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Exploring Europe at the British Library


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29 June 2016

‘As a novel there is nothing like it ever again…’: Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe (1816)

‘Her subject was Adolphe, a short novel about failure’. These words occur in Providence (London, 1982; British Library H.84/692), a novel which might possibly be described in the same terms, by the British novelist Anita Brookner, who died in March 2016, shortly before the bicentenary of the publication of Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe in June 1816.

One of our recent posts noted the Russian dramatist Aleksandr Ostrovsky’s struggle to convince the censor that the figure of a tyrannical mother-in-law in his play The Storm did not represent Nicholas I. When Adolphe first appeared, Constant found himself embroiled in similar efforts to persuade his readers that he had not written a roman à clef based on his own turbulent affair with Germaine de Staël. The parallels were so close that his protestations in the press went largely disregarded.

Constant Letter Courier

  Constant’s letter about the interpretation of Adolphe, sent to various newspapers (here as printed in the London Courier of 25 June 1816)

The figure of Adolphe himself – the cultured, privileged and melancholy son of a government minister – resembles Constant both in personality and in his troubled relationship with his father, also a government minister. His mother had died within days of his birth, and at the age of four the young Benjamin was removed from his grandmother’s care and placed in that of a hated governess, whom his father secretly married, and a succession of singularly unpleasant tutors. His studies continued at the universities of Erlangen and Edinburgh, and were followed by an appointment in 1788 as Kammerjunker (Gentleman of the Chamber) to the Duke of Brunswick.

Infuriated by the stultifying pettiness of court life and his wife Minna’s equally unsympathetic attitude to his intellectual pursuits, Constant separated from her in 1793 and left Brunswick the following year, when he also met Madame de Staël. By 1795, having overcome her initial resistance, he established one of Paris’s most brilliant salons with her. Its members sought to establish a government based on the moderate and rational principles which represented the approach of the Revolution’s most able thinkers, but with Napoleon’s coup d’état of November 1799 and Constant’s election to the Tribunal he had little emotional energy left to deal with Germaine’s increasingly possessive and unbalanced behaviour and the melodramatic scenes which ensued when he hinted that the relationship had run its course. After a visit with her to Germany in 1803 where they met Goethe, Schiller and Wieland, he renewed his relationship with Charlotte von Hardenberg, whom he later married after some years of tacking back and forth between ‘l’homme-femme’ Germaine and the calm and gentle Charlotte.

Constant portrait

Portrait of Constant, reproduced in Goethe und seine Welt ... herausgegeben von Hans Wahl und Anton Kippenberg (Leipzig, 1932) British Library X.981/11934.

It was in 1806, the year when he and Charlotte began their affair, that Constant started work on Adolphe. His marriage in 1809 was followed by a final break with Madame de Staël in 1811, and in 1815, during Napoleon’s ‘hundred days’ before the final defeat at Waterloo, Constant accepted a post as his adviser. Following the fall of the Emperor, Constant spent several months in England (January to July 1816), where he gave readings of Adolphe at London salons. He was probably impelled by his lack of funds to publish the novel, which came out in London and Paris in June, with a framing correspondence between the ‘finder’ of the manuscript and its publisher to diminish the danger of readers identifying the author with Adolphe and Madame de Staël with the heroine, Ellénore. On his return to Paris, he was elected to the French parliament in 1819 and, until his death in 1830, enjoyed a brilliant political career supporting liberal causes such as Greek independence and the abolition of slavery.

Constant Adolphe tp

Title-page of the first edition of Adolphe (London; Paris, 1816) C.57.a.47.]

For a comparatively short text (228 pages in the first edition ), the novel has inspired considerable critical discussion. Adolphe, aged 22 and having recently graduated from Göttingen, joins the court of an enlightened German prince and becomes involved with the Polish refugee Ellénore, ten years his senior and the mistress of the Comte de P***. Originally begun as an exercise in seduction, the relationship becomes a folie à deux which isolates them from society and threatens to ruin Adolphe’s career. Even after her break with the Comte and abandonment of her two children, the emotional pressure is only increased by Adolphe’s awareness of the sacrifices which Ellénore has made for him and the intransigence of his father, who drives her from his home town. Although they find a refuge on Ellénore’s restored Polish estate, a friend of Adolphe’s father coerces him into abandoning her in the interests of his career, and the shock of discovering Adolphe’s letter promising to do so causes a shock which leads to her fatal illness. In the aftermath of Ellénore’s death Adolphe remains in a state of almost Existentialist despair: ‘j’étais libre en effet; je n’étais plus aimé: j’étais étranger pour tout le monde’, an ‘outsider ‘ as isolated and alienated as Camus’s Meursault. Having longed for his lost freedom, he now regrets the claims and ties (liens) which had previously seemed so irksome to him.

