European studies blog

135 posts categorized "Translation"

04 January 2022

Art, poetry and social action – some of 2021’s less conventional Nordic acquisitions

In European Collections, where we focus on printed books post-1850, many of our acquisitions come through regular contracted suppliers. These suppliers are equipped to provide the breadth of publications the Library needs to stay relevant as an international research organisation. Occasionally, however, we acquire by different means, perhaps when the publication is more niche, or second-hand, or when we have a connection to a publisher or author, amongst other reasons. As we enter a new year, I wanted to reflect briefly on the quirkier material that has entered the BL’s Nordic collections in just such ways in 2021.

Valtatiet (‘Highways’) is an early example of the Finnish avant-garde, an illustrated poetry collaboration between Mika Waltari, Olavi Lauri Paavolainen and the artist Sylvi Kunnas, who provided its striking front cover.

Cover of Valtatiet (1928) by Sylvi Kunnas

Cover of Valtatiet (1928) by Sylvi Kunnas, awaiting shelfmark

Waltari and Paavolainen were prominent members of the Tulenkantajat (‘Torch Bearers’) group of artists and writers, who introduced the trending movements of European modernism to Finland. Valtatiet was itself inspired by Filippo Marinetti’s Futurism in its manifesto-like poetry of ‘machine romanticism’ (Kaunonen), while Kunnas’s cover certainly betrays an interest in Cubist style. Both poets increasingly became more politically engaged, despite their early preference for the aesthetics and experience of modernity and modern life, and both visited Nazi Germany in the 1930s, with Paavolainen producing perhaps his most famous work as a result, Kolmannen Valtakunnan vieraana (‘Guest of the Third Reich’, 1936). This acquisition complements an extensive European avant-garde collection at the Library and importantly expands it to incorporate an example of its unique Finnish expression.

Black-and-white image of a stlylised human figure

Illustration by Sylvi Kunnas accompanying the poems entitled ‘Credo’ by Olavi Lauri Paavolainen

Our Finnish collections also recently welcomed a much more contemporary literary work, Fun Primavera by Elsa Tölli, which we kindly received directly from the author. Elsa won this year’s Tanvissa karhu (‘Dancing bear’) prize for poetry, the first time it has gone to a self-published work. Thrilled to be asked for a copy by the Library, Elsa sent us a beautiful note along with the book, which she described as her “wild and extravagant poetry explosion”. Thank you, Elsa! And for those of us still needing to hone our Finnish, an English translation by Kasper Salonen is available. 

From Fun Primavera by Elsa Tölli

From Fun Primavera by Elsa Tölli (awaiting shelfmark)

Reaching out to creators has been an interesting way to learn about contemporary publishing in the region. I came across the work of Johannes Samuelsson through conversations around Swedish art books and projects centred on social action. Samuelsson, an artist and photographer, has developed an art practice that is directly concerned with uplifting his community in Umeå, making books that document but also form part of that social action. Johannes generously sent his work to the Library and I was particularly struck by the book Skäliga anspråk på prydlighet: En bok om kampen för en korvvagn (‘Reasonable claims for neatness: A book on the fight for a hot dog stall’).

Cover of Johannes Samuelsson’s Skäliga anspråk på prydlighet, featuring hot dog stall owner, Helmer Holm

Cover of Johannes Samuelsson’s Skäliga anspråk på prydlighet, featuring hot dog stall owner, Helmer Holm

When the Umeå authorities introduced new regulations for the design of hot dog stalls, Helmer Holm fought to retain his stall, which contravened the new rules. Samuelsson documents what he calls the “hot dog war”, amplifying Holm’s campaign, which was eventually successful, and the project is brought to life in the photobook. Attempting to represent the cultural life of the Nordic region, our collections need to be broad and relevant, identifying projects that also speak to universal issues and therefore that cut across the Library’s collections. With this Swedish perspective on local activism, on gentrification of common urban space, on art as social practice, we are hopefully adding richness to collections that interrogate similar ideas.

Cover of Art of Welfare

Cover of Art of Welfare, (Oslo, 2006) YD.2021.a.1210

We are always keen to incorporate independent publishing and smaller presses, especially where the publications complement the collections we already hold and the themes central to them. Art publishing tends to be produced with an international market in mind, with many books from the Nordic region appearing in English. After acquiring the Office for Contemporary Art Norway’s recent trilogy of new Indigenous writing, following a survey of contemporary publishing related to Sámi culture, we were fortunate to receive all outstanding issues of the publisher’s Verkstad series from them directly. Exhibition catalogues are often the place for leading thinkers to be creative, and there are unique essays throughout this series. Take, for example, Art of Welfare, produced for Elmgreen & Dragset's exhibition, ‘The Welfare Show’ – initially produced by Bergen Kunsthall, – at the Serpentine Gallery in London in January 2006.

As we constantly shape our collections to reflect the worlds they represent, working with authors, artists and independent publishers is an indispensable way to get at the heart of these cultural landscapes and to broaden the perspective of our own. We hope to continue to supplement our Nordic collections in this way, developing this unofficial “acquisitions through conversations” approach.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections 

References

Leena Kaunonen, ‘Avant-Garde Moments in Nykyaikaa etsimassa by Olavi Paavolainen’, in A Cultural History of the Avant–Garde in the Nordic Countries 1925–1950 (Leiden, 2019) Avant-garde critical studies; 36. pp. 746-760. 1837.116580

20 December 2021

Stefan Zweig and the Rival Queens

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), the prolific Austrian author whose collection of autograph manuscripts is at the British Library, was fascinated by artistic creativity, and with it the drafts, scores, sketches and proofs that allow us a glimpse of a work of art coming into being. At once evidence of both sheer artistic labour and a kind of otherworldly genius, manuscripts had for him the potential to insert us into decisive moments, what he would call Sternstunden, whether they were creative breakthroughs or political turning points. He turns his attention to one such Sternstunde in a discussion on ‘The World of Autograph Manuscripts’ (1923):

The most powerful and harrowing must of course always be those autographs, where the moment of putting pen to paper was itself a historic, cultural, universally significant one. Elizabeth I’s signature underneath Mary Stuart’s death warrant – all of us have seen the scene in Schiller’s tragedy and now it suddenly lies before us, the original fateful page, the live stroke of the quill which brought a heroic life to its end.

Digitised copy of Mary Stuart’s death warrant

Digitised copy of Mary Stuart’s death warrant. Add MS 48027, ff. 448r-450r

The British Library’s current exhibition Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, expands on Zweig’s quintessential example of the most powerful of manuscripts and brings to life the epic history through its personal and political documents. The signed death warrant – now in Lambeth Palace Library – does not appear in the current exhibition, but the act is represented by ‘A true Copie of the Proclamation lately published by the Queenes maiestie, under the great Seale of England, for the declaring of the Sentence, lately given against the Queene of Scottes, Richmond, 4 Dec 1586’ (Add MS 48027, ff. 448r-450r).

