THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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16 posts categorized "Sweden"

05 September 2019

A ‘Colonial Anecdote’ in Translation: Jean-Baptiste Picquenard’s Adonis in Swedish

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The Library has recently acquired Jean-Baptiste Picquenard’s first novel, Adonis, ou le bon nègre, anecdote coloniale, translated into Swedish by Sven Johan Collin in 1802 as Adonis, eller den förträfflige negern. It tells the story of the slave revolt on Saint-Domingue, what is now known as the Haitian Revolution, through a ‘colonial anecdote’ that follows the capture of the enlightened plantation owner d’Hérouville and his loyal slave Adonis by Biassou, the leader of the revolt. Victor Hugo was inspired to write his first novel Bug-Jargal (1826) after reading Adonis.

Map of Saint-Domingue 1722

Map of Saint-Domingue by Guillaume de L’Isle (Amsterdam, 1722) Maps K.Top.123.35

The book is an extremely rare copy of a work that was not translated into many languages. Swedish interest was not simply due to some residual francophilia around the Enlightenment but also due to the reading public’s own Caribbean imaginary, sparked by Sweden’s ownership of the island of Saint Barthèlmy since 1784. The copy once belonged to the library at Östanå Castle, which points to the ownership of once director of the Swedish East India Company, Simon Bernhard Hebbe.

Title page of the Swedish translation of Adonis

Title page of the Swedish translation of Adonis (Strengnäs, 1802) RB.23.a.38783

As Chris Bongie has discovered, Picquenard was intimately involved in ‘the revolutionary violence that accompanied the successful imposition of egalitarian principles in France’s most prosperous colony’. He was deputy secretary to the French Civil Commissioners Légér-Félicité Sonthonax and Étienne Polverel, who aimed to take over power from the white Saint-Domingue population on behalf of the new republican government. Picquenard voiced the revolutionary ideas of the commission in his newspaper L’Ami de l’Égalité, frequently defending the use of violence.

Yet, none of this is necessarily apparent when you read Adonis, which avows broad humanist principles that both support the abolition of slavery and admonish the violence that enabled it. The first paragraph sets out the position:

I will not start by deciding whether or not the sudden abolition of slavery in the French colonies has been of real benefit to humanity. It will be nice, undoubtedly, for the philosopher to see the fertile plains of Saint Domingue cultivated by free hands soon – but the terrible tremor that the Antilles felt in order to reach this happy outcome has caused the ruin of so many European families, and the deaths of many others, such that I would not dare even pronounce myself in favour of such principles without fear of being accused of injustice and inhumanity.

Title page of the original French version of Adonis

Title page of the original French version of Adonis by Jean-Baptiste Picquenard (Paris, 1798) RB.23.a.37666

With the archival knowledge of Picquenard’s early engaged and violent writings on the island, Bongie can reread Adonis as not simply exemplary of the active forgetting of the Terror that typified the turn of the 19th century in France, but as an agonized site of friction between Terror and Enlightenment. Picquenard’s authorship demands that we read what has been ‘written over’, that is, ‘the entanglement of revolutionary violence and the humanist projects of Enlightenment’.

S. J. Collin’s translation stays faithful to the French original, in other words staying faithful to a certain ambivalence and infidelity in the authorial voice. It would be worth investigating the extent of French slave narratives – a significant genre in the slim period when France first temporarily abolished slavery (1792-1802) – translated into Swedish. Adonis is at the very least a curious book that reveals a shared anxiety between colonial powers.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

Further Reading

Chris Bongie, Friends and Enemies: The Scribal Politics of Post/Colonial Literature (Liverpool, 2008) YC.2009.a.4169

Youmna Charara, Fictions coloniales du XVIIIème siècle: Ziméo; Lettres africaines; Adonis, ou le bon nègre, anecdote coloniale (Paris, 2005) YF.2011.a.12978

30 August 2019

Women in Translation Month: top picks from the European Studies team (Part 2)

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Collage of book covers featured in the blog post

In this two-part blog post, the European Studies team have selected books by women authors in translation from across the continent. Ranging from 20th-century classics to contemporary fiction, the majority of these works were also translated by women, and several have won or been shortlisted for literary and translation awards.

Cover of Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

Olga Tokarczuk, Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017), ELD.DS.228759
Chosen by Magda Szkuta, Curator East European Collections

Olga Tokarczuk, the winner of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for her novel Flights, is one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful Polish writers of her generation, particularly noted for the hallmark mythical tone of her writing. The Polish title Bieguni refers to runaways, a sect of Old Believers, who believe that being in constant motion is a trick to avoid evil. Flights is a fragmentary novel consisting of over 100 episodes, each exploring what it means to be a traveller through space as well as time. Set between the 17th and 21st centuries, the novel includes some fictional stories and some fact-based, narrated from a perspective of an anonymous female traveller. It was translated by Jennifer Croft, an American author and critic who works from Polish, Ukrainian and Spanish. She is a founding editor of the Buenos Aires Review.

Cover of The Polyglot Lovers by Lina Wolff

Lina Wolff, The Polyglot Lovers, translated by Saskia Vogel (And other stories, 2019), ELD.DS.410017
Chosen by Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

Referred to as ‘feminism for the Fleabag generation’ (Spectator), Lina Wolff’s second novel takes down ‘myths of male authorship’ (FT) in this absurb book about love and loss. Both this and Wolff’s first novel, Brett Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs, were awarded PEN Translates awards by English PEN, thanks to the translations of Saskia Vogel, prolific translator of Swedish fiction, who recently wrote about how she has mainly translated women authors, who ‘question the shape of society and the assumptions we make, with a particular interest in sex and gender, language, economics, and power.’

Covers of Parts I and II of The time is out of joint: Shakespeare as philosopher of history by Ágnes Heller, featuring an owl

Ágnes Heller, The time is out of joint: Shakespeare as philosopher of history (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), translated by Magda Módos (Osiris, 2000), YC.2003.a.4129 (English) YF.2010.a.20242 (Hungarian)
Chosen by Andrea Déri, Cataloguer

‘The time is a sphinx in Shakespeare’s plays, but a sphinx whose secret will never be known, whose riddle will never be solved.’ ‘[…] for the secret of time is the meaning of life. A life has no meaning except for the question concerning meaning itself.’

Hungarian philosopher Ágnes Heller (1929–2019) interrogates time and temporality in Shakespeare’s plays in this book and engages her readers in doing the same in their life as well; challenges foreshadowed by Hamlet’s words in the title. An obituary in the Financial Times described Heller as ‘one of the most respected European philosophers of her generation’, ‘a life-long fighter for freedom’. Magda Módos, known for her interest in philosophy, translated the book from the English original into Hungarian.

