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09 November 2018

The gentle giant of Russian literature: Ivan Turgenev

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The life and career of one of the greatest 19th-century Russian novelists sprang – quite literally – from small beginnings. Born on 9 November 1818 and baptized Ivan, the middle son of Sergei Turgenev, a cavalry officer, and his wife Varvara was notable as a child for his diminutive stature; only his unusually large head indicated that he would develop both physically and intellectually into one of the giants of his age.

Young Turgenev X902-218
Turgenev as a young man, from Jules Mourier, Ivan Serguéiévitch Tourguéneff à Spasskoé (St Petersburg, 1899) X.902/218.

Despite a wealthy and privileged upbringing on the family estate at Spasskoe in the province of Orel’, the three young brothers did not enjoy an idyllic childhood. Varvara Petrovna adopted a harsh approach to their upbringing, employing strict tutors and inflicting severe beatings on her sons with her own hands. Turgenev later claimed that he had not one happy memory of his early years, and on one occasion packed a bundle and tried to run away, only to be persuaded to return by his German tutor. His father was well known as a womanizer, and Turgenev’s complex relationship with his mother, his parents’ unhappy marriage and his teenage infatuation with his father’s young mistress Zinaida, reflected in his novel First Love, permanently affected his own ability to form relationships and ensured that he never married.

Spasskoe X.902-218
Turgenev’s house at Spasskoe, from Ivan Serguéiévitch Tourguéneff à Spasskoé

However, there were other sources of warmth and attention at Spasskoe: the kindness which Ivan received from the gamekeepers, who taught him the habits of wildfowl and how to handle a gun, and from his father’s valet Fyodor Lobanov, from whom he learnt to read and write Russian, inspired him with a love of nature, respect for the Russian peasant and hatred of serfdom. This contrasted with the influence of German idealism which he assimilated when, in 1827, the family moved to Moscow for the sake of the boys’ education. He had already begun to write verse which soon assumed the colours of the Russian ‘pseudo-sublime’ school, and while studying at the universities of Moscow, St. Petersburg and Berlin, travelling through Italy and Switzerland, and forging friendships with Nikolai Stankevich and Alexander Herzen in the 1830s and 1840s, he followed one false trail after another.

Steeped in the ancient classics, he aspired to a professorship and plunged into the philosophy of Hegel, had an affair (with his mother’s approval) with the wife of the poet Fyodor Tyutchev, rambled through the Alps in a state of Byronic melancholy, and only returned to Russia in 1841. Two years earlier the family mansion had burnt down, apparently following an attempt by a peasant to fumigate an ailing cow. At Spasskoe he started a relationship with a seamstress employed by his mother, resulting in the birth of a daughter, Pelagia, renamed Pauline when, aged ten, she was sent to France to be raised with the children of another of Turgenev’s loves, the singer Pauline Viardot-Garcia

Zapiski okhotnika RF.2007.a.1
Cover of an edition of Zapiski okhotnika 
(A Sportsman’s Sketches; Leipzig, 1876)  RF.2007.a.1

The return to the Russian countryside bore fruit of another kind in the form of A Sportsman’s Sketches (Moscow, 1852; C.114.n.15.), a collection of short stories which reflect Turgenev’s profound knowledge of the landscape and of the wildlife and people who inhabited it. Throughout his work there runs a deep dichotomy between the traditional ways of the remote Russian provinces and the impact of Western ideas brought back by those who had travelled abroad. Despite the urbane cosmopolitan manners which Turgenev – fluent in French, German and English – had acquired in Europe, his writings frequently display a marked ambivalence and sense of conflict, embodied most memorably in Fathers and Sons (Moscow, 1862; 12590.h.25) where it is paralleled by the bewildered incomprehension with which old Kirsanov greets the ideas of his revolutionary son and the latter’s friend Yevgeny Bazarov which gave the world the term ‘nihilism’.

Turgenev and friends
Turgenev (seated, second from left) with other Russian authors of the day. Photograph by Sergei Livitsky, reproduced in Emile Haumant, Ivan Tourgénieff: la vie et l’oeuvre (Paris, 1906) 010790.de.56

Turgenev had touched on this conflict in two earlier novels, Home of the Gentry (Moscow, 1859; 12591.dd.31.) and On the Eve (1862), both of which portray the intrusion of Western modernism into communities bound by the habits and conventions of rural life and morality and raise political issues which aroused profound disquiet in the stiflingly conservative atmosphere of Nicholas I’s empire. His friendship with the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin and ‘metaphysical entanglement’ with the latter’s sister Tatiana played their part in the development of characters such as the young Bulgarian revolutionary Insarov in On the Eve, and it is difficult to overestimate the alarm which Turgenev’s writings excited in government circles. He was not merely a consummate stylist and chronicler of quaint peasant ways and the beauties of the countryside; ‘le doux géant’, as his friend Edmond de Goncourt nicknamed him, was no hectoring advocate of revolt but influenced his readers by far more subtle means. His exquisite portrayal of character makes his revolutionary figures far more persuasive and convincing than any amount of tub-thumping oratory, and in the 1860s, the decade which saw the assassination of Alexander II, the ‘Tsar-Liberator’ who freed the serfs, Turgenev was regarded with growing nervousness. A friend of Flaubert, Zola and George Sand, widely translated into English and other Western languages, and the recipient of an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford, he moved between two worlds with an ease which made him suspect as a dangerous political influence back in Russia.


465px-Turgenev_by_Repin_1879
Portrait of Turgenev by Ilya Repin, 1879 (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The circumstances of his death aptly illustrate this; like Heinrich Heine, he spent the last months of his life, in 1883, in an agonizing ‘mattress tomb’ in Paris, immobilized by a spinal tumour, but gave directions that his body should be brought back to Russia for interment close to the grave of his friend, the critic Vissarion Belinsky. Ernest Renan was one of those who delivered an oration at a brief ceremony at the Gare de l’Est before the coffin began its long journey. Conversely, the Russian Ministry of the Interior clamped down on all unofficial information about the funeral on 9 October; workers’ organizations were forbidden to identify themselves on the wreaths, and a gathering at which Tolstoy was to have paid tribute to his friend (and rival) was cancelled by government decree. The contrast between ceremonies in East and West was a telling comment on the very different kinds of esteem in which Turgenev was held in the two worlds which he inhabited with equal aplomb.

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

 

06 November 2018

‘Umbra Vitae’: Expressionism in Word and Image

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The tragic early death of the German writer Georg Heym in a skating accident in 1912 silenced one of the most original and exciting voices in early 20th-century German letters. Heym wrote plays and short stories but is best known as a poet. His first collection of poems, Der ewige Tag (‘The Eternal Day’) appeared in 1911; his second, Umbra Vitae (‘Shadows of Life’) was published posthumously in the year of his death.

