27 August 2021
There is only one author in the Netherlands who is laying down the law about how to write biographies as fiction and that is Connie Palmen.
30 years ago she burst onto the literary scene with her book De Wetten, a semi-autobiographical ‘Coming of Age’ story about a woman trying to understand the world and herself. Over the course of seven years she meets seven men who all seem to have a grip on life without having read many books; they just ‘know’. The protagonist doesn’t understand how this is possible. Translations appeared in 24 languages, including Richard Huijing’s English version, The Laws (London, 1992; H93/2400). The novel was voted European Novel of the Year in 1992 and was shortlisted for the 1996 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
Cover of Connie Palmen, De Wetten (Amsterdam, 1993.) YA.1994.a.3161.
Palmen has also written about her relationships with two men, Ischa Meijer and Hans van Mierlo, both public figures in the Netherlands. Here too she chose the form of the novel over the traditional biography, making it almost impossible to tell what is fact and what is fiction, so she can reveal and hide in equal measure whilst writing a riveting story.
Cover of Connie Palmen, Jij Zegt Het (Amsterdam, 2016). YF.2016.a.2830.
In her most recent love story, Palmen focuses her attention on a different couple. Jij Zegt Het (Your Story, My Story) has Ted Hughes, speaking in the first person, reflect on his marriage with Sylvia Plath and the decades after her death. He speaks out against how the world responded to their tragedy, including the literary world.
Cover of Connie Palmen, Your Story, My Story, translated by Eileen J. Stevens and Anna Asbury. (Seattle, 2021) On order
In numerous biographies Plath is given martyr-like status, while Hughes is portrayed as a traitor and murderer, condemned by complete strangers and accused by people he regarded to be his friends.
In 1998, shortly before his death, Ted Hughes published Birthday Letters (YA.2006.a.15922), a collection of 88 poems about their relationship. It is this collection that led Palmen to write Jij Zegt Het, first published in 2015, which won the 2016 Libris Literature Award.
Palmen describes the thoughts, fears and adjurations of the husband, and the deeply tragic bond with the woman who would determine his life. This is how it begins:
For most people we only exist in a book, my bride and I. Over the past 35 years I have witnessed in horror how our real lives were smothered by a mud stream of apocryphal stories, false statements, gossip, fantasies, myths and how our true, complex personalities were replaced by cliché characters, reduced to simple images, cut to size for a sensation seeking public. She, the fragile saint, me the brutal traitor. I remained silent. Until now.
Palmen does not claim that this is the last word on the matter, and it isn’t, because the recent publication of Plath’s letters to her therapist and friend Ruth Barnhouse in a new edition of Plath’s correspondence has once again ignited debate. As long as it results in works like Palmen’s I say: ‘Bring it on!’
Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections
J.W Niesing, De Wetten. (Apeldoorn, 1992). YA.1993.a.26869. An introduction for students.
The letters of Sylvia Plath, edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil. (London, 2019) YC.2020.a.3212 (Vol. 1); YC.2020.a.3213 (Vol. 2)
Andy N. and Amanda Steele, ‘Reading in Bed’ podcast, Ep. 37, January 2021 (Includes discussion of Your Story, My Story)
Other titles by Palmen:
Als een weke krijger: verspreid werk. (Amsterdam, 2005). YF.2016.a.2964.
Het drama van de afhankelijkheid. (Amsterdam, 2017). YF.2018.a.16391
De erfenis. (Amsterdam, 1999). YF.2005.a.2288 (Book Week Gift)
De vriendschap. (Amsterdam, 1995). YA.1995.a.14809; English translation by Ina Rilke, The friendship (London, 2012.) ELD.DS.190913.
Geheel de uwe. (Amsterdam, 2004) YF.2005.a.25865
I.M. (Amsterdam, 1998). YA.2000.a.5493 .
Een kleine filosofie van de moord. (Amsterdam, 2004). YF.2005.a.27342
Logboek van een onbarmhartig jaar. (Amsterdam, 2011). YF.2016.a.14344
Lucifer. (Amsterdam, 2007). YF.2016.a.2833
Het weerzinwekkende lot van de oude Socrates. (Amsterdam, 1992). YA.1993.a.19834
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
09 July 2021
On Saturday 26 June the Dutch dream of winning the Euro 2020 tournament ended. The Orange team lost 2-0 against the Czech Republic. Coach Frank de Boer was promptly sacked, for not having reached the last 16.
