European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

377 posts categorized "Literature"

04 July 2024

In Memory of Ismail Kadare (28 January 1936 – 1 July 2024)

Ismail Kadare, the best-known contemporary Albanian writer and intellectual, one of the most remarkable European authors of his generation, died on 1 July 2024 at the age of 88.

Photograph of Ismail Kadare
Ismail Kadare (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

By coincidence, the news about Kadare’s death came when I was reading his novel Broken April (1978) about the moral responsibilities of intellectuals: “Your books, your art, they all smell of murder [...] you look here for beauty so as to deed your art. You don’t see that this is beauty that kills [...]”.

Cover of 'Broken April' with an illustration of mountains

Cover of Ismail Kadare's Broken April (London, 1990) Nov.1990/1482

Kadare’s body of work consists of over 80 titles translated into 45 languages. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature 15 times and received numerous awards. However, my personal encounter with the author happened quite late in my life. I learned about him first in 2016 from the blog post by Christina Pribichevich Zorić, the former Chief of Conference and Language Services at the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. But it was not until I got stuck for over six hours at Tirana International Airport, waiting for my flight to London and having plenty of time to read, that I finally had a chance to savour the mastery of his literary genres, narratives, themes and literary devices. The range of his works available in all major European languages at a small airport bookshop was impressive, and I ended up buying several of his books.

All of Kadare’s novels create imaginary worlds out of a wide variety of myths, legends (The Three Arched Bridge), and stories of the distant past (The Castle). He worked with political parables and satire (The Concert), antitotalitarian dystopias (The Palace of Dreams), offering commentary on the recent history (The General of the Dead Army, Broken April) and openly criticising Hoxha’s dictatorship and the regime that immediately succeeded it (Agamemnon's Daughter, The Successor). Having studied in the Soviet Union just before Albania's breaking of political and economic ties with the USSR, Kadare wrote a book of memoirs about his time in Moscow in the late 1950s in the style of political satire (Twilight of the Eastern Gods). His last novel, The Doll (2015, English translation – 2020), is also a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story. Whenever he wrote, he would always write about his beloved Albania. As he put it in one of his poems: “Me ka marre malli per Shqiperine tone” (“I was filled with longing for Albania”, translated by Robert Elsie).

Kadare, like the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha 28 years before him, was born in the museum-like town of Gjirokastër. Looking at the photo below, it is strange to think how Good and Evil could come from one place.

Colour photograph showing the hills and landscape around Gjirokastër

The city of Gjirokastër in Albania (Photograph by Katya Rogatchevskaia)

The earliest book by Kadare that I found in the British Library collections was his poem The Princess Argjiro, published first in Tirana in 1958 and later in 1967.

Cover of ‘Princesha Argjiro’, one of the earliest pieces by Ismail Kadare

Cover of Princesha Argjiro. (Tirana, 1967). Shelfmark X.950/15359

Page from ‘Princesha Argjiro’ with a poem with four four-line stanzas and an illustration of a castle on a hill

Page from Princesha Argjiro by Ismail Kadare

Based on a 15th-century local legend, the poem tells the story of a young princess who jumped with her child off the walls of the Gjirokastër Castle to avoid captivity by the Ottomans. As the spirit and message of the poem were not in line with the conventions of socialist realism and the Communist Party of Albania’s interpretation of the country’s history, the work was denounced, and Kadare was criticised for not following socialist literary principles.

Colour photograph of Gjirokastër Castle overlooking the town below

The Gjirokastër Castle (Photograph by Katya Rogatchevskaia)

But this was only the beginning of Kadare’s opposition to the political and aesthetic tenets of the Albanian dictatorship. Influenced by Kafka, Gogol, Sartre, Camus, Orwell and other writers and thinkers, he kept writing books that were banned, criticised and censored, while the author himself was once nearly shot. His international fame saved him many times, but even after Hoxha’s death, he had to flee from Albania and seek refuge in France in 1990 after criticising the new government. He later returned to Tirana and continued writing. Like Vaclav Havel, Kadare was invited by his people to become president, but unlike Havel, he declined.

The search on Kadare as an ‘author’ yields 257 entries in the British Library catalogue – we hold his books in Albanian, English, French, German, Bulgarian, Polish, Dutch, Romanian, Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian and even Arabic.

Whether you are a devoted admirer of Kadare’s work or you are just at the beginning of your journey into his wonderful but challenging world, I would like to leave you with the author's reading of his 1961 poem Edhe Kur Kujtesa (And when my memory).

Ndarja erdhi,
Po iki larg prej teje.
Asgjë e jashtëzakonshme,
Veç ndonjë natë
Gishtat e dikujt do pleksen në flokët e tu
Me të largëtit gishtat e mi, me kilometra të gjatë.

The division came
I'm leaving you ...
Nothing extraordinary,
Except for one night
Someone's fingers will curl into your hair
With my fingers far, miles long ...

C'est l'heure de se séparer.
Je vais m'en aller loin de toi.
Rien là qui puisse étonner.
Pourtant, une autre nuit, les doigts
d'un autre dans tes cheveux viendront
s'entrelacer aux miens, mes doigts
de milliers de kilomètres de long.

Cover of ‘Anthology of Modern Albanian Poetry’ with a black double-headed eagle in a red background

Anthology of Modern Albanian Poetry, edited and translated by Robert Elsie (London: Forest Books, 1996)

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator, East European Collections

Further Reading:

Ismail Kadare obituary. The Guardian, 1 July 2024 

Peter Morgan. Ismail Kadare: the writer and the dictatorship, 1957-1990. (London, 2010) YC.2011.b.13

Ariane Eissen. Visages d'Ismail Kadaré. (Paris, [2015]) YF.2021.a.16497

Alessandro Scarsella, Giuseppina Turano. Leggere Kadare : critica, ricezione, bibliografia. (Milan, 2008) YF.2015.a.12980

Kadare dhe regjimi komunist : 101 dokumente nga aparati diktatorial shtetëror 1959-1991, compiled by Dashnor Kaloçi. (Tirana, 2018) YF.2021.a.11094

01 July 2024

Premio Strega 2024: behind the scenes

This year, I have been nominated as a judge for the Premio Strega 2024, Italy’s most prestigious literary prize. I had just over six weeks to read the dozzina, the best 12 books published in Italy in the past year, and help choose the winner.

Colour photograph of a pile of books nominated for the 2024 Strega Prize

12 books nominated for this year's Premio Strega Prize (image from https://www.illibraio.it/)

On April 15, I received the link to download the books and felt immediately overwhelmed by the task. First to attract my attention was Valentina Mira, partly for the semi-homonymy with yours truly, but also because her both personal and political story Dalla stessa parte mi troverai had been accused of revisionism. 

Personal, almost biographical narratives feature heavily in this year’s dozzina. Melissa Panarello in Storia dei miei solid, mixes the story of her early literary fame with women’s taboo relation with money. Tommaso Giartosio astonishes with Autobiogrammatica, a bildungsroman and memoir about his relationship with language and a tribute to the 1963 Premio Strega winner, Natalia Ginzburg’s Lessico Famigliare (first Italian edition at 10765.k.23., English translation, Family Sayings, YC.1987.a.5661). The most personal and brave of all is Antonella Lattanzi, who in Cose che non si raccontano tells her cruel story of missed maternity with unapologetic honesty; a cathartic act to raise awareness in hope to help all women. I hope this book will be translated into English very soon.

Part family history, part essay, Daniele Rielli’s Il fuoco invisibile. Storia umana di un disastro naturale is a blend of many genres. It is a choral novel with Puglia’s millenary olive trees threatened by the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa as its protagonists. 

Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s L’età fragile is the favourite for this year. Like her last success, L’Arminuta, 2017 (first Italian edition at YF.2019.a.15048, English translation by Ann Goldstein, A Girl Returned, at ELD.DS.428465), this book talks about the relationship between mother and daughter and is set in her native region of Abruzzo, in a very rural environment which is echoed by her dry and simple writing style.

