31 August 2023
August is Women in Translation Month, an initiative that celebrates and promotes literature by women from around the world in English translation. As in past years, members of our team have picked some titles to recommend. We hope they will inspire you!
Heda Margolius Kovály, Under a Cruel Star: a Life in Prague 1941-1968, translated from the Czech by Franci Epstein and Helen Epstein with the author (London, 2021) YK.2012.a.24219
Chosen by Alice Pappon, British Library Trainee
Under a Cruel Star memoirs the life of author Heda Margolius Kovály who was born in Prague in 1919. In describing her experiences living in Auschwitz and Communist Czechoslovakia, this memoir offers a magnificent and raw account of human endurance in the face of the most brutal atrocities. Kovály provides a chilling recollection of operating under constant scrutiny and suspicion from the Communist regime and a life of constantly looking over one’s shoulder. This book was first published in 1973 with a British edition published the same year under the title I Do Not Want to Remember (X.809/18317). It has since been re-translated by Franci and Helen Epstein who worked with Kovály herself to capture the truest version of the author’s experience.
J.S. Margot, Mazel Tov: the Story of my Extraordinary Friendship with an Orthodox Jewish Family, translated by Jane Hedley-Prôle (London, 2020 ) ELD.DS.484114
Chosen by Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections (Dutch and Flemish Languages)
Margot Vanderstraeten’s memoir Mazel Tov (published in English under the name J.S. Margot) was one of the books in the goody bag at the launch in April this year of ‘Flip Through Flanders’, the campaign to promote translated Flemish literature in the UK. It is the story of the author as a student in 1987, when she tutored the children of an orthodox Jewish family in Antwerp. These people could almost not have been more different from herself. She knows nothing of Jewish orthodox culture, which leads to some embarrassing moments. Her having an Iranian boyfriend doesn’t help either. However, over time both parties come to understand and appreciate each other more and they even become friends. It is a story about identity and coming of age that feels very uplifting.
Mazel Tov is translated by Jane Hedley-Prôle who has translated books from Dutch into English for over ten years.
Petra Procházková, Freshta, translated by Julia Sherwood (London, 2012). H.2014/.5570.
Chosen by Olga Topol, Curator Czech, Slavonic and East European Collections
Petra Procházková is a Czech war correspondent, humanitarian worker and journalist, recipient of Medal of Merit awarded by President Václav Havel. She is known for her in-depth interviews with women struggling to survive in conflict-ridden areas of the post-Soviet world. Procházková covered news from Abkhazia, Ossetia, Georgia, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan. For reporting on the atrocities of Chechen War, she was forbidden to enter Russia for many years. In her novel Freshta, set in Afghanistan before the Taliban returned to power in 2021, Procházková explores Afghan culture following Herra, a Russian-Tajik woman who falls in love with an Afghan man. Colourful characters, and a sensitivity towards local culture and customs gained through the author’s personal experience, make Procházková’s book a captivating read.
Kathrin Rohmann, Apple Cake and Baklava, illustrated by Franziska Harvey, translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp (London, 2018) YKL.2019.a.17272
Chosen by Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections
Kathrin Rohmann’s children’s story Apple Cake and Baklava, translated by Ruth Ahmedazi Kemp, is told from the perspectives of two children, Leila and Max. Leila is a Syrian refugee who has just arrived with her mother and brothers in the German village where Max lives. As her family try to settle into their new home, they wait anxiously for news of the children’s father and grandmother, still in Syria. Leila treasures a walnut from her grandmother’s garden that carries memories of home for her. When she loses it she is deeply upset and Max, who feels drawn to his new classmate, offers to help her find it. A friendship develops between the two, and also between Leila and Max’s grandmother Gertrud, who herself was a refugee from Pomerania after the Second World War. Gertrud still bakes apple cake and lebkuchen to her own grandmother’s recipes as a link with her lost home and family, just as Leila’s brothers try to recreate the baklava that their father used to make in his bakery (there are recipes for all three at the end of the book).
Apple Cake and Baklava is a touching story of friendship, family and food and a good introduction for younger readers to the themes of exile and loss.
Alki Zei, The Mauve Umbrella, translated by Ian Barnes (London, 2016) H.2020/.5039
Chosen by Lydia Georgiadou, Curator Modern Greek Collections
In the summer of 1940, shortly before the Second World War reaches Greece, 10 year-old Eleftheria lives with her parents and twin brothers in Athens. She despises the household chores expected from women of the time, while she adores anything her father does not approve of: reading fanatically, going to the theatre, hoping to one day become a lawyer, inspired by Sophocles’ Antigone. One floor above, lives the Frenchman Mr Marcel, whose nephew Benoit becomes an inseparable friend of the children. Their toys are few, but their imagination endless. Their enchanting games are only constrained by the grownups’ harsh experiences.
A book about two completely different worlds – that of children and that of the adults – each one carrying its own truth. A book that puzzles and entertains at the same time. Through its pages, the beloved Greek novelist Alki Zei (1923-2020) depicts the characters’ ethos, childhood innocence, the agony of war and the upheavals in our lives. Yesterday meets today on a journey… with a purple umbrella.
25 August 2023
Antonio Vieyra Transtagano – he used his toponymic ‘Transtagano’ ‘of Tras os Montes’ to distinguish himself from the baroque preacher Antonio Vieira SJ (1608-97) – was the first professor of Spanish at Trinity College Dublin and the first in the UK. (Ann Frost reminds us that at the time ‘professor’ was not the lofty title of today, and was largely used to mean ‘teacher’.)
Vieyra, like nearly all the language teachers in London, was a Protestant exile. His date of birth is often given as 1712. His first publication was in London, printed by John Nourse, who seems to have specialised in foreign languages (see ESTC and Foreign-language Printing in London).
A new Portuguese grammar (London, 1768). 1568/3986
A dictionary of the Portuguese and English languages (London, 1773). 1502/272
But he was a man of parts, who also wrote on Persian:
Brevis, clara, facilis ac jucunda, non solùm Arabicam linguam; Sed etiam hodiernam Persicam, cui tota ferè Arabica intermixta est, addiscendi methodus; quam non ita pridèm quinque speciminibus comprehensam, editamque; nunc autem novis, ac berè multis vocabulis locupletatam, (inter quae plurima celtica, imò et aliquot Asiatica et Americana, quo nonnullorum Asiae, Novique Orbis populorum felici origines investigentur exitu, reperiuntur) cum Arabicis aut Persicis affinitatem habentibus, in usum utriusque ling. tyronum, denuò edit ejusdem methodi auctor Antonius Vieyra, L.L. hisp. ac Ital. prof. reg. in Col. S.S. et ind. Trin. Dublin
(Dublin, 1789) 12903.c.20
He arrived in Dublin in 1779 to teach at Trinity College, a Protestant stronghold.
