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315 posts categorized "Literature"

12 February 2019

The Archbishop and the Rogue: William Laud’s copy of ‘Guzmán de Alfarache’

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William Laud (1573-1645) is best known for his role in English religious and political history. He also amassed a considerable library which he presented to the Bodleian Library. The 1000-odd manuscripts have been well studied. His printed books less so, and one at least of them is in the British Library, purchased in 1859.

Laud Guzman tp

 Title-page of Mateo Alemán, Primera parte de Guzman de Alfarache … (Madrid, 1600) 12491.e.12

The catalogue states confidently: “Ms. notes [by Archbishop Laud]”. His signature is perfectly clear on the title page. Compare another sample:

Laud signature Hurd library
A book with Laud’s signature, from the Hurd Library in the former Bishop’s Palace at Hartlebury Castle, Worcestershire.

The copy of Guzmán, or more correctly the first part of it (from ch 1 to the beginning of ch 8 (fol. 50v) out of 207), is full of interlinear manuscript notes which supply English translations of certain phrases. I’m not qualified to judge whether the hand is Laud’s, but the annotations certainly seem early.

Was Guzmán suitable reading for a clergyman? It’s a picaresque novel which recounts in the first person the vicissitudes of a protagonist of the criminal classes. It can be placed with fiction which teaches a moral. It’s interesting that Lincoln Cathedral Library also has Guzmán in Spanish, and in Italian, and also the apocryphal Second Part (Shaw A384, A385, M481). They’re thought to have belonged to another man of the church, Dean Michael Honywood (1597-1681) (Hurst ix-xi). Dr Williams’s Library in Gordon Square also has two parts of Guzmán in Spanish, which likely belonged to ejected minister Dr William Bates (Taylor 37).

Guzmán isn’t easy reading, and it’s perfectly understandable why our annotator felt the need for some glosses. But as with pretty much all such annotations, it’s hard to divine why he translates some words and not others. He seems not to have concentrated on hard words: is it because he didn’t understand them? By the way, I didn’t find any match with James Mabbe’s translation, The Rogue, of 1622 (12489.m.8.).

Laud Guzman f.1 The opening of Guzmán in Laud’s copy, with annotations. A transcription follows below:

El deseo que tenía, curioso lector, de contarte mi vida me daba tanta priesa \haste/ para engolfarte \thee/ en ella sin prevenir algunas cosas que, como primer principio, es bien dejarlas entendidas -- porque siendo esenciales a este discurso también te serán de no pequeño gusto - -, que me olvidaba de cerrar un portillo \little back door/ por donde me pudiera entrar acusando cualquier terminista de mal latín, redarguyéndome de pecado, porque no procedí de la difinición a lo difinido, y antes de contarla \my life/ no dejé dicho \I did not leave it said/ quiénes y cuáles fueron mis padres y confuso nacimiento; que en su tanto, \in as much as it contaynes/ si dellos hubiera \one hadd/ de escribirse, fuera sin duda más agradable y bien recibida que esta mía. Tomaré por mayor lo más importante, dejando lo que no me es lícito, para que otro haga la baza.
Y aunque a ninguno conviene tener la propiedad de la hiena, que se sustenta desenterrando cuerpos muertos, yo aseguro, según hoy hay en el mundo censores, que no les falten coronistas. Y no es de maravillar que aun esta pequeña sombra \shadow/ querrás della inferir que les corto de tijera \that I cutt or pare with shears/ y temerariamente me darás mil atributos, que será el menor dellos tonto o necio, porque, no guardando mis faltas, mejor descubriré las ajenas. Alabo tu razón por buena; pero quiérote advertir que, aunque me tendrás por malo, no lo quisiera parecer -- que es peor serlo y honrarse dello \with it/--, y que, contraviniendo a un tan santo precepto como el cuarto, del honor y reverencia que les debo, quisiera cubrir mis flaquezas con las de mis mayores; pues nace \proceeds/ de viles y bajos pensamientos tratar de honrarse con afrentas ajenas, según de ordinario se acostumbra: lo cual condeno por necedad \folly/ solemne de siete capas \seven fold/ como fiesta doble. Y no lo puede ser mayor, pues descubro \since I discover/mi punto, no salva mi yerro \the error/ el de mi vecino o deudo \kinsman/, y siempre vemos vituperado el maldiciente. Mas a mí \as for me/ no me sucede así, porque, adornando la historia, siéndome necesario \as I shall have cause/, todos dirán \all will say/: “bien haya el \blessed be he/ que a los suyos parece \is like/”, llevándome estas bendiciones de camino.

Laud obviously cast his linguistic net wide. He promoted Hebrew and Arabic studies, and owned a pre-Colombian Mexican screenfold ms, Codex Laud (in the Bodleian, MS. Laud Misc. 678). Unfortunately it’s not known where he got it from.

Archbishop Laud 1762.a.1.Portrait of Laud, from a collection of 279 coloured portraits engraved by Baltasar Moncornet (Paris [1650-1660]) 1762.a.1.

Whether or not owner and annotator are the same, this book is a witness to the possession and reading of a Spanish classic when it was hot off the press.

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Languages

References/further reading

David J. Shaw (gen. ed.), The Cathedral Libraries Catalogue, Vol. 2, Books printed on the continent of Europe, before 1701 in the libraries of the Anglican cathedrals of England and Wales (London, 1998). 2725.g.310

Clive Hurst, Catalogue of the Wren Library of Lincoln Cathedral: books printed before 1801 (Cambridge, 1982). 2725.p.47

Barry Taylor, ‘Los libros españoles del Dr. William Bates (1625-1699) en la Dr. Williams’s Library de Londres’, in El libro español en Londres: la visión de España en Inglaterra (siglos XVI al XIX), ed. Nicolás Bas and Barry Taylor (Valencia, 2016), pp. 13-60. YF.2017.a.19281

On Laud’s oriental mss in Bodleian:
https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/search/archives/f95d440c-5254-3338-9417-d1f290471378

08 February 2019

A Cat may Counsel a King: the Colourful World of Czech Cats

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Appropriately for a culture famous in later years for its lively animated films, talking animals were not slow to make themselves heard in Czech. Indeed, one of the first cats to find a voice expresses itself in that very language – in Smil Flaška’s Nová rada, written in the late 14th century. In this allegorical poem, the young king (the lion of Bohemia, symbolizing Václav IV), summons a ‘new council’ of birds and beasts to advise him how best to rule. Each of them offers advice appropriate to its natural qualities, including a wily and subtle cat who suggests that every king requires a cunning spy capable of seeing by night and keeping a watchful eye out for the criminals and murderers who perform their nefarious deeds under the cover of darkness – and who could be better suited to this important role than the cat?