These works give a fantastic overview of the state of the art of Italian narrative and of the literary genres that evolve and intermix. They show an ageing country deeply affected by climate change, with younger generations abandoning the province and women and LGBTQ+ people fighting for their rights and their freedom. They tell of strong ancestral bonds and a passion for the Italian language and culture.

The winner will be announced on July 4, chosen by 700 jurors, 245 of which were nominated by the Italian Cultural Institutes worldwide for their interest in Italian language and literature.

Premio Strega was established in 1947, and among its winners are some of the best-known works of contemporary literature, such as Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) (1959) and Umberto Eco’s Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose) (1981). Awarded authors include Cesare Pavese (1950), Alberto Moravia (1952), Elsa Morante (1957), Alessandro Barbero (1986), Antonio Pennacchi (2010), and Sandro Veronesi (2020).

Valentina Mirabella, Curator, Romance Collections

14 May 2024

European prose in transformation (Part 2) The European Writers’ Festival returns to the British Library

30 established and emerging authors from across Europe gather under one roof to delve into the theme of ‘Transformation’ at the second European Writers’ Festival taking place over the weekend of 18-19 May 2024 at the British Library. Two days of performances and panels will discuss how storytelling, its creators, its original language as well as its translation, are changing as the continent itself is transforming. While writing about personal experience embedded in history remains central to European literature, the Festival’s guests attempt to break literary traditions and established boundaries, setting off for transformative new journeys – and carrying us with them. This is the second of two blog posts examining some of the themes of the Festival. (You can read the first here.)

Cover of 'The Postcard' with a photograph of Noémie Rabinovitch, and author photograph of Anne Berest

Cover of The Postcard with a photograph of Noémie Rabinovitch, a budding writer who was murdered before she could fulfil her potential as her great-niece Anne (pictured right) has been able to do

Anne Berest, The Postcard - Sunday 19 May, Panel 1, ‘Transforming Historical Narratives’

Anne Berest is a French novelist and scriptwriter born in 1979. With her sister Claire, she is the author of Gabriële (Paris, 2017; YF. 2018.a.8864), a critically acclaimed biography of her great-grandmother, Gabriële Buffet-Picabia, wife of the painter Francis Picabia, highlighting her contribution to the French avant-garde. Gabriële and her daughter Jeanine, who both joined the French Resistance, feature in La carte postale (Paris, 2020; YF. 2022.a.8192) and Samuel Beckett makes an appearance too! Translated into English by Tina Kover as The Postcard, the book opens on a snowy morning in 2003 when Anne’s mother Lélia, receives an anonymous postcard inscribed with the names Ephraïm, Emma, Noémie and Jacques. The names are those of Anne’s great-grandparents and her great-aunt and uncle, the Rabinovitch family, all of whom died in Auschwitz. Anne’s grandmother, Myriam, escaped deportation and was her family’s sole survivor, but she never talked about the past. The book’s novelistic techniques (invented dialogue, omniscient narration) may initially seem questionable, but the book is based on Lélia’s meticulous research and Anne’s own investigations. Viewing the dreadful fate of European Jews deported from Vichy France under German occupation through the prism of named individuals that we get to know and care about makes for a compelling take on history and on what it is to be a Jew in France today as a third-generation survivor. And who wrote and sent that postcard? All is revealed on the last page.

Teresa Vernon, Lead Curator, Romance Collections

Cover of 'Niki' with a photograph of a woman in profile with four blue bars superimposed, and photograph of Christos Chomenidis leaning on a car

Cover of Niki and photograph of Christos Chomenidis (photograph by Kokkalias Nikos from the Other Press website)


Christos Chomenidis, Niki - Sunday 19 May, Panel 1, ‘Transforming Historical Narratives’

Through his 2014 novel Niki, author Christos Chomenidis narrates his real family adventures against the dramatic historical backdrop of 20th century Greece through the eyes of his mother, Niki. Daughter of the deputy secretary general of the Greek Communist Party Vassilis Nefeloudis (Antonis Armaos in the book), infant Niki will be swept up in turmoil when her parents are arrested: just 70 days old, she will join her mother in exile in the Cyclades; growing up, she will experience the Italian and German invasion, the Nazi occupation, and the civil war that came after, and will often be caught between her socialist values and those of the right-wing establishment, to which half her relatives belong; as a young woman, she will fall madly in love, giving the already divided family yet another reason to clash. “Niki’s life is the life of all children who come into the world with a heavy burden on their shoulders; they do not renounce it, but neither do they let it to bend them” says Chomenidis and continues: “The people of Niki are the History of 20th century Greece”.

Following his mother’s death in 2008, the author became the last of his line who knew all the protagonists’ stories and so, he decided to record them, initially in a letter for his own daughter (who was named Niki after her grandmother) and gradually into a novel, tackling complex events in a way that is simple and understandable even to readers who are not familiar with these aspects of Greek history.

Niki was awarded the Greek State Literature Prize in 2015 and the European Book Prize for Fiction in 2021. Its English translation by Patricia Felisa Barbeito is the featured book from Greece at the European Writers’ Festival 2.

Lydia Georgiadou, Curator, Modern Greek Collections

Cover of 'Journey to the South' with a picture of a lone figure silhouetted against a colourful abstract landscape of blocks, and photogtaph of Michal Ajvaz

Cover of Journey to the South and photograph of Michal Ajvaz (photograph by Rafał Komorowski from Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

Michal Ajvaz, Journey to the South – Sunday 19 May 2020, Panel 2, ‘Breaking Boundaries’

Michal Ajvaz, who studied Czech and Aesthetics at the Faculty of Philosophy, Charles University, worked during the normalisation period as a janitor, nightwatchman, and petrol pump attendant among other jobs. Ajvaz debuted in 1989 with the poetry collection Vražda v hotelu Intercontinental, (‘Murder at the Hotel Intercontinental’, Brno, 2012; YF.2013.a.7148) and has since authored over 20 works blending imaginative prose with philosophical essays.

Ajvaz’s literary influences trace back to his early readings of Edgar Allan Poe and E.T.A. Hoffmann. His exploration of magical realism began with Druhé město (Prague, 1993; YA.1995.a.26185. English translation by Gerald Turner: The Other City, Champaign, Dallas, 2009; YK.2010.a.31674), which stirred discussions on its role within Czech literature. Ajvaz’s works are filled with mirrored landscapes and parallel worlds, adventures and quests that span the world.

The Magnesia Litera award-winning novel Lucemburská zahrada (Brno 2011; YF.2012.a.2551), delves into linguistics with a newly invented language and takes the reader on a journey through Paris, Nice, Nantes, in the state of New York, Moscow, Santa Lucia, Sicilian Taormina and the invented city of Lara. The writer-philosopher's love of linguistics reached its peak in this work, resulting in an appendix offering a key to deciphering some of the novel's content.

The magic permeating Ajvaz’s literary worlds stems from his philosophy and writing process. This is how he describes it in an interview published on the literární.cz website

Usually, it's just a feeling, often associated with a specific place... These feelings remind me of a white fog in which dozens of indistinct figures with their own stories flicker, and these characters and stories beckon me to free them from the fog, to give them some form. It's true that some ideas eventually make their way into my fiction books, but that's because from the initial feeling a certain world gradually unfolds with everything that belongs to it—and to the world belong not only characters, spaces, and plots but also ideas. However, ideas should not dominate the novel; they must not be privileged over the other inhabitants of the novel. 

Now the British public has an opportunity to become immersed in Ajvaz’s world and walk alongside the characters of Journey to the South, translated to English last year by Andrew Oakland (Dallas, 2023). Pack your imagination and join the fellow travellers!

