European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

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Discover the British Library's extensive collections from continental Europe and read news and views on European culture and affairs from our subject experts and occasional guest contributors. Read more

07 April 2020

Books that don’t look like books

Did this librarian chop up a piano? Is this reader hitting the bottle? No, they are just holding Czech books in their hands.

Modern Czech book designers can challenge our way of thinking on what a book should look like and leave us puzzled as to why it was designed that way. Take for example a book that looks like a hip- flask — Trosečnikem z vlastni vůle, a Czech translation of Naufragé Volontaire by Alain Bombard, who became famous for crossing the Atlantic on a drifting boat. He did it alone without taking any provisions with him, assuming that the sea would provide him with enough food and drink to survive. The enterprise was inspired by a shipwreck whose forty-three victims were found dead a few hours after the ship sank, even though all of them were wearing lifejackets. As a doctor, Bombard wanted to prove that many of the shipwreck victims did not die of hunger or thirst, but of fear. His journey lasted for 65 days; he lost 25 kilograms and suffered from a visual impairment, but he made it to the end.

Book in the shape of a green bottle

Cover of Trosečnikem z vlastni vůle by Alain Bombard (Prague, 1964) C.188.b.129

Top view of book in the shape of a bottle

Top of Trosečnikem z vlastni vůle

It is not clear why Jan Sobota, the designer of the binding, decided to give Bombard’s book the shape of a bottle. It could be an allusion to the freshly-squeezed fish juice which constituted Bombard’s only drink for more than two months, or rather to how great it would feel to drink a bottle of anything else…

Our next item, the autobiography of a pianist, Rudolf Firkušný (1912-1994), is styled after a piano. The binding incorporates an actual piano keyboard applied to the front cover. Touching the book gives the same sensation as laying one’s hand on a musical instrument. The text of the book is printed as a facsimile of a manuscript on hand-made paper with unevenly cut edges, giving the reader the sense of reading Firkušný’s original memoir, and then reprinted in a regular font on later pages.

Photograph of a book styled after a piano

Cover of Rudolf Firkušný by Rudolf Firkušný (Prague, 1993) Cup.936/2167

Photograph of a book styled after a piano

Cover of Rudolf Firkušný

Text of Rudolf Firkušný

Text of Rudolf Firkušný

Besides books that can be mistaken for something else, we also have a few examples of bindings that involve the inclusion of another object. For example, the cover of Z motáků by Jan Kristofori incorporates a fountain pen and barbed wire (Kristofori was a graphic artist who spent seven years in prison for political reasons).

Book cover with fountain pen and barbed wire

Cover of Z motáků by Jan Kristofori (Prague, 1993) RF.2001.b.11

And here is Co je nesmrtelné aneb živé drahokamy, an autobiography of František Kožík (1909-1997), a Czech novelist. The cover is decorated with a hand-painted ribbon, an element of Czech folk costume.

Book cover decorated with a hand-painted ribbon

Cover of Co je nesmrtelné aneb živé drahokamy by František Kožík (Prague, 1994) RF.2001.b.12

And last but not least, a book that can be broken into two books. When you borrow Malovat slunce by Petr Nikl, it comes in one piece. But in order to read it, you need to dismantle what the library assistant gave you: you remove the blue paper ribbon (this requires some manual dexterity) and suddenly, instead of one volume of poetry, you have two of them – a small semi-circular booklet and a larger book. The latter provides you with a very interesting reading experience, as you read a book with a massive hole in the middle through which you can peep at your fellow readers.

Photograph of Malovat slunce showing the two parts of the book

Malovat slunce by Petr Nikl (Prague, 2018) [awaiting shelfmark]

Zuzanna Krzemien, Curator East European Collections

To learn more about the bottle-shaped book, read: https://blogs.bl.uk/untoldlives/2017/06/one-green-bottle-jan-sobotas-book-binding.html

03 April 2020

Bringing the News in Revolutionary Berlin

During the revolutionary year of 1848 printed placards and broadsides were a vital means of communication, both official and unofficial. The British Library holds collections of such material and other ephemera of the period from various European cities, including four volumes from Berlin (1851.c.4-7). Obviously such placards – particularly the official proclamations – were intended for posting on walls for public information, but they were also sold in the street.

In Berlin the ‘flying booksellers’, boys who hawked broadsides along with newspapers, journals and pamphlets around the city, became a familiar sight, detested by some, but viewed by others with affection. The writer Robert Springer later described them as:

Boys of the lower class, who used to sell cakes, flowers or matches, or simply to beg … would surround the printing-shops … in order to deliver the fresh goods as quickly as possible. … Thus the refined spirit of the Berlin street-urchins came into close contact with ephemeral literature, and it was not uninteresting to see the little good-for-nothings now, out of political and commercial enthusiasm, using their wares to practise the reading that they had never settled to at school before selling them in the most original way.

A verse parody of the flying bookseller’s ‘most original’ selling technique suggests the mixture of advertising, patter and exaggerated claims that the boys might have used.

