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321 posts categorized "Literature"

30 May 2019

Olga in Spain

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Our colleague and co-editor of the European Studies Blog, Olga Kerziouk, retires this week after over 24 years in the British Library. A keen blogger herself on the history and literature of her beloved native Ukraine and on her adopted language of Esperanto, she also always enjoyed working on colleagues’ posts. Here, one of our most prolific departmental bloggers looks at the history of the name Olga in his own area of expertise as a small tribute.

Olga is quite a popular name in Spain, but it seems not to be related to the pro-Soviet sentiments of Republican parents. At national level, she doesn’t figure among the most popular names of 1900-40: in 1941-60 884 Olgas were born; in 1961-75 3486; in 1976-88 982; and in 1988-93 132. In Madrid, 5790 were born between 1900 and 1993, accounting for the percentages 7.5% of babies 1900-1940; 15.3% 1941-1960; 60.2% 1961-75; and 17% 1976-93.

Olga la revolucionaria, heroine of Alberto Insúa’s novel of 1926, technically speaking is not Russian or Ukrainian but ‘Weltravian’ (capital: Bermengrado).

Olga YF.2009.a.34822
Cover of  Alberto Insúa, Olga la revolucionaria (Madrid, 1926) YF.2009.a.34822

Insúa (1883-1963) made a career out of writing small popular novels, sold at newsstands, with suggestive titles which are not really borne out by the contents: La mujer fácil (‘The Easy Woman’), Las neuróticas (‘The Neurotic Women’), El demonio de la voluptuosidad (‘The Demon of Voluptuousness’), Dos franceses y un español (‘Two French Women and a Spaniard’).

Need I say more?

The plot of Olga la revolucionaria starts before the revolution. Olga’s parents are left-wingers who have brought her up to be a modern woman (make that Modern Woman). When she meets prince Sergio Sardenomensky he expects to find ‘a sort of suffragist, dry, outspoken, with straight hair, glasses and flat shoes. But he found himself in the presence of a beautiful and naturally elegant woman’.

Olga 3
Modern and elegant: Insúa’s Olga

‘Olga was a revelation for him: the woman of a class “apart”. The independent woman, with a profound inter life and clear intelligence. The studious woman. The hard-working woman.’

Their chaste love is broken when he leaves her to marry a lady of his own class. They meet again in the midst of revolution: the noble and strong-minded Olga has become a commandant, and sets Serge free.

Olga 2
Dressed for revolution in the Weltravian winter

It’s rumoured that the Spanish name for cardigan, rebeca, was inspired by the garment worn by Joan Fontaine in Hitchcock’s film of 1940. Olga la revolucionaria seems not to have been responsible for the generation of Spanish Olgas listed above, but she might remind us of our dear and blog-loving friend Olga.

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Collections

References/further reading

Maurice Hemingway, Alberto Insúa (1883-1993): ensayo bibliográfico (Madrid, 1994) YA.2002.a.20299

Consuelo García Gallarín, Los nombres de pila españoles (Madrid, 1998) YA.2002.a.38363

 

28 May 2019

Lalla Romano (1906-2001): from painting to writing

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The novelist Graziella Romano, known as Lalla, began her artistic journey as a painter in 1922 when she was 16; in 1929 she taught Italian and History at the Teachers’ College in the northern Italian city of Cuneo while studying in Turin, and in 1930 she taught History of Art in Cuneo’s high school. Her paintings were shown in various exhibitions in Turin – later in her life Lalla said: “I consider my paintings and my drawings a personal matter, as if they were my personal diary, my book … some of my drawings are not compositions, but just notes. They could be some poetical verses”. Even though the artist discourages us from drawing any parallel between her literature and her paintings, affirming that “Each art has its language”, she also said: “Self-portrait means face, and the face must be ambiguous, intense and mysterious as a novel”.

