26 October 2021
The modernist Ukrainian writer Lesia Ukrainka (pen name of Larysa Kosach-Kvitka) pioneered a new feminist literature at the forefront of European trends of the time. Her dramas, poetry and prose address concerns from gender and race to feminism and environmentalism. In the year of the 150th anniversary of her birth, the British Library and the Ukrainian Institute London will shine a light on this remarkable figure at an event on 16 November 2021. To whet your appetite, this two-part blog post explores aspects of Ukrainka’s life, work and legacy through items held in the British Library. It is co-authored by Dr Sasha Dovzhyk, a Ukrainian writer and scholar based in London, who will take part in the event.
Cover of Pershyi vinok: zhinochyi al’manakh (New York, 1984). X.958/33534
The First Wreath
Born in 1871 into a family of intellectuals, Ukrainka’s upbringing profoundly shaped her socio-political outlook and literary career. Her mother, Olha Kosach (better known by her pseudonym, Olena Pchilka), was a writer, ethnographer, activist and central figure in Ukrainian literary life. Unusually for the time, she educated her children exclusively in Ukrainian, laying the foundations for Ukrainka’s love and command of the language. It was Pchilka who encouraged her daughter to write, inventing Ukrainka’s pen name, ‘Lesia (a diminutive of Larysa) of Ukraine’, when she sent her first poems for publication as a young teenager.
Pchilka was also active in the Ukrainian women’s movement, which emerged in the late 19th century. Together with Nataliia Kobrynska, she edited and published the first Ukrainian feminist almanac, Pershyi vinok (‘The First Wreath’) in 1887. The teenage Ukrainka was among its contributors with her poem ‘Rusalka’ and other verses. Published by the Ukrainian Women’s League of America in 1984, almost a century later, this second, expanded edition includes an introduction and biographical notes by Larissa M. L. Z. Onyshevych.
Cover of Lesia Ukrainka, Starodavnia istoriia skhidnykh narodiv (Luts’k, 2008). YF.2013.a.13005
The Ancient History of Eastern Peoples
The Ancient History of Eastern Peoples is a textbook Ukrainka wrote in 1890–91 at the age of 19 to help with the education of her younger sister, Olha Kosach-Kryvyniuk. In popular introductions to the author’s life and work, this prodigious textbook is routinely mentioned among the top ten quirky facts. Olha Kosach-Kryvyniuk published it in 1918, and a facsimile edition was produced 90 years later. What is most surprising about this volume is the sheer distances Ukrainka travelled in her research, both time- and geography-wise. The 252 pages of her History delve into the beliefs and literatures of ancient India, Media, Persia, Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Phoenicia, and Israel. The book also includes Ukrainka’s poetic translations of sacred hymns from Rig Veda, one of the earliest and most important texts in the Hindu tradition.
Working on her study in a remote Ukrainian village, Ukrainka relied on the correspondence with her uncle, a revered Ukrainian historian and political thinker in exile Mykhailo Drahomanov, as well as works by French orientalist scholars Louis Ménard (Histoire des Anciens Peuples de l'Orient, 1883 (9055.bbb.5.)) and Gaston Maspero (Histoire ancienne des peuples de l’Orient, 1875 (9055.a.34.)). Ukrainka remained fascinated with ancient spiritual beliefs and practices throughout her life.
Petro Odarchenko, ‘Die Weber’ H. Haine v perekladi Lesi Ukrainky, Slavistica, no. 77. 2nd ed. (Washington, 1976/77). Ac.9890.a
Translation of Heinrich Heine’s ‘Die Weber’
An accomplished polyglot (by all accounts she knew nine languages in addition to her native Ukrainian), Ukrainka translated a number of works from English, German, French and Greek. This booklet includes a copy of her translation of Heinrich Heine’s political poem ‘Die schlesischen Weber’ (‘The Silesian Weavers’ or ‘Weaver-song’), which he wrote in response to the attempted uprising in 1844 by Silesian weavers against exploitation and falling wages. Ukrainka was herself a member of Marxist organisations and, in 1902, she translated the Communist Manifesto into Ukrainian.
Ukrainka’s unpublished translation was identified by the writer and critic Petro Odarchenko in the literary museum of the Drahomanov family. It first appeared in print alongside Odarchenko’s commentary in 1927 and was published in a second edition as part of the Slavistica booklet series.
Lesia Ukrainka, Poezii: vybrani tvory (Regensburg, 1946). 11588.a.59.
Lesia Ukrainka, Ternovyi vinets: zbirka poezii ([Germany], 1946). Awaiting shelfmark
Displaced Persons Camp poetry editions
Petro Odarchenko also wrote the introduction to a small volume of Ukrainka’s works published in the Regensburg Displaced Persons (DP) Camp in 1946, the 75th anniversary of her birth. Like thousands of Ukrainians who were displaced at the end of the Second World War, Odarchenko lived in the Augsburg DP camp before moving to the USA with his family in 1950. Ukrainka’s younger sister, Olha Kosach-Kryvyniuk, also spent time in the same camp, where she died in November 1945.
Permitted by authority of the US Military Government in the American Allied Occupation Zone, the British Library copy also contains the stamp of the London-based Central Ukrainian Relief Bureau, which is believed to have donated the book to the Library in 1948. It is one of two rare DP camp editions of Ukrainka’s poetry published in her anniversary year and held by the British Library. The other, a collection of 25 poems entitled Ternovyi vinets (‘Crown of Thorns’), was reproduced from typescript and illustrated by Edvard Kozak.
Postcard from Lesia Ukrainka to her sister, Olha. In Lesia Ukrainka, Lysty (1876-1897), compiled by Valentyna Prokip (Savchuk), (Kyiv, 2016), p. 22. YF.2017.a.2022
The three volumes of Ukrainka’s letters comprise a palimpsest in which the layers of Ukrainian and European cultural history coexist with the personal trials of the emergent heroine of her time, the New Woman. Whether it is the nation-building work of the secret societies of the Ukrainian intelligentsia in the Russian Empire, the latest breakthroughs in Scandinavian theatre, or the challenges encountered by an emancipated woman traveller at the turn of the century, Ukrainka’s analysis is sharp, lucid, erudite, and often interlaced with humour. Her correspondence offers a unique perspective on some of the topical issues of the period, from the redefinitions of the traditional family to the anti-colonial ethical code. Ukrainka dismantled patriarchal hierarchies in her literary work and in her personal life. Thus her letters shed light on such matters as the writer’s opposition to her family’s wishes concerning the choice of her life partner, a confrontation viewed by Ukrainka as a stepping-stone in the general struggle for women’s liberation. Her correspondence with another pioneering feminist writer of the Ukrainian fin de siècle, Olha Kobylianska, reveals a search for a new radical model of female intimacy which the literary scholar Solomiya Pavlychko called a ‘lesbian phantasy’. Like Kobylianska, Ukrainka was a feminist committed to the Ukrainian national project, which was at the time dominated by patriarchal and populist approaches.