Andrew Wakeley’s best-selling textbook on the use of the compass (first printed 1665) was translated into Portuguese by one ‘Antonio Vieira’ for Antonio Fernandes, merchant of London, in 1762.
A agulha de marear rectificada … composto por Andre Wakeley, mathematico … traduzido do original ingles, por Antonio Vieira, Professor de Geometria na Academia Magnanense (London, 1762) RB.23.a.40456 [The Mariners-compass rectified … composed by Andrew Wakeley, mathematician … translated from the English original by Antonio Vieira, professor of geometry in the Magnanensian Academy]
Could they be related – or even one and the same?
Our Vieira writes in his dedication to Fernandes that he left his homeland in his third lustrum: as a lustrum was a period of 5 years, his age on departure was between 11 and 15.
He calls himself (in 1762) ‘professor of geometry at the Academia Magnanense’ (Orbis Latinus identifies this as Meinvelt (or Mayenfeld), a region between the Rhine and Moselle rivers). He also calls himself ‘chaplain’.
He says explicitly that he turned to translating Wakeley ‘and others’ and needed a patron: a role which Fernandes fulfilled.
Although the humanities and sciences weren’t as divided as they are now, our man’s prologue is stuffed with literary references far beyond the needs of a work of Fachliteratur. He cites Camões – well chosen on account of the maritime feats sung in the Lusiads. He refers to his annotations on the Satires of Horace, Juvenal, Persius and Petronius and draws on classical culture to praise Fernandes as a new Cicero and Juvenal among the ancients and Salignac and Locke among the moderns.
The book has no printer or publisher named: did Vieira publish it himself?
The fullest account of the Professor’s life I have been able to see is the obituary in the Dublin Evening Post, Thursday 16 March 1797:
Doctor Vieyra, who died at the College, some short time since, was King’s Professor of Spanish and Italian. He was a most worthy man, an excellent scholar, and had a perfect knowledge of almost every existing language. Having outlived his family, and most of his acquaintance, he spent his latter days almost in retirement, but his name is well known, in the literary world. His Portuguese Dictionary is the best that has been published of that language. He was born at Estremor, [sic] in Portugal, in the year 1712, and tho’ certainly deserving a more fortunate lot, met with various calamities during his whole life. His father had been taken up by the inquisition, and a small estate he had of course seized. Dr. Vieyra was sent to Padua, and from thence to Rome, where he took the vows and entered in the order of Conventuales. Ganganelli (afterwards Pope [Clement XIV]) was in the same convent at that time, and they were of course well acquainted. The Doctor, after a residence of twenty years in Italy, got leave to return to Portugal, where he narrowly escaped the fate of his father – and was obliged to quit the country, & after many extraordinary adventures, settled in London where he was patronized by the Chevalier Pinto. He got the appointment in Dublin College, many years ago. From the time he quit the convent at Rome, he renounced the Roman Catholic religion. He had several children, who all died before him. – The family of the late Provost, and Lady Moira, were always particularly kind to him. He wrote several volumes on the derivations of words and names; had he spent half the time taken up in such uninteresting works in writing memoirs of his life, he would have gained more, and have given the public some very curious and extraordinary anecdotes.
Chevalier Pinto was Luís Pinto de Sousa Coutinho, Viscount Balsemão (1735-1804), Portuguese Minister Plenipotentiary in London, 1774-88. With his wife, Catarina de Lencastre, he made his home into a literary and scientific salon. He supplied George III with books on Portugal, used by Southey for his History of Brazil. (All this according to Rodrigues.)
On 9 November 1774 Pinto wrote to the Bishop of Beja in support of two scholars: Manuel Azulay, a Jew, son of Portuguese parents, who aspired to a job teaching Hebrew in Portugal (he promises not to draw attention to his religion); and a monk who has written a Portuguese grammar and dictionary and has knowledge of Arabic and Persian, who seeks travel money and access to becoming a secular priest (Malato Borralho, 58). (Pinto also aided António de Morais e Silva, father of Brazilian lexicography, when he fled the Inquisition: Rodrigues 98.)
Who could this be but our man? But wasn’t he a Protestant by then?
It may not be too fanciful to draw the following chronology: Antonio Vieyra Transtagano was born in 1717; left Portugal in his third lustrum; went to Rome, became a Protestant, went to Mayenfeld; arrived in London in need of a patron and where he slaved as a dogsbody translator; by 1762 he was teaching and publishing in London; in 1774 he had the patronage of Chevalier Pinto; in 1779 he was in Dublin.
Translators have always sought patronage, and translators were often hacks – one thinks of George Borrow translating for newspapers, or the women readers in the British Museum in the nineteenth century (described by Bernstein).
Professor Antonio Vieyra’s biography has many lacunae, but perhaps this book allows us to fill them in.
Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Collections
Barry Taylor, ‘St Anthony of Padua, alias Fernando of Lisbon’, European Studies Blog
Foreign-language printing in London, 1500-1900, edited by Barry Taylor. (Boston Spa, 2002) 2708.h.1059
Carmem Rodrigues, ‘Chevalier Pinto: “Um dos homens mais ilustrados que já viveram no Brasil”’, Fênix: Revista de História e Estudos Culturais, 19 (2022), 93-112
Maria Luísa Malato Borralho, "Por acazo hum viajante --" : a vida e a obra de Catarina de Lencastre, 1a Viscondessa de Balsemão (1749-1824) (Lisbon, 2008) YF.2010.a.8017
Ann Frost, The emergence and growth of Hispanic studies in British and Irish universities ([Great Britain]: Association of Hispanists, ) YD.2019.b.1143
Dublin Evening Post, Thursday 16 March 1797 (Irish Newspaper Archives)
Susan David Bernstein, Roomscape: women writers in the British Museum from George Eliot to Virginia Woolf (Edinburgh, [2014?]) ELD.DS.47217
14 August 2023
Paul Frank Vincent (1942-) is an award winning translator of Dutch and German texts into English; in 2016 he and John Irons won the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize for 100 Dutch-Language Poems (London, 2015; YC.2017.a.3500). His career spanned many decades, but now he is retiring from translation at the age of 81. That is proof of his passion for languages, literature and translations, especially German, French and Dutch, all of which he studied at Cambridge. His choice for languages was influenced by his father who had fought in the Second World War on the continent, from where he brought back French and German songs. They fascinated the young Paul. He read translations of Grimm fairy tales as well as English classics such as Black Beauty.
Paul Vincent could have chosen to study German or French and he did indeed study these languages for a while when he realised that not many students did Dutch, so he switched. His decision proved the correct one when Paul came back from a holiday in the Netherlands with a desire to know more about the meaning of “strange letter combinations” in vowels such as ‘au’ (similar to ‘cow’) and ‘ui’ (not found in English).