Heym Portrait
Georg Heym as a student, ca. 1908. Reprodueced in Nina Schneoder, Am Ufer des blauen Tags: Georg Heym: sein Leben und Werk in Bildern und Selbstzeugnissen (Glinde, 2000). YA.2002.a.24146

The poems use powerful and sometimes apocalyptic images. In ‘Der Krieg’, for example, war is personified as a demonic figure, unleashing first silent fear then forces of increasing violence and chaos. A number pf poems take the city as a theme, often conveying the sense of a city and its buildings as kind of living entity which can trap or threaten its inhabitants. Heym also examines the fears and doubts of human condition, particularly in ‘Die Irren’ (‘The Mad’), a cycle of poems which depict madness both from without and within.

But Heym can also be elegaic and romantic in poems such as ‘Träumerei in Hellblau’ (‘Reverie in Light Blue’) with its gentle evocation of dreams and a dissolving landscape, or ‘Deine Wimpern, die langen’ (‘Your lashes, long’), a tender love-poem haunted by shades of death.

Colour also plays an important role in the poems, particularly the colour red and contrasts between light and dark. Heym’s use of colour imagery often has an almost synaesthetic feel, with phrases such as ‘darkness rustles’, ‘seven-coloured torment’, or ‘autumn light / on the shore of the blue day’. He found inspiration in the paintings of artists such as van Gogh and Goya, and in his diary he recorded his own desire to be a visual artist and his frustration at his inability to give shape to his ‘imaginations’ in visual form.


Heym Furor 3An attempt by Heym to draw one of his ‘imaginations’ of madness. In the text above he laments that ‘Heaven denied me a gift for drawing’ and explains that he has long had an image of a madman in his minds eye. Reproduced in Am Ufer des blauen Tags.

However, in 1924, a new edition of Umbra Vitae appeared, designed and illustrated by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, which succeeded brilliantly in giving visual form to Heym’s work.

Heym Front cover

Heym Back cover
Front and back covers of Georg Heym, Umbra Vitae: nachgelassene Gedichte, mit 47 Originalholzschnitten von Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. (Munich, 1924). C.107.dg.15

Heym and Kirchner never met, although after Heym’s death Kirchner and his fellow-artists of the group ‘Die Brücke’ became associated with the literary circle ‘Der Neue Club’ to which Heym had belonged. Kirchner acquired a copy of Umbra Vitae shortly after publication and clearly felt an affinity with Heym’s verse since he soon began drawing pictures to accompany the poems in the blank spaces on the pages. Knowing of this, a mutual acquaintance of Kirchner and the publisher Kurt Wolff, suggested in 1922 that Wolff should commission Kirchner to illustrate a new edition of Umbra Vitae.

Heym front endpapers
Heym back endpapers
Front and back endpapers (above) and illustrated title-page (below) from Umbra Vitae

Heym Title 2

Kirchner not only illustrated the poems, but designed the whole book, with its vividly-coloured covers and endpapers, and black-and white illustrations, all using woodcuts, a popular form among the ‘Brücke’ artists. The illustrations range from small vignettes to an entire woodcut poem.

Heym Alle Landschaften (Träumerei)
The poem ‘Träumerei in Hellblau’ (here without the title) illustrated by Kirchner as a full-page woodcut.

Kirchner described his woodcuts as being ‘like the accompanying melody to a song’. Some directly illustrate images or ideas from a poem, others reflect its mood. Some are almost abstract, others realistic. The poems and images complement each other in a way that is again almost synaesthetic, reflecting the concept of the ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ where different artistic genres come together.

Heym Krieg

Like the poems themselves, the illustrations can sometimes appear deceptively simple, for example the vignette for ‘Der Krieg’ (above) where the war-demon’s face appears within what at first sight seems to be an explosion of fire. Some are full of detail, others sparer, such that  for ‘Die Städte’ (‘The Cities’, below) which also recalls Kirchner’s paintings of Berlin streets.

Heym Städte

It is particularly interesting to note that the central figure in Kirchner’s illustration for ‘Die Irren’ (below) bears some similarity to Heym’s own attempts to draw his long-imagined picture of madness. Kirchner could not have known this, but it demonstrates the close affinity between his own and Heym’s imaginative worlds.

Heym Irren 2

It is this affinity, as well as the beauty of Heym’s verse and Kirchner’s woodcuts, which makes this such a masterpiece of book art, and perhaps the finest articulation of German Expressionism in word and image.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

 References/Further Reading:

Georg Heym, Der ewige Tag (Leipzig, 1911)

Georg Heym, Umbra Vitae [1st edition] (Leipzig, 1912) X.989/89081.

Georg Heym, Der Dieb: ein Novellenbuch (Leipzig, 1912) X.908/84086. English translation by Susan Bennett, The Thief (London, 1994) Nov.1994/433

Georg Heym, Poems, translated and with an introduction by Antony Hasler (London, 2004) YC.2005.a.2280

Patrick Bridgwater, Poet of Expressionist Berlin: the Life and Work of Georg Heym (London, 1991) YC.1991.b.6980

Nina Schneider, Georg Heym 1887-1912: eine Ausstellung der Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg (Berlin, 1988) YA.1991.b.3805

29 October 2018

Writing in a Time of Crisis: Serhiy Zhadan

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The obligation to fight for national cultural and political survival has been the stimulus and curse of Ukrainian writers throughout the existence of modern Ukrainian literature. From the fiery anti-imperial poetry of the national bard Taras Shevchenko, whose work was seen as so dangerous that he was sentenced to ten years of military service and banned from writing in 1847, to the Soviet dissidents of the 1980s, like the poet Vasyl’ Stus, as famous for his complex poetry as for his death in the Gulag in 1985, Ukraine’s poets have drawn inspiration from the instinct for national survival, yet also suffered both political repressions and the aesthetic limitations that this role brings.

Serhiy_Zhadan_2015_(cropped)Serhiy Zhadan (Photo by Rafał Komorowski from Wikimedia Commons)

In 1991, when Ukraine finally achieved political independence, it seemed that the role of the writer would change. The generation of promising writers working in the 1980s and 1990s turned away from the old roles of national prophet and spiritual leader. Poets like Iurii Andrukhovych, Viktor Neborak and Oleksandr Irvanets', who made up the “Bu-Ba-Bu” group from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, developed a new, joyful, carnivalesque literary paradigm – sex, drinking and rock and roll entered Ukrainian culture for the first time. Novelists like Oksana Zabuzhko began to explore Ukrainian identity in previously unthinkable ways, uncovering its darker psychosexual complexes, while writers like Iurii Izdryk experimented with daring postmodernist aesthetics.

ZhadanBaladyTitlepage
Title-page of Serhiy Zhadan Balady pro viĭnu i vidbudovu (Lviv,2001). YA.2003.a.34372

At the end of the 1990s, on the back of this new wave of post-Soviet Ukrainian literature, a young writer from the farthest eastern reaches of Ukraine appeared on the scene. Serhiy Zhadan was young and streetwise, the epitome of the new Ukrainian literature. His poetry, in early collections like Balady pro viĭnu i vidbudovu (‘Ballads of War and Reconstruction’) tapped in to the best traditions of Ukrainian modernist verse – precisely from that period in the 1920s when, much like in the 1980s/90s, Ukrainian literature experienced a rebirth and joyfully shook off the shackles of the national burden, embracing all that was new and exciting in European literature. (It is no coincidence that the epicentre of this movement was the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, where Zhadan has lived for most of his life).