Cover of Bad Roads by Natal'ya Vorozhbit

Natal'ia Vorozhbit, Bad Roads, translated by Sasha Dugdale (Nick Hern Books, 2017), ELD.DS.228387
Chosen by Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections

First performed at the Royal Court Theatre, London in 2017, Natal'ia Vorozhbit’s powerful and sometimes bitterly comic play focuses on the impact of the conflicts in Ukraine on women from different generations and backgrounds. A leading contemporary Ukrainian playwright, Vorozhbit is the co-founder of the Theatre of the Displaced in Kyiv and curator of the Class Act project in Ukraine. Bad Roads was translated from the Russian by the prolific poet, translator and editor Sasha Dugdale, who reflected on her experience of translating the play and its harrowing subject matter in an article for the Guardian.

Cover of Bitter Herbs by Marga Minco, featuring a drawing of a woman

Marga Minco, Bitter Herbs, translated by Roy Edwards (Oxford University Press, 1960)
Chosen by Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections

This autobiographical novella or chronicle about a Dutch Jewish family during the Second World War was published as Minco’s debut in 1957. Bitter Herbs was given a literary award in 1958 and has been translated into several languages. Minco became the Dutch voice in European war literature. The book’s sober, clear, direct style belies its deeper meanings. Minco’s themes are loss, loneliness, fear, guilt, and a longing for security. She and her uncle were the only members of her family to survive the war. Minco received the highest Dutch literary award, the PC Hooftprijs, for her complete oeuvre in 2019, at the age of 98.

Cover of The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern, featuring a figure sitting on a bench
 

Hélène Gestern, The People in the Photo, translated by Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz (Gallic Book 2014), Nov.2018/1771
Chosen by Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections

Hélène Gestern (born 1971) is a French writer and academic. One of her favourite themes is photography, and the power it exercises over memory. In The People in the Photo, Hélène is an archivist living in Paris. Her mother died when she was a baby, so she posts a newspaper ad requesting information about a mysterious photograph of her mother alongside two unknown men. This provokes a response from Stéphane, a Swiss scientist living in Ashford, who recognises his father. The People in the Photo revolves around the exchange of letters, emails and text messages between the two, and explores themes of memory, loss and the power of photography and images as the pair shares discoveries and speculate about their parents’ secrets. Published in 2011, the original French Eux sur la photo received the “Prix Coup de cœur des lycéens” de la Fondation Prince Pierre de Monaco and the Prix René Fallet in 2012.

21 May 2019

P. G. Wodehouse under Continental Covers

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

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

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

Covers by Peter Straaten for Dutch translations of two P.G. Wodehouse novels

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

Cover of a Dutch P.G. Wodehouse translation showing characters in 1960s clothing

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

Cover of a German P.G. Wodehouse translation with characters in 1970s clothing

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

Cover of a Russian Wodehouse translation showing two men drinking in a bar and an abstractly drawn cityscape

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

Cover of a Russian Wodehouse translation showing a straw hat and flowers on an empty chair

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

Cover of an Italian Wodehouse translation showing a man standing in front of a sculpture of himself

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

Cover of an Italian Wodehouse translation showing two pairs of feet wearing spats

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

Cover of a Swedish Wodehouse translation showing a man and woman in a garden at night

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

Back cover of a Swedish P.G. Wodehouse translation listing the characters as if on a menu

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

Cover of a French P.G. Wodehouse translation showing Jeeves carrying a tray

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

Covers of three French Wodehouse translations showing actor Arthur Treacher in the role of Jeeves

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

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

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

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

02 April 2019

John Bull, or the English People in their Great Peculiarity

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It’s English Tourism Week and what better to guide prospective visitors to these shores than an anonymous compilation of English customs published nearly 200 years ago in Stockholm. John Bull eller Engleska folket i sin stora Besynnerlighet was recently acquired by the British Library and appears to be a translation from multiple contemporary sources of anecdotes and summaries of Englishness. It contains all manner of veritable traditions, half-truths and fake news that you might expect.

Title Page of ohn Bull eller Engleska folket i sin stora Besynnerlighet
Title page from John Bull eller Engleska folket i sin stora Besynnerlighet (Stockholm, 1826) RB.23.a.28622

In no seeming order, the book takes us from Charles I to the Lord Mayor’s Day via brief glimpses at the Fairlop Fair, ‘Riding the Stang’, football and funeral ceremonies, and anecdotes that illuminate British attitudes under titles such as ‘The Compassionate Traveller’, ‘Paternal Tenderness’, or ‘Exceptional Orderliness’, all in just over 50 pages.

List of contents from 'John Bull, eller Engelska folket...'
Contents from John Bull, eller Engelska folket...

One possible source for the work is Popular Pastimes, being a selection of picturesque representations of the customs & amusements of Great Britain, in ancient and modern times (London, 1816; 785.h.8), which includes drawings by F. P. Stephanoff and historical descriptions by Edward Wedlake Brayley. A second source could be the less structured but equally enjoyable John Bull ou Londresiana, attributed to a ‘C.D’

Engraving showing a giant punch-bowl at an outdoor party
Engraving from
John Bull ou Londresiana, Recueil d’originalités et de singularités anglaises, avec les anecdotes, bons mots, plaisanteries, sarcasmes, et railleries particulières à ce peuple (Paris, [1820?]) 12314.df.4.

Both the French and Swedish John Bull refer to the peculiarity of their subject and understandably so given the stories they recount. In ‘En besynnerlig Ursäkt’ (‘A peculiar excuse’) we read a dark tale about a day-labourer who twice tried to drown himself but was twice saved by a peasant. He waits for his moment and on the third occasion hangs himself off a barn door. When the owner of the farm questions the peasant, who had in fact seen the whole thing, the peasant says that, since the labourer had been thoroughly soaked in the first two plunges, he thought he was hanging himself out to dry.

The book shares a chapter with Popular Pastimes on what the English publication calls the practice of ‘Selling a Wife’ and the Swedish more modestly refers to as ‘Åktenskaps-handel’ (‘Marriage trade’). Both condemn the activity, which is said to prevail among the ‘lower classes’ (John Bull) or ‘the illiterate and vulgar’ (Popular Pastimes). Our English historian finds space however to celebrate the songs that have been derived from the practice: ‘this practice, immoral and shameful as it is, has given rise to various pleasant Jeu d’esprits […]’. The examples they give differ, possibly exposing the fact that John Bull was paraphrased from various sources.