Title-page of Zweig's 'Maria Stuart'

Title page of Stefan Zweig, Maria Stuart (Vienna, 1935), W14/4184

Zweig wrote a hugely popular biography of Mary Queen of Scots in 1935, adding to an already weighty Mary-bibliography. Of course, German-language interest in Mary was already longstanding and is most commonly associated with Friedrich Schiller’s play Maria Stuart (1800). While Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach wrote the drama Maria Stuart in Schottland (1860) as a kind of response to Schiller’s portrayal, interrogating her predecessor’s notion that femininity (Weiblichkeit) and political authority were incompatible qualities. Zweig returns somewhat to that theme in that he pits a hyper-feminised Mary against an unwomanly Elizabeth, a passionate martyr against a cold-hearted Queen. Although, as Ulrike Tanzer writes, Zweig’s dichotomising tendencies are not absolute, as he depicts both queens as political agents and victims, as leaders and subjects of manipulation, thrown into the political and religious power structures of the time.

Zweig moved to London in 1934 while in the process of finishing his biography of Erasmus von Rotterdam. He had had the idea to move his focus to the rival queens the previous year, his new Portland Place flat allowing him to consult the “enormous amount” of material at the British Museum. Despite the many accounts of the history already available, Zweig felt the book [‘das entscheidende Buch’] on Mary did not yet exist, hence his compulsion to write it. His interest was however already established, given the mention of the signed death sentence in our first quotation from 1923. A trip to New York in January 1935 brought Zweig, now an expert in his subject, face to face with Elizabeth at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “A remarkable portrait of Elizabeth I by Lucas de Heere, which shows her more nervous with a quite frightened expression, always an indecisiveness suppressed behind her pomp.” (Doubt was later cast on the identity of both sitter and painter, and the Met now describes the picture simply as a ‘Portrait of a Woman’ by a ‘British Artist’.)

Portrait of an Elizabethan lady

‘Portrait of a Woman’ by a ‘British Artist’. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Zweig’s Maria Stuart devotes most of its pages to just the two or so years covering the murder of David Rizzio until Mary’s imprisonment in England, when “passion flamed up in her with elemental force, and what might have seemed an average destiny assumed the lineaments of a Greek tragedy as formidable as that of Orestes.” It is typical of Zweig’s biographies to draw attention to a central scene, a decisive moment, or in this case the decisive two years during which “Mary underwent the supreme experiences which led in the end to her destruction, and thanks to which, likewise, her memory has become so noteworthy.” Subsequent interpretation, the BL exhibition included, has no doubt nuanced Mary’s legacy to show her “noteworthiness” beyond the intrigue of those years.

On the famous casket letter debate, Antonia Fraser’s 1969 biography (London, 1969; X.700/3754), among others, attests to their forgery, whereas Zweig is convinced of their authenticity: “We, who know that Mary in times of stress always poured her heart out in verse, can have no doubt that she composed both letters and poems.” Zweig the biographer always takes a position, asserting the causes, intentions and consequences of events, even if that required some serious speculation, which was often the case for his psychological portraits.

Cover of Stefan Zweig, The Queen of Scots

Cover of Stefan Zweig, The Queen of Scots (London, 1950), W.P.8077/2.

The biography was incredibly successful and, as with pretty much all of Zweig’s work, was immediately translated into numerous languages, with the English edition, translated by long-time Zweig-collaborators Eden and Cedar Paul, appearing the same year. While Zweig’s legacy waned in the middle of the century, that same English translation was reissued by Pushkin Press in 2018, along with a raft of Zweig’s work, showing that there is a place for Zweig’s take on this much churned history. Its place is surely secured more as an example of Zweig’s hugely popular and gripping style, rather than an example of sober, historical analysis. It is of its time, a deeply psychological insight into a fascinating period, which complements the personal letters between the rival queens currently on display at the Library.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections 

References/Further reading:

Stefan Zweig, Maria Stuart (Vienna, 1935), W14/4184

Stefan Zweig, The Queen of Scots (London, 1950), W.P.8077/2.

Rüdiger Görner and Klemens Renoldner (eds.), Zweigs England (Würzburg, 2014), YF.2015.a.10030

Ulrike Tanzer, ‘11.4 Maria Stuart (1935)’, in Stefan-Zweig-Handbuch, edited by Arturo Larcati, Klemens Renoldner and Martina Wörgötter (Berlin, 2018), YF.2018.a.13186, pp. 415-424

Oliver Matuschek, Ich kenne den Zauber der Schrift : Katalog und Geschichte der Autographensammlung Stefan Zweig ; mit kommentiertem Abdruck von Stefan Zweigs Aufsätzen über das Sammeln von Handschriften (Vienna, 2005), YF.2006.a.13265

Elizabeth and Mary footer

17 December 2021

Vaclav Havel’s Pokouseni - Temptation of a bibliophile

I am sure that every bibliophile can recall the feeling of excitement that accompanies us when we take a new book into our hands. The sensation of moving fingers along the surface of the cover, flipping through pages, the distinctive scent of a new book. However, what is even more rewarding and satisfying, is to find a book that has lived well and aged beautifully bathed in genuine interest and love received from its readers.

There are many special books in the British Library collections. However, for me there is one which evokes the very feeling of joy I felt as a child visiting a bookshop or a library. It is Vaclav Havel’s Pokouseni (‘Temptation’). Havel, Czech writer, dissident and former president, who passed away ten years ago this month, wrote this play inspired by the story of Dr Faust.

Photograph of Vaclav Havel

Vaclav Havel, black-and-white photograph of the author mounted on the cover's verso of Pokouseni. Hra o deseti obrazech (1985). Awaiting shelfmark

His intellectual interest in the tale was ignited by Goethe’s and Thomas Mann’s literary adaptations that he read while being imprisoned. This prompted him to consider philosophical questions on the relativity of truth and how it can be transformed into a lie. Olga Tokarczuk once said that to write a book she needs to get obsessed with the story first. It was definitely the case with Vaclav Havel and Pokouseni. In published letters written from prison to his wife Olga, Havel explains: ‘As you know, I’m a man obsessions, and I hate giving anything up before I’ve exhausted all (my) possibilities. And so, in fact – though at a distance – I remain with the theatre.’

Cover of the samizdat edition of Pokouseni. Hra o deseti obrazech

Cover of the samizdat edition of Pokouseni. Hra o deseti obrazech (1985). Awaiting shelfmark

Eda Kriseova in her authorised biography of the Czech writer describes the creative process that lead to the birth of Temptation. It took Havel ten nights to finish the work. He was physically and mentally exhausted and ended up falling down the stairs and hurting his head. He was staying in his country house in Hradecko at the time. Feverish, hurt, trembling the playwright was cut from the world by a sudden snow storm without any food and no way out. Once Havel came back to the world he felt like he had got away from the devil himself. This strenuous yet cathartic creation process resulted in a play that many found disturbing. Presenting the clash of a metaphysical view of the world with a rational one – inflated to surreal and absurd – the play reflected a contemporary Czechoslovakian existence.

Title leaf designed by Viktor Karlik, Pokouseni

Title leaf designed by Viktor Karlik, Pokouseni. Hra o deseti obrazech (1985). Awaiting shelfmark

Havel wrote Pokouseni in 1985, after he had been released from prison. He was imprisoned three times for a total of almost five years under the communist regime. Following his incarceration, Havel became an even more internationally recognisable public figure. His works, banned in Czechoslovakia, were smuggled out of the country to be read around the world. Pokouseni was promptly translated to German and premiered in Vienna in 1986.