Olga Topol, Curator, Slavonic and East European Curator

 

Cover of 'Home' with a photograph of a barn in a field of yellow flowers, and photograph of Andrea Tompa

Cover of Home and photograph of Andrea Tompa (Photograph by Petőfi Literary Fund via Hungarian Literature Online)

Andrea Tompa, Home – Sunday 19 May 2024, Panel 3, ‘Europe on the Move’

Thirty years after relocating from Cluj-Napoca to Budapest in 1990, Hungarian writer and theatre critic Andrea Tompa felt the time was finally ripe to share what leave-taking and homecoming truly mean for her. With her latest novel now translated into English by Jozefina Komporaly under the title Home (London, 2024), Andrea is bringing her contemplations to this year’s European Writers’ Festival.

Many of us left our homeland behind, prompted by circumstances, driven by various forces. Although the book narrates a journey back to an unnamed home country for a school reunion, with several classmates also returning after long absences, its essence is not so much a story of a trip. The focus is on different kinds of travel: past journeys, journeys into the past - and into ourselves.

A reunion inevitably induces reflection, it can serve as a reality check relative to our own youth and also to our peers while we reacquaint as adults. How much do we leavers share as to the nature of our connections to the place we came from? Some decide to cut all ties, others will always be longing after the homeland. But the homeland has transformed since we left and we ourselves changed in many ways, so all points of reference have shifted.
Identity, personal relationships, culture, patriotism, belonging – just a few of the complex emotional questions to delve into, with language as a vital theme in its own right, weaving through the book.

The Hungarian original Haza (Budapest, 2020; YF.2022.a.16166) is already in our collection, hopefully the translation will arrive soon as well.

Andrea is a guest on the ‘Europe on the Move’ panel at 3 pm on 19 May. She also offers some insight into her journeys in an English-language interview by Hungarian Literature Online .

Ildi Wollner, Curator, East and SE European Collections

Cover of 'The moon in foil' with a photograph of a woman seen from behind looking over a river, and photograph of Zuska Kepplova standing in fromt of bookshelves

Cover of The Moon in Foil  and photograph of Zuska Kepplova (photogtaph by Juraj Starovecký from Slovak Literature in English Translation website)

Zuska Kepplova, The Moon in Foil – Sunday 19 May 2024, Panel 3, ‘Europe on the Move’

In an interview for the Chicago Review of Books Zuska Kepplova – a writer, editor and political commentator – makes a statement that resonates with many Eastern European world nomads, as those ‘who were born in late socialist societies and grew up after the revolutions, [this label] is a novelty. They were not used to thinking about themselves as “Eastern Europeans” and dealing with prejudices, their own or of others. Entering the free world thus also means entering a hierarchy or a web of relations of power.’

Kepplova’s book Buchty švabachom (Bratislava 2017; YF.2019.a.10137), recently translated into English by Magdalena Mullek as The Moon in Foil (Chicago, 2023), traces people’s relationships with each other and their place of migration. The short story form is a perfect fit for Kepplova’s storytelling. The deliberately scattered narrative is thoughtful, gives glimpses into the chaotic lives of young Slovaks tempted by newly opened world enticing them with a vision of success, but leading to a life of mundanity and struggle for social advancement, often devoid of self-fulfilment. Many a reader will relate to the characters' commonplace existence and reflect on their own longing for buchty  or pierogi left behind at home far away. Those who want to see what happens when the migratory birds return should read Kepplova’s Reflux. Niekto cudzí je v dome (‘Reflux. There is a stranger in the house’; Levice, 2015; YF.2017.a.24619).  

Olga Topol, Curator, Slavonic and EE Curator

10 May 2024

European prose in transformation (Part 1). The European Writers’ Festival returns to the British Library

30 established and emerging authors from across Europe gather under one roof to delve into the theme of ‘Transformation’ at the second European Writers’ Festival taking place over the weekend of 18-19 May 2024 at the British Library. Two days of performances and panels will discuss how storytelling, its creators, its original language as well as its translation, are changing as the continent itself is transforming. While writing about personal experience embedded in history remains central to European literature, the Festival’s guests attempt to break literary traditions and established boundaries, setting off for transformative new journeys – and carrying us with them. In this and a second blog post, our curators and one guest contributor highlight some of the themes of the festival.

Photograph of Laurent de Sutter and the cover of his book 'After Law' with the book title in a red stop sign design

Laurent de Sutter and the cover of his book After Law (Cambridge, 2020) (Author photograph from the website of the Law Art Politics podcast)

Laurent de Sutter, After Law – Saturday 18 May, Panel 2, ‘Changing Gears’

On Saturday 19 May 2024, Belgian philosopher Laurent de Sutter will take part in the panel ‘Changing Gears’, alongside other authors who switch jobs and genres.

A real 21st century polymath, Laurent de Sutter wrote his law thesis on the politics of representation while working as a freelance writer for pop-rock magazine Rif-Raf. He then wrote about pornography and porn-stars, pop-culture, aesthetics, drugs and capitalism, and cinema, while becoming an editor directing a collection for the Presses Universitaires de France.

Laurent de Sutter is today Professor of Legal Theory at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, the author of more than 20 works translated into a dozen languages, and an essential thinker on the concept of law and of the ways we categorise and describe reality. Unexpectedly, his recent philosophical essay on modernity and anti-modernity, Superfaible! Penser au XXIe siècle (Paris, 2023) was also the recipient of the Grand prix de Poésie de l’Académie royale de langue et de littérature françaises de Belgique, 2023. Maybe this is not that surprising for a provocative and limitless writer who is also a self-confessed ‘pop-philosopher’ (a term invented by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze in the 1970s, for a genre that explores the intersections between philosophy and pop culture).

You can find his books, in French, on the life and death of superheroes (Vies et morts des super-héros; Paris, 2016; YF.2020.a.6105) or his history of law through the architecture of one contemporary building (Post-tribunal: Renzo Piano Building Workshop et l'île de la Cité judiciaire; Paris, 2018; YF.2018.a.15252) in our collections. Recent titles in English include Narcocapitalism: Life in the Age of Anaesthesia (Cambridge, 2018; YC.2018.a.13255) and After Law. The latter won the French Voices Award and the Leopold Rosy Prize of the Belgian Royal Academy and is the featured book at this year’s European Writers’ Festival.

Sophie Defrance, Curator, Romance Collections

Photograph of Ioana Pârvulescu reading a book, and the cover of 'Jonah and his Daughter' with an illustration of Jonah and the whale

Cover of Jonah and his Daughter and photograph of Ioana Pârvulescu (pictures from the Romanian Cultural Institute)

Ioana Pârvulescu, Jonah and his Daughter – Saturday 18 May 2024, Panel 3, ‘Transformation through Translation’

While I was preparing Ioana Pârvulescu’s rather mystical new novel for print, I made a trip to Rome, and more specifically to the ancient Christian burial grounds of that city, known to us as the catacombs. To my surprise, I came upon an array of depictions of the prophet Jonah – being thrown overboard on this sea journey undertaken in an attempt to outrun the will of God; languishing inside the whale or being regurgitated from the sea monster. My guide explained that the early Christians saw Jonah as a precursor to Jesus, with his internment in the belly of the great fish for three days pre-echoing those three days in the tomb before resurrection; his rebirth thereafter being the new life in faith.

Roman wall-paintings showing the prophet Jonah being thrown from a ship and being vomited out by a dragon-like whale

Paintings of the biblical story of Jonah from the Catacomb of Saints Marcellinus and Peter in Rome

While Pârvulescu’s novel is far more subtle and complicated than a mythologised story of prophecy from the Old Testament, her writing is never finer than when describing that extraordinary scene of ingestion and eventual discharge :

...Jonah grew very dizzy and felt he was falling back-ward into emptiness, looking through eyes in which there was no wide-eyed seeing. And all of a sudden, the seeing returned to his eyes and his sight filled with stars, some so close that you could catch them in your hand, stars that were in motion, others so high above that they were but specks of silver dust...