It wasn’t the first time that the Czechs had trounced the Netherlands. On 19 June 2004 the Dutch lost to them by 3-2; having been in the lead by 2-0. I remember it well. I watched the game at The Hems, the ‘Dutch’ pub in Soho, together with a friend from Moscow who seemed more hacked-off about it than I was.
Perhaps he had better understood what had actually happened. Read Maarten Moll’s ‘De Wissel’ in Wat Een Goal! and you’ll understand.
19 juni 2004 Nederland-Tsjechie (EK) ‘De Wissel’. In: Maarten Moll, Wat een goal! Een kleine canon van het moderne voetbal (Amsterdam, 2012) YF.2013.a.294.
How different things were back in 1988, when Rinus Michels led the Orange team to a 2-0 victory in the Euros against Russia. Part of that winning team was Johan Cruijff, who took the concept of ‘total football’ to a whole new level. More on him in my blog from 2014.
However, for many the more important victory had been in the semi-final against Germany. It avenged the traumatic defeat of 1974. What followed on that night was the first show of what is now known as ‘Orange Madness’. The usually calm, down-to-earth and level-headed Dutch erupted in an exuberant mass: everywhere people took to the streets, singing and dancing and waving orange flags.
Euro 1988 was the first time an outburst of nationalist pride in sport on such a scale took place. They decorated their houses and streets with orange flags, bunting, balloons, inflatable dugouts, you name it. They dressed in orange clothes with all sorts of orange head gear, and the like, turning stadiums orange with their presence.
Ad Rooms, in De Jaren 80 writes that during the Dutch team’s celebratory boat tour along the canals of Amsterdam house boats were sunk by crowds dancing on top of them.
People celebrating Dutch victory on 25 June 1988. In: Ad Rooms, De Jaren 80: doemdenkers en positivo’s. (Zwolle, 2017) YF.2018.b.692
Jan Mulder comments with great irony on the phenomenon in his column ‘Oranjegekte’ published in De analyticus.
Jeanet Kullberg did research on ‘Orange madness’: which groups within Dutch society engage in it, in what neighbourhoods, and (most importantly) why? She shows that ‘Orange madness’ is a complicated phenomenon - mainly exercised by people in lower-income areas, as a way to express an identity and to celebrate together. Her article ‘Met voetbal kan het wel, normal kijk je de buren niet aan’, loosely translated as: ‘When there’s football it’s ok – outside that we don’t talk to our neighbours’, published in the journal Amsterdams Sociologisch Tijdschrift of May 2001 makes for fascinating reading.
If Euro 2020 has whetted your appetite to know more, do come to the British Library and delve into our rich collections on football.
Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections
Nicholas Piercey, Four histories about early Dutch football, 1910-1920: constructing discourses (London, 2016). ELD.DS.488972. Available free online via Directory of Open Access Books
David Winner, Brilliant orange: the neurotic genius of Dutch football (London, 2000). YK.2000.a.10395
Maarten Meijer, Louis van Gaal: the biography (London, 2014) ELD.DS.180919
Hugo Borst, O, Louis: in search of Louis van Gaal (London, 2014) YK.2015.a.4621
Dennis Bergkamp with David Winner, Stillness and speed: my story (London, 2013). YK.2014.a.13494
Dennis Bergkamp’s career in football. Archived BBC Sport webpage
More European Studies blogs about Euro 2020:
19 April 2021
Today, 19 April, is the anniversary of the death of Maria van Reigersberch, or Reigersbergen the wife of Hugo de Groot a.k.a. Grotius. Her husband is well known for his legal writings in which he launched the idea of the freedom of the seas and international law. Grotius is credited with stating that rights are not just connected to objects, but also to people, although that doesn’t make him a human rights activist in the modern sense: his work is very much aimed at the advancement of the interests of the Dutch Republic.