An illustration to Pokouseni by Viktor Karlik

An illustration to Pokouseni by Viktor Karlik

It is actually fitting that the literary work whose conception took such a toll on Havel’s body and mind was published as samizdat. The physicality of the copy we are lucky to have almost mirrors the process the writer went through to create it. It is not the clinical, perfectly cut and immaculately bound product of a mass manufacturer, but rather a raw body of paper turned with love and care into an artefact testifying to the tender effort of a craftsman. Every little detail adds to the story. Were it not for it, the book would look like a plain, boring file folder. Original and unique tape binding has the author’s name typed directly into the fabric before it was closed. What makes this edition exceptional is a collage on the cover and hand-printed linocut illustrations by another Czech dissident Viktor Karlik. Both the artist and the writer were a part of a close-knit circle of friends forming anti-regime opposition in Czechoslovakia. Although Karlik later fell out with Havel over his engagement in politics, his illustrations to Poukuseni complement and enrich the story. The linocut technique fits perfectly Havel’s imaginary universe achieving it through the otherworldly look, stark lines and abstraction. Rarely in samizdat publications that relied on fast printing can we find such a beautiful companionship of imagery and text – the book is a work of art itself.

An illustration to Pokouseni by Viktor Karlik

An illustration to Pokouseni by Viktor Karlik

Vaclav Havel’s most prolific years as a writer came before his presidency. Although his political legacy is sometimes contested, he was committed to all the roles he came to play in his life. One may speculate that he was able to achieve this thanks to his very personal understanding of hope, which according to Havel’s conviction is ‘this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed’. See the book Disturbing the peace: a conversation with Karel Hvizdala (London, 1990; YC.1991.a.1826)

When I hold the Havel-Karlik copy of Pokouseni in my hand, I am taken back to this place of hope once occupied by those who wanted to change the world by the sheer power of words and art.

An illustration to Pokouseni by Viktor Karlik

An illustration to Pokouseni by Viktor Karlik

Olga Topol, Curator, Slavonic and East European Collections

References/further reading:

Vaclav Havel, Pokouseni. Hra o deseti obrazech (1985). Awaiting shelfmark

Vaclav Havel, Letters to Olga: June 1979-September 1982 (London, 1988). YC.1989.a.2933

Vaclav Havel, Disturbing the peace: a conversation with Karel Hvizdala (London, 1990). YC.1991.a.1826

Eda Kriseova, Vaclav Havel (Prague, 2014). YF.2015.a.17320

 

15 December 2021

Dante and Esperanto

Is Esperanto an artificial language? Yes, but neither more nor less than any other language spoken by humans. All languages are the result of an agreement between the members of a community – dating back to very distant times and evolving slowly and continuously from generation to generation – to communicate with each other by means of the voice.

Woodcut of Dante by the Hungarian artist Dezső Fáy

Woodcut of Dante by the Hungarian artist Dezső Fáy in Dante Alighieri, Infero, translated by Kálmán Kalocsay (Budapest, 1933). YF.2008.a.36795

Dante Alighieri, the great Florentine poet and author of the Divine Comedy, was aware of this distant origin of languages, connected to the multiform creativity of our remote ancestors. He recounts all this through the words of Adam, in Paradise, canto XXVI, verses 130-132:

Opera naturale è ch’uom favella;
ma così o così, natura lascia
poi fare a voi secondo che v’abbella.

Among the English translations of the poem, one of the most appreciated is that of Allen Mandelbaum (1926-2011), an American professor of literature. This has the advantage of being accessible online with Dante’s original Italian text alongside. Here is the tercet on the origin of languages, in Mandelbaum’s translation:

That man should speak at all is nature’s act,
but how you speak—in this tongue or in that—
she leaves to you and to your preference.

And what about Esperanto? Well, Esperanto was also ‘invented’, but that occurred much more recently than for any other language: Esperanto was created by Ludwik Zamenhof, a Polish ophthalmologist), who proposed it in a book published in 1887, as a possible international and ‘neutral’ language. Esperanto is also the result of an agreement among all those who accepted Zamenhof’s proposal and started to communicate in that language. Today Esperanto speakers are scattered all over the world and also transmit the language from generation to generation. There are probably about one million speakers.

Portrait of Zamenhof

Portrait of Zamenhof. Source: Wikimedia Commons 

Esperanto literature is particularly rich and has three different translations of the Divine Comedy. The British Library holds all of them. It is recognized that the best Esperanto translation is the most recent one: the complete version in terza rima written by Enrico Dondi (1935-2011), an Italian psychiatrist, and published in 2006. Here you can see the tercet on the origin of languages, in Dondi’s translation:

Por hom’ estas natura la parolo,
sed lasas la natur’, ke l’ manieron
oni elektu laŭ la propra volo.

Cover of La dia komedio. Infero

Cover of La dia komedio. Infero. Translated by Enrico Dondi (Chapecó, 2006). ZF.9.a.6610

Dondi’s Esperanto is an elegant language that has been gradually refined thanks to a literary tradition that has matured over the course of more than a century. Therefore, in this blog post we will follow a chronological order to illustrate how the language has gradually measured itself with the great Italian poem. And we will do that by considering the very famous opening lines of the Comedy:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Verses that Mandelbaum translates as:

When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.

We owe the very first translation of the Divine Comedy into Esperanto to Giovanni Peterlongo (1856-1941), an Italian lawyer and civil servant, who lived in Trento. The town was under Austrian administration until 1918 and is now part of Italy. In 1922, Peterlongo was elected mayor of Trento and he spoke in favour of the use of both German and Italian in Alto Adige.

Page from Peterlongo’s translation of the Divine Comedy (Canto VIII) with a reproduction of a drawing by Sandro Botticelli

Page from Peterlongo’s translation of the Divine Comedy (Canto VIII) with a reproduction of a drawing by Sandro Botticelli (Milan, 1979). YF.2010.b.1079

Peterlongo’s blank verse translation of the Comedy was completed in 1914, when Esperanto was still a very young language. The work was later revised by him and was published only in 1963, with a reproduction of Sandro Botticelli’s drawings. The British Library holds a second edition.

Here you can see the first tercet:

En mezo de l’ vojaĝ’ de nia vivo
en arbareg’ malluma mi troviĝis,
ĉar mi de l’ rekta vojo forvojiĝis.

Kálmán Kalocsay (1891-1976) was a Hungarian doctor, and worked at a major Budapest hospital, but also was an outstanding Esperantist poet, who considerably influenced Esperanto culture, through original poetry and translations of literary works.

Cover of Dante Alighieri, Infero, translated by Kálmán Kalocsay

Cover of Dante Alighieri, Infero, translated by Kálmán Kalocsay (Budapest, 1933). YF.2008.a.36795

Kalocsay had learned Esperanto in 1913, the same year in which the Hungarian poet Mihály Babits (1883-1941) had published in Budapest a splendid translation of Inferno into Hungarian, in terza rima. Kalocsay was impressed by Babits’s work and decided to follow his example by translating Dante’s Inferno into Esperanto, in the same original metre. The work was published in Budapest in 1933 and includes 14 woodcuts by the Hungarian artist Dezső Fáy.