Satirical verses with a picture of a ragged boy
Parody of a flying bookseller, Berlin 1848. Reproduced in Ruth-Esther Geiger, Zeitschriften 1848 in Berlin: die Zeitschrift als Medium bürgerlicher Öffentlichkeit und ihr erweiterter Funktionszusammenhang in den Berliner Revolutionsmonaten von 1848 (Berlin, 1980) X.808/35196

In translation: ‘Manifestos to our voters / Ewige Lampe und Krakehler / The Pope has taken a wife / Kladderadatsch – the Russians are coming / Open letter to the Mayor / Duke Johann’s Imperial Regent / Menagerie of bloodthirsty beasts / Monecke, a high traitor / Neuer Berliner Struwwelpeter / Löwinsohn, Korn, Urban, Sigrist / Civic guardsman, see what you’re like  / New extra edition of the Vossische / The cholera’s raging, for one groschen / One groschen, hand it over!’ / That’s what they call: flying bookseller.

As well as the tall stories about the Pope’s marriage and a Russian invasion, the verse reflects real events and can be dated from these to sometime in the first half of July 1848. The Austrian Archduke Johann was appointed ‘Reichsverweser’ (Imperial Regent, i.e. the provisional head of the new government to be created by the Frankfurt Parliament), on 29 June. Eduard Monecke, a student, was imprisoned for lèse-majesté on 30 June, while Löwinsohn (or Lövinsohn), Korn, Urban and Siegrist (or Siegerist) were tried in early July for instigating the previous month’s attack on the Berlin Arsenal, with sentences passed on the 15th. The verse also quotes the titles of genuine political or satirical journals: Die ewige Lampe, [Berliner] Krakehler, Kladderadatsch, Freie Blätter and Neuer Berliner Struwwelpeter, and the ‘Voss’schen’ refers to the venerable Vossische Zeitung, the oldest newspaper in Berlin. There are even references to two broadsides Grosse Menagerie blutdürstiger Thiere and Bürjerwehreken, siehste wie De bist? The first is a satire depicting European monarchs as ‘bloodthirsty beasts’ on display in a zoo, and the second is a comic ‘curtain lecture’ in Berlin dialect, supposedly addressed to a member of the recently-formed Civic Guard (Bürgerwehr) by his wife, who is unimpressed with his new status.

Masthead from the broadside 'General-Versammlung der fliegenden Buchhändler Berlins'
Masthead of a satirical broadside, General-Versammlung der fliegenden Buchhändler Berlins (Berlin, 1848) 1851.c.4.(68.). Digitised copy available from the Kujawsko-Pomorska Digital Library

The life of the flying bookseller was not an easy one. As some of the material they distributed could be classed as seditious, the boys risked being stopped by the police and having their wares confiscated. In a satire imagining a meeting of flying booksellers to discuss their rights, one of the speakers calls the police ‘our greatest enemy’. Another satire, this time on the daily life of a policeman, shows two constables accosting a flying bookseller as he leaves a stall carrying broadsides to sell: however, the constable who narrates this tale in a supposed letter to his sweetheart says that he is enclosing some of the confiscated literature for her as it is ‘very nice to read.’

A constable stopping a boy by a makeshift bookstall
Two policemen stop a flying bookseller, detail from Adalbert Salomo Cohnfeld, Constablers Leiden und Freuden, geschildert in einem Briefe an seine Jelübte
(Berlin, 1848) 1851.c.5.(293.) Digitised version available from the Library of the Humboldt University, Berlin 

When the revolution was defeated in November 1848, the number of satirical and overtly anti-government broadsides and journals fell sharply. A cartoon published the following year in the satirical weekly Kladderadatsch, one of the few such titles to survive, shows a figure representing the journal in a graveyard among the tombs of his deceased contemporaries. Three other titles named in the verse quoted above are among them: Freie Blätter, Die ewige Lampe and Berliner Krakehler

A mourner in a graveyard where the tombs are inscribed with the names of failed newspapers
‘Kladderadatsch in der Sylvesternacht’, cartoon from Kladderadatsch, 23 December 1849, P.P.4736.h. (The entire run of the journal is available online via the University of Heidelberg.)

With the vibrant print culture of the revolution quashed, the flying booksellers no doubt returned to selling their previous wares, but perhaps with a raised political conscience and a greater enthusiasm for reading.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

References/Further reading:

Robert Springer, Berlin’s Strassen, Kneipen und Clubs im Jahre 1848 (Berlin, 1850) 9385.a.10 and available online 

Die ewige Lampe, no. 1-48 (Berlin, 1848) P.P.3378.e.

Berliner Krakehler (Berlin, 1848) LOU.FMISC307

Freie Blätter: illustrierte politisch-humoristische Zeitung. No. 9 (Berlin, 1848). 1851.c.7.(117)

Der Neue Berliner Struwwelpeter: ein politisches Bilderbuch für Reactionaire und Revolutionaire und solche, die es werden wollen. No 1. (Berlin, 1848) 1851.c.7.(123)

Grosse Menagerie blutdürstiger Thiere (Berlin, 1848) 1851.c.4.(151), and a variant at 1851.c.4.(152)

Adalbert Salomo Cohnfeld, Bürjerwehreken, siehste wie Du bist? Eine Gardinen-Predigt, ihrem Gatten Ludewig bein Schlafengehen gehalten von Madame Bullrichen (Berlin, 1848) 1851.c.7.(42)

Susan Reed, ‘Printing the Revolution: Berlin Broadsides from 1848’, in The Book in Germany, edited by M.C. Fischer and W.A. Kelly (Edinburgh, 2010) YC.2011.a.8954

Major collections of broadsides, pamphlets and other ephemera from the 1848 Revolution in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany are available online from the Zentral- und Landesbibliothek Berlin and the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main

31 March 2020

The Royal Granny Catherine the Great as an author of the first books for children

It is difficult to believe now that the concept of childhood as a special time in human development emerged only during the 17th and 18th centuries, when the Enlightenment began to shape thinking about politics, society and the world in general. It emerged through the educational theories of the philosopher John Locke. By the beginning of the 19th century books for and about children started to be published.