Other chapters shared between the two books include ‘Milk Maids’ Garland‘ (‘Mjölkflickans Krans‘), ‘Riding the Stang’ (‘Rida på Stången‘) and ‘St. Valentine’s Day’, which our Swedish observers tell us ‘is quite extraordinary in England. The youth yearn for it [längtar otåligt efter det] every year.’ ‘Rida på Stången’ is more or less a direct translation from its source in Popular Pastimes, which describes a practice of vigilante justice, referred to otherwise as ‘charivari’ or ‘skimmington’. The accused is forced onto a long pole, or stang, and carried through the streets to expose his dishonour. The criminal associated with this treatment was traditionally  ‘a man who had debauched his neighbour’s wife’, but not exclusively so, as ‘the virago who had beaten her husband was also subjected to riding the Stang’ (Popular Pastimes, p. 17). The method was also used in Westmoreland and Cumberland, we read, to deter anyone from conducting any business at all on New Year’s Day. While, Popular Pastimes does not delve deeper, John Bull interrogates this Cumbrian variation:

Man hwart taga dessa böter wägen? Jo, man super upp dem, man fyller sig, wältrar sig i sanden, öfwerlastad af Öl, Rumm, Win och Brännwin. — Det är ett nöjsamt tidsfordrif for Engelska folkshopen. (p. 38)
Where do the fines go? Yes, they guzzle it up, they have their fill, roll about in the mud, full of beer, rum, wine and brandy. It is a pleasurable pastime for the English crowds.

I wonder how different today’s portrait of John Bull and the peculiar English would be…

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Studies

14 December 2018

Hundertwasser’s 90th and 35 Days In Sweden

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The Austrian artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser would have been 90 on Saturday. Functionality was not his priority and his thought might deserve to be re-thought unevenly, uninhabitably, uselessly. But, to quote Hundertwasser’s ‘Mouldiness Manifesto’, it’s hard to get away from the ‘straight-edged ruler’ of the page, to bend the blog format ‘with giant steps’ to approach ‘impractical, unusable and ultimately uninhabitable [literary] architecture.’ But let’s at least exercise the freedom to forego a straightforward biography of an artist whose work was anything but straightforward, and simply re-join him during the end of his 35 days in Sweden, an account published in 1967 following an exhibition in the Moderna Museet, Stockholm.

Title Page of 35 Tage Schweden with a labyrinth-like design on the facing page
Title Page of Friedensreich Hundertwasser, 35 Tage Schweden (Stuttgart, 1967) X.808/5043, number 276 of an edition of 500 copies

In the summer of 1956, Hundertwasser received a letter from his friend Hans Neuffer in Stockholm. Six days later the artist was there himself to begin a brief adventure. He moves from flat to flat, tries unsuccessfully to promote his artwork and the account culminates in two entries: ‘Als Tellerwäscher’ (‘As a dishwasher’) and ‘Als Matrose’ (‘As a sailor). Here are partial translations of these entries:

As a dishwasher
Then my friends said to me: why aren’t you working? Everyone works here. Us too. You should become a dishwasher. Actually, every Viennese student washes plates here. So I joined them. […]
I worked diligently in a restaurant on the Kungstgatan. But I soon noticed that the other dishwashers didn’t work too hard. They were up to their ankles in shards of broken dishes. Out of displeasure or maybe pleasure, they let nearly every third plate crash to the floor when they washed up, especially if there was a plate that seemed particularly dirty. Rarely, a dangerous supervisor would venture over the mountain of shards to check whether the glasses and plates were washed and dried well. She wasn’t too concerned about the mass of shards on the floor. Sweden is a rich country, I thought to myself. Only cleanliness is important. There were white plates like snow fallen from the sky and scrunching underfoot. […]

Coloured abstract design by Hundertwasser from '35 Tage Schweden'
Picture insert by Hundertwasser from 35 Tage Schweden

As a sailor
So a few days went by. Suddenly Hans Neuffer came to my apartment all agitated to say that I had to go with him to Casablanca straightaway. As a deckhand on an Estonian ship under a Liberian flag. […]
I put down the coffee spoons and went along. To the Estonian Seamen’s Company. They didn’t want me though. But then they didn’t want to engage Neuffer alone. I was supposedly too old to be a deckhand. But then they phoned around and sent me to the doctor for examination to see whether I was fit for service. […] But they didn’t look at me and just asked for a urine sample. I had suffered from jaundice before and I feared that they would notice this in the analysis. I managed, in an unobserved moment, to chuck away half the sample and replace it with tap water. […] I was deemed fit and received my train ticket to Söderhamn.
The ship, the “SS Bauta” was close to the station. […] To my surprise, all the seamen had to go and pick wild berries every day. After a week, we went out to sea. I was at the helm twice a day for two hours, 4am till 6am and 4pm till 6pm. I had never done it before and completely messed up the ship on the first day. Then I got better at it. I also had to wash dishes and turn the oven on at 6am to make coffee for the first mate. Everything had the addition of “FACKING”. For example, I once spoke to someone who was limping. He said: “I went to get the FACKING butter, I fell on the FACKING stairs, I got this FACKING wound. Here is no FACKING doctor on this FACKING ship.”
The stokers argued over whether the war was over yet. Some said yes, but the majority thought that Goebbels had taken over and the war had continued. I didn’t dare contradict them. […]
On board the SS Bauta, I painted the watercolours 274, 275, 276, and 277 , and wrote the novel “BLAU BLUM” together with Hans Neuffer. […]
I was witness to the fact that I really am a very good sailor.

Avoiding a progressive line through the Hundertwasser biography to home in on a scene and a limited edition of that scene might do justice to the anti-linear freedom of an ‘automatist’, 90 years old today.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

Further reading:

Friedensreich Hundertwasser, Schöne Wege: Gedanken über Kunst und Leben (Munich, [1983]) YA.1986.a.6708

Friedensreich Hundertwasser, Hundertwasser architecture : for a more human architecture in harmony with nature (Hong Kong; London, 2007) LC.31.b.4874

Wieland Schmied, Hundertwasser, 1928-2000: Persönlichkeit, Leben, Werk (Cologne, 2005) YF.2007.b.2545

Walter Koschatzky, with Janine Kertész, Friedensreich Hundertwasser: the complete graphic work, 1951-1986, translated by Charles Kessler (Zurich, 1986)

Pierre Restany, Hundertwasser (London, 2010) LC.31.b.9497

Friedensreich Hundertwasser: Gegen den Strich: Werke 1949-1970, herausgegeben von Christoph Grunenberg und Astrid Becker ... Anlässlich der Ausstellung in der Kunsthalle Bremen 20. Oktober 2012 - 17. Februar 2013 (Ostfildern, 2012) YF.2013.b.1960

14 September 2018

‘In constant movement without an end’: the warp and weft of fashion research

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Today marks the opening of the 35th London Fashion Week. The event will feature over 250 designers, whose avant-garde and experimental ideas will once again trickle down to our own wardrobes. ‘Where do designers find inspiration?’ we ask ourselves time and again. Can the key to finding new ideas for fashion design be found in library collections?

