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31 October 2014

A Variety of Vampires

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The average English-speaking reader, if asked to draw a picture of a vampire, would probably be inspired by Bram Stoker’s description of Count Dracula as portrayed in our current exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination – a suave, sinister figure inhabiting a mysterious castle from which he makes nocturnal sorties to spread terror throughout Transylvania, returning at daybreak to lurk in his coffin, replete with blood which trickles from a corner of his mouth. But Transylvania does not have a monopoly on vampires – and not all vampires have fangs.

Stoker, of course, was an Irishman, from a country with a rich tradition of eerie stories of its own. However, much closer to the home of Dracula (remember those sheepskin-clad Slovaks whipping up their horses to carry their mysterious load on the first stage of the Count’s voyage to Whitby), two authors writing in Czech conjured up their own versions of the legend – as different as the writers themselves.

At first sight Jan Neruda (1834-91)  seems an unlikely character to spin tales of the supernatural. Although he is best known today to non-Czech readers for his short stories, it is his Povídky malostranské (‘Tales of the Lesser Quarter’) which secure his reputation, with their lively accounts of the people and streets of old Prague. However, he was also a widely-travelled writer of feuilletons, and it is not Prague but the Greek island of Prinkipo which provides the setting for his story Vampýr (‘The Vampire’), published in an 1880 edition of his collection Arabesky (British Library YA.1997.a.13960(2)).

The narrator and a friend have been enjoying a holiday in Istanbul, and at the end of their stay they decide to make an excursion by boat to Prinkipo, accompanied by a Polish family – father, mother, a delicate daughter with a slight dry cough, and her fiancé. Neruda describes the idyllic landscape, with its leaping dolphins and the fragrance of the ancient pines, in detail, and the party decides to take lodgings in a local hotel run by a Frenchman. While relaxing in the sunshine, they catch sight of a mysterious artist, a Greek with flowing black hair, pale face and deep-set dark eyes, sketching nearby; he had travelled on the same boat, but slips away almost unnoticed, only to be heard quarrelling with the innkeeper as they return. The latter explains that he is known as  ‘the Vampire’ because whenever anyone dies in the area he appears at once with a likeness captured in advance, ‘like a vulture,’ as the disgusted innkeeper remarks. At a sudden shriek from the mother, holding her fainting daughter in her arms, the bridegroom races after the artist and hurls him to the ground. From his portfolio flutters a sheet of paper – a sketch of the young girl, eyes closed, a myrtle wreath encircling her brow.

Karel Hlaváček (1874-98), who himself succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 23, might appear a more likely creator of vampires despite being one of the founder members of the athletic Sokol movement and the president of its Libeň branch in Prague. He was also, however, a representative of both the Decadent and Symbolist movements, and published several collections of poems in this spirit. One of these, Pozdě k ránu (‘Late towards morning’; Prague, 1896; X.907/10067, published in a limited edition of 200 copies), includes a poem entitled ‘Upír’ (The Vampire), in which the poet describes his vision of an unknown country ‘without shadow, without light’ which no-one had ever visited before. Here a strange being appears ‘in the pale colours of a delicate old lithograph’, his heavy brows overshadowing green eyes with pupils huge and black as if from atropine, hovering on black wings at once velvety and metallic. The last descendent of a once mighty line of dukes, kings and magnates tremble before him, and their daughters long for him silently and secretly. The poet apostrophizes him as a ‘proud white barbarian, lover of all that is sick and pale … living off the vital force of the juices of virgins … symbol of decadence!’, returning  ‘late towards morning from mystical orgies’ just as ‘in the accursed yesterday and rotten tomorrow’…

Frontispiece from Karel Hlaváček, Pozdě k ráno; X.907/10067.

The haunting nature of these lines, at once alluring and repellent, encapsulates the spirit of Decadence and reveals the qualities which make the figure of the vampire so irresistible to members of that movement. With no need to resort to gory exaggeration, both Neruda and Hlaváček evoke a figure whose compelling blend of the erotic and the morbid continues to exert a lasting fascination.

Susan Halstead, Curator Czech and Slovak


29 October 2014

Language and the making of nations

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On 14 November the British Library will be hosting a study day  ‘Language and the Making of Nations’, organised by the Library's European Studies Department and examining the relationship between majority and minority languages in the countries of Europe and the creation of national literary languages

The creation of a unified language has been significant in the formation of the nations of Europe. Part of the process has been the compilation of standard grammars and dictionaries, an initiative often followed by linguistic minorities, determined to reinforce their own identity. This seminar will look at the relationship between majority and minority languages in the countries of Europe, the role of language in national histories, and the creation of national literary languages. Specialists in the history of the languages of Europe will explore these issues in relation to Czech, Georgian, Italian, Serbian and Ukrainian, as well as Catalan, Dutch, Frisian, Silesian and the Norman French of Jersey.