Portrait of Catherine the Great walking with a dog

Portrait of Catherine the Great by Vladimir Borovikovskii (1794, Tretyakov gallery). Wikimedia Commons.

Russia was no exception. The first books for children were written by Empress Catherine the Great. Having no trust in her son and heir Paul, she put a lot of effort into raising her elder grandsons, so that they could follow in her footsteps in governing the country. Having missed almost all the joys of motherhood (which was not an exceptional situation for noble women of that time, though Catherine’s case was complicated by her job as Empress), she compensated by trying to be a caring granny. Catherine chose the names of the first two grandsons. She called them Alexander and Konstantin – names that had not been in use within the Romanov lineage – explicitly alluding to Alexander the Great and Constantine the Great.

The royal granny also selected nurses and teachers, and liked spending time playing with the boys, especially Alexander, whom she considered a more suitable heir to the throne than her son Paul. However, most interestingly, she wrote books for her grandchildren, which we can now call the first books in Russian written specially for children.

Page from Iunosti chestnoe zertsalo

Page from Iunosti chestnoe zertsalo, 4th ed. (Saint Petersburg, 1745). 628.c.21.(2.). A digitised copy is also available. 

Babushkina azbuka (‘The Granny’s Primer’) is strictly speaking a collection of moral rules that continued Peter the Great’s initiative of prescribing good manners to young people – Iunosti chestnoe zertsalo (‘The Honourable Mirror for Youth’, 1717). However, if The Honourable Mirror for Youth is more of a courtesy book focusing on etiquette, The Granny’s Primer talks about ethical issues, promoting the values that had been advanced by the Enlightenment. For example, she stated that people had very little difference by their nature, but differed in their relation to knowledge. The British Library has a copy of a contemporary edition (2004; YF.2004.b.1620), but if you would like to see a couple of sample pages of the original manuscript held at the Russian State Archive of Ancient Documents, you can visit the site (in Russian) created for the 400th anniversary of the establishment of the Romanov dynasty in Muscovy. 

Portrait of Alexander I of Russia as a child

Portrait of Alexander I, Catherine the Great's grandson, as a child. After Dmitrii Levitskii. Wikimedia Commons.

As much as she could, Catherine also tried to be entertaining and therefore wrote two tales about young princes – Khlor and Fevei – which were supposed to give children examples of good moral choices and behaviour. In one tale Tsarevitch Khlor, who is described as a child of exceptional beauty, is sent on a quest to find a rose without thorns that stings not. The beautiful child completes the task helped by his friend Reason, and using Honesty and Truth as their crutches.

Prince Fevei was also created by Catherine the Great as a role model for a child reader. The author removes all the traditional fairy-tale elements by setting the story in Siberia, suggesting that the reason for the tsarina’s recovery was medical care rather than miracle, and by testing the main character by giving him mundane tasks. The story of Fevei’s early childhood shows how by the end of the 18th century it became a subject of concern, value and appreciation. The baby’s nurse selected by his parents was a sensible widow, who “could distinguish whether a child cried out of need, illness, or self-will”. They didn’t swaddle him or wrap him up, didn’t cradle him or shake him, but fed him decently and on time. The child began to amuse himself with toys and selected those which gave him knowledge. While the baby was not yet able to speak, he was capable of explaining himself. Moreover, in her story, the Empress advocated for vaccination by mentioning that the prince was vaccinated with smallpox at the age of three.

Title page of 'Ivan Czarowitz; or, the Rose without prickles that stings not...'

Title page of the English translation of the tale of Prince Khlor. Ivan Czarowitz; or, the Rose without prickles that stings not. A tale ... (London, 1793). N.2048.(1.). 

Both tales were turned into operas and successfully performed in theatres (the British Library holds two librettos: shelfmarks 1343.h.12 and 1343.h.10), and the tale of prince Khlor was translated into English just a few years after its publication in Russia, in 1793, and is now freely available online.

And like the Royal Granny Catherine the Great, we will end our blog like this: “Here the story ends, and who knows better, let him tell another”.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections 

27 March 2020

Stanislaw Lem: mimicretins and other smart machines

Once upon a time, a genius robotic constructor built a machine that could create anything that starts with the letter n. The constructor decided to try it out and, following his orders, the machine produced needles, noses and nuclei. His friend wanted to put the machine to a test, and, after it successfully fulfilled his wishes, he asked it to do Nothing. The machine seemed inactive and the constructor’s friend decided that the experiment was a failure:

For Nothing, my dear and clever colleague, is not your run-of-the-mill nothing, the result of idleness and inactivity, but dynamic, aggressive Nothingness, that is to say, perfect, unique, ubiquitous, in other words Nonexistence, ultimate and supreme, in its very own nonperson!

Alien creature from Cyberiada

Illustration from Cyberiada (Kraków, 1965) X.908/6139

Unfortunately, he was wrong. The machine had a very good understanding of abstract philosophical concepts. And it set out to remove all the things from the world in order to create Nothing. The terrified constructor and his friend begged it to stop and restore everything that had disappeared. But the machine could recreate only the things that started with n. So it brought back nausea, narrow-mindedness, nonsense, necrophilia…

Illustration of an anthropomorphic robot from the Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem

Illustration from Cyberiada (Kraków, 1965) [X.908/6139]

This summarises one of the stories that form part of the Cyberiad by Stanisław Lem, a Polish writer of science fiction who died 14 years ago, on  27 March 2006. The Cyberiad’s protagonists are mainly anthropomorphic robots that live in a medieval-like world, robotic knights and dragons that exist in a highly technologically advanced civilization and that serve Lem to analyse the relationship between individual and society.