Flaska Cup.502.aa.12

 

 Wood engraving by Antonín Strnadl from Smil Flaška z Pardubic, Nová rada, translated into modern Czech by František Vrba (Prague, 1940) Cup.502.aa.12

Although this urbane courtier is a native Bohemian cat, many of the most appealing and characterful examples in the long tradition of Czech illustration were created to accompany works by foreign authors. Among these, one of the most delightful is a very French cat depicted by František Tichý on the frontispiece of a Czech translation of Marcel Aymé’s Les Contes du chat perché, draped over the branch of an apple tree with a languid and knowing air.

Ayme RF.2000.b.66Illustration by František Tichý to Marcel Aymé, Co vyprávěla kočka na jabloňové větvi (Prague, 1939) RF.2000.b.66 

A few years earlier, Marie Majerová had published Veselá kniha zviřátek (‘The Jolly Book of Animals’), a collection of children’s stories based on English material. However, the cats depicted by Josef Lada, famous for his illustrations to The Good Soldier Švejk, bear a decidedly Czech stamp in the scene where a small boy named Jenda, in the middle of a dull afternoon when his brother and sister are suffering from colds and disinclined to play, finds himself transported to the magical Kingdom of Cats and becomes its king.

Vesela kniha zviratek X.998-3707

Jenda becomes king of the Kingdom of Cats. Illustration by Josef Lada’s from Marie Majerová, Veselá kniha zviřátek (Prague, 1933) X.998/3707

Like their English counterparts, where kittens lose their mittens and cats play fiddles and go to London to visit the Queen, Czech nursery-rhymes frequently feature cats in a starring role:

The cat took a husband,
The dog took a bride;
As groomsman our gelding
Limped at his side;
With him, as the bridesmaid,
There walked our old mare;
She gave him a nosegay
And kerchief to wear.

(This translation © Susan Reynolds 2019.)

Lada’s illustration for Karel Jaromír Erben’s Národní říkadla (‘National Nursery-Rhymes’) shows a demure white cat in wreath and veil stepping out on her bridegroom’s arm while the farm animals look on in admiration. In another picture, while their father and mother tuck into bowls of porridge and peas on top of the stove, three kittens sit in a row beneath them wearing their best bows and expressions of marked annoyance at being given nothing to eat. With a few skilful strokes Lada captures their disgruntled air as adroitly as he does the dumb insolence of Švejk and the unmistakably Czech features of the peasants who people his almanacs.

Narodni rikadlaIllustration by Josef Lada from Karel Jaromír Erben, Národní říkadla (Prague, 1921) LB.31.b.12138.

Dressed in bridal finery, advising the king of beasts or conferring royal honours on their newly-crowned human sovereign, all these cats are creatures of the imagination with very human features. One of the most charming portrayals of a cat in modern Czech literature, however, is taken directly from life. To English-speaking readers Karel Čapek may be most familiar as the creator of robots in his play R.U.R., but he was also a keen gardener and a great animal-lover (like another famous Czech author, Bohumil Hrabal, whose country home was a haven for cats). In his 1932 collection Devatero Pohádek a ještě jedna od Josefa Čapka jako přívažek (‘Nine Fairy Tales: And One More Thrown in for Good Measure’; 5th ed. 1946 at X.990/4608), he too conjures up a world in which cats enjoy adventures equal to any of those previously described.

It is in a later work, though, that Čapek reveals his true understanding of animals – Měl jsem psa a kočku (Prague, 1939; YF.2005.a.31524). Like the earlier book, it was translated into English within a short time by Robert and Marie Weatherall and became popular among British readers because of its dry, understated humour and affectionate depiction of the author’s pets. Like E. T. A. Hoffmann, the creator of Kater Murr, and his wife, Karel and Olga Čapek were childless, and it is tempting to assume that for them too animals represented surrogate children. Yet there is nothing mawkish about the ironic amusement with which Čapek describes the behaviour of his dog and cat, to which he brings the same detached, quizzical approach that he applies to the English, the Spanish or the Dutch in his various travel writings. Whether chronicling the wooing of his pet by caterwauling tomcats or the antics of the resulting litter of kittens, Čapek’s light and laconic style is perfectly partnered by that of his brother Josef’s drawings.

Capek 7294.de.34 Cat & kittens

  Illustrations by Josef Čapek to Karel Čapek, I Had a Dog and a Cat (London, 1940) 7294.de.34

Capek 7294.de.34 Kittens

For all their baffling and sometimes maddening idiosyncrasies, it is clear that for Čapek his feline friends were the cat’s whiskers – and who are we to disagree?

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

 

01 February 2019

Unlocking Access to Ancient Science in Renaissance Italy: the vernacularization of Pliny’s ‘Historia Naturalis’

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In most cases, literary works which have marked a turning point, a watershed moment in the history of literature, are new and original creations. However, in some cases, a similar literary outburst has come from a translation rather than the original text. It will suffice to recall the Latin version of the Bible by St. Jerome at the end of the 4th century, the so-called Vulgate and the enormous historical and cultural impact it had on Western Europe at the time.

A less known case, but no less historically important in its impact on the formation of the European Renaissance culture, is the vulgarization of the Naturalis Historia by Pliny the Elder published in 1476 by the Florentine humanist Cristoforo Landino, on which new light has been shed from the recent study of the Italian philologist Antonino Antonazzo in his Il volgarizzamento pliniano di Cristoforo Landino. (Messina, 2018; YF.2019.b.21).