For 22 years Vincent taught Dutch language and literature, including translation, at Bedford College and later at University College London (UCL), before taking the plunge into freelance translation in 1989. His teaching experience served him well, although finding work as a translator was and is not easy. Like every starting translator he had to accept what was on offer. That first offer was a jackpot: The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch, one of the Big Three in Dutch literature. Not the easiest of novels if you ask me, but Paul pulled it off.
Front cover of Harry Mulisch, The Discovery of Heaven, translated by Paul Vincent. (London, 1998) H.2000/2442
Works by Dutch and Flemish authors, both still alive and long dead followed. Vincent has quite a wide ranging repertoire: from Louis Paul Boon, Guido Gezelle, Louis Couperus to Katrien Hemmerechts, Tom Lanoye and Silvio Alberto (Tip) Marugg. He prefers the big beasts of Dutch literature, such as Harry Mulisch and Willem Frederik Hermans. He has translated fiction, poetry and the odd non-fiction work.
Harry Mulisch, Siegfried, translated by Paul Vincent. (London, 2003) Nov.2003/1794
Vincent’s favourite project was translating one of Mulisch’s later novels, Siegfried (2001). Translating is a puzzle; the easy bit is that there is an original text, the hard part is turning the original in an acceptable text. A good translator is able to find the middle-ground between staying true to the original text and making sure the text makes sense in the target language. If you then find word plays, such as anagrams in the text, that poses an additional challenge. Paul struggled with the anagram the protagonist made of the name Hitler, but found an elegant solution by using his first name as well.
The anagram in Dutch reads: Helrit, Relhit (ride to hell, riot hit).
In English it reads: I, dart of hell, Half Riot-Led.
Anagram in Dutch from Harry Mulisch, Siegfried (Amsterdam, 2001) YA.2002.a.19603
The anagram of Hitler’s name in English.
Vincent translates poetry, too. He has tackled 17th-Century poets Joost van den Vondel , P.C. Hooft , Gerbrand Bredero, the 19th-century writer De Schoolmeester (‘The Schoolmaster’, pen name of Gerrit van de Linde), Guido Gezelle and many others. His last poetry project was Mei (May) by Herman Gorter (Nijmegen, 2021; YF.2022.a.18897; you can read the original Dutch text here).
Herman Gorter, May, translated by Paul Vincent. (Nijmegen, 2021) YF.2022.a.18897
The Translations Database of the Dutch Foundation for Literature lists 125 titles translated by or contributed to by Paul Vincent. The database lists every Dutch title that has been translated into a foreign language. The organisation that runs it is responsible for the promotion of the quality and diversity of literature in the Netherlands and abroad. Its counterpart in Flanders is the Flemish Literary Fund.
Banner New Dutch Writing
Banner Flip through Flanders
Over the space of his long career Paul built a large library, containing literary works and works on translation. He has very kindly donated some 200 books to the British Library which we didn’t yet have. This is a welcome chance to fill some gaps in our collections, for which I would like to thank Paul very much, indeed! They will soon appear on our catalogue with a note about their provenance, so anyone who reads them knows they came from him.
F.E.J. Malherbe, Zuidafrikaanse Letterkunde (Pretoria, 1968) Awaiting shelfmark.
Happy retirement, Paul, and thank you!
Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections
03 March 2023
On until 18 March, the exhibition Editorial Tables: Reciprocal Hospitalities at The Showroom brings together publishers, artists, and curators with an interest in ‘independent, experimental and artist-led publishing, with a focus on intersecting feminist and decolonial perspectives’. We were glad to receive the back catalogue of one of the featured publishers, Rab-Rab Press, based in Helsinki and founded by Sezgin Boynik.
Rab-Rab: journal of political and formal inquiries in art, Issue 01 (2014). Awaiting shelfmark.
Rab-Rab Press publishes Rab-Rab: journal of political and formal inquiries in art, which is a platform for politically charged interventions in an art world that has surrendered to its ‘ideological blindness’, to the dominant language of ‘liberal capitalist paranoia’. The journal itself and the range of books published by Rab-Rab are seen as part of a “writerly” art practice that, according to the first issue’s opening article by John Roberts, stemmed from Conceptual art’s dismissal of the ‘intellectual division of labour’, the strict separation of the work of the art practitioner and the art critic.
Reprint of E. P. Thompson’s, The Railway: An Adventure in Construction (Helsinki, 2020). Awaiting shelfmark.
Rab-Rab Press is also engaged in publishing, and often translating for the first time, out-of-print forgotten works. Twentieth century and contemporary political thought from across Europe finds a home at Rab-Rab, from the work of Slovenian sociologist Rastko Močnik to two lectures by the Polish-Georgian avant-gardist Ilia Zdanevich. There is a reprint of E. P. Thompson’s, The Railway: An Adventure in Construction, on the international labour brigades in Yugoslavia, and most recently a translation of the increasingly influential artist and thinker Karel Teige’s Jarmark umění, The Marketplace of Art.
Karel Teige’s Jarmark umění, The Marketplace of Art (Helsinki, 2022). Awaiting shelfmark.
Lastly, Rab-Rab’s focus also turns to surprising cultural political moments, whether that is the Archie Shepp-Bill Dixon Quartet playing the 8th World Festival of Youth and Students in Helsinki 1962 (Free Jazz Communism), Mao Zedong’s last meeting with the Red Guards in 1968 (The Conclusive Scene), or the release of London-based Practical Music’s LP, Albanian Summer: An Entertainment, in 1984 (From Scratch: Albanian Summer Picaresque).
With such an eclectic range of publications bringing lost writing and moments to light, we look forward to what Rab-Rab Press takes on next. In the meantime, there is still a chance to catch the exhibition.
Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic collections
24 February 2023
24 February 2023 marks one year since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. While the British Library has been collecting digital and print material relating to Russia’s war against Ukraine since it began in 2014, the full-scale invasion has led to, and necessitated, the publication of new works, from diaries and speeches to books for Ukrainian children arriving in the UK.
This blog post brings together some of the items the British Library has acquired in the past year, as well as some of our ongoing activities to support and collaborate with Ukrainian colleagues, institutions and guests.
Photo from the Books Without Borders event courtesy of the Embassy of Ukraine in the United Kingdom and the Publisher’s Licensing Services Ltd
Children’s books presented by the First Lady of Ukraine, Olena Zelenska, at the British Library
In August 2022, the Library hosted the launch event for ‘Books Without Borders’ in partnership with the Publishers’ Licensing Services (PLS) and book print specialists Halstan, who funded and produced 16,000 Ukrainian language books for children arriving in the UK. We welcomed 40 children and their families to the British Library’s Learning Centre. The event was also attended by the Ukrainian Ambassador and the First Lady of Ukraine, who joined remotely to present the books and answer the children’s questions.
The books have been distributed to families and libraries across the UK, including the British Library (see References).
Cover of In the Face of War
In the Face of War
‘In the daily life of war, only something like photography – unfamiliar, auxiliary, almost mechanical – is capable of holding together sequences and memories.’ Day 16. Friday, March 11.