Cover of Cyberiada with an illustration of an eight-legged robotic horse walking up a flight of stairs. The word 'Cyberiada' is written in capitals on its back.

Cover of Cyberiada (Krakw, 1965) [X.908/6139]

Lem’s books have been sold in more than 30 million copies, translated into more than 40 languages, and the most famous of them, Solaris, was turned into a movie three times. However, his ambition was to do more than write bestsellers — he wanted to elevate science fiction from popular literature to a highbrow genre. In his books, he approached the subjects of man’s place in the universe, the unsuccessful search for happiness through technological progress, the impossibility of understanding extra-terrestrial intelligence, and the nature of artificial intelligence.

Illustration from 'Bajki Robotów' featuring a single eye in the top left-hand corner and a figure covered in clock faces cowering in the bottom right-hand corner.

Illustration from Bajki Robotów [‘Fables for Robots’] (Kraków, 1964) [X.907/974]

Was the n-machine a truly intelligent machine? We can deduce the answer to this question from the words of The Futurological Congress’s protagonist:

A smart machine will first consider which is more worth its while: to perform the given task or, instead, to figure some way out of it. Whichever is easier. (…) A mimicretin is a computer that plays stupid in order, once and for all, to be left in peace. And I found out what dissimulators are: they simply pretend that they're not pretending to be defective.

Title page from 'Bajki Robotów'. A robotic figure wearing a headscarf rocks a robot baby in a cradle.

Title page of Bajki Robotów

Zuzanna Krzemien, Curator East European Collections

Further reading:

Stanislaw Lem, The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age, translated from the Polish by Michael Kandel; illustrated by Daniel Mróz (San Diego, 2002?) DRT ELD.DS.185639

Stanislaw Lem, The Futurological Congress, translated from the Polish by Michael Kandel (London, 2017) DRT ELD.DS.208506

Stanislaw Lem, Solaris; The Chain of Chance; A Perfect Vacuum (Harmondsworth, 1981) X.958/6252

The English translation of the story 'How the World was Saved' from The Cyberiad 

24 March 2020

Against books that 'look like paper rags'

The beginning of the 20th century witnessed a real boom of Cubist art in Prague. As the art historian Miroslav Lamač noted:

Prague became the city of Cubism with Cubist apartment blocks full of Cubist flats furnished with Cubist furniture. The inhabitants could drink coffee from Cubist cups, put flowers in Cubist vases, keep the time on Cubist clocks, light their rooms with Cubist lamps and read books in Cubist type.

Cover of 'Malostranský feuilleton' with a floral, geometric design

Cover (above) and endpaper (below), designed by Slavoboj Tuzar, from Jan Neruda, Malostranský feuilleton (Prague, 1916) Cup.408.pp.25.

Endpaper from 'Malostranský feuilleton' with a floral, geometric design

Following the spirit of the times, local designers turned away from the style of Art Nouveau towards modern art based on geometrical ornamentation, known as Czech Cubism or ‘angular style’. They believed that objects, including books, have their own inner energy, which can be released by introducing crystalline shapes and breaking the horizontal and vertical planes of the surface. This went against the traditional book design, which the Cubists found limiting and against “the needs of the human soul”. In their opinion, a book should be treated as a holistic entity – this was to be achieved by restricting the design to a very limited choice of repeatable geometric or floral shapes and grids which, on the one hand, create symmetry, and, on the other, introduce dynamics through broken lines.

Cover of 'Vsemu navzdory' with a repeated geometric design

Cover (above) and endpaper (below) from Otakar Theer, Vsemu navzdory (Prague, 1916) C.108.u.16.

Endpaper from 'Vsemu navzdory' with a repeated geometric design

An end had to be put to mass produced books that “looked like paper rags” – that, in a nutshell, was the manifesto of Czech Cubist book designers. The ultimate idea behind the design was to change the mind-set of the Czech middle class which, according to the Cubists, was devoid of any aesthetic sense. In their opinion, not only the content of a book was important; just looking at a book should be a source of immediate visual pleasure. In order to elevate society, they believed that art should be an integral part of the human everyday existence.

Cover of 'Demaskovaní' with a floral, geometric design

Cover, designed by Pravoslav Kotík, from Jan Opolský, Demaskovaní (Prague, 1916) Cup.410.f.251

Zuzanna Krzemien, Curator East European Collections

References:

Jindřich Toman, Kniha v českém kubismu = Czech cubism and the book (Prague, 2004) LF.31.b.923

20 March 2020

Friedrich Hölderlin

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.


Title-page of the first volume of 'Hyperion'Title-page of the first volume of Hölderlin’s epistolary novel Hyperion (Tübingen, 1797)

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 Hölderlin's poems  1826
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.

Opening of 'Der Tod des Empedokles' with woodcut illustration of a young man sitting in a grove surrounded by animals
Opening of Hölderlin’s dramatic fragment Der Tod des Empedokles in an edition illustrated with woodcuts by Gustav Eichenauer after drawings by Heinrich Holz (Offenbach a. M., 1925) 11745.h.23.