Landino study

In a period which witnessed the rediscovery of classical literature, through the revival of Greek and Latin authors fallen into oblivion during the Middle Ages, the translation of Pliny’s text truly marked an epochal event: Landino’s great historical merit was to make a grandiose 37-volume encyclopedia of Greek-Roman antiquity accessible in the vernacular for the first time: the editio princeps of the translation is a monumental 830-page folio volume.

The British Library holds two copies at shelfmarks IC.19693 and C.3.d.2.

Pliny IC.19693 Dedication Translator’s dedication (f.2) from Historia naturale di C. Plinio Secondo tradocta di lingua Latina in Fiorentina per Christophoro Landino (Venice, 1476) Above: IC.19693 ; below: C.3.d2.

Pliny C.3.d.2

Landino’s laborious work filled an important cultural void that could no longer wait. Many readers from different backgrounds benefited from it: poets, such as Luigi Pulci; artists – to name one, Leonardo da Vinci; and even explorers such as Christopher Columbus. The aftermath was so great throughout Europe, that Landino’s translation remained the only vernacular translation of Naturalis historia for almost a century: the first French translation was published in 1562 (Antoine du Pinet), the English was published in 1601 (Philemon Holland ), the Spanish in 1624 (Gerónimo de Huerta) and a complete German translation as late as 1764 (Johann Daniel Denso).

Pliny IC.19693 Preface
Opening of Pliny’s preface from Historia Naturale (IC.19693)

The Florentine vernacularization became a key work because it placed itself at the confluence of many questions until then unanswered: was it acceptable to translate classical literary works into the very vernacular used in everyday life by common people? How to translate a peculiar lexicon of scientific disciplines, such as astronomy, meteorology, zoology, botany, medicine and mineralogy?

And, among the many vernaculars spoken in the regions of Italy, which one was the most suitable? The debate around this last question was in fact now centuries old: it had been a burning one since the origins of Italian literature in the 13th century and had left many conflicting theories; Dante Alighieri in his unfinished De Vulgari Eloquentia (1303-04) reviewed 14 Italian vernaculars in order to identify the most ‘illustrious’ and suitable for poetry, and ended up discarding them all, including the Florentine itself – which is the reason why scholars believe he interrupted the work, the theory conflicting with the practice, as the Divine Comedy would demonstrate.

Cristoforo_Landino_-_Wikimedia

 Portrait of Cristoforo Landino from a fresco by Domenico Ghirlandaio in the Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence, ca 1486-90. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Landino’s translation answered all these questions, and even though it did not please some humanists, it was received with enthusiasm by the general public. A significant example of this is its success with a female public, as we read in Giovanni Sabadino degli Arienti’s description of his wife with her books in Gynevera de le clare donne.

...havea piacere assai in audire legere li versi de Virgilio; legea lei voluntiera Plinio de naturali hystoria, posto in materna lingua, et de li libri spirituali et sancti.
[...she very much enjoyed having Virgil’s verses read to her; she gladly read Pliny’s Naturalis Historia in her mother tongue, and holy and spiritual books...]

The relevance of this testimony is reinforced by the reaction of Francesco Florido Sabino, who, 60 years later, in his Apologia in Marci Actii Plauti aliorumque poetarum et linguae Latinae calumniatores, cursed Landino for allowing not just anybody access to Pliny’s work, but even to women. (See Antonazzo’s study p. 50)

Landino’s intention to reach a wide audicence is expressed in his dedicatory letter to the King of Naples Ferrante d’Aragona, which begins with these words:

Essendo gli animi nostri per loro natura di tanta celerità quanta né mia né altra lingua exprimere non poterebbe, né essendo altro cibo che gli pasca et nutrisca se non la cognitione, chi non vede che nessuna più grata chosa può alloro adivenire che havere vera scientia di tutte le cose?
[Our soul in its nature being as rapid as neither mine nor any other language can express, and there being no other nourishment that satisfies and feeds as cognition does, how can anyone not see that there is nothing that makes it happier than the true knowledge of all things?]

Giuseppe Alizzi, Curator Romance Collections

References

Dante Alighieri, De vulgari eloquentia, a cura di Enrico Fenzi, con la collaborazione di Luciano Formisano e Francesco Montuori (Rome, 2012) YF.2013.a.25815

Sabadino Degli Arienti, Gynevera de le clare donne (Bologna, 1888). 12226.de.8.(1.)

Francesco Florido Sabino, In M. Actii Plauti aliorumque Scriptorum calumniatores apologia ... (Basle, 1540) C.81.i.9.

29 January 2019

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

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

Kater Murr 1820 12548.bbb.17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25 January 2019

‘Tom Puss, conjure up a trick!’

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Our ‘Cats on the Page’ exhibition features several items on clever and cunning cats. It is probably fair to say that the most famous amongst them is Puss in Boots. He is represented in a charming pop-up book by Vojtěch Kubašta,  published in London in 1958 (W.E.d.692)

But did you know that the Dutch cherish an equally clever, cunning and cool cat? His name is Tom Poes, created by Marten Toonder (1912-2005)

TomPoes2MToonder Portrait of Marten Toonder by Kippa, from Was Tom Poes maar hier (Amsterdam, 2006) YF.2008.a.18079.

Toonder may never have guessed that the doodles of various animal figures he made one day out of sheer boredom would lead to 45 years of newspaper cartoons, cartoon strips, books, films, merchandise, illegal copies of his works, as well as to a statue of his little cat hero in the Rotterdam street where he was born.

TomPoes3shapes The first incarnation of Tom Poes, reproduced in Marten Toonder Heer Bommel en ik (Amstelveen, 2017) YF.2018.a.15780.

The doodles were filed away in a drawer where they lay forgotten, until a Dutch national newspaper, De Telegraaf, asked Toonder to write and illustrate a daily cartoon. Looking for inspiration he found the drawings and decided to give the little cat a try. His wife Phiny Dick, pen name of Afine Kornélie Dik, suggested the name ‘Tom Poes’ and it was she who wrote the first Tom Poes story, Het Geheim der Blauwe Aarde (‘The Secret of the Blue Earth’), which was published on 16 March 1941. However, she soon handed the whole enterprise over to Marten.