Yet this is not a novel of obscure stories and characters far removed from us in time and mentality: Jonah is a living, breathing man with a speech impediment and a prodigious sexual appetite, who befriends waifs and strays with characters that steal our hearts and make us want to sit down with these people, around a campfire perhaps, and learn their ways. Just as in her previous novel, Life Begins on Friday, the author draws us into historical periods through the quirks of her characters, their insecurities and their passions, and the empathy she evokes for them through her expert storytelling. As in all the best dramatisations of the past – be it in films, theatre plays or novels – historical figures are given height and depth because we have sat with them for a while and heard their voices.

We learn in the introduction to the book that Ioana felt compelled to write it because the vagaries of spellcheck often rendered her name to that of the ‘minor prophet’ in Romanian and that from this whimsical coincidence she was led to re-evaluate and become enamoured of a narrative different from the one she expected:

The reason his story is so beautiful and so human is because it is about deadly monsters that play a double part and which in the end are life savers, about the need for darkness, about fear and running away, about passion, about getting involved or standing aloof, about being human or separate from humanity...

Jonah’s daughter learns the story of her father, and passes it on her to her daughter, and so on down through the ages. In this way our author becomes a daughter of Jonah too, bringing the story of the recalcitrant prophet up to date with our times. In the end all the very best stories reveal aspects of our human - and mystical - experience in this realm, and I for one have been greatly enriched by this one.

Susan Curtis, Editor, Istros Books

03 May 2024

In a whirlwind of change. The European Writers’ Festival returns to the British Library 

Please note this post includes an offensive racial term in the title of a book quoted. We have spelt this out in full because that was the book author's own conscious and deliberate choice in the context of his writing.
 
The second European Writers’ Festival, taking place on May 18 and 19 at the British Library, brings together renowned and emerging authors from 30 countries for an unmissable weekend filled with thought-provoking panels and the promise of fascinating discussions. The British Library, with its unparalleled holdings from continental Europe, offers a perfect setting for debating European literature and delving into the disquieting undercurrents shaping our societies today. This year, the event centres around the theme of Transformation and zooms in on the violent shifts in politics, climate, language, and human rights, to name a few. As poetry has long been regarded as a vehicle for change, our curators of European collections invite you to get (re)acquainted with some of the poets taking part in the festival and to join them on a transformative journey of becoming the new Europeans of the future. 
 
Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator of East European Collections, offers a fascinating glimpse into the poetry of one of the most distinct voices in contemporary Ukrainian poetry, Iryna Shuvalova. 
 
Cover of 'Pray to the Empty Wells' and photograph of Irina Shuvalova
Irina Shuvalova and her poetry collection Pray to the Empty Wells (Pullman, Washington, 2019) Awaiting shelfmark  (Author photograph from https://www.irynashuvalova.com/en
 
Iryna Shuvalova, a Ukrainian poet, scholar, and translator, is not a stranger to the readers of the European Studies blog. Her book of poetry featured at this year’s festival, Pray to the Empty Wells, draws heavily on Ukrainian folklore. Shuvalova expertly blends its spirituality with eroticism for a heady cocktail of tender love and inconsolable sorrow.  
 
the love fish  
lives in the large body of the river
it swims in it like a pendulum    
back and forth and in a circle    
fastened to the heart’s axis   
‘Love fish’ from Pray to the Empty Wells (Pullman, Washington, 2019) Awaiting shelfmark  
 
As Kate Kellaway puts it in her review of the book for The Guardian, “translated poetry seldom finds a home in this column, and this book is one of the few rare cases.” In one of her interviews, Shuvalova asserted: “Let’s say that I’m building my own personal mythology out of space and voice.” No critic could have been more accurate in describing Shuvalova’s remarkable poetic world woven with words that let readers see, hear, and feel.  
  
But this serene world is now in danger and, like so many other Ukrainian artists, Shuvalova will have preferred that some of her poems had not been written, such as this one:
    
because the other side of the front line is like another galaxy    
how dare these outsiders, these primitives, these aliens   
kill and die—just as well as we do   
how dare they be so human and inhumane, all at once    
almost like us, too   
how dare they be like us   
how dare they   
‘Conflict zone’ from Pray to the Empty Wells  
 
On the first day of the festival, Iryna Shuvalova will participate in the panel Change and Conflict on the impact of war, displacement, and trauma. The special guest of the festival is, fittingly, the Ukrainian author and journalist, Andrey Kurkov. He will engage in a discussion with The Guardian’s Senior international correspondent and author of Invasion, Luke Harding.   
 
Poetry is a powerful tool for preserving and rejuvenating indigenous languages and traditions, attesting to their relevance and beauty in our increasingly anglicised world. Ela Kucharska-Beard, Curator of Baltic Collections, points to the communion with the natural world and the deep connection with the Estonian way of life that permeates Kristiina Ehin’s poetry. 
 
Cover of 'On the Edge of a Sword' and photograph of Kristiina Ehin
Kristiina Ehin and her poetry collection On the Edge of a Sword = Mõõgateral (Todmorden, 2018). ELD.DS.738555 (Author photograph from Postimees website
 
Kristiina Ehin is a leading, multi-award winning Estonian poet whose work has been translated into at least 20 languages, including English. She has also written short stories, plays and a collection of re-told south Estonian folk tales. Kristiina, who has a master’s degree in Estonian and comparative folklore, is a singer in the contemporary folk group Naised Köögis, continuing the ancient Estonian tradition of women poets and singers. She has also worked as a translator, journalist, dance teacher, lecturer and storyteller.  
 
Kristiina’s poetry, deeply spiritual, is firmly rooted in Finno-Ugric tradition and reflects her profound respect for nature. Her fourth collection of poems, the bestselling  Kaitseala (‘Protected Area’, 2005), was written during a year spent working as a nature reserve warden on an uninhabited island off the coast of Estonia. Her poetry deals with personal relationships (man-woman, mother-child) and the relationship with nature. The poems, light and modern, written from a female point of view, combine fragility and strength; they are both serious and playful, personal and universal.  
 
The European Writer’s Festival will feature Kristiina’s collection of poems On the Edge of a Sword, selected from her collection Kohtumised (Tartu, 2017; YF.2019.a.11834). The poems have been expertly translated into English by Ilmar Lehtpere, with whom the poet has an ongoing collaboration. Kristiina will be speaking at the panel Changing Gears, discussing the importance (or lack thereof) of writing in one genre.   
 
In times of upheaval, poetry amplifies marginalized narratives and gives voice to the voiceless. According to Marja Kingma, Curator of Dutch Language Collections, Simone Atangana Bekono pushes the boundaries of Dutch poetry by facilitating long overdue, radically candid conversations about racial and gender inequalities and other deeply ingrained societal biases. 
 
Cover of 'Confrontations' and photograph of Simone Atangana Bekono
Simone Atangana Bekono and her novel Confrontation (Author photograph from: https://www.vpro.nl/programmas/mondo/video/mondo-minute/mondo-minute-simone-atangana-bekono.html
 
Simone Atangana Bekono is an author with Cameroonian/Dutch heritage, born in Dongen, a town 100km southeast of Amsterdam. She is part of a new generation of Dutch poets who write about discrimination on the basis of race, or gender, or sexual orientation (or all three), about identity, colonialism, and generational conflict. In doing so they take Dutch poetry in a whole new direction. Simone Atangana Bekono burst onto the literary scene in 2017 with the poetry collection Hoe de eerste vonken zichtbaar waren (2nd ed, 2018; YF.2019.a.17267), which was translated into English by David Colmer as How the First Sparks Became Visible (Birmingham, 2021). Other translations include Spanish and Rumanian.  
 
Simone won multiple awards for her Young Adult debut novel Confrontaties (Amsterdam, 2021) YF.2021.a.9720, the story of how a teenage black girl copes with her time in a young offender's institution and with her return to her community. The English edition Confrontations, translated by Suzanne Heukensfeldt Jansen, will be published this year. It has also been translated into German and Turkish.  
 