Woodcut 'Alta Helpo' by Dezső Fáy

Woodcut 'Alta Helpo' by Dezső Fáy in Kálmán Kalocsay’s translation of Inferno

Here is the freshness of Kálmán Kalocsay’s terza rima in the first tercet of his Esperanto Inferno:

Je l’ vojomez’ de nia vivo tera
mi trovis min en arbareg’ obskura,
ĉar perdiĝinta estis vojo vera.

Thus we arrive at the 21st century, when Dante studies in Esperanto culture find their most important figure in Enrico Dondi, who masterfully translated all of Dante’s poetical works into Esperanto, in the same metre as the originals. The entire Divine Comedy, whose terza rima flows with an unparalleled lightness, appeared in 2006, preceded in 2000 by an edition of Purgatory. The Vita Nuova (New Life) appeared in 2003, and in 2007 the youthful work Il Fiore (The Flower).

Finally, here is the first tercet of Enrico Dondi's Inferno:

En mezo de la voj’ de vivo nia
mi trovis min en arbareg’ obskura,
de l’ rekta voj’ estinte fordevia.

Giuliano Turone, Editor of Dante Poliglotta 

References and further reading

Dante Alighieri, La dia komedio, el la itala tradukis Enrico Dondi (Chapecó, 2006). ZF.9.a.6610

Dante Alighieri, La dia komedio, el la itala tradukis Giovanni Peterlongo (Milan, 1979). YF.2010.b.1079

Dante Alighieri, Infero, tradukis Kálmán Kalocsay (Budapest, 1933). YF.2008.a.36795

Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio, el la itala tradukis Enrico Dondi (Chapecó, 2000). YF.2010.b.116

Dante Alighieri, La floro, el la itala tradukis Enrico Dondi (Chapecó, 2007) YF.2008.a.12615

Dante Alighieri, Vivo nova, el la itala tradukis Enrico Dondi (Chapecó, 2009).YF.2009.a.26102.

Vittorio Russo, Danteskaj itineroj (Naples, 2001). YF.2009.a.37689.

24 November 2021

‘The Unknown Feminist of Fin-de-siècle Europe: Lesia Ukrainka’ at the British Library

On 16 November 2021, the British Library, in partnership with the Ukrainian Institute London, hosted an event to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Ukrainian writer and poet Lesia Ukrainka. The expert panel was chaired by Lucy Delap, Professor of History at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Murray Edwards College, and included Sasha Dovzhyk, a Ukrainian scholar and writer based in London, and Oksana Zabuzhko, one of Ukraine’s major contemporary writers.

Photograph of the event panel

The evening was opened by Katie McElvanney, Curator of Slavonic and East European Collections at the British Library. Oksana Zabuzhko, who joined the event remotely from Kyiv, highlighted that the complete collection of Lesia Ukrainka’s works (14 volumes) had only now been published, 150 years after her birth. She noted that Ukrainka was ‘misread’ in Soviet times and stressed the importance of re-reading and reviving her work and legacy.

Speaking about Ukrainka’s family, Zabuzhko emphasised that they were remarkable people who played an important role in the creation of modern Ukraine. She also spoke about the main themes and motifs of Ukrainka’s 21 plays, which were based on European culture and the European Christian tradition. In each of her dramas the main character is a woman and these women possess spiritual leadership, said Zabuzhko.

As part of the event, Olesya Khromeychuk, Director of the Ukrainian Institute London, announced the winner of the Institute’s inaugural Ukrainian Literature in Translation Prize. The condition of this year was the translation of Ukrainka’s works. First prize was awarded to Nina Murray for her translation from Ukrainka’s drama Cassandra. Daisy Gibbons received the second prize for her translation of extracts from Ukrainka’s letters to Olha Kobylianska and the short story ‘By the Sea’. Nina Murray, together with Uilleam Blacker, then read excerpts from Cassandra in Ukrainian and English. It should be mentioned that Zabuzhko’s novel The Museum of Abandoned Secrets was also translated into English by Nina Murray.

Continuing the panel discussion, Sasha Dovzhyk told the audience about the Ukrainian Institute London’s short film Fin de Siècle Ukrainian Feminism on Ukrainka, where she was an expert. She also spoke about Ukrainka’s letters to Olha Kobylianska. Among the subjects of their correspondence was the struggle for women's rights. Dovzhyk cited and conextualised the words of another outstanding Ukrainian poet and writer Ivan Franko who remarked of Ukrainka, ‘this fragile and sick woman is almost the only man in the whole of Ukraine’.

Oksana Zabuzhko and Sasha Dovzhyk answered a number of questions from the audience. They also stressed that 19th and early 20th-century European literature is not complete without Lesia Ukrainka. She was a part of European culture, even in her travelling, and it is vital that her work is translated into different languages. Discussing Ukrainka’s relevance and appeal in contemporary Ukrainian society, Dovzhyk noted that she has become part of mass culture in Ukraine; during the Euromaidan her image appeared on the building of the Institute of Literature of the National Academy of Sciences, along with the other prominent figures Taras Shevchenko and Ivan Franko.

Photograph of the event panel and audience

The recording of the event will be available on the Ukrainian Institute London’s YouTube channel.

Nadiia Strishenets, British Library Chevening Fellow working on collections related to the Ukrainian writer, poet and artist Taras Shevchenko

Photos by Anna Morgan and Tetiana Kharchenko. With thanks to the Ukrainian Institute London for allowing us to reproduce the photos in this blog post. 

 

17 November 2021

Elizabeth I and languages

The Tudors were a formidably educated family, though Giovanni Carlo Scaramelli, Venetian Secretary in England, was doubtless laying it on thick:

[Elizabeth] possessed nine languages so thoroughly that each appeared to be her native tongue; five of these were the languages of peoples governed by her, English, Welsh, Cornish, Scottish, for that part of her possessions where they are still savage, and Irish. All of them are so different, that it is impossible for those who spealk the one to understand any of the others. Besides this, she spoke perfectly Latin, French, and Italian extremely well. (Calendar of State Papers relating to English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, April 1603, pp. 562-70)

The catalogue of the current British Library exhibition Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens says she studied French, Italian, Latin and Greek, and ‘knew some Spanish too’ (p. 29).

As part of her education Roger Ascham taught her Greek; Battista Castiglione Italian. The same Ascham paid credit to ‘her perfit readines in ... Spanish’ (Randall, 231n).

Portrait of Elizabeth holding a book

Portrait of Elizabeth holding a book, from Lucas de Heere, Corte Beschryvinghe van Engheland, Schotland, ende Irland, 1573-5, Add MS 28330, f.4r 

Her reading knowledge of languages is clear from the translations she made. From French: Marguerite de Navarre, Miroir de l’âme pécheresse (for Katherine Parr); Calvin, Institution de la religion chrestienne (ch. 1); from Italian: Ochino, Che cosa è Christo and possibly Petrarch; from Latin: Seneca, (Epistle CVII), Cicero (two epistles), Boethius (De consolatione philosophiae) Horace, and Plutarch (De curiositate, via the Latin of Erasmus). (Unless otherwise stated sources are Mueller and Scodel and their reviewers.)