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

13 March 2020

Kashubia, where is it?

It is believed that during the early medieval period Slavonic tribes settled on the southern shores of the Baltic Sea and named the territory Kashubia, part of a larger region, Pomerania. Over the centuries Pomerania was predominantly under German or Polish rule. Originally, the Kashubs populated the area between the lower Oder to the west and lower Vistula to the east. Once the only inhabitants and rulers of this land, in the 14th century they became one of its ethnic components. As a result of German colonisation and the Christianisation of West Pomerania, the Kashubs became second-class citizens and were later subject to Germanisation. Consequently, the ethnic Kashubian population was shifted to East Pomerania which, with its capital town Gdańsk (Danzig), was affiliated to the Kingdom of Poland. However, in the 14th century it came under the control of the Teutonic Knights for over 150 years.

Map of Kashubia based on a map of Pomeranian duchies c. 1200.

Map of Kashubia based on a map of Pomeranian duchies c. 1200. In Gerard Labuda, Historia Kaszubów w dziejach Pomorza (Gdańsk, 2006) ZF.9.a.5856

The Reformation had a great influence on West Pomerania, which was quickly converted to Protestantism and subsequently became German. In East Pomerania, which became part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Reformation made slower progress. The new faith became popular in towns with a high German population and among the nobility, including those of Kashubian-Polish descent. However, the Counter-Reformation later reinstated Catholicism in most areas of East Pomerania.

A significant number of the Kashubian nobility identified themselves with Poland because of their active involvement in the country’s politics. Some were even granted the positions of Polish senators and governors. Nonetheless, they attempted to preserve their distinctive culture within the Commonwealth.

Map of Kashubia from 1963

Map of Kashubia from 1963 in Ziemia Kaszubska (Warszawa, 1963) X.808/836

The Commonwealth ceased to exist as an independent country following its partitions between Russia, Prussia and Austria at the end of the 18th century. In consequence, the lands of East Pomerania, part of Royal Prussia, were seized by the King of Prussia, who had ruled in West Pomerania since the 17th century. Thus, all Pomerania came to be part of the Kingdom of Prussia. Protestantism became the official religion and played a crucial role in the Germanisation of the native Kashubian and Polish populations. Frederick the Great regarded Pomerania as a recruiting base for the Prussian army. For this purpose he established the Corps of Cadets in Stolp (Słupsk) in 1769 to train sons of the Kashubian nobility together with other Pomeranians. The school was also instrumental in the process of Germanisation.

The economic and social reforms in the 19th century carried out in Pomerania by the Prussian authorities had a negative impact on Kashubian identity. The reforms favoured the local Germans, and only those Kashubs who gave in to Germanisation were granted privileges. The national awakening came in the mid-19th century with the activities of an ardent advocate for the Kashubian cause, Florian Ceynowa. He is the author of the first grammar book of the Kashubian language Xążeczka dlo Kaszebov (Gdansk, 1850; 4410.g.54(2)) and editor of the first journal in Kashubian, Skorb Kaszëbskoslovjnskje movë (‘Treasure of the Kashubian-Slavonic language’; Svjecè, 1866-68; 12304.g.32)

Title page of the first grammar book of the Kashubian language

The first grammar book of the Kashubian language, Xążeczka dlo Kaszebov (Gdansk, 1850) 4410.g.54(2)

After the First World War, the major part of Kashubia was incorporated into the newly-created Polish Republic. However, the Polish authorities treated the local population with suspicion as to their nationality. During the Second World War, the Kashubs were subject to the extermination policy of the German State. Many were killed, some deported to concentration camps, and others resettled. Further suffering was imposed by the Red Army in 1945 since soldiers could not distinguish Kashubians from Germans.

The sad plight of the surviving Kashubian population continued in post-war Poland. The authorities suspected them of having pro-German sentiments and only tolerated them for the cultivation of folk art. The political thaw of 1956 led to the foundation of the Kashubian Association, but its activities were soon to be curtailed as the communist regime gathered strength again. Despite the authorities’ hostile attitude, the Kashubs preserved their culture and ethnic uniqueness until the fall of communism in 1989. Since then they have been free to cultivate their cultural identity. In 2005, Kashubian was recognised as a regional language, and in some communities it is the second official language. According to the 2011 census, 233,000 people in Poland declared their identity as Kashubian.

Page with traditional Kashubian folk designs

Traditional Kashubian designs in Bożena Stelmachowska, Sztuka ludowa na Kaszubach (Poznań, 1937) J/07857.d.25.

Among notable Kashubs are Günter Grass, the Nobel Prize-winning German author of Kashubian descent, and Donald Tusk, Prime Minister of Poland (2007-2014) and President of the European Council (2014-2019).

Magda Szkuta, Curator East European Collections

Further reading:

Cezary Obracht-Prondzyński and Tomasz Wicherkiewicz (eds), The Kashubs: past and present (Bern, 2011) YD.2012.a.593

Józef Borzyszkowski, Historia Kaszubów (Gdańsk, 2014) YF.2017.a.2237

K. Tymieniecki (ed.), History of Polish Pomerania (Poznań, 1929) W25/3477

 

10 March 2020

Jean Cocteau’s ‘Drôle de Ménage’

The French poet, playwright, novelist, designer, filmmaker, visual artist and critic Jean Cocteau is best known for his novels, his stage plays, his films and decorative art, and for having been linked to the major artistic movements of 20th century France.

