THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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309 posts categorized "Literature"

11 January 2019

Katharina Luther and a Letter to a Laureate

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Checking and correcting catalogue records can lead down some interesting pathways. Recently I was looking at records for books by the German theologian Johann Friedrich Mayer (1650-1712) and was keen to untangle, among others, the records for three editions of a Latin dissertation on the life of Katharina Luther, first published in Hamburg in 1698. A note, which had become attached to all three records in the online catalogue, mentioned ‘a MS letter from F. Martin to Robert Southey’. As well as wanting to make clear which edition really did include the letter, I also wondered what its contents were. 

The letter turned out to be in the first of the three editions, and having sorted out the catalogue records, I settled down to see what ‘F. Martin’ – actually Frederick Martin – had to say. His letter, dated 21 March 1831, shows that he was sending the book as a gift to Southey. He begins by expressing his hope that Southey ‘may be a stranger to the charms for which “Maister Martin Luther” was content to risk the gibes of sir T. More’. (These ‘gibes’ were in fact vicious attacks by Thomas More on Luther’s marriage: he described it, among other things, as ‘whoredom’.)

Martin letter 1
The opening of Martin’s letter

Martin casts doubt on the accuracy of Katharina’s portrait on the title page, speculating that ‘the features … were … collected … nose from one, chin from another’, although he acknowledges that ‘they tally sufficiently with the monumental effigy [an engraving of Katharina’s tomb] further on.’ In fact the title-page portrait is a reproduction – albeit a rather clumsy one – of a portrait of Katharina by Lucas Cranach.

Martin Mayer tp
Title-page of Johann Friedrich Mayer, De Catharina Lutheri conjuge dissertatio (Hamburg, 1698). 1371.c.29. 

The letter continues in a slightly whimsical vein, with Martin conflating book and subject as he offers the former to Southey:

As she was no Wife of Bath and will cause no great expense of bookroom, it is her prayer hereafter on your shelves to be protected from the anti-Protestant worm which, during a long seclusion from air and light, has dared nibble a corner of her garment.

Despite this suggestion of damage, the book is in very good condition with no obvious wormholes.

Martin goes on to mention other volumes that he is planning to send to Southey. He explains that, since he cannot find ‘a convoy answering the two conditions of going near, yet not to, Keswick’, he intends to ‘commit them to the good offices of the Kendal guard.’  After offering his ‘best compliments to Mrs Southey’, he then signs off, but adds a brief postscript to the effect that he is not ‘in the least likely to want Warton or his two companions’ – presumably books which Southey had offered to him.

I was curious as to who Frederick Martin was and how he knew Southey. Neither an online search nor a brief survey of recent biographies and studies of the poet turned up anyone of that name other than a literary critic who was born in 1830 and is therefore not our man. The context of sending books made me briefly wonder if Martin was a bookseller, but the copy of Mayer’s book was clearly being offered as a gift, and it appears that the others are also to be sent as gifts or in exchange for other works rather than sold to Southey. There are no letters to or from any Frederick Martin in the Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey produced by Southey’s son Charles in 1849, and since there is no definitive modern edition of Southey’s complete correspondence – an online edition is in progress, but has only reached 1821 – there seemed little hope of finding other related letters without  far more research than I could spare the time for. 

There was, however, a clue to Martin’s identity in an inscription on the verso of the book’s front endpaper: ‘FM Coll: SS TRIN. 1824’.

Martin inscription
Martin’s ownership inscription in the copy of De Catharina Lutheri conjuge dissertatio

This implies that Frederick Martin was a student or fellow of Trinity College in Oxford, Cambridge or Dublin. I drew a blank with the alumni lists for Oxford and Dublin, but there was a Frederick Martin who entered Trinity College Cambridge in 1822 and received his MA in 1831. He went on to a career in the church and was for 16 years Rector of South Somercotes in Lincolnshire, the epithet given to him in the pre-1975 printed catalogue of the British (Museum) Library, which records three works by him.

Martin BLC
Entry for Frederick Martin in vol. 213 of The British Library general catalogue of printed books to 1975 (London, 1979-1987) HLC 017.21 BMC

If this is the Frederick Martin in question, I still have no clue as to how he knew Southey and how close or lasting their acquaintance was. The letter implies some previous correspondence or meeting between the two, and the light-hearted tone and regards to Southey’s wife suggest a degree of personal acquaintance, although Martin addresses Southey as ‘My Dear Sir’ rather than the ‘Dear Southey’ that a close friend would probably use. 

Whoever Martin was, Southey thought it worth preserving his letter, and did indeed find ‘bookroom’ for Mayer’s work and grant Katharina the protection of his shelves. The book is listed in the catalogue of his library, offered for sale after his death (p. 98, no. 1867), where it is described as a ‘presentation copy, calf, gilt leaves, from Fred. Martin, with a humorous note in his autograph’, and thus it survives in the British Library to this day.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

References/further reading:

The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, edited by his son C. C. Southey (London, 1849-1850)  10855.de.15.

Alumni cantabrigienses: a biographical list of all known students, graduates and holders of office at the University of Cambridge, from the earliest times to 1900, compiled by John Venn and J. A. Venn. (Cambridge, 1922-1954) RAR 378.42

Catalogue of the Valuable Library of the late Robert Southey, Esq., LL.D. Poet Laureate, which will be sold at Auction ... by Messrs. S. Leigh Sotheby & Co. … on Wednesday May 8th, 1844, and fifteen following days (London, [1844]) S.C. Sotheby

08 January 2019

Translating Cultures: French Caribbean History, Literature and Migration

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On 24 September 2018, the British Library welcomed a galaxy of leading specialists to a study day addressing the history, literature and arts of the French Caribbean and its diaspora.

The day kicked off with a comparative overview of Francophone and Anglophone Caribbean colonisation and post-war migrations by keynote speaker Professor H. Adlai Murdoch. French colonisation of the Caribbean was such that by the late 18th century Haiti, an island of 600,000 slaves, produced 60% of the world’s coffee. Despite the abolition of slavery, France retained political power over les Antilles and the legacies of colonisation remain to this day. In 1946 the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe were given the status of départements, i.e. officially part of France. However, when Martiniquans and Guadeloupeans were invited to join the French workforce in the 1960s, they were met with racial prejudice and unfairly treated as immigrants, when they were only moving from the periphery to the centre of their own country. (A finalized version of Professor Murdoch’s presentation is available on the website of the French Studies Library Group).

The morning panel focused on history, heritage and migration. Sophie Fuggle spoke about the legacy of the ‘bagne’ (penal colonies) in French Guiana and ‘dark tourism’, and Antonia Wimbush discussed the French Caribbean’s contribution to the Second World War, events that are left out of official French narratives. Emily Zobel Marshall, the granddaughter of writer Joseph Zobel, movingly read excerpts from letters he wrote to his wife describing his experience as a Martiniquan in Paris in 1946.