Lalla Romano 1
Self-portrait, ‘Autoritratto con le trecce e il vestito rosso’ (1922), reproduced in Lalla Romano e La Valle d’Aosta (Milan, 2009) YF.2012.a.32506

In 1932 Lalla was the Director of the Civic Library in Cuneo where she compiled the catalogue of Incunabula. Without abandoning painting, by the end of the 1930s, she began writing short stories and poetry: between 1938 and 1940 she wrote three short stories about art and artists during that time in Turin (published only in 1993 in Lalla Romano pittrice), and in 1941 she published a collection of poems titled Fiore.

The poems are characterised by secluded inwardness and visual capture of remote/internalised landscapes.

Vuoto è il mio letto,                                    Empty is my bed
quando a malincuore vi ascendo,            when withdrawn in my heart I ascend to it
ed è notte;                                                     at night time
e geme per la campagna                            and over the land outside
l’ululo solitario dei cani.                            echoes the solitary howling of dogs.
E ancora deserto è il letto,                        And it’s still a desert my bed,
quando, invani attesi,                                when, awaited in vain,
non giunsero lo sposo e il sonno             sleep and husband never came
e già l’alba i galli salutano                        and already dawn
con rauco grido                                          the roosters greet with their raucous cry.
                            from Fiore, in Poesie (Turin, 2001) YA.2002.a.29511 [My translation]

The colours in her poetry were already present in her paintings, as Lalla herself said in the title of the introduction to her paintings: “My paintings were already writing”.

Già si posavano ombre                     Silvery shadows lay already
argentee su le biade;                         on the forage;
simili a cupi fiumi                             the meadow shaped into dark rivers
erano i prati
                            from Fiore [My translation]

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Painting entitled ‘Strade di sera’ (Evening paths) c 1935, reproduced in L’esercizio delle pittura (Turin, 1995) YA.1997.a.15004

In 1932 Lalla married, and in 1933 Pietro was born, the son who, growing up during the period when the youth counter-culture was shaping up, would have a deep impact on her as a woman and as a writer.

In 1943, during the Second World War, Lalla was living and teaching literature in Turin, but when her accommodation was damaged by bombing she was forced to go back to Cuneo with her son and her parents in order to be safe while carrying on teaching in Turin. The following year she was transferred to teach in Cuneo, where she joined the Partito d’Azione and the anti-fascist resistance movement, taking charge of the women’s defence groups.

The year 1944 marked a new chapter for Lalla, when Cesare Pavese asked her to translate Trois Contes by Flaubert: it was a decisive moment as she fully appreciated the skill of writing prose and motivated herself to make the definitive transition from painting to writing novels. In fact Lalla reached popularity as a novelist, she won the Italian literary award Premio Strega in 1969 for Le parole tra noi leggere (‘The light words between us’), an autobiographical novel about the difficult relationship between a mother and her maverick son, which soon became controversial as it deeply shook conventional thinkers unable to tolerate such a brutal analysis of this type of relationship. In an interview published in 1984, when asked how their relationship changed now that her son was 50, Lalla said: “When he divorced his comment was ‘Now my mother will write a new best-seller called The heavy words between them”.

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Photograph of Lalla Romano in 1984, from Sandra Petrignani, Le signore della scrittura (Milan, 1984) YA.1990.a.18448

Lalla’s initial determination to maintain a clear distance between painting and writing changed radically and the intimate intersection between textual and visual became the unique style in some of her work: the book titled Lettura di un’immagine (‘Reading of an image’), a collection of family photos taken by her father and “framed” with her words, begins with: “In this book images are texts and texts are images”. The book was in fact later revised and enlarged with the new title Romanzo di figure (‘Novel in pictures’; Turin, 1986; YA.1987.a.3405).

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Cover of Lettura di un’immagine (Turin, 1975) X.909/35463

In 2014, thanks to the generous donation of the Lalla Romano Fund, all the author’s autograph papers, her correspondence, her library of 12,000 volumes and paintings were placed in the room named after her (Sala Lalla Romano) at the National Braidense Library (Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense) in Brera (Milan).