Maria van Reigersbergen by a painter from the circle of Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt. Source: Wikipedia.
Grotius had made his career in the service of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt the most powerful man in the Republic, who got himself in trouble with the Stadholder Maurits. It cost him his head and he dragged Grotius down with him. Grotius was actually lucky to escape with his life, but he was sentenced to life imprisonment at the Castle Loevenstein.
Maria van Reigersberch campaigned hard to obtain better living conditions for her husband and permission to join him at the castle, together with their maid Elselina (Elsje) van Houwening. The women were allowed to join Grotius. Big mistake!
Maria negotiated with the authorities to have books brought to Hugo, so he could continue his studies and work. The books were delivered in a large trunk and I can just imagine Maria looking at that trunk and thinking: ‘Trojan Horse in reverse!’
Hugo de Groot, by Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt (1631) Source: Wikimedia
Portrait of a woman presumed to be Elselina van Houwingen (anonymous, 1656). Source: Houweningen, Elselina van (?-1681) (knaw.nl)
They prepared their plan very well. Maria made Hugo lie in the chest very still for up to two hours for several evenings. Then on 22 March 1621 Hugo climbed in the chest, Maria made up the bed with his clothes and put his slippers in front of the bed to make it look like he was asleep. She sent the trunk off, out of the castle. Elselina went with it and watched over it fiercely.
Maria stayed behind in prison. She was eventually released and joined Hugo in Paris. He was never allowed to return to his home country and Maria returned there only to die.
Hugo was also a rather accomplished poet and he wrote a poem in thanks to his wife: Silva Ad Franciscum Augustum Thuanum (Paris, 1621; 11405.i.18.(13.)).
The story of this audacious escape has been written about in books, poems, and plays over the centuries. The first to record it was Gerard Brandt, who actually spoke to Elselina herself, so it is a first-hand account. Brandt’s son Caspar compiled his father’s notes and published them as Historie van het leven des Heeren Huig de Groot, beschreven tot den aanvang van zyn gezantschap ... aan’t hof van Vrankryk (Dordrecht/Amsterdam,1727; 10760.g.12.).
Brandt’s notes show how Elselina looked after the chest with its precious contents with great dedication. The chest was of course heavy and the soldiers carrying it noticed that and suggested De Groot must be in it. To see if that were true they wanted to drill a hole right through the chest. She replied that they needed a drill as long as the way to his rooms in the castle. Then the captain of the ship that would take them to Gorinchem wanted to put down a rickety plank over which the soldiers had to carry the chest. She was having none of it, saying that the chest could easily fall in the water and then ‘all the books would be spoiled. They were fine books that had been borrowed, so had to be returned in good order.’ I think she missed her vocation as a librarian. A sturdier plank was duly supplied.
Elselina van Houwening survived Hugo and Maria by decades. She died in March 1681 and was buried on the 8th of March, only a few weeks short of the 60th anniversary of the escape.
Image of Grotius’s book chest from Het Leven van Hugo de Groot, getrokken uit de voornaamste historie-schryvers en dichters (Amsterdam 1785) 10760.e.1
And what happened to the chest? Well, as with so many ‘mythical’ objects, there are three chests which the institutions that hold them claim to be the real one. These are at the Rijksmuseum, Slot Loevestein and Het Prinsenhof in Delft. Recent research has concluded that the Delft chest has the best claim, but the outcome was not conclusive. It is much more likely that the original chest disappeared sometime in the 17th century.
Front cover of De Boekenkist van Hugo de Groot, by Arnout van Cruyningen. (Utrecht, 2021). (awaiting shelfmark)
The latest book on the topic has just come out and is by Arnout van Cruyningen. (Utrecht, 2021) which will be available for BL readers later this year.
Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections
References and further reading
Jeronimo de Vries, Hugo de Groot en Maria van Reigersbergen (Amsterdam, 1827). DRT Digital Store 1560/1614.