She also had writing skills in various languages. She wrote a letter in Italian to Katharine Parr (aged ten), wrote 27 stanzas in French, and translated Katherine Parr’s Prayers or Meditations into French, Latin and Italian as a new year’s gift to her father. Mueller and Marcus say the Latin is closer to the original than are the French and Italian.

Elizabeth’s French translation of Catherine Parr’s Prayers or meditations

Elizabeth’s French translation of Catherine Parr’s Prayers or meditations BL. Royal MS. 7.D.X. f.39r

Her translation of Erasmus’s Dialogus fidei into French for Henry is lost. She also wrote letters in Latin to her brother Edward VI and letters in French, including one to Mary Queen of Scots. And prayers in Spanish (Autograph Compositions, 141-43).

A halfway house between reading and writing is the collection of Latin tags she gathered in Sententiae.

A page from Elizabeth’s collection of Sententiae

A page from Elizabeth’s collection of Sententiae, in Precationes priuatę Regiæ E. R. ([London], 1563). Huth 139.

As regards speaking, she addressed the University of Oxford in Latin. She spoke in Latin to the Polish ambassador. On her first meeting with Guzman de Silva, the Spanish Ambassador, she spoke in Italian, ‘diciendo que no sabia en que lengua hablarme’ [‘saying that she did not know in which language to speak to me’]; he in Latin. But when the two rode together to Lord Burghley’s residence on July 26th, 1564, she, being mounted on a Spanish jennet, spoke to him in Spanish, ‘mostrandole gran contentamiento del caballo y de las lenguas’ [‘showing great content [perhaps ‘fluency’] with the horse and the languages’] (Ungerer 44). Mueller and Marcus say Elizabeth ‘had learned [Spanish] but deliberately avoided [it] later in her reign for political reasons’ (141).

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Collections

References/further reading:

Gustav Ungerer, Anglo-Spanish Relations in Tudor Literature (Madrid, 1956) 11872.w.20

Janel Mueller and Joshua Scodel (ed.), Elizabeth I: Translations, 1544-1589 [-- 1592-98] (Chicago, 2009)
YC.2009.a.8501; YC.2009.a.15444; reviewed by Retha Warnicke, Journal of Modern History, 82:4 (Dec. 2010), 923-27; Ac.2691.d/43.p

Roger Ellis, Translation and Literature, 19: 2 (Autumn 2010), 225-32. ZC.9.a.3123

Janel Mueller and Leah S. Marcus (ed.), Elizabeth I: Autograph Compositions and Foreign Language Originals (Chicago, 2003) YC.2004.a.5929

Dale B. J. Randall, The Golden Tapestry: a Critical Survey of Non-chivalric Spanish Fiction in English Translation (1543-1657) (Durham NC 1963) 011881.d.7

Elizabeth and Mary footer

11 November 2021

Astrid Roemer - unconventional, poetic and authentic

Literary awards are given to authors for their work. Sometimes this leads to controversy, such as in the case of this year’s winning author of the prestigious Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren (Dutch Literature Prize) Astrid Roemer. The prize is awarded every three years to a Dutch or Flemish or, since 2005, Surinamese author, and Roemer is the first black and Surinamese author to win it. She is known for being outspoken and an independent mind. The jury praised her work for being ‘unconventional, poetic and authentic’. These traits are bound to lead to controversy at some point. This is not the place to comment on the furore around the award and its winner. I have included some links to articles that discuss this in more detail at the end of the blog post.

Cover of Astrid Roemer, Over de Gekte van een Vrouw

Astrid Roemer, Over de Gekte van een Vrouw (Haarlem, 1982) X.958/16031.

I must admit that until recently I had never read any of Roemer’s work, but through research for this blog post I got the impression of a warm-hearted, compassionate woman, who has very nuanced views. ‘Identity’ plays a huge part in her work. Identity as an individual, or as a group, as a man or woman, as a black man or black woman, as a child or a parent, as a citizen in Suriname, or in the Netherlands, etc. She tells her stories usually through women who struggle to take their rightful place in society; who are keeping families together, no matter how fragmented these are.

It is as if she sees a parallel between individuals and families and Suriname itself. A young country still fighting for its place in the world, whilst at the same time different ethnic groups search for their place in the big Surinamese family within Suriname. And a country that struggles to find a relationship with its former ‘parent’, the colonial power that was the Netherlands and where many Surinamese people moved to study and work. Maybe that is why she is so good at presenting ‘big’ events and ‘big’ themes on a human scale.

The problems Surinamese immigrants to the Netherlands face in adapting to Dutch life whilst trying to stay faithful to their Surinamese identity is very well described in Neem mij terug, Suriname, Roemer’s first novel. First published in 1974, it was reprinted in 1975 and 2005. In 1983 it was published as Nergens ergens (Nowhere Somewhere) and in 2015 a jubilee-edition appeared, in celebration of its 40 year anniversary and for being awarded the P.C. Hooftprijs for her whole prose oeuvre.

Covers of Neem mij terug, Suriname and Nergens ergens by Astrid Roemer

Astrid Roemer, Neem mij terug, Suriname (Schoorl, 2015) YF.2017.a.33 and Astrid Roemer, Nergens ergens (Amsterdam, 1983) YA.1990.a.18843.

When she says: ‘I am married to Suriname, the Netherlands is my lover, I am in a gay relationship with Africa and I am inclined to have one-night stands with every other country’, she conveys the complexity of ‘identity’, as well as a sense of being a ‘world citizen’, but she doesn’t want to be labelled as such. She has lived in many different countries, but feels most at home in Paramaribo, the place of her birth.

When her mother died in 2019 she moved there, partly as a way to process her loss. She finds comfort and solace there as well as space to write in her day-to-day routine. And write she does.

What is called her ‘Suriname trilogy’ Gewaagd Leven (Risky Life) from 1996, Lijken op Liefde (Resembling Love) from 1997, and Was Getekend (Was Signed) from 1998 will be re-issued as Onmogelijk moederland (Impossible Motherland) early next year. About this trilogy Roemers said: ‘On the rubbish heap of slavery, colonialism and the present I searched for irreducible remains to experience my identity as Suriname-Dutch woman anew.’

Covers of the books in Astrid Roemer's ‘Suriname trilogy’

Astrid Roemer, Gewaagd Leven (Amsterdam, 1996) YA.1996.a.19238, Lijken op Liefde (Amsterdam, 1997) YA.1999.a.10270 and Was Getekend (Amsterdam, 1998) YA.2000.a.36919.

She will publish a new novel in 2022: Dealers Daughter, set in Paramaribo about a young woman whose father gets involved in a murder. Roemer has also worked on a selection of poems by Maya Angelou for a Dutch audience: En Toch Heradem Ik : Haar 25 mooiste gedichten (Amsterdam, 2022). Her English-language debut, Off-White, translated by Jan Steyn, is due to be published next year.

I cannot wait to discover more of Roemer’s work.

Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections

Other works by Astrid Roemer held by the British Library:

Levenslang Gedicht (Haarlem, 1987) YA.1990.a.23555

Waarom zou je huilen mijn lieve, lieve... (Schoorl, 1987) YA.1990.a.21044

De achtentwintigste dag (Breda, 1988) YA.1990.a.15920

Het Spoor van de Jakhals (Schoorl, 1988) YA.1990.a.8974

Niets wat pijn doet (Amsterdam, 1993) YA.1993.a.24646

Suriname : een gids voor vrienden (Amsterdam, 1997) YA.1999.a.9861

‘Miauw’ (Breda, 2001) YA.2002.a.35999

Liefde in Tijden van Gebrek (Amsterdam, 2016) YF.2016.a.26486

Olga en haar driekwartsmaten (Amsterdam, 2017) YF.2017.a.3034

Gebroken Wit (Amsterdam, 2019) YF.2019.a.17264

Further reading:

Hugo Pos, ‘Inleiding tot de Surinaamse literatuur’. In: Tirade 17 (1973), p. 396-409

Hilde Neus, ‘Roemer in redeloos redeneren’, Neerlandistiek, 15 August 2021 

Tessa Leuwsha, ‘Astrid H. Roemer: ‘Dutch Will Slowly but Surely Disappear From Suriname’’ (interview with Astrid Roemer, translated by Anna Asbury)

08 November 2021

Tove Jansson’s illustrations for Carroll and Tolkien

Naturally, we tend to focus on the Anglosphere legacies of English-language literary classics, but when it comes to fantasy fiction, like the works of Lewis Carroll and J. R. R. Tolkien, their international reception and illustrated editions are very much part of the phenomena. The worlds evoked transcend age- and language-barriers, with illustrations often inflected by specific geographical, cultural and historical contexts, given the genre’s endless capacity for reinterpretation.

Mosaic of covers of new acquisitions of works illustrated by Tove Jansson

Covers of new acquisitions of works illustrated by Tove Jansson

The Library has recently acquired a number of books illustrated by the genius that was Tove Jansson - the Finnish-Swedish creator of the Moomins, and also ‘novelist, short-story-writer, memoirist, painter, illustrator and cartoonist’, as the volume Tove Jansson Rediscovered importantly underlines. These acquisitions include translations of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark, Alice in Wonderland, and Tolkien’s The Hobbit, as well as a 1946 issue of the short-lived journal Litteratur, Konst, Teater.

Image accompanying Roger Richard’s poem ‘The Sleeping Woman’

Image accompanying Roger Richard’s poem ‘The Sleeping Woman’ / Den sovande kvinnan in Litteratur, Konst, Teater 1946, RF.2021.a.10

Jansson’s work never departs from view for too long in the UK’s cultural events landscape, as evidenced by the recent exhibition and walking trail at Walthamstow Wetlands and The William Morris Gallery, or by the big-budget Moomins animation, or the 2017-18 Jansson retrospective at Dulwich Picture Gallery. This goes alongside the stream of reissues, biographies, edited scholarly volumes and translations, including Letters from Tove and Tove Jansson: life, art, words: the authorised biography, both translations published by Sort Of Books in the last decade. Unattributed quotations in this blog are taken from the latter.

Tove Jansson’s illustration for the cover of Solveig von Schoultz’s Nalleresan (Teddy Bears’ Journey)

Tove Jansson’s illustration for the cover of Solveig von Schoultz’s Nalleresan (Teddy Bears’ Journey), originally 1944, here the 2007 facsimile reprint, YF.2008.a.5876

While Jansson illustrated a dozen or so books early in her career, she would devote most of her illustrative output to her own iconic creation. That is, apart from when the opportunities to illustrate Carrol and later Tolkien were presented to her. Unable to resist collaborating with publisher and translator, Åke Runnquist, and co-translator, Lars Forsell, on a book of ‘pure modern nonsense verse’, Jansson accepted the commission for The Hunting of the Snark (Snarkjakten) in 1958 and it was published a year later.

Jansson’s illustration for ‘The Hunt’ (‘Jakten’) from Snarkjakten

Jansson’s illustration of ‘The Beaver’s Lesson’ (‘Bäverns läxa’) from Snarkjakten

Jansson’s illustrations for the sections, ‘The Hunt’ (‘Jakten’) and ‘The Beaver’s Lesson’ (‘Bäverns läxa’) from Snarkjakten, RF.2021.a.7

While it wasn’t reprinted, the publishers deemed the collaboration a success, with the illustrations considered of the ‘highest class’. Jansson had not seen the original illustrations by Henry Holiday and their respective styles could not be more different, evident in their interpretations of ‘The Landing’ (‘Landstigningen’), the first “fit”, or part of the poem (rendered frossbrytning in the Swedish, almost a fit of shivering, or chill).

Henry Holiday’s original illustration of ‘The Landing’

Tove Jansson’s illustration of ‘The Landing’

Henry Holiday’s original illustration (above) and Tove Jansson’s (below) of ‘The Landing’

Jansson depicted a cast of large-eyed, long-snouted moominesque figures in contrast to Holiday’s caricatured, large-headed humans, both bringing the absurd to life in their own ways.

The year after the publication of Snarkjakten, Jansson received a letter from the author of Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren, who aimed to entice her fellow author to illustrate a new Swedish translation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit (Bilbo: En Hobbits Åventyr, RF.2021.a.8). Much has been written on Jansson’s illustrations by Tolkien fans and much of it critical of her inventive departure from the author’s descriptions. For Jansson, it was a chance to move away from the Moomin figures, while building on affinities between her own world and Tolkien’s landscape, what she describes as ‘Forests of living horror, coal-black rivers, moonlit moors with fiery wolves – a whole world of catastrophe […]’.

Bilbo surveys the Misty Mountains

Bilbo surveys the Misty Mountains

Indeed, Tove’s hopes to capture the dark immensity of Tolkien’s world were slightly clipped by Lindgren and the publishers, as they wanted it to be situated firmly within children’s literature and for it to make Bilbo more prominent and therefore less awed by his environment. The world of catastrophe had to be seen as navigable to the book’s young readers.

Gollum according to Tove Jansson

Gollum according to Tove Jansson

One particular bone of contention for Tolkien fans is the depiction of Gollum, who is nothing like the later film’s rendering. Jansson shows us a friendlier, perhaps more human figure, twice the size of the Gollum we can all picture. All in all, as Westin puts it, many readers ‘saw Jansson, where they would have preferred Tolkien’. The book was no success by any objective measure and only one edition appeared.

Bear vignette from The Hobbit

Bear vignette from The Hobbit

Whatever superfans make of the fidelity of the illustrations, they are undoubtedly fine achievements, down to the small vignettes used to head chapters, figures which Jansson drew iteratively ’20, 40, 60 times till it looked fairly free’ and then glued them together, giving them a real dynamism.

Alice down the Rabbit-Hole

Alice down the Rabbit-Hole

The lack of reception for her Hobbit illustrations might have stunted the desire to collaborate on works that were not her own. Jansson was however drawn back to Carroll in 1965, this time Runnquist’s translation of Alice in Wonderland (Alice I Underlandet, RF.2021.a.9), Carroll’s original manuscript of which we hold here at the BL. Like what she found compelling in Tolkien, Jansson read Alice as a ‘horror’, telling Runnquist, ‘the story is terrifying and can in no way be seen as an idyll, but it causes shivers of pleasure’. The translator however could not agree and sought something altogether more pleasant.