Beth Cooper closed the morning’s proceedings with a presentation of the British Library’s exhibition ‘Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land’.

Translating Cultures Emily Zobel Marshall  Emily Zobel Marshall talking about her grandfather Joseph Zobel (Photo by Phoebe Weston-Evans).

The afternoon opened with a panel on Francophone Caribbean literature. Jason Allen-Paisant gave a presentation on French Caribbean theatre and showed us a fascinating video of the first production of Aimé Césaire’s  Le roi Christophe at the Salzburg festival in 1964. Vanessa Lee talked about Suzanne Césaire’s plays, and Kathryn Batchelor looked at how Frantz Fanon’s classic The Wretched of the Earth was disseminated worldwide: the English translation was written in much more accessible language than the original French, which explains its impact in the Anglophone world.

Translating Cultures Jason Allen PaisantJason Allen-Paisant presenting the video of the 1964 production of Le roi Christophe. (Photo by Emily Zobel Marshall).

The state agency in charge of organizing the migration flows from the Antilles to France between 1963 and 1981 was the BUMIDOM (Bureau pour le développement des migrations dans les départements d'outre-mer). Jessica Oublié and Marie-Ange Rousseau, the author and illustrator of the graphic novel Peyi an nou, told us about their research into the small histories of families who came to France. The book originated in Jessica’s desire to record her terminally ill grandfather’s life for a family scrapbook. It rapidly became clear to her that the story of his move to Paris was about much more than one individual, and reflected the destinies of a wider community. The graphic novel thus shows the author’s research process using archives and interviews, “pour relier petite histoire et grande Histoire” (to connect the story with History).

The event concluded with a presentation from Jean-François Manicom on curation and visual arts in the French Caribbean.

Translating Cultures Jessica Oublie - Copy Charles Forsdick introducing Jessica Oublié and Marie-Ange Rousseau. (Photo by Phoebe Weston-Evans).

The study day was rounded off by an evening with Canadian-Haitian writer Dany Laferrière at the Institut français focusing on his book The Enigma of the Return. He reluctantly but jokingly read an excerpt he was not proud of, and talked about his election to the Académie française. Describing Québecois as humble and Haitians as “megalomaniac”, he affirmed that the award was both “beyond him” and “simply not enough”. He is, after all, in his own words, “le plus modeste poète du monde” (the most modest poet in the world).

The study day was organised by Professor Charles Forsdick (University of Liverpool/AHRC) and Teresa Vernon (British Library). in partnership with the AHRC ‘Translating Cultures’ theme, the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library and the Institut français.


Laura Gallon

Laura Gallon was a PhD placement student at the British Library where she worked on a project assessing holdings of migrant narratives in the North American collections. She is in the second year of her PhD at the University of Sussex looking at contemporary American short fiction by immigrant women writers.

28 December 2018

Two Distinguished Women and a Seasonal Greetings Card Mystery

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While I was looking for a nice seasonal picture (preferably, with lots of snow to compensate for another grey Christmas) to tweet @BL_European, I found this postcard from our collection of Russian Imperial postcards.

Image 1- Vol 11 sleeve 17

Image 1a

Just a standard greeting card in French. The postcard was sent from Kharkiv to Paris on 31 December 1902 and signed by ‘Christine Altchevsky’. The name looked vaguely familiar. Having looked at it more carefully, I realised that the postcard must have been written by either mother or daughter Alchevska on behalf of both of them since they bore the same first name – Khrystyna – and were distinguished women in their generations.

Khrystyna Danylivna Alchevska (1841-1920) was an educator, teacher and a prominent activist for national education in Ukraine and the Russian Empire, vice-president of the International League of Education in Paris.

Christina_D._Alchevskaya
Khrystyna D. Alchevska (image from Wikimedia Commons)

She created and promoted a training methodology, implemented in many schools, established the Kharkiv Women’s Sunday School, the first free girls’ school in Ukraine, which remained in existence for 50 years, and published articles on adult education. Khrystyna Alchevska wrote and taught in Russian and Ukrainian, promoting her native language and culture.

Alchevska - reading group
Khrystyna D. Alchevska teaching a reading class at the Kharkiv Women’s Sunday School (image from Wikimedia Commons)

She also initiated, edited and, as we would call it now, ‘project managed’ a fundamental three-volume annotated bibliography Chto chitat’ narodu? (‘What should people read?’ 1888-1906), to which she contributed 1150 articles and annotations. It is difficult to call this work simply a bibliography, as it is really an interesting combination of bibliographic, encyclopaedic and pedagogical knowledge. The book is divided into subject sections, such as History, Science, Fiction, Religious and Moral literature, Biographies, Geography, etc., and each book is fully described, annotated with certain critiques, and supplied with methodological instructions for teachers, including questions and suggestions for lesson planning. There are also several indexes and tables, including those that recommend texts according to levels of difficulty and suitability for adult and young learners. It is interesting to note that the core contributors to the work were fellow women teachers and educators.

Image 2
A volume of Chto chitat’ narodu? (St Petersburg, 1888) 11907.g.32

Khrystyna Alchevska left very interesting memoirs about her life and the people whom she had met, and corresponded with Leo Tolstoy, Fedor Dostoyevsky and Ivan Turgenev.

A talented and creative woman herself, Khrystyna Danylivna brought up five bright and creative children, among whom were an entrepreneur, a composer, a singer, and a theatre critic. The youngest in the family was Khrystyna (or Khrystia) (1882-1931), who became known as a distinguished Ukrainian poet, translator and educator.

Khrystia
Khrystia Alchevska, from Ukrains’ka literatura mezhi XIX-XX stolit’. Khestomatiia (Kyiv, 2016) YF.2016.a.19260.

1902 was the year when Khrystia’s poems were first published in Ukrainian magazines and almanacs. In 1907, her first book of poems appeared in Moscow and was noted by the maitre of Ukrainian literature of that time Ivan Franko. Later, Khrystyna translated Franko into Russian and French, but he was not the only author that she was interested in. She translated Pushkin and Pierre-Jean de Béranger, Voltaire and Alexey K. Tolstoy, Victor Hugo and Nikolai Ogarev into Ukrainian, and Taras Shevchenko and Pavlo Tychyna into French. In the 1920s she was friendly with Henri Barbusse, under whose influence Krystyna created two verse dramas.

Image 3
A collection of poems ‘To My Land’, K. Alchevska, Moemu kraiu. (Chernivtsi, 1914) 20002.a.9

Unfortunately, I could not find who Madame and Monsieur de Namur (?) of 30, Boulevard Flandrin were and how both Khystynas could have known them. But if someone knows the link between the Alchevskas and this family in Paris, please let us know. But I still like this story with an open ending that old Christmas cards can tell.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

Further reading:

K.D. Alchevska. ‘K russkim zhenshchinam’ (To the Russian Women), Kolokol, 8 March 1863, No. 158. C.127.k.4.

K.D. Alchevska. Peredumannoe i perezhitoe. Dnevniki, pis’ma, vospominaniia. (Moscow, 1912) X.525/82

The Book for Adults (written by the teachers at the Kharkow Sunday school, under the direction of Mme. Christine Altchevsky), and the surroundings which inspired it ... Translated from the French by Mme. Auguste Serraillier. (Paris, 1900) 4193.h.62

Sava Zerkal’. Clematis. [About the Alchevsky family]. (New York, 1964) X.909/5465.

A fairly comprehensive bibliography relating to works by and about the Alchevsky family can be found here: http://mtlib.org.ua/ukazateli/34-semya-alchevskikh.html

30 November 2018

From Culinary Staple to Prophetic Symbol: More on the Herring

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Regular readers of our blog may have noticed something of a herring theme this year, from the significance of the herring in Nordic culture to its symbolic and celebratory consumption at the Dutch festivals of Flag Day and the anniversary of the Relief of Leiden. But so far we have not yet looked at the herring in Germany and on the Southern Baltic shore, particularly as imagined and lived by Günter Grass

In Grass’s Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), Agnes Matzerath develops an unhealthy compulsion to eat fish, following the horror of seeing a horse’s head used to catch eels, consuming and force-feeding herself the very thing that has become monstrous to her. Set against the backdrop of rising National Socialism, Agnes’s eventual death by fish-poisoning cannot be separated from the social and familial mutations she experiences in 1920s Danzig.

Elsewhere, however, fish is dealt with far more fondly by Grass, while always remaining focal. In his autobiography, Beim Häuten der Zwiebel (Peeling the Onion), Grass’s memories often carry the odour of fried herring, a staple during his time at the School of Fine Arts in Berlin, much to the disapproval of his teacher Karl Hartung, who ‘[took] offence at the smell of fried herring wafting through the door connecting his studio to ours’. Even his description of the first months with his then girlfriend, Anna, includes, alongside the sentimental, the intimate and the erotic, the memory of showing the uninitiated cook ‘how simple it is to remove the flesh from the bones of a fried herring.’ Romance Baltic-style…

Grass - Der Butt dustjacket
Dust Jacket of Der Butt, with Grass’s own design

But it is in his Der Butt (The Flounder) where the herring—and essentially all Baltic peasant food from the Neolithic to the 20th century—gets a platform. It contains, woven into the epic history of women and food, recipes and other gastronomic tips, because for Grass, who thought the planting of potatoes in Prussia ‘did more to change society than the Seven Years’ War’, this was a people’s history that had not yet been written.

Grass here is on one level writing the anti-‘Babette’s Feast’. Karen Blixen’s/Isak Dinesen’s 1958 short story introduces an exceptional Parisian chef into the remote Norwegian town of Berlevåg (or the west coast of Jutland, if you’re watching the 1987 film), who wins a lottery, enabling her to create an exquisite French menu without a herring in sight. However, most of the local guests—refined as they are—react indifferently to the meal, which is perhaps another implicit win for the herring.

Grass - Kuß
Grass’s sketch Kuß (‘Kiss’) ,reproduced in Gertrud Bauer Pickar, Adventures of a Flounder: Critical Essays on Günter Grass’ Der Butt (Munich, 1982) X.0909/1118(3)

The second book of Der Butt contains a chapter entitled ‘Skåne Herring’, in which the domestic hell suffered by the husband of the mystic and visionary (not yet Saint) Dorothea von Montau, brings about a visit from the religious and political powers that be. Dorothea serves the four visitors Scania herring (Scania was dominant in the herring market in the 14th century) but not before Grass’s omniscient narrator cuts in to detail the variations of prepared herring: ‘They can be used fresh, salted, smoked, or marinated. They can be boiled, baked, fried, steamed, filleted, boned and stuffed, rolled around gherkins, or placed in oil, vinegar, white wine, and sour cream.’ Grass details how each of the women cooks he follows in his epic would have prepared the herring before telling us that Dorothea ‘bedded twelve Scania herrings on ashes strewn over the coals, so that without oil, spices, or condiment of any kind, their eyes whitened and they took on the taste of cooked fish.’ The authorities—Abbot, Commander, Doctor of Canon Law and Dominican—all approve.

Following Grass’s imperative to (re-)collect food history in his ‘narrative cookbook’, we find that two years after the publication of Der Butt the British Library felt compelled to acquire an actual herring cookbook from Sweden, Strömming och Sill. Both words in the title refer to herring, strömming to the smaller, less fatty herring caught in the Baltic, and sill to the Atlantic and North Sea varieties. Strömming might be more familiar with its prefix sur- which describes the debatably edible fermented variety. Sur- means sour in this case, although we can’t help but think of French preposition meaning ‘over’: for many, fermented herring is indeed a step or two beyond.

Strömming och Sill
Ulli Kyrkland, Strömming och sill ([Stockholm, 1979) L.42/578. The book includes over 100 herring recipes

We’ve somehow managed to talk about Der Butt without mentioning the presence of a talking flounder… but Grass’s penchant for rendering fish either monstrous, as in Die Blechtrommel, or magical, as in Der Butt, recalls another literary oddity which deserves mention. The herring was also the protagonist in a number of 16th- and 17th-century works within Rosicrucianism and numerology. In 1587, like Grass’s omnipotent flounder, a few miraculous herring began to communicate.

Faulhaber - Herring
Signifying herrings, from Johann Faulhaber Vernünfftiger Creaturen Weissagungen (Augsburg, 1632) C.29.f.1.

Johann Faulhaber’s Vernünfftiger Creaturen Weissagungen attempts to describe the significance of a miraculous deer and some even more miraculous herring and other fish through the secret numbers of the Book of Daniel and the Apocalypse. Following the descriptions of Raphael Eglinus’s Prophetia Halieutica nova et admiranda (Zürich, 1598; 1020.f.1.(3.)), Faulhaber tells us of two herring caught on the same day, one in Denmark, one in Norway, on both of which appeared strange coded markings, ‘as if imprinted by God’s finger.’ We can’t help but agree with his assertion that this is a miraculous occurrence.

Faulhaber - Greifswald fish
More tattooed fish from Vernünfftiger Creaturen Weissagungen

The book was written in 1632, halfway through the Thirty Years’ War and, crucially, two years after Sweden’s King Gustav Adolph, to whom the book is dedicated, joined the conflict. Faulhaber sees correspondences in all the mystical fish, the dates of comets, the secret numbers in the Bible and the political situation in Northern Europe. The markings are decoded to show swords, sickles, and other signs that correlate with historical events. Faulhaber’s deer somehow comes to represent the entry of Gustav Adolph into the war, while the herring might spell out the spilling of more blood.

Four centuries later, something about these miraculous herring of Faulhaber and Eglinus is caught in the fish-paintings of Paul Klee. 