Cover of Drole de Menage with an illustration of the Sun, the Moon and their children

Front cover of Drôle de Ménage ('A Strange Household') (Paris, 1948) J/12316.w.67.

So this book might be surprising: it is the tale of the marriage of the sun and moon and of their children, written ostensibly for children. At the time of publication, in 1948, the theme and images would have strongly resonated, for children and adults alike, with Charles Trenet’s successful 1939 song “Le soleil a rendez-vous avec la lune”, a famous and humoristic metaphor of the impossible relationships between men and women. In Cocteau’s book, however, the Sun and the Moon eventually meet and marry. They have children, but can never find the time to look after them, having to work night and day. They have the idea of entrusting their education to a lazy balloon-seller dog: catastrophe! The children start to behave like dogs, and the experience ends in disaster. After crying a lot, which ruins both the summer holidays and the crops of that year because of the incessant rains, the Moon and the Sun find a wonderful Nanny, a Star, which also acts as a nightlight for the children (who nevertheless regret their wild dog education).

Illustration of the wedding of the Moon and the Sun

Wedding of the Moon and the Sun, Drôle de Ménage

It is hard to tell to what extent the book was really for children, and really an expression by Cocteau (who considered himself first and foremost a poet) of graphic poetry. Although usually writing for adults, Cocteau has written a lot about lost children, and the trappings of parenthood and education – from the Enfants Terribles in 1929 to Les Parents Terribles in 1948, turned into a film and a play in 1948. The book, printed in 2720 copies, is illustrated all over by whimsical, and sometimes scary (the blood-red image of a child, knife in hand, being taught by a dog how to kill chickens, stays with you) drawings by Cocteau, and coloured on each page by a big block of colour. In the “dedicace a nos jeunes lecteurs” (address to our young readers) Cocteau seems to play with his own artistic work: “Autre chose: si les couleurs de notre livre vous déplaisent, prenez vos crayons de couleurs et ne vous gênez pas” (“and another thing: if the colours of our book are not to your liking, take your colour pencils and don’t restrain yourself”).

Page from 'Drôle de Ménage' with an illustration of a child, knife in hand, being taught by a dog how to kill chickens

Illustration of a child, knife in hand, being taught by a dog how to kill chickens, Drôle de Ménage

Cocteau’s a-conventional take on the story, however, might lie in the colours: the book ends on the ambivalent image of the severe Nanny-Star holding the hands of quiet, but now sad, children – the only image coloured in grey.

Final page of 'Drôle de Ménage'. The severe Nanny-Star holds the hands of the quiet, but now sad, children.

Final page of Drôle de Ménage

Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections

06 March 2020

Children’s Tales from Across the Channel (2)

The British Library has just launched its new ‘Discovering Children’s Books’ web pages, a treasure-chest of stories, poems and illustrations from old favourites to modern classics, with plenty to discover along the way. This venture has inspired us here in European Collections to reflect on some favourite and classic children’s books from the collections we curate and the countries we cover.

Cover of Ježeva kućica with an illustration of the hedgehog smoking a pipe and having tea in his underground home

Cover of Branko Ćopić, Ježeva kućica (Zagreb, 1974). X.902/3982

Branko Ćopić, Ježeva kućica (Hedgehog’s Home)

Chosen by Lora Afric, Languages Cataloguing Manager

‘There is no place like home’ and there is no other story that better conveys that message than the Yugoslav fable Ježeva kućica by Branko Ćopić. Ćopić wrote the story in 1949 but the famous picture book came to life in 1957, with illustrations by a well-known Croatian painter and illustrator, Vilko Gliha Selan (1912-1979).

The main protagonist is a hedgehog called Ježurka Ježić, a name cleverly derived from the word jež (hedgehog in both Serbian and Croatian). His English counterpart is Hedgemond the Hunter, as named by S.D. Curtis in Hedgehog’s Home, a relatively recent and first translation into English published by Istros Books (YK.2013.b.3589).

Ježurka Ježić wanders in the woods, hunts and is known by all of the other animals. One day Ježurka receives a letter from Mici the fox inviting him to a party, which he gladly accepts. After what seems like an abundant feast, Mici tries to persuade Ježurka to stay but he is keen to get back to his cosy home. The curious fox decides to follow Ježurka and see what the fuss is about. On her way she picks up the angry wolf, the hungry bear and the greedy wild boar, only to discover that Ježurka’s home is indeed a very humble abode. But for Ježurka his home is his castle, he takes pride in working and defending his precious home. The message of this popular and timeless Yugoslav tale is universal, that of love for what is ours, especially for our home.

Three covers of Histoires de Babar with illustrations of Babar the elephant

Three copies of Histoires de Babar (1930s) from the British Library collections: LB.31.c. 2337, LB.31.c.2154, LB.31.c.2155.

Jean de Brunhoff, Histoires de Babar

Chosen by Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections

In the summer of 1930, a pianist named Cecile de Brunhoff invented a bedtime story for her two sons about the adventures of a little elephant. The boys liked it so much that they asked their father, the artist Jean de Brunhoff, to illustrate it for them. This led him in 1931 to produce a book published by the Jardin des modes – an avant-garde fashion magazine and publishing house directed by his brother Michel de Brunhoff. It was an immediate success. Histoire de Babar: le petit éléphant (The Story of Babar), was quickly followed by Le voyage de Babar (The Travels of Babar), in the same year, and Le Roi Babar (King Babar) in 1933.