Alice, cat and bats in the tall grass

Alice, cat and bats in the tall grass

The horror is still there in Jansson’s illustrations, in the uncanny, magnified or magnifying underworld, as the artist gives pictorial life to Carroll’s inherently uneasy and confounding fantasy. Jansson’s use of colour, often rendered quite light on the page, makes them almost dreamlike.

Alice encounters a blue caterpillar on a mushroom

Alice encounters a blue caterpillar on a mushroom

Runnquist hailed the work as a masterpiece. As Mikiko Chimiori writes, Jansson captures the ‘the transitional period between childhood and adolescence’, often proving ‘even more imaginative and fantastic than the original’. To understand that comment, we should bear in mind that the ‘original’ was illustrated by Carroll himself, with engravings by John Tenniel for the published first edition, illustrations which Jansson herself thought definitive.

The Mock-Turtle’s Story

The Mock-Turtle’s Story

Tove Jansson was a prolific and multitalented writer and artist rightly best known for her Moomins but quickly becoming so much more than that in our cultural landscape, such is the richness and continued relevance of her oeuvre.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections 

Further Reading:

Tove Jansson, Letters from Tove, edited by Boel Westin and Helen Svensson, translated by Sarah Death, 2019, ELD.DS.463620

Boel Westin, Tove Jansson: life, art, words: the authorised biography, translated by Silvester Mazzarella, 2018, YK.2018.a.7552

Wayne G. Hammond & Christina Scull, The art of the Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (London, 2011), LC.31.a.13046

Maria Popova, ‘Vintage Illustrations for Tolkien’s The Hobbit from Around the World’

Mikiko Chimori, ‘Tove Jansson’s Alice Illustrations’, in Tove Jansson Rediscovered, ed. by Kate McLoughlin and Malin Lindström Brock (Cambridge, 2007), m08/.23195

03 November 2021

Venice: Tales of a Sinking City – an online event

On 8 November 2021 the British Library is hosting a free online event looking at the role of Venice in the current environmental, cultural and social global crises.

For centuries at the helm of a trading empire, the city of Venice has amassed wealth and culture in every palace, church, canal. Its lagoon constitutes a harmonious example of man-made transformation of the environment, conquered from mud, yet liveable and sustainable. A unique place for the circulation of ideas, home to fine printing, art and literature, a bridge between East and West. Venice is both a muse and a maker.

Still of flooded Venice from Homo Urbanus Venetianus

Still from Bêka and Lemoine, Homo Urbanus Venetianus, 2019 copyright of Bêka and Lemoine

After the decline and fall of the Republic of Venice, the city seemed the last Romantic fantasy during the industrial revolution. Nowadays, the number of inhabitants is diminishing, whilst tourism has reached its peak. The city is becoming a resort and is at risk of forgetting its own history, uniqueness, identity. Without its people, Venice might end up looking like one of its hundreds of replicas around the world.

There is not one way to describe Venice, nor 55. 55 is the number of fictional cities described in Italo Calvino’s 1974 work, Le Citta’ invisibili (Invisible Cities; Turin, 1978; X.908/86292) by Venetian explorer Marco Polo to Kublai Khan, Emperor of Mongolia. After hearing about all of them, Kublai Khan said:

‘There is still one of which you never speak.’
Marco Polo bowed his head.
'Venice,’ the Khan said.
Marco smiled. ‘What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?’
The emperor did not turn a hair. ‘And yet I have never heard you mention that name.’
And Polo said: ‘Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.’

Cover of Italo Calvino, Invisible cities, translated by William Weave

Italo Calvino, Invisible cities, translated by William Weave (London, 1974). X.989/29509

F.T. Marinetti and his futurist fellows did not like Venice. They repudiated it for its slavish devotion of the past. They suggest to “burn the gondolas” and fill the canals with the rubbish of the crumbling palaces. “May the dazzling reign of divine Electrical Light at last free Venice from her venal furnished room’s moonshine”, says a manifesto thrown in thousands of copies from the Clock Tower of St Mark’s Square, in 1910.

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Futurist Venice

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Futurist Venice (Milan, 1910). 1879.c.8.(24.)

Episodes of acqua alta, high water, have been recorded since the XIII century, but Marinetti would have never imagined that the rising sea levels would become a serious threat to the very existence of the city. The exceptional acqua alta in November 2019, when 85% of the city was covered by water, has been subject of a film by architects and film makers Bêka and Lemoine, Homo Urbanus Venetianus, observing the daily habits of tourists and venetians being disrupted by environmental contingencies. Is this an admonition for other cities?

The most imitated, the most celebrated, the most oneiric of all cities is menaced by water and global tourism.
Will Venice spark a creative response to its problems and find a sustainable way to survive, as it has done in the past?

As world leaders and experts are gathered in Glasgow to find a strategy against climate change, join our free online event on 8 November 2021 to look at how Venice embodies the emergencies we globally face and how literature and technologies can uncover these stories. Guests will be Bêka and Lemoine, Professor of Architecture and Spatial Design Sophia Psarra and Dr Giorgia Tolfo, writer and producer of the podcast The Fifth Siren (read Giorgia’s blog on the event on the Digital Scholarship Blog).

The event is supported by the Festival of Italian Literature in London (FILL) and the Italian Cultural Institute in London.

Valentina Mirabella, Curator Romance Collections

Additional reading and resources:

Piero Bevilacqua, Venezia e le acque: una metafora planetaria (Rome, 1998). YA.2002.a.20745

Sergio Pascolo, Venezia secolo ventuno : visioni e strategie per un rinascimento sostenibile (Conegliano, 2020). Awaiting shelfmark

Sophia Psarra, The Venice variations: tracing the architectural imagination (London, 2018). DRT ELD.DS.472744

Salvatore Settis, Se Venezia muore (Turin, 2014). YF.2016.a.2992

28 October 2021

Lesia Ukrainka at 150: A journey through the British Library collections (Part II)

The modernist Ukrainian writer Lesia Ukrainka (pen name of Larysa Kosach-Kvitka) pioneered a new feminist literature at the forefront of European trends of the time. Her dramas, poetry and prose address concerns from gender and race to feminism and environmentalism. In the year of the 150th anniversary of her birth, the British Library and the Ukrainian Institute London will shine a light on this remarkable figure at an event on 16 November 2021.

In the second of a two-part blog post, we explore aspects of Ukrainka’s life, work and legacy through items held in the British Library. It is co-authored by Dr Sasha Dovzhyk, a Ukrainian writer and scholar based in London, who will take part in the event.

Title page of Dumy i mriï

Lesia Ukrainka, Dumy i mriï (L’viv, 1899). 20009.e.44.

Thoughts and Dreams

In a review of Lesia Ukrainka’s second poetry collection, Dumy i mriï (‘Thoughts and Dreams’), the writer Ivan Franko, who was a considerable influence on her work, remarked, ‘[…] one cannot resist the feeling that this fragile, invalid girl is almost the only man in all our present-day Ukraine (Spirit of Flame, p. 19).’ Intended as praise of her directness in addressing Ukrainian identity, Franko’s assessment of Ukrainka and her work nevertheless speaks volumes about the construction of gender roles in the society in which she lived and wrote.

