THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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12 March 2019

Pirandello’s nose

In Six Memos for the Next Millennium Italo Calvino explains the opposition between lightness and weight in literature, calling the first “a value rather than a defect”, as it is by mastering lightness that writers make their readers feel its counterpart. Calvino guides us through a literary journey from Ovid’s Metamorphoses to Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being to show that lightness is no less important than weight in order to strengthen the literary substance.

I thought it would be appropriate to apply the same formula in writing about Luigi Pirandello, a giant who left the deepest footprints in the soil of 20th century Italian literature, that is, by starting with the mention of his nose. He was only 19 when, in a brief letter to his parents dated 16 February 1886, he wrote:

…I went to San Lorenzo, and I enjoyed myself very much, but for the last 3 days I have been crying the consequences, well, my nose has been crying, my poor nose, or, better, my promontory…
… Do not worry about my health, it has fully recovered: do mourn my nose though – I beg you – my poor nose! According to the last examination, it measures 3 inches in height and 5 in length…

The letter included a drawing Pirandello made of his nose to evidence the measurements.

Pirandello's nose

 Pirandello’s drawing of his nose, reproduced in Carlo di Leo, Pirandello Pittore (Venice, 20112) YF.2012.a.29944

Later the same year, in a letter dated 30 April, following the death of his close friend Carmelo’s brother, Pirandello included another drawing, this time of himself blowing out a candle, as if capturing the moment before going to bed. Even though the nose is again the amusing focus, his self-portrait emanates a sense of sadness and loneliness

… Then, not sure by which thought, I felt the urge to write to Carmelo, but the letter written at that emotional moment is still on my table…
…I am already staying at aunt Sara’s, but not yet settled, as all my stuff is in the old place. Without books, without paper, without my bed, I feel half man and rather dull...

Pirandello's nose 2Self-portrait, reproduced in Pirandello Pittore

First published in 1907 in the literary journal Il Marzocco, then in 1925, giving the title to volume 8 of Prandello’s Novelle per un anno, the novella Dal naso al cielo (‘From the Nose to the Sky’), ends with a close up of Romualdo Reda’s nose – on its tip a very thin spider thread coming from the horse chestnuts’ branches under which the corpse was found. Earlier in the story, Reda’s sense of superiority, being a scientist, prevented him from entering into a debate over Professor Dionisio Vernoni’s belief in the occult and spiritualism as a way to explain some odd incidents in the old hotel where they were staying. Vernoni, irritated by such snobbery, “broke into a deep outburst against positive science, against certain so-called scientists who do not see a span beyond their noses (he repeated four or five times this phrase”.

Dal naso al cielo Frontispiece of Luigi Pirandello, Dal naso al cielo (Florence 1925) 12470.s.16.

The oscillating perspective of amusement and anguish, laughter and fear, which characterizes Pirandello’s work, is finely explained in his essay On Humor, published in 1908:

The ordinary artist pays attention to only the body; the humorist pays attention to both, and sometimes more to the shadow than the body: he notices the tricks of the shadow, the way it sometimes grows longer, sometimes short and squat, almost as if to mimic the body, which meanwhile it is indifferent to it and does not pay attention to it.

In 1909, soon after publishing On Humor, Pirandello began working on Uno, nessuno e centomila (‘One, No One and One Hundred Thousand’), but it was not until 1925 that it first appeared in the journal Sapientia, and it was finally published as a book in 1926. The first chapter opens with the main character, Vitangelo, looking at his nose in the mirror:

I was twenty-eight years old; and up to now, I had always looked upon my nose as being, if not altogether handsome, at least a very respectable sort of nose…

Vitangelo examines his nose after his wife observes that its “right side is a little lower than the other”. He is shocked to realize that he had never noticed. After he asks for confirmation from a friend, who also sees that Vitangelo’s nose hangs lower on the right, but who in turn, does not see in his own face what Vitangelo sees, the story unfolds “In the pursuit of the stranger”:

Was it really my own, that image glimpsed in a flash? Am I really like that, from the outside, when – all the while living – I don’t think of myself?
… I am the stranger whom I am unable to see living except like that, in a thoughtless second. A stranger whom others alone can see and know, not I.

Uno nessuno

 Title-page and opening of the first chapter of Luigi Pirandello, Uno, Nessuno E Centomila (Florence, 1926) 12470.s.33.

Mia moglie e il mio naso

The conclusion of Uno, nessuno e centomila – or shall we say, the lack of conclusion, since the last chapter is titled Non conclude – is that it is not possible to see the world as it is, that it is not possible to know oneself. As Vitangelo says to Anna Rosa when he catches her in front of the mirror trying a pitiful smile:

… You will never know yourself as the others see you. What’s the point then of knowing yourself just for yourself? You might end up not comprehending any longer why you should have the image that your mirror reflects back to you.

This non-conclusion reminds of a concept on which, few decades later, some postmodern thinkers based their view of society –Jean Baudrillard for example:

So the secret of philosophy may not be to know oneself, or to know where one is going, but rather to go where the other is going… because in any case you will never know who you are. Today, when people have lost their shadow, it is utmost important to be followed by someone…

Pirandello’s pursuit of the stranger in oneself takes a different connotation in Baudrillard and ends up turning into a reverse obsession: I am followed, therefore I must exist. There is only so much lightness Pirandello can be approached with: Uno, nessuno e centomila has left an important memo for the philosophers of this millennium:

Life is in continuous movement and can never see itself… When one is alive, one is alive and does not see oneself. To know oneself is to die.