Jean de Brunhoff created four more Babar books, but died of tuberculosis at the age of 37 in 1937. Laurent, who was 12 when his father died, later succeeded him and went on to produce more Babar books. Over the years, Babar has been many things to many people and embodied many of the complexities of children’s literature (accusations of colonialist undertones and of scenes too scary or sad for children have even led to an essay boldly asking “Should we burn Babar?” (Kohl, 2007)) but the stories of Babar, now the subject of exhibitions the world over, are still read by parents and children alike today.

Cover of the first Swedish translation of The Hobbit with an illustration of Bilbo by Tove Jansson

Cover of J. R. R. Tolkien, Bilbo. En Hobbits Äventyr, translated by Britt G. Hallqvist, with illustrations by Tove Jansson (awaiting shelfmark)

J. R. R. Tolkien, Bilbo. En Hobbits Äventyr, translated by Britt G. Hallqvist, with illustrations by Tove Jansson (awaiting shelfmark)

Chosen by Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

Bending the rules slightly, here is an English classic in its first Swedish translation that the library has just recently acquired. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, or There and Back Again was first published in 1937 to critical acclaim, leading to the demand for the sequels that became The Lord of the Rings. Although revisions were made to subsequent editions of The Hobbit as the fictional universe developed through the later works, the Swedish translation, published in 1962, is based on the original. The library holds some unique archival material from Tolkien, including this Map of Middle Earth. Tolkien’s world was influenced by the sagas and legends of Northern Europe and its own significant contribution to that fantasy tradition is evident in the choice of Tove Jansson, creator of Moomins, as illustrator. Jansson’s wide-eyed, juvenile figures populate Tolkien’s epic mountains and dark forests, an imaginary landscape already so familiar to the artist’s imagination.

A selection of covers of Éva Janikovszky’s books

A selection of covers of Éva Janikovszky’s books: Happiness! (X.990/2342), Felelj szépen, ha kérdeznek! [=Answer nicely when you're asked!] (YA.1990.a.12972) and If I were a grown-up… (X.990/2343), with an opening from Happiness! below.

Hungarian children’s books by Éva Janikovszky, with illustrations by László Réber

Chosen by Ildi Wollner, Curator East & SE European Collections

During the 1960s-1980s Hungary's young enjoyed a series of attractive and witty children's books written by Éva Janikovszky (1926-2003). Her typographically chopped-up texts are abundantly interspersed with distinctive illustrations by caricaturist László Réber (1920-2001). The stories tend to revolve around child-adult relationships, voicing the ponderings of a young boy. He proudly shares his reservations and realisations on the weighty issues of life at his age, all with the utmost seriousness. On the one hand, these books were presumably aimed at helping children to navigate the maze of the big world – refreshingly, not in an overly dogmatic way so typical of those times. On the other hand, they also made grown-up readers smile (including hopefully at themselves!), as they were confronted with their own ingrained but not always reasonable behaviours. We hold several of Janikovszky’s books in our collections, in both the original Hungarian and English translation.

An engraving of the white cat by Voldemārs Krastiņš in Kārlis Skalbe, Pussy’s Water Mill

Engraving by Voldemārs Krastiņš from Kārlis Skalbe, Pussy’s Water Mill, translated by W.K. Matthews (Stockholm, 1952). 12802.aaa.42

‘Kakīša dzirnavas’ (‘The Cat’s Mill’)

Chosen by Ela Kucharska-Beard, Curator Baltic Collections

The fairy tale ‘Kakīša dzirnavas’ (‘The Cat’s Mill’) by the Latvian writer and politician Kārlis Skalbe (1879-1945) is firmly part of the Latvian literary canon. This tale of compassion and forgiveness was recently recognised as the nation’s favourite book. It tells the story of a white cat who owns a mill. After spending his money on his daughters’ dowries, the cat falls on hard times and sees his mill being taken over by an evil black cat. Turned away by his daughters, chased by dogs and pelted with sticks and stones by children, the cat finally finds his way to the royal palace where he tells his story to the sick king who “grieved for all that man and beast suffered in the world” and is so compassionate that “skilled court physicians advised him to bind his heart with golden hoops, that it should not tremble so easily at every sigh”. The cat surprises the king by refusing to bear any grudges against his tormentors, teaching him the value of forgiveness. As in traditional fairy tales, order is restored at the end – the cat gets his mill back, the king is cured of his illness and new life begins at the palace.

03 March 2020

Nordic Comics Today: A Day of Events

On 13 March, the British Library are hosting two events under the banner of Nordic Comics Today. In the afternoon, we will welcome Kaisa Leka and Karoline Stjernfelt to showcase their work. Kaisa will speak about the life of a disabled woman in the world today, and how comic art responds to disability, while Karoline transports us to the 18th-century Danish royal court through her prize-winning graphic history I Morgen Bliver Bedre (‘Tomorrow will be better’). The event will be introduced by Dr Nina Mickwitz from the University of the Arts, who’ll ground us in contemporary comics cultures in the Nordic region.

Illustration of suffragettes marching and fighting with policemen from 'Women in Battle'

‘Votes for Women’ from Marta Breen and Jenny Jordahl, Women in Battle: 150 Years of Fighting for Freedom, Equality and Sisterhood (London, 2018) ELD.DS.339036

In the evening we turn to feminism and welcome best-selling author Marta Breen to talk about Women in Battle, the story of fearless females in the continuing journey towards rights for women today (created in collaboration with illustrator Jenny Jordahl and translated into English by Sian Mackie). Marta will be in conversation with Kaisa Leka and UK Comics Laureate Hannah Berry, as they discuss the power of comics and graphic literature to engage people around social justice.

