European studies blog

370 posts categorized "Literature"

04 January 2022

Art, poetry and social action – some of 2021’s less conventional Nordic acquisitions

In European Collections, where we focus on printed books post-1850, many of our acquisitions come through regular contracted suppliers. These suppliers are equipped to provide the breadth of publications the Library needs to stay relevant as an international research organisation. Occasionally, however, we acquire by different means, perhaps when the publication is more niche, or second-hand, or when we have a connection to a publisher or author, amongst other reasons. As we enter a new year, I wanted to reflect briefly on the quirkier material that has entered the BL’s Nordic collections in just such ways in 2021.

Valtatiet (‘Highways’) is an early example of the Finnish avant-garde, an illustrated poetry collaboration between Mika Waltari, Olavi Lauri Paavolainen and the artist Sylvi Kunnas, who provided its striking front cover.

Cover of Valtatiet (1928) by Sylvi Kunnas

Cover of Valtatiet (1928) by Sylvi Kunnas, awaiting shelfmark

Waltari and Paavolainen were prominent members of the Tulenkantajat (‘Torch Bearers’) group of artists and writers, who introduced the trending movements of European modernism to Finland. Valtatiet was itself inspired by Filippo Marinetti’s Futurism in its manifesto-like poetry of ‘machine romanticism’ (Kaunonen), while Kunnas’s cover certainly betrays an interest in Cubist style. Both poets increasingly became more politically engaged, despite their early preference for the aesthetics and experience of modernity and modern life, and both visited Nazi Germany in the 1930s, with Paavolainen producing perhaps his most famous work as a result, Kolmannen Valtakunnan vieraana (‘Guest of the Third Reich’, 1936). This acquisition complements an extensive European avant-garde collection at the Library and importantly expands it to incorporate an example of its unique Finnish expression.

Black-and-white image of a stlylised human figure

Illustration by Sylvi Kunnas accompanying the poems entitled ‘Credo’ by Olavi Lauri Paavolainen

Our Finnish collections also recently welcomed a much more contemporary literary work, Fun Primavera by Elsa Tölli, which we kindly received directly from the author. Elsa won this year’s Tanvissa karhu (‘Dancing bear’) prize for poetry, the first time it has gone to a self-published work. Thrilled to be asked for a copy by the Library, Elsa sent us a beautiful note along with the book, which she described as her “wild and extravagant poetry explosion”. Thank you, Elsa! And for those of us still needing to hone our Finnish, an English translation by Kasper Salonen is available. 

From Fun Primavera by Elsa Tölli

From Fun Primavera by Elsa Tölli (awaiting shelfmark)

Reaching out to creators has been an interesting way to learn about contemporary publishing in the region. I came across the work of Johannes Samuelsson through conversations around Swedish art books and projects centred on social action. Samuelsson, an artist and photographer, has developed an art practice that is directly concerned with uplifting his community in Umeå, making books that document but also form part of that social action. Johannes generously sent his work to the Library and I was particularly struck by the book Skäliga anspråk på prydlighet: En bok om kampen för en korvvagn (‘Reasonable claims for neatness: A book on the fight for a hot dog stall’).

Cover of Johannes Samuelsson’s Skäliga anspråk på prydlighet, featuring hot dog stall owner, Helmer Holm

Cover of Johannes Samuelsson’s Skäliga anspråk på prydlighet, featuring hot dog stall owner, Helmer Holm

When the Umeå authorities introduced new regulations for the design of hot dog stalls, Helmer Holm fought to retain his stall, which contravened the new rules. Samuelsson documents what he calls the “hot dog war”, amplifying Holm’s campaign, which was eventually successful, and the project is brought to life in the photobook. Attempting to represent the cultural life of the Nordic region, our collections need to be broad and relevant, identifying projects that also speak to universal issues and therefore that cut across the Library’s collections. With this Swedish perspective on local activism, on gentrification of common urban space, on art as social practice, we are hopefully adding richness to collections that interrogate similar ideas.

Cover of Art of Welfare

Cover of Art of Welfare, (Oslo, 2006) YD.2021.a.1210

We are always keen to incorporate independent publishing and smaller presses, especially where the publications complement the collections we already hold and the themes central to them. Art publishing tends to be produced with an international market in mind, with many books from the Nordic region appearing in English. After acquiring the Office for Contemporary Art Norway’s recent trilogy of new Indigenous writing, following a survey of contemporary publishing related to Sámi culture, we were fortunate to receive all outstanding issues of the publisher’s Verkstad series from them directly. Exhibition catalogues are often the place for leading thinkers to be creative, and there are unique essays throughout this series. Take, for example, Art of Welfare, produced for Elmgreen & Dragset's exhibition, ‘The Welfare Show’ – initially produced by Bergen Kunsthall, – at the Serpentine Gallery in London in January 2006.