764px-Paul_Klee _Swiss_-_Fish_Magic_-_Google_Art_Project
Paul Klee, Fish Magic, Philadelphia Museum of Art (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Klee’s Fish Magic or Around the fish, suspend the fish (although we can’t identify a herring, we can forgive Klee as a landlocked Swiss, no doubt used to freshwater fish) amidst a set of enigmatic symbols that gesture towards signification without the finality of Faulhaber’s correspondences. In herring-art, we see the full range of depictions that is also encapsulated in academic and literary attempts to understand both the sheer facticity of the Northern armies of herring and the idea of herring, their potential meaning.

Joachim Beuckelaer- Fish Market
The sheer facticity of fish in Joachim Beuckelaer, The Fish Market (1568), Bonnefanten Museum, Maastricht (image from Wikimedia Commons). Herring can be seen bottom left.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

References

Günter Grass, Die Blechtrommel (Darmstadt, 1959) 011421.p.86. English translation by Ralph Mannheim, The Tin Drum (London, 1962) X.909/2060.

Günter Grass, Der Butt (Darmstadt, 1977) X.989/71159. English translation by Ralph Mannheim, The Flounder (London, 1978) X.989/76027

Günter Grass, Beim Häuten der Zwiebel (Göttingen, 2006) YF.2007.a.1517. English translation by Micahel Henry Heim Peeling the Onion (London, 2007) YC.2007.a.14122

Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), Anecdotes of Destiny (London, 1958) 12655.r.2.

 

27 November 2018

Some Russian Cats

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These cats didn’t make it in a tough competition to be displayed at and contextualised within the British Library exhibition Cats on the Page, but they still deserve a couple of nice words.

One of the first cats on the page that any Russian child would see, is an arrogant and conceited fashionista cat who did not allow her young orphaned relatives into her nice luxury house, preferring to entertain a company of servile ‘friends’. Guess what? The house is burnt to the ground the next night and, homeless and miserable, she finds that none of her former companions would want to provide shelter and share food with her. Of course, the kind kittens, who have very little food and live in a tiny cold hut, are generous and happy to help. This teaches the cat to be kind and she becomes a responsible and respectful auntie who takes good care of the kittens and they will take care of her when she is old.

Image 1S.Marshak, Koshkin dom (‘The Cat’s House’) Illustrated by Iu. Vasnetsov (Moscow, 1996) YA.1999.b.278

Fairy-tale cats don’t always act as characters. Some of them are enigmatic story-tellers themselves. Like other most popular cat in Russian literature, created by Alexander Pushkin. He lives in the mysterious land called Lukomor’e, walks up and down the chains fixed on a huge oak tree and mews his stories. One of them, a love story of Ruslan and Liudmila, he mewed to Pushkin himself.

Image 2a Endpapers from A. Pushkin, Ruslan and Liudmila. Illustrated by L.Vladimirskii (Moscow, 1989) YA.1997.b.2434

Actually, some cats are really strange. I would say that all cats are strange, but some cats are stranger than others. Because they are actually dogs. Or they are dogs, who are actually cats. This strange phenomenon was discovered and described by Tim Sobakin (‘sobaka’ is ‘a dog’ in Russian, so he might be a little bit of a cat himself), a contemporary children’s author. His character Shar lives with his master Auntie Solveig, somewhere in Glasgow, but actually in Oslo. You see, they all are quite eccentric, so why should the dog/cat or cat/dog be different? So, the story goes that Shar once climbed a tree as a cat, but while climbing, forgot how to get down, because on the tree he felt like dog. Only a passing fisherman could save Shar, because Shar suddenly felt like a hungry cat chasing fish and remembered how to climb down trees.

It all is getting too confusing, isn’t it, especially if you don’t read Russian? But if you do, it is actually more confusing. These cats can confuse anyone. So, I’ll leave you with this for the time being and come back with more confusing stories about cats on the page with lots of confusing Russian words.

Image 3 T. Sobakin. Sobaka, kotoriaia byla koshkoi. Illustrated by A.Grashin (Moscow, 1995)

 Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

09 November 2018

The gentle giant of Russian literature: Ivan Turgenev

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The life and career of one of the greatest 19th-century Russian novelists sprang – quite literally – from small beginnings. Born on 9 November 1818 and baptized Ivan, the middle son of Sergei Turgenev, a cavalry officer, and his wife Varvara was notable as a child for his diminutive stature; only his unusually large head indicated that he would develop both physically and intellectually into one of the giants of his age.

Young Turgenev X902-218
Turgenev as a young man, from Jules Mourier, Ivan Serguéiévitch Tourguéneff à Spasskoé (St Petersburg, 1899) X.902/218.

Despite a wealthy and privileged upbringing on the family estate at Spasskoe in the province of Orel’, the three young brothers did not enjoy an idyllic childhood. Varvara Petrovna adopted a harsh approach to their upbringing, employing strict tutors and inflicting severe beatings on her sons with her own hands. Turgenev later claimed that he had not one happy memory of his early years, and on one occasion packed a bundle and tried to run away, only to be persuaded to return by his German tutor. His father was well known as a womanizer, and Turgenev’s complex relationship with his mother, his parents’ unhappy marriage and his teenage infatuation with his father’s young mistress Zinaida, reflected in his novel First Love, permanently affected his own ability to form relationships and ensured that he never married.

Spasskoe X.902-218
Turgenev’s house at Spasskoe, from Ivan Serguéiévitch Tourguéneff à Spasskoé

However, there were other sources of warmth and attention at Spasskoe: the kindness which Ivan received from the gamekeepers, who taught him the habits of wildfowl and how to handle a gun, and from his father’s valet Fyodor Lobanov, from whom he learnt to read and write Russian, inspired him with a love of nature, respect for the Russian peasant and hatred of serfdom. This contrasted with the influence of German idealism which he assimilated when, in 1827, the family moved to Moscow for the sake of the boys’ education. He had already begun to write verse which soon assumed the colours of the Russian ‘pseudo-sublime’ school, and while studying at the universities of Moscow, St. Petersburg and Berlin, travelling through Italy and Switzerland, and forging friendships with Nikolai Stankevich and Alexander Herzen in the 1830s and 1840s, he followed one false trail after another.