Photograph from Spohady pro Lesiu Ukrainku, edited by Tamara Skrypka (New York; Kyiv, 2017-). ZF.9.a.11700
Remembering Lesia Ukrainka
Bringing together memoiristic prose by Ukrainka’s family members and photographs from museum collections and private archives, Remembering Lesia Ukrainka is a precious collage that brings us closer to the culture of the long fin de siècle in Ukraine. The Kosach-Drahomanov family included illustrious scholars and translators, political activists and pioneering feminists, whose memoirs offer a truly gratifying read. During the Soviet period, their aristocratic background led to political repressions as well as the inescapable censoring of their recollections. Some of the pieces in Remembering Lesia Ukrainka are published for the first time in unexpurgated form.
The photographs of the Kosach-Drahomanov estate and of Ukrainka and her siblings in traditional Ukrainian clothes, and musical notations compiled by her husband, famous folklorist and musicologist Klyment Kvitka, open a window onto a vanished society, the relics of which had been hidden from public view for a major part of the 20th century. One of the most haunting images reproduced in the book is a photo of Ukrainka’s funeral procession where her coffin is carried by six women: a testimony of the writer’s feminist legacy.
Linocut from Oleg Babyshkin, Lesia Ukrainka v Gruzii (Tbilisi, 1953). 10796.b.58.
Lesia Ukrainka in Georgia
Ukrainka spent much of the last ten years of her life living and working in Georgia, where she died on 1 August 1913. Since the age of 12 or 13, she had been afflicted by tuberculosis and travelled constantly in search of treatment and warmer climes, from Yalta to Egypt. While it is important not to define Ukrainka by her illness, it undoubtedly had a significant impact on her life and work; she spent long periods away from home and family, often confined to her bed. As Clarence A. Manning observed, ‘It compelled her to live with her books, to think in terms of books, and to frame her intellectual and spiritual life on what she read, rather than on what she saw and experienced’ (Spirt of Flame, p. 13).
Published in Tbilisi in 1953, this book by the Ukrainian literary critic Oleh Babyshkin about Ukrainka’s time in Georgia focuses on three key cities and a town in which she lived: Tbilisi, Telavi, Khoni, and Kutaisi. The final chapter explores her legacy in Soviet Georgia. The text is accompanied by linocuts of significant places and buildings, including the Lesia Ukrainka Museum in the resort town Surami, her place of death.
Sasha Dovzhyk, writer and scholar, and Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections
The event The Unknown Feminist of Fin-de-siècle Europe: Lesia Ukrainka will take place at the British Library on 16 November 2021.
Additional reading and resources:
Sasha Dovzhyk, ‘Subverting the Canon of Patriarchy: Lesya Ukrainka’s Revisionist Mythmaking’, The Los Angeles Review of Books, 25 February 2021
Olga Kerziouk, ‘Lady on Banknotes’, European Studies Blog, 1 August 2013
Lesia Ukrainka: Fin-de-siècle Ukrainian Feminism (short film), Ukrainian Institute London, 2020
20 October 2021
Kamel Daoud is an Algerian journalist based in Oran, where he has been for several years the Chief Editor for Le Quotidien d’Oran, the third largest French-language Algerian newspaper, and the author of a much-read column ‘Raïna Raïkoum’ (‘My Opinion, Your Opinion’). His articles have appeared in Libération, Le Monde, and Courrier International.
Daoud’s first novel, Meursault, contre-enquête is a response to Camus’ L’étranger. Meursault, the protagonist of Camus’ novel murders a character known only as ‘the Arab’. Camus never gave a name to Meursault’s victim, but Daoud names him Moussa, and re-tells the story from the point of view of Moussa’s brother, Haroun. Daoud’s novel was first published in Algeria by editions Barzakh in October 2013, but mostly started to garner international attention after its publication by French publisher Actes Sud in May 2014; it was a finalist for the Prix Goncourt in 2014 and came second, just short of winning the prize. It did, however, win the 2015 Goncourt First Novel Prize, and was also awarded the prix François Mauriac, le prix des Cinq Continents de la Francophonie. It sold more than 130 000 copies in France and 14 000 in Algeria, ‘A very high number for a novel in French’ according to its Algerian publisher Barzakh.
Although it is often labelled as Daoud’s debut, Meursault, contre-enquête was in fact the third in a series of texts beginning with O Pharaon published in Oran in 2004. As recalled by Joseph Ford, far from being solely a journalist, Daoud was already a writer of note in Algeria, and knew how to use text to express and magnify his ideas about conflict and power. Daoud’s positions have not been exempt from controversy, be it in France or in Algeria and his work as novelist, as well as journalist and polemist are often the subject of examination, particularly through the prism of postcolonial studies. He has in the past expressed his dreams of forgetting journalism to dedicate himself to pure literature, but a collection of Daoud’s journalistic works: Mes indépendances: Chroniques 2010–2016 was nevertheless published in 2017 and he currently contributes a weekly column to the French magazine Le Point.
Two of Daoud’s latest texts, however, have been less embroiled in obvious politics, if still actually describing some facets of Power. They explore the acts of writing and narrating, and hidden aspects of language, and of materiality: the materiality of books and of the body, and the beauty of both.
Cover of Kamel Daoud, Zabor ou les psaumes (Arles, 2017) YF.2017.a.25074
Zabor ou les psaumes (translated this year in English by Emma Ramadan as Zabor, or The Psalms), first published in French in 2017, is a work of magic realism, but also a hymn to the power of fiction. The narrator is a young man who possesses a gift: he can fight death by writing, and the people whose stories he narrates in his notebooks live longer. This is his gift, his responsibility and his mission. But does everyone deserve to be saved? This allegorical novel draws on myths, religion and fables, and as in One Thousand and One Nights, the storytelling can temporarily stave off death. But the book is also an ode to language, or rather languages, and to their transformations and appropriations, particularly in a post-colonial context: ‘C’est à partir de ce capital que je construisis cette langue, entièrement, seul avec mon propre dictionnaire sauvage’ (‘I built this language, entirely, alone with my own wild dictionary’) and so created ‘une langue folle, riche, heureuse, amalgamée avec des racines sauvages, hybride comme un bestiaire de mythologie’ (‘a mad, rich, happy, amalgamated language, with wild roots, hybrid like a mythological bestiary’).