Giuseppe Alizzi, Curator Romance Collections

21 May 2019

P. G. Wodehouse under Continental Covers

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

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

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

Wodehouse Dutch 1

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

Wodehouse Dutch 2

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

Wodehouse German

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

Wodehouse Russian 2

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

Wodehouse Russian 3

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

Wodehouse Italian 3

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

Wodehouse Italian 1

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

Wodehouse Swedish 1

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

Wodehouse Swedish 4b

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

Wodehouse French 1

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

Wodehouse French 2

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

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

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

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

03 May 2019

Up the garden path with the Brothers Čapek and friends

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This is National Gardening Week, and with three Bank Holidays in quick succession, many of us will be inspired to get out and take stock of our plots, tubs and window-boxes. Not surprisingly in view of the British fondness for horticulture, one of the first and most popular works by Karel Čapek to appear in English translation was Zahradníkův rok (‘The Gardener’s Year’: Prague, 1929; YF.2005.a.31522 ). With its lively illustrations by the author’s brother Josef, it quickly became a favourite, and the translation by M. and R. Weatherall, which ran into multiple impressions, was succeeded by a more recent one by Geoffrey Newsome (London, 2004; ELD.DS.288828), testifying to its lasting appeal.

Capek tpTitle page with vignette by Josef Čapek for The Gardener’s Year (London, 1966) X.319/191

Čapek himself was an enthusiastic gardener, and part of the enduring charm of his book is his lack of illusions about the cussedness of nature and the sheer hard labour involved in maintaining a garden. The text consists of a chapter for every month of the year, interspersed with others on topics such as ‘How a man becomes a gardener’, ‘Seeds’, ‘On the Cultivators of Cacti’ (Czech cousins of the Kaktusfreunde portrayed in paintings by Carl Spitzweg?), ‘The Blessed Rain’ and ‘On Market Gardeners’.

British readers familiar with Dorothy Frances Gurney’s poem ‘God’s Garden’, (in God’s Garden, & other verses: London, [1933]; 011641.df.93), with its claim that ‘One is nearer God’s heart in a garden / Than anywhere else on earth’, may be pulled up short by Čapek’s far less sentimental view of things. Nature, one senses, is never more belligerent than when assailed by the gardener. From the very first attempts to lay out a garden (‘the best way is to get a gardener’) to the conclusion that ‘the gardener wants eleven hundred years to test, learn to know, and appreciate fully all that is his’, Čapek leaves us in no doubt that the way of the gardener is a stony one – in every sense. Indeed, the chapter ‘The Gardener’s May’ deals precisely with ‘the greatest pleasure and special pride of the gardener, his rock or Alpine garden’. This, he suggests, is so called because it ‘gives its owner opportunity for performing hazardous mountaineering feats’ as he lunges and scrambles among the ‘picturesque and not altogether firm stones of his rock garden’ in his attempts to plant and weed it.

Capek Alpinism

The intrepid rock-gardener in May 

Nor does Čapek underestimate the crimes of passion of which the fanatical gardener is capable in the pursuit of some prize specimen for his rockery, from stealing Campanula morettiana by night to outright murder. Those too fat or too cowardly to accomplish this shamelessly weep and implore the proud owner for a cutting, or wheedle one from the local florist. However, once acquired these treasures frequently fail to come up to expectations: the hard-won campanula proves to be nothing but a horse-radish.

Capek campanula The campanula that wasn’t.

A generation earlier another author, Mary Annette Beauchamp, had described the trials and pleasures of making a garden in East Prussia with the intervention of itinerant Russian labourers and her redoubtable German husband, Graf von Arnim, ‘the Man of Wrath’. Such was the popularity of Elizabeth and her German Garden (London, 1898; 012643.cc.34) that her subsequent works appeared as ‘by the author of Elizabeth and her German Garden’ before she adopted the permanent nom-de-plume of Elizabeth von Arnim. Yet there is nothing sweetly quaint about her sharp perceptions of the Anglo-German clash of cultures in the garden and the drawing-room, where her acid perspicuity frequently recalls Jane Austen. Nor is she a mere armchair gardener who scorns to get her fingers dirty; from the excitement of ordering from catalogues to the headaches of persuading her acquisitions to take root in sandy Prussian soil with the fitful help of her sometimes incredulous staff, she shows not only a deep love of gardening but a thorough understanding of the challenges which it presents.