ZhadanBigMac Two editions of Zhadan’s Big Mak (Kyiv, 2003) YF.2004.a.5304, and (Kyiv, 2006) YF.2007.a.8953 

At the same time, Zhadan’s scope was wider than Ukraine: his prose, with its gallery of young losers and dreamers negotiating the treacherous, absurd, and unexpectedly poetic landscapes of Ukraine’s post-industrial eastern cities, also has shades of American writers like Vonnegut, Bukowski, or Kerouac. As the titles of books like the story collection Big Mac (2003) or the novel Depeche Mode (2004) suggest, this is a writer very much attuned to everything Western culture has to offer, from its poets to its pop stars. In the 2000s, Zhadan captured the spirit of the age perfectly, and soon became the rock-star of Ukrainian literature, gathering audiences of hundreds of young people at his poetry readings (a scenario almost unthinkable for poets in the UK and many other countries). Literary rock-stardom later turned into real rock-stardom, as Zhadan formed his own ska-punk band.

Zhadan_and_Sobaky_v_Kosmosi_2_-_Zahid_2013

Above: The band  Zhadan i  Sobaky  (Zhadan and Dogs) at a concert in 2013  (Photo by RLuts - From Wikimedia Commons  CC BY-SA 3.0); Below:  Cover of Zhadan i Sobaky. Byisia za nei. (Kharkiv, 2014). EMF.2014.a.256

ZhadanISobakyBook

In 2013-14, Ukraine found itself in crisis once again, and with the crisis the spectre of the writer’s national burden reappeared. With the conflict in Donbas, Ukraine’s independence is now under threat once again, and Ukrainian society under the immense strain of war. Here, Zhadan performed a remarkable feat: he stepped into the role of public spokesman in a time of crisis, taking up his writer’s burden, but without losing his independence of voice, his keen sense of irony or his sharp style. Since the onset of the crisis in Ukraine, he has been outspoken in support of the aims of the Euromaidan movement (the creation of a dignified, corruption-free Ukraine liberated from Russian influence), for which he received a beating at the hands of pro-Russian thugs at a protest in Kharkiv in 2014. He has also been active in Ukraine’s remarkable volunteer movement, helping bring not only Ukrainian culture, but also much needed aid to children and young people in the war-affected areas through his own charity organisation.

ZhadanInternat Cover of Internat (Chernivtsi, 2017). YF.2018.a.5057

Zhadan has also addressed the recent crisis in his work. He has published poetry freely online, providing a remarkable, real-time poetic response to events that gave solace and support to his thousands of followers. His last novel, Internat (‘The Boarding School’, 2017), is a remarkable account of life in a war-torn eastern Ukrainian city. The war in Donbas has, of course, produced its share of patriotic military prose and verse in Ukraine, but Zhadan’s novel is different: in its portrait of one man’s attempt to travel from one side of the divided city to the other to retrieve his nephew, who is stuck in a boarding school, it captures the bewilderment of the civilian experience of war and provides a subtle portrait of masculinity in crisis. Internat also destroys many of the stereotypes that exist about its author’s native eastern Ukraine. The novel doesn’t deny that certain tensions exist in terms of language, culture and politics, but it shows that these were simply part of the social and cultural complexity of the region, the kind of differences that can be found anywhere: they have little if nothing to do with the war, which was imposed from outside. Whatever their views, the characters are united in their confusion as to how the occupation could have come about, and in their wish to see its end.

For the moment, the eastern towns that Zhadan describes with such wry affection in his work are on the frontline of the war against Russia and its proxies. It does not look as though the conflict will be resolved any time soon. While no Ukrainian wants to have to face this situation, they can at least find some solace in the fact that they have a writer like Zhadan, who is able to rise to the challenge and the responsibilities of being a writer in a time of national crisis with dignity and sensitivity.

ZhadanCollectionOfBooksBooks by Serhiy Zhadan from the British Library's Collections

Uilleam Blacker, UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES)

Translations of Serhiy Zhadan into English:

Depeche Mode, translated by Myroslav Shkandrij (London, 2013). H.2015/.9591

Voroshilovgrad, translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Wheeler (Dallas, 2016). Waiting for shelfmark

Mesopotamia, translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes, Isaac Wheeler, Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps (New Haven, 2018). Waiting for shelfmark.

Words for war: new poems from Ukraine, edited by Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky. (Boston, 2017).  YD.2018.a.1534

On 12 November The British Library, in partnership with the Ukrainian Institute in London, will be hosting an evening with Serhiy Zhadan, chaired by Uilleam Blacker, in the British Library Knowledge Centre. For more details and to book tickets, see our website: https://www.bl.uk/events/serhiy-zhadan

25 October 2018

‘Where are your Olympic Games?’ Panagiotis Soutsos (1806-1868)

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Throughout the early 19th century, the contrast between the glories of ancient Greece and the servile humiliation imposed on modern Greeks by the Ottoman Empire was a frequent theme for poets there and abroad. Lord Byron, before going off to join the cause of Greek independence, lamented in his poem ‘The Isles of Greece’:

'Tis something, in the dearth of fame,
Though linked among a fettered race,
To feel at least a patriot's shame,

while in Germany Friedrich Hölderlin was writing in his novel Hyperion of the struggles of a young Greek to raise awareness of his country’s plight and find a place in the wider world. The fight for national autonomy and liberation, however, was just one aspect of the Greek endeavour to recreate the splendours of past ages. As well as its reputation for freedom and democracy, ancient Greece had been renowned for the richness of its language and literature and the prowess of its athletes as displayed in its many festivals, including the Isthmian, Delian, Pythian and, of course, the Olympic Games.

Soutsos portraitPortrait of Panagiotis Soutsos (from Wikimedia Commons)

It was in this field that the poet Panagiotis Soutsos was especially active. Born in 1806 in Constantinople, he belonged to a distinguished family of Phanariote origins, with a brother, Alexandros, and a sister, Aikaterini, who were also writers. This privileged background enabled the brothers to study at the famous school of Chios under Neophytos Vamvas, who translated the Bible into modern Greek, and to enjoy opportunities to travel unusual among Greeks at that time. In 1820, on the death of their father, they joined their uncle in Transylvania, and set out to Paris with a letter of introduction from him to Adamantios Korais, a leading figure in the Greek Enlightenment whose linguistic work laid the foundations of a purified form of the language known as Katharevousa. It was in this that Soutsos wrote the first version of his poem Ὁ Ὁδοιπόρος (‘The Wayfarer’) in 1831, although the subsequent ones of 1842, 1851 and 1864 included increasing numbers of archaisms. This ‘tragedy in five acts’ is in fact a poem in dialogue describing the love of the Wayfarer and his sweetheart Ralou and their tragic end, and is regarded as one of the seminal works of the First Athenian School which flourished between 1830 and 1880 in Athens and the Ionian Isles. Because of the origins of many of its members, it was also known as the Phanariotic School.