Very soon, during his third adventure (‘In the Magic Garden’, 1941) Tom Poes met the brown bear Olie B. Bommel, a ‘gentleman of standing’, for whom ‘money is of no importance’. Tom Poes and he become inseparable and Bommel became more popular than Tom Poes during their many adventures.

TomPoes4OBBommel Olie B. Bommel, detail from the cover of a publisher’s flyer for Marten Toonder: Alle verhalen van Olivier B. Bommel and Tom Poes

Bas van der Schot compared the couple to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in Was Tom Poes maar hier (‘If Only Tom Poes Were Here’), a homage to Marten Toonder, published in 2006, a year after his death.

TomPoes5YinYangTom Poes and Olie B Bommel as Yin and Yang, by Bas van der Schot, from Was Tom Poes maar hier (Amsterdam, 2006) YF.2008.a.18079.

Olie B. Bommel may be fantastically wealthy, but he is not very clever, nor is he in touch with the ‘real world’. It is Tom Poes who has the brains, always keeps his cool, and gets them out of many a pickle. ‘Conjure a trick, Tom Poes!’ is another phrase that has entered the Dutch vernacular, which almost literally means the same as Baldrick’s ‘I have a cunning plan’.

TomPoes6VerzineenList

Cover of Marten Toonder,Verzin toch eens een list (Amsterdam, 1973) X.990/6049

De Telegraaf insisted Marten Toonder used the format of the text cartoon by which the text is printed underneath the illustrations, rather than in speech balloons. This format had been invented by the Swiss teacher, author, artist and cartoonist Rodolphe Töpffer, who was famous in the Netherlands for his Histoire de Monsieur Cryptogame, which was actually the very first cartoon to feature in Dutch newspapers. In Calvinist Holland speech balloon strips were frowned upon well into the 20th Century, but text cartoons were just about acceptable.

TomPoes7Textstrip2 Example of text strip in newspaper De Telegraaf. Reproduced in Marten Toonder, De Andere Wereld (Amsterdam, 1982) X.958/14755.

Toonder perfected Töpffer’s format by treating text and illustrations as equal, so the reader needed both to make sense of the story.

Right from the start Tom Poes was translated into various languages: Swedish and Czech were the first, published in 1941, soon followed by French, Spanish and some British titles. The Loch Ness Monster, published in Tom Puss Comics is one example.

TomPoes8TPComicsCover of Tom Puss Comics (London, 1949) 12831.g.31.

Over 45 years Toonder wrote 177 Tom Poes / Olie B. Bommel stories. The newspaper strips became known as the ‘Bommel Saga.’

A sign of its popularity is the Toonderstripkatalogus (‘Toonder cartoon catalogue’), meticulously detailing all manifestations of the Tom Poes stories; in newspapers, in weekly magazines, in book form, in translation and in other media, accompanied by a history of Toonder and his creations.

TomPoes9Bommelbibliografie Title page of H. R. Mondria, Bommelbibliografie. 2nd ed. (‘The Hague, 1974) X:908/80234

In his study of Toonder and the Bommel Saga, Henk R. Mondria discusses whether Tom Poes can be considered to be ‘Literature’. He answers in the affirmative. His arguments are that Olie B. Bommel is a rounded character, Toonder is a language virtuoso and the stories always have deeper layers than just the plot line. Furthermore, literary critics wrote polemics about this burning question, which is a sure sign of the literary value of Tom Poes.

Then, in 2008 the publisher De Bezige Bij embarked on a project of re-issuing all Tom Poes stories in a series Marten Toonder: alle verhalen van Olie B. Bommel en Tom Poes, plus commentary, in 60 volumes. The last volume was published in 2018: Als dat maar goed gaat (‘What could possibly go wrong?’). That settles the discussion once and for all; Tom Poes is well and truly part of the Dutch literary canon!

TomPoes10AlleVerhalenFront cover of a publisher’s flyer for Marten Toonder: Alle verhalen van Olivier B. Bommel and Tom Poes

Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections

References / Further reading

Wim Hazeu, Marten Toonder: biografie (Amsterdam, 2012) On order.

Marten Toonder, Vroeger was de aarde plat: autobiografie. (Amsterdam, 2010) ZA.9.a.5120

Marten Toonder, Alle Verhalen (Amsterdam, 2008-2018). 60 vols. Individual volumes held at various shelfmarks.

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

23 January 2019

Agustín Fernández Mallo and the Nocilla Project

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The Spanish writer Agustín Fernández Mallo, who will be coming to speak at the British Library Knowledge Centre on 24 January along with his translator, Thomas Bunstead, and myself, is part of an elite group of writers after whom entire generations have been named. In this case, however, we speak not of the ‘Fernández Mallo generation’ but of the ‘Nocilla generation’.

Mallo
Photograph of Agustín Fernández Mallo  by Aina Lorente Solivellas

Nocilla is the name of a Spanish delicacy similar in every way to Nutella, and the title Mallo gave to his literary project, made up of three separate books: Nocilla Dream, Nocilla Experience and Nocilla Lab. It is also the subject of a song by the Spanish punk band Siniestro Total, the lyrics of which can be reproduced in their entirety here:

Es la merendilla que nos gusta más; es tan suavecita, que gusto nos da Nocilla, que merendilla!
Mamá, más!
Nocilla que merendilla!
(This is something to the effect of: “We love having Nocilla for tea, it’s really delicious, Mum, give us some more Nocilla!”)