Like her, Čapek is often thwarted by the resistance of his local terrain to adapt to English models of horticulture. ‘I know an excellent recipe for an English lawn,’ he declares. ‘Like the recipe for Worcester Sauce – it comes from an “English country gentleman”’ who concludes ‘If you do this for three hundred years, you will have as good a lawn as mine’. In the meantime he has to contend with bald patches and dandelions, and to persuade his neighbours to look in and water it when he goes away on holiday in August. Failing to persuade a little old lady to bring her goat to eat the clippings, he has to pay a reluctant dustman to remove them (‘You know, sir,’ he says, ‘we’re not supposed to take it.’)

Capek lawnHow to lose friends by asking your neighbour to keep an eye on your garden.

It is well known that following a spell of fine weather A&E departments in hospitals throughout the country see an influx of patients with all kinds of gardening-related injuries from infected wounds inflicted by rose-thorns to backs strained by over-enthusiastic lawn-mowing. In a sense Karel Čapek’s death was linked to his love for his garden. Although offered the chance to go to exile in England, where he had many friends, to escape persecution by the Nazis, Čapek refused to leave Czechoslovakia. While repairing flood damage to the family summer-house and garden in Stará Huť, he caught a cold which turned to pneumonia, from which he died on 25 December 1938. In the final paragraph of The Gardener’s Year he writes, ‘We gardeners live somehow for the future … I should like to see what these birches will be like in fifty years’. Sadly, he did not live to do so – but every gardener can draw comfort from the words, ‘The right, the best is in front of us. Each successive year will add growth and beauty’.

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

26 March 2019

Fairytales on trial: the Good and the Beautiful in early Soviet children’s literature

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“Education means evoking a revolutionary spirit” wrote Maxim Gorky in 1933 – an uncompromising statement uttered in an uncompromising environment. The 1920s in the newly-born Soviet Union, however, were still quite different. There still seemed to be room for discussion, to explain and convince people. Only two years after the October Revolution, Gorky had expressed his opinion on children’s education more elaborately in a well-known programmatic statement ‘Slovo k vzroslym’ (‘A word to grown-ups’) in the first issue of the first Soviet journal for children, Severnoe Siianie (The Northern Lights), founded by Gorky himself. There he advanced the importance of exploiting children’s stories to shape the new Socialist Man, by instilling “an active spirit, an interest in and respect for the power of reason, the discoveries of science, and the great mission of art, which is to make man strong and beautiful”.


Image 1
Severnoe Siianie
no. 10-12 October-December 1919, P.P.1213.ad

Sadly, the artistic quality of the journal was far from being able to fulfil such an ambition. Grey social realism always prevailed. It was mostly concerned with instructing children of the proletariat in basic practical scientific and technical knowledge, or about the harsh living conditions in Russia before that glorious October of 1917. In a regular section called ‘Klub liuboznatel’nykh’ (‘Club of the Curious’) one can, ironically, find some of the most uninspiring titles. In the October-December 1919 issue, for instance, ‘Club of the Curious’ opens with a brief piece of ‘fiction’, entitled ‘Polchasa v sutke’ (‘Half an hour a day’), aimed at raising awareness of the importance of chewing one’s food thoroughly for at least the stated period to aid healthy digestion for a healthy and strong body. This provided what the Narkompros sought in terms of acceptable educational methods: useful, practical knowledge that contributes to raising stronger citizens.

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‘Club of the Curious’ in Severnoe Siianie, no. 10-12 (October-December 1919)

The fact that a culturally influential figure like Gorky was behind such publications as Severnoe Siianie does not mean that the early Soviet era was devoid of fine literary works addressed to the smaller ones. On the contrary, it was an extraordinarily rich age for children’s literature in terms of experimentation. While the endeavours of Gorky and his circle contributed to a surge in literacy in the first decades after the Revolution, the efforts of talented authors such as Korney Chukovsky and Samuil Marshak resulted in the creation of a distinct artistic and literary current, a true Golden Age of Russian children’s literature.