In March 2021, Simone participated in the online launch event for The Dutch Riveter. Like the European Writers’ Festival, it was hosted by the British Library and organised and presented by Rosie Goldsmith from the European Literature Network. In 2023 she was writer-in-residence at UCL, London.   
 
I am thrilled to see Simone at the Library once again on 18 May, as one of the guest authors at the second edition of the European Writers’ Festival! You will have a chance to meet the poet at the Transformation through Translation panel, where she will be looking into shifting attitudes towards translation in Europe.  
 
Lydia Georgiadou, Curator of Modern Greek Collections, suggests that Dean Atta dissects the intersections between race, gender, and sexuality. The poet embraces his black and queer identities and demonstrates just how liberating and empowering it is to embrace all aspects of who we really are. 
 
Cover of 'There is (still) love here' and photograph of Dean Atta
Dean Atta and his poetry collection There is (still) Love here (Rugby, 2022). Awaiting shelfmark. (Author photograph from: https://www.geeksout.org/2022/05/25/interview-with-author-dean-atta/
 
Award-winning British author and poet of Greek Cypriot and Jamaican heritage Dean Atta joins the closing panel of the Festival, The New Europeans of the Future to discuss how transformation impacts the ‘new’ European authors’ craft, identity and perception of home, nationhood and Europe.   
 
Atta’s featured book, There is (still) love here  is described on the author’s website as “a compelling new collection of poetry [exploring] relationships, love and loss, encompassing LGBTQ+ and Black history, Greek Cypriot heritage, pride and identity, dislocation and belonging” and “an antidote for challenging times”.  
 
The lyrics of ‘On days when’ are characteristic: 
  
On days when  
you feel like a wilting garden, 
gather yourself, roll up your lawn,  
bouquet your flowers,
embrace your weeds.  
You are a wild thing playing
at being tame.  
You are rich with life beneath 
the surface.  
You don’t have to show leaf
and petal to be living.  
You are soil and insect and root.  
 
There is (still) love here comes after two novels in verse: Only on the Weekends (London, 2022; ELD.DS.692242) and The Black Flamingo (London, 2019; ELD.DS.455619), which won Atta the American Library Association’s Stonewall Book Award, CILIP Carnegie Shadowers Choice Award, West Sussex School Librarians’ Amazing Book Awards and What Kids are Reading Quiz Writers’ Choice Award. The Black Flamingo featured in the British Library’s recent exhibition Malorie Blackman: The Power of Stories
 
The title poem of Atta’s debut collection, I Am Nobody’s Nigger (London, 2013; YK.2013.a.23925), consciously and deliberately uses the racial slur as a response to its use by the murderers of Stephen Lawrence. The poem achieved much social media coverage and was shortlisted for the 2014 Polari First Book Prize.  
 
Dean Atta is a Malika’s Poetry Kitchen member, National Poetry Day ambassador and LGBT+ History Month patron. He was listed as one of the most influential LGBTQIA+ people in the UK by the Independent on Sunday and his books have been praised by the likes of Bernardine Evaristo, Benjamin Zephaniah and Malorie Blackman.  
 
Europe is in flux, and poetry gently peels away the layers of the ongoing transformation. The authors participating in this year’s festival encourage us to reimagine the society we hope to emerge into once the whirlwind of change has subsided.  
 
In our next post, we will zero in on the recurring themes of the festival. Stay tuned! 
 
Hanna Dettlaff-Kuznicka, Interim Curator of Slavonic and East European Collections

29 April 2024

The Hobbit – there and back, or what are you looking for? Braille books in Slavonic collections 2.

The lights of Obukhovka are fading away as we move on to the magical world of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. The author wrote the story about the wanderings of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins for his children, but it quickly became one of the best-selling novels of all time and a firm favourite amongst many generations of readers worldwide. Our recent acquisition of the classic in Russian braille brings the world of wizards, dragons, and elves right to your fingertips.

Do you remember the thrill of reading The Hobbit for the first time? What did your copy look or feel like? Children born in the 1920s and early 1930s held onto a book with a rather unassuming cover.

Cover of the first edition of 'The Hobbit' with a design of mountains and a dragon against a grey-green background

The Hobbit, the first edition published in September 1937 (Cup.410.f.14.)

The first printing of the novel ran to only 1500 copies and flew off the shelves in less than three months. The second impression was issued in an edition of 2300 copies immediately after, in December of the same year. I wonder how many of them were gift-wrapped and spent the night under the Christmas tree, waiting to be discovered by young fantasy lovers. We know that 423 copies did not find their way to readers, as they were destroyed in a warehouse fire in the London blitz. If you have a book looking like the one in the picture above sitting casually on your shelves, you may want to read this article published in the Guardian early this year.

At first, Tolkien thought that his creation would be visualised by every reader in their own way. The publisher, however, convinced him to add illustrations to the book. I am sure many are already familiar with it, but for those who are not – here is the story of Tolkien's illustrations.

My first exposure to Tolkien happened when I read the 1976 translation of The Hobbit into Russian.

Cover of the 1976 Russian translation of The Hobbit with an illustration of Bilbo Baggins and the dragon Smaug

Cover of Natalia Rakhmanova’s translation of The Hobbit into Russian: Khobbit, ili, Tuda i obratno: skazochnaia povestʹ (Leningrad, 1976). YF.2011.a.18078

Although a heated debate is still going on among Tolkien fans about which of the ten Russian versions is the best and closest in spirit to the original, it was Natalia Rakhmanova’s first translation of The Hobbit that influenced the reception of Tolkien first in the Soviet Union and later in Russia. Mikhail Belomninski’s illustrations also became iconic for Soviet children, especially the image of Bilbo Baggins, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the popular Soviet actor Evgenii Leonov.

Illustration of Bilbo Baggins sitting by his fireside and smoking a pipe

Illustrations from the 1976 Russian translation of The Hobbit showing Bilbo Baggins by his fireside (above) and Bilbo and Gandalf meeting the woodman Beorn (below)

Illustration of Gandalf and Bilbo meeting the giant woodman Beorn who leans on a large axe

But of course, Bilbo’s young fans would not know that in 1989, just a couple of years before the collapse of the USSR and communism, Belominskii left the country for the US. He later worked there as an artistic director for the New Russian Word – the longest-running (1910-2010) Russian-language newspaper in America.

Nevertheless, it is telling that it was Rakhmanova’s translation of The Hobbit that was abridged for the braille edition in 1982. It was released in four volumes and limited to just 300 copies.

Spines of the four braille volumes of Khobbit, ili, Tuda i obratno

Printed title page of Khobbit  ili  Tuda i obratno

Page of braille text from Khobbit  ili  Tuda i obratno

From top: the four volumes, title-page and page of braille text of Khobbit, ili, Tuda i obratno : skazochnaia povestʹ v chetyrekh knigakh (Moscow, 1982). LF.31.b.16409. (Please note that due to the recent cyber-attack on the British Library the item does not appear in our catalogue yet; it can be ordered in our reading rooms using the shelfmark.)

The first schools for visually impaired children in Russia, like the one attended by Eroshenko, opened in 1881. In 1882, textbooks for visually impaired children were printed in the linear uncial type cast in Vienna. These were the Gospel of Matthew and Children’s World written by Konstantin Ushinsky, the founder of scientific pedagogy in Russia.

Page with raised text for visually-impaired readers

Children’s World by Konstantin Ushinsky adapted for use by visually impaired students (copy held at the National Library of Russia).

Such was the beginning of using and publishing books in braille. At first, Russian braille books continued to be printed in Berlin, but their production soon moved to the printing house attached to the joint-stock company ‘Goznak’, which was set up for publishing banknotes.