As we constantly shape our collections to reflect the worlds they represent, working with authors, artists and independent publishers is an indispensable way to get at the heart of these cultural landscapes and to broaden the perspective of our own. We hope to continue to supplement our Nordic collections in this way, developing this unofficial “acquisitions through conversations” approach.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections 

References

Leena Kaunonen, ‘Avant-Garde Moments in Nykyaikaa etsimassa by Olavi Paavolainen’, in A Cultural History of the Avant–Garde in the Nordic Countries 1925–1950 (Leiden, 2019) Avant-garde critical studies; 36. pp. 746-760. 1837.116580

29 December 2021

Occupied City, 1921-2021

Paul van Ostaijen wrote his poetry collection Bezette Stad (‘Occupied City’), with art work by Jesper Oscar and René Victor, in 1921. It was published by Sienjaal, set in Antwerp and written in Berlin. The Great War is the topic, and stream of consciousness is the style. The original manuscript was recently bought by the Flemish government for €725,000, and has been made available online.

In honour of the centenary of this work, I have made a visual version of the brief information above, inspired by Ostaijen’s Dada-esque style, as well as offering a bibliography of works by and about Ostaijen from the British Library’s collections.

The text of the first paragraph in Dada-inspired style with different fonts, typefaces, alignments and colours

Images of a drum and a 'boom' sound, echoing a famous phrase from Ostaijen's work, with titles of two theses and an online project cited in the bibliography below

References/further reading

Paul van Ostaijen, Bezette Stad (Antwerp, 1921), Cup.503.p.5 (Online edition of the manuscript at https://consciencebibliotheek.be/nl/pagina/blader-digitaal-door-het-handschrift-%E2%80%98bezette-stad%E2%80%99-van-paul-van-ostaijen). English translation by David Colmer, Occupied City (Ripon, 2016). YK.2017.a.540

Paul van Ostaijen, De feesten van angst en pijn  (Nijmegen, 2006) YF.2008.a.12964. English translation by Hidde Van Ameyden van Duym, Feasts of fear and agony, translated by Hidde Van Ameyden van Duym (New York, 1976). X.950/45770

Paul van Ostaijen, The first book of Schmoll: selected poems 1920-28, translated by Theo Hermans, James S. Holmes, and Peter Nijmeijer, ([Amsterdam], 1982) Cup.935/283

E.M. Beekman, Homeopathy of the absurd: the grotesque in Paul van Ostaijen’s creative prose. (The Hague, 1970), W19/5382

E.M. Beekman, Patriotism, Inc. and other tales ([Amherst], 1971), A71/5805

Gerrit Borgers, Paul van Ostaijen. (The Hague, 1971), X.909/24106.

Geert Buelens, Van Ostaijen tot heden. (Antwerp, 2001), YA.2002.a.37134

Frances Bulhof (ed.), Nijhoff, Van Ostaijen, “De Stijl” (The Hague, 1976), X:410/6582

Wright, Edward, Paul van Ostaijen, ([S.l., 196-?), YA.2003.b.2422

On the web: 

On the fringes of Dada in Berlin (Blogpost)

Besmette Stad (A multimedia  project inspired by Ostaijen’s work) 

From Occupied City to Infected City (Blogpost)

Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections

 

26 November 2021

Two new fine editions of Georgia's national poet

Shota Rustaveli is the most admired poet in Georgia and an iconic figure in Georgian national literature. He is the author of the medieval epic poem Vepxistqaosani (The Knight in the Panther's Skin). The poem was composed during the reign of Queen Tamar and is dedicated to her. The poem exemplifies the medieval knightly ideals of chivalry, friendship, courtly love and courage, and yet has contemporary relevance as its humanistic values are timeless. It is recognised internationally as a masterpiece and has been translated into many languages in both verse and prose. It was first published in Tbilisi in 1712 at the printing press established by King Vakhtang VI of Kartli at his initiative. Several manuscripts exist, written both before and after that date.

The British Library holds a number of editions of The Knight in the Panther's Skin including translations into English and other languages. Unfortunately, we do not hold any manuscripts. Recently, however, our collections have been enriched by generous donations from the Art Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History.