Marco Barducci, Hugo Grotius and the century of revolution, 1613-1718 : transnational reception in English political thought (Oxford, 2017) YC.2018.a.7730
Henk Nellen, Hugo Grotius: a lifelong struggle for peace in church and state, 1583-1645, translated from the Dutch by J.C. Grayson. (Leiden, 2014) YD. 2015.a.204
Grotius and law, edited by Larry May and Emily MGill. (Farnham, 2014) YC.2015.a.11580
Grotius, edited by John Dunn and Ian Harris. 2 vols. (Cheltenham, 1997) YC.1998.b.5202
De Hollandse jaren van Hugo de Groot, edited by H.J.M. Nellen and J. Trapman. (Hilversum, 1996) YA.1997.b.411
For more information on women in Dutch history:
Digitaal Vrouwenlexicon van Nederland, or Digital Womenlexicon of the Netherlands. Freely available on [Digitaal Vrouwenlexicon van Nederland (knaw.nl)]
Els Kloek, et al, 1001 Vrouwen uit de Nederlandse geschiedenis (Nijmegen, 2013) YF.2015.a.1208.
23 March 2021
Today marks the 50th anniversary of Simon Vestdijk’s death at the age of 72. He was one of the most prolific and diverse authors of the Netherlands with 50 novels, 12 collections of poetry, numerous essays and he translated Emily Dickinson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Allen Poe into Dutch. He also wrote essays and reviews for a number of literary journals and newspapers, such as the Nieuwe Courant (NRC) and Het Parool.
Portrait of Simon Vestdijk. Source: Ontdek ons digitaal erfgoed | Geheugen van Nederland
Vestdijk nearly didn’t become a writer. For years he dithered between a career in medicine, music, or literature. In 1932 he both graduated as a doctor and published his literary debut, a collection of poems, which appeared in the literary journal De Vrije Bladen (P.P.4261.sa.) He still wasn’t sure which path to choose.
He won numerous prizes, the last one being awarded just a few days before his death.
Vestdijk himself divided his work into five categories:
1. Fiction with autobiographical elements around the character Anton Wachter, such as Terug tot Ina Damman (Back to Ina Damman)
2. Fiction with semi-autobiographical elements, for example De koperen tuin (The garden where the brass band played). See below
3. Contemporary psychological work, such as Else Böhler, Duits dienstmeisje
4. Historical work, such as De vuuraanbidders (The fire worshippers)
5. Fantastical work, such as De kellner en de levenden (The waiter and the living) and Bericht uit het hiernamaals (Message from the other side)
Cover of the first edition of De Koperen Tuin (Rotterdam, 1950). 12584.w.64. Source: Vestdijk.com
This year will see a full programme of commemorations; a plaque will be fitted on his house in Doorn. Today a delegation from De Vestdijkkring, a society that commemorates Vestdijk and promotes his work, will lay a wreath on his grave in The Hague. And of course there’ll be plenty of literary events during the year.
You can get a taste of his works in English from the translations listed below.
Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections
The Penguin book of Dutch short stories. (London, 2016). YKL.2017.a.14072
A sampling of Dutch literature. Thirteen excursions into the works of Dutch authors. Translated and adapted by James Brockway. (Hilversum, 1960). X.950/43674
The garden where the brass band played; translated by A. Brotherton; with an introduction by Hella S. Haasse. (London, 1992). H.93/3254.
‘My Brown Friend’, translated by M. C. Duyvendak, in New Writers. vol. 2, pp. 9-52. (London, 1962). 12521.d.1/2.
Rum Island, translated by B. K. Bowes. (London, 1963). 11769.g.20.
‘The Blind’; ‘The Jewish Bride’; ‘Saul and David’; ‘Rembrandt and Saskia’, translated by Jane Fenoulhet. In: Dutch Crossing, nr. 46 (1992) pp. 25-30. P.523/827
18 December 2020
With Christmas approaching, European Collections curators introduce some festive songs from the countries they cover.
‘O Tannenbaum’ (‘O Christmas Tree’)
Chosen by Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections
Title page of The Christmas Tree, a present from Germany (London, 1844). 12803.ff.3.
Which Christmas Carol links a student drinking song, a lover’s lament and a socialist anthem? None other than ‘O Tannenbaum’, one of the German-language carols that have gained worldwide popularity.