And yet the Nocilla project is also a far-reaching and ambitious one which shook up Spanish letters at a time when many felt that the Spanish novel was in dire straits. This juxtaposition of pop culture, advertising, and high-minded, self-declared literary ambition, is at the heart of these books, which with their rapidly-shifting mixture of quotations (some modified, some verbatim), Wikipedia-sourced research, counter-histories and total fantasy seek not just to tell a story, but to explore new pathways for narrative in the infinitely fragmented reality of the 21st century. Like Joyce and others before him, Fernández Mallo insists that he is a realist, and that the style and structure of his work is only as unusual and vertigo-inducing as the augmented reality we all inhabit. In one interview, he said: “When I use the term ‘complex realism’, what I’m suggesting is that the writer must be realist, always realist, but not realist in the sense we have usually used the term in literature. If reality today is different from the reality of 30 years ago, we can’t keep describing reality in the same way as we did 30 years ago.”

Mallo Nocilla Dream
Cover of Agustín Fernández Mallo, Nocilla Dream (Canet de Mar, Barcelona, 2006) YF.2007.a.32878

One critic has described the experience of reading the books as akin to “having multiple browser windows open and compulsively tabbing between them”, and Bunstead, in his translator’s preface to the trilogy’s American edition, has described Fernández Mallo as “the first Spanish author to go viral”.

Mallo was no stranger to controversy before Nocilla, having already caused a minor upset with his previous book, El Hacedor (de Borges): Remake, in which the layout (but not the actual contents) match those of the Argentine author’s 1960 collection of poems and short prose texts. The book was ultimately withdrawn after a complaint from Borges’ notoriously litigious widow María Kodama.

So as we mark the publication of Nocilla Lab in a (highly accomplished) English translation, I don’t think we’d be wrong to called the author himself a sort of translator, one who, like Borges’s own Pierre Menard makes us look again at familiar words and text through a process of radical deracination and repositioning.

All this and more will be discussed at the event in the Knowledge Centre. Tickets are still available; you can find more information and book here

Rahul Bery, British Library Translator in Residence

References:

Agustín Fernández Mallo, Proyecto Nocilla (Madrid, 2013). YF.2014.a.194. The three novels Nocilla Dream, Nocilla Experience and Nocilla Lab published in one volume.

Agustín Fernández Mallo, Nocilla Dream, translated by Thomas Bunstead (London, 2015) H.2017/.6518

Agustín Fernández Mallo, Nocilla Experience, translated by Thomas Bunstead (London, 2015) H.2017/.6136

Agustín Fernández Mallo, Nocilla Lab, translated by Thomas Bunstead (London, 2019) Awaiting shelfmark

Agustín Fernández Mallo, El Hacedor (de Borges): Remake (Madrid, 2011) YF.2011.a.15220

11 January 2019

Katharina Luther and a Letter to a Laureate

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Checking and correcting catalogue records can lead down some interesting pathways. Recently I was looking at records for books by the German theologian Johann Friedrich Mayer (1650-1712) and was keen to untangle, among others, the records for three editions of a Latin dissertation on the life of Katharina Luther, first published in Hamburg in 1698. A note, which had become attached to all three records in the online catalogue, mentioned ‘a MS letter from F. Martin to Robert Southey’. As well as wanting to make clear which edition really did include the letter, I also wondered what its contents were. 

The letter turned out to be in the first of the three editions, and having sorted out the catalogue records, I settled down to see what ‘F. Martin’ – actually Frederick Martin – had to say. His letter, dated 21 March 1831, shows that he was sending the book as a gift to Southey. He begins by expressing his hope that Southey ‘may be a stranger to the charms for which “Maister Martin Luther” was content to risk the gibes of sir T. More’. (These ‘gibes’ were in fact vicious attacks by Thomas More on Luther’s marriage: he described it, among other things, as ‘whoredom’.)

Martin letter 1
The opening of Martin’s letter

Martin casts doubt on the accuracy of Katharina’s portrait on the title page, speculating that ‘the features … were … collected … nose from one, chin from another’, although he acknowledges that ‘they tally sufficiently with the monumental effigy [an engraving of Katharina’s tomb] further on.’ In fact the title-page portrait is a reproduction – albeit a rather clumsy one – of a portrait of Katharina by Lucas Cranach.

Martin Mayer tp
Title-page of Johann Friedrich Mayer, De Catharina Lutheri conjuge dissertatio (Hamburg, 1698). 1371.c.29. 

The letter continues in a slightly whimsical vein, with Martin conflating book and subject as he offers the former to Southey:

As she was no Wife of Bath and will cause no great expense of bookroom, it is her prayer hereafter on your shelves to be protected from the anti-Protestant worm which, during a long seclusion from air and light, has dared nibble a corner of her garment.

Despite this suggestion of damage, the book is in very good condition with no obvious wormholes.

Martin goes on to mention other volumes that he is planning to send to Southey. He explains that, since he cannot find ‘a convoy answering the two conditions of going near, yet not to, Keswick’, he intends to ‘commit them to the good offices of the Kendal guard.’  After offering his ‘best compliments to Mrs Southey’, he then signs off, but adds a brief postscript to the effect that he is not ‘in the least likely to want Warton or his two companions’ – presumably books which Southey had offered to him.

I was curious as to who Frederick Martin was and how he knew Southey. Neither an online search nor a brief survey of recent biographies and studies of the poet turned up anyone of that name other than a literary critic who was born in 1830 and is therefore not our man. The context of sending books made me briefly wonder if Martin was a bookseller, but the copy of Mayer’s book was clearly being offered as a gift, and it appears that the others are also to be sent as gifts or in exchange for other works rather than sold to Southey. There are no letters to or from any Frederick Martin in the Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey produced by Southey’s son Charles in 1849, and since there is no definitive modern edition of Southey’s complete correspondence – an online edition is in progress, but has only reached 1821 – there seemed little hope of finding other related letters without  far more research than I could spare the time for. 

There was, however, a clue to Martin’s identity in an inscription on the verso of the book’s front endpaper: ‘FM Coll: SS TRIN. 1824’.

Martin inscription
Martin’s ownership inscription in the copy of De Catharina Lutheri conjuge dissertatio

This implies that Frederick Martin was a student or fellow of Trinity College in Oxford, Cambridge or Dublin. I drew a blank with the alumni lists for Oxford and Dublin, but there was a Frederick Martin who entered Trinity College Cambridge in 1822 and received his MA in 1831. He went on to a career in the church and was for 16 years Rector of South Somercotes in Lincolnshire, the epithet given to him in the pre-1975 printed catalogue of the British (Museum) Library, which records three works by him.