Soutsos Odoiporos 1608-2101 Title-page of Ὁ Ὁδοιπόρος (Athens, 1864) 1608/2101.

Of equal importance was Ὁ Λέανδρος (‘Leander’) in 1834, a novel which adopted the epistolary form used by Hölderlin and comes to a similarly pathetic conclusion as the hero writes to his friend Charilaos, ‘Hear the hour of midnight, signifying: This is the hour of my death; I am coming, death! Why are you calling me? I am coming. I take up my weapon…’, typical of the Greek Romantic movement in its patriotic theme and the influence of French Romanticism.

Soutsos Leandros 1458.b.25Title-page of Ὁ Λέανδρος (Athens, 1834) 1458.b.25.

It was prudent of Soutsos to concentrate on his literary activities, as his professional life was not a success. Settling in Nauplion (Nafplio) in 1833, he embarked on a political career and was appointed secretary of the senate by Ioannis Kapodistrias, but lost his position through his outspoken opposition to the latter’s policies. In any event, his progress was blocked by the heterogeneous law of 1843, barring citizens born in occupied territories from employment in the public sector, and his political views became increasingly conservative.

However, in the year of his arrival in Nauplion, then the capital of the newly-independent Greek state, he wrote a poem with still more far-reaching effects. Its title, ‘Dialogue of the Dead’, recalls Lucian of Samosata’s work of a similar title, and it portrays the spirit of Plato returning to Greece to gaze upon it in despair with the words: ‘Where are all your theatres and marble statues? / Where are your Olympic Games?’ Two years later, he followed this up with a letter to the Greek Minister of the Interior, Ioannis Kolettis, proposing that 25 March, the anniversary of the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence, should be declared a national holiday, marked by festivities including a revival of the ancient Olympics. Early the next year a wealthy Greek merchant based in Romania, Evangelis Zappas, offered to fund the Olympic revival, complete with cash prizes for the victors. On 13 July 1856 Soutsos published an article unveiling Zappas’ proposal to the public, and on 15 November 1859 the first modern Olympic Games took place in Athens.

It was not only in politics that Soutsos stirred up controversy. His cosmopolitan outlook and French contacts had made him aware of Ernest Renan’s Vie de Jésus (1863), and his second novel, Charitine, or The Beauty of the Christian Faith, subtitled ‘Antidote to the nonsense of Ernest Renan against the deity of Jesus Christ’ (Athens, 1864; 4823.aa.43) launched an impassioned attack on it, as might be expected from the author of The Messiah, or the Sufferings of Jesus Christ.

Soutsos Messias 1343.i.13 Title-page of The Messiah (Athens, 1839) 1343.i.13

In linguistic matters, too, Soutsos provoked disputes. In 1853 he expounded his opinions on language in his essay New School of the Written Word, or Resurrection of the Ancient Greek Language Understood by All, advocating the revival of Ancient Greek and dismissing Demotic Greek as not universally intelligible. The academic Konstantinos Asopios retaliated with The Soutseia, or Mr Panagiotis Soutsos scrutinized as a Grammarian, Philologist, Schoolmaster, Metrician and Poet, leading to a torrent of pamphlets by other scholars all exposing one another’s alleged shortcomings and promoting their own systems.

Despite this and the trials of increasing ill health, financial losses and marital troubles, by the time of his death on 25 October 1868 Soutsos had seen his Olympic vision realised and his work translated into German as early as 1844 – a further chapter in the mutual fascination between Greece and Germany throughout the 19th century.

Soutsos Ode bilingual 1461.h.3Title-page of Ode: Erinnerung an die wiedererstandene Hellas (Wrocław, 1844) 1461.h.3., a parallel Greek and German language edition

 Susan Halstead. Subject Librarian (Social sciences) Research Services

 

        

22 October 2018

A pessimist on Parnassus: Leconte de Lisle

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The British Library’s recent study day devoted to the French Caribbean noted the parallels between the Windrush generation and the stream of migrants to France from its overseas départements such as Martinique and Guadeloupe. Although the emphasis was on immigration in the 20th century, one of the most notable individuals to undertake this voyage did so at a much earlier date to become one of the leading figures in 19th-century French literature.

Leconte-de-lisleYOUNGPortrait of  the young Leconte de Lisle (c. 1840) by Jean-François Millet 
(Image from Wikiart)
 

Charles Marie René Leconte de Lisle’s journey took him from Réunion to Rennes. Born on 22 October 1818, he had made a stay in Nantes with his parents before returning home in 1828 to attend the Collège de Saint-Denis. However, with five younger children to educate his parents were anxious to see him established in a solid profession, and despatched him to Dinan in 1837 to lodge with his uncle Louis Leconte and read law at the University of Rennes. Before long, though, he became disenchanted with his arid legal studies and was more often to be found attending lectures in classical literature and history. In addition, he founded two short-lived literary journals, La Variété (1840) and Le Scorpion (1842), both of which collapsed for lack of funds. Not surprisingly, he failed to qualify as a lawyer, and in retaliation his irate parents cut off his allowance and forced him to return to Réunion and earn his bread by carrying out humdrum duties for various businesses. He poured out his resentment and disenchantment with the people of the island in his story Saintive, where the tragic abduction of a planter’s daughter arouses only dull indifference among the apathetic creoles. He was also incensed by the fact that his father used slave labour on his plantation, and when, in 1845, friends from Rennes invited him to collaborate with them on the newspaper La Démocratie pacifique (NEWS14710) he accepted with alacrity and set off for Paris.

The newspaper was based on the ideas of the philosopher Charles Fourier, whose doctrine of Associationism represented an early form of socialism in its vision of fraternal cooperation. In the years preceding the 1848 revolution, Leconte de Lisle enthusiastically embraced these ideals and became secretary to the editor of the paper’s monthly cultural review La Phalange (1600/966). In 1846 he made friends with the classical scholar Louis Ménard and the translator Thalès Bernard, whose influence coloured the poems on Greek themes which he published at this time.

With the outbreak of revolution, he was sent back to Dinan to advocate the republican cause. This, and his open advocacy of the abolition of slavery, met with a chilly reception in the conservative Breton town and did little to improve family relations. Further disillusionment followed with the failure of the revolution and of his attempt to secure a teaching post at the Collège de Saint-Denis.

Leconte poesies 11474.e.12

Frontispiece by Louis Duveau for Leconte de Lisle, Poésies complètes (Paris, 1858) 11474.e.12

During the 1850s, however, his fortunes gradually improved with the publication of his collections Poèmes antiques (Paris 1852; 11482.cc.27) and Poèmes et poésies (Paris, 1855; 011483.cc.20), which won the Académie Française’s Lambert Prize in 1857, enabling him to marry. Translation, too, became a major preoccupation, and in the 1860s he published versions of Theocritus’s Idylls and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. His home on the Boulevard des Invalides became a meeting-place for young writers eager to follow new directions in poetry; Louis Napoleon awarded him a generous annual pension from his private funds, and in 1866 Alphonse Lemerre published the first volume of Le Parnasse contemporain, featuring contributions by Baudelaire, Verlaine and Mallarmé. Its second number was devoted entirely to Leconte de Lisle’s work.