‘Writing is a tattoo’ reads one of the last chapter’s openings. This image of the book as a body is permeating one of Daoud’s most recent published piece, tellingly titled ‘Textures ou comment coucher avec un livre’.
Cover of BibliOdyssées: foudre, index, exil, talismans, text by Kamel Daoud, Raphaël Jerusalmy; notes by Joseph Belletante, Bernadette Moglia. (Paris, 2019.) YF.2020.a.5142
This is the opening text of BibliOdyssées, and is a ‘literary piece’ companion to a book published on the occasion of the exhibition ‘L’Odyssée des livres sauvés’ held in the Musée de l’Imprimerie and Communication graphique in Lyon in 2019. Here, books have a skin, and again, this skin is ‘tattooed a thousand times’, with words and with the imprints of the hands that manipulate. In his text, Daoud compares sacred and profane books, licit and illicit objects, books for the ritual and the soul and books for the earthly body; both, with their words, magically able to express the ‘eternal unspeakable’.
Kamel Daoud will be in conversation with Anne-Sylvaine Chassany, the Financial Times’s World News Editor, at the Institut Francais on Thursday the 21st October.
Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections
Kamel Daoud, Meursault, contre-enquête (Arles, 2014) YF.2014.a.27110; English translation by John Cullen, The Mersault investigation (London, 2015) H.2016/.7708
Kamel Daoud, Mes indépendances: Chroniques 2010–2016 (Arles, 2017) YF.2017.a.18552
Albert Camus, L’étranger (Paris, 1947) 012550.p.23.
Sami Alkyam ‘Lost in reading: The predicament of postcolonial writing in Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation’, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 55 (2019), no. 4, pp. 459-471
Sylvie Ducas ‘L’entrée en littérature française de Kamel Daoud : «Camus, sinon rien!»’, Littératures, 73/2015, p. 185-197.
Joseph Ford, Writing the black decade: conflict and criticism in francophone Algerian literature (Lanham, 2021) ELD.DS.582067
14 October 2021
Content warning: This blog reproduces an image from a historical publication which is now considered racist
Last week, the Zanzibari writer Abdulrazak Gurnah became the first black African author in 35 years to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Judges from the Swedish Academy highlighted his ‘uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism’ as a key reason for the distinction.
Much of Gurnah’s writing is set in East Africa, and his latest novel, Afterlives, explores the impact of German colonialism on the region. The novel’s protagonists are residents of a coastal town whose lives become shaped by interactions with German soldiers, settlers and missionaries.
Gurnah’s receipt of the Nobel Prize is not only a testament to his literary prowess, but also reflects a long overdue process of engagement by European cultural institutions with the history of colonialism. As part of a three-month PhD placement, I am investigating what the British Library’s collections reveal about German colonialism and its legacies.
Cover of Abdulrazak Gurnah’s latest novel, Afterlives (London, 2021)
By consulting curators in various collections and exploring the Library’s holdings in their full breadth, including sound recordings, maps and postage stamps as well as written material, I hope to identify the potential for interrogating European accounts and locating under-represented, colonised and subaltern voices.
The era of formal German colonialism was short compared to other European empires such as Britain and France. Germany, which did not become a unified state until 1871, expanded into eastern Africa and modern-day Namibia, Cameroon and Togo in the 1880s, and established colonies in China and the Pacific a decade later. After defeat in World War One, Germany lost all of its overseas territories, with Britain taking over most of German East Africa.
The involvement of German speakers in colonial projects, however, has a longer history. In the first half of the 19th century, missionaries from German regions travelled to Africa to propagate Christianity.
One such individual was Johann Ludwig Krapf, whose activities were pointed out to me by Mariam de Haan from the British Library’s Asian and African Studies department. A clergyman from Württemberg, Krapf worked in East Africa between 1837 and 1855, and was one of the first Europeans to document the Swahili, Maasai and other regional languages.
In an account of his travels, available digitally in German on the British Library’s website, Krapf proposed that European nations take charge of different areas of Africa and Asia. Each power would place the indigenous peoples under their tutelage until Christianity had brought them to ‘full maturity’.
Krapf’s geographical findings are shown on W.D. Cooley’s ‘Map of part of Africa, South of the Equator, shewing the discoveries of the Rev. Dr. Krapf and Rev. J. Rebmann' (London, c. 1864) 2.b.14.
Krapf’s life provides an example of the transnational entanglement of European actors in ‘civilising’ projects. He did not travel under a German organisation, but rather as a member of the British Church Missionary Society, and likened his activities to Scottish counterpart David Livingstone’s work in southern Africa. In London, the cartographer William Desborough Colley published a map (shown above) charting the geographical findings of Krapf and fellow German missionary Johannes Rebmann.
In the mid-1880s, the German East Africa Company sought to gain economic and political power in the region. Following heavy local resistance to the company’s administration, the German government took control of the territory in 1891.
The contemporary and retrospective literature published by colonial officers active in East Africa contains racist stereotypes, and frequently masks the brutal realities of German practices. However, the texts occasionally reveal how local resistance undermined imperial authority.
Early opposition came in particular from the Hehe ethnic group. In 1891, Hehe warriors ambushed a German column in what became known as the Battle of Lugalo. The German defeat, with heavy losses, was described as a ‘catastrophe’ in the memoirs of the officer Tom von Prince, who acknowledged admiringly how the Hehe leaders had exploited their enemy’s vulnerability when marching in line.
Cover of Tom von Prince’s Gegen Araber und Wahehe. Erinnerungen aus meiner ostafrikanischen Leutnantszeit, 1890-1895 (Berlin, 1914) 9061.d.35.
Accounts of indigenous resistance in the British Library’s collections are not limited to German perspectives. The Sound and Moving Image catalogue contains interviews recorded by Alison Redmayne, a researcher who conducted fieldwork in Tanzania during the 1960s. Redmayne collected interviewees’ descriptions of the Battle of Lugalo and the Maji-Maji Rebellion, a major uprising between 1905 and 1907.
The uprising began when a spiritual medium, Kinjikitile Ngwale, claimed that a water-based medicine (maji means water in Swahili) would protect rebels from German bullets. After Tanzania became independent in 1961 following British rule, the Maji Maji Rebellion was celebrated as a moment of unity between different ethnic groups.
Ebrahim Hussein’s popular play Kinjeketile, published in 1969, reimagined the leader – who was executed by colonial officers early in the rebellion – as a tragic hero who privately doubted the power of his ‘sacred water’ but kept silent to preserve the newfound solidarity among the rebels.