Image 1 Under the Northern Lights collection by Elisabeth Nilsson - London Graduate Fashion Week, June 2018 (reproduced with permission).

Research is the foundation of any design process and a library is a wonderful resource to begin the search. While looking through a book or magazine, you may stumble on an image or a subject you may not have initially considered. There is something special about leafing, smelling or touching the book; experiencing the full potential of the visual stimulus it can offer. After all, books are objects that are themselves crafted and designed. Designers are always looking for something to utilise, from visual and literary to conceptual or narrative sources; obscure references that will make their work unique.

‘Things don’t come out of nowhere, they must come out of somewhere!’ says Vivienne Westwood, the iconic fashion designer. As an avid reader herself, in her 2017 talk at the British Library, Reading is important: Get a life!, Westwood reveals that she thrives on curiosity, finding out everything possible around any given subject, from classical Chinese poetry to mythical anthropology.

Last year the British Library organised a masterclass and show-and-tell to attract fashion students and for them to take part in the fashion design competition. They were encouraged to explore the Library’s collections for their inspiration and research. A final year student from University of the Creative Arts in Epsom, Elisabeth Nilsson, delved into the British Library European Studies Collections. Being Swedish herself, it was no surprise that Nordic themes were main inspiration for her two collections, Once Upon a Time and Under the Northern Lights.

Image 2

 Portrait of John Bauer from John Bauers bästa: Ett urval sagor ur Bland tomtar och troll, åren 1907-1915 (Stockholm, 1937) L.R.400.c.6.

The Once upon a Time collection was inspired by the life of Swedish illustrator John Bauer  and his curious folklore painting, his family, and the jewellery that appear frequently in his illustrations. The collection features a masculine silhouette with subtle feminine undertones. The bold and structured shapes create the angular gaps that let the lighter fabrics flow through. Deep tones of black and blue colours are directly drawn from the illustrations of midnight, starry skies, while the texture is informed by Bauer’s portrayal of grotesque but humorous trolls.

Image 3

 ‘Riddern rider’ (‘The knight rides’), from Harald Torsten Viking Schiller, John Bauer sagotecknaren (Stockholm, 1935) Ac.4624.

John Bauer was best known for his illustrations of the first eight volumes of Bland Tomtar och Troll (‘Among Gnomes and Trolls’), first published in 1907. He was born in 1882, in Jönköping. Throughout his life he suffered with depression and struggled with the direction in life. It is evident that Bauer was a prolific researcher himself, as some details of his work can be traced to the original folk costumes and medieval ironworks. Renaissance Italian painting was major influence on his artistic style. Furthermore, his work was greatly informed by his travels throughout Germany, Italy and Lapland, where he spend time with the Sami people. In 1918 John Bauer’s somewhat troubled life came to an abrupt end when the boat he and his family were travelling in sank.

Image 4

Design development and an illustration for the Once Upon a Time collection by Elisabeth Nilsson (reproduced with permission).

Elisabeth’s examination of every aspect of Bauer’s work and life is reflected in the sombre mood of the collection. She captures minute details, such as the artist’s tailored clothing, or jewels worn by trolls. It is precisely those details that trigger further searches for new references. Such as luxurious and finely crafted Art Deco style jewellery popular at that time. The bold combinations of well-defined lines and geometric shapes featured in decorative pieces, lend themselves well to Elisabeth’s further development of ideas and forms.

Image 5Inspirational images of Art Deco jewellery and trolls for the Once Upon a Time collection by Elisabeth Nilsson  (reproduced with permission.)

Inspired by Bauer, Elisabeth continued her exploration of the semi-nomadic Sami people. For over thousands of years, this indigenous ethnic group has inhabited Sápmi, the region that stretches across Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. The first detailed description of Sami culture can be found in Johannes Schefferus’ Lapponia, published in 1673. The Sami are mostly associated with reindeer-herding, but their crafts – duodji, and traditional clothing, gákti  – are worth noting. Colours, patterns, ribboning and embroidery are used to personalise the characteristics of the wearer, such as their family background or marital status.

Image 6

 Title-page of Johannes Schefferus, Lapponia, id est, regionis Lapponum et gentis nova et verissima descriptio … (Frankfurt, 1673). 1477.b.9.

The Under the Northern Lights collection is informed by the innovative approach to the traditional Sami way of life. The juxtaposition of modern and traditional is reflected in the experimentation with fabrics and textures. Man-made reflective fabrics and metallic fibres are combined with natural wool and fur. This is further emphasised with the use of appliqué, embellishment and pleats. The Nordic concept is tightly held together by limited palette of blue, grey and white colours. The oversized silhouette is exaggerated by playful use of giant zig-zag embellishment and inside-out details. Perhaps Elisabeth’s approach to fashion research and design development echoes ‘the traditional Sami conceptions of time as a circle, to be cyclical and in constant movement without an end’ (Lundström: p. 14).

Image 7

Under the Northern Lights collection by Elisabeth Nilsson - London Graduate Fashion Week, June 2018 (reproduced with permission)

Lora Afric, Languages Cataloguing Manager

References/further reading:

Richard Sorger, Jenny Udale, The fundamentals of fashion design (London, 2017) YC.2018.a.9712

Simon Seivewright, Richard Sorger, Research and design for fashion (New York, 2017) YC.2017.a.12940

Martin Allwood (ed.), Herman och Ove Ekelund berättar om Torestorp och John Bauer i Mullsjö (Mullsjö, 1971) X.419/471.

Elsa Olenius (comp.), Great Swedish fairy tales. Illustrated by John Bauer (London, 1974) X.990/4150.

Cornelie Holzach (ed.), Art Déco Schmuck und Accessoires : ein neuer Stil für eine neue Welt = Art Déco jewellery and accessories : a new style for a new world (Stuttgart, 2008) YF.2009.b.395

Jan-Erik Lundström, Contemporary Sami art and design (Stockholm, 2015) YD.2016.a.180

Consuelo, Griggio, Sápmi skyar = Sápmi skies (Harads, 2015) LD.31.b.3978

07 September 2018

Protestant Propaganda from the Thirty Years’ War

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Earlier this year we marked the 400th anniversary of the Second Defenstration of Prague. As well as its implications for the government of Bohemia and for Czech culture, the Defenestration also came to be seen as the start of a conflict which raged through Europe for the next three decades.

1750.b.29(124) Europa
Europa querulata et vulnerata 
1750.b.29.(124). An allegorical broadside showing Europe lamenting the wounds dealt to her by the war.

The Thirty Years War is reckoned to be one of the most destructive conflicts of the pre-industrial era, with estimates of up to three million fatalities. Issues of religious allegiance were key to its origins, with the Protestant states of the Holy Roman Empire rebelling against attempts by their Habsburg overlords to re-establish Catholic unity. But power politics could trump religious allegiance: for example, Catholic France at first covertly supported Protestant forces and later openly came out against their Habsburg co-religionists, more concerned about the growing power of the Empire than the advance of Protestantism.