For more than two centuries, the Imperial Russian government had sought to stamp out the existence and understanding of a separate and distinct Ukrainian national consciousness. This first edition of Dumy i mriï was published in 1899 in L’viv, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as books and pamphlets in the Ukrainian language were banned in the Russian Empire from 1876 by a secret decree known as the Ems Ukaz.

The theme of subjugation and liberation, as told through historical examples, is present throughout much of Ukrainka’s work, not least in the collection Dumy i mriï. The second poem, ‘Robert Brus, korol’ shotlands’kyi’, tells of the struggles (and ultimate success) of the Scottish people under Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, to free themselves from the English King.

Poster for the Ukrainian Literature in Translation Prize 2021

Poster for the Ukrainian Literature in Translation Prize run by the Ukrainian Institute London 

Poetic dramas 

Ukrainka was a prolific poet, translator, prose writer, and cultural critic. However, it is her 20 poetic dramas that form the core of her legacy. The subjects and settings range from Homeric Greece and the ancient Middle East to the 17th-century Tsardom of Muscovy. The Stone Host (1912) reviews the classic story of Don Juan, while Cassandra (1907) looks at the fall of Troy through the eyes of a seemingly marginal female character. During Ukrainka’s lifetime, her plots were deemed too ‘exotic’ by Ukrainian critics who, in accordance with the 19th-century populist doctrine, identified the Ukrainian nation with the peasant class. Ukrainka’s ambition lay elsewhere. Envisioning Ukrainian literature as an equal participant in the conversation with major world literatures, she almost single-handedly coined the required cultural vocabulary through her dramas. Poetic translations of several of these works by Percival Cundy were printed in Spirit of Flame in 1950 (12263.d.14.). A selection of dramas was also translated by Vera Rich and published in Lesya Ukrainka: Life and work in 1968 (X.900/3941.). Run by the Ukrainian Institute London, the Ukrainian Literature in Translation Prize 2021 has focused on Ukrainka’s work and is promising to give an English voice to a greater number of her dramatic characters. The winners will be announced at the event on 16 November.

Title page from Lisova pisnia

Lesia Ukrainka, Lisova pisnia (Kyïv, 1914). 20001.g.48.

Forest Song 

The neo-Romantic Lisova pisnia ('Forest Song') is a poetic drama that has historically introduced young Ukrainians to Ukrainka’s work. Even in Soviet Ukraine, the neo-Romantic story of a forest nymph Mavka’s love for a peasant seemed a fitting choice for school syllabi and, unlike Ukrainka’s dramas that openly deal with the questions of power, an ideologically harmless one. The first book-form edition of Lisova pisnia appears to lay the groundwork for the provincialising perception of the drama as a naïve folk tale. Apart from the text and the author’s picture, the book includes three photographic landscapes and three portraits of peasant ‘types’ from the Volyn region of Ukraine as well as 16 musical notations for a reed-pipe (supposedly the simple songs played by Mavka’s beloved). Such a quasi-folkloric presentation distracts from some of the more radical aspects of the drama, including Ukrainka’s subtle commentary on female agency, creativity, and embodiment. Indeed, Lisova pisnia taps into the foundational questions of European literature about the power of art, traceable from the myth of Orpheus to Gerhart Hauptmann’s The Sunken Bell (1896). Unusually for this tradition, Ukrainka subverts the male-centric plot and transfers the creative power to her female character. As she straightforwardly stated in a letter to her mother, ‘Mavka’s story can only be written by a woman’. Lisova pisnia was translated into English by Percival Cundy (12263.d.14.) and by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps (YF.2009.a.28990).

Cover of Notre Dame d’Ukraine with a photo of Lesia Ukrainka

Oksana Zabuzhko, Notre Dame d’Ukraine: Ukraïnka v konflikti mifolohiĭ (Kyïv, 2007). YF.2007.a.26516

Notre Dame d’Ukraine

An intriguing reading of Lisova pisnia in the light of Gnosticism and chivalric culture is offered by a pioneering and widely translated Ukrainian author Oksana Zabuzhko, who interprets Ukrainka’s fairy-tale drama as the Ukrainian version of the Grail epic. Starting with her influential novel Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex (1996), Zabuzhko’s writing has foregrounded feminist and postcolonial perspectives on Ukrainian culture while repeatedly acknowledging her debt to Ukrainka. The most significant testament of Zabuzhko’s commitment to reviewing and reviving Ukrainka’s legacy is the 600-page magnum opus Notre Dame d’Ukraine. This volume positions Ukrainka as the last representative of the Ukrainian chivalric tradition. Aided by her passion for the subject and her engrossing literary style, Zabuzhko argues that Ukrainka and her small intellectual milieu had embodied the idealism and knightly code of honour exterminated in Ukraine under Soviet rule. Pointedly, Zabuzhko is also the most compelling advocate of Ukrainka’s Europeanism and of the international significance of her oeuvre. This accent is particularly important in relation to the canonised national writer whose image has been habitually subjected to reductionist nationalist approaches. As Notre Dame d’Ukraine will not let us forget, Ukrainka’s worldview is not only firmly grounded in European culture; her literary voice is also this culture’s knowledgeable and at times subversive interlocutor.

Screen shot from a Zoom performance of 'Virtual Forest Song'

Screen shot from a Zoom performance of 'Virtual Forest Song' in June 2021. Credit: Yara Arts Group

Performance 

Some of the most innovative productions of Ukrainka’s work have been created by the New York-based Yara Arts Group. Taking Lisova pisnia as a starting point, in 1993 Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps created an award-winning English translation of the play. Over the years, Yara Arts Group has staged different versions of the play, including a bilingual show at the Kurbas Theatre in L'viv and at La MaMa in New York, and the immersive ‘Fire Water Night’ in 2013. Their translation of the play is included in the bilingual anthology In a Different Light, which was published in 2008.

150 years after her birth, Ukrainka’s work continues to inspire and adapt to a changing world; in June 2021, Yara Arts Group performed its ‘Virtual Forest Song’ on Zoom. Reviewing the production in Ukrainian Weekly, Olena Jennings praised the online format, observing that it ‘[…] emphasizes the connection between nature, humans and technology. The space between the Zoom boxes becomes fluid as actors reach across boundaries.’

Sasha Dovzhyk, writer and scholar, and Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections

The event The Unknown Feminist of Fin-de-siècle Europe: Lesia Ukrainka will take place at the British Library on 16 November 2021. 

Additional reading and resources:

Lesia Ukrainka at 150: A journey through the British Library collections (Part I)

Sasha Dovzhyk, ‘Subverting the Canon of Patriarchy: Lesya Ukrainka’s Revisionist Mythmaking’, The Los Angeles Review of Books, 25 February 2021

Olga Kerziouk, ‘Lady on Banknotes’, European Studies Blog, 1 August 2013 

Lesia Ukrainka: Fin-de-siècle Ukrainian Feminism (short film), Ukrainian Institute London, 2020

Lesia Ukrainka, Dramatychni tvory (Kyïv, 1923). 20009.ee.71.

In a Different Light: a bilingual anthology of Ukrainian literature, translated by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps; compiled and edited with foreword and notes by Olha Luchuk; introduction by Natalia Pylypiuk (L’viv, 2008). YF.2009.a.28990

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