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Exploring Europe at the British Library

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

24 May 2015

The War Poet who wasn’t: Simon Gregorčič and the Soča Front

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May 24th marks the centenary of Italy’s entry into the Great War. In previous blog entries related to this event, I have focussed on the Isonzo/Soča Front, which bore the brunt of the first Italian military operations.  For today’s entry, I return there again, to write about a character who played a significant role in that action, but who had died almost a decade before war broke out.

Simon Gregorcic (X989-6888)Portrait of Simon Gregorčič from Anton Burgar, Simon Gregorčič: življenjepis (Ljubljana, 1907) British Library X.989/6888.

Simon Gregorčič is one of Slovenia’s best-loved poets, and a significant figure in the 19th-century struggle for national rights. He was born in 1844 in the village of Vrsno, nestling beneath Mount Krn very close to the then Austro-Italian border, and the local landscape and lifestyle imprinted itself profoundly on his work. His family were peasant farmers who raised sheep in the pastures of the Soča valley, but young Simon had been born at a time of fast-rising literacy. He went to the grammar school in the regional capital Görz/Gorica (now Gorizia, in Italy), and then studied to become a priest; yet, apart from a brief period at the University of Vienna, he never really went far from his beloved Valley.

He worked as a chaplain in Kobarid, not far from his birthplace, where he had a formative love affair with a young teacher and promoted the cultural life of the little town. During subsequent appointments, Gregorčič began to publish poetry, each of his four books called “Poezije”, with its number. For these, which he promoted in public readings, he became a local celebrity in his own lifetime. His style was profoundly musical, full of feeling and even sensuality – for this Catholic priest had quite a number of intense relationships with women.  He wrote about social injustice, Slovene rights, the landscape that surrounded him. Among his best-known poems – and one of the few which have been translated into English - was  ‘Ash Wednesday Eve’, in which he warned the rich and proud among his congregation of their mortality while inviting the poor and dispossessed, including his relatives, to take their place in the Church and celebrate “Resurrection morn.” Its theme may sound gloomy and didactic, but the poem is so beautifully written that it evokes the twilight falling over his native Valley, its little churches lit up amid the dark peaks, spilling smells of incense into the night air as the people hurry in from near and far.

Gregorčič’s most famous poem of all is ‘Soči’ – ‘To the Soča’- describing the river’s progress from its mountain source to the plains of Trieste. At the beginning the turquoise water (it really is!) is fast and vigorous, “like the walk of the highland girls”, and its refrain runs, “You are splendid, daughter of the heights!” (“Krasnà si, hči planin!”). But when the river reaches the exposed plain it grows sluggish, sensing its vulnerability. Gregorčič foresaw a day when it would be filled with blood, surrounded by a “hail of lead”, and would need to burst its own banks to “draw the foreigners ravenous for lands to the bottom of your foaming waves.”  

SocaPostcard, reproduced in Mihael Glavan, Simon Gregorčič na Soški fronti (Nova Gorica, 2012) YF.2014.a.12826

Simon Gregorčič suffered lifelong ill-health (probably tuberculosis) and died in Gorizia in 1906. His funeral procession from the city to his grave in the village Smast was a huge public event. Nine years later, Gorizia, along with Trieste and the whole Soča Valley, would be among Italy’s chief targets in its attack on the Austrian Empire. Simon Gregorčič  was summoned from the grave to spur on the Slovene troops in defence of their homeland: he was shown on postcards greeting the Emperors Franz Joseph or Karl when they visited the battle-torn region, or looking protectively down upon the river with the military commanders Archduke Eugen or Svetozar Boroević von Bojna alongside him in the sky (pictures above). Sadly prophetic, the words of ‘Soči’ featured widely, particularly the verse urging the river to drown the foreign invader.

LIBUNJ~1SIMONGREGORCICFUNERAL

Funeral of  Simon Gregorčič un 1906 (From Wikimedia Commons)

Austria’s one major victory in the awful stalemate was 1917’s infamous Caporetto (the Italian name for Kobarid). The town which lay so close to the poet’s heart was symbolically the site of a total rout of the Italian invaders. A bust of his friend, the composer Hraboslav Volarić, symbolically watched from a corner of the square.