The critic Dennis Wood in his study of Adolphe (Cambridge, 1987; YC.1988.a.7619) describes the novel as ‘the paradox of a German Novelle written in French’, with strong links to the 17th-century French moraliste tradition of La Rochefoucauld and the roman d’analyse represented by Madame de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves. Poised on the shift of consciousness between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it recalls the perceptive comment which Anita Brookner, herself an expert on Romantic art,offers in her character Kitty Maule’s tutorial on Adolphe: ‘for the Romantic, the power of reason no longer operates. Or rather, it operates, but it cannot bring about change’.

Susan Halstead, Content Specialist (Humanities & Social Sciences), Research Engagement

27 June 2016

All the World’s a Stage: Shakespeare in Europe and the Americas

On Friday 10 June, the British Library welcomed a host of expert speakers to discuss the global understanding of our ‘national’ poet. And it turns out Shakespeare is the poet of many nations. It would be impossible to do justice to the richness of the presentations in a blog post, yet all of our panels shared the fundamental idea that Shakespeare’s writing is at the heart of every culture. Adaptations and translations are not so much secondary to the original but offer a radically different entry into, and a potentially much more direct access to, a Shakespeare play that will always signify something particular to different nations in different social and temporal contexts.

Prof. Jerzy Limon (photo below) opened proceedings with a view into the establishment of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre, designed by Renato Rizzi, at once a huge black modernist edifice in stark contrast to the red brick Northern European architecture (its 90 tonne retractable roof opens fully in 3 minutes), and a gothic castle-like structure, alluding to the city’s mediaeval Bazylika Mariacka.  We saw videos of the theatre’s opening ceremony and of varied productions, showing how the space can be adapted to both traditional Elizabethan stage design and experimental avant-garde interpretations.

ShakespeareSeminarLimon brightned up

Stuart Gillespie and Graham Holderness offered us insights into the sources and settings of Shakespeare’s plays. Dr Gillespie explained how French and Italian were the languages of culture and how European (mainly Italian) sources – epics, essays (Montaigne’s predominantly), romances and novellas – were in the atmosphere around Shakespeare’s time and were inevitably absorbed and adapted in his works. Professor Holderness spoke of the ‘reciprocal relationship’ between Shakespeare and Venice and how the playwright had already created much of the myth around the city before it was (re-)created in 19th and 20th century literature.

The British Library’s Julian Harrison gave us a glimpse of the ‘Our Shakespeare’ exhibition currently at the Library of Birmingham, home to the second largest Shakespeare collection in the world. The collection was resurrected after a fire destroyed the old library building in 1879 and the collection was soon expanded thanks to donations from around the world. Julian highlighted the beautifully produced photo album of German Shakespeare scholars (1878), the photo album donated by Laurence Olivier, and a Russian edition of Romeo and Juliet presented by a Soviet delegation at the height of the Cold War. Julian also managed to show the importance of Warwickshire to the bard, just before the study day moved to more tropical climes.

Philip Crispin opened the afternoon’s proceedings with a rousing presentation on Une tempête (‘A Tempest’). In this ‘adaptation for a black theatre’, Aimé Césaire, one of the founders of négritude, recasts Ariel as a mulatto slave and Caliban as an articulate black slave in revolt, reflecting the racial politics of his native Martinique. Michael Walling, Artistic Director of intercultural, multimedia theatre company Border Crossings, presented an insider perspective of staging Shakespeare in India, and translating and staging Dev Virahsawmy’s Toufann, a Mauritian adaptation of The Tempest, in London. The linguistic choices made by both writer and translator in the case of Toufann were fascinating: the play is written in Mauritian creole, but the title is in Hindi – Prospero is from the dominant Indian diaspora community in Mauritius, and seeks to impose this new word into the play. Philip and Michael showed how these two postcolonial adaptations of The Tempest epitomise translation as creative interpretation.