10:30  Registration; coffee

10:50  Welcome

11:00-12:00   Donald Rayfield (Emeritus Professor of Russian and Georgian, Queen Mary, University of London), ‘The tongue in which God will examine all other tongues — how Georgians have viewed their language.’

Marta Jenkala (Senior Teaching Fellow in Ukrainian, UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies), ‘Ukrainian language and nation: a cultural perspective’.


12:10-13:10   Mari Jones (Reader in French Linguistics, Cambridge University), ‘Identity planning and Jersey Norman French.’

Peter Bush (Literary translator), ‘Josep Pla and the making of contemporary literary Catalan.’


14:10-15:40 Giulio Lepschy (Hon. Professor, UCL, London, School of European Languages, Culture and Society), ‘The invention of standard Italian.’

Prvoslav Radić (Professor, Faculty of Philology, University of Belgrade), ‘The language reform of Vuk St. Karadžić and the national question among the Serbs.’

Rajendra Chitnis (Senior Lecturer, School of Modern Languages, Bristol University), 'We are what we speak. Characterizations of the Czech language during the Czech National Revival.’


16:00-17:30 Roland Willemyns (Emeritus Professor of Dutch, Free University, Brussels), ‘The Dutch Congress of 1849 and the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal.’

Tomasz Kamusella (School of History, University of St Andrews), ‘Silesian: a language or a dialect?’

Alastair Walker (Emeritus Research Associate, Department of Frisian Studies, University of Kiel), ‘North and West Frisian: Two beautiful sisters, so much alike, but yet so different.’

The event has received most generous support from NISE (National Movements and Intermediary Structures in Europe), the Polish Cultural Institute, and the international publishing house Brill

Attendance is £25.00 Full Price;  £15.00 for under 18s. To book please email or call +44 (0)1937 546546

There is an additional free event, following the study day, from 18:15-20:00.  Maclehose Press and the Institut Ramon Llull will be launching Joan Sales’ novel of the Spanish Civil War, Uncertain Glory, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush.  Professor Paul Preston (Historian, Director of the Catalan Observatory at the LSE) will be in conversation with Peter Bush.  A wine reception will follow courtesy of Freixenet.

As places are limited, please RSVP to  if you would like to attend the evening event.

27 October 2014

Félicien Rops, Baudelaire and skeleton passions

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Félicien Rops (1833-1898), painter, printmaker, and illustrator, was active in both his native Belgium and in France, where he moved in 1874; his vast and varied output included landscapes, portraits, and, above all, representations of modern life, often caustic and disconcertingly frank. A leading figure of the Belgian avant-garde, he is perhaps best known for his etchings and book illustrations of the 1870s and 1880s which, with their heady mixture of of erotic (or frankly pornographic) and macabre imagery, make him one of the great figures of the late 19th-century Decadent Movement, and an artist whose work often reflects  the themes investigated in the British Library’s current exhibition ‘Terror and Wonder: the Gothic Imagination’.

His friendship with Baudelaire during the two unhappy years (1864-66) the poet spent in Belgium had a profound and lasting influence on Rops, and determined much of his later imagery. Baudelaire went to Belgium in April 1864 to give a series of lectures and to evade his creditors. Already seriously ill, plagued by money worries and a broken man, his despair there manifested itself in ferocious misanthropic attacks on Belgium and the Belgians. Rops was well-known by then as a caricaturist, his lithographs of social and political satires in the style of Daumier and Gavarni published in various Belgian newspapers and magazines, and also for realist subjects inspired by Courbet. Rops was introduced to Baudelaire in May 1864 by Auguste Poulet-Malassis, the poet’s publisher and friend and, like him, in self-imposed exile in Belgium evading his creditors. Rops and Poulet-Malassis were the only persons whose company, in the words of the poet, “lightened [his] sadness in Belgium”.

Images of skeletons are evoked in Baudelaire’s poetry and described in his art criticism (for example Alfred Rethel’s series of engravings Auch ein Todtentanz). They evidently influenced Rops who confided to Poulet-Malassis that he shared the poet’s “…love for the primary crystallographic form: the passion for the skeleton”. He was accordingly commissioned to execute the frontispiece of Les Épaves, a collection of incidental verse by Baudelaire which would include the six censored poems from the 1857 edition of Les Fleurs du malLes Épaves was finally published in 1866 with the Rops frontispiece illustrating the complex iconographic programme elaborated by Baudelaire. It depicts a skeleton, symbolising the tree of good and evil, in whose feet grow flowers representing the seven deadly sins. Angels and cherubs are flying high above around a medallion of the poet carried away by a chimera.