They would, however, return victorious a year later, and Kobarid stayed under Italian rule until 1945. Volarić’s bust, along with other symbols of Slovene culture, was badly damaged by fascists, but in 1945 the town became part of Yugoslavia. The bust was replaced, and a full-length statue to Gregorčič  erected in 1959 on the opposite side of the main square.

Naturally, Simon Gregorčič’s birthplace is now a tourist site, and hikers can follow his route and inspiration through the villages and meadows around.


With particular thanks to Jože Šerbec of the Kobarid Museum.

Bibliography:

Mihail Glavan. Simon Gregorčič na Soški fronti. (Nova Gorica , 2012). YF.2014.a.12826

Simon Gregorčič. Poezije. (Ljubljana, 1885-1908). 11530.a.26

W.A. Morison (translator). “Ash Wednesday Eve”, in The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 23, No. 62 (Jan., 1945), pp. 23-25, Ac.2669.e.  (also available online via  JSTOR).  

Translation of Soči by an unknown author at http://spinnet.eu/wiki-anthology/index.php/Soca_River

Janet Ashton, WEL Cataloguing Team Manager

Janet Ashton, WEL Cataloguing Team Manager

 

Janet Ashton, WEL Cataloguing Team Manager

 

22 May 2015

Sequins, songs and sociopolitical change - 60 years of Eurovision

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With the Eurovision Song Contest celebrating its 60th anniversary, and still regularly attracting around 200 million viewers, this year presents a great opportunity to look beyond the glitz of modern Eurovision and consider the changes in European culture, society and politics which it reflects.

We must thank the Italian members of the European Broadcasting Union  for the idea of the contest, originally conceived to help promote peace and harmony in a Europe still recovering from the Second World War. Since that first contest in 1956 in Lugano, Switzerland between seven participating countries, it has expanded to include as many as 43 entries in the record year of 2008;  now qualifying rounds are required before the grand finals.

 Eurovision map
Map of countries participating in the context and the years they first took part (picture from Wikimedia Commons)

How amazed those Italian broadcasters, whose stated mission was to “stimulate the output of original high- quality songs in the field of popular music by encouraging competition between authors and composers through the international comparison of their works,” would be to see the power of YouTube, enabling viewers to compare in seconds the first ever winner, Switzerland’s Lys Assia singing Refrain, with Conchita Wurst’s winning Rise like a Phoenix for Austria in 2014.

Eurovision_Song_Contest_1958_-_Lys_Assia  ESC2014_-_Austria_07
1956 Eurovision winner Lys Assia (image from Beeld en Geluidwiki via Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0) and 2014 winner Conchita Wurst (Photo: Albin Olsson, via Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-SA-3.0)

As a child of mixed heritage growing up in a small, monocultural English city, I loved the reporting of votes from the national juries even more than the songs – seeing the glamorous multilingual presenters, usually framed by an iconic national landmark first gave me a sense that I fitted in somewhere as a European and really inspired me to study foreign languages. Have you ever wondered what goes on behind the closed doors of those national juries? Wonder no more! Via the EU Screen portal you can now see the terribly solemn 1976 Belgian jury deliberating at length over a nice cup of tea and contributing to one of the highest scores ever for a winning entry – the UK’s Brotherhood of Man’s inimitable Save Your Kisses for Me

Everyone will have their favourite Eurovision moments and associations, but there is far more to this event than sequins, folk-costumes and cheesy songs. On one level, Eurovision can be viewed as consolidating nationalistic stereotypes, but by encouraging viewers to encounter Europe in their living rooms it can also be seen as contributing to a sense of a common European identity. It is family viewing for today’s European family in all its diversity – gay and straight, old and young – all sharing the same experience but bringing their own readings to it. This European identity is then projected further afield with many enthusiastic viewers around the world – the contest is so popular in Australia that in this  anniversary year Australia’s Guy Sebastian will be a guest participant.