Callot pillaging
Soldiers plundering a village, from Jacques Callot, Les Miseres et les mal-heurs de la guerre (Paris, 1633). L.R.35.c.7. 

Historians sometimes divide the war into phases based on the main antagonists involved. A collection of broadsides in the British Library contains material mainly from what is known as the ‘Swedish Period’ in the early 1630s, when the Swedish King Gustav II Adolf blazed a trail through Germany in support of the Protestant cause (but helped by French subsidies, and also hoping to gain valuable footholds on the southern Baltic shore for his own country). The broadsides all take the Protestant side, and Gustav, sometimes shown alongside his Protestant ally Elector Johann Georg of Saxony, is very much the hero. 

1750.b.29(7) Gustav Adolf and Johann Georg
Gustav Adolf and Johann Georg (1750.b.29(7))

One broadside even shows the two leaders receiving the blessing of Luther himself.

1750.b.29(28) Luther
Detail from  Triga Heroum invictissimorum pro veritate Verbi Dei et Augustanæ Confessionis... 1750.b.29(20)

The success and extent of Gustav’s campaigns can be seen in broadsides depicting the number of towns he successfully captured between 1630 and 1631, from Stralsund on the Baltic to Stein am Rhein, now in Switzerland.

1750.b.29(17) captured cities
Abriss der Fürnemsten Stät Festunge[n], undt päss in Teudschlandt welche I. M. König Gustaff Adolph zu Schweden ... eingenom[m]en. 1750.b.29.(17). 134 locations are depicted

A cruder version of this theme shows Gustav forcing the Pope to vomit up the towns he has ‘devoured’.

1750.b.29(67) crude captured cities
Augenscheinliche Abbildung der vornemsten Örter, Statt, und Flecken so in Jahrs frist auss der gefancknus und drangsal durch Gottes und der Gothemmacht erlediget worden.  1750.b.29.(67*)

Other broadsides describe the Protestants’ capture of individual cities. A particularly ecstatic writer from Augsburg speaks of the day ‘when his Royal Majesty freed the worthy city of Augsburg … from the Pope’s tyrannical violence,’ (1750.b.29.(22.)) and a piece from Munich shows the city fathers doing homage to Gustav and handing him the keys of the city.

1750.b.29(58) Munich
Kurtzer Bericht von Eroberung der curffürstlichen Statt München. 
1750.b.29.(58)

Another common theme is the Battle of Breitenfeld (usually called here the Battle of Leipzig) in September 1631, the first major victory of Gustav’s forces over the Imperial army commanded by Jean Terclaes, Count of Tilly.

1750.b.29(35) Breitenfeld
The Battle of Breitenfeld, detail from Eigentlicher Abriss der belägerten Stadt Leipzig, und der grossen Feldschlacht...  1750.b.29.(35-36)

Several of the broadsides describe this as ‘Leipzig Sweetmeats’ or a ‘Leipzig Banquet’ served to Tilly by his victorious opponents. One such satire hints at the suffering that the conflict was bringing to Germany’s poorest: two peasants explain that they cannot bring wine to the feast as requested, because ‘everything is lost, not a single bushel of corn is left‘. Instead they bring a selection of farm implements for Tilly to use as cutlery at his ‘banquet‘.   

1750.b.29(30) Peasants
Peasants and their complaint. Detail from  Des Tilly Confectt Panquet gehalten bey Leipzigk, den 7 Septemb: Anno 1631. 1750.b.29(30)

A handful of broadsides use the form of a rebus such as this satire on Tilly.

1750.b.29(107) Rebus
Des Tilly [Haus]
 1750.b.29.(107)

These can be difficult to decipher and interpret, as can the many allegorical images in the collection. Even those with extensive explanations tend to defy understanding by any but specialists in the period, although one of the more straightforward shows Gustav shooting a hawk, representing Tilly, as it attacks the peaceful dove of the true church.

1750.b.29(48) Allegory
Wahre Contrafractur vnnd Bildnis, der hier auff Erden bedrengten, vnd in höchster Gefahr schwebenden, doch aber endlich erlöseten Christlichen vnd rechtglaubigen Kirchen 
1750.b.29.(48).

Tilly was a particular hate figure among Protestants, not least because of his siege and brutal sack of the city of Magdeburg, the subject of several broadsides in the collection. One such is a plan of the city showing the damage caused by Tilly's troops.

1750.b.29(73) Magdeburg
Die Stadt Magdeburg, wie sie jetzo nach der Eroberung beschaffen 1750.b.29.(73). 

In another broadside, one of Tilly’s soldiers laments the suffering the Imperial army has caused – murder, theft, looting, rape. This again hints at the damage caused to ordinary people by the conflict, but the main propaganda point is the greater virtue of the Protestant cause rather than the suffering of the war’s victims. The soldier resolves to leave Tilly’s army and become a ‘Christian soldier’ fighting with Gustav and Johann Georg; in reality, of course, he would have no doubt continued to commit similar crimes in their name.

1750.b.29(64) Soldier
Betrübte Klage eines Tyllischen Soldaten, 1750,c,29.(64)

In April 1632 Tilly died of wounds sustained at the Battle of Rain, another Swedish victory. Gustav himself was killed in November of the same year at the Battle of Lützen. 

1750.b.29(13) Dead Gustavus
The dead Gustav Adolf with verses in praise of him. 1750.b.29.(13)

Despite the loss of such a brilliant and charismatic leader, the Swedes won the day at Lützen and remained in the war until it ended in 1648, soon fighting openly alongside the Catholic French. Johann Georg, however, sued for peace with the Emperor in 1635. The Protestant alliance between the two, celebrated in so many of these broadsides was a short lived one.

 Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

16 August 2018

Failing Colonizers or Failing Memory: Sweden in the Americas

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Colonial history rarely makes us think about the Nordic region. That omission, it has been said, allows these nations to ignore their connections to the global imperial system. As Gunlög Fur writes with regard to Sweden’s self-understanding in the 20th century, ‘there was no decolonising moment, during which Sweden had to rethink its position. Instead this left room for reformulating a Swedish strategy for non-alliance and mediation’ (p. 24).

The current BL exhibition ‘Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land’ encourages us to look closer. The discovery of three 18th-century Swedish legal documents in the British Library collections (to add to the many others received and purchased over the centuries) reminds us of Sweden’s continuous intention to compete with the superior European powers at the colonial table, a table at which their neighbours Denmark had already managed to establish themselves.

