of the kind so popular among German students in the era of ‘Turnvater’ Jahn (whom Hoffmann defended in court), engaging not only in gymnastics but in rowdier pursuits such as drinking, duelling and caterwauling songs.

Kater Murr Cover
Cover of Lebens-Ansichten des Katers Murr in an edition with illustrations by Maximilian Liebenwein (Zurich, 1923) X.958/995. Currently on display in the Cats on the Page exhibition

Naturally, his sentimental education is also chronicled; he has an emotional encounter with his long-lost mother, (though he absent-mindedly devours the fish-head which he had intended to offer her), and enjoys an ‘instructive’ friendship with Ponto, a poodle (irresistibly evoking thoughts of Mephistopheles’s disguise as a black poodle in Goethe’s Faust). He then embarks on a ‘personality-forming’ love affair with the charming Miesmies which comes to an abrupt end when she falls for the blandishments of a war veteran, a swaggering striped tabby cat sporting the Order of the Burnt Bacon for valour in ridding a larder of mice. Murr’s friend, the black cat Muzius, opens his eyes to the betrayal, but Murr comes off worst in the duel which ensues, and escapes with bleeding ears and minus a considerable quantity of fur.

Kater Murr endpapers
Endpapers by Maximilian Liebenwein for the 1923 edition of the novel pictured above

In a lively and graceful fashion Hoffmann makes fun of the conventions of polite society and its members’ cultural pretensions; Murr scans the pages of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria for ploys to capture the heart of Miesmies or free himself from his obsession, and invites her to sing. This succeeds: ‘Ah! Am I still upon this earth?’ he cried ‘Am I still sitting on the roof? […] Am I still Murr the cat, and not the man in the moon?’ To his request for a song, Miesmies responds with the aria ‘Di tanti palpiti’ from Rossini’s Tancredi. Murr, a veritable homme des lettres très renommé (as he terms himself), is conversant with all the notable authors of the day, quoting freely from Schiller’s Don Carlos and Die Jungfrau von Orleans, Adalbert von Chamisso’s Peter Schlemihl, and, of course, Ludwig Tieck – not only his translations of Shakespeare but also his play Der gestiefelte Kater (Puss in Boots). This story runs parallel to the unhappy tale of Kreisler’s failure to achieve social success and romantic happiness in a petty principality, recounted on pages torn from the printed biography which Murr uses as blotting-paper and which are inadvertently included in the book.

Not only social but also literary conventions fall victim to Hoffmann’s pen; Murr’s directions about ‘how to become a great cat’ satirize the contemporary trivialization of the ideals of the Bildungsroman, and his Biedermeier-like complacency and liking for comfort contrast sharply with the uncompromising attitude of the tormented genius Kreisler. In a postscript, the ‘editor’ notes that ‘that clever, well-educated, philosophical, poetical tomcat Murr was snatched away by bitter Death […] after a short but severe illness’ without completing his memoirs: ‘A genius maturing early can never prosper long: either he declines, in anticlimax, to become a mediocrity without character or intellect […] or he does not live to a great age’.

Kater Murr CF Thiele H.2001-426Picture of Kater Murr by Christian Friedrich Schiele from the first edition of the  novel, reproduced on the cover of Anthea Bell’s translation, The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr (London. 1999) H.2001/426.

Whatever the reader may feel about the self-congratulatory comments of the egregious Murr, he can hardly be accused of mediocrity. A near kinsman of Tybalt, the cat of mediaeval beast fables, and Perrault’s White Cat and Puss in Boots, he would become the ancestor of a whole line of talking cats, many of whom feature in the exhibition – Gottfried Keller’s Spiegel das Kätzchen, Christa Wolf’s Max in Neue Lebensansichten eines Katers, and perhaps even Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat. Hoffmann, the ‘editor’, assures the reader that he has met Murr personally and found him ‘a man of mild and amiable manners’, and by her accomplished translation Anthea Bell has enabled English-speaking readers to make the acquaintance of ‘the drollest creature in the world, a true Pulcinella’.

Susan Halstead, Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services.

The British Library’s free exhibition Cats on the Page continues until 17 March 2019, with a series of accompanying events for all ages and interests.