The Ukrainian artist, writer, and photographer Yevgenia Belorusets kept a diary during the first months of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Writing from Kyiv, the diary, which included photographs, was updated in real-time and published by Spiegel (German) and ISOLARII (English). It formed the basis of the installation A Wartime Diary, which was exhibited alongside the work of Ukrainian artists Nikita Kadan and Lesia Khomenko in the exhibition This is Ukraine: Defending Freedom at the 59th Venice Biennale 2022. Their work also led to the publication of the pocketbook In the Face of War (also by ISOLARII), of which the Library holds a copy. Another edition of Belorusets’ diary will be published in early March with a new preface by the author.
Zelensky’s speeches from the first month of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine
Volodymyr Zelensky’s speeches and addresses (in Ukrainian and English)
‘Do not forget about Ukraine. Do not get tired of Ukraine. Do not let our courage go “out of fashion”.’ (Zelensky, Introduction, A Message from Ukraine)
Elected in 2019, President Volodymyr Zelensky has led Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s full-scale invasion since February 2022. The British Library holds copies of Zelensky’s published speeches in Ukrainian and English translation. A separate English-language collection, A Message from Ukraine, was recently published by Penguin Random House. It includes 16 of Zelensky’s personally selected speeches from 2019-2022, as well as an introduction in which he reflects on how the months since the invasion have changed Ukraine and him personally. He ends with the words: ‘What will bring the end of the war? We used to say “peace”. Now we say “victory”.’
Mstyslav Chernov, Fire burns at a factory after a Russian attack in the outskirts of Kharkiv, Ukraine, 15 April 2022. Visual interpretation for Ukraine Lab.
The Ukrainian Institute London is an independent charity dedicated to strengthening Ukraine’s voice in the UK and beyond. The Library has worked with the Institute on a number of projects and events, including Ukraine Lab (2022), an online writing residency for emerging writers from Ukraine and the UK. Working in cross-cultural pairs, the six participants explored global challenges related to environment, disinformation and war, through the prism of Ukraine and the art of storytelling. You can read their work here. As part of the project, the British Library led a collections-based workshop and hosted an online event (recording available).
Ukraine Lab was run by the Ukrainian Institute London in partnership with PEN Ukraine and the Ukrainian Institute as part of the UK/UA Season of Culture, funded by the British Council.
Cover of Andrey Kurkov’s Diary of an Invasion
Diary of an Invasion by Andrey Kurkov
‘At first we did not understand what war was. You can’t understand it until you see it and hear it.’
Diary of an Invasion by Andrey Kurkov, the critically acclaimed author of novels including Grey Bees and Death and the Penguin, brings together his writings and broadcasts from Kyiv. Kurkov interweaves his personal story with those of his compatriots, as well as political and historical commentary, in a remarkable record of life immediately before and during the full-scale Russian invasion.
Kurkov took part in an event hosted by the British Library to mark Worldwide Reading of Ukrainian Literature Day in September 2022. Organised by the Living Knowledge Network in partnership with the Ukrainian Institute London, a recording of the event is available to watch on LKN’s website.
Cover of Sanctuary Foundation’s book for Ukrainian children arriving in the UK, Hello / Pryvit
A bilingual book to welcome Ukrainian children in the UK
Designed for Ukrainian children who have arrived in the UK in the past year, this bilingual book includes messages of welcome from British and Ukrainian celebrities including Bear Grylls, Tom Odell, Mel Giedroyc, Andriy Pyatov and Jamala. The book was created and published by the charity Sanctuary Foundation, who presented a copy to the British Library in December 2022. Sanctuary Foundation is working with LKN to distribute the books to local libraries around the UK.
N.B. The items featured in this blog post have recently been acquired by the British Library and some may not yet be available to Readers. We will update the shelfmark information and will flag their availability via Twitter as soon as they are ready to order.
Kolosok: ukraïnsʹka narodna kazka, illustrated by Adelʹ Hilevych (Kyiv, 2021), YF.2022.a.23583.
Pro bidnoho parubka i tsarivnu: ukraïnsʹka narodna kazka, illustrated by Iulii Kryha (Kyiv, 2021). YF.2022.a.23582.
Zhenchyk, zhenchyk nevelychkyi, illustrated by V'iacheslav Lehkobyt (Kyiv, 2021), YF.2022.a.23586.
Halyna Tkachuk, Bilka Kvasolia ta Opivnichnyii Pozhyraka, illustrated by Nataliia Kashchak (Kharkiv, 2019). YF.2022.a.24557
Valentyna Vzdulʹsʹka, Fotofan: mystetstvo fotohrafii dlia ditei (Kyiv, 2022), YF.2022.b.2327.
Misiats’ viiny: khronika podii: promovy ta zvernennia prezydenta Ukraïny Volodymyra Zelensʹkoho, uporiadnyk Oleksandr Krasovytsʹkyi (Kharkiv, 2022), YF.2022.a.22981.
— Druhyi misiatsʹ viiny. YF.2022.a.22966.
Ukraine Aflame: War Chronicles: Month 1, compiled by Oleksandr Krasovytskyy; translator Ganna Krapivnyk (Kharkiv, 2022), YD.2022.a.4046.
— Ukraine Aflame – 2. YD.2022.a.4047.
Volodymyr Zelensky, A Message from Ukraine (London, 2022), ELD.DS.739195.
Yevgenia Belorusets, Nikita Kadan, and Lesia Khomenko, In the Face of War (Berlin, 2022). Awaiting shelfmark.
Andrey Kurkov, Diary of an Invasion (London, 2022). Awaiting shelfmark.
Krish Kandiah and Miriam Kandiah, Hello / Pryvit! (Sanctuary Foundation, 2022). Awaiting shelfmark.
30 December 2022
C is for Czechoslovak Independence Day, which marks the foundation of the independent Czechoslovak State in 1918.
D is for Digitisation, including the 3D digitisation of Marinetti’s Tin Book.
E is for Annie Ernaux, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in October.
Examples of Fraktur letter-forms from Wolfgang Fugger, Ein nützlich und wolgegründt Formular manncherley schöner Schriefften ... (Nuremberg, 1533) C.142.cc.12.
F is for Festive Traditions, from songs to fortune telling.
G is for Guest bloggers, whose contributions we love to receive!
H is for Hryhorii Skovoroda, the Ukrainian philosopher and poet whose anniversary we marked in December.
I is for our series on Iceland and the Library’s Icelandic collections.
J is for Jubilees.
Abetka (Kyïv, 2005). YF.2010.a.18369.
K is for Knowledge systems and the work of Snowchange Cooperative, a Finnish environmental organisation devoted to protecting and restoring the boreal forests and ecosystems through ‘the advancement of indigenous traditions and culture’.
L is for Limburgish, spoken in the South of the Netherlands.