Martin BLC
Entry for Frederick Martin in vol. 213 of The British Library general catalogue of printed books to 1975 (London, 1979-1987) HLC 017.21 BMC

If this is the Frederick Martin in question, I still have no clue as to how he knew Southey and how close or lasting their acquaintance was. The letter implies some previous correspondence or meeting between the two, and the light-hearted tone and regards to Southey’s wife suggest a degree of personal acquaintance, although Martin addresses Southey as ‘My Dear Sir’ rather than the ‘Dear Southey’ that a close friend would probably use. 

Whoever Martin was, Southey thought it worth preserving his letter, and did indeed find ‘bookroom’ for Mayer’s work and grant Katharina the protection of his shelves. The book is listed in the catalogue of his library, offered for sale after his death (p. 98, no. 1867), where it is described as a ‘presentation copy, calf, gilt leaves, from Fred. Martin, with a humorous note in his autograph’, and thus it survives in the British Library to this day.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

References/further reading:

The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, edited by his son C. C. Southey (London, 1849-1850)  10855.de.15.

Alumni cantabrigienses: a biographical list of all known students, graduates and holders of office at the University of Cambridge, from the earliest times to 1900, compiled by John Venn and J. A. Venn. (Cambridge, 1922-1954) RAR 378.42

Catalogue of the Valuable Library of the late Robert Southey, Esq., LL.D. Poet Laureate, which will be sold at Auction ... by Messrs. S. Leigh Sotheby & Co. … on Wednesday May 8th, 1844, and fifteen following days (London, [1844]) S.C. Sotheby

08 January 2019

Translating Cultures: French Caribbean History, Literature and Migration

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On 24 September 2018, the British Library welcomed a galaxy of leading specialists to a study day addressing the history, literature and arts of the French Caribbean and its diaspora.

The day kicked off with a comparative overview of Francophone and Anglophone Caribbean colonisation and post-war migrations by keynote speaker Professor H. Adlai Murdoch. French colonisation of the Caribbean was such that by the late 18th century Haiti, an island of 600,000 slaves, produced 60% of the world’s coffee. Despite the abolition of slavery, France retained political power over les Antilles and the legacies of colonisation remain to this day. In 1946 the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe were given the status of départements, i.e. officially part of France. However, when Martiniquans and Guadeloupeans were invited to join the French workforce in the 1960s, they were met with racial prejudice and unfairly treated as immigrants, when they were only moving from the periphery to the centre of their own country. (A finalized version of Professor Murdoch’s presentation is available on the website of the French Studies Library Group).

The morning panel focused on history, heritage and migration. Sophie Fuggle spoke about the legacy of the ‘bagne’ (penal colonies) in French Guiana and ‘dark tourism’, and Antonia Wimbush discussed the French Caribbean’s contribution to the Second World War, events that are left out of official French narratives. Emily Zobel Marshall, the granddaughter of writer Joseph Zobel, movingly read excerpts from letters he wrote to his wife describing his experience as a Martiniquan in Paris in 1946.

Beth Cooper closed the morning’s proceedings with a presentation of the British Library’s exhibition ‘Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land’.

Translating Cultures Emily Zobel Marshall  Emily Zobel Marshall talking about her grandfather Joseph Zobel (Photo by Phoebe Weston-Evans).

The afternoon opened with a panel on Francophone Caribbean literature. Jason Allen-Paisant gave a presentation on French Caribbean theatre and showed us a fascinating video of the first production of Aimé Césaire’s  Le roi Christophe at the Salzburg festival in 1964. Vanessa Lee talked about Suzanne Césaire’s plays, and Kathryn Batchelor looked at how Frantz Fanon’s classic The Wretched of the Earth was disseminated worldwide: the English translation was written in much more accessible language than the original French, which explains its impact in the Anglophone world.

Translating Cultures Jason Allen PaisantJason Allen-Paisant presenting the video of the 1964 production of Le roi Christophe. (Photo by Emily Zobel Marshall).

The state agency in charge of organizing the migration flows from the Antilles to France between 1963 and 1981 was the BUMIDOM (Bureau pour le développement des migrations dans les départements d'outre-mer). Jessica Oublié and Marie-Ange Rousseau, the author and illustrator of the graphic novel Peyi an nou, told us about their research into the small histories of families who came to France. The book originated in Jessica’s desire to record her terminally ill grandfather’s life for a family scrapbook. It rapidly became clear to her that the story of his move to Paris was about much more than one individual, and reflected the destinies of a wider community. The graphic novel thus shows the author’s research process using archives and interviews, “pour relier petite histoire et grande Histoire” (to connect the story with History).

The event concluded with a presentation from Jean-François Manicom on curation and visual arts in the French Caribbean.

Translating Cultures Jessica Oublie - Copy Charles Forsdick introducing Jessica Oublié and Marie-Ange Rousseau. (Photo by Phoebe Weston-Evans).

The study day was rounded off by an evening with Canadian-Haitian writer Dany Laferrière at the Institut français focusing on his book The Enigma of the Return. He reluctantly but jokingly read an excerpt he was not proud of, and talked about his election to the Académie française. Describing Québecois as humble and Haitians as “megalomaniac”, he affirmed that the award was both “beyond him” and “simply not enough”. He is, after all, in his own words, “le plus modeste poète du monde” (the most modest poet in the world).

The study day was 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.


Laura Gallon

Laura Gallon was a PhD placement student at the British Library where she worked on a project assessing holdings of migrant narratives in the North American collections. She is in the second year of her PhD at the University of Sussex looking at contemporary American short fiction by immigrant women writers.

28 December 2018

Two Distinguished Women and a Seasonal Greetings Card Mystery

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While I was looking for a nice seasonal picture (preferably, with lots of snow to compensate for another grey Christmas) to tweet @BL_European, I found this postcard from our collection of Russian Imperial postcards.