Shakespeare Seminar Postcolonial panel

Charles  Forsdick introducing Philip Crispin and Michael Walling (Photo by Ben  Schofield)

From considering just three performances, Paul Prescott encouraged us to look at hundreds in his whirlwind road trip presentation across the United States. The phenomenon of the Shakespeare festival was plain to see in the sheer spread and eclectic formats of these festivals. The bard’s work is not just made for the Globe Theatre but is at home anywhere and perhaps more at home in the small and distant communities of the American West. The day’s underlying theme again: Shakespeare is accessible universally. The idea was explored further by Mark Burnett, who showed how a constant industry of Shakespeare adaptation in film across Europe and South America sees in the plays stories that apply to a vast array of national settings, from gypsy versions of Hamlet (Aleksandar Rajkovic, Serbia, 2007) and King Lear (Romani Kris – Cigánytörvény, Bence Gyöngyössy, Hungary, 1997), to a Brazilian Romeo and Juliet set in the favelas of Rio (Maré, Nosse Historia de Amor, Lucia Murat, Brazil, 1997).

Shakespeare SeminarGDR

The day concluded with a round table on the ‘cultural politics of European Shakespeare’. Aleksandra Sakowska talked about the long history of interaction between Poland and Shakespeare, a presentation which touched on the first black actor to play Othello in Britain, Ira Aldridge. Nicole Fayard drew our attention to Shakespeare’s relevance in modern French society from the Vichy regime to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, showing how even in the latter situation Shakespeare managed to force his way into public consciousness. Keith Gregor described how Shakespeare productions in Spain still far outnumber those of the Spanish Golden Age playwrights, and how, after Franco’s reign, Shakespeare began to be appropriated by Spain’s autonomous communities in overtly political avant-garde productions. Emily Oliver presented a view of Shakespeare around the time of German reunification, particularly through the challenging production of Hamlet/Machine in 1990, directed by Heiner Müller (photo above by Ben Schofield). Hamlet could be seen building and jumping over a wall on stage in a not-so-subtle allegory of the political context. Erica Sheen chaired the discussion that followed which situated Shakespeare as the most significant figure of international cultural exchange and at the heart of every nation’s self-expression. Shakespeare gives voice to political counter-currents and his work is continually adapted to inhabit alternative, minority, and simply ‘foreign’ positions.


 Final panel of the seminar. Photo by Ben Schofield

‘All the world is a stage’ begins Jacques’s monologue in As You Like It, and this study day left no doubt that will always be true for Shakespeare’s work.

This study day, organised by the European and Americas Collections department of the British Library, was supported by the AHRC ‘Translating Cultures’ Theme, the Polish Cultural Institute and the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Collaborative Doctoral Student, British Library/University of Bristol


23 June 2016

Literary Translation: Whose Voice is it Anyway?

Speaking about the translator who introduced Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov to the English reading audience, Joseph Brodsky, once wrote: “The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett.” On the other hand, there have been instances where a translation is said to be better than the original.


    Front cover of Ismail Kadare, The Wedding. Rendered into English by Ali Cungu. (Tirana, 1968). X.908/16616.

So, whose voice is the reader hearing when reading a novel, or a poem, in translation – the author’s or the translator’s? How faithful to the original should a translation be? To what degree should the translation be “adjusted” or “improved” to facilitate its reading by the target audience?


 Typescript. Front cover of  William B. Bland, The ghost at the wedding. Based on the novel “The wedding” by Ismail Kadare. (Ilford, 1969). X.950/13209.

These are questions that apply to literary translation from any language, of course, but they are especially relevant when translating from so-called smaller languages, where the context, references, and even style and rhythm may be alien to the foreign reading public.


Frontispiece. Arghezi’s self-portrait. From Tudor Arghezi, Flori de Mucigai. Cu un autoportret inedit. (Bucharest, 1931). RB.23.a.20598.

On 24 June, Balkan Day at the British Library, I will be chairing a panel of literary translators who have introduced the English-speaking world to some of the best writing that Southeastern Europe has to offer. We will be discussing their approaches to literary translation and whether they think of literary translation as craft or creation. And who better to tell us than Christopher Buxton, author of two novels and translator of numerous contemporary and classical Bulgarian novelists and poets; the Turkish poet Melvut Ceylan, who lives in London and has translated both Turkish poetry into English and English poetry into Turkish; John Hodgson, who has brought us, among others, the work of Ismail Kadare and is one of only a few translators to be working directly from Albanian into English; and the poet Stephen Watts, whose many translations of poetry include the work of the surrealist Romanian poet Gellu Naum and Tudor Arghezi.


 Frontispiece. Naum’s portrait by Victor Brauner. From Gellu Naum, Culoarul somnului. Cu un desen de Victor Brauner. (Bucharest, 1944). YA.2000.a.8782.

I know this is going to be a very lively discussion. How do I know? I’m a literary translator myself.

Christina Pribichevich Zorić, Former Chief of Conference and Language Services at the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia