THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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Exploring Europe at the British Library

Introduction

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

17 November 2017

A woman for all seasons: Halldis Moren Vesaas

To English-speaking readers, the name Vesaas is perhaps best known through the work of the Norwegian poet and novelist Terje Vesaas (1897-1970), whose most famous work, Is-slottet (‘The ice palace’: Oslo, 1963; X.908/1343) was filmed in 1987 by Per Blom, winning the Grand Prix at the Flanders International Film Festival in 1988. In Norway, however, it equally calls to mind his wife, the poet, translator and children’s author Halldis Moren Vesaas, who was born on 18 November 1907 in Trysil, in the county of Hedmark.

  Moren Vesaas house
View of Trysil from Halldis Moren Vesaas, Sven Moren og heimen hans (Oslo, 1951) 10763.a.20.

Both of them came from farming backgrounds in rural Norway, but broke away to pursue a teaching career. Terje Vesaas suffered pangs of guilt for years over his decision not to take over the family farm in Telemark, but Halldis grew up in an environment more favourable to her literary gifts, as her father was Sven Moren, a poet and playwright. The eldest child and only daughter in a family of five, she showed a natural aptitude for teaching and went away to train in Elverum before taking posts in Hamar and Oslo. However, after publishing her first collection of poems, Harpe og dolk (‘Harp and Dagger’: Oslo, 1929; YF.2011.a.23158) at the age of 22, she set off for Switzerland the following year to work as a secretary; her next volume of poetry, Morgonen (‘Morning’)  came out in this year.

Moren Vesaas Morgonen
Cover of Morgonen (Oslo, 1930) YF.2012.a.6610

After spending three years in Switzerland, she returned to Norway and married Tarjei Vesaas in 1934. They returned to his home district of Vinje and settled on the Midtbø farm there when he took up an appointment at a local school. For both of them, nature and the Norwegian landscape in all its pitiless grandeur were important sources of inspiration and a reminder of the timeless renewal of the natural world during the dark days of the German occupation. Their use of the Norwegian Landsmål (Nynorsk) fully explored its potential as a world literary language, capable of expressing with subtlety and directness the darker psychological themes of guilt and mortality as well as the eerie splendour of an ice-cave or the beauty of the mountain pastures in spring.

Halldis Moren Vesaas’s poetry celebrates every stage of woman’s life from girlhood through marriage and motherhood to the sorrow and solitude of widowhood (Terje Vesaas died in 1970) and the joy of discovering new love in later years. As well as composing eight books of poetry, she wrote and translated for the theatre, acting as a consultant for Det Norske Teatret in Oslo and sitting on the board of the Riksteatret (1949-69). One of her most notable translations is her version of Racine’s Phèdre (Fedra: Oslo, 1999; YF.2011.a.5500), where her poetic language fully conveys the passion and drama of the original. Her fascination with Greek subjects is also evident in Den gode gåva (‘The good gift’: Oslo, 1987; LB.31.a.2374), a retelling in verse for children of the myth of Demeter and Persephone with exquisite illustrations by Kaja Thorne. Her achievements were recognized not only in Norway, where she was awarded the Bastian Prize (1961) and the Norsk kulturråds ærespris (1982) and made a Commander of the Order of St. Olav in 1984, but also in France, where she was honoured with its second-highest order as a Knight of the National Order of Merit. She died in 1995.

Halldis Moren Vesaas had the ability to speak not only to adult audiences on the world stage but also to children. In 2007 a  a lively and playful collection of poems for the young by both Halldis and her husband, Eg sette brillene på min katt (‘I put spectacles on my cat’), was published, colourfully illustrated by Inger Lise Belsvik. 

Moren Vesaas Katt
Cover illustration by Inger Lise Belsvik from Eg sette brillene på min katt  (Oslo, 2007)  LF.31.a.2134

Halldis's experience as a teacher had equipped her to write for younger readers with verve and charm, without a trace of condescension but with an intuitive understanding of the child’s world and emotional and psychological needs, in verse and stories such as Hildegunn (1942) and Tidleg på våren (‘Early in spring’: 1949).

Her poetry evokes the joy of life with such sensuous vigour that it seems only fitting to allow it to speak for itself:

That you laughed aloud with gladness
when the rain came, and the first drop
fell, so strangely heavy and warm
and lay on your cheek a second or two –

that the wind which whirled the leaves
so brusquely round the trunk of the tree
sent a wave of happiness
and frost through all my blood –

that something that was nothing
still can follow me everywhere,
so that you know that nothing
as happened to me since that time –

Just because we were together?

Halldis Moren Vesaas, ‘At du –’, from I ein annan skog (‘In another forest’) Translation © Susan Reynolds Halstead, 2017).

Susan Halstead, Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services.

Moren Vesaas En annan skog
Cover of  I ein annan skog (Oslo, 1955) 01565.e.107

 

13 November 2017

Magic swords just aren’t cricket

Did you have to hand in your wand when you came to the British Library to see Harry Potter: A History of Magic? There’s a reason for that.

When Arnau de Cabrera entered judicial combat with Bernat de Centelles in Barcelona in 1274, both parties had to declare before King Jaume I “I swear I am carrying no magical weapons” [quod non deferebant aliquid quod haberet virtutem].

Swords combat Harley 4418 f56

Mediaeval knights in combat from Jean d'Arras, Roman de Mélusine, c. 1450. MS Harley 4418, f. 56.

Arnau de Cabrera however denounced his opponent for bearing the sword of Vilardell: no-one who bore it could be defeated or killed [“portavit ensem de Villardello, qui quidem ensis habet virtutem ut nullus subcumbere vel superari possit qui illum in bello detulerit”]. It also had the quality that if it was put point down it righted itself.