We have received two beautiful facsimiles of manuscripts of The Knight in the Panther's Skin. Both have been recently published in limited editions by Bakmi Publishing in Tbilisi. The originals are preserved in the Korneli Kekelidze National Centre of Manuscripts in Tbilisi.

Cover of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani (Tbilisi, 2018)

Cover of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani (Tbilisi, 2018) HS.74/2506

The first of these manuscripts was created in 1680 at the behest of King George XI of Kartli by his secretary, Begtabeg Taniashvili. For this reason, the manuscript is generally known as ‘Begtabeg’s manuscript’ (Begtabegiseuli khelnatseri = ბეგთაბეგისეული ხელნაწერი). Each page of this manuscript is enriched with stylized, gold-plated decorations consisting of images of animals, birds and flowers. Every page is unique as none of the designs is repeated in the 523 pages. The facsimile of the manuscript is bound in navy blue leather and decorated with gold lettering.

Page 19 of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani

Page 19 of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani

Page 113 of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani

Page 113 of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani

Page 391 of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani

Page 391 of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani

The other manuscript was created between the 17th and 18th centuries and is known as ‘Tsereteli’s manuscript’ (Tseretliseuli khelnatseri = წერეთლისეული ხელნაწერი). It bears the name of its owner, the Tsereteli family. Among the many manuscripts of the poem, it is the most richly illustrated. It contains 87 miniatures. Some of them appear to have been influenced by Persian miniature painting, while others reflect national Georgian traditions. The different styles present in the manuscript suggest that they were executed by several artists, all of whom are unknown.

The slip-case of the facsimile is handmade and has been decorated using cloisonné enamel. Very expensive materials, including silver, gold-plated brass and enamel, were employed. It was designed and created by the traditional Georgian jewellery company, Zarapxana.

Slip-case of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani (Tbilisi, 2019)

Slip-case of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani (Tbilisi, 2019) RF.2021.a.20

Page 22-23 of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani (Tbilisi, 2019)

Page 22-23 of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani

Page 83 of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani (Tbilisi, 2019)

Page 83 of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani 

Page 381 of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani (Tbilisi, 2019)

Page 381 of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani 

The donation of this book has been made possible by a contribution from Tamar Latsabidze, Zarapxana, Giorgi Kalandia and the Art Palace of Georgia.

The British Library is enormously grateful to Giorgi Kalandia and the Art Palace for the substantial donations to the British Library collections made during recent years. This has resulted in an improved supply of contemporary publications and has also filled some significant gaps in our collection.

We are also very grateful to Tamar Latsabidze and to Zarapxana, the Georgian jeweller, for their support. It has been important for us to establish and develop closer contacts with our partners in Georgia.

The generosity of all who have contributed is very much appreciated. They have evidently taken heed of the well-known quotation from Rustaveli: “That which we give makes us richer, that which is hoarded is lost”.

Anna Chelidze, Curator Georgian Collections

References/Further reading:

Shota Rustaveli, The Man in the Panther’s skin: a romantic epic … a close rendering from the Georgian attempted by Marjory Scott Wardrop. (London,1912) 14003.bb.16.

Kʿartʿuli xelnaceri cigni V-XIX saukuneebi = Georgian manuscript book 5th-19th centuries (Tbilisi, 2012) YF.2014.b.2472

Šalva Amiranašvili, Vepʿxistqaosnis dasuratʿeba: miniaturebi šesrulebuli XVI-XVII saukuneebši (Tbilisi, 1966) YF.2015.b.2110

S. Qubaneišvili, Vepʿxistqaosnis bečdvis istoriidan (Tbilisi, 1975) YF.2017.a.2371

24 November 2021

‘The Unknown Feminist of Fin-de-siècle Europe: Lesia Ukrainka’ at the British Library

On 16 November 2021, the British Library, in partnership with the Ukrainian Institute London, hosted an event to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Ukrainian writer and poet Lesia Ukrainka. The expert panel was chaired by Lucy Delap, Professor of History at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Murray Edwards College, and included Sasha Dovzhyk, a Ukrainian scholar and writer based in London, and Oksana Zabuzhko, one of Ukraine’s major contemporary writers.

Photograph of the event panel

The evening was opened by Katie McElvanney, Curator of Slavonic and East European Collections at the British Library. Oksana Zabuzhko, who joined the event remotely from Kyiv, highlighted that the complete collection of Lesia Ukrainka’s works (14 volumes) had only now been published, 150 years after her birth. She noted that Ukrainka was ‘misread’ in Soviet times and stressed the importance of re-reading and reviving her work and legacy.