Steeped in the ancient classics, he aspired to a professorship and plunged into the philosophy of Hegel, had an affair (with his mother’s approval) with the wife of the poet Fyodor Tyutchev, rambled through the Alps in a state of Byronic melancholy, and only returned to Russia in 1841. Two years earlier the family mansion had burnt down, apparently following an attempt by a peasant to fumigate an ailing cow. At Spasskoe he started a relationship with a seamstress employed by his mother, resulting in the birth of a daughter, Pelagia, renamed Pauline when, aged ten, she was sent to France to be raised with the children of another of Turgenev’s loves, the singer Pauline Viardot-Garcia

Zapiski okhotnika RF.2007.a.1
Cover of an edition of Zapiski okhotnika 
(A Sportsman’s Sketches; Leipzig, 1876)  RF.2007.a.1

The return to the Russian countryside bore fruit of another kind in the form of A Sportsman’s Sketches (Moscow, 1852; C.114.n.15.), a collection of short stories which reflect Turgenev’s profound knowledge of the landscape and of the wildlife and people who inhabited it. Throughout his work there runs a deep dichotomy between the traditional ways of the remote Russian provinces and the impact of Western ideas brought back by those who had travelled abroad. Despite the urbane cosmopolitan manners which Turgenev – fluent in French, German and English – had acquired in Europe, his writings frequently display a marked ambivalence and sense of conflict, embodied most memorably in Fathers and Sons (Moscow, 1862; 12590.h.25) where it is paralleled by the bewildered incomprehension with which old Kirsanov greets the ideas of his revolutionary son and the latter’s friend Yevgeny Bazarov which gave the world the term ‘nihilism’.

Turgenev and friends
Turgenev (seated, second from left) with other Russian authors of the day. Photograph by Sergei Livitsky, reproduced in Emile Haumant, Ivan Tourgénieff: la vie et l’oeuvre (Paris, 1906) 010790.de.56

Turgenev had touched on this conflict in two earlier novels, Home of the Gentry (Moscow, 1859; 12591.dd.31.) and On the Eve (1862), both of which portray the intrusion of Western modernism into communities bound by the habits and conventions of rural life and morality and raise political issues which aroused profound disquiet in the stiflingly conservative atmosphere of Nicholas I’s empire. His friendship with the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin and ‘metaphysical entanglement’ with the latter’s sister Tatiana played their part in the development of characters such as the young Bulgarian revolutionary Insarov in On the Eve, and it is difficult to overestimate the alarm which Turgenev’s writings excited in government circles. He was not merely a consummate stylist and chronicler of quaint peasant ways and the beauties of the countryside; ‘le doux géant’, as his friend Edmond de Goncourt nicknamed him, was no hectoring advocate of revolt but influenced his readers by far more subtle means. His exquisite portrayal of character makes his revolutionary figures far more persuasive and convincing than any amount of tub-thumping oratory, and in the 1860s, the decade which saw the assassination of Alexander II, the ‘Tsar-Liberator’ who freed the serfs, Turgenev was regarded with growing nervousness. A friend of Flaubert, Zola and George Sand, widely translated into English and other Western languages, and the recipient of an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford, he moved between two worlds with an ease which made him suspect as a dangerous political influence back in Russia.


465px-Turgenev_by_Repin_1879
Portrait of Turgenev by Ilya Repin, 1879 (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The circumstances of his death aptly illustrate this; like Heinrich Heine, he spent the last months of his life, in 1883, in an agonizing ‘mattress tomb’ in Paris, immobilized by a spinal tumour, but gave directions that his body should be brought back to Russia for interment close to the grave of his friend, the critic Vissarion Belinsky. Ernest Renan was one of those who delivered an oration at a brief ceremony at the Gare de l’Est before the coffin began its long journey. Conversely, the Russian Ministry of the Interior clamped down on all unofficial information about the funeral on 9 October; workers’ organizations were forbidden to identify themselves on the wreaths, and a gathering at which Tolstoy was to have paid tribute to his friend (and rival) was cancelled by government decree. The contrast between ceremonies in East and West was a telling comment on the very different kinds of esteem in which Turgenev was held in the two worlds which he inhabited with equal aplomb.

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

 

06 November 2018

‘Umbra Vitae’: Expressionism in Word and Image

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The tragic early death of the German writer Georg Heym in a skating accident in 1912 silenced one of the most original and exciting voices in early 20th-century German letters. Heym wrote plays and short stories but is best known as a poet. His first collection of poems, Der ewige Tag (‘The Eternal Day’) appeared in 1911; his second, Umbra Vitae (‘Shadows of Life’) was published posthumously in the year of his death.

Heym Portrait
Georg Heym as a student, ca. 1908. Reprodueced in Nina Schneoder, Am Ufer des blauen Tags: Georg Heym: sein Leben und Werk in Bildern und Selbstzeugnissen (Glinde, 2000). YA.2002.a.24146

The poems use powerful and sometimes apocalyptic images. In ‘Der Krieg’, for example, war is personified as a demonic figure, unleashing first silent fear then forces of increasing violence and chaos. A number pf poems take the city as a theme, often conveying the sense of a city and its buildings as kind of living entity which can trap or threaten its inhabitants. Heym also examines the fears and doubts of human condition, particularly in ‘Die Irren’ (‘The Mad’), a cycle of poems which depict madness both from without and within.

But Heym can also be elegaic and romantic in poems such as ‘Träumerei in Hellblau’ (‘Reverie in Light Blue’) with its gentle evocation of dreams and a dissolving landscape, or ‘Deine Wimpern, die langen’ (‘Your lashes, long’), a tender love-poem haunted by shades of death.

Colour also plays an important role in the poems, particularly the colour red and contrasts between light and dark. Heym’s use of colour imagery often has an almost synaesthetic feel, with phrases such as ‘darkness rustles’, ‘seven-coloured torment’, or ‘autumn light / on the shore of the blue day’. He found inspiration in the paintings of artists such as van Gogh and Goya, and in his diary he recorded his own desire to be a visual artist and his frustration at his inability to give shape to his ‘imaginations’ in visual form.


Heym Furor 3An attempt by Heym to draw one of his ‘imaginations’ of madness. In the text above he laments that ‘Heaven denied me a gift for drawing’ and explains that he has long had an image of a madman in his minds eye. Reproduced in Am Ufer des blauen Tags.

However, in 1924, a new edition of Umbra Vitae appeared, designed and illustrated by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, which succeeded brilliantly in giving visual form to Heym’s work.

Heym Front cover

Heym Back cover
Front and back covers of Georg Heym, Umbra Vitae: nachgelassene Gedichte, mit 47 Originalholzschnitten von Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. (Munich, 1924). C.107.dg.15

Heym and Kirchner never met, although after Heym’s death Kirchner and his fellow-artists of the group ‘Die Brücke’ became associated with the literary circle ‘Der Neue Club’ to which Heym had belonged. Kirchner acquired a copy of Umbra Vitae shortly after publication and clearly felt an affinity with Heym’s verse since he soon began drawing pictures to accompany the poems in the blank spaces on the pages. Knowing of this, a mutual acquaintance of Kirchner and the publisher Kurt Wolff, suggested in 1922 that Wolff should commission Kirchner to illustrate a new edition of Umbra Vitae.

Heym front endpapers
Heym back endpapers
Front and back endpapers (above) and illustrated title-page (below) from Umbra Vitae

Heym Title 2

Kirchner not only illustrated the poems, but designed the whole book, with its vividly-coloured covers and endpapers, and black-and white illustrations, all using woodcuts, a popular form among the ‘Brücke’ artists. The illustrations range from small vignettes to an entire woodcut poem.