Map New SwedenEngraved map of New Sweden by P. Lindström in Thomas Campanius Holm, Beskrifning om provincien Nya Swerige uti America (Stockholm, 1702). 1061.g.8

But first, a quick sketch of Sweden’s Atlantic exploration. 1637 saw Sweden establish a colony on the banks of the Delaware River, with the help of Dutch merchants. ‘New Sweden’ was short-lived (it collapsed in 1656) but it still ‘became a home for generations of colonists’ (Ekengren et al., p. 169). In 1702 Thomas Campanius Holm wrote a comprehensive account of the geography, the colonists, the native Indians and, perhaps most interestingly, included chapters of phrases in the Lenape language.

Lenape IndiansAbove: Engraving by P. Lindström depicting Lenape Indians, and below: List of Lenape phrases related to fish and birds, both from Thomas Campanius Holm Beskrifning om provincien Nya Swerige

List of Lenape phrases

While the two decades of official Swedish occupation in Delaware have often been viewed, in early histories of the period, as either ultimately unsuccessful and therefore harmless, or successful in Sweden’s cultivation of wild forest into fertile land (and therefore harmless), the episode might be seen in parallel to the establishment of West African forts at the same time. Seafaring expertise and a thirst for trade opportunities led the Swedes simultaneously to America and Africa (with the Sápmi, arguably also part of the ‘colonial’ conversation), tying the search for land and goods and the accompanying Christian missionary activities, together with the beginnings of the Atlantic slave trade.

Sweden had to wait 130 years for their next American colony, the island of St Barthélemy in the Caribbean, given by France in return for trading rights in Gothenburg. However, modern scholarship does not consider the intervening period a hiatus, rather ‘Sweden’s interest in the American world continued unabated, as evidenced by several plans to found colonies in the Caribbean or on the South American continent. At the same time, economic ties, both direct and indirect, were growing between Sweden and the Americas’ (Schnakenbourg, p. 229).

St Barthelemy map 1801Map of St Barthélemy (Stockholm, [1801]). (Image from the John Carter Brown Library, via Wikimedia Commons.)

It is the latter idea of economic ties across the Atlantic, which is in evidence in the British Library collections recently found. The importance of Swedish iron to triangular trade is one example of how Sweden fitted into the global network (Evans and Rydén) but Sweden was not content simply to export domestic products. Rather, they were consistently engaged in establishing a colony in the Caribbean, since the premature end of earlier ventures (Schnakenbourg). The Library holds both the 14 June 1731 privilege for ‘Hindrich [Henrik] König & compagnie angående en fart och handel på Ost-Indien’, which inaugurated the Swedish East India Company, as well as the 2 December 1745 privilege ‘på en handels och siö-farts inrättande på America, för handelsmännerne Abraham och Jacob Arwedson & Compagnie’, which preceded the founding of the Swedish West India Company.

Privilege ArfwedsonPrivilege for Abraham and Jacob Arfwedson to travel and trade in the Americas. RB.23.b.3540

While engaged in triangular trade in the mid-18th century, supplying slaves to Caribbean colonies owned by other powers and directly selling Swedish commodities—herring as well as iron—to the new markets, the ambition remained to possess somewhere in the Caribbean to begin their own trade in sugar and other products. Therefore, the 1745 privilege was also intended to explore the possibility of taking first Tobago and later Barima, but Spanish and Dutch suspicion would prevent any serious attempts by Sweden. Their goal was secured in 1784 with the exchange for St Barthélemy, an island the French had struggled (and the Swedish would struggle) to cultivate. The harshness of the land led to the declaration ‘som förklarar ön St. Barthelemy i Westindien för en fri hamn eller porto franco’, in other words the island became a free port in an attempt to maximize trade activity.

Free Port of St BNotification establishing the free port of St Barthelemy. D.K.1/9/(4.)

Eight months later the Swedish crown was obliged to publish a sort of corrective to the free port announcement, as it had seemingly encouraged too much interest among Swedes in making the switch to the Caribbean. The notification ‘Til hämmande af obetänkte utflyttningar til Ön St Barthelemy’ of 2 May 1786 suggests that the previous year’s announcement was intended to encourage traders and not settlers. It highlights the tough conditions on the island, the lack of resources and the resistance to cultivation, as well as the limited space. Farmers, instead, should think more about working the fatherland!

Privilege discouraging travelNotification discouraging travel to the Caribbean. [Awaiting cataloguing]

From the beginning of Swedish administration of the island and aided by the official establishment of Swedish West India Company on 31 October 1786, ‘a commercially-oriented infrastructure was erected with the development of the island’s natural harbour, le Carénage, as well as the edification of its capital city, Gustavia, with warehouses, supply depots, and public buildings surrounding the port’ (Lavoie et al., p. 381).

Privilege Swedish West India CompanyPrivilege for the Swedish West India Company  [Awaiting cataloguing]

To conclude this survey of some of the documentation regarding the Swedish colony of St Barthélemy, it is worth reiterating the complicated position contemporary Swedish historians are in. Fur describes the awkwardness as follows: ‘popular understanding has gone from no colonialism to post-colonialism without stopping in-between, without having to confront the challenges and ambiguities of decolonization’ (p. 26). The problem remains that St Barthélemy, in comparison to the sugar island colonies of other powers, was always a site of temporary and fugitive wealth as an entrepôt, and therefore Sweden ‘cannot be considered as a colonial power in the full sense’ (Schnakenbourg, p. 240). At the same time, by avoiding the overestimation of colonial achievements you risk the oblivion of the Sweden’s role in the global matrix of exploitation. ‘[N]owhere, and no one, was untouched by the forces of colonialism in the early modern world.’ (Horning, p. 297).

Pardaad Chamsaz. Curator, Germanic Collections

References

Yolande Lavoie, Carolyn Fick and Francine-M. Mayer, ‘A Particular Study of Slavery in the Caribbean Island of Saint Barthelemy: 1648-1846’, Caribbean Studies 28:2 (1995), pp. 369-403. 3053.130000

Gunlög Fur, ‘Colonialism and Swedish History: Unthinkable Connections?’, in Scandinavian Colonialism and the Rise of Modernity: Small Time Agents in a Global Arena (New York, 2013) m13/.14914, pp. 17-36

Chris Evans and Göran Rydén, ‘From Gammelbo Bruk to Calabar: Swedish Iron in an Expanding Atlantic’, in Scandinavian Colonialism…, pp. 53-67

Fredrik Ekengren, Magdalena Naum, Ulla Isabel Zagal-Mach Wolfe, ‘Sweden in the Delaware Valley: Everyday Life and Material Culture in New Sweden’, in Scandinavian Colonialism…, pp. 169-187

Eric Schnakenbourg, ‘Sweden and the Atlantic: The Dynamism of Sweden’s Colonial Projects in the Eighteenth Century’, in Scandinavian Colonialism…, pp. 229-242

Audrey Horning, ‘Insinuations: Framing a New Understanding of Colonialism’, in Scandinavian Colonialism…, pp. 297-305

01 June 2018

Silver Darlings, Icelandic Gold: Herring in the Northern Imagination

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It’s been food season for the last 2 months at the British Library and sweeping through the Nordic collections with a gastronomic lens, there is of course only one thing on the menu: herring. The herring has formed the backbone of societies over the ages and, as Jonathan Meades says in his jaunt across the Baltic coast of continental Europe, Magnetic North, the herring’s own backbone has formed an even more literal foundation:

When excavations are made in Flanders for roads and railways, the bones of men slaughtered in the First World War constitute the first stratum that the diggers encounter. Further down are multitudinous herring skeletons. The people of Arras ate between two and three million herrings per year. That’s two to three hundred per every person.