Originally the song had nothing to do with Christmas. The evergreen fir tree as a symbol of constancy was a familiar poetic motif when, in 1819, August Zarnack used it in a poem about a man betrayed in love, contrasting the tree’s ‘faithful’ branches with the woman’s faithlessness. A few years later, the musician and composer Ernst Anschütz altered Zarnack’s poem, replacing the verses that told the tragic love story with musings on the tree teaching a lesson in constancy, with mention of its bringing pleasure at Christmas. The song was first published in 1824, and its spread around the world probably owed something to the growing popularity of Christmas trees in various countries during the 19th century. Although the German original only briefly references Christmas, metrical necessity caused English translators to use ‘O Christmas Tree’, thus firmly establishing the song’s festive credentials for English-speakers.
The simple yet catchy tune no doubt also contributed to the success of ‘O Tannenbaum’. Originally a folk melody, it became popular in the 18th century as a student drinking song, ‘Lauriger Horatius’ (‘Laurel-crowned Horace’). It has also been used in many other contexts, perhaps most famously for the socialist anthem ‘The Red Flag’. For such a short and simple carol, ‘O Tannenbaum’ certainly has a wide-ranging cultural background and influence!
‘Shchedryk’ and ‘Carol of the Bells’
Chosen by Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections
Illustration of a swallow from BL Flickr. BL shelfmark 10201.e.12
Chances are you’ve heard of ‘Carol of the Bells’, a Christmas favourite that has appeared in films, TV shows and adverts from Home Alone to The Muppets. What many don’t know, however, is that the music was written by the Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych and is based on the Ukrainian folk chant ‘Shchedryk’. Dating back to pagan times, the original song tells the story of a swallow flying into a household to predict a prosperous New Year for the family. In pre-Christian Ukraine, the coming of the New Year and spring were celebrated in March but with the move to the Julian calendar, it shifted to 13 January (New Year’s Eve), which is known in Ukrainian as Shchedry Vechir (Bountiful Evening).
Leontovych’s song premiered in Kyiv in December 1916 and was performed as part of the Ukrainian National Chorus’s US tour in the early 1920s. The American composer Peter J. Wilhousky subsequently rearranged the melody and wrote new lyrics around the theme of bells, which is the version we know today as ‘Carol of the Bells’.
You can listen to a recording of Leontovych’s ‘Shchedryk’ here.
Pastorałki (‘Pastorals’) by Tytus Czyżewski
Chosen by Zuzanna Krzemien, Curator East European Collections
A baby Jesus jumping on his legs in a crib while wearing a highlander’s hat. A shepherd, standing next to him, playing the bagpipes. A stork sitting on top of a nativity stable. That’s the kind of images you will find in Pastorałki by Tytus Czyżewski.
Cover of Pastorałki by Tytus Czyżewski, design by Tadeusz Makowski (Paris, 1925) Ac.9664 Source: Polona
Czyżewski (1880–1945) was a futurist poet, painter and co-founder of the Polish avant-garde “Formist” group, whose aim was to create a new national style in art and literature by combining Futurism, Expressionism and Cubism with traditional folk art. Czyżewski’s volume of Pastorałki [Pastorals], named after the genre of Polish Christmas carols with pastoral motifs, is an intersection of Polish folklore, medieval miracle plays and European avant-garde.
You can listen to a recording of one of these carols, ‘Kolęda w olbrzymim mieście’ (‘A Christmas Carol in a Big City) here.
The book is illustrated by Tadeusz Makowski (1882-1932), a Paris-based Polish artist. His primitivist woodcuts, inspired by folk iconography, reflect the atmosphere of friskiness and humour of Czyżewski’s pastorals.
Illustration from Pastorałki by Tadeusz Makowski, showing shepherds playing highlander instruments to amuse the baby Jesus. Source: Polona
Alicja Baluch, “Wizualność poezji Tytusa Czyżewskiego”, Rocznik naukowo-dydaktyczny 101 (1986), 199-137. Ac.9234.eb.