Heym Alle Landschaften (Träumerei)
The poem ‘Träumerei in Hellblau’ (here without the title) illustrated by Kirchner as a full-page woodcut.

Kirchner described his woodcuts as being ‘like the accompanying melody to a song’. Some directly illustrate images or ideas from a poem, others reflect its mood. Some are almost abstract, others realistic. The poems and images complement each other in a way that is again almost synaesthetic, reflecting the concept of the ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ where different artistic genres come together.

Heym Krieg

Like the poems themselves, the illustrations can sometimes appear deceptively simple, for example the vignette for ‘Der Krieg’ (above) where the war-demon’s face appears within what at first sight seems to be an explosion of fire. Some are full of detail, others sparer, such that  for ‘Die Städte’ (‘The Cities’, below) which also recalls Kirchner’s paintings of Berlin streets.

Heym Städte

It is particularly interesting to note that the central figure in Kirchner’s illustration for ‘Die Irren’ (below) bears some similarity to Heym’s own attempts to draw his long-imagined picture of madness. Kirchner could not have known this, but it demonstrates the close affinity between his own and Heym’s imaginative worlds.

Heym Irren 2

It is this affinity, as well as the beauty of Heym’s verse and Kirchner’s woodcuts, which makes this such a masterpiece of book art, and perhaps the finest articulation of German Expressionism in word and image.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

 References/Further Reading:

Georg Heym, Der ewige Tag (Leipzig, 1911)

Georg Heym, Umbra Vitae [1st edition] (Leipzig, 1912) X.989/89081.

Georg Heym, Der Dieb: ein Novellenbuch (Leipzig, 1912) X.908/84086. English translation by Susan Bennett, The Thief (London, 1994) Nov.1994/433

Georg Heym, Poems, translated and with an introduction by Antony Hasler (London, 2004) YC.2005.a.2280

Patrick Bridgwater, Poet of Expressionist Berlin: the Life and Work of Georg Heym (London, 1991) YC.1991.b.6980

Nina Schneider, Georg Heym 1887-1912: eine Ausstellung der Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg (Berlin, 1988) YA.1991.b.3805

29 October 2018

Writing in a Time of Crisis: Serhiy Zhadan

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The obligation to fight for national cultural and political survival has been the stimulus and curse of Ukrainian writers throughout the existence of modern Ukrainian literature. From the fiery anti-imperial poetry of the national bard Taras Shevchenko, whose work was seen as so dangerous that he was sentenced to ten years of military service and banned from writing in 1847, to the Soviet dissidents of the 1980s, like the poet Vasyl’ Stus, as famous for his complex poetry as for his death in the Gulag in 1985, Ukraine’s poets have drawn inspiration from the instinct for national survival, yet also suffered both political repressions and the aesthetic limitations that this role brings.

Serhiy_Zhadan_2015_(cropped)Serhiy Zhadan (Photo by Rafał Komorowski from Wikimedia Commons)

In 1991, when Ukraine finally achieved political independence, it seemed that the role of the writer would change. The generation of promising writers working in the 1980s and 1990s turned away from the old roles of national prophet and spiritual leader. Poets like Iurii Andrukhovych, Viktor Neborak and Oleksandr Irvanets', who made up the “Bu-Ba-Bu” group from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, developed a new, joyful, carnivalesque literary paradigm – sex, drinking and rock and roll entered Ukrainian culture for the first time. Novelists like Oksana Zabuzhko began to explore Ukrainian identity in previously unthinkable ways, uncovering its darker psychosexual complexes, while writers like Iurii Izdryk experimented with daring postmodernist aesthetics.

ZhadanBaladyTitlepage
Title-page of Serhiy Zhadan Balady pro viĭnu i vidbudovu (Lviv,2001). YA.2003.a.34372

At the end of the 1990s, on the back of this new wave of post-Soviet Ukrainian literature, a young writer from the farthest eastern reaches of Ukraine appeared on the scene. Serhiy Zhadan was young and streetwise, the epitome of the new Ukrainian literature. His poetry, in early collections like Balady pro viĭnu i vidbudovu (‘Ballads of War and Reconstruction’) tapped in to the best traditions of Ukrainian modernist verse – precisely from that period in the 1920s when, much like in the 1980s/90s, Ukrainian literature experienced a rebirth and joyfully shook off the shackles of the national burden, embracing all that was new and exciting in European literature. (It is no coincidence that the epicentre of this movement was the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, where Zhadan has lived for most of his life).

ZhadanBigMac Two editions of Zhadan’s Big Mak (Kyiv, 2003) YF.2004.a.5304, and (Kyiv, 2006) YF.2007.a.8953 

At the same time, Zhadan’s scope was wider than Ukraine: his prose, with its gallery of young losers and dreamers negotiating the treacherous, absurd, and unexpectedly poetic landscapes of Ukraine’s post-industrial eastern cities, also has shades of American writers like Vonnegut, Bukowski, or Kerouac. As the titles of books like the story collection Big Mac (2003) or the novel Depeche Mode (2004) suggest, this is a writer very much attuned to everything Western culture has to offer, from its poets to its pop stars. In the 2000s, Zhadan captured the spirit of the age perfectly, and soon became the rock-star of Ukrainian literature, gathering audiences of hundreds of young people at his poetry readings (a scenario almost unthinkable for poets in the UK and many other countries). Literary rock-stardom later turned into real rock-stardom, as Zhadan formed his own ska-punk band.

Zhadan_and_Sobaky_v_Kosmosi_2_-_Zahid_2013

Above: The band  Zhadan i  Sobaky  (Zhadan and Dogs) at a concert in 2013  (Photo by RLuts - From Wikimedia Commons  CC BY-SA 3.0); Below:  Cover of Zhadan i Sobaky. Byisia za nei. (Kharkiv, 2014). EMF.2014.a.256

ZhadanISobakyBook

In 2013-14, Ukraine found itself in crisis once again, and with the crisis the spectre of the writer’s national burden reappeared. With the conflict in Donbas, Ukraine’s independence is now under threat once again, and Ukrainian society under the immense strain of war. Here, Zhadan performed a remarkable feat: he stepped into the role of public spokesman in a time of crisis, taking up his writer’s burden, but without losing his independence of voice, his keen sense of irony or his sharp style. Since the onset of the crisis in Ukraine, he has been outspoken in support of the aims of the Euromaidan movement (the creation of a dignified, corruption-free Ukraine liberated from Russian influence), for which he received a beating at the hands of pro-Russian thugs at a protest in Kharkiv in 2014. He has also been active in Ukraine’s remarkable volunteer movement, helping bring not only Ukrainian culture, but also much needed aid to children and young people in the war-affected areas through his own charity organisation.