I do not know who was the child who first read the braille edition of The Hobbit, which is now held at the British Library, but it is fascinating to imagine what the story of Bilbo Baggins meant in their life. As Tolkien wisely said, “There is nothing like looking if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator, East European Collections

25 April 2024

“The hands want to see, the eyes want to caress”. Braille books in Slavonic collections 1

The British Library is committed to creating an inclusive reading experience. We collect audiobooks and braille materials in various languages and forms and are always on the lookout for new and exciting titles. This post and a second one will feature rare and first-edition braille books in our Slavonic collections. Here we hope to shed some light on the extraordinary life of a largely unknown blind Ukrainian author often likened to such literary giants as Hans Christian Andersen and Oscar Wilde. The second post will touch on the publishing history of a book by a writer who needs no introduction. Without further delay, we invite print and braille readers, children and adults alike, to embark with us on a fascinating journey beginning in the sleepy village of Obukhovka, across vast swathes of Asia and Russia, all the way to Middle-earth, and back again.

The story begins on a frosty January day in 1890 when a third child is born into a family of a wealthy Ukrainian landowner in imperial Russia, Iakov Eroshenko and his Russian wife. The boy, later known to literary enthusiasts in Japan and China as Ero-san and Ailuoxianke respectively, is christened Vasilii. Four years later, tragedy strikes the Eroshenko family when little Vasia loses his vision to measles. Later in life, he would remark: “I hazily remember seeing only four things: the sky, pigeons, the church where they roosted, and my mother’s face. Not too much…But that always inspired and inspires me to seek out pure thoughts - thoughts as pure as the sky - and always made me remember my homeland as well as my mother’s face, in whichever corner of the world Fate cast me.”

Photograph of Eroshenko as a young man wearing a military-style tunic

Vasilii Eroshenko. (Image from http://pmu.in.ua/nogroup/eroshenko/)

Sepia photograph of a church with a group of men standing outside

The Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul in Obukhovka. Built circa 1842, it burned down in 1946. It must have been the silhouette that was etched in Eroshenko’s memory (Image from https://sokm.org.ru/vystavki/virtualnye-vystavki/782-obuhovskie-remesla#)

Young Eroshenko proved precocious throughout his schooling. Blindness had taught the future anarchist and anti-imperialist to take everything with a pinch of salt and to question authority. In 1900, he started attending the prestigious Imperial Moscow School for the Blind, where he received training in arts, music and sciences. While there, he also mastered braille and conceived his first literary pieces, painstakingly pricking words into paper with a needle. After graduating in 1908, Eroshenko decided to try his hand at music. He started to earn a living playing second violin for a blind orchestra in Moscow. Rumour has it that he paid a substantial part of his income to a poor actor who would read him books unavailable in braille script.

Photograph of Eroshenko playing the violin, accompanied by a woman on the piano

Eroshenko playing the violin (image from http://pmu.in.ua/nogroup/eroshenko/)

Vasilii’s life took a sharp turn when he crossed paths with the sister-in-law of Leo Tolstoy’s biographer and disciple, Pavel Ivanovich Briukov. Anna Sharapova, who was one of the pioneers of Esperanto in Russia, decided to teach the language to the gifted violinist. Esperanto was invented in 1873 by the Polish ophthalmologist L.L. Zamenhof, who believed that a universal, politically and culturally neutral language would erase communication barriers and relieve international tensions. Eroshenko found Zamenhof’s ideas compelling and soon became a devout Esperantist. Having learnt from Anna about the prospect of continuing his education at the Royal National College for the Blind in England, Vasilii pinned the green Esperanto star onto the lapel of his jacket and set out to London. From then on, the star would guide him, often quite literally, to his distant destinations.

In London, Eroshenko learned about the respect blind people enjoy in Japan. Intrigued, he soon started planning his next trip. He returned to Moscow, where he began taking Japanese classes. In April 1914, he boarded a ship in Vladivostok and headed to Tokyo. Once settled in the Japanese capital, he supported himself by teaching Esperanto and lecturing on Russian literature and women’s emancipation. He also wrote short stories for major Japanese magazines. However, it was not long before he became active in revolutionary circles seeking to undermine Japan’s colonial efforts in East Asia. In 1921, he was accused of threatening national security and social order and was expelled from the country. His stories Vuz’ka klitka (The Narrow Cage) and Orlyni dushi (An Eagle’s Heart) appeared in print in the same year.

Cover of 'Vuzka klitka' wityh a picture of a tiger in the mountains

Cover of Vasilii Eroshenko, Vuzʹka klitka: kazky (Kharkiv, 2016). YF.2016.b.1727

Eroshenko’s stories reflect his view that social ills result from colonial oppression, marginalization of the poor and disabled, and racial inequality. Vuz’ka klitka ponders the question of freedom and free will. The image of an enraged tiger killing and wreaking havoc in the name of freedom and brotherhood is disturbingly familiar. Orlyni dushi juxtaposes the human and natural worlds and offers a sharp critique of imperialism. Its opening: “There once was a mountain kingdom that was ruled by its larger, more powerful neighbour”, is also a chilling one in the context of the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Cover of 'Orlyni dushi' with an illustration of two eagles on a rock

Cover of Vasilii Eroshenko, Orlyni dushi: kazky (Kharkiv, 2016). YF.2016.b.1726

As I flick through the milky pages, I cannot help but admire the author’s vivid storytelling and simple yet evocative language. Both stories were written in Japanese, but for various political and ideological reasons, the Ukrainian translations have always relied on earlier Russian translations. Those, in turn, were based on Chinese versions. Inevitably, Eroshenko’s voice got muffled and distorted along the way, making it hard to disentangle his legacy from that of his translators. The copies we hold, proudly adorned with blue-and-yellow ribbon bookmarks, are the first Ukrainian translations made from the Japanese originals. The translator and scholar of Eroshenko’s work, Iuliia Patlan’, makes a valid point in the preface, arguing that this makes them much more faithful to the author’s voice. The Ukrainian text translated from Eroshenko’s original Japanese was titled Vuz’ka klitka to distinguish it from Tisna klitka, Nadiia Andrianova-Hordiienko's 1969 translation from Russian. Both books have print on one side and braille on the other so that a sighted person can read to a child and they can follow along.

Opening from Vuz’ka klitka showing parallel printed and braille text

Opening from Vuz’ka klitka showing parallel printed and braille text

Before settling in the Soviet Union in 1924, Eroshenko had a brief stint in Europe and spent a couple of years in China, where he befriended the modernist author and radical thinker Lu Xun. The blind globetrotter was not met with much fanfare in his homeland. Soviet Esperantists were deemed a threat to the Communist Party, mainly for their transnational networks, which were believed to be swarming with spies. Eroshenko’s refusal to cooperate with the Soviet Secret Services came with a hefty price, as most of the author’s personal archives were confiscated and destroyed. The author, whose life resembled a fairy-tale quest for meaning, departed on his final journey on December 23, 1952. He was buried in his native Obukhovka, unrecognised as a storyteller in Ukraine and Russia. It was not until a translator, Vladimir Rogov, learned about a mysterious ‘Ailuoxianke’ in Lu-Xun’s The Comedy of the Ducks that the dots finally connected, and Eroshenko started to gain the recognition he deserved.

Vasilii Eroshenko did not let his disability limit or define him. Although his short stories may lack the happy endings that we all look for in fairy tales, his fascinating life reads as a beautiful ode to hope and resilience and carries a heart-warming message that light will always prevail over darkness.

Hanna Dettlaff-Kuznicka, Interim Curator of Slavonic and East European Collections

Andrew F. Jones, Developmental fairy tales: evolutionary thinking and modern Chinese culture (London, 2011). YC.2011.a.7404 (Includes an English translation (from Chinese) of Vuz’ka klitka)

Julija Patlanj, ‘Vasilii Yakovlevich Eroshenko’, Kontakto (March, 2005)

Adam Kuplowsky, The Narrow Cage and Other Modern Fairy Tales (New York, 2023)

26 October 2023

Repairing the Past: on We Slaves of Suriname

On Monday 30 October the Dutch Centre hosts an event to mark the new translation by David McKay of a seminal work on the history of Suriname: We Slaves of Suriname, by Anton de Kom.