ParnasSusanH

Title page of Le Parnasse contemporain for 1876. 11483.i.4

It was this journal which gave its name to the Parnassian school, of which de Lisle would become the head. Its governing principle was a belief in the discipline imposed by form and structure rather than the indulgences of personal lyricism and sensibility. However, de Lisle believed passionately in the power of poetry to restore to the modern world, jaded by industrial and commercial concerns, the vitality and wholeness of ancient Greece, and of the poet to guide mankind towards this.

Drawing on myths and legends from classical antiquity, the Celtic and Scandinavian past and further afield, he plunged himself into other worlds, seeking to become ‘a sort of contemporary of every age’ to bring them to life. His evocations of a snowy battlefield where a dying hero asks a raven to carry his heart back to his beloved in Uppsala (‘Le Coeur de Hialmar’) or an eerie landscape where a bridegroom is ensnared on the eve of his wedding by a swarm of mysterious beings (‘Les Elfes’) are among the best-known pieces in French school anthologies but retain their vividness and power to startle even nowadays. His portrayal of nature is equally vigorous, whether describing the rippling muscles of a savage jaguar, the soaring of an albatross, or the scent of cloves and lychees on a tropical island, drawing on his observations of creatures in the Jardin des Plantes, his memories of Réunion, and his first impressions of the harsh contrast of the coasts and heathlands of Brittany.

After the disappointment of 1848 Leconte de Lisle cast aside the political traits which had been present in his earliest works. Forced to recognize that the mediocre modern era could never regain the unity of art and science found in ancient Greece, he grew increasingly embittered, and in 1894, the year of his death, affirmed that ‘the beautiful is not the servant of the true, because it contains Truth’, and that ‘art is an intellectual luxury accessible only to very rare spirits’. He was also compelled to acknowledge that such an exclusive view of poetry was unlikely to provide him with a living. The pension from the imperial government which he had been criticized for accepting despite his republican views disappeared with the fall of Napoleon III, and he had to accept a post as librarian to the Senate.

Leconte de Lisle’s work also lives on in settings by Fauré, Duparc and many other composers, and in his refusal to allow his poetry to be compromised by the drabness of an era of grubby materialism, he remains a figure for our own times.

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

 

17 September 2018

Translating Cultures: French Caribbean History, Literature and Migration 

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On Monday 24 September 2018 we will be holding a French Caribbean study day in the British Library Knowledge Centre.
This event accompanies the British Library’s current free Entrance Hall Exhibition, ‘Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land’, and celebrates the rich history, heritage, literature and visual arts of the French Caribbean and its diaspora.

French Caribbean Maps K.Top.123.65 detail
The French Antilles. Detail from  Guillaume de l’Isle, Carte des Antilles françoise et des isles voisines (Amsterdam, between 1717 and 1730) Maps K.Top.123.65.

Our keynote speaker, H. Adlai Murdoch (Tufts University), introduces the multifaceted cultures and histories of the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Panels of leading specialists will explore the fascinating history and heritage of the French Caribbean as well as its rich literature. Our panellists will also discuss migration and its impact on postwar immigrants and their descendants.  There will be presentations on the graphic novel Peyi An Nou and on the British Library’s Windrush exhibition.

French Caribbean Peyi an nou YF.2018.a.5995
Cover of Jessica Oublié and Marie-Ange Rousseau, Peyi An Nou (Paris, 2017) YF.2018.a.5995

The programme for the study day is as follows: 

10.15-10.45  - Registration. Tea/Coffee (Dickens Room)
10.45-10.55  - Welcome: Janet Zmroczek (Head of European and Americas Collections, British Library)
10.55-11.40 -  Keynote: H. Adlai Murdoch (Tufts), ‘Introduction to the Francophone Caribbean: a comparative perspective’
11.40-11.45 -  Break
11.45-12.35  - Panel 1: History, heritage and migration
With Sophie Fuggle (Nottingham Trent), Antonia Wimbush (Birmingham), Emily Zobel Marshall (Leeds Beckett) (Chair: Gitanjali Pyndiah)
12.35-13.05 - Elizabeth Cooper (British Library) ‘Introduction to the British Library’s current Entrance Hall exhibition ‘Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land’’ (Chair: Phil Hatfield, Eccles Centre, British Library)
13.05-14.00 - Lunch. A sandwich lunch will be provided.
14.00-15.00 - Panel 2: Francophone Caribbean Literature
With Jason Allen-Paisant (Leeds), Vanessa Lee (Oxford), Kathryn Batchelor (Nottingham)
15.00-15.30 - Tea/Coffee
15.30-16.30  - Jessica Oublié (Author) and Marie-Ange Rousseau (Illustrator): Presentation of the graphic novel Peyi An Nou (‘Our Country’) (Chair: Charles Forsdick)
The presentation will be in French and an English version will be supplied.
16.30-17.00  - Jean-François Manicom (Acting Curator, International Slavery Museum, Liverpool) ‘Visual arts in the Caribbean’ (TBC)
17.00-18.00 - Wine reception sponsored by the Eccles Centre for American Studies

The study day has been organised by Professor Charles Forsdick (University of Liverpool/AHRC) and Teresa Vernon (British Library). in partnership with the AHRC ‘Translating Cultures’ theme, the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library and the Institut français.

French Caribbean Fort Royal Add. 28788  f.57
View of Fort Royal, Martinique, 1679. MS Add.28788, f.57.

The study day will be followed by a French Caribbean evening at the Institut français in South Kensington, organised in partnership with Festival America, the AHRC and the British Library, beginning at 19.00. This will be an exceptional opportunity to hear acclaimed Montreal-based Haitian writer Dany Laferrière talk about his writing and in particular his L’énigme du retour (The Enigma of the Return). The talk will be followed by a music session with Guadeloupean drummer Arnaud Dolmen, after an introduction to ‘jazz creole’ from journalist Kevin Le Gendre. 

Booking is open for both events. Please note that separate ticket are required for each. You can book for the study day online at https://www.bl.uk/events/translating-cultures-french-caribbean-history-literature-and-migration, or by contacting the British Library Box Office (+44 (0)1937 546546; box office@bl.uk). Bookings of for the evening event can be made at  https://www.institut-francais.org.uk/events-calendar/whats-on/talks/dany-laferriere/ 

Teresa Vernon, Lead Curator Romance Language Collections

04 September 2018

Byron’s ‘Breton cousin’: François-René de Chateaubriand

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Authors mindful of the Duke of Wellington’s notorious injunction ‘Publish and be damned!’ might profitably consider the advice of a famous contemporary of the Iron Duke who decreed that his memoirs were to be published only after his death. True, this means sacrificing potential royalties, but at the same time avoids the libel actions which might follow the publication of indiscreet or controversial recollections – of which François-René, vicomte de Chateaubriand, included plenty in his Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe (1849-50).

Chateaubriand Jeanne Marivel Woodcut of Chateaubriand by Jeanne Malivel (1922), reproduced on the cover of Chateaubriand 98 (Rennes, 1998) YA.2000.a.37359.