Giuseppe Alizzi, Curator Romance Studies

References/ Further reading

Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the next millennium, translated by Geoffrey Brock. (London, 2016) ELD.DS.191453

Luigi Pirandello, Lettere giovanili da Palermo e da Roma 1886-1889 (Rome, 1993) YA.1994.b.9424

Luigi Pirandello, On Humor, translated by Antonio Illiano and Daniel P. Testa (New York, 1974) Ac.2685.k/8.(58.)

Jean Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil – essays on extreme Phenomena (London, 1993) YK.1994.a.448

05 March 2019

“I only wish my works to be known”. Faddei Bellinsgauzen: The Voyages.

Some of our readers might remember visiting a wonderful exhibition James Cook: The Voyages, which was on show at the British Library last summer. Recently, I have come across a book that will I think would be an interesting continuation of Cook’s story.

Several months before captain James Cook was killed at Kealakekua Bay on 14 February 1779, Fabian Gottlieb Thaddeus von Bellingshausen was born on the opposite side of the globe, on Saaremaa Island (now in Estonia). Ethnically a Baltic German, Bellingshausen was a subject of the Russian Empire, which had owned the island since 1710. At the age of ten the boy was sent to study at the Naval Cadet Corps in Kronstadt and soon started using the Russified version of his name and became Faddei Faddeevich Bellinsgauzen.

His career in the Russian Imperial Navy was progressing as expected, until in 1803 lieutenant Bellinsgauzen was recommended by his commander as an officer and cartographer to participate in the first Russian circumnavigation of the Earth. The expedition headed by Adam Johann von Krusenstern took place from August 1803 to August 1806. Having established himself as a prominent cartographer, 13 years later Bellinsgauzen was appointed a leader of another circumnavigation expedition that discovered the continent of Antarctica. On his return, he became Counter Admiral, and later was promoted to Vice-Admiral after the Russo-Turkish Was of 1828-1829.

Bellingshausen Ac.6172-139
Portrait of Bellinsgauzen from around the time of his expedition to the Antarctic. From The Voyage of Captain Bellingshausen to the Anatarctic Seas (London, 1945) Ac.6172/139

Cook had categorically denied the existence of the mythical fertile great Southern Continent. He thought that there was nothing beyond the ice, which blocked the way for his ships. As a result of Cook’s authoritative opinion, further attempts to find a new continent were put on hold for the next 50 years.

Images 2- ‘Ice Islands’ from the Atlas k puteshestviiu kapitana Bellingauzena v IUzhnom Ledovitom okeane i vokrug sveta v prodolzhenii 1819, 1820 i 1821 godov (‘Atlas for the Voyage of Captain Bellingshausen to the Antarctic Seas’) (St Petersburg, 1819-1821) 14000.h.9

In July 1819 the two ships Vostok and Mirny, led by Captain Faddei Bellinsgauzen and Captain Mikhail Lazarev, travelled from Kronstadt to Copenhagen, and then on 29 July arrived in Portsmouth. During their one month’s stay there, the expedition obtained chronometers, sextants, telescopes and other nautical instruments, which at that time had not been manufactured in Russia. The supply of provisions with canned food and some special products was also replenished. Thus, the two explorers were preparing for their circumnavigation expedition and heading to the Southern hemisphere. Bellinsgauzen and his second-in-command Lazarev became the first explorers to see the land of Antarctica on 27 January 1820. They circumnavigated the continent twice, disproving James Cook's assertion that it was impossible to find land in the southern ice-fields.

Image 3The map of Southern hemisphere showing the islands discovered by Captain Bellingshausen, from the Atlas.

The expedition collected many ethnographic, zoological and botanical specimens that later found their way into major museum collections in Russia. Pavel Nikolaevich Mikhailov (1786-1840), an artist and draughtsman, travelled on board one of the ships, documenting the voyages. In his scrap albums, he recorded the newly discovered islands, views of cities and settlements, portraits of aboriginal peoples, and carefully depicted samples of exotic flora and fauna. Mikhailov's watercolours and drawings are seem quite reliable. He faithfully followed the instructions received from both the Maritime Office and the Academy of Arts, demanding that “everything that was represented on paper ... was the true image of an object.”

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On his return from the trip, Bellinsgauzen tried to publish a book about the expedition and its findings, supplemented by plentiful images and drawings. The publication was meant to be dedicated to the Emperor Alexander I and published ‘by the highest order’. Bellingsgauzen took a considerable effort to achieve this publication as soon as possible, but it was carried out only ten years after the return of the expedition, when he received the rank of vice-admiral. It took him three years to complete the two-volume Dvukratnye izyskaniia v IUzhnom Ledovitom okeane i plavanie vorkug sveta, v prodolzhenii 1819, 20 i 21 godov (‘Double Studies of the Southern Ocean and circumnavigation, in 1819, 20 and 21’). The manuscript was delivered to the Admiralty Department in 1824. Bellinsgauzen asked for 1,200 copies to be printed, but no decision was made about it. In 1827, he resumed his request, proposing to reduce costs by printing only 600 copies. By the way of explaining his desire to get his work published, Bellinsgauzen wrote that he did not see any benefit in this publication, “but only wished [his] works to be known”. The Science Committee at the Naval Headquarters allocated 38,052 Rubles for the publication of 600 copies of the book, making it a collector’s item from the very beginning. The British Library acquired two copies of this rare and wonderful publication (shelfmarks 1047.m.1. and 10496.w.3.).

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

27 February 2019

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

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.