Speaking about Ukrainka’s family, Zabuzhko emphasised that they were remarkable people who played an important role in the creation of modern Ukraine. She also spoke about the main themes and motifs of Ukrainka’s 21 plays, which were based on European culture and the European Christian tradition. In each of her dramas the main character is a woman and these women possess spiritual leadership, said Zabuzhko.

As part of the event, Olesya Khromeychuk, Director of the Ukrainian Institute London, announced the winner of the Institute’s inaugural Ukrainian Literature in Translation Prize. The condition of this year was the translation of Ukrainka’s works. First prize was awarded to Nina Murray for her translation from Ukrainka’s drama Cassandra. Daisy Gibbons received the second prize for her translation of extracts from Ukrainka’s letters to Olha Kobylianska and the short story ‘By the Sea’. Nina Murray, together with Uilleam Blacker, then read excerpts from Cassandra in Ukrainian and English. It should be mentioned that Zabuzhko’s novel The Museum of Abandoned Secrets was also translated into English by Nina Murray.

Continuing the panel discussion, Sasha Dovzhyk told the audience about the Ukrainian Institute London’s short film Fin de Siècle Ukrainian Feminism on Ukrainka, where she was an expert. She also spoke about Ukrainka’s letters to Olha Kobylianska. Among the subjects of their correspondence was the struggle for women's rights. Dovzhyk cited and conextualised the words of another outstanding Ukrainian poet and writer Ivan Franko who remarked of Ukrainka, ‘this fragile and sick woman is almost the only man in the whole of Ukraine’.

Oksana Zabuzhko and Sasha Dovzhyk answered a number of questions from the audience. They also stressed that 19th and early 20th-century European literature is not complete without Lesia Ukrainka. She was a part of European culture, even in her travelling, and it is vital that her work is translated into different languages. Discussing Ukrainka’s relevance and appeal in contemporary Ukrainian society, Dovzhyk noted that she has become part of mass culture in Ukraine; during the Euromaidan her image appeared on the building of the Institute of Literature of the National Academy of Sciences, along with the other prominent figures Taras Shevchenko and Ivan Franko.

Photograph of the event panel and audience

The recording of the event will be available on the Ukrainian Institute London’s YouTube channel.

Nadiia Strishenets, British Library Chevening Fellow working on collections related to the Ukrainian writer, poet and artist Taras Shevchenko

Photos by Anna Morgan and Tetiana Kharchenko. With thanks to the Ukrainian Institute London for allowing us to reproduce the photos in this blog post. 

 

11 November 2021

Astrid Roemer - unconventional, poetic and authentic

Literary awards are given to authors for their work. Sometimes this leads to controversy, such as in the case of this year’s winning author of the prestigious Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren (Dutch Literature Prize) Astrid Roemer. The prize is awarded every three years to a Dutch or Flemish or, since 2005, Surinamese author, and Roemer is the first black and Surinamese author to win it. She is known for being outspoken and an independent mind. The jury praised her work for being ‘unconventional, poetic and authentic’. These traits are bound to lead to controversy at some point. This is not the place to comment on the furore around the award and its winner. I have included some links to articles that discuss this in more detail at the end of the blog post.

Cover of Astrid Roemer, Over de Gekte van een Vrouw

Astrid Roemer, Over de Gekte van een Vrouw (Haarlem, 1982) X.958/16031.

I must admit that until recently I had never read any of Roemer’s work, but through research for this blog post I got the impression of a warm-hearted, compassionate woman, who has very nuanced views. ‘Identity’ plays a huge part in her work. Identity as an individual, or as a group, as a man or woman, as a black man or black woman, as a child or a parent, as a citizen in Suriname, or in the Netherlands, etc. She tells her stories usually through women who struggle to take their rightful place in society; who are keeping families together, no matter how fragmented these are.

It is as if she sees a parallel between individuals and families and Suriname itself. A young country still fighting for its place in the world, whilst at the same time different ethnic groups search for their place in the big Surinamese family within Suriname. And a country that struggles to find a relationship with its former ‘parent’, the colonial power that was the Netherlands and where many Surinamese people moved to study and work. Maybe that is why she is so good at presenting ‘big’ events and ‘big’ themes on a human scale.

The problems Surinamese immigrants to the Netherlands face in adapting to Dutch life whilst trying to stay faithful to their Surinamese identity is very well described in Neem mij terug, Suriname, Roemer’s first novel. First published in 1974, it was reprinted in 1975 and 2005. In 1983 it was published as Nergens ergens (Nowhere Somewhere) and in 2015 a jubilee-edition appeared, in celebration of its 40 year anniversary and for being awarded the P.C. Hooftprijs for her whole prose oeuvre.