He was born in 1768 in St.-Malo, and grew up with nine older brothers and sisters in the family château at Cambourg. He was especially close to his sister Lucile, and her company, together with long walks through the Breton countryside, relieved a childhood overshadowed by his father’s sombre temperament. After retiring from a career at sea, the elder René had become a ship-owner and slave-trader, but had bequeathed to his youngest son a thirst for travel, and after considering the priesthood or the navy, René junior decided on a military career. He rapidly obtained a captaincy and, in Paris, moved in literary circles where he met André Chenier and other leading writers of his day. However, the outbreak of the French Revolution made his aristocratic origins dangerous, and in 1791 he set sail for America.

This was a time when naturalists such as Alexander von Humboldt were discovering the unique flora and fauna of the New World, and Chateaubriand was keen to learn more about its botany, but also about the customs of its native inhabitants. A broken arm provided him with an opportunity to do so when an accident which he suffered as he followed the Mohawk trail towards Niagara Falls left him unable to travel for a month which he spent with a local tribe. The observations which he made there inspired him to write two linked novellas set in the region, Atala (1801) and René (1802). Both these contain not only detailed descriptions of the landscape and life in a Native American tribe but also rebuttals of Rousseau’s ideal of the ‘noble savage’; the brutality of the indigenous peoples is contrasted with the saintly qualities of the missionaries working among them, not surprisingly in a work which would form part of his Génie du christianisme (Paris, 1802; 223.h.12).

Chateaubriand Atala Spanish

 The burial of Atala, from a Spanish translation, Atala y René. Episodios del “Genio del Cristianismo” (Barcelona, 1827) 1481.aa.16. 

In later years, though, Chateaubriand would heartily regret having written René at all. Its huge popularity threatened to make him into a one-book author who, like Goethe with his Werther, had captivated impressionable readers with his depiction of the world-weary wanderings of a hero whose ennui and near-incestuous relationship with his sister Amélie inspired not only Lord Byron but a host of lesser imitators. In a short time these tales were being not only widely translated but also parodied; in 1801 Louis-Julien Breton published Alala, ou les habitans du désert, satirizing readers’ obsession with the exotic world conjured up by Chateaubriand.

Chateaubriand Alala Louis-Julien Breton, Alala, ou les habitans du désert (Paris, 1801) RB.23.a.37562.

In 1792 Chateaubriand returned to France in such penury that he had to borrow money to pay the captain who had brought him across the Atlantic. He was persuaded by his family to enter into an arranged marriage with Céleste Buisson de la Vigne, the daughter of another Breton noble family; the bride was 17 and the couple had never met before their wedding, performed in secret by a ‘refractory’ priest followed by a second ceremony by one who had sworn allegiance to the new regime. Shortly afterwards the groom set off for Coblenz to join the Breton Regiment in the Armée des Princes, a corps of émigré nobles supporting the royalist cause. Until called to serve in the siege of Thionville, he passed his time working on Atala and acting as a cook; during the siege, he received a leg wound which could have been far more serious had the manuscript in his pack not protected him. He managed to limp to Brussels where, with the help of his brother, he set out for exile in England but was put ashore in the Channel Islands as the captain doubted that he would survive the voyage. Defying all expectations, he reached Beccles to teach French, and then moved to Bungay in Suffolk, where he met and fell deeply in love with Charlotte Ives, a clergyman’s daughter. The family would happily have accepted him as a suitor, but he was forced to confess that he was already married and flee to London.

Chateaubriand Only the Spring YA.2008.a.37359 Cover of Terry Reeve, Only the Springtime (Peterborough, 2011) H.2012/.7482, a novel inspired by Chateaubriand’s time in Suffolk.

In 1797 Chateaubriand finally completed his Essai historique, politique et moral sur les révolutions anciennes et modernes, considérées dans leurs rapports avec la Révolution Française, claiming to offer the compendium of his existence as poet, moralist, publicist and politician’.

Chateaubriand Essai 2  Title-page of  Essai historique, politique et moral sur les révolutions anciennes et modernes, considérées dans leurs rapports avec la Révolution Française (London, 1797) C.133.d.6.

On returning to France in 1800 under an assumed name, he achieved fame at last with Atala, and then as a defender of Christianity in his Génie du christianisme. Taken up by Napoleon, he was appointed secretary of the French Embassy in Rome, the beginning of a distinguished if turbulent diplomatic and political career which culminated in his ambassadorship to Rome. The outbreak of the July Revolution of 1830, however, led to his resignation and financial ruin which left him with little more to his name than the late Pope Pius VIII’s cat, especially when he refused to swear allegiance to the new king Louis-Philippe and resigned his status as pair de France

Chateaubriand Claudius LavergnePencil sketch by Claudius Lavergne of Chateaubriand in 1835, reproduced in Chateaubriand 98

Despite this, Chateaubriand’s final years were full of political and romantic intrigue surrounding the son of the murdered Duc de Berry, recognized by legitimists as Henri V, and the famous salonnière Madame Récamier, to whom the widowed Chateaubriand unsuccessfully proposed. He died shortly afterwards in 1848, having witnessed another revolution; his colourful life befits the founder of French Romanticism, who may indeed be regarded as a true ‘cousin à la mode de Bretagne’ to Byron.

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

 

30 August 2018

A diary as a form of art: Jiří Kolář

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The Czech poet, writer and artist Jiří Kolář (1914-2002) does not need a long introduction. He was one of the most prominent figures of the Czech avant-garde of the 1950s-70s and along with Ladislav Nová, Bohumila Grögerová, and her partner Josef Hiršal, one of the four founders of post-war Czechoslovak experimental poetry. Given his aesthetic views it is not surprising that Kolář, like many Czechoslovak intellectuals who lived through the communist regime, was a signatory of Charter 77 .

Having published his first collection of poems Křestní list (‘Birth Certificate’; YA.1996.a.15846) in 1941, by the mid-1950s Kolář started exploring new potentials of lyrical forms, reducing verbal expression to a bare minimum and concentrating on the capacities of visual expression. By the 1960s he developed his unique artistic style, using collage that would incorporate text as well as images as his main medium.

Kolar Self-portraitSelf Portrait by Kolář in Očitý svědek: deník z roku 1949 (Munich, 1983) X.958/30382

Having lived through all the major historical events with his nation, Kolář was very sensitive to them. Czech and Slovaks shared the turbulent history of Europe in the 20th century by marking it with events that were for some reason seemed to happen in the 8th year of decades: gaining independence in 1918, losing it to Nazi Germany in 1938, falling under the control of the Stalinist USSR in 1948 through a communist coup d’état, and unsuccessfully trying to shake off Soviet dominance in 1968. This strange coincidence makes this year extremely memorable for the Czech and Slovak republics. Only the Velvet Revolution of 1989 does not fit this pattern, but this means that we will have the whole of next year to dedicate to this great achievement.