From the material ubiquity of herring springs the idea or symbol of herring; it is not only the most important driver of socio-historical and political in the story of Northern Europe but it also stands for the cultural identity of the North.

Clupea Harengus - Skandinaviens Fiskar
The Herring — Clupea Harengus — in Bengt Fredrik Fries et al. A History of Scandinavian Fishes vol. 2 (Stockholm, 1895), J/7290.k.29
.

Herring has really always been fished, well, ‘since the Mesolithic era but commercial fisheries for these species developed only in the Middle Ages’ (Holm, p. 19). Its abundance in the marine area stretching from the Baltic across the North Sea and to the Atlantic around Iceland made it a vital commodity traded and controlled by various powers across the centuries. Abundance may be an understatement if we take Saxo Grammaticus’s words at face value in the Gesta Danorum, first written around 1204. Writing of the sound between Zealand and Scania, he notes: ‘the whole sound contains such plentiful shoals that sometimes boats striking them have difficulty in rowing clear and no fishing-gear but the hands is needed to take them.’ In fact, one possible etymological root for the word herring is from the Germanic Heer (army, troops) but the etymology of the common name for Clupea harengus is full of red herr… I won’t go there.

Olaus Magnus 152.e.9.
Herring-fishing in Scania, woodcut from Olaus Magnus, Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus, (Rome, 1555) 152.e.9.

It goes without saying then that with such a central presence in Northern life the herring is equally abundant in the Northern literary and artistic imagination. A scan of the British Library catalogue reveals a huge number of historical surveys, reports on methods of preservation, regional studies of the impact of fishing, but also such oddities (or not) as an announcement in 1785 by the Swedish Academy pertaining to, in the gloss provided by the BL’s Scandinavian Short-Title Catalogue of works published before 1801, ‘roof slates and herring fisheries’ (British Library, Ac.1070/20), or even the very recent (anti-)comic book by Antti and Esa Hakala, Sven’s Herring, or their graphic novel Lord of Herrings (2017).

Hakala combined
Exhaustive and exhausting jokes about herring in Anti and Esa Hakala, Sven’s Herring ([Great Britain], 2014) YKL.2016.b.5527

Douglas S. Murray’s comprehensive Herring Tales: how the silver darlings shaped human taste and history (London, 2015; DRT ELD.DS.80434) points us in the direction of a museum on the topic, “one of the finest of its kind”, namely the Herring Era Museum in Siglufjörður on the Northern coast of Iceland, once the bustling centre of herring fishing and processing in the country, the ‘Atlantic Klondike’ of the early 20th century. Murray sees in this unique museum a reminder of “the fact that without herring, Iceland – like so many other places on the edge of Norway, Scotland and elsewhere – would not have possessed a modern society.” The museum itself is fully aware of the historical, literary, artistic, film and musical impact of herring, listing numerous sources that show the expanse of work that sparkles herring-silver.

Gunnlaugur Blöndal - The Herring Worker
The lyrical beauty of ‘Icelandic gold’ in paintings by Gunnlaugur Blöndal. Above: ‘The Herring Worker’ (1934); below: ‘Herring Packers’ (1935-1940), reproduced in Gunnlaugur Blöndal (Reykjavik, 1963), Cup.20.w.13

Gunnlaugur Blöndal - Herring Packers

A three-volume history of herring in Iceland, Silfur hafsins: gull ĺslands: síldarsaga ĺslendiga (‘Silver of the sea: Iceland’s gold: the history of herring in Iceland’; Reykjavik, 2007; YF.2014.b.1514) has appeared in the last decade, adorned with epigraphs by the great Nobel Prize winner and herring champion Halldór Laxness. All three epigraphs are from Laxness’s 1972 Guðsgjafaþula (Reykjavik, 1972; X.989/30910.), which loosely translates as ‘The Song of God’s Gifts’—the book has not been translated into English. “God’s gifts” is another euphemism for the now not-so-humble herring and Laxness does not shy away from elevating them to an object of the aesthetic sublime:

‘Norðurlandssíldin er aðalborin skepna bæði að fegurð og vitsmunum, kanski það dásamlegasta sem guð hefur skapað.’
[The Scandinavian herring is a creature noble-born to beauty and wisdom, perhaps the most wonderful thing God has created]

And,

‘… þá munu margir men tala að þessi fagri fiskur hafi verið sannkölluð dýrðargjöf, já ein sú mesta sem himnafaðirinn hefur gefið þessari þjóð.’
[… then many will say that this beautiful fish has been the true glory, yes, one of the greatest things the Heavenly Father has given this nation.]

Guðsgjafaþula, about the fate of a fishing community who have entrusted their lot to a brilliant herring speculator, took as its source material the first history of herring in Iceland written by Matthías Þórdarson from Móar in 1934. The latter was the great-grandfather of contemporary Icelandic great, Sjón, who in turn used his ancestor as a model for the protagonist of the novel Argóarflísin (‘The Whispering Muse’; Reykjavik, 2005;YF.2007.a.24658). In Sjón’s novel we are introduced to Valdimar Haraldsson, who in 1933 published Memoirs of a Herring Inspector, immediately evoking Laxness and Þórdarson before him. One of Haraldsson’s early articles from his journal Fisk og Kultur, to which he refers at length at the beginning, espouses the link between fish consumption and Nordic racial superiority:

It is our belief that the Nordic race, which has fished off the maritime coast for countless generations and thus enjoyed a staple diet of seafood, owes its physical and intellectual prowess above all to this type of nutrition, and that the Nordic race is for this reason superior in vigour and attainments to other races that have not enjoyed such ease of access to the riches of the ocean.