Czeslaw Milosz, The History of Polish Literature (Berkeley, 1983), 400-401. X.950/37574
Kazimierz Wyka, Rzecz wyobraźni (Warsaw, 1977)
‘De herdertjes lagen bij nachte’ (‘The Shepherds lay by Night’)
Chosen by Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections
‘De herdertjes lagen bij nachte’ (‘The Shepherds lay by Night’) is a popular Dutch Christmas song. It is thought that it originated in the 17th century when children would sing it in the streets of Utrecht, but it was first written down in its current form by Joseph Albert Alberdingk Thijm and features in his collection of ‘Old and New Christmas Songs’ of 1852.
‘De herdertjes lagen bij nachte’ from Joseph Albert Alberdingk Thijm, Oude en nieuwere kerstliederen … (Amsterdam, 1852). B.893.
The song has four verses, but usually only the first one, and sometimes the second one, are sung. Children stick to the first verse, and I cannot remember singing the others. The first verse tells how the shepherds were in the fields, having counted their sheep and then heard the angels sing, ‘clearly and fluently’ of the birth of Jesus upon which they went to Bethlehem to find him. In the second verse they see three beams of light shooting from above and from the crib – they ‘see the light’ and, in the third verse they decide to stay with the Holy Family until the New Year and leave their flock to the angels to look after. The final verse ends with a prayer for salvation.
The Angel appearing to the Shepherds, from a 15th-century Book of Hours Egerton MS 1070, f32v
Alberdingk Thijm was a devout Catholic and an influential figure in the 19th-century Catholic revival in the Netherlands (and also a supporter of the Flemish movement). His faith is reflected particularly in the third verse of the song with its emphasis on Mary and Joseph’s responses, which I don't think would have been found so much in Protestant circles. The last line of the verse differs in Protestant and Catholic versions. The Protestant one has ‘and found the little child there’, and the catholic one ‘it was nearing the new year’, also suggesting that for some this was more of a New Year’s rather than a Christmas song.
‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’
Chosen by Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections
Although it might sound like a very old English Christmas Carol, ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’ is the product of several nations – and centuries!
The tune first appeared in the 16th century as a French secular dance tune known under the title ‘Branle de l'Official’ (the branle or brawl was a type of French dance danced by couples in either a line or a circle, and popular throughout Europe). It was recorded in Orchésographie, first published in 1589, and written by the French cleric, composer and writer Thoinot Arbeau, the anagrammatic pen name of French cleric Jehan Tabourot (1519–1593).
Page from Thoinot Arbeau, Orchésographie (Lengres, 1589). C.31.b.3. Image source: Library of Congress
The illustrated Orchésographie provides information on social ballroom behaviour and on the interaction of musicians and dancers. It contains woodcuts of dancers and musicians and includes instructions for the steps lined up next to the musical notes, an innovation in dance notation. The lyrics however are from English composer George Ratcliffe Woodward (1848–1934), and the carol was first published in 1924 in his The Cambridge Carol-Book: Being Fifty-two Songs for Christmas, Easter, And Other Seasons (E.1485.f.).
04 December 2020
The world into which Christophe Plantin was born in 1520 was in great flux. Less than 40 years before, Europeans had landed in America; 50 years before that Gutenberg printed the first books using movable type. More new inventions made some time before became established, such as spectacles, the windmill and gunpowder. Martin Luther had just unleashed the Reformation which would result in a wider spread of literacy. What better time for setting up a printing business?
Cities flourished, including the port of Antwerp, a busy commercial hub on the Schelde. 80 percent of the Low Countries’ maritime trade landed there. Ports not only processed goods, but also knowledge and culture, so it is no wonder that ports like Venice, Antwerp and Deventer became centres of printing.
Plantin fitted perfectly within that world. He was dynamic and adaptable. He possessed good business sense and good organisational skills. So it was no wonder that he and his family moved from Paris, where he had originally established a bookbinding business, to Antwerp in 1548.
No institution tells the story of that history better than the Museum Plantin Moretus, based in the very house where the Plantin family lived and ran their hugely successful printing business for 300 years. The Museum had planned a year of celebrations, when COVID threw a spanner in the works.