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A passage from Korney Chukovsky’s Krokodil illustrated by Re-Mi (Nikolai Remizov). ([Petrograd, 1916-1919?]) 12833.dd.27. Krokodil Krokodilovich swallows up a policeman who tried to get in his way.

Chukovsky’s famous Krokodil (Crocodile) is one of the most exhilarating pieces of literature ever written for children. In this old, very old fairytale (as the subtitle ironically goes) traditional fairytale anthropomorphism is reenacted in a typical Futurist setting. Krokodil was one of the most discussed pieces of children’s literature in the 1920s and 1930s. In a 1928 article in the newspaper Pravda, Lenin’s widow, Nadezhda Krupskaia, discouraged parents from reading the story to children, “not because it is a fairytale, but because it is a bourgeois nonsense [‘burzhuaznaia mut’]”. Obviously, it was not Chukovsky’s artistic audacity and mind-blowing stylistic virtuosity that were under attack. Quite simply, there was no acceptable educational content in the poem: a cigar-smoking, Turkish-speaking crocodile called by his first name and patronymic was certainly funny, but had nothing to teach about crocodiles as a species.

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Korney Chukovsky, Telefon, illustrated by Vladimir Konaschevich. (Leningrad, 1935) Cup.410.e.89.

It was first published in 1926 with drawings by Konstantin Rudakov.

Chukovsky’s Telefon (‘Telephone’) takes anthropomorphism to the extreme: the narrator’s telephone keeps ringing and an elephant, crocodile, gazelle and hippo each call to tell him about their needs and problems. Although this tale can be said to “teach children the art of communication” or telephone etiquette, as а scholar pointed out, its central features are the overwhelmingly nonsensical, whimsical plot and absurd humour.

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Above: Chukovsky’s Malen’kie deti, first edition (Leningrad, 1928). Cup.410.g.176.; below: The third edition (Leningrad, 1933), retitled Ot dvukh do piati ('From two to five’). 12975.ccc.11.

Image 5b

An ideologically more suitable work by Chukovsky, and one fully appreciated by Krupskaia, is the collection of articles, observations and reflections on pre-school age children’s communication, Malen’kie deti (‘Young children’). Every passage in this book oozes Chukovsky’s sincere marvel at and interest in children’s psychology and his effort to unveil the complexity behind a child’s apparent simple-mindedness to adults (to whom the book is addressed).

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Image 6b
Cover and two-page spread from Samuil Marshak, Master-Lomaster, first edition with drawings by avant-garde artist Alexei Pakhomov (Leningrad, 1930) YA.1992.a.7157.

The British Library also holds many early editions of Samuil Marshak’s works. Master-Lomaster is a poem satirizing the disastrous consequences of self-confidence and self-reliance in an individual’s work attitude, instructing children to grow up collective-minded instead. The title, an untranslatable pun, often rendered as ‘Master of disaster’, is also an example of Marshak’s skillful wordplay.

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Above: Cover of Samuil Marshak, Pozhar 3rd edition (Leningrad, 1925) Cup.408.r.18. Below: Kuzma and the fire brigade fighting their way through the flames

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In Pozhar (‘Fire’) the main theme is again one’s attitude to work, but this time Marshak provides a positive example in the heroic fireman Kuzma and the team spirit of the fire brigade. Kuzma, like the Soviet version of an Old Russian bogatyr is outstanding for his courage and collective-mindedness, which lead him to save little Lena, allured and trapped by the evil fire.

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Collaborations by Samuil Marshak and Vladimir Lebedev. Above: Tsirk 2nd edition (Leningrad, 1928) Cup.408.r.24. Below: Vchera i Segodnia, 3rd edition (Moscow, 1928) Cup.408.r.23.