Image 1- Vol 11 sleeve 17

Image 1a

Just a standard greeting card in French. The postcard was sent from Kharkiv to Paris on 31 December 1902 and signed by ‘Christine Altchevsky’. The name looked vaguely familiar. Having looked at it more carefully, I realised that the postcard must have been written by either mother or daughter Alchevska on behalf of both of them since they bore the same first name – Khrystyna – and were distinguished women in their generations.

Khrystyna Danylivna Alchevska (1841-1920) was an educator, teacher and a prominent activist for national education in Ukraine and the Russian Empire, vice-president of the International League of Education in Paris.

Christina_D._Alchevskaya
Khrystyna D. Alchevska (image from Wikimedia Commons)

She created and promoted a training methodology, implemented in many schools, established the Kharkiv Women’s Sunday School, the first free girls’ school in Ukraine, which remained in existence for 50 years, and published articles on adult education. Khrystyna Alchevska wrote and taught in Russian and Ukrainian, promoting her native language and culture.

Alchevska - reading group
Khrystyna D. Alchevska teaching a reading class at the Kharkiv Women’s Sunday School (image from Wikimedia Commons)

She also initiated, edited and, as we would call it now, ‘project managed’ a fundamental three-volume annotated bibliography Chto chitat’ narodu? (‘What should people read?’ 1888-1906), to which she contributed 1150 articles and annotations. It is difficult to call this work simply a bibliography, as it is really an interesting combination of bibliographic, encyclopaedic and pedagogical knowledge. The book is divided into subject sections, such as History, Science, Fiction, Religious and Moral literature, Biographies, Geography, etc., and each book is fully described, annotated with certain critiques, and supplied with methodological instructions for teachers, including questions and suggestions for lesson planning. There are also several indexes and tables, including those that recommend texts according to levels of difficulty and suitability for adult and young learners. It is interesting to note that the core contributors to the work were fellow women teachers and educators.

Image 2
A volume of Chto chitat’ narodu? (St Petersburg, 1888) 11907.g.32

Khrystyna Alchevska left very interesting memoirs about her life and the people whom she had met, and corresponded with Leo Tolstoy, Fedor Dostoyevsky and Ivan Turgenev.

A talented and creative woman herself, Khrystyna Danylivna brought up five bright and creative children, among whom were an entrepreneur, a composer, a singer, and a theatre critic. The youngest in the family was Khrystyna (or Khrystia) (1882-1931), who became known as a distinguished Ukrainian poet, translator and educator.

Khrystia
Khrystia Alchevska, from Ukrains’ka literatura mezhi XIX-XX stolit’. Khestomatiia (Kyiv, 2016) YF.2016.a.19260.

1902 was the year when Khrystia’s poems were first published in Ukrainian magazines and almanacs. In 1907, her first book of poems appeared in Moscow and was noted by the maitre of Ukrainian literature of that time Ivan Franko. Later, Khrystyna translated Franko into Russian and French, but he was not the only author that she was interested in. She translated Pushkin and Pierre-Jean de Béranger, Voltaire and Alexey K. Tolstoy, Victor Hugo and Nikolai Ogarev into Ukrainian, and Taras Shevchenko and Pavlo Tychyna into French. In the 1920s she was friendly with Henri Barbusse, under whose influence Krystyna created two verse dramas.

Image 3
A collection of poems ‘To My Land’, K. Alchevska, Moemu kraiu. (Chernivtsi, 1914) 20002.a.9

Unfortunately, I could not find who Madame and Monsieur de Namur (?) of 30, Boulevard Flandrin were and how both Khystynas could have known them. But if someone knows the link between the Alchevskas and this family in Paris, please let us know. But I still like this story with an open ending that old Christmas cards can tell.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

Further reading:

K.D. Alchevska. ‘K russkim zhenshchinam’ (To the Russian Women), Kolokol, 8 March 1863, No. 158. C.127.k.4.

K.D. Alchevska. Peredumannoe i perezhitoe. Dnevniki, pis’ma, vospominaniia. (Moscow, 1912) X.525/82

The Book for Adults (written by the teachers at the Kharkow Sunday school, under the direction of Mme. Christine Altchevsky), and the surroundings which inspired it ... Translated from the French by Mme. Auguste Serraillier. (Paris, 1900) 4193.h.62

Sava Zerkal’. Clematis. [About the Alchevsky family]. (New York, 1964) X.909/5465.

A fairly comprehensive bibliography relating to works by and about the Alchevsky family can be found here: http://mtlib.org.ua/ukazateli/34-semya-alchevskikh.html

30 November 2018

From Culinary Staple to Prophetic Symbol: More on the Herring

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Regular readers of our blog may have noticed something of a herring theme this year, from the significance of the herring in Nordic culture to its symbolic and celebratory consumption at the Dutch festivals of Flag Day and the anniversary of the Relief of Leiden. But so far we have not yet looked at the herring in Germany and on the Southern Baltic shore, particularly as imagined and lived by Günter Grass

In Grass’s Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), Agnes Matzerath develops an unhealthy compulsion to eat fish, following the horror of seeing a horse’s head used to catch eels, consuming and force-feeding herself the very thing that has become monstrous to her. Set against the backdrop of rising National Socialism, Agnes’s eventual death by fish-poisoning cannot be separated from the social and familial mutations she experiences in 1920s Danzig.

Elsewhere, however, fish is dealt with far more fondly by Grass, while always remaining focal. In his autobiography, Beim Häuten der Zwiebel (Peeling the Onion), Grass’s memories often carry the odour of fried herring, a staple during his time at the School of Fine Arts in Berlin, much to the disapproval of his teacher Karl Hartung, who ‘[took] offence at the smell of fried herring wafting through the door connecting his studio to ours’. Even his description of the first months with his then girlfriend, Anna, includes, alongside the sentimental, the intimate and the erotic, the memory of showing the uninitiated cook ‘how simple it is to remove the flesh from the bones of a fried herring.’ Romance Baltic-style…

Grass - Der Butt dustjacket
Dust Jacket of Der Butt, with Grass’s own design

But it is in his Der Butt (The Flounder) where the herring—and essentially all Baltic peasant food from the Neolithic to the 20th century—gets a platform. It contains, woven into the epic history of women and food, recipes and other gastronomic tips, because for Grass, who thought the planting of potatoes in Prussia ‘did more to change society than the Seven Years’ War’, this was a people’s history that had not yet been written.