M is for Mystery – some bibliographical sleuthing.
N is for Nordic acquisitions, from Finnish avant-garde poetry to Swedish art books.
O is for Online resources from East View, which are now available remotely.
Giovanni Bodoni and Giovanni Mardersteig, Manuale tipografico, 1788. Facsimile a cura di Giovanni Mardersteig. (Verona, 1968) L.R.413.h.17.
Q is for Quebec with a guest appearance by the Americas blog featuring the work of retired French collections curator Des McTernan.
R is for Rare editions of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko’s Kobzar.
T is for Translation and our regular posts to mark Women in Translation Month.
Alphabet Anglois, contenant la prononciation des lettres avec les declinaisons et conjugaisons (Rouen, 1639). Digital Store 1568/3641.(1.)
V is for Victory – a contemporary Italian newspaper report of the Battle of Trafalgar.
W is for Richard Wagner who wrote about a fictional meeting with Beethoven.
X is for... (no, we couldn’t think of anything either!)
Y is for You, our readers. Thank you for following us!
Z is for our former colleague Zuzanna, whom we remembered in February.
Azbuka ōt knigi osmochastnye̡, sirěchʹ grammatikii (Lviv, 1574). Digital Store 1568/3641.(1.)
02 December 2022
On the night of 7 May 2022 a Russian missile completely destroyed a historic 18th-century building in the small Ukrainian village of Skovorodynivka, situated in a rural area, far from any infrastructure. This building housed the National Literary-Memorial Museum of Hryhorii Skovoroda – a Ukrainian poet and philosopher whose creative legacy consists of philosophical treatises, poems, fables, parables, and translations from Plutarch and Cicero. The house was where Skovoroda worked in the last years of his life. There he died.
The National Literary-Memorial Museum of Hryhorii Skovoroda after a Russian missile strike
Meanwhile this year we mark the 300th anniversary of Hryhorii Skovoroda’s birth on 3 December 1722 to a Cossack family in the small Ukrainian town of Chornukhy. It was a transition period for Ukraine and Ukrainian independence when some old traditions of the Hetman state, which had a wide autonomy, still existed. But this autonomy had been gradually limited by the Russian empire. Just before Skovoroda’s birth Ukrainian printing houses were forbidden by decrees of the Russian Tsar (1720) and the Synod (1721) to publish anything except reprints of old editions which were not supposed to differ in language and even accents from Russian. Certainly, none of Skovoroda’s works were published during his lifetime and thus could not become part of the scholarly discourse of that period.
H. Luk’íanov. Portrait of Hryhorii Skovoroda, 1794
At the age of 11 Skovoroda was enrolled in the famed Kyiv-Mohyla Academy where he studied poetics, rhetoric and philosophy, as well as Latin, Greek and Hebrew; he read Aristotle, Plato, Plutarch, Cicero, and other classical authors.
From early childhood Skovoroda was musically gifted and he carried a love for music and church singing through his whole life. He played the flute, violin, bandura and harp. Later, in one of his parables Skovoroda wrote: “Music is a great medicine in sorrow, comfort in sadness, fun in happiness.”
At the end of 1745, eager to see foreign lands and to get to know a wider ‘circle of sciences’ Skovoroda travelled to Tokai (Hungary). In the following five years he visited Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, possibly Rome, Venice, and Florence, where he met with scholars, studied philosophy and improved his knowledge of foreign languages. Biographers believe that he also attended German universities, in particular the University of Halle. The German roots of his mystical philosophy were thoroughly studied by Dmytro Chyzhevs’kyi, one of the best interpreters of Skovoroda’s life and thoughts. Chyzhevs’kyi’s book The Philosophy of H. S. Skovoroda was published in 1934 in Warsaw and also included an analysis of Skovoroda’s poetry. The well-known Ukrainian emigré poet Ievhen Malaniuk wrote that it is difficult to imagine the spiritual life of his generation without this book.
Cover of Dmytro Chyzhevs’kyi, Skovoroda: Dichter, Denker, Mystiker, Harvard series in Ukrainian studies; vol. 18 (Munich, 1974) X.0800/445.(18.)
Chyzhevs’kyi also prepared a German edition of this book. It was supposed to appear in 1946 but was not published until 1974. Skovoroda: Dichter, Denker, Mystiker is different from the Warsaw edition. The author enhanced the biographical materials and added quotes from the texts of German mystics.
After returning to Kyiv in October 1750 Skovoroda taught poetics at the Pereiaslav Collegium, again studied at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, and from 1753–1759 worked as a tutor. Then he taught poetics, syntax, Greek, and ethics at the Kharkiv Collegium. His last attempt to teach there in 1768–1769 ended in a conflict with the bishop because Skovoroda’s course on the catechism differed from what was generally accepted. After that he left all positions and became a traveling philosopher and poet.
As a philosopher, he was not so much concerned with the creation of a general world-view. He reflected on ethical issues and mainly focused on the philosophy of happiness, what happiness is and whether everyone can achieve it. Freedom and happiness through knowing oneself were key themes for Skovoroda. He was looking for a new, better world and taught that there is no need to seek happiness in other countries, in other centuries. It is everywhere and always with us; as a fish is in water, so we are in it, and it is near us looking for ourselves. It is nowhere because it is everywhere, similar to sunshine – only open your soul.
Cover of Hryhoriĭ Skovoroda, The Garden of Divine Songs and Collected Poetry … translated by Michael M. Naydan (London, 2016) YKL.2018.a.13622
All of Skovoroda’s writings were preserved in manuscripts. They comprise a collection of poems, The Garden of Divine Songs, fables (Kharkiv Fables) and philosophical treatises often written in the form of dialogues. Only after his death was a dialogue ‘Narcissus. Know thyself’ partly published in St Petersburg in a collection, without specifying the author’s name. The first full edition of works (in two volumes) appeared as late as in 1961 during a short cultural thaw.
The most comprehensive and authentic collection of Skovoroda’s works was published in independent Ukraine under the guidance of the outstanding researcher Leonid Ushkalov. All texts were checked against their manuscripts and quotations were correctly distinguished from the actual author’s text. A detailed and professional commentary adds value to this edition.
At the British Library the most complete collection of Skovoroda’s works (translated into modern Ukrainian) is the two-volume edition prepared by the T. Shevchenko Institute of Literature in Kyiv (1994).
In his poetry Skovoroda developed the same philosophical themes as in his treatises and dialogues. But in the poems they often sound more expressive and emotional. In the ‘Eleventh Song’ from the collection The Garden of Divine Songs he wrote “The spirit in man is an abyss, wider than all the waters and heavens”. Skovoroda was the last and the most prominent poet of the Ukrainian literary baroque, a style characterised by the emphatic use of metaphors and symbols, a variety of rhythms and stanzas.
Wandering folk minstrels sang his poems as songs. They were translated into different languages. The British Library has a Polish translation of some poems made by Jerzy Litwiniuk in an anthology of Ukrainian poetry.