It is especially interesting to note how the poet and artist developed a special interest in diaries and was meticulously devoted to this form. One of his critics observed that “considering Kolář’s permanent, insatiable thirst for facts, his undying passion for documenting the true pace of events and the truthfulness of impressions, we must admit that this autobiographical nature, this diary principle, committed to factography, permeates both his work and his deeds”. And this is very true. Kolář documented the year 1949, the beginning of the communist rule with a literary diary in verse and prose called Očitý svědek: deník z roku 1949 (‘Eyewitness, a diary of the year 1949’).

Kolar Ocity Svedek X.958-30382Cover of Očitý svědek 

The diary of the artists’s thoughts and emotions gives the readers the most faithful and honest impression of the time. On 11 July 1949 the diary entry begins:

Mě udolají snadno, neumím lhat, podobám se už červu, kterého přepůlili jen tak, pro podívanou a svíjím se. (I’m easy to destroy, /I cannot lie, / I’m like a worm, / Who was cut just so / for the show, and I’m curdling, / the soul is separate from the body).

In 1968, Kolář expressed himself through a series of 52 collages (one per week) that became an amazing artistic document of the year leading to the Prague Spring and its aftermath.

Kolar Tydenik 1968 YA.1994.b.1036 Title page of Týdeník 1968 = Newsreel 1968 (Prague, 1993) YA.1994.b.1036

The book is in a way a political pamphlet and reflects life in all its hectic variety, for example:

Week 2: Each day in the new year is a puzzle. Especially when one’s head is in a wire.
Week 10: Antonín Tomalík (a Czech artist) is Dead
Week 15: A liquid triumph of death [is] available at every crossroad. Take your pick!
Week 27: Homage to Ingres … or, the banner of a students’ revolt.
Week 39: Birthday. I was born in the First World War and guns have not fallen silent since.
Week 48: A week of Hands. A rejected hand often turns into a clenched fist.
Week 52: A Face of 1969. Alas, I am a poor prophet – and Utopia? Old men used to usher the world into Paradise. Our masters have long been drowned in mud.

The diary that documented the 1980s is Kolář’s correspondence. The two-volume publication of his letters Psáno na pohlednice (‘Written on postcards’) has the subtitle ‘correspondence in the form of a diary’, as it contains postcards that were sent every day over several years from Paris, where Kolář lived in exile, to his wife in Prague.

Kolar Psano na pohlednice YF.2004.a.6387
One of Kolář’s postcards, reproduced on the endpapers of Psáno na pohlednice (Prague, 2000). YF.2004.a.6387

More books by Jiří Kolář, material about him and catalogues of his works can be found in the British Library catalogue and consulted in the reading rooms.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

Further reading:

A. J. Samuels. ‘Jiří Kolář: The Czech Poet's Life, Work & Cultural Significance’ .

Arsén Pohribný, ‘Jiří Kolář’s Tower of Babel’, afterword in Týdeník 1968 (cited above).

18 August 2018

A Bohemian bicentenary: Václav Bolemír Nebeský and the Národní Muzeum

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It is a truism that in choosing a name one should consider whether it is likely to date – how many Kylies approaching their mid-thirties regret being given one which marks them out as children of the early 1980s? A similar phenomenon could be observed in Bohemia in the early 19th century – but with an unusual twist. Many parents who had presented their offspring for baptism with such solid Czech names as František, Josef or Magdalena must have been perplexed when their growing sons and daughters announced that they would no longer use these but in future preferred to be known as Ladislav or Dobromila. Far from being new-fangled inventions, their choices were drawn from the ancient Czech chronicles and legends and simultaneously stated the bearer’s identification with the Bohemian nation’s glorious past and rejection of alien (i.e. German) cultural influences.

Young Václav Nebeský was such a one. Born on 18 August 1818 on the Nový Dvůr estate just north of Kokořín, he was given the name of the king who became Bohemia’s patron saint (‘Good King Wenceslas’), but even that was not patriotic enough for him. He went to high school in Litoměřice, where he proved a gifted student who learned Greek and Latin with ease and went on to study in Prague at Charles University. This was a time when the National Revival was in full swing, and under the influence of its reverence for Bohemian history he decided at the age of 20 to adopt the ultra-Slavonic Bolemír as a second name – a statement all the more emphatic in confirming his sympathies while he was living in Vienna after graduating.

Nebesky portrait 010790ee3Portrait of Václav Bolemír Nebeský from Život a spisy Václava Bolemíra Nebeského by J. Hanuš (Prague, 1896)  010790.ee.3.

Like many talented young men without private means in those days, he earned his living as a private tutor. This could involve occupational hazards such as those experienced by Friedrich Hölderlin – being treated like an inferior servant or becoming emotionally entangled with the lady of the house – but Nebeský was more fortunate. He secured a post in the household of Jan Norbert z Neuberka (Neuberk), who in 1841 had become president of the Národní Muzeum. This National Museum had been established in 1818 by the nobleman and palaeontologist Kaspar Maria, Graf von Sternberg, whose letters contain frequent but unsuccessful appeals to his friend Goethe to visit Prague. Nebeský had already made a wide circle of friends among the generation who would lead the National Revival, both in literature and politics, including the dramatist Josef Kajetán Tyl, Karel Jaromír Erben, whose Kytice remains one of the best-loved works of Czech poetry, the poet and journalist Karel Havlíček Borovský, and Karel Sabina, who provided the libretto for Smetana’s Prodaná nevešta (The Bartered Bride), but was also a notorious police spy. Life in the Neuberk household introduced him to still more eminent figures and helped to develop his political awareness in a practical direction.

Nebesky National Museum 7801.d.6
The Národní Muzeum, Prague, from Národní museum 1818-1948, ed. by Gustav Skalský and others (Prague, 1949) 7801.d.6.

In his early twenties Nebeský had already begun to publish poems in almanacs such as Česká Vcela (The Czech Bee) and Vesna (Spring). His great success came comparatively early with the publication in 1844 of Protichůdci, a long poem whose title is difficult to translate but conveys the sense of ‘those who go against the grain’ or in a direction opposed to conventional ideas of progress, as exemplified by its protagonist, the world-weary Wandering Jew Ahasuerus.

Nebesky Protichudci X.907-8652
Illustration by Jan Konůpek from Václav Bolemír Nebeský, Protichůdci (Prague, 1924) X.907/8652).

He was also an exceptional translator, and his classical training enabled him to produce fluent and highly readable versions of authors including Aeschylus, Aristophanes, and Plautus’s Captivi (Pleníci; Prague, 1873; 11707.b.5.). Indeed, he was heard to say that he often wished that he had been born a modern Greek, a desire which led him in 1864 to publish an anthology of Greek folk-songs in his own translations, Novořecké národní písně. He also brought out a similar collection of Spanish romances, Kytice ze španělských romancí (Prague, 1864; 11452.b.9).

Nebesky binding 1568-4251Binding of Václav Bolemír Nebeský, Novořecké národní písně (Prague, 1864) 1568/4251.

At the same time, Nebeský was involved in many areas of public life. During 1848, the Year of Revolutions, he was politically active and was elected to the Austrian Parliament; the following year he qualified as a university lecturer in Greek and Czech literature, although he never exercised this function professionally. In 1850 he was appointed editor of the Museum’s journal Muzejník, and the following year he became Secretary of the Museum itself, continuing in office until ill-health forced him to step down in 1874.