Covers of Neem mij terug, Suriname and Nergens ergens by Astrid Roemer

Astrid Roemer, Neem mij terug, Suriname (Schoorl, 2015) YF.2017.a.33 and Astrid Roemer, Nergens ergens (Amsterdam, 1983) YA.1990.a.18843.

When she says: ‘I am married to Suriname, the Netherlands is my lover, I am in a gay relationship with Africa and I am inclined to have one-night stands with every other country’, she conveys the complexity of ‘identity’, as well as a sense of being a ‘world citizen’, but she doesn’t want to be labelled as such. She has lived in many different countries, but feels most at home in Paramaribo, the place of her birth.

When her mother died in 2019 she moved there, partly as a way to process her loss. She finds comfort and solace there as well as space to write in her day-to-day routine. And write she does.

What is called her ‘Suriname trilogy’ Gewaagd Leven (Risky Life) from 1996, Lijken op Liefde (Resembling Love) from 1997, and Was Getekend (Was Signed) from 1998 will be re-issued as Onmogelijk moederland (Impossible Motherland) early next year. About this trilogy Roemers said: ‘On the rubbish heap of slavery, colonialism and the present I searched for irreducible remains to experience my identity as Suriname-Dutch woman anew.’

Covers of the books in Astrid Roemer's ‘Suriname trilogy’

Astrid Roemer, Gewaagd Leven (Amsterdam, 1996) YA.1996.a.19238, Lijken op Liefde (Amsterdam, 1997) YA.1999.a.10270 and Was Getekend (Amsterdam, 1998) YA.2000.a.36919.

She will publish a new novel in 2022: Dealers Daughter, set in Paramaribo about a young woman whose father gets involved in a murder. Roemer has also worked on a selection of poems by Maya Angelou for a Dutch audience: En Toch Heradem Ik : Haar 25 mooiste gedichten (Amsterdam, 2022). Her English-language debut, Off-White, translated by Jan Steyn, is due to be published next year.

I cannot wait to discover more of Roemer’s work.

Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections

Other works by Astrid Roemer held by the British Library:

Levenslang Gedicht (Haarlem, 1987) YA.1990.a.23555

Waarom zou je huilen mijn lieve, lieve... (Schoorl, 1987) YA.1990.a.21044

De achtentwintigste dag (Breda, 1988) YA.1990.a.15920

Het Spoor van de Jakhals (Schoorl, 1988) YA.1990.a.8974

Niets wat pijn doet (Amsterdam, 1993) YA.1993.a.24646

Suriname : een gids voor vrienden (Amsterdam, 1997) YA.1999.a.9861

‘Miauw’ (Breda, 2001) YA.2002.a.35999

Liefde in Tijden van Gebrek (Amsterdam, 2016) YF.2016.a.26486

Olga en haar driekwartsmaten (Amsterdam, 2017) YF.2017.a.3034

Gebroken Wit (Amsterdam, 2019) YF.2019.a.17264

Further reading:

Hugo Pos, ‘Inleiding tot de Surinaamse literatuur’. In: Tirade 17 (1973), p. 396-409

Hilde Neus, ‘Roemer in redeloos redeneren’, Neerlandistiek, 15 August 2021 

Tessa Leuwsha, ‘Astrid H. Roemer: ‘Dutch Will Slowly but Surely Disappear From Suriname’’ (interview with Astrid Roemer, translated by Anna Asbury)

08 November 2021

Tove Jansson’s illustrations for Carroll and Tolkien

Naturally, we tend to focus on the Anglosphere legacies of English-language literary classics, but when it comes to fantasy fiction, like the works of Lewis Carroll and J. R. R. Tolkien, their international reception and illustrated editions are very much part of the phenomena. The worlds evoked transcend age- and language-barriers, with illustrations often inflected by specific geographical, cultural and historical contexts, given the genre’s endless capacity for reinterpretation.

Mosaic of covers of new acquisitions of works illustrated by Tove Jansson

Covers of new acquisitions of works illustrated by Tove Jansson

The Library has recently acquired a number of books illustrated by the genius that was Tove Jansson - the Finnish-Swedish creator of the Moomins, and also ‘novelist, short-story-writer, memoirist, painter, illustrator and cartoonist’, as the volume Tove Jansson Rediscovered importantly underlines. These acquisitions include translations of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark, Alice in Wonderland, and Tolkien’s The Hobbit, as well as a 1946 issue of the short-lived journal Litteratur, Konst, Teater.