Cover of the English translation of Ebrahim Hussein’s Kinjeketile (Dar es Salaam, 1970), X.908/26258
Early postcolonial interest in the Maji Maji Rebellion was also reflected in an oral history project at the University of Dar es Salaam in the late 1960s, in which students interviewed individuals who experienced the uprising. A published collection of material from the project, including transcriptions of the interviews in local languages and translations into English, can be found in our holdings.
In recent years, historians have revisited the interviews and highlighted underexplored passages which challenge the notion of the Maji Maji Rebellion as an interethnic struggle against European domination. Thaddeus Sunseri, for example, has pointed to instances of collaboration with the Germans and emphasised the variety of motives behind participation in the revolt.
Introductory page of the University of Dar es Salaam’s Maji Maji research project, 1968. Collected papers (Dar es Salaam, 1969) X.805/195.
Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Afterlives, too, illustrates the complex choices faced by individuals whose lives are disrupted under foreign rule, and Gurnah’s works are a reminder that understandings of the colonial past are constantly evolving. The British Library does not contain everything there is to know about European colonialism: accounts from colonisers and European perspectives are likely to be better represented than the voices of the colonised, which sometimes survive only in mediated form. Nonetheless, the collections offer potential for new insights which can only be realised through dialogue across departments and across source collections.
I have been astounded by the wide range of relevant material which I have found in the library so far, and, when speaking to colleagues, I think they have been surprised too. As my project continues, I look forward to sharing further library resources for investigating colonialism with colleagues and library users.
Rory Hanna, PhD Placement Student, German Collections
References and further reading:
Abdulrazak Gurnah, Afterlives (London, 2021), in order
Abdulrazak Gurnah, Paradise (London, 1994), Nov.1994/631
Sebastian Conrad, German Colonialism: A Short History (Cambridge, 2012) YC.2011.a.17036
Clarissa Vierke (ed.), Johann Ludwig Krapf: the life and work of a missionary and scholar-traveller in nineteenth-century East Africa (Nairobi, 2009) YD.2009.a.6998
Clemens Gutl (ed.), Johann Ludwig Krapf: „Memoir on the East African slave trade“. Ein unveröffentlichtes Dokument aus dem Jahr 1853 (Vienna, 2002) X.0909/1053.(73)
J.L. Krapf, Reisen in Ost-Afrika, ausgeführt in dem Jahren 1837-55, etc (Stuttgart, 1858) 10096.e.30.
J.L. Krapf, Travels, researches and missionary labours, during an eighteen years' residence in Eastern Africa (London, 1860) 010095.gg.34.
Andrew Roberts (ed.), Tanzania Before 1900 (Nairobi, 1968), X.709/15877.
Alison Redmayne, 'The Wahehe people of Tanganyika', PhD thesis (Oxford, 1965)
J.B. Gewald, ‘Colonial Warfare: Hehe and World War I, the Wars Besides Maji Maji in South-Western Tanzania’, African Historical Review 40:2 (2008), pp. 1-27, 0732.493000
Tom von Prince, Gegen Araber und Wahehe. Erinnerungen aus meiner ostafrikanischen Leutnantszeit, 1890-1895 (Berlin, 1914) 9061.d.35.
Carl Peters, Das Deutsch-Ostafrikanische Schutzgebiet (Munich, 1895), 10094.e.29.
Felicitas Becker und Jigal Beez (eds), Der Maji-Maji-Krieg in Deutsch-Ostafrika, 1905-1907 (Berlin, 2005) YF.2006.a.30647
James Giblin and Jamie Monson (eds), Maji Maji: Lifting the Fog of War (Leiden, 2010) 0733.775000 v. 20
Ebrahim Hussein, Kinjeketile (Dar es Salaam, 1970) X.908/26258
University College, Dar es Salaam, Department of History, Maji Maji research project, 1968. Collected papers (Dar es Salaam, 1969) X.805/195.
Thaddeus Sunseri, ‘Statist Narratives and Maji Maji Ellipses’, The International Journal of African Historical Studies 33:3 (2000), pp. 567–84, 4541.580000
Elijah Greenstein, ‘Making History: Historical Narratives of the Maji Maji’, Penn History Review 17:2 (2010), pp. 60-77
Stefan Noack et al (eds), Deutsch-Ostafrika: Dynamiken europäischer Kulturkontakte und Erfahrungshorizonte im kolonialen Raum (Berlin, 2019), YF.2020.a.11433
10 September 2021
Tuesday 14 September 2021 will be the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s death. The British Library holds extensive Dante collections, with some richly illuminated manuscripts and precious printed editions of Dante’s masterpiece, the Divine Comedy.
To celebrate the Italian poet (c. 1265-1321) we have organised an online event, Dante in the British Library: Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, presenting original research on the Divine Comedy. Dr Alessandro Scafi of the Warburg Institute will focus on Dante’s vision of the Garden of Eden against the backdrop of medieval tradition, seen through maps. The second lecture will be given by Elisabeth Trischler, who is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds. Elisabeth will be speaking about the expansion of Florence during Dante’s lifetime and how it influenced the Divine Comedy. She will look at two examples: medieval representations of cities, and towers.
Dante con l’espositione di Christoforo Landino et di Alessandro Vellutello sopra la sua comedia dell’Inferno, del Purgatorio, & del Paradiso (Venice, 1564) C.78.d.13.
We will also be sharing something really exciting about Dante and the British Library’s Dante collections in the coming weeks!
In the meantime, I would like to share some of my favourite lines from the Divine Comedy. It is a quote from Ulysses’ ‘little oration’ to exhort his companions to set sail towards the unknown. This sums up Dante’s own desire for knowledge, which he passes on to all his readers:
Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.
Consider well the seed that gave you birth:
you were not made to live your lives as brutes,
but to be followers of worth and knowledge.
Valentina Mirabella, Curator Romance Collections
31 August 2021
As we come to the end of Women in Translation Month 2021, this blog post brings together three books by women authors in translation from across Europe.