Nebesky Museum 1609-4911 Dějiny Musea Království Českého (Prague, 1868) 11852.g.2, Nebeský’s history of the National Museum

Nebeský married comparatively late in life, in 1859, but before then he had had a close relationship with another of the National Revival’s most beloved authors, Božena Nemcová (1820-1842), best known for her novel Babička (1855). Unhappily married, she found an outlet in her friendship with Nebeský, with whom she shared not only literary but patriotic interests. Her tomb is close to the gates of Prague’s Vyšehrad cemetery where many of the great cultural figures of 19th-century Czech cultural life are buried, and when he died on 17 August 1882, the day before his 64th birthday, Nebeský himself was laid to rest nearby in the company of Karel Hynek Mácha, the poet whom he so much admired, and many of the friends who, with him, had done so much to shape their country’s future.

Susan Halstead (Subject Librarian, Social Sciences) Research Services

 

06 August 2018

Devout diplomat and dramatist: Paul Claudel (1868-1955)

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Visitors to the recent exhibition Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece at the British Museum will have seen, among the photographs of the sculptor at work in his studio among his disciples, the image of a dark-haired young woman whose gaze was equally intense when fixed on the master or on her own work – Rodin’s pupil, model and mistress Camille Claudel.  Her stormy relationship with him and her reputation as a pioneering woman sculptor, depicted in biographies, plays and films, have raised her profile outside her native France, where, despite this, the name Claudel is more readily associated with her younger brother Paul.

Together with their sister, Camille and Paul grew up in Villeneuve-sur-Fère (Aisne) in a family with solid roots in farming and banking. The young Paul’s approach to spiritual matters was equally rational and prosaic, tending towards atheism, until at the age of 18 he underwent a profound conversion experience while hearing the choir of Notre-Dame singing Vespers on Christmas Day. He remained a devout Catholic for the rest of his life, and considered becoming a Benedictine monk. Instead, however, he went into the diplomatic service, and found an outlet for his religious fervour in poetry and drama.

At the same time, his experiences of living in other countries provided him not only with inspiration but also with a deeper understanding of their cultures than the mere taste for exoticism. and especially for Oriental culture, common in France at the turn of the century. He made rapid progress in his career, rising from first vice-consul in New York and Boston to become French consul in China, living in Shanghai, Fuzhou and Tientsin, before being posted to Prague in December 1909.

Claudel Portait YF.2016.a.2114

 Paul Claudel during his time as consul in Prague, reproduced in Paul Claudel et la Bohême: dissonances et accord, ed. Didier Alexandre & Xavier Galmiche (Paris, 2015) YF.2016.a.2114

Czech artists and authors had already established a thriving community in Paris in the 19th and early 20th century, and Claudel’s time in Prague similarly contributed to the deepening of cultural relationships between France and Bohemia. One of his most important contacts was with the Czech artist Zdenka Braunerová, who introduced him to her circle of friends, including Vilém Mrštík, Julius Zeyer and Jan Zrzavý. She had spent part of every year in Paris during the period 1881-1893, promoted Czech culture in France, and invited Auguste Rodin to visit Bohemia and Moravia in 1905. Claudel chose her as godmother to his daughter, born during his residence in Prague, and their lasting friendship enhanced the understanding of Czech art in France and of French literature in Bohemia.

Inspired by his exploration of the Czech spirit and its expression in art, Claudel composed a sequence of poems, Images saintes de Bohême, of which the British Library possesses a bilingual edition in French and Czech a testimony to the deep impression made on him by a city which he had initially greeted with distaste as an ‘icy bivouac’.

Claudel St Ludmila

 ‘St Ludmila’, illustration by Miroslav Šašek from Paul Claudel, Images saintes de Bohême = Svaté obrázky České (Rome, 1958) 11517.p.35.

Claudel subsequently served as consul in Frankfurt am Main and Hamburg, as ministre plénipotentiaire in Rio de Janeiro and Copenhagen, and as ambassador in Tokyo, Washington, D.C. and Brussels. Several of his works were published abroad, including his translation of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (Fuzhou, 1896; YA.1986.a.1815) and the exquisite edition of his poem ‘Sainte Geneviève’, composed in Rio de Janeiro in July 1918 and issued in a limited edition with Japanese woodcuts executed in Tokyo from drawings by Claudel’s friend Audrey Parr.

Claudel Ste Genevieve tpTitle-page (above) and illustrated fold-out page (below) from Sainte Geneviève (Tokyo, 1923) Cup.410.c.170

Claudel Ste Genevieve Cup.410.c.170

Although initially influenced by Rimbaud and the Symbolists, Claudel struck out in a different direction, deeply imbued with his Catholic faith. Not surprisingly, the saints frequently figured in his work; for example, he provided the text for his friend Arthur Honegger’s oratorio Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher (s.l., [1935]; Music Collections I.1650), and also wrote a poem on St Thérèse of Lisieux, published in another limited edition with illustrations by Maurice Denis.

Claudel Ste Therese 11483.h.49 Opening of Sainte Thérèse ([Paris], 1916) 11483.h.49.

Among the treasures in the British Library’s Stefan Zweig Collection of Manuscripts  is a fair copy of Claudel’s play L’Annonce faite à Marie (1911), signed by the author and presented to Zweig in 1913. Like his other dramas, such as the Everyman-like Le Soulier de satin (Paris, 1929; 12516.v.27), set in the age of the Conquistadores, it explores the timeless themes of human responsibility, guilt and divine grace.

Claudel zweig_ms_139_f002v dedication

 Dedication to Zweig and opening of the prologue, from the manuscript of L’Annonce faite à Marie. Zweig MS 139. Ff.2v, 3r  (below)

Claudel zweig_ms_139_f003r

The careers of Camille and Paul Claudel appeared to diverge widely; while one plunged into an unconventional milieu and died in an asylum, the other was outwardly a pattern of respectability, representing his country abroad and forming part of the Catholic literary tradition continued by Mauriac and Gide. Yet both, equally controversially, pursued their chosen forms of art with a passion and intensity which sought to transcend the banalities of everyday life and infuse it, even at its humblest, with a spark of the divine, as may be glimpsed from a few lines of one of Paul Claudel’s poems in the metre that he devised:

Now winter has come in earnest, and St Nicholas trudges again
Through the firs; two sacks on his donkey, full of toys for the young of Lorraine.
There’s an end to mouldering autumn, and the snow is here with good reason;
There’s an end to the autumn and summer, and all the other seasons.
(O all that was still not finished, where this black soaked path, yesterday, went
Under the ragged birch in the mists, and the great oak with its strong scent!)
[…]
But in a white world there are only angels completely at ease;
There is not a living man in all of the diocese,
There is not a soul awake, not even a small boy breathing,
O mighty Bishop of Myra, at the hour of your coming at evening!

‘St. Nicolas’, from Corona benignitatis anni Dei (1915).
This translation © Susan Reynolds, 2011.

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