_AP52039
Winners of the 2015 second semi-final, with a range of national flags on stage and in the audience (photo from  EUROVISION/EBU, © Andres Putting (EBU))

Through the prism of Eurovision we can also see the changing shape of Europe. In the 1990s there was a rapid expansion of participants from Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.  The socialist countries had previously held separate song contests, with only Yugoslavia breaking the mould by joining Eurovision in 1961. Viewers behind the Iron Curtain watched the annual Sopot Music Festival from Poland or its short-lived offshoot, the Intervision Song Contest. The Sopot Festival was the brainchild of Władysław Szpilman, the Polish Jewish musician immortalised in Roman Polanski’s film The Pianist, bringing singers from around the world to perform, initially at the Gdańsk shipyards, then moving along the coast to Sopot. Intervision/Sopot also attracted huge audiences not least because guest artistes such as Boney M were invited to play in the intervals. 

By the 1990s participating in Eurovision was often a way for the new entrants to assert sovereignty, contribute to nation-building and project a particular national image around the world. Take for example Ukraine’s 2004 winning entry Wild Dances, performed by Ruslana  and featuring a version of the dances, costumes and rituals of the Hutsul people from western Ukraine, which then came to represent universal Ukrainian folk traditions for international viewers.

Eurovision also brings its viewers face to face with key political issues facing contemporary Europe. One can learn much about regional and cultural alliances by observing voting patterns, or about  linguistic politics within Europe, such as the rapid rise of English as a lingua franca, demonstrated by the fact that so many entries are now sung in English in order to reach the widest possible audience. 

But perhaps one of the key reasons for Eurovision’s enduring success is the way in which it has come to symbolise diversity and tolerance, far exceeding the original hopes of the EBU. It can be seen to represent a certain stability and unity in the face of an increasingly fragmented Europe.  To quote Conchita Wurst, who was welcomed in November 2014 by UN Secretary General  Ban Ki-Moon as an ambassador for human rights, “The Eurovision Song Contest is about love and respect for different languages, cultures and people, who in the end have more in common than differences” 

Eurovision books 2
Two of the many books about the Eurovision Song Contest in the British Library's collections

The British Library catalogue lists a huge range of resources relating to the Eurovision song contest – from books and academic articles, to audio and video recordings and archived websites. Some appear in unexpected places such as the article “ How does Europe Make Its Mind Up? Connections, cliques, and compatibility between countries in the Eurovision Song Contest” published in the scientific publisher Elsevier’s serial Physica A. (Vol. 360, No. 2, 2006, 576-598; British Library 6475.010000). However, not every author feels the love which Conchita Wurst refers to, as shown by S. Coleman’s article “ Why is the Eurovision Song Contest Ridiculous? Exploring a Spectacle of Embarrassment, Irony and Identity” in Popular communication (Vol 6, No. 3, 2008, 127-140; 6550.310000)

But whether they come to love or to mock, millions across the continent will be  sitting down this Saturday evening to watch the contest once again.

Janet Zmroczek, Head of European and Americas Collections

Further reading:  

Media, nationalism and European identities / edited by Miklós Sükösd, Karol Jakubowicz, (Budapest, 2011) YD.2011.a.8708

A song for Europe: popular music and politics in the Eurovision Song Contest / edited by Ivan Rakoff and Robert Deam Tobin (Aldershot, 2007) YC.2007.a.15111

John Kennedy O’Connor, The Eurovision Song Contest: the official history. (London, 2007) YK.2008.b.3530

Jan Feddersen, Merci, Jury: die Geschichte des Grand Prix Eurovision de la chanson. (Vienna, 2000) YA.2002.a.7182

K. Sieg , “Cosmopolitan empire: Central and Eastern Europeans at the Eurovision Song Contest” European journal of cultural studies. (Vol 16, No. 2, 2013), 244-226.  ZC.9.a.5325

Eurovision Song Contest 60th Anniversary Conference – webcast http://www.eurovision.tv/page/webtv?program=129423

SQS 2/2007 : Queer Eurovision/ Guest Editors: Mikko Tuhkanen & Annamari Vänskä  http://www.helsinki.fi/jarj/sqs/sqs2_07/sqs_contents2_07.html

 

19 May 2015

The Basque Language

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Basque, or Euskera, as the Basques call it, is a pre-Indo-European language now spoken in four provinces of northern Spain and three in France, on either side of the Western Pyrenees. It once extended over a much wider area, but how much wider is a matter of conjecture, as indeed is the prehistory of the language and people. In spite of perceived similarities and lexical coincidences between Basque and an extraordinary number of languages, living and dead, from across the world, only surviving fragments of Aquitanian, a language once spoken in South-Western Gaul, have been shown to have meaningful coincidences with Basque. Aquitanian can thus reasonably be regarded as an ancestor or close relative. Today Basque is an isolate, and the only surviving pre-Indo-European language in Western Europe.