The triumphal racialist rhetoric is antiquated and self-undermining in the context of the novel but the year of publication of Haraldsson’s memoirs is not lost on the reader. God’s gifts make for a chosen people it seems. At the same time, the maritime Nordic people is deliberately drawn in stark contrast to the ‘blood and soil’ rhetoric of continental fascism. Sjón’s novel is not the only place where fish and racial politics are brought into conversation. For the other notable example, we need to travel back to the Baltic and the shores of Danzig as imagined and lived by Günter Grass. But that is for another post…

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator, Germanic Collections

References and further reading:

Saxo Grammaticus, The History of the Danes (vol. 1) [translated from the Latin by Peter Fisher] (Cambridge; New Jersey, 1979) X.800/28439

 Halldór Laxness, Brekkukotsannáll (Reykavik, 1957/1973) X.909/37610. (English translation by Magnus Magnusson, The Fish can Sing (London, 2000) H.2000/2872)

Sjón, The Whispering Muse [translated by Victoria Cribb] (London, 2012) H.2013/.5955

James H. Barrett and David C. Orton (eds.), Cod and Herring: The archaeology and history of medieval seas fishing (Oxford; Philadelphia, 2016), YC.2017.b.2914; especially the essay by Paul Holm, ‘Commercial Sea Fisheries in the Baltic Region c. AD 1000-1600’ 

 

08 May 2018

“A rogue and a madman”: August Strindberg's Antibarbarus

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In his anti-literary 1890s, August Strindberg took to the laboratory to experiment in alchemy, and some of his thoughts led to a peculiar book published in Germany in 1894 called Antibarbarus I: oder Die Welt für sich und die Welt für mich (YA.1990.a.22668). His discovery of the process of transmuting lead into gold was conjecture and anti-scientific, if anti-anything, but 13 years later, this simple pamphlet, first published in Germany, transmuted into one of the finest luxury editions printed in Sweden.

Antibarbarus - coverCover of August Strindberg,  Antibarbarus: Det är en vidlyftig undersökning om grundämnenas natur och ett nytt betraktelsesätt af de kemiska operationernas förlopp enligt den rådande monist-teorien om naturens allhet & enhet, sådan den af Darwin och Hæckel tillämpats på de andra naturvetenskaperna (Stockholm: 1906) Cup.408.I.20.)

Strindberg composed Antibarbarus as a series of letters written in the second person, addressing an unidentified correspondent on diverse scientific principles. His first letter was entitled, ‘The ontogeny of sulphur’, the second, ‘On the transmutation of matter, transformist chemistry, or everything in everything’, the third, ‘Thoughts on the composition of air and water’, and a fourth, simply ‘Paralipomena’. He himself thought he ‘simply drew all the logical conclusions inherent in Transformism and Monism,’ (letter to Torsten Hedlund, 23 July 1894) that is, the belief that all matter has a single shared substance and elements differ only in their properties and not as entities, to paraphrase his first letter.

What he did not account for was the mixture of bemusement and vehement criticism that the publication received. In a letter to Georg Brandes, soliciting the great critic’s help in reviewing it favourably in Denmark, Strindberg writes that his work ‘has caused the Swedes to depict me as a rogue and a madman […] There is in fact not a single paper in Sweden honourable enough to print a word in my defence’, ultimately surprised ‘to see a whole country’s chemists so blinded by jealousy that they cannot acknowledge their own views when they see them put forward by someone they find offensive!’ (31 May 1894). Even his friend and the translator of his Swedish manuscript into German, Bengt Lidforss, reviewed it harshly in Dagens Nyheter—albeit under a pseudonym, which was scant consolation.

Antibarbarus - title pageTitle page of  Antibarbarus

Five years later, the magazine Nordisk Boktryckarekonst (Stockholm, 1900-1925; PP.1622.h.) was established by Hugo and Carl Lagerström, who subsequently set up a publishing house, with aim of inaugurating an authentic Nordic style of book design. They sought a work with which to begin a series of bibliophile editions and Arthur Sjögren was enlisted both to produce the book and to convince Strindberg to volunteer the first idea for the series. Sjögren, who had worked with Strindberg, arrived at Strindberg’s studio to find a chemist’s laboratory in disarray and the author-cum-goldmaker deep into experiments. With Strindberg only thinking about scientific works, they eventually landed on Antibarbarus. The Antibarbarus manuscript had been under perpetual revision and expansion since 1894 and, with Strindberg’s encouragement, the Lagerströms decided to take it on.

Antibarbarus - fascicle 1Fascicle 1, Antibarbarus

Taking nearly a year to produce, Antibarbarus had a limited print run of 299, each copy priced at 30 Krona. To put it in context, very few books cost over 10 Krona and Strindberg’s luxury edition of Ordalek och småkonst, which came out a year earlier in 1905, cost 8.50. No expense was spared from the light-brown leather binding incorporating the same decorative coils and knots that frame the text throughout, to the thick hand-made paper from Grycksbo  with a specially designed watermark by Sjögren, depicting a four-leaf clover over a three-leaf clover. The coiled dragon-tail ornamentation that envelops the title-page is derived from Viking picture stone iconography, which speaks to the National Romantic ethos of the new publishers, but by no means renders William Morris’s decorative influence any less obvious. The portrait of a Faustian Strindberg facing the title-page takes us back to Sjöberg’s encounter with the author in his laboratory, while drawing comparisons with Goethe, as a similar polymathic genius.

Like his illustrated works before this, Strindberg’s manuscript influenced the artistic design and the drop capitals and annotations set within the body of the text appear to be original to the author. Notes are literally indicated by a red hand pointing and paragraphs are marked by red pilcrows, rather than spaced out. Connoisseurs did not particularly warm to these latter innovations in the layout but the book has been acknowledged to be one of the most exquisite Swedish books ever produced. Georg Svensson considers it Sjögren’s best.

Antibarbarus - slaying the dragonSlaying the dragon, Antibarbarus

Ultimately, we might say the design is in harmony with the content. One critic, G. Bargum, reads the work as the creative scientist’s labyrinthine search for a greater truth where each path is a dead end. He suggests that what is stabbed in the final ornamental image is a many-headed Hydra, who constricts the courageous opponent, so that he will never escape. A review in Dagens Nyheter (cited in Samlade Verk) prefers to see the dragon finally slain by a Sigurd figure and the obstacles triumphantly overcome. While Strindberg never made gold and never did conquer the world of science as his anti-barbarian persona might have wished, his creative genius – with all its delusions and idiosyncrasies – is still wonderfully celebrated in this book, paradoxically ensuring a legacy for his failure.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

References/Further Reading

August Strindberg, Naturvetenskapliga skrifter I [August Strindberg’s Samlade Verk, vol. 35] (Stockholm, 2009), YF.2011.a.4183

August Strindberg, Strindberg’s Letters [selected, edited and compiled by Michael Robinson] (London, 1992), 92/19967-8

G. Bargum, ‘Der neue Antibarbarus’, in Zeitschrift für Bücherfreunde (10:6), 1906, p. 253, P.P.6548.c.