Cover of 'We Slaves of Suriname'

Anton de Kom, We Slaves of Suriname, translated by David McKay (Cambridge, 2022) YC.2023.a.2655

Photograph of Anton de Kom

Anton de Kom. From: Wij slaven van Suriname 10th ed. (Amsterdam, 2001) YA.2002.a.34205.

Anton de Kom (1898-1945) tells the history of Suriname and how it was shaped by slavery from a Surinamese perspective. He adds a passionate attack on Dutch colonial rule, a system that keeps many of the structures of the past in place, thereby keeping the Surinamese people in poverty and powerlessness. His main aim in writing the book was to instil a sense of self-worth and pride into the Surinamese people. Thus he created both a historic account and a book of historic importance, according to Michiel van Kempen’s Een Geschiedenis van de Surinaamse literatuur.

The Dutch language edition, first published in 1934, is the first text about Dutch colonialism in Suriname, written from a Surinamese, anticolonial perspective. It stands at the beginning of a tradition of anti- and postcolonial writing, inspiring authors such as Tessa Leuwsha, Albert Helman and Astrid Roemer. De Kom himself took inspiration from Max Havelaar, written by Multatuli, pseudonym of Edward Douwes Dekker, a white Dutch civil servant based in the Dutch East Indies, in the 1860s.

Title page of 'Wij slaven van Suriname'

Title page of Anton de Kom, Wij slaven van Suriname (Amsterdam, 1934) X.529/73312

De Kom had aligned himself with the communist community in the Netherlands, because they were the only political group that opposed colonialism. However, they were not free of racist prejudice. When De Kom offered the manuscript to a socialist publisher, they believed him to be illiterate, based on his appearance and accent. A Dutch publicist Cees de Dood was enlisted to review the manuscript. He regarded the language to be ‘bad Dutch’, dismissing the text wholesale. He should have known better, because De Kom had published articles in communist journals and magazines before (under the pen name Adek). De Kom agreed the manuscript needed improvement. De Dood asked Jef Last, a good friend of his and a well-known socialist publicist to help improve the manuscript. Last reviewed the manuscript together with De Kom putting more emphasis on the communist political message that slavery is exploitation of the proletariat by the capitalist system. He even claimed to have written the book himself, but later retracted that claim. However, this falsehood remained in circulation for a long time, again reaffirming racist ideas prevalent at the time.

It would take far too long in this space to recount the full range of events that surrounded publication of Wij Slaven van Suriname, fascinating though it is. Instead I refer to the article by Rob Woortman and Alice Boots ‘De geschiedenis van een manuscript: De wording van Wij slaven van Suriname van Anton de Kom’. Central in their piece is the question what part Jef Last played in re-writing the text and the role of the CID, the Central Intelligence Service in censuring the text.

In the end Gilles Pieter de Neve, of the Contact publishing house agreed to publish the book. He and De Kom rewrote the entire manuscript, taking out the most strident communist passages that might fall foul of the CID, and finally, in 1934 the book was published. De Neve had added a subtle rebuke to the CID, not included in later editions: ‘In conjunction with the interest shown in this book from certain quarters, the publishers deem it necessary, in order to ensure the undisturbed circulation of the work and in agreement with the Author, to change a number of passages in the book, without diminishing the value of the book.’

Foreword from the first edition of 'Wij Slaven van Suriname'
Preface to the first edition of Wij Slaven van Suriname, published by Contact in 1934. X529/73312.

Contact had only started as a publishing house the year before, when Hitler came to power in Germany, in order to warn the Dutch against the dangers of national-socialism and fascism.
It is therefore all the more tragic that De Kom would fall victim to the Nazis in 1944, when he was arrested for his activities in the Dutch resistance. He died in a concentration camp in Germany in April 1945. He is buried at Ereveld Loenen, the Field of Honour in Loenen. 

It seems ironic that the ship that brought De Kom to Suriname and back again in exile to the Netherlands in 1933 would carry copies of Wij Slaven van Suriname to Suriname in 1934. This was reported in the Surinamese newspaper De banier van waarheid en recht (‘The banner of truth and justice’) of 7 March 1934. 
For decades the book and its author remained relatively unknown. De Kom was shunned in the Netherlands as well as in Suriname because of his communist sympathies. So it wasn’t until 1971 that the book saw its second edition. From then on the only way was up, right to the top ten bestsellers in 2020, the year Anton de Kom was included in the Dutch Canon for History.

The latest Dutch edition, the 22nd, was published in 2021 by Atlas/Contact, with introductions by Tessa Leuwsha, Mitchell Esajas, and Duco van Oostrum. Atlas/Contact also published Rob Woortman’s and Alice Boots’ biography of Anton de Kom.

 

Cover of the biography of Anton de Kom woth a photograph of de Kom
Rob Woortman, Alice Boots, Anton de Kom: biografie 1898-1945, 1945-2009 (Amsterdam, 2016) YF.2022.a.928

In 1987 an English translation was announced by Palgrave/Macmillan, but for unknown reasons was never realised. It took another 36 years before another attempt was made, this time successful. On Monday 30 October we are going to celebrate that event at the Dutch Centre in London. Writer Gabriel Gbadamosi  will chair a discussion with guests Mitchell Esajas, Tessa Leuwsha and my colleague, curator and author Nicole-Rachelle Moore. The event is supported by the Dutch Foundation for Literature and the Embassy of The Kingdom of the Netherlands and programmed by Modern Culture as part of New Dutch Writing. Tickets are still available and can be booked via the Dutch Centre’s website.

Marja Kingma, Curator Dutch Language Collections

References/Further reading:

Albert Helman, Zuid Zuidwest. 8th ed. ([s.n.], 1948) 010058.f.30.

Michiel van Kempen, Een Geschiedenis van de Surinaamse literatuur (Breda, 2003) YF.2005.b.2101

Michiel van Kempen, Anton de Kom. Boek ‘Wij slaven van Suriname’ at literatuurgeschiedenis.org 

Anton de Kom, Wij slaven van Suriname. 8th ed. (Amsterdam, 1991) – with a preface by Anton’s daughter Judith de Kom. The verso of the title page mentions the publication year of the second edition as 1977, where it was 1971.

Anton de Kom, Wij slaven van Suriname; met een voorwoord van John Jansen van Galen. 10th ed. (Amsterdam, 2001). YA.2002.a.34205.

Anton de Kom, Wij slaven van Suriname, inleidingen Tessa Leuwsha, Mitchell Esajas, Duco van Oostrum. 22nd ed. (Amsterdam, 2021)

Tessa Leuwsha, Plantage Wildlust (Amsterdam, 2020) YF.2021.a.13192.

Tessa Leuwsha, Fansi’s Stilte : een Surinaamse grootmoeder en de slavernij. 4th ed. (Amsterdam, 2018). YF.2022.a.3364.

Nicole-Rachelle Moore, Sarah Garrod, & Sarah White, Dream to change the world: the life & legacy of John La Rose : the book of the exhibition. (London, 2018) YK.2019.b.783

Rob Woortman and Alice Boots ‘De geschiedenis van een manuscript: De wording van Wij slaven van Suriname van Anton de Kom’, OSO Tijdschrift for Surinaamse taalkunde, letterkunde en geschiedenis, Vol. 29, 2010 , pp 30-48. Available in full from the Databank Nederlandse Literatuur.

Duco van Oostrom, ‘“Someone willing to listen to me”: Anton de Kom’s Wij Slaven van Suriname (1934) and the “We” of Dutch post-colonial literature in African American literary context’ Dutch Crossing: Journal of Low Countries Studies, Volume 44: Number 1 (2020) pp 45-80, and available online via the White Rose University Consortium.

