30 August 2019
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Another Italian cover is very literal: a 1966 edition of Young Men in Spats (Giovanotti con la Ghette), translated by Zoe Lampronti.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Of 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
02 April 2019
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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. […]
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
Friedensreich Hundertwasser, Schöne Wege: Gedanken über Kunst und Leben (Munich, ) 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
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?
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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).
Under the Northern Lights collection by Elisabeth Nilsson - London Graduate Fashion Week, June 2018 (reproduced with permission)
Lora Afric, Languages Cataloguing Manager
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
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.
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.
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.
One broadside even shows the two leaders receiving the blessing of Luther himself.
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.
A cruder version of this theme shows Gustav forcing the Pope to vomit up the towns he has ‘devoured’.
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.
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.
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‘.
A handful of broadsides use the form of a rebus such as this satire on Tilly.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
Map of St Barthélemy (Stockholm, ). (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.
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.
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!
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).
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
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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]
‘… 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
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.
Cover 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.l.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.
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.
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.
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
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.
19 April 2018
‘Now my text will be destroyed by gingerbread men’: the collaboration between Arthur Sjögren and August Strindberg
August Strindberg (1849-1912) – the unorthodox, self-taught, one-of-a-kind writer, painter, historian, photographer, scientist-alchemist and one-time schizophrenic – can’t have been easy to work with. A pioneer with such singular vision would naturally find some difficulty opening his work up to the ideas of those forever catching up with his modernity.
From the 1890s onwards Strindberg did, however, work closely with the artists Carl Larsson and Arthur Sjögren, falling out with each in turn some ten or so years later. The beginning of the end for the partnership with Sjögren came when Strindberg dismissed his contribution to a future publication in 1906, suggesting ‘now my text will be destroyed by gingerbread men,’ perhaps a jab at the artist’s stylizing tendency. Yet, undoubtedly, in the collaboration between Sjögren and Strindberg, some of the most significant Swedish works of art and literature emerged.
A range of book covers by Arthur Sjögren for August Strindberg’s work, from Arthur Sjögren: Typografi och bokkonst, grafik och måleri… Nationalmusei utställningskataloger nr. 99. (Stockholm, 1944) W.P.6606/99
From the 1880s to the mid-1890s, Swedish book illustration and typography found itself in a ‘trough’, wrote the art historian Georg Svensson: ‘It had a plethora of styles but lacked style.’ That is to say, it did not have a national style of its own. Under the influence of William Morris in particular, publishers Waldemar Zachrisson and Hugo Lagerström called for a new style and for innovative artists to burst forth. Hugo and his brother Carl established the magazine Nordisk Boktryckarekonst (PP.1622.h) in 1899 and chief among its contributors was the prolific Sjögren (1874-1951), who fast moved away from an early career in architecture to the ‘pure lines’ of book craft. Nordisk Boktryckarekonst had as its aim to create the conditions for a Nordic style in book design and Sjögren would become, in the words of Erik Wettergren, ‘one of the most ingenious and intensive pioneers of book design in the national spirit’.
Sjögren began working with the already famous Strindberg in 1900, at which point the writer had had a few years’ experience collaborating with Carl Larsson. In the earlier relationship, it is clear that Strindberg very rarely gave free rein to the illustrator and Sjögren would meet a similar level of artistic direction. This is by no means an abnormal situation but there is little sign of the ‘role of chance in artistic creation’, as one of his essays once lauded. Strindberg sets out the roles in the preface to their first collaboration, Sveriges Natur (1901), ‘the drawings offer landscapes, not prospects, which are composed by the writer and carried out by Arthur Sjögren to the writer’s contentment [belåtenhet].’
Strindberg had travelled around Sweden in 1891-2, much as he had done around France before, and made notes and sketches in situ and these drawings and photographs were the strict basis for Sjögren’s work. The author still insisted on writing both their names on the cover in the same gold type, despite the illustrator’s protests, yet we find Sjögren’s name appears smaller than Strindberg’s, perhaps as a concession to the modest artist.
Future collaborations did see more conceptual input from Sjögren, yet Strindberg continued to be prescriptive. If the balance of input is not clear, Sjögren’s artwork in the poetry collection Ordalek och småkonst (Word Play and Minor Art; 1905) is without doubt as masterful as Strindberg’s verse, both encapsulating the tension between the innocent simplicity of nature and everyday life and the mystical otherness that Strindberg saw flickering everywhere at the edges.
Ordalek och småkonst is visual poetry. Even without the illustrations, critics resort to imagistic terminology, evident in Lotta M. Löfgren’s interpretation prefacing her translation: ‘The realist’s eye now picks up a surreal shimmer.’
The stand-out poem in the collection, if not in all of Swedish poetry, ‘Stadsresan’ (The City Journey) moves from a perfectly harmonious Midsummer’s Day in Stockholm and the shores of Lake Mälaren to a sudden apocalyptic nightmare summoned by a pianist’s music. While such darkness always sits beneath the surface for Strindberg, it only takes the warmth of an impromptu audience and his wife’s hand on his shoulder for ‘life to smile again’.
As the pianist steps back and the room begins to glow with the praise of the onlookers and the happiness of the family, the piano itself begins to gleam and, ‘Also it beamed out a power, it cast a glow all around them / Shone on the paltry furnishings, elevated the humble.’ Strindberg captures it precisely. In art, in poetry, in the illustrations of Sjögren and the words of Strindberg, the humble life is represented as it is and, in its simple beauty, is elevated at the same time.
Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections
A second blog post on the collaboration between Strindberg and Sjögren will appear shortly.
August Strindberg, Selected poems of August Strindberg, edited and translated by Lotta M. Löfgren (Carbondale, 2002)
Michael Robinson, An International Annotated Bibliography of Strindberg Studies 1870-2005 (London, 2008), YC.2009.a.2140 vol. 1, YC.2009.a.2141 vol. 2, YC.2009.a.2142 vol. 3
Sten-Ove Bergwall, series of blogs on the collaboration between Strindberg and Sjögren
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