Basque is a difficult language for speakers of other Western European languages. For example, the relationship of subject and object is quite different from what we are familiar with in English, or Spanish, and from what we may recall from Latin with its nominative (subject) and accusative (object) cases. Wikipedia  tells us that:

Basque is an ergative-absolutive language. The subject of an intransitive verb is in the absolutive case (which is unmarked), and the same case is used for the direct object of a transitive verb. The subject of the transitive verb is marked differently, with the ergative case (shown by the suffix -k).

Here are two contrasted, basic examples: ‘nire anaia etorri da’ (‘my brother has come’); ‘nire aitak emakumea ikusi du’ (‘my father saw the woman’).

The Basque verb is especially complex. Wikipedia again:

The auxiliary verb accompanies most main verbs, agrees not only with the subject, but with any direct object and the indirect object present. Among European languages, this polypersonal agreement is only found in Basque, some languages of the Caucasus, and Hungarian (all non-Indo-European).

So in Basque we have the sentence ‘nire aitak Mireni liburu eman zion’ (‘my father gave the book to Miren’) where the auxiliary (zion) recapitulates the relationship between ergative, direct and indirect objects.
     LarramendiThe first Basque grammar, Manuel de Larramendi’s El impossible vencido (‘The Impossible Overcome’), printed in Salamanca in 1729 (British Library G.16752).

The present-day Basque Country, or Euskal Herria, straddles France and Spain and within Spain it is divided between the Comunidad Autónoma del País Vasco and the Comunidad Foral de Navarra.  The three French provinces (Labourd, Basse Navarre and Soule), together with Béarn, make up the department of the Pyrénées Atlantiques.  The Comunidad Autónoma del País Vasco comprises the three provinces of Alava, Gipuzkoa and Bizkaia. In Spain the language is spoken most widely in Gipuzkoa, Bizkaia and the northern parts of Navarra. The number of Basque speakers in France is declining and the majority of speakers are elderly. However, usage among young people has increased according to figures from 2011.

Basque_country-resized-600The  Basque Country (highlighted).  Source: UCLA Language Materials Project

The Basque Country is also divided linguistically: according to Louis-Lucien Bonaparte’s dialect map (London, 1869; Maps 18649.(4.)), the language can be classified into eight dialects. The situation in the late 20th century has been described by Koldo Zuazo as consisting of five dialects.
Since the late 1960s concerted efforts have been made to create a standardized form of Basque, known as batua (= unified; < bat = one).

In the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, the use of Basque was forbidden in education and public life as part of General Franco’s quest to impose national unity. At its most harsh, his regime forbade even the speaking of Basque in public. By the late 1960s the situation had eased somewhat and private schools, ikastolak, which had been functioning in secret, were now tolerated. The Spanish Constitution of 1978 gave Basque co-official status in the Comunidad Autónoma del País Vasco and in some areas of Navarra. The introduction of the teaching of Basque in state schools by the autonomous Basque Government has saved the language from what would almost certainly have been total extinction. Basque imaginative literature has re-emerged and the works of prominent writers such as Bernardo Atxaga and Kirmen Uribe  have been widely translated.

The most recent survey of the state of the language (V Encuesta Sociolingúística, 2011) has permitted broadly positive conclusions. Nearly 60% of people in the Comunidad Autónoma del P.V. now have some knowledge of Basque, an increase of 14.5% over the past 30 years. The percentage of fairly competent speakers now stands at 36.4% of the population, a roughly similar increase. Strangely, one worrying aspect of the survey is that the use of Basque in the home has dropped very slightly.  However, the broad conclusion of the survey is that the future of Basque – in Spain – lies with the Basques themselves.

Geoff West, Former Curator Hispanic Studies

Further reading

Roger Collins, The Basques, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1990). YC.1990.a.10183 and 90/20865

Alan R. King, The Basque Language: a Practical Introduction (Reno, 1994). YA.1999.b.3105

R.L.  Trask, A History of the Basque Language (London, 1997).  YC.1997.b.547 and 97/06294