Cover of Hryhoriĭ Skovoroda, The Complete Correspondence of Hryhory Skovoroda, Philospher and Poet, translated by Eleonora Adams and Michael M. Naydan ; edited by Liliana M. Naydan; guest introduction by Leonid Rudnytzky (London, 2016) YKL.2018.a.21042
A special part of Skovoroda’s legacy are his letters. Most of them (79 letters) were addressed to his best friend Mykhaĭlo Kovalyns’kyi. They were written mainly in Latin and resemble the ‘Moral Letters to Lucilius’ by Roman philosopher Seneca or the Earl of Chesterfield’s letters to his son. Skovoroda advised his friend to read good books, to look for real friends, to listen to exquisite music and to look at the theatre of everyday life from above.
It was Kovalyns’kyi who wrote the first biography of Skovoroda in 1795, just after Skovoroda’s death. However, for almost a century this invaluable source existed only in manuscript and was known only to the philosopher’s friends and admirers. Hryhorii Danylevs’kyi referred to this manuscript in his detailed biography of Skovoroda in 1862. However, Kovalyns’kyi’s memoir was only published as a separate edition in 1894, in Kharkiv.
Cover of Leonid Ushkalov, Hryhoriĭ Skovoroda vid A do IA (L’viv, 2019) YF.2019.b.2030
The first modern biography based on different archival sources, which helped to decode many controversial and unclear facts, was published by Leonid Makhnovets (1972). It was very important because various legends had arisen about Skovoroda, even during his own lifetime. The modern Ukrainian writer Valeriĭ Shevchuk wrote a comprehensive biography combined with an analysis of Skovoroda’s poetry, fables and letters (2008). Leonid Ushkalov’s scrupulous biography (2017) contains numerous references to works, people and the environment in which Skovoroda lived. It creates a vivid image of 18th-century Ukraine. Ushkalov also wrote a monograph on the literature and philosophy of the Ukrainian Baroque, largely based on the works of Skovoroda, and compiled a beautiful illustrated edition for children (2019).
The British Library contains books in different languages about Skovoroda, including a monograph by Elisabeth von Erdmann, a German professor of Slavic Studies, which places him in the tradition of philosophia perennis. This enabled a transparent and coherent reading of his writings in the contexts of the Baroque and Enlightenment eras and of Europe’s cultural and religious history.
Cover of Elisabeth von Erdmann, Unähnliche Ähnlichkeit: die Onto-Poetik des ukrainischen Philosophen Hryhorij Skovoroda (1722-1794). Bausteine zur slavischen Philologie und Kulturgeschichte. Reihe A, Slavistische Forschungen; n.F., Bd. 49 (Cologne, 2005) ZA.9.a.4768(49)
As well as his writings another no less valuable part of Skovoroda’s legacy was his way of life, with conscious rejection of the temptations of the world. He lived very simply, and had no family or permanent home. He gave priority to personal spiritual freedom, taught a true Christian attitude to life and showed how to be satisfied with the simple joys of life. In his own life Skovoroda followed what he taught. It can be said of him: “He lived as he taught, and taught as he lived”.
Nadiia Strishenets, Leading Researcher at the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine and British Academy Fellow
Dmytro Chyzhevs’kyi, Filʹosofiia H.S. Skovorody = La philosophie de Grégoire Skovoroda (Warsaw, 1934) Ac.1147.d.
Dmytro Chyzhevs’kyi, Skovoroda: Dichter, Denker, Mystiker, Harvard series in Ukrainian studies; vol. 18 (Munich, 1974) X.0800/445.(18.)
Hryhoriĭ Skovoroda, Tvory u dvokh tomakh, ed. Mykola Zhulynsʹkyĭ et al. Kyïvsʹka biblioteka davnʹoho ukraïnsʹkoho pysʹmenstva. Studiï; t. 5-6 (Kyiv, 2005) ZF.9.a.3589
Hryhoriĭ Skovoroda, The Garden of Divine Songs and Collected Poetry … translated by Michael M. Naydan ; with an introduction by Valery Shevchuk ; translations edited by Olha Tytarenko (London, 2016) YKL.2018.a.13622
Od Iłariona do Skoworody: antologia poezji ukraińskiej XI-XVIII w.. ed. Włodzimierz Mokry (Kraków, 1996) YF.2010.a.22281
Hryhoriĭ Skovoroda, The Complete Correspondence of Hryhory Skovoroda, Philospher and Poet, translated by Eleonora Adams and Michael M. Naydan ; edited by Liliana M. Naydan; guest introduction by Leonid Rudnytzky (London, 2016) YKL.2018.a.21042
Hryhorii Skovoroda: Vybrani tvory v dvokh tomakh / [Uporiadkuvannia, pidhotovka tekstiv ta prymitky B. A. Derkacha.] (Kyiv, 1972) X.989/26377
Leonid Makhnovets, Hryhoriĭ Skovoroda (Kyiv, 1972) X.519/15878.
Valeriĭ Shevchuk, Piznanyĭ i nepiznanyĭ sfinks: Hryhoriĭ Skovoroda suchasnymy ochyma: rozmysly (Kyiv, 2008) YF.2008.a.38916
Leonid Ushkalov, Lovytva nevlovnoho ptakha: zhyttia Hryhoriia Skovorody (Kyiv, 2017) YF.2017.a.17493
Leonid Ushkalov, Literatura i filosofiia: doba ukraïnsʹkoho baroko. Sloboz︠h︡ansʹkyĭ svit; 13 (Kharkiv, 2019) YF.2020.a.8355
Leonid Ushkalov, Hryhoriĭ Skovoroda vid A do IA (L’viv, 2019) YF.2019.b.2030
Elisabeth von Erdmann, Unähnliche Ähnlichkeit: die Onto-Poetik des ukrainischen Philosophen Hryhorij Skovoroda (1722-1794). Bausteine zur slavischen Philologie und Kulturgeschichte. Reihe A, Slavistische Forschungen; n.F., Bd. 49 (Cologne, 2005) ZA.9.a.4768(49)
Skovoroda, philosophe Ukrainien... : colloque tenu le 18 janvier 1973 à l'Institut d'études slaves de Paris à l'occasion du 250e anniversaire de la naissance de Skovoroda (1722-1972). Collection historique de l’Institut d’études slaves; 23) (Paris, 1976) Ac:8808.d/2
Hryhorij Savyč Skovoroda: an anthology of critical articles, ed. Richard H. Marshall, Jr. and Thomas E. Bird (Edmonton, 1994) YC.2019.a.10287
Hryhoriĭ Skovoroda, 1722-1794: bibliohrafichnyĭ pokazhchyk (Kyiv, 2002) YF.2004.a.2767
Hryhorii Skovoroda, Povna akademichna zbirka tvoriv, ed. by Leonid Ushkalov (Kharkiv, 2010). YF.2012.a.18740
10 November 2022
There are countless adaptations of the Alexander Romance, a collection of fantastical stories about Alexander the Great originally brought together in Greek, probably in the third century AD. Among the earliest adaptations to appear in print was Hartlieb’s Alexanderbuch. Nine editions of this German translation are known to have appeared from 1473 to 1514 at Augsburg and then Strasbourg. Each is enriched with woodcuts that depict, for example, Alexander’s first encounter with his man-eating horse Bucephalus, his meetings with naked philosophers, and his discussions with talking trees. By comparing the editions, it’s easy to see how the illustrations fall into three distinct categories and to begin to understand something of their development over time.