ZhadanInternat Cover of Internat (Chernivtsi, 2017). YF.2018.a.5057

Zhadan has also addressed the recent crisis in his work. He has published poetry freely online, providing a remarkable, real-time poetic response to events that gave solace and support to his thousands of followers. His last novel, Internat (‘The Boarding School’, 2017), is a remarkable account of life in a war-torn eastern Ukrainian city. The war in Donbas has, of course, produced its share of patriotic military prose and verse in Ukraine, but Zhadan’s novel is different: in its portrait of one man’s attempt to travel from one side of the divided city to the other to retrieve his nephew, who is stuck in a boarding school, it captures the bewilderment of the civilian experience of war and provides a subtle portrait of masculinity in crisis. Internat also destroys many of the stereotypes that exist about its author’s native eastern Ukraine. The novel doesn’t deny that certain tensions exist in terms of language, culture and politics, but it shows that these were simply part of the social and cultural complexity of the region, the kind of differences that can be found anywhere: they have little if nothing to do with the war, which was imposed from outside. Whatever their views, the characters are united in their confusion as to how the occupation could have come about, and in their wish to see its end.

For the moment, the eastern towns that Zhadan describes with such wry affection in his work are on the frontline of the war against Russia and its proxies. It does not look as though the conflict will be resolved any time soon. While no Ukrainian wants to have to face this situation, they can at least find some solace in the fact that they have a writer like Zhadan, who is able to rise to the challenge and the responsibilities of being a writer in a time of national crisis with dignity and sensitivity.

ZhadanCollectionOfBooksBooks by Serhiy Zhadan from the British Library's Collections

Uilleam Blacker, UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES)

Translations of Serhiy Zhadan into English:

Depeche Mode, translated by Myroslav Shkandrij (London, 2013). H.2015/.9591

Voroshilovgrad, translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Wheeler (Dallas, 2016). Waiting for shelfmark

Mesopotamia, translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes, Isaac Wheeler, Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps (New Haven, 2018). Waiting for shelfmark.

Words for war: new poems from Ukraine, edited by Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky. (Boston, 2017).  YD.2018.a.1534

On 12 November The British Library, in partnership with the Ukrainian Institute in London, will be hosting an evening with Serhiy Zhadan, chaired by Uilleam Blacker, in the British Library Knowledge Centre. For more details and to book tickets, see our website: https://www.bl.uk/events/serhiy-zhadan

25 October 2018

‘Where are your Olympic Games?’ Panagiotis Soutsos (1806-1868)

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Throughout the early 19th century, the contrast between the glories of ancient Greece and the servile humiliation imposed on modern Greeks by the Ottoman Empire was a frequent theme for poets there and abroad. Lord Byron, before going off to join the cause of Greek independence, lamented in his poem ‘The Isles of Greece’:

'Tis something, in the dearth of fame,
Though linked among a fettered race,
To feel at least a patriot's shame,

while in Germany Friedrich Hölderlin was writing in his novel Hyperion of the struggles of a young Greek to raise awareness of his country’s plight and find a place in the wider world. The fight for national autonomy and liberation, however, was just one aspect of the Greek endeavour to recreate the splendours of past ages. As well as its reputation for freedom and democracy, ancient Greece had been renowned for the richness of its language and literature and the prowess of its athletes as displayed in its many festivals, including the Isthmian, Delian, Pythian and, of course, the Olympic Games.

Soutsos portraitPortrait of Panagiotis Soutsos (from Wikimedia Commons)

It was in this field that the poet Panagiotis Soutsos was especially active. Born in 1806 in Constantinople, he belonged to a distinguished family of Phanariote origins, with a brother, Alexandros, and a sister, Aikaterini, who were also writers. This privileged background enabled the brothers to study at the famous school of Chios under Neophytos Vamvas, who translated the Bible into modern Greek, and to enjoy opportunities to travel unusual among Greeks at that time. In 1820, on the death of their father, they joined their uncle in Transylvania, and set out to Paris with a letter of introduction from him to Adamantios Korais, a leading figure in the Greek Enlightenment whose linguistic work laid the foundations of a purified form of the language known as Katharevousa. It was in this that Soutsos wrote the first version of his poem Ὁ Ὁδοιπόρος (‘The Wayfarer’) in 1831, although the subsequent ones of 1842, 1851 and 1864 included increasing numbers of archaisms. This ‘tragedy in five acts’ is in fact a poem in dialogue describing the love of the Wayfarer and his sweetheart Ralou and their tragic end, and is regarded as one of the seminal works of the First Athenian School which flourished between 1830 and 1880 in Athens and the Ionian Isles. Because of the origins of many of its members, it was also known as the Phanariotic School.

Soutsos Odoiporos 1608-2101 Title-page of Ὁ Ὁδοιπόρος (Athens, 1864) 1608/2101.

Of equal importance was Ὁ Λέανδρος (‘Leander’) in 1834, a novel which adopted the epistolary form used by Hölderlin and comes to a similarly pathetic conclusion as the hero writes to his friend Charilaos, ‘Hear the hour of midnight, signifying: This is the hour of my death; I am coming, death! Why are you calling me? I am coming. I take up my weapon…’, typical of the Greek Romantic movement in its patriotic theme and the influence of French Romanticism.

Soutsos Leandros 1458.b.25Title-page of Ὁ Λέανδρος (Athens, 1834) 1458.b.25.

It was prudent of Soutsos to concentrate on his literary activities, as his professional life was not a success. Settling in Nauplion (Nafplio) in 1833, he embarked on a political career and was appointed secretary of the senate by Ioannis Kapodistrias, but lost his position through his outspoken opposition to the latter’s policies. In any event, his progress was blocked by the heterogeneous law of 1843, barring citizens born in occupied territories from employment in the public sector, and his political views became increasingly conservative.

However, in the year of his arrival in Nauplion, then the capital of the newly-independent Greek state, he wrote a poem with still more far-reaching effects. Its title, ‘Dialogue of the Dead’, recalls Lucian of Samosata’s work of a similar title, and it portrays the spirit of Plato returning to Greece to gaze upon it in despair with the words: ‘Where are all your theatres and marble statues? / Where are your Olympic Games?’ Two years later, he followed this up with a letter to the Greek Minister of the Interior, Ioannis Kolettis, proposing that 25 March, the anniversary of the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence, should be declared a national holiday, marked by festivities including a revival of the ancient Olympics. Early the next year a wealthy Greek merchant based in Romania, Evangelis Zappas, offered to fund the Olympic revival, complete with cash prizes for the victors. On 13 July 1856 Soutsos published an article unveiling Zappas’ proposal to the public, and on 15 November 1859 the first modern Olympic Games took place in Athens.

It was not only in politics that Soutsos stirred up controversy. His cosmopolitan outlook and French contacts had made him aware of Ernest Renan’s Vie de Jésus (1863), and his second novel, Charitine, or The Beauty of the Christian Faith, subtitled ‘Antidote to the nonsense of Ernest Renan against the deity of Jesus Christ’ (Athens, 1864; 4823.aa.43) launched an impassioned attack on it, as might be expected from the author of The Messiah, or the Sufferings of Jesus Christ.