Portrait of Christophe Plantin by Peter Paul Rubens , ca. 1630. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Plantin’s phenomenal success as a printer has somewhat overshadowed the achievements of his earlier life as a master bookbinder. He was apprenticed to Robert Macé II in Caen, where he married Joanna Rivière. The Plantins set up shop in Paris in the mid 1540s before relocating to Antwerp, where in 1550 Christophe became a citizen and member of the Guild of St Luke, which regulated the work of painters, sculptors, engravers and printers. He also sold books, prints and decorated leather items in his shop, while his wife sold draperies. The quality of his work as a bookbinder was exceptional and attracted many important patrons (the binding pictured below was probably made for Queen Mary I of England).
Front cover of Jan Christoval Calvete de Estrella, El Felicissimo viaie d’el ... Principe Don Phelippe ... (Antwerp, 1552.) C.47.i.4
His decorative style, particularly the delicacy of his gold tooling, was influenced by the finest Parisian workshops. The way Plantin incorporated colour into the designs, however, was all his own, as we can see from the image below.
Front cover of Juan Boscán, Las Obras de Boscan y algunas de Garcilasso de la Vega repartidas en quatro libros (Antwerp, [1550?]) C.46.a.23
Why did Plantin abandon bookbinding? There are several theories. The version written by Plantin himself and later clarified in a letter by his grandson Baltasar Moretus is the most dramatic (if at the same time rather odd!). In 1554 or early 1555, a Spanish royal secretary, Zayas, then resident in Antwerp, asked Plantin to personally deliver a leather jewel casket he had made as a royal commission. On the way, Plantin was attacked by some masked and inebriated men. Apparently they mistook him for a zither player of their acquaintance who had behaved insultingly. It is said that the knife injury Plantin sustained meant that he was no longer able to bind books and needed an alternative career.
According to an account in the 19th-century British journal The Bookbinder, “As he no longer felt strong enough for a trade in which there is much stooping and movement of the body, there came to him the idea of setting up a printing-press. He had often seen printing carried out in France, and had done it himself.” Founding such an establishment required investment. Financial support from several sources have been suggested. These include Plantin’s assailants who were legally required to pay him damages; the aforementioned Zayas and Alexander Graphaeus (both important figures in Antwerp commerce) and the non-conformist religious sect the ‘Huis der Liefde’ (‘Family of Love’). Whatever the truth, Plantin “started the business, guiding and directing it with such understanding, with God's help, that even the earliest beginnings of this press were admired, not only in the Netherlands but throughout the world.”
In 1576 Plantin set up a second printing shop in Leiden and served the new university there for two years, before returning to Antwerp.
The British Library holds 835 titles and editions that have Plantin as publisher on the record. Amongst these is a catalogue of titles published by Plantin up to 1575, available online via our Universal Viewer, or Google Books. Other titles have been digitised too and are available in the same way.
M. A. Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections, and P J M Marks, Curator of Bookbindings
‘Plantin the Binder’, The Bookbinder, v. 5, 1891-92, p. 215
De Boekenwereld , v. 36 (2020) nr 1
07 October 2020
We’re all too young to remember this joke from ITMA.
Posh lady: ‘There’s nothing my little Jimmy likes better than snuggling up in front of the fire with Enid Blyton.’
Louche voice: ‘Beats reading any day.’
Authors are often conflated with their books, sometimes through ignorance. In the Middle Ages Policraticus/Policratus was often cited as an author rather than the work by John of Salisbury.
Other authors made a point of naming their books after themselves: Orme (the 12th-century Augustinian) called his exegetical work Ormulum.
Thiss boc iss nemmnedd. orrmulum; / Forr tha orrm itt wrohhte.
[This book is named Ormulum; for that Orme it wrote.]
Similarly, Emmanuele Tesauro named his biblical compendium the Handy Treasury, so that on the title page it came out as Emmanuelis Thesauri Thesaurus Manualis. Manuel and Manual of course aren’t related. But note that crazy chiasmus.