Johann Hartlieb (c.1410-1468) was a physician who wrote the Alexanderbuch around 1444 for his patron, Duke Albrecht III of Bavaria. His principal source appears to have been the popular Historia de preliis, which in turn was a Latin-language translation of a long lost Greek text made in the 10th century by Leo of Naples. That said, Hartlieb’s text begins with the phrase ‘Hereafter followeth the story of the Great Alexander, which was written by Eusebius’, and Hartlieb’s German adaptation is as a result often indexed under Eusebius of Caesarea in many reference works and catalogues.
Hartlieb’s text circulated in manuscript for three decades until Johann Bämler issued the first printed edition at Augsburg in 1473. His publication is illustrated with nearly 30 woodcuts, many seemingly inspired by the miniatures in a manuscript now at the Pierpont Library in New York (MS M.782). With the exception of the frontispiece portrait (see below), the same woodcuts then appear in three subsequent Augsburg editions (1478, 1480 and 1483) printed by Anton Sorg. Among them is the image of Alexander in a diving bell.
Alexander’s diving bell in the Sorg edition of 1483, IB.5949
The Greek Alexander Romance (Stoneman, Book II, Chapter 38) talks of a descent of 464 feet to the bottom the sea, but here the impression is of a rather cramped-looking Alexander being lowered into a fish pond.
The next group of early editions are all published in Strasbourg. (Unfortunately no copies can be traced of a further Augsburg edition of 1478 reported in the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue). These Strasbourg editions (1488, 1493 and 1503), whether issued by Martin Schott or Bartholomäus Kistler, are curious because they contain broadly the same woodcuts as seen in the Augsburg volumes, but they have been redrawn and printed in reverse.
Alexander’s diving bell in the Schott edition of 1488, IB.1178
The most obvious explanation is that they were created by copying or tracing the illustrations in one of the earlier Augsburg editions.
The last of these early Hartlieb editions also appeared in Strasbourg, but this time from the press of Matthias Hupfuff. Visually, this work is very different, with the text printed in two columns for the first time. The woodcut illustrations are also different, although the subjects are much the same. In the new woodcut of the diving bell, Alexander is still in an impossibly cramped vessel, but there is only one person on the shoreline instead of the usual three.
Alexander’s diving bell in the Hupfuff edition of 1514, C.39.h.14
In common with other illustrations in this 1514 edition, the woodcut appears to have been extended, unsatisfactorily, by the addition of a piece from a different illustration. This opens up the possibility that the woodcuts were not made specifically for this edition, and were in fact being re-used.
Returning to Bämler’s first edition of 1473, several surviving copies contain a curious frontispiece portrait of Alexander with boars’ tusks rising from his lower jaw.
Alexander with boars’ tusks in the Bämler edition of 1473. © National Library of Scotland
The source for this strange feature may ultimately lie in the Greek Alexander Romance, which tells us that ‘his teeth were as sharp as nails’ (Stoneman, Book I, Chapter 13). In Hartlieb’s German, this has become ‘Sein zen waren garscharpff als eines ebers schwein’ (‘his teeth were as sharp as those of a wild boar’). The portrait has the same features as one seen in a Hartlieb manuscript now at the Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Darmstadt (Hs. 4256), and the two may have had a common model. It is replaced in other editions up to 1503 by a full-length portrait of a seated Alexander without tusks.
The British Library exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth covers 2,300 years of storytelling about Alexander, and runs until 19 February 2023. Four editions of Hartlieb’s Alexanderbuch are on display, including a copy generously lent by the National Library of Scotland that shows Alexander with the mysterious boars’ tusks.
Adrian S. Edwards, Head of Printed Heritage Collections
Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt, ‘Book Illustration in Augsburg in the Fifteenth Century’. Metropolitan Museums Studies, 4.1 (1932), 3-17. Ac.4713.b.
Richard Stoneman (editor), Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth [exhibition catalogue] (London, 2022). Awaiting shelfmark
Richard Stoneman (translator), The Greek Alexander Romance (London, 1991). H.91/1160
28 October 2022
28 October is a National holiday in the Czech Republic. Independence Day (Den vzniku samostatného československého státu) marks the foundation of the independent Czechoslovak State in 1918. It followed the publication of the Declaration of Independence of the Czechoslovak Nation by Its Provisional Government (Prohlášení nezávislosti československého národa zatímní vládou československou) on 18 October 1918. As soon as military defeat became inevitable, the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire started to disintegrate. The Allies supported the breakaway demands of the minority nations within the Empire. The 1918 ‘Autumn of Nations’ led to fundamental changes in the configuration of Central Europe.
The main author of the Declaration was the first President of Czechoslovakia, Professor Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, sociologist, political scientist and philosopher.
Reading the Declaration (Source: Wikipedia)
Although the whole process of independence revolutions in Central Europe had the American idea of national self-determination as its theoretical basis, the Czechoslovak Declaration of Independence or the Washington Declaration, as it is sometimes called, is evidently the most influenced by American political principles and President Woodrow Wilson’s 14-point programme for world peace:
We accept and shall adhere to the ideals of modern democracy, as they have been the ideals of our nation for centuries. We accept the American principles as laid down by President Wilson: the principles of liberated mankind, of actual equality of nations, and of the governments deriving all their jus power from the consent of the governed. We, the nation of Comenius, cannot but accept these principles expressed in the American Declaration of Independence, the principles of Lincoln, and of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. (Digital copy)
Although the British Library is not among the lucky few who own one of only 50 copies of the first edition, the 1933 edition with parallel Czech and English texts is a really fine piece of Czech book culture.
Prohlášení nezávislosti československého národa zatímní vládou československou, osmnáctého října, MDCCCCXVIII. (Declaration of Independence of the Czechoslovak Nation by its Provisional Government, October Eighteenth, MDCCCCXVIII). Prague, 1933. 5549.e.44
The links between the two nations and the presidents were promoted and emphasised in Czechoslovak society through imagery, such as, for example, this postcard published on the website of the US Embassy in the Czech Republic.