Image 8b

Marshak’s collaboration with the talented graphic artist Vladimir Lebedev fuelled what was to become the trademark of children’s poetry in the early Soviet Union: a balance between drawing and text, so that the former was not a mere illustration of the latter. Their works often resemble the Soviet propaganda posters that people were familiar with, making each individual page a potential artistic object in itself.

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Image 9b
Illustrations from Vchera i Segodnia

In Vchera i Segodnia (‘Yesterday and Today’) Marshak and Lebedev introduce children to new technologies. A kerosene lamp, candle, bucket and quill pen lie unused in their old home, faced with intruders from the new world: a cheap electric lightbulb, water pipes, and a typewriter. This short fairytale enables the reader to see how the new inventions have made the old ones redundant, while also sympathizing with the old objects’ baffled and nostalgic sense of loss.

Image 10b
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Images from Tsirk

With Tsirk (‘Circus’), Marshak and Lebedev produced one of the most outstanding picture books, appealing not only to children. The poster-like layout of each page, the short and memorable text and the clever rhymes make it one of the most representative and original of their works. Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky was reportedly impressed by the line “po provoloke dama | idet, kak telegramma” (“along the wire the lady | goes like a telegram”).

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Cover of Samuil Marshak, Usaty-Polosaty (Leningrad, 1930) RB.23.b.4211,
.

Usatyi-Polosatyi (‘The Whiskered-Tabby’), is the clear product of a long-standing oral composition process. It is a simple, humorous story about a tabby kitten and its child owner who repeatedly tries (and fails) to make it behave like a human – hence the repeated line “Vot kakoi glupyi kotenok!” (“What a stupid kitten!”). The story ends with the child growing up and the cat “becoming” clever – a subtle move which children would likely only understand and laugh at when looking back at it as adults. This edition contains drawings by a different Lebedev.

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Images from Usaty-Polosaty. Above: The child wants the kitten to say ‘grandma’, ‘horse’, ‘teacher’, ‘electricity’, but the kitten only replies ‘meow’. Below: The kitten has “become a clever cat”

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These publications represent only a small portion of Marshak’s great contribution to Soviet children’s literature in the 1920s and 30s. But, like Chukovsky’s works, they were far from immune to ideological criticism. Master-Lomaster, for instance, lacked propaganda value. In Pozhar, Lena’s fear of death was a private not a collective concern. While Chukovsky’s creative force was soon to be crushed by constant ideological attacks, Marshak turned to editing work and became the chief editor of the children’s journals Ëzh (1928-) and Chizh (1930-). These were for many years virtually the only magnet for talented writers, first and foremost Daniil Kharms and the Oberiuty, who would not have been able to publish freely elsewhere, due to the stricter censorship imposed on adults’ literature.

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First and last issues Chizh (1937, No. 1 - 1940, No. 7-8). RB.31.c.774. The title, meaning ‘siskin’, is also the acronym of Chrezvychaino Interesnyi Zhurnal (‘Extremely Interesting Journal’), indicating the humour at the very core of these publications and of most high-quality children’s literature of the period.

The British Library’s holdings of Chizh span from 1937’s first issue to 1940. These are representative of a new stage in Soviet children’s literature, one where a previously very fortunate symbiosis between the Good and the Beautiful faded into a series of more and more exclusively politically committed works.

Nilo Pedrazzini, Graduate Student, University of Oxford

Further reading

Ben Hellman, Fairy tales and true stories: The history of Russian literature for children and young people (1574 - 2010) (Boston-Leiden, 2013). YD.2013.a.2535

Marina Balina & Larissa Rudova (eds.), Russian children’s literature and culture (New York, 2013). YK.2008.a.24810

Julian Rothenstein & Olga Budashevskaia (eds.), Inside the rainbow: Russian children's literature, 1920-35: beautiful books, terrible times (London, 2013). YC.2014.b.1207

12 March 2019

Pirandello’s nose

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

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

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

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

Pirandello's nose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uno nessuno

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

Mia moglie e il mio naso

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giuseppe Alizzi, Curator Romance Studies

References/ Further reading

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

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

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

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

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.