Rops, Epaves
Frontispiece by Rops from Baudelaire’s Les Épaves (Paris, 1866). British Library 011483.c.19

This was the first of a series of skeletons that would feature regularly in Rops’ work over the next three decades, most of them direct or indirect evocations of Baudelairian themes, showing the lasting effect of the poet’s work. They include La Mort qui danse  (‘Death Dancing’, ca 1865), and the painting La Mort au Bal (‘Death at the Ball’, 1865-75), both of which show a skeleton dressed as a woman and evoke Baudelaire’s poem ‘Danse macabre’. Mors Syphilitica (1875) shows the grim reaper masquerading as a prostitute in a doorway whereas La parodie humaine (1878) shows death hiding behind the elegant appearance of a young fashionable woman (another syphilis warning).

CM ROPS Fig.4 felicien rops death at the ball
Félicien Rops, La Mort au bal. (1865-75) (Otterlo, Kröller-Müller Museum)

 CM ROPS Fig.6 La Parodie humaine~1
Félicien Rops, La parodie humaine (1878) (Namur, Musée provincial Félicien Rops)

Satan is also sometimes depicted as a skeleton, as in the two versions of Satan semant l’ivraie (‘Satan sowing seeds among the wheat’), one pastoral and one urban. The earlier of these images (1867, below left) shows Satan dressed as a peasant sowing the seeds of discord, in the later print (1882, below right), a gigantic Satan is crossing Paris, his right foot resting on the towers of Notre-Dame; in this case the seeds of discord, sown with his right hand, are women (a typically misogynistic image of woman as the instrument of the devil).

CM ROPS Satan semant l'ivraie x 2
The two versions of Satan semant l’ivraie (Musée provincial Félicien Rops, Namur)

Finally, skeletons appear in various guises in Rops illustrations to literary works by, among others, Joséphin Péladan’s Le Vice suprême (1884). Curiously, Rops never illustrated a work by Edgar Allan Poe, whose prose works would have been known to him through Baudelaire’s translations.

CM ROPS Fig.9 Peladan La Decadence latine
‘Le vice suprême’ from Josephin Aimé Péladan, Études passionnelles de décadence. Le vice suprême (Paris, 1884) Tab.603.a.29.

Postscript: It was while visiting the baroque Jesuit church of Saint-Loup in Namur on 15 March 1866, in the company of Rops and Poulet-Malassis, that Baudelaire had a seizure which led ultimately to aphasia, paralysis and, the following year, his death. His collapse occurred as he was praising the elaborate confessionals of the church the interior of which he had earlier described as a “terrible and delightful catafalque” and as a “catafalque embroidered in black, pink and silver”. Four years earlier Baudelaire had an ominous warning, which he described in his diaries in apocalyptic terms – “I constantly suffer from from vertigo, and today… I felt pass over me the wind of the wing of imbecility”; he must have now realised that the end was imminent.

The Church, a masterpiece of Belgian architecture, has recently been deconsecrated and is currently being restored. A stone’s throw away, the Musée provincial Félicien Rops, houses a rich collection of the artist’s  work. Its façade is adorned with a street sign showing Pornokratès, Rops’s most famous work, its rather curious putti bearing a distinct resemblance to those of his frontispiece of Baudelaire’s Les Épaves, an appropriate reminder of the poet in this neighbourhood redolent with baudelairian associations.

Chris Michaelides, Curator Italian and Modern Greek

Félicien Rops, Pornokratès (Museum Félicien Rops, Namur)


Charles Baudelaire, Les Épaves: Pièces condamnées – galanteries – épigraphes – pièces diverses – bouffonneries. (Brussels, 1866). 011483.c.19.

Félicien Rops, 1833-1898, lithographies, gravures, dessins, peintures. (Namur, [198?]). YA.2000.a.15029

Michel Draguet, Rops. (Paris, 1998). LB.31.b.17754

Bernadette Bonnier, André Guyaux, Hélène Védrine, Autour des Épaves de Charles Baudelaire (Antwerp, 1999) YA.2001.b.1454

Bernadette Bonnier, Véronique Carpiaux, Museum Félicien Rops (Oostkamp, 2003) YF.2006.a.5513.

Bernadette Bonnier (ed.), Le Musée provincial Félicien Rops, Namur (Brussels, 2005). LF.31.b.2064