American political thought was of great importance for building a new nation state. Changing the focus from global political transformations to individuals, I tried to imagine a 30-year-old Czech banker and Doctor of Law, who, while on a state mission to London, came to the British Museum Library to work in its Reading Room. His name was Vladimír Dědek (1889-1941) and he is also known as an editor of research volumes on history and a translator from English. It would be good to learn more about his life, but for now I can only offer you his letter to the British Museum written in clear handwriting, where he thanks colleagues for their help and offers a donation: Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography in his translation into Czech.
BL archives, DH4, vol. 91, 1918-1920.
The book, which is signed by Dědek, is held in our main printed books collection (a digital copy is available through the National Digital Library of the Czech Republic).
Benjamin Franklin. Vlastní životopis. Přeložil Judr. V. Dědek. (Prague, ). 10884.aaa.6.
In the preface to the book, having cited Franklin’s words about freedom, Dědek concludes that “the spirit of free America, great in the history of mankind, is blowing from these lines” (p. 24). However, in the words of the father of the nation, Tomáš Masaryk, “freedom is a hard responsibility” (Hovory s T.G. Masarykem. Věk mladosti / K.Č.; ZF.9.a.2782).
Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections
20 October 2022
On 10 October 2022, the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to the French author Annie Ernaux “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory.”
A major literary presence in contemporary France, and the author of more than 20 books, Ernaux has been writing since the 1970s, and is no stranger to literary recognition. Her autobiography Les années won both the Prix Marguerite Duras and the Prix Francois Mauriac in 2008 as well as the Italian Premio Strega in 2016; it was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2019 when it was translated into English by Alison L Strayer – on this occasion Ernaux gave an interview to the Institut Francais in London. She had also received the Prix Renaudot for La Place. In 2017, Ernaux was awarded the Marguerite Yourcenar Prize for her life’s work. The British Library holds her books both in French and in English translation, from the earliest, Les armoires vides (1974) to the latest, Le Jeune Homme (2022).
Cover of Annie Ernaux, Ecrire la vie (Paris, 2011). YF.2012.a.18786
As brilliantly demonstrated by Elise Hugueny-Leger in an article from 2018, Ernaux has been the subject of academic publications since the early 1990s, and notably, very early on, in the English-speaking world, via a chapter by Loren Day in Contemporary French Fiction by Women: Feminist Perspectives (1990) and Diana Holmes in French Women's writing 1848-1994 (1996). She has since become an academic subject of study in her own right, while slowly becoming more accessible to the general public, through her becoming more prominent in the media and, also, through a change in her style. She is now a figurehead of contemporary French Women writers, but one of Ernaux’ wishes is that her books “may be read and received by a great number of readers who don’t necessarily have a university background” (E Hugueny-Léger).
Melding the biographical and the sociological, deploying an array of autobiographical novels, illustrated photographic diaries, and biographical narratives, some of her publications are referred by Michel Tournier’s term “Journaux extimes,” because, despite being in the format of a personal journal, they focus on the external and on the observation of the author’s surroundings. Ernaux’s genre is difficult to define in one word, but it is based on and around her life, and her experiences, and what she observes, recounted in a deliberately pared down and at times clinical voice. “Her work is uncompromising and written in plain language, scraped clean,” said Anders Olsson of the Swedish Academy on Thursday as he announced her accolade.
Cover of Annie Ernaux, Le jeune homme (Paris, 2022) YF.2022.a.24142
Annie Ernaux was born in 1940 to working-class parents in Normandy. In 1958, she spent a summer looking after children in a summer camp and her sexual awakening during that time is recounted in Memoire de fille (2016). In 1960, she left home to study in Rouen. In the following years she married, had two sons, and qualified as a secondary school teacher. In 1974 she published Les armoires vides, a fictionalised account of the illegal abortion she had undergone ten years earlier. Ernaux continued to teach until she retired in 2000, and now devotes herself to writing.
In 1960, Annie Ernaux had spent several months as an au pair in London looking after two boys, Jonathan and Brian Portner. During this stay, she started writing her first novel, which remains unpublished. In the anthology Ecrire la vie, a few pages are devoted to this period in Ernaux’s life, with photographs and extracts from her diary.
Annie Ernaux in the 1960s. Photo credit: L’Inventoire
The following touching and surprising story, which is recounted on the website Annie Ernaux, focuses on the author and her work and, through its largely bilingual construction, attempts to bring her work to the attention of the anglophone world. The site is maintained by Elise Hugueny-Léger (University of St Andrews) and Lyn Thomas (University of Sussex).
I see a miraculous convergence of coincidences. First there is a writer and translator, Anthony Rudolf, who reads Mémoire de fille the year after its publication. He is struck by the mention of the Portners, in Finchley, as among his acquaintances there is a certain Jonathan Portner, a dentist located a few miles away. Informed by Anthony Rudolf, Jonathan Portner tells his daughter Hannah about this discovery. Now Hannah Portner is studying French with Elise Hugueny-Léger, a lecturer at the University of St. Andrews, whose thesis focuses on my work and who has participated in many conferences I have attended. Thanks to Elise Hugueny-Léger, Hannah has read and loved one of my books, Journal du dehors, which inspired her to create a beautiful text about Paris and Madrid: Journal de deux voyages. Observation et mise en mots du réel. Things could not have come full circle in a more wonderful way… From one woman’s writing – it was in the summer of 1960, au pair with the Portner family, that I started a novel – to another woman’s writing…
Some might say that this observation of life as a wonderful circle might be uncharacteristic. But the impression, the mark left by London on Ernaux is also recorded in her usual clean, sharp and yet somewhat poetic style:
‘L’Angleterre, Londres anesthésiant et doux, eaux éternellement couleur d’étang, maison des Portner, feutrée. Si j’ai eu vingt ans là-bas, je ne m’en suis jamais vraiment aperçue.’ (Mai 1970)
“London, London soft and narcotic, waters eternally the colour of marshes, The Portners’ house, hushed and elegant. If I ever were twenty there, I never realised”. (May 1970)
Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections
Annie Ernaux, Les armoires vides (Paris, 1974) X.908/29849.
Annie Ernaux, La place (Paris, 1983) X.958/33342
Annie Ernaux & Marie, Marc, L’usage de la photo (Paris, 2005) YF.2006.a.37419
Annie Ernaux, Les années (Paris, 2008) YF.2008.a.14343
Annie Ernaux, Mémoire de fille (Paris, 2016) YF.2016.a.23982
Annie Ernaux, Le jeune homme (Paris, 2022) YF.2022.a.24142
Contemporary French fiction by women: Feminist perspectives, edited by Margaret Atack and Phil Powrie (Manchester, 1990) YC.1991.a.445
Elise Hugueny-Léger, ‘Annie Ernaux’, French Studies: a Quarterly Review, 72 (2018) 256-269. ELD Digital store, doi: 10.1093/fs/kny014
D. Holmes, French Women’s Writing, 1848–1994 (London, 1996), pp. 246–65. DRT ELD.DS.419322
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