Grass here is on one level writing the anti-‘Babette’s Feast’. Karen Blixen’s/Isak Dinesen’s 1958 short story introduces an exceptional Parisian chef into the remote Norwegian town of Berlevåg (or the west coast of Jutland, if you’re watching the 1987 film), who wins a lottery, enabling her to create an exquisite French menu without a herring in sight. However, most of the local guests—refined as they are—react indifferently to the meal, which is perhaps another implicit win for the herring.

Grass - Kuß
Grass’s sketch Kuß (‘Kiss’) ,reproduced in Gertrud Bauer Pickar, Adventures of a Flounder: Critical Essays on Günter Grass’ Der Butt (Munich, 1982) X.0909/1118(3)

The second book of Der Butt contains a chapter entitled ‘Skåne Herring’, in which the domestic hell suffered by the husband of the mystic and visionary (not yet Saint) Dorothea von Montau, brings about a visit from the religious and political powers that be. Dorothea serves the four visitors Scania herring (Scania was dominant in the herring market in the 14th century) but not before Grass’s omniscient narrator cuts in to detail the variations of prepared herring: ‘They can be used fresh, salted, smoked, or marinated. They can be boiled, baked, fried, steamed, filleted, boned and stuffed, rolled around gherkins, or placed in oil, vinegar, white wine, and sour cream.’ Grass details how each of the women cooks he follows in his epic would have prepared the herring before telling us that Dorothea ‘bedded twelve Scania herrings on ashes strewn over the coals, so that without oil, spices, or condiment of any kind, their eyes whitened and they took on the taste of cooked fish.’ The authorities—Abbot, Commander, Doctor of Canon Law and Dominican—all approve.

Following Grass’s imperative to (re-)collect food history in his ‘narrative cookbook’, we find that two years after the publication of Der Butt the British Library felt compelled to acquire an actual herring cookbook from Sweden, Strömming och Sill. Both words in the title refer to herring, strömming to the smaller, less fatty herring caught in the Baltic, and sill to the Atlantic and North Sea varieties. Strömming might be more familiar with its prefix sur- which describes the debatably edible fermented variety. Sur- means sour in this case, although we can’t help but think of French preposition meaning ‘over’: for many, fermented herring is indeed a step or two beyond.

Strömming och Sill
Ulli Kyrkland, Strömming och sill ([Stockholm, 1979) L.42/578. The book includes over 100 herring recipes

We’ve somehow managed to talk about Der Butt without mentioning the presence of a talking flounder… but Grass’s penchant for rendering fish either monstrous, as in Die Blechtrommel, or magical, as in Der Butt, recalls another literary oddity which deserves mention. The herring was also the protagonist in a number of 16th- and 17th-century works within Rosicrucianism and numerology. In 1587, like Grass’s omnipotent flounder, a few miraculous herring began to communicate.

Faulhaber - Herring
Signifying herrings, from Johann Faulhaber Vernünfftiger Creaturen Weissagungen (Augsburg, 1632) C.29.f.1.

Johann Faulhaber’s Vernünfftiger Creaturen Weissagungen attempts to describe the significance of a miraculous deer and some even more miraculous herring and other fish through the secret numbers of the Book of Daniel and the Apocalypse. Following the descriptions of Raphael Eglinus’s Prophetia Halieutica nova et admiranda (Zürich, 1598; 1020.f.1.(3.)), Faulhaber tells us of two herring caught on the same day, one in Denmark, one in Norway, on both of which appeared strange coded markings, ‘as if imprinted by God’s finger.’ We can’t help but agree with his assertion that this is a miraculous occurrence.

Faulhaber - Greifswald fish
More tattooed fish from Vernünfftiger Creaturen Weissagungen

The book was written in 1632, halfway through the Thirty Years’ War and, crucially, two years after Sweden’s King Gustav Adolph, to whom the book is dedicated, joined the conflict. Faulhaber sees correspondences in all the mystical fish, the dates of comets, the secret numbers in the Bible and the political situation in Northern Europe. The markings are decoded to show swords, sickles, and other signs that correlate with historical events. Faulhaber’s deer somehow comes to represent the entry of Gustav Adolph into the war, while the herring might spell out the spilling of more blood.

Four centuries later, something about these miraculous herring of Faulhaber and Eglinus is caught in the fish-paintings of Paul Klee. 

764px-Paul_Klee _Swiss_-_Fish_Magic_-_Google_Art_Project
Paul Klee, Fish Magic, Philadelphia Museum of Art (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Klee’s Fish Magic or Around the fish, suspend the fish (although we can’t identify a herring, we can forgive Klee as a landlocked Swiss, no doubt used to freshwater fish) amidst a set of enigmatic symbols that gesture towards signification without the finality of Faulhaber’s correspondences. In herring-art, we see the full range of depictions that is also encapsulated in academic and literary attempts to understand both the sheer facticity of the Northern armies of herring and the idea of herring, their potential meaning.

Joachim Beuckelaer- Fish Market
The sheer facticity of fish in Joachim Beuckelaer, The Fish Market (1568), Bonnefanten Museum, Maastricht (image from Wikimedia Commons). Herring can be seen bottom left.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

References

Günter Grass, Die Blechtrommel (Darmstadt, 1959) 011421.p.86. English translation by Ralph Mannheim, The Tin Drum (London, 1962) X.909/2060.

Günter Grass, Der Butt (Darmstadt, 1977) X.989/71159. English translation by Ralph Mannheim, The Flounder (London, 1978) X.989/76027

Günter Grass, Beim Häuten der Zwiebel (Göttingen, 2006) YF.2007.a.1517. English translation by Micahel Henry Heim Peeling the Onion (London, 2007) YC.2007.a.14122

Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), Anecdotes of Destiny (London, 1958) 12655.r.2.