Apparently, Bernat’s father, like any good parent, had bought the sword for him for 500 maravedis. He had also asked the Prior of St Paul’s in Barcelona for a shirt which again prevented its owner from being vanquished in battle.

And what’s more Bernat was wearing an iron cap which contained a precious stone called diamas, supplied by his brother Gilabert: the bearer’s bones could not be broken.

The king found for Arnau.

The Sword of Vilardell acquired its powers because it was forged at a particularly propitious astrological conjunction.

Swords Villardel and Griffin
Relief from Barcelona Cathedral showing Vilardell fighting a griffin with his magical sword. (Photograph by Pere López from Wikimedia Commons.

The sword’s original owner, Vilardell, went out one day with an ordinary sword to cut wood. He did a kind deed for a poor man who replaced his old sword with a new one and then disappeared. Vilardell tested the new sword by splitting a rock with it (still to be seen) and then slayed a dragon. So in the early accounts it was a holy weapon not a magic one.

The sword eventually found its way to the Musée de l’Armée  in Paris, where you can see it.

Virtually nobody in the Middle Ages doubted the existence of magic, or its efficacy. What the Church for instance objected to was the use of magic for evil ends.

Modern-day surveillance equipment will (hopefully) pick up any concealed weapons, but magic ones (and I don’t want to alarm you) might be beyond its reach.

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies

References/Further reading

Martí de Riquer, Llegendes històriques catalanes (Barcelona, 2000) YA.2001.a.38498

Robert Bartlett, Trial by Fire and Water: The Medieval Judicial Ordeal (Oxford, 1988) YC.1988.a.7138

Sword

 

09 November 2017

Alberto Savinio. The social utility of Surrealism

One day in 1937, in Paris, André Breton, read to me a page in which he wrote that in the time before WWI, the name of my brother, Giorgio de Chirico, and mine, stand among the leaders of that art-form which later took the name of “Surrealism”’.

This is how Alberto Savinio begins the preface to his collection of short stories titled Tutta la vita (‘A whole life’). The stories were published in various newspapers and magazines between 1942 and 1944, before being gathered and published under that title in 1946. The British Library holds the edition published in 1953, which contains in addition 13 illustrations of his paintings and drawings.

Savinio tp
Title page with the author’s self-portrait from Alberto Savinio, Tutta la vita (Milan, 1953) 12472.e.9.

Now, what happens then when a surrealist painter transfers his skills into writing?

Pieces of furniture talk among themselves revealing uncomfortable secrets to Candido Bove about his wife, while he is sitting on the sofa, sleeplessly overcome with grief as she died just the day before. This is what happens! (In the story ‘Poltrondamore’ [Lovesofa])

Savinio Nonna

‘La nonna’ picture by Savinio reproduced in Tutta la vita (facing p. 49).

A taxidermist, nicknamed God Almighty, kills and embalms his wife and his assistant, after finding them naked under the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden he made in his house. This is what happens! (In the story ‘Il Paradiso Terrestre’ [Heaven on Earth]).

Savinio Adamo Eva

 ‘Adamo ed Eva’, picture by Savinio reproduced in Tutta la vita (facing p. 96)

When Miss Fufù receives the piano she ordered, she notices that it looks bigger; the morning after she finds it breathing heavily and surrounded by little pianos: the piano was pregnant. This is what happens! (In the story ‘La pianessa’ [Miss Piano]).

Savinio Sorelle
 ‘Le due sorelle’, picture by Savinio reproduced in Tutta la vita (facing p.257)

In Savinio’s short stories “A whole Life” is injected in pretty much everything, in fact, we could say that objects are more alive than people. What these short stories have in common is that the surreal events their main characters experience have a formative function, that is, surrealism here has a social purpose: it aims at shaking the reality of the main characters, whose life is flattened by loneliness, self-absorption, surrender. As Savinio continues in his preface:

... surrealism, as many of my literary works and paintings demonstrate, does not content itself with representing the shapeless and expressing the unconscious, but it wants to give shape to the shapeless and consciousness to the unconscious

This becomes clearer in Anima, the story of Nìvulo, a child described by his father as a typical old house in Milan, where façades do not face the street, but the rear garden: a child with the face turned inward. Nìvulo has the soul of his brother, who died at birth 32 years before, trapped in his body, this has prevented him to live his life, in fact, has prevented him from even learning to talk.

The social purpose of Savinio’s work is more explicit in the tale titled ‘Scendere dalla collina’ (Walking down the hill).

Parents, do not let your children grow up under the shadow of a great man… Equally, do not let them grow up under the shadow of a memorable event or a remarkable idea, and, let me also add: do not let your children grow up under the shadow of a famous name.

It is difficult not to read here a certain autobiographical reference since Alberto Savinio, whose real name was Andrea Francesco Alberto de Chirico, changed his last name so that he would not be eclipsed by his more famous brother.

Savinio L45-2089 cover

The British Library also holds a copy of the prestigious first edition of Alberto Savinio, pittura e letteratura (Milan, 1979; L45/2089, pictured above), a volume with black silk covers printed in gold, the pages printed in Bodoni characters on azure blue paper, and numerous beautiful plates of Savinio’s paintings glued on the pages.

Giuseppe Alizzi, Acquisitions South Support Manager

References/Further readings

Filippo Secchieri, Dove comincia la realtà e dove finisce – Studi su Alberto Savinio. (Florence, 1998). YA.2202.a.24958

Matteo Marchesini, Soli e civili – Savinio, Noventa, Fortini, Bianciardi, Bellocchio. (Rome, 2012) YF.2017.a.21214)

Alberto Savinio, musician, writer and painter (Milan, New York, 1995.) q95/27443