Mercè Rodoreda, In Diamond Square, translated by Peter Bush (London, ). ELD.DS.1778
Chosen by Geoff West, Former Curator Hispanic Studies
Written when its author was still living in exile, Mercè Rodoreda’s novel tells the story of a young woman in working-class Barcelona from the early 1930s to the aftermath of Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War. At a dance in the Square, the impressionable Natàlia meets a confident young man, Quimet, and soon falls under his spell. He insists that she will be his wife within a year and on giving her the nickname ‘Pidgey’. Inevitably they do marry, and they have two children. However, Quimet now earns little as a carpenter and decides to rear pigeons in their flat. Natàlia takes on work as a cleaner in a middle-class household, adding to the burden of her own housework.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, Quimet goes off to fight on the Republican side and is killed. The full impact of the conflict is now conveyed as food and fuel run short. Natàlia loses her job and sends her son away to a camp for refugee boys to ensure he will be fed. After being forced to sell all her possessions to survive, she finally contemplates suicide for herself and her children. However, a providential conversation with a local grocer, who offers her work, saves her. The pair get married and Natàlia achieves an accommodation with the possibilities offered by her new existence.
Rodoreda’s first-person narrative effectively conveys the experiences and reactions of a woman initially unprepared for marriage in a male-dominated society. It also graphically documents the resilience required of ordinary people during war. The final chapters articulate the trauma of coming to terms with the past.
First published in 1962, La plaça del Diamant has now been translated into English three times and into more than twenty other languages. It remains one of the most successful works of Catalan fiction.
Mercè Rodoreda, La plaça del Diamant (Barcelona, 1962) 11303.n.12
Mercè Rodoreda, The Pigeon Girl, trans. Eda O’Shiel (London, 1967) X.909/10529
Mercè Rodoreda, The Time of the Doves, trans. David H. Rosenthal (New York, 1980)
Christine Brückner, Desdemona – if you had only spoken! Eleven uncensored speeches of eleven incensed women, translated by Eleanor Bron (London, 1992) YK.1993.a.5906
Chosen by Susan Reed, Lead Curator Romance Collections
The prolific and successful German writer Christine Brückner published this collection of dramatic monologues in 1983, giving voices to well-known fictional and historical women, from Clytemnestra to Gudrun Ensslin. Some, like Katharina Luther, address their husbands. Others speak to other women, including Brückner herself criticising the overly-idealistic utopianism of 19th-century reformer Malwida von Meysenbug. In the title monologue, Desdemona’s willingness to confront Othello’s suspicions changes her fate: he listens and they reconcile. In other stories, the women reflect on their lives and situations, speaking as much to themselves as to any imagined interlocutor.
In the introduction to her English translation, the actor Eleanor Bron explains how “during the interval of a dreary play” in Hamburg she saw photographs from a production of the pieces and was immediately intrigued. She bought Brückner’s book and resolved to resurrect the German she had studied at university to prepare a translation, an experience she describes both entertainingly and insightfully.
Daniela Hodrová, Prague. I See a City. Translated by David Short; Foreword by Rajendra Chitnis. 2nd rev. ed. (Folkestone, 2015). Awaiting shelfmark.
Chosen by Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections
Have you ever been to Prague? If you have visited this wonderful city, you have probably noticed that Prague radiates some magical gleam that is not always easy to catch. Prague has its own unique charm and opens up to those who care to enquire about its history and character. While wandering through the streets of Prague, which guidebook did you have in your hands: Lonely Planet, Eyewitness Travel, or Rough Guides? Maybe, next time you can take Prague. I See a City by Daniela Hodrová.
Born in 1946 in Prague, Hodrová is one of the most distinct and original authors in contemporary Czech literature. Being a literary scholar by training and working as a researcher, she is very aware of rich literary traditions and techniques, as well as theoretical issues of aesthetics, theology and philosophy. Prague. I See a City is a very stylish and moving description of the city through a woman’s eyes. The author takes her readers through the city of her life. It is full of love and dreams, sounds of music and every-day scenes. Written straight after the November 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia (translated into English in 2011), the book is a poetic meditation on the history of the country and how this is reflected in a woman's life and in the city itself: “City of torment! City of puppets! City of Monsters! In all likelihood I am partly to blame for your awakening, I have brought you to life with words.”
18 August 2021
To coincide with the British Library's exhibition Paddington: The Story of a Bear, we've put together a series of blog posts about a few other bears (fictional and real) from the collections.
Our current Paddington Bear exhibition made me think of one of his forebears in British children’s literature, Mary Plain. Mary appeared in a series of 14 books by the Welsh author Gwynedd Rae published between 1930 and 1965. Like Paddington, Mary is sufficiently anthropomorphic to talk to and interact with humans. She is taken under the wing of the ‘Owl Man’, named for his round spectacles, and the ‘Fur Coat Lady’, who accompany her on various ‘svisits’ as Mary calls them, in and beyond her native Bern, venturing as far afield as the USA.
In her ‘very important’ introduction to the first book, Rae says that she was inspired by a stay in Bern where she regularly visited the city’s historic bear pit and started to make up stories about its inhabitants. Mary’s original home is in this pit, and the first book presents a pretty accurate map of it at the time when Rae visited. It was Bern’s fourth bear pit, and although it had been developed and extended over the years, it was still an unnatural and inadequate place for bears to be kept.
Plan of the Bear Pit, from Gwynedd Rae, Mostly Mary (London, 1930) 12803.p.40. The names of Rae’s bear characters are given in the sections where they live.
Although Rae portrays the bears’ keeper, Job, as a kind man and gives her anthropomorphised bears an autonomous and happy life within their captive world, she also makes her readers see how they beg for food thrown by visitors, and mentions that the only real tree in the enclosure is given over to the older bears who most need its shade. It’s no wonder that Mary prefers her travels and adventures with her human friends, even if these would be an equally unnatural life for a real bear.
But why was there a bear pit in Bern? The clue is in the city’s name. According to legend, its founder, Duke Berthold V von Zähringen, vowed to name the city after the first animal he successfully killed in a hunt there. This turned out to be a bear, which became the city’s namesake and emblem. (I wonder if Berthold would have been so keen if he’d caught a rabbit?)
The first record of live bears being kept in Bern dates from 1513, when, according to contemporary chronicler Valerius Anselm, Bernese troops brought one back as a trophy from the Battle of Novara, and the bears were soon familiar enough to be the subjects of patriotic local poems.
The first bear pit was in a central square, called Bärenplatz today, although the name is first recorded in the 19th century when the bears had long since moved. The current site by the River Aare dates back to 1857 and until the early 21st century still consisted of the rather bleak enclosure depicted in Rae’s books.
A memoir by Emil Hänni, the city’s Bear-Keeper from the 1950s to the 1970s, gives an impression of the pits at that time and of the life led by the bears. Although Hänni’s genuine devotion to his charges is obvious, his book is something of a window into another time in terms of attitudes to animal welfare. When he took the job, his only formal experience working with animals was as a sheepdog trainer, and he received only two days’ training from his predecessor. He expresses anger at tourists who throw glass bottles of milk or unsuitable foodstuffs into the pit, but never questions the very fact of them feeding the bears for their own entertainment, or the suitability of the pit for housing large animals. The book ends with the bears returning to the pit following restoration work in 1976, after which Hänni’s son, also called Emil, took over the job.
Emil junior would be Bern’s last official Bear-Keeper, retiring in 2003. From the 1970s onwards, both animal rights groups and public opinion became increasingly vocal in calling for a more natural environment for the bears. In the mid-1990s major renovations were carried out, providing more shade and water, and covering the concrete base of the pit with a thick floor of sand and gravel, but the pit was still inadequate by modern animal welfare standards. In 2001 a competition was announced to design a more suitable home, and in 2009 the new enclosure opened, housing fewer bears in a larger space. Now known as a park rather than a pit, it comprises a landscaped area along a stretch of the Aare. Part of the old pit is joined to it, the other part has become a shop and exhibition area.
Given their symbolic importance to the people of Bern, it is good to know that bears now have a more suitable home in the city. I hope Gwynedd Rae and Mary Plain would have approved.
Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections
More bear-themed posts from the European Studies blog:
29 July 2021
This post is part of our 'Inheritance Books' series, where colleagues choose an 'inherited' item that was already in the library when we started working here, and one that we have acquired or catalogued for our collections during our own time to 'pass on' to future users, visitors and colleagues, and explain why they're important to us.
When I started as a cataloguer, the debut novel De avonden by Simon van het Reve, pseudonym of Gerard van het Reve, was already in the collection. The subtitle ‘een winterverhaal’ (a winter’s tale) suggests sitting around a warm fireside telling stories of legends. Instead of being set in homely surroundings, the novel is set against the cold of winter outside and characters forever lighting a stove inside. The protagonist is called ‘de held van deze geschiedenis’ (‘the hero of this story’) but he is not heroic. The tone of the novel would have been much darker if it was not for the irony and humour as expressed by the subtitle and continued throughout the novel.
Cover of De avonden by Simon van het Reve (Amsterdam, 1947). YA.1991.a.15442
The story describes ten days in the life of Frits van Egters, a 23 year old office clerk, during December 1946. These ten days are written in ten chapters and are also the last ten days and evenings of the year. The strength of the novel lies in how it has been written rather than what happens. Ironically the ‘narrative’ of the story is that nothing happens: there is no action, everything is static ‘de lege uren’ (empty hours) and expressed for instance by constantly checking clocks and watches that hardly seem to move. It is static because the focus is on the introspection and self-analysis of the protagonist. This leads to a sense of entrapment, disillusionment, loneliness and is exaggerated by Frits’s cynicism. Much of this negativity is expressed in his relationship to animals and his parents but also in disturbing dreams. What makes the novel interesting is the way it has been written with a clear focus on realistic detail.
Portrait of Van het Reve (Image from Wikimedia Commons)
Although De avonden has much to offer to any reader in any language, it took nearly 70 years for the novel to be translated into English. Tim Parks, novelist and translator, ends his review of the translation: “So, huge respect to Pushkin Press for finally doing the business, and in particular to Sam Garrett for a translation that avoids a thousand pitfalls to give us this enfant terrible of Dutch genius in an entirely convincing English.”
In the 15 years that I have been cataloguing Dutch books, there is one publication that stands out in particular. It is a six volume work of the complete letters by Vincent van Gogh: De brieven: de volledige, geïllustreerde en geannoteerde uitgave. This edition is the product of 15 years of research by the Van Gogh Museum and the Huygens Institute.
There is also a freely available web edition of Van Gogh’s complete letters. All letters have been translated into English and are extensively annotated and set in their biographical and historical context.
Van Gogh regularly embellished a letter with a small drawing or enclosed a freehand sketch. “The value of the sketches lies in the fact that they forced him to depict the essence of a drawing or painting. He usually drew them with ordinary writing ink, and in some cases he added colour notations, which can be compared to the actual paintings.”
In a letter of 6 April 1885, addressed to his brother Theo, he wrote, “I desire nothing other than to live deep in the country and to paint peasant life … I plan to make a start this week on that thing with the peasants around a dish of potatoes”. In a letter written 3 days later, he includes a small drawing of the ‘Potato Eaters’.
Sketch of Potato Eaters in a letter of 9 April 1885
The scene is set in Nuenen in his home country of the Netherlands. The colours are dark and earthy unlike the bright canvases that most people are familiar with and that belong to his later works. In this same letter, Van Gogh shows an awareness of characteristics of his work that will come to define in particular his later works. He writes: “I see a chance of giving a felt impression of what I see. Not always literally exactly — rather never exactly — for one sees nature through one’s own temperament”.
A good example of a ‘felt impression’ of what Van Gogh saw is the painting of his bedroom. Vincent was living in Arles, France at the time. In a letter to Theo of 16 October 1888, he gave a very detailed description of his bedroom in particular of the colours used and also included a detailed sketch:
The walls are of a pale violet. The floor — is of red tiles.
The bedstead and the chairs are fresh butter yellow.
The sheet and the pillows very bright lemon green.
The blanket scarlet red.
The window green.
The dressing table orange, the basin blue.
The doors lilac.
Sketch of bedroom in a letter of 16 October 1888
Vincent van Gogh died on 29 July 1890. In the last few years before his death, the range and intensity of colours in his paintings increased dramatically confirming what he had stated five years earlier: “for one sees nature through one’s own temperament.”
Gerard Reve, The Evenings: a Winter’s Tale, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (London, 2016). Nov.2018/1916
Tim Parks, “The Evenings by Gerard Reve review – a masterpiece, translated at long last” (The Guardian, 9 November 2016)
Vincent van Gogh, De brieven: de volledige, geïllustreerde en geannoteerde uitgave, onder redactie van Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten en Nienke Bakker (Amsterdam, 2009). LF.31.b.6957
02 July 2021
This is a general knowledge quiz question: “What is the link between a brass bottle and football”? Sorry, wrong question. The correct question should go like this: “What is the link between The Brass Bottle and Soviet football”? If you have ever read the comedy novel by F. Anstey (real name Thomas Anstey Guthrie), The Brass Bottle (London, 1900; 12632.i.26.), or seen one of the films based on this novel, you might remember that this is a story about an ordinary man who found a jinn. The novel influenced not only George Orwell, but also a young unknown Soviet writer Lazar Lagin, who read it as a boy in an early Russian translation.
Cover of the 1946 Penguin edition of The Brass Bottle by F. Anstey. Source: Wikipedia
In Lagin’s fantasy published in the most popular Soviet children’s magazines Pioner (Young Pioneer) in 1938, a Soviet boy, Vol’ka, fishes out a strange jug from the Moscow River. Old Jinn Khottabych was imprisoned there by an angry sultan and Vol’ka lets him out. Khottabych is happy to fulfil all Vol’ka’s wishes, but at first he finds the life and customs in the Soviet Union too strange and egalitarian for his liking.
Pages from Lagin's story Starik Khottabych published in Pioner in 1938
On one occasion, they go to a football match between popular teams Chisel and Puck. Vol’ka and his friend Zhenia – both big Chisel fans – want to impress Khottabych by the beauty and energy of football, which has become one of the most important sports in the USSR. Lagin warns his readers that “During the days of football competitions, the entire population of Moscow is split into two camps who do not understand one another. In one camp, there are football enthusiasts. In the other camp, we find mysterious people, completely indifferent to this fascinating sport”.
At the very beginning, Khottabych belongs to the second camp. He struggles to understand (and sometimes I still do, too) why 22 strong, young men are chasing one ball: “Will these twenty-two nice young men have to run over such a vast field, lose strength, fall and push each other only to be able to touch a plain leather ball for a split moment? Is it because there was just one ball for all of them to play with?”
Once I quoted Khottabych to one of my football-fan friends, and he in full seriousness started explaining the rules of the game to me. Little did he know what Khottabych had done in Lagin’s book! Khottabych gives each player a ball to enjoy: “Something unheard of in the history of football has happened. It is impossible to explain from the point of view of the laws of nature either: twenty-two brightly coloured morocco balls fell from the sky and rolled across the football pitch”.
Illustration from Starik Khottabych showing 22 balls falling from the sky onto the football pitch (Rotov, 1958)
The game is stopped, but not ruined. However, because of the episode with the 22 balls, the Puck team missed a good opportunity to score, and Khottabych, feeling increasingly guilty, starts to support it. Of course, Vol’ka and Khottabych end up on different sides of the barricade: Vol’ka supports Chisel and Khottabych – Puck!
Everyone knows that cheating is bad. But, maybe, just a little bit... Not being aware of Khottabych’s growing sympathy towards Puck, Vol’ka is carried away with the idea of exercising the magic power of the jinn. He asks Khottabych to “move Puck’s goalpost a little bit, when Chisel are kicking”. And Khottabych does the complete opposite:
The second goal in three minutes [to Chisel]! And both times through no fault of the goalkeeper. The goalkeeper fought like a lion, but what could he do? At the moment when a Puck player was kicking, the upper bar of the Chisel goal moved up by itself to let the ball fly past his fingertips. Who should he tell about it? Who would believe it? The goalkeeper felt sad and scared like a little boy who had gotten into a deep forest at night.
Illustration from Starik Khottabych showing Khottabych moving the goal post to help Puck to score (Val’k, 1953)
But only when the Puck goalpost moved inwards to prevent Chisel from scoring, does the penny drop and Vol’ka realises that Khottabych has become a football fan – he could no longer control himself and used all his magic power to help his team. By the end of the first half Puck was winning 24:0! Vol’ka became very angry: “- I demand, I finally order you to stop this mockery immediately! - he hissed at Khottabych. - I will unfriend you forever! Choose: me or Puck! - You’re a football lover yourself, so can’t you understand me? - the old man pleaded. But, this time he understood by looking at Vol’ka's face, that their friendship may really end”. After Khottabych pulls out a hair from his beard and mumbles some spells, all 11 Chisel players suddenly become unwell and are diagnosed with measles. The game is stopped and the score is declared invalid. The story goes that the next day the footballers woke up perfectly healthy. “This rare fact was described in detail in an article by the famous professor L.I. Pertussis. His article was published in the scientific medical journal ‘Measles and Illness’. The article is called ‘Here You Go!’ and is so successful that it is completely impossible to get the issue of the journal with this article in public libraries. So you, dear readers, better not even try. You won't find it anyway, and will just waste your time”.
Lazar' Lagin, The Old Genie Hottabych. Translated by Fainna Solasko. Illustrated by B. Markevich (Moscow, ). 011388.p.27.
I should probably confirm at this point that even the British Library does not hold this article, but instead holds several editions of The Brass Bottle and quite a few books by Lagin, including several editions of the story about Khottabych and even an English translation of it. Therefore, you won’t waste your time if you come to the Library some time between the Euro 2020 matches, as you may explore the links between bottles, jinni, football and Soviet pioneers for yourself.
Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections
12 March 2021
With the tentative but hopeful news that the British Library Reading Rooms will be able to re-open after 12 April, we wanted to highlight some new Slavonic e-resources. Like the Library's other subscribed resources, the following Ukrainian, Belarusian and Russian-language digital collections and archives will be available to access onsite in the St Pancras and Boston Spa Reading Rooms. To view the full list of databases and to access them in the Reading Rooms, please use this link.
We are working on making these resources available remotely to all registered readers, but – bear with us – it is a mammoth job. In the meantime, you can find a number of (mostly) free digital resources via our blog and collection guide.
Cover of 30 Dnei from September 1925. Credit: East View
30 Dnei Digital Archive
Founded in 1925 in Moscow 30 Dnei (30 Days) was an illustrated Soviet literary journal famous for the serialised publications of works such as Il’f and Petrov’s The Twelve Chairs and The Golden Calf. It was also known for its visually striking covers designed by famous Soviet artists and photojournalists, including Aleksandr Rodchenko. After falling foul of the central government in later years, the journal ceased publication soon after Nazi Germany’s invasion of the USSR in June 1941.
30 Dnei originally appeared as a literary supplement to Gudok (The Whistle), the daily newspaper of Soviet railway workers. In the 1920s, Gudok became known for its satirical sketches, to which Il’f and Petrov were regular contributors. The Library holds imperfect runs of Gudok from 1921 and 1922 on microfilm (MFM.MF1284V).
Belarusian anti-fascist resistance leaflet, 1942. Credit: East View
Belarus Anti-Fascist Resistance Leaflets and Press
These two collections consist of 97 World War II leaflets produced during the period of German occupation of Belarus in 1941–1944, as well as 30 newspaper titles published between 1942 and 1945. Most of the leaflets were published clandestinely by the multiple Soviet guerilla (partisan) detachments, as well as by the scores of underground resistance groups which operated in German-occupied cities and villages. The majority of the newspapers were printed by underground resistance groups in secret printing press facilities operating in small Belarusian towns in the territories occupied by the Germans, while others were distributed by Belarusian partisan detachments operating from remote areas of Belarus. The materials are in Belarusian and Russian.
Front page of Prapor peremohy from 1 January 1987. Credit: East View
Chernobyl Newspapers Collection
Following the Library’s recent purchase of the digital archive, The Chernobyl Files, we have acquired an additional electronic collection of newspapers published in towns in the exclusion zone and its immediate vicinity. They include three previously unavailable local newspapers, Prapor peremohy, Tribuna energetika, and Tribuna pratsi, and cover the period 1979–1990.
Cover of Nedelia, 28 December 1963 - 4 January 1964. Credit: East View
Nedelia Digital Archive
Founded in 1960, Nedelia (Week) was a popular illustrated Soviet weekly newspaper that began as a Sunday supplement to Izvestiia under the editorship of Aleksey Adzhubey, the son-in-law of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. It was one of the very few Soviet periodicals that kept the official Communist Party propaganda to a minimum, covering instead cultural, social, and political happenings with a certain degree of light-heartedness, which perhaps was the main reason behind its popularity.
Ogonek, no. 1, 1903. Credit: East View
Ogonek (St. Petersburg) Digital Archive
Established in 1899 and in continuous print until 1918, Ogonek started as a weekly illustrated supplement to the influential St. Petersburg-based newspaper Birzhevye Vedomosti (British Library: Mic.B.1089). Ogonek later became a separate entity, attracting some of the most notable journalists, photographers and critics of the period.
Russia in Transition
This digital collection contains primary source materials, ranging from samizdat newspapers to flyers to posters to booklets and brochures from 1989 to 1993, encompassing a period of unprecedented social and political activism in Russia. In addition to this new collection, the British Library also has access to a large number of digitised election related materials from the countries of the former Soviet Union (see Social Movements, Elections, Ephemera).
Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections, and Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections
Materials republished from products originally made available by East View Information Services
20 March 2020
Friedrich Hölderlin, whose 250th birthday we mark today, is in many ways the very model of a tragic Romantic poet and tormented genius, his life marked by loss, hopeless love, struggles for recognition, and eventually madness. Born in the Swabian town of Lauffen am Neckar in 1770, he lost both his father and stepfather at an early age. His mother hoped he would enter the church and he studied at seminaries in Denkendorf, Maulbronn and Tübingen, where his friends included G.F.W. Hegel and Friedrich von Schelling.
By the time he began his studies at Tübingen Hölderlin had already begun to write poetry and to reject the idea of a church career. After graduating in 1793 he instead sought employment as a private tutor, and moved to Jena to be close to Schiller, whom he had revered since first reading Don Carlos. His first job did not last long and he then enrolled at the University of Jena for a short time, before leaving the town in haste in 1795. He next found work as tutor to the son of a Frankfurt banker, Jakob Gontard, and fell in love with Gontard’s wife Susette. Their relationship played a crucial role not only in Hölderlin’s personal life but also in his creative work. Susette is idealised as ‘Diotima’ in a number of his poems and in his novel Hyperion.
When Gontard discovered the relationship, Hölderlin was dismissed and fled to Homburg where he tried to make an independent living as a writer. Schiller helped him to place some poems in literary journals and supported the publication of Hyperion, but later turned against Hölderlin’s work. A plan to start a literary journal foundered, and Hölderlin remained largely dependent on his mother for funds. Eventually he again took on teaching posts, first in Hauptwil in Switzerland and then in Bordeaux, but neither lasted more than a few months. The reasons are unknown, but his increasingly fragile mental health might have been a contributory factor: on his return from Bordeaux in June 1802 his friends were shocked by his confused and neglected state. Around this time he was further distressed by the news of Susette’s death.
Hölderlin moved back to his mother’s house where he translated works by Sophocles and Pindar and, under the influence of the latter, started to compose a series of hymn-like poems whose imagery combined the religion of ancient Greece with Christianity. In 1804 he returned to Homburg, nominally as court librarian, a sinecure acquired for him by an old Tübingen friend, Isaac von Sinclair. When Sinclair was tried for treason the following year, Hölderlin also fell under suspicion, but by this time his mental health had irrevocably broken down, and he was deemed unfit to stand trial, and was committed to an asylum. In 1807 he was released, and taken into the home of Ernst Zimmer, a carpenter in Tübingen, who had read and appreciated Hölderlin’s poetry. Hölderlin remained in the care of the Zimmer family until his death in 1843, occupying a room in a small tower overlooking the river Neckar, now preserved both as a museum and a monument to the poet.
Title-page of the first edition of Hölderlin’s poems (Stuttgart & Tübingen, 1826) 11526.e.32
For most of his own life Hölderlin’s work was largely unknown and unappreciated. Although some of his poems appeared in literary journals and almanacs, they were generally not well received. His only independent published work was Hyperion. It was not until 1826 that an edition of his poems was published, partly thanks to the advocacy of Wilhelm Waiblinger, a young writer who visited Hölderlin while studying in Tübingen. In the years that followed, Hölderlin became something of a tourist attraction, due not least to Waiblinger’s published depictions of him, but his own work remained largely neglected.
It was only in the early 20th century that interest in both the writer and his work began to grow. After the rediscovery and publication of some of his Pindar translations in 1911 Hölderlin’s work was eagerly taken up by the circle of writers around the poet Stefan George. The first complete critical edition of his works was published between 1911 and 1923 (BL 012251.f.3). Writers and critics began to truly appreciate the power and beauty of Hölderlin’s poetry and the originality of his fusion of ancient religion and Christianity with a Romantic evocation of nature.
Hölderlin’s frequent themes of alientation and loss, and of the longing to restore a harmonious relationship between man, nature and divinity perhaps spoke more to the 20th-century mindset than to the poet’s own contemporaries, and the fragmentary and much-revised nature of his later works seemed to 20th-century poets and thinkers less the products of a confused mind and more a reflection of the difficulty of communication. Composers and artists have also drawn inspiration from his work, including the short and fragmentary pieces he wrote during his years with Zimmer. As well as being recognised for his literary works and translations, Hölderlin’s influence on philosophy, especially that of his Tübingen friend Hegel, has been increasingly acknowledged.
In an echo of his own life, Hölderlin’s anniversary this year has been somewhat overshadowed by the celebrations of Beethoven’s 250th birthday. Beethoven never set any of Hölderlin’s works to music, although in 2018 the composer Dieter Schnebel combined the work of both, linking the ‘Schiksalslied’ (‘Song of Fate’) from Hyperion with the concept of fate in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. But the British Library will be celebrating Beethoven in style later this year, so let today be Hölderlin’s alone.
Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections
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