Image accompanying Roger Richard’s poem ‘The Sleeping Woman’

Image accompanying Roger Richard’s poem ‘The Sleeping Woman’ / Den sovande kvinnan in Litteratur, Konst, Teater 1946, RF.2021.a.10

Jansson’s work never departs from view for too long in the UK’s cultural events landscape, as evidenced by the recent exhibition and walking trail at Walthamstow Wetlands and The William Morris Gallery, or by the big-budget Moomins animation, or the 2017-18 Jansson retrospective at Dulwich Picture Gallery. This goes alongside the stream of reissues, biographies, edited scholarly volumes and translations, including Letters from Tove and Tove Jansson: life, art, words: the authorised biography, both translations published by Sort Of Books in the last decade. Unattributed quotations in this blog are taken from the latter.

Tove Jansson’s illustration for the cover of Solveig von Schoultz’s Nalleresan (Teddy Bears’ Journey)

Tove Jansson’s illustration for the cover of Solveig von Schoultz’s Nalleresan (Teddy Bears’ Journey), originally 1944, here the 2007 facsimile reprint, YF.2008.a.5876

While Jansson illustrated a dozen or so books early in her career, she would devote most of her illustrative output to her own iconic creation. That is, apart from when the opportunities to illustrate Carrol and later Tolkien were presented to her. Unable to resist collaborating with publisher and translator, Åke Runnquist, and co-translator, Lars Forsell, on a book of ‘pure modern nonsense verse’, Jansson accepted the commission for The Hunting of the Snark (Snarkjakten) in 1958 and it was published a year later.

Jansson’s illustration for ‘The Hunt’ (‘Jakten’) from Snarkjakten

Jansson’s illustration of ‘The Beaver’s Lesson’ (‘Bäverns läxa’) from Snarkjakten

Jansson’s illustrations for the sections, ‘The Hunt’ (‘Jakten’) and ‘The Beaver’s Lesson’ (‘Bäverns läxa’) from Snarkjakten, RF.2021.a.7

While it wasn’t reprinted, the publishers deemed the collaboration a success, with the illustrations considered of the ‘highest class’. Jansson had not seen the original illustrations by Henry Holiday and their respective styles could not be more different, evident in their interpretations of ‘The Landing’ (‘Landstigningen’), the first “fit”, or part of the poem (rendered frossbrytning in the Swedish, almost a fit of shivering, or chill).

Henry Holiday’s original illustration of ‘The Landing’

Tove Jansson’s illustration of ‘The Landing’

Henry Holiday’s original illustration (above) and Tove Jansson’s (below) of ‘The Landing’

Jansson depicted a cast of large-eyed, long-snouted moominesque figures in contrast to Holiday’s caricatured, large-headed humans, both bringing the absurd to life in their own ways.

The year after the publication of Snarkjakten, Jansson received a letter from the author of Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren, who aimed to entice her fellow author to illustrate a new Swedish translation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit (Bilbo: En Hobbits Åventyr, RF.2021.a.8). Much has been written on Jansson’s illustrations by Tolkien fans and much of it critical of her inventive departure from the author’s descriptions. For Jansson, it was a chance to move away from the Moomin figures, while building on affinities between her own world and Tolkien’s landscape, what she describes as ‘Forests of living horror, coal-black rivers, moonlit moors with fiery wolves – a whole world of catastrophe […]’.

Bilbo surveys the Misty Mountains

Bilbo surveys the Misty Mountains

Indeed, Tove’s hopes to capture the dark immensity of Tolkien’s world were slightly clipped by Lindgren and the publishers, as they wanted it to be situated firmly within children’s literature and for it to make Bilbo more prominent and therefore less awed by his environment. The world of catastrophe had to be seen as navigable to the book’s young readers.

Gollum according to Tove Jansson

Gollum according to Tove Jansson

One particular bone of contention for Tolkien fans is the depiction of Gollum, who is nothing like the later film’s rendering. Jansson shows us a friendlier, perhaps more human figure, twice the size of the Gollum we can all picture. All in all, as Westin puts it, many readers ‘saw Jansson, where they would have preferred Tolkien’. The book was no success by any objective measure and only one edition appeared.

Bear vignette from The Hobbit

Bear vignette from The Hobbit

Whatever superfans make of the fidelity of the illustrations, they are undoubtedly fine achievements, down to the small vignettes used to head chapters, figures which Jansson drew iteratively ’20, 40, 60 times till it looked fairly free’ and then glued them together, giving them a real dynamism.

Alice down the Rabbit-Hole

Alice down the Rabbit-Hole

The lack of reception for her Hobbit illustrations might have stunted the desire to collaborate on works that were not her own. Jansson was however drawn back to Carroll in 1965, this time Runnquist’s translation of Alice in Wonderland (Alice I Underlandet, RF.2021.a.9), Carroll’s original manuscript of which we hold here at the BL. Like what she found compelling in Tolkien, Jansson read Alice as a ‘horror’, telling Runnquist, ‘the story is terrifying and can in no way be seen as an idyll, but it causes shivers of pleasure’. The translator however could not agree and sought something altogether more pleasant.

Alice, cat and bats in the tall grass

Alice, cat and bats in the tall grass

The horror is still there in Jansson’s illustrations, in the uncanny, magnified or magnifying underworld, as the artist gives pictorial life to Carroll’s inherently uneasy and confounding fantasy. Jansson’s use of colour, often rendered quite light on the page, makes them almost dreamlike.

Alice encounters a blue caterpillar on a mushroom

Alice encounters a blue caterpillar on a mushroom

Runnquist hailed the work as a masterpiece. As Mikiko Chimiori writes, Jansson captures the ‘the transitional period between childhood and adolescence’, often proving ‘even more imaginative and fantastic than the original’. To understand that comment, we should bear in mind that the ‘original’ was illustrated by Carroll himself, with engravings by John Tenniel for the published first edition, illustrations which Jansson herself thought definitive.

The Mock-Turtle’s Story

The Mock-Turtle’s Story

Tove Jansson was a prolific and multitalented writer and artist rightly best known for her Moomins but quickly becoming so much more than that in our cultural landscape, such is the richness and continued relevance of her oeuvre.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections 

Further Reading:

Tove Jansson, Letters from Tove, edited by Boel Westin and Helen Svensson, translated by Sarah Death, 2019, ELD.DS.463620

Boel Westin, Tove Jansson: life, art, words: the authorised biography, translated by Silvester Mazzarella, 2018, YK.2018.a.7552

Wayne G. Hammond & Christina Scull, The art of the Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (London, 2011), LC.31.a.13046

Maria Popova, ‘Vintage Illustrations for Tolkien’s The Hobbit from Around the World’

Mikiko Chimori, ‘Tove Jansson’s Alice Illustrations’, in Tove Jansson Rediscovered, ed. by Kate McLoughlin and Malin Lindström Brock (Cambridge, 2007), m08/.23195

03 November 2021

Venice: Tales of a Sinking City – an online event

On 8 November 2021 the British Library is hosting a free online event looking at the role of Venice in the current environmental, cultural and social global crises.

For centuries at the helm of a trading empire, the city of Venice has amassed wealth and culture in every palace, church, canal. Its lagoon constitutes a harmonious example of man-made transformation of the environment, conquered from mud, yet liveable and sustainable. A unique place for the circulation of ideas, home to fine printing, art and literature, a bridge between East and West. Venice is both a muse and a maker.

Still of flooded Venice from Homo Urbanus Venetianus

Still from Bêka and Lemoine, Homo Urbanus Venetianus, 2019 copyright of Bêka and Lemoine

After the decline and fall of the Republic of Venice, the city seemed the last Romantic fantasy during the industrial revolution. Nowadays, the number of inhabitants is diminishing, whilst tourism has reached its peak. The city is becoming a resort and is at risk of forgetting its own history, uniqueness, identity. Without its people, Venice might end up looking like one of its hundreds of replicas around the world.

There is not one way to describe Venice, nor 55. 55 is the number of fictional cities described in Italo Calvino’s 1974 work, Le Citta’ invisibili (Invisible Cities; Turin, 1978; X.908/86292) by Venetian explorer Marco Polo to Kublai Khan, Emperor of Mongolia. After hearing about all of them, Kublai Khan said:

‘There is still one of which you never speak.’
Marco Polo bowed his head.
'Venice,’ the Khan said.
Marco smiled. ‘What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?’
The emperor did not turn a hair. ‘And yet I have never heard you mention that name.’
And Polo said: ‘Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.’

Cover of Italo Calvino, Invisible cities, translated by William Weave

Italo Calvino, Invisible cities, translated by William Weave (London, 1974). X.989/29509

F.T. Marinetti and his futurist fellows did not like Venice. They repudiated it for its slavish devotion of the past. They suggest to “burn the gondolas” and fill the canals with the rubbish of the crumbling palaces. “May the dazzling reign of divine Electrical Light at last free Venice from her venal furnished room’s moonshine”, says a manifesto thrown in thousands of copies from the Clock Tower of St Mark’s Square, in 1910.