Photo of Kaisa Leka

A photo of Kaisa Leka from her trip around the U.S.A. reproduced in Imperfect (Porvoo, 2017), awaiting shelfmark

There are some tickets remaining for both events. The afternoon is free to attend but still requires a ticket. We are also delighted to be able to display parts of the Hero(ine)s exhibition, first shown at the University of Cumbria and the Lakes International Comic Art Festival in 2018, which features iconic comic heroes re-interpreted and reimagined in their female form. This can be seen all day at the Knowledge Centre.

Double page from 'Place of Death'

from Kaisa’s Place of Death (Porvoo, 2015), YD.2019.a.6235

Comics and graphic novels certainly have a place amongst the Library’s universal and international collections, especially given the emergence of Comics Studies as an academic discipline in recent years. That’s not to say comics needed rehabilitating through academic approaches. It might be best to say, with Douglas Wolk, that comics are not a genre but a medium, and that graphic art cuts across genres. Also, the ubiquity of images in the internet age and the implications on reading habits go hand in hand with the fairly recent rise of graphic literature. So, if you want to understand the world today, a task which the BL’s collections are surely there to serve, then you need to read some comics!

Double page from 'Place of Death'

also from Place of Death

Let’s take a look at the work of our featured authors. Kaisa Leka, a Puupäähattu prize-winning Finnish artist and adventurer, has created numerous innovative books with her partner and ‘faithful sherpa’ Christoffer Leka. Imperfect (awaiting shelfmark) is a beautiful travel diary about their trip across the U.S.A. made up of the postcards they sent to Christoffer’s nephews and niece every day. Place of Death is a sort of parable about ‘fear and the kindness of strangers’, the characters being the authors’ (plus families’) alter egos.

Cover of Karoline Stjernfelt’s 'I Morgen Bliver Bedre' featuring ‘The King’, ‘The Queen’ and ‘The Doctor’

Cover of Karoline Stjernfelt’s I Morgen Bliver Bedre (Copenhagen, 2016) YF.2020.b.319

Karoline Stjernfelt’s I Morgen Bliver Bedre won the best debut category of both major Danish comics awards, the Ping Award and the Claus Delauran Award. To be published in three parts, ‘The King’, ‘The Queen’ and ‘The Doctor’, the exquisitely illustrated books take us to the late 18th century and the reign of Christian VII. The German royal physician, Johann Friedrich Struensee, wielded increasing influence in the court, having an affair with the Queen Caroline Matilda, and eventually becoming de facto regent in 1770. I Morgen Bliver Bedre captures that political chaos and the splendour of the court.

A ball scene from I Morgen Bliver Bedre

A ball scene from I Morgen Bliver Bedre

Marta Breen and Jenny Jordahl’s Women in Battle tells the story of women’s rights and we’re fortunate to hear about it just after International Women’s Day and just before the British Library opens its Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights exhibition. It sketches 150 years of struggle through figures such as Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Malala Yousafzai. Marta and Jenny Jordahl have previously collaborated on the books 60 Women you should know about and The F Word, while Marta has also just published Hvordan bli (en skandinavisk) feminist (‘How to be (a Scandinavian) feminist’) (awaiting shelfmark).

Cover of 'Women in Battle' with illustrations of famous women activists throughout history

Cover of Women in Battle

Last but not least, we should definitely also say a word about our wonderful chairs for the events, Nina Mickwitz and Hannah Berry. Nina’s monograph Documentary Comics: Graphic Truth-telling in a Skeptical Age (awaiting shelfmark) shows the documentary potential of comics through early 21st century non-fiction examples. She has recently co-edited the collections (with Dr Ian Hague and Dr Ian Norton) Contexts of Violence in Comics and Representing Acts of Violence in Comics, and is currently interested in mobilities and negotiations of social norms and identities in comics, as well as the transnational mobilities of comics themselves.

Page depicting women’s struggle against slavery in 'Women in Battle'

Depicting women’s struggle against slavery in Women in Battle

Hannah Berry is the UK Comics Laureate and her graphic novel Livestock won the Broken Frontier Award for Best Writer. Check that out as well as her two previous graphic novels Britten and Brülightly and Adamtine here at the Library.

We look forward to introducing you to these exciting creative voices and stay tuned for more Nordic events at the library over the coming year!

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

References

Douglas Wolk, Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels work and what they mean (Cambridge, MA, 2007) YK.2007.a.19819

Marta Breen, Hvordan bli (en skandinavisk) feminist (Oslo, 2020) awaiting shelfmark

Marta Breen and Jenny Jordahl, Kvinner I kamp: 150 års kamp for frihet, likhet, sösterskap! (Oslo, 2018), awaiting shelfmark

Nina Mickwitz, Documentary Comics: Graphic Truth-telling in a Skeptical Age (Basingstoke, 2015) awaiting shelfmark

Nina Mickwitz, Ian Hague, and Ian Norton, Contexts of Violence in Comics (London, 2019) ELD.DS.445377

——, Representing Acts of Violence in Comics (London, 2019) ELD.DS.445165

Hannah Berry, Britten and Brülightly (London, 2008) YK.2011.b.11102

——, Adamtine (London, 2012) YK.2012.a.19765

——, Livestock (London, 2017) YKL.2018.b.3075