Title-page of Thesauro Manual en el Conde Manuel Thesauro … (Madrid, 1674) 4226.dd.33
When Dutch mapmaker Jacob Aertsz Colom wanted a title for an atlas to guide the seafarer, he thought back to his Bible reading and recalled Exodus 13:21-22. When Pharoah let the Israelites go they went out:
through the way of the wilderness of the Red sea … And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night: He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people. (King James Bible)
And so Colom called his book De Vyerighe Colom (Amsterdam, 1654; Maps C.8.c.3.), translated into English in 1648 as Upright fyrie colomne … wherein are described and lively portrayed all the coasts of the west, north and east seas.
Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Collections
23 September 2020
Today is the 131st anniversary of Wilkie Collins’s death.
Wilkie Collins in Hollandsche illustratie, 1 May 1871. Reproduced in P.L. Tissot van Patot, Wilkie Collins: Bibliographic overview of the Dutch language translations (The Hague, 2017). Awaiting shelfmark
Collins was well known in the Low Countries during his lifetime. His novels and plays were translated and performed widely. A great source of information for anyone interested in Wilkie Collins and his connection to the Low Countries is P.L. Tissot van Patot’s Wilkie Collins: Bibliographic overview of the Dutch language translations. This gives a comprehensive description of all aspects relating to Wilkie Collins and the Low Countries; which of his works were translated into Dutch, the publishers involved, which theatre companies performed his plays and where and when, even Dutch language books held in his own library.
Front cover of Wilkie Collins: Bibliographic overview of the Dutch language translations
The Lighthouse is one of Collins’s plays. Written in 1855, it is regarded as one of the first detective stories, together with The Woman in White. Four manuscript versions of The Lighthouse have been preserved: two in Britain and two in the US. One is held by the British Library at Add MS 52967 H; another is held at the V&A and has never been published before. Two translations also appeared as serialisations in French and Flemish newspapers. Tissot van Patot has recently brought all six versions together in a synoptic edition with an introduction.
Front cover of Wilkie Collins The Lighthouse: Six versions in one document, ed. by P.L. Tissot van Patot (The Hague, 2018) Awaiting shelfmark
Page 7 of Wilkie Collins The Lighthouse: Six versions in one document, showing six versions side by side.
Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections
27 August 2020
“I am as happy as a cow with seven udders”, was Marieke Lucas Rijnevelt’s reaction to the announcement that they (Rijnevelt’s preferred pronoun) and translator Michele Hutchison had won this year’s International Booker Prize for The Discomfort of Evening (London, 2020; DRT ELD.DS.490780), a translation of their debut novel De Avond is Ongemak.
Front cover of The Discomfort of Evening
Well, that got everybody’s attention. It may-be a less surprising remark when you know that Rijnevelt is a dairy farmer as well as a writer.
This year’s International Booker is one of ‘firsts’: the first win for a Dutch novel, by the youngest winner ever, for their first novel. Not bad going.
The comment caused as much a stir in the media as the book itself. Ted Hodgkinson, the chair of the jury, said of the book that it is “shocking” and “absolutely arrests your attention” (The Guardian 26/8), “not a book you can sit back from”.
Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, self portrait photograph (Source: Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA 4.0)
Rijneveld doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to telling the story of how a deeply religious farming family deals (or not) with the death of their young son in an accident. The story is told through the eyes of one of the daughters, who is ten when the accident happens and nearly twelve when the book ends. The book is based on Rijneveld’s own loss of a sibling in their childhood. They always knew they had to write a book about it. That became De Avond is Ongemak which became The Discomfort of Evening. Critics are full of admiration; calling the book visceral and virtuoso in its language, the best debut they ever read, and so on.
The International Booker Prize is equally divided between the author and translator. Michele Hutchison is one of the top translators of Dutch literature. She has translated works by Esther Gerritsen and Tom Lanoye, and she was one of the translators in the Frisian literary anthology Swallows and Floating Horses (London, 2018; YC.2019.a.5165)
Her translation of the winning novel opens up the claustrophobic, isolated world Rijneveld conjured up so well in the Dutch version with an immediacy and totality seldom seen in translations.
I look forward to reading both versions: the English, and the Dutch, once the latter has a shelfmark. The book was received at the end of March, just after the Library closed due to COVID-19. It may yet take a while before it gets to the shelves, but meanwhile I’ll entertain myself with the English, digital version. It will be udder delight!
Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections
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