11 October 2023

Jon Fosse, 2023 Nobel Literature Laureate

This year’s Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to the Norwegian writer Jon Fosse. Like many recent European Nobel literature laureates, Fosse is not a particularly familiar name in the UK, although his work has been translated into English, especially in recent years. His plays have also been performed here, although not with the regularity or success that they have enjoyed in French- and German-speaking Europe.

Black-and-white photographic portrait of Jon Fosse

Jon Fosse in 2020. Image from Wikimedia Commons 

Fosse has been talked about as a possible Nobel winner before. In 2013 bookmakers briefly suspended betting on the outcome of the prize when Fosse’s odds suddenly shortened. In the event, the prize went to Alice Munro. In an interview with The Guardian the following year, Fosse claimed that not winning had been something of a relief, explaining, “Normally, they give it to very old writers, and there's a wisdom to that – you receive it when it won't affect your writing.”

Ten years on from that interview, however, Fosse’s turn for the Nobel award has come, his writing clearly unaffected by the many other major Norwegian and European literary prizes that he has already won. The Nobel citation describes the award as being “for his innovative plays and prose which give voice to the unsayable” and the jury commended Fosse on his “powerful, demanding and innovative way of writing in every literary genre”.

Born in 1959 in the south-western Norwegian town of Haugesund, Fosse studied at the University of Bergen and published his first novel, Raudt, Svart (‘Red, Black’; X.950/40748) in 1983. 1994 saw the premiere of his first play Og aldri skal vi skiljast (‘And We’ll Never be Parted’; YA.1995.a.10390), and in the following years Fosse became perhaps best known – especially outside Norway – primarily as a dramatist. However, he continued to write novels, as well as essays, poetry and children’s books, and has also translated fiction, drama and poetry from English, German and French.

As an internationally-acclaimed Norwegian playwright, Fosse has inevitably been compared with Henrik Ibsen, but his work has more in common with that of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter – both of whose work Fosse has translated. It may come as a surprise to discover that Fosse has also in fact translated Ibsen. Fosse writes in Nynorsk, one of the two standard versions of the Norwegian language and in 2018 published a Nynorsk translation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. Nynorsk is commonly used by only 10-15% of the Norwegian population, so Fosse’s choice to make it the language of his considerable and much-awarded body of work is an important one linguistically and politically. His Nobel Prize is one of the few awarded to a writer who works in what can be termed a ‘minority language’.

Cover of Fosse's translation of Peer Gynt into Nynorsk

Cover of Fosse's translation of Peer Gynt into Nynorsk (Oslo, 2018; YF.2019.a.3404)

Apart from titles by Fosse in both variants of Norwegian, we hold translations of his works, as well as commentaries and analyses in French, German, Danish, Swedish and Hungarian. Norwegian Bokmål is best represented with 59 titles, spanning his whole career and all genres. English translations of Fosse’s works include his masterpiece Septologien (Septology), a novel in seven parts, translated by Damion Searls and published in three volumes, each with their own title: Vols I-II The Other Name (2019; ELD.DS.698283), vols III-V I Is Another (2020; ELD.DS.674395) and vols VI-VII A New Name (2021; ELD.DS.645346). All three translations were published in a single volume in 2022. Septology is an epic story about the nature of art and God, alcoholism (Fosse has struggled with alcohol addiction), friendship, love and the passing of time. In 2022 the translation of volumes VI-VII  was nominated for the International Booker Prize. What is most remarkable about it is that it is written in a single sentence!

Cover of Septology I-VII

Cover of Septology I-VII (London, 2022) ELD.DS.756035

A number of recordings of performances of his plays are held in our Sound and Vision collections, for example Rêves d’automne (a French translation of Draum om hausten), directed by Patrice Chéreau, which was performed at Rennes in 2011. A recording issued in 2013 is held at 1DVD0010010. Productions of Fosse’s plays in Romania (Rêves d’automne amongst them) are discussed alongside interviews with Fosse in a French-language study La scène roumaine.

Photograph of a performance of Reves d'Automne

Scene from Rêves d’automnereproduced in La scène roumaine: les défis de la liberté (Brussels, 2010) LF.31.b.10691.

In German we hold a study score of the opera Morgen und Abend (‘Morning and Evening’) by Georg Friedrich Haas, with a libretto by Fosse, translated by Hinrich Schmidt-Henkel. It was a combined commission by the Royal Opera in London and the Deutsche Oper in Berlin and is on based on Fosse’s novella of the same title, Morgon og kveld (Oslo, 2000; YA.2002.a.11394). 

All these and more are available in our reading rooms – accessible with a free reader’s pass, six days a week. Fosse’s Nobel Prize will no doubt help to swell the body of translations of his work and of and secondary literature. We will continue to acquire these for our collections, as well of course as Fosse’s work in the original Nynorsk.

Susan Reed and Marja Kingma, Germanic Collections Curators

Cover of Kvitleik

Cover of Fosse’s most recent work, Kvitleik (Oslo, 2023) YF.2023.a.21631

31 March 2023

Ingvar Ambjørnsen’s rare debut work Pepsikyss

Best known for his young adult series Pelle og Proffen and the ‘Elling’ series of novels, Ingvar Ambjørnsen’s first work hardly had the same impact in its own time but is now thought of as Norway’s rarest post-war work. Pepsikyss is a weird and wonderful collection of poems and drawings, which Ambjørnsen produced, published and distributed on the streets of Bergen for three Norwegian Krone each in 1976. Now, if you can even find a copy, they fetch thousands of times that price.

Front Cover of Pepsikyss with a cartoon image of a human-toilet hybrid

Front cover, Ingvar Ambjørnsen’s Pepsikyss ([Bergen, 1976]), RF.2023.a.77

The library has recently acquired a pristine copy of this rarity. Copies of Pepsikyss are hard to come by, with about 200 or so in existence, after Ambjørnsen threw away half of his 500-copy print run once he had recouped his printing expenses and was finished with his experiment. Reviewed in the countercultural magazine Gateavisa, it is not quite true that it made no impact. Its DIY, anti-establishment ethos with accompanying psychedelic drawings struck a chord with a cult audience. Although it was not until 1981 when Ambjørnsen officially debuted with his novel 23-salen.

Decorated page with a contents list in the mouth of a bearded figure

Contents page with the message in the corner, ‘To hell with the publishing capital!’

While Ambjørnsen always saw himself as a writer (despite an early-career foray into horticulture), it might have taken a while to get used to the idea of a publisher, judging by the note on Pepsikyss’s inside cover: ‘TIL HELVETE MED FORLAGS KAPITALEN’ – to hell with the publishing capital!

Poem 'En plass i solen' with illustration of a top-hatted rat

Poem, En plass I solen, with accompanying drawing

The young poet picks off the symbols of capitalist society and government in his direct, unflinching language. En plass i solen, the opening poem, features an image of a top-hatted rat sucking the dismembered head of poor society, as he basks in the sunshine of wealth. The poem ends with society waiting ‘in the shadows of commercial buildings and banks’ for a new day. Perhaps a little too in your face but the tone is certainly set for the rest of the collection.

Back cover of Pepsikyss with a decorated border and a 3-faced head

Back cover

The title poem, Pepsikyss, is, as you might expect about a kiss at a party from a woman who’d just had a sip of what Ambjørnsen at the end calls ‘Nixon piss’. The rest of the poem is a description of a visceral party feeling and he is here and in other poems like Rolle, keen to capture something of the immediacy and buzz of love, friendship and partying.
The collection includes a comic strip Underlige Jensen and a piece of prose, more a playlet featuring the ‘prodigal son’ and the ‘prodigal father’, Fortapte familie, which closes the book.

Pepsikyss joins a wide range of publications by Ingvar Ambjørnsen in the library’s collections, and is a precursor to the author’s continued preoccupation with outsider characters and the margins of society. It is a cross between free, unfiltered, doodled naivety and studied social criticism. Yet its content is only part of a story that took this copy from the streets of Bergen to the stacks of the BL.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic collections

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