Soutsos Messias 1343.i.13 Title-page of The Messiah (Athens, 1839) 1343.i.13

In linguistic matters, too, Soutsos provoked disputes. In 1853 he expounded his opinions on language in his essay New School of the Written Word, or Resurrection of the Ancient Greek Language Understood by All, advocating the revival of Ancient Greek and dismissing Demotic Greek as not universally intelligible. The academic Konstantinos Asopios retaliated with The Soutseia, or Mr Panagiotis Soutsos scrutinized as a Grammarian, Philologist, Schoolmaster, Metrician and Poet, leading to a torrent of pamphlets by other scholars all exposing one another’s alleged shortcomings and promoting their own systems.

Despite this and the trials of increasing ill health, financial losses and marital troubles, by the time of his death on 25 October 1868 Soutsos had seen his Olympic vision realised and his work translated into German as early as 1844 – a further chapter in the mutual fascination between Greece and Germany throughout the 19th century.

Soutsos Ode bilingual 1461.h.3Title-page of Ode: Erinnerung an die wiedererstandene Hellas (Wrocław, 1844) 1461.h.3., a parallel Greek and German language edition

 Susan Halstead. Subject Librarian (Social sciences) Research Services

 

        

22 October 2018

A pessimist on Parnassus: Leconte de Lisle

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The British Library’s recent study day devoted to the French Caribbean noted the parallels between the Windrush generation and the stream of migrants to France from its overseas départements such as Martinique and Guadeloupe. Although the emphasis was on immigration in the 20th century, one of the most notable individuals to undertake this voyage did so at a much earlier date to become one of the leading figures in 19th-century French literature.

Leconte-de-lisleYOUNGPortrait of  the young Leconte de Lisle (c. 1840) by Jean-François Millet 
(Image from Wikiart)
 

Charles Marie René Leconte de Lisle’s journey took him from Réunion to Rennes. Born on 22 October 1818, he had made a stay in Nantes with his parents before returning home in 1828 to attend the Collège de Saint-Denis. However, with five younger children to educate his parents were anxious to see him established in a solid profession, and despatched him to Dinan in 1837 to lodge with his uncle Louis Leconte and read law at the University of Rennes. Before long, though, he became disenchanted with his arid legal studies and was more often to be found attending lectures in classical literature and history. In addition, he founded two short-lived literary journals, La Variété (1840) and Le Scorpion (1842), both of which collapsed for lack of funds. Not surprisingly, he failed to qualify as a lawyer, and in retaliation his irate parents cut off his allowance and forced him to return to Réunion and earn his bread by carrying out humdrum duties for various businesses. He poured out his resentment and disenchantment with the people of the island in his story Saintive, where the tragic abduction of a planter’s daughter arouses only dull indifference among the apathetic creoles. He was also incensed by the fact that his father used slave labour on his plantation, and when, in 1845, friends from Rennes invited him to collaborate with them on the newspaper La Démocratie pacifique (NEWS14710) he accepted with alacrity and set off for Paris.

The newspaper was based on the ideas of the philosopher Charles Fourier, whose doctrine of Associationism represented an early form of socialism in its vision of fraternal cooperation. In the years preceding the 1848 revolution, Leconte de Lisle enthusiastically embraced these ideals and became secretary to the editor of the paper’s monthly cultural review La Phalange (1600/966). In 1846 he made friends with the classical scholar Louis Ménard and the translator Thalès Bernard, whose influence coloured the poems on Greek themes which he published at this time.

With the outbreak of revolution, he was sent back to Dinan to advocate the republican cause. This, and his open advocacy of the abolition of slavery, met with a chilly reception in the conservative Breton town and did little to improve family relations. Further disillusionment followed with the failure of the revolution and of his attempt to secure a teaching post at the Collège de Saint-Denis.

Leconte poesies 11474.e.12

Frontispiece by Louis Duveau for Leconte de Lisle, Poésies complètes (Paris, 1858) 11474.e.12

During the 1850s, however, his fortunes gradually improved with the publication of his collections Poèmes antiques (Paris 1852; 11482.cc.27) and Poèmes et poésies (Paris, 1855; 011483.cc.20), which won the Académie Française’s Lambert Prize in 1857, enabling him to marry. Translation, too, became a major preoccupation, and in the 1860s he published versions of Theocritus’s Idylls and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. His home on the Boulevard des Invalides became a meeting-place for young writers eager to follow new directions in poetry; Louis Napoleon awarded him a generous annual pension from his private funds, and in 1866 Alphonse Lemerre published the first volume of Le Parnasse contemporain, featuring contributions by Baudelaire, Verlaine and Mallarmé. Its second number was devoted entirely to Leconte de Lisle’s work.

ParnasSusanH

Title page of Le Parnasse contemporain for 1876. 11483.i.4

It was this journal which gave its name to the Parnassian school, of which de Lisle would become the head. Its governing principle was a belief in the discipline imposed by form and structure rather than the indulgences of personal lyricism and sensibility. However, de Lisle believed passionately in the power of poetry to restore to the modern world, jaded by industrial and commercial concerns, the vitality and wholeness of ancient Greece, and of the poet to guide mankind towards this.

Drawing on myths and legends from classical antiquity, the Celtic and Scandinavian past and further afield, he plunged himself into other worlds, seeking to become ‘a sort of contemporary of every age’ to bring them to life. His evocations of a snowy battlefield where a dying hero asks a raven to carry his heart back to his beloved in Uppsala (‘Le Coeur de Hialmar’) or an eerie landscape where a bridegroom is ensnared on the eve of his wedding by a swarm of mysterious beings (‘Les Elfes’) are among the best-known pieces in French school anthologies but retain their vividness and power to startle even nowadays. His portrayal of nature is equally vigorous, whether describing the rippling muscles of a savage jaguar, the soaring of an albatross, or the scent of cloves and lychees on a tropical island, drawing on his observations of creatures in the Jardin des Plantes, his memories of Réunion, and his first impressions of the harsh contrast of the coasts and heathlands of Brittany.

After the disappointment of 1848 Leconte de Lisle cast aside the political traits which had been present in his earliest works. Forced to recognize that the mediocre modern era could never regain the unity of art and science found in ancient Greece, he grew increasingly embittered, and in 1894, the year of his death, affirmed that ‘the beautiful is not the servant of the true, because it contains Truth’, and that ‘art is an intellectual luxury accessible only to very rare spirits’. He was also compelled to acknowledge that such an exclusive view of poetry was unlikely to provide him with a living. The pension from the imperial government which he had been criticized for accepting despite his republican views disappeared with the fall of Napoleon III, and he had to accept a post as librarian to the Senate.

Leconte de Lisle’s work also lives on in settings by Fauré, Duparc and many other composers, and in his refusal to allow his poetry to be compromised by the drabness of an era of grubby materialism, he remains a figure for our own times.

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