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Futurist Venice

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Futurist Venice (Milan, 1910). 1879.c.8.(24.)

Episodes of acqua alta, high water, have been recorded since the XIII century, but Marinetti would have never imagined that the rising sea levels would become a serious threat to the very existence of the city. The exceptional acqua alta in November 2019, when 85% of the city was covered by water, has been subject of a film by architects and film makers Bêka and Lemoine, Homo Urbanus Venetianus, observing the daily habits of tourists and venetians being disrupted by environmental contingencies. Is this an admonition for other cities?

The most imitated, the most celebrated, the most oneiric of all cities is menaced by water and global tourism.
Will Venice spark a creative response to its problems and find a sustainable way to survive, as it has done in the past?

As world leaders and experts are gathered in Glasgow to find a strategy against climate change, join our free online event on 8 November 2021 to look at how Venice embodies the emergencies we globally face and how literature and technologies can uncover these stories. Guests will be Bêka and Lemoine, Professor of Architecture and Spatial Design Sophia Psarra and Dr Giorgia Tolfo, writer and producer of the podcast The Fifth Siren (read Giorgia’s blog on the event on the Digital Scholarship Blog).

The event is supported by the Festival of Italian Literature in London (FILL) and the Italian Cultural Institute in London.

Valentina Mirabella, Curator Romance Collections

Additional reading and resources:

Piero Bevilacqua, Venezia e le acque: una metafora planetaria (Rome, 1998). YA.2002.a.20745

Sergio Pascolo, Venezia secolo ventuno : visioni e strategie per un rinascimento sostenibile (Conegliano, 2020). Awaiting shelfmark

Sophia Psarra, The Venice variations: tracing the architectural imagination (London, 2018). DRT ELD.DS.472744

Salvatore Settis, Se Venezia muore (Turin, 2014). YF.2016.a.2992

28 October 2021

Lesia Ukrainka at 150: A journey through the British Library collections (Part II)

The modernist Ukrainian writer Lesia Ukrainka (pen name of Larysa Kosach-Kvitka) pioneered a new feminist literature at the forefront of European trends of the time. Her dramas, poetry and prose address concerns from gender and race to feminism and environmentalism. In the year of the 150th anniversary of her birth, the British Library and the Ukrainian Institute London will shine a light on this remarkable figure at an event on 16 November 2021.

In the second of a two-part blog post, we explore aspects of Ukrainka’s life, work and legacy through items held in the British Library. It is co-authored by Dr Sasha Dovzhyk, a Ukrainian writer and scholar based in London, who will take part in the event.

Title page of Dumy i mriï

Lesia Ukrainka, Dumy i mriï (L’viv, 1899). 20009.e.44.

Thoughts and Dreams

In a review of Lesia Ukrainka’s second poetry collection, Dumy i mriï (‘Thoughts and Dreams’), the writer Ivan Franko, who was a considerable influence on her work, remarked, ‘[…] one cannot resist the feeling that this fragile, invalid girl is almost the only man in all our present-day Ukraine (Spirit of Flame, p. 19).’ Intended as praise of her directness in addressing Ukrainian identity, Franko’s assessment of Ukrainka and her work nevertheless speaks volumes about the construction of gender roles in the society in which she lived and wrote.

For more than two centuries, the Imperial Russian government had sought to stamp out the existence and understanding of a separate and distinct Ukrainian national consciousness. This first edition of Dumy i mriï was published in 1899 in L’viv, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as books and pamphlets in the Ukrainian language were banned in the Russian Empire from 1876 by a secret decree known as the Ems Ukaz.

The theme of subjugation and liberation, as told through historical examples, is present throughout much of Ukrainka’s work, not least in the collection Dumy i mriï. The second poem, ‘Robert Brus, korol’ shotlands’kyi’, tells of the struggles (and ultimate success) of the Scottish people under Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, to free themselves from the English King.

Poster for the Ukrainian Literature in Translation Prize 2021

Poster for the Ukrainian Literature in Translation Prize run by the Ukrainian Institute London 

Poetic dramas 

Ukrainka was a prolific poet, translator, prose writer, and cultural critic. However, it is her 20 poetic dramas that form the core of her legacy. The subjects and settings range from Homeric Greece and the ancient Middle East to the 17th-century Tsardom of Muscovy. The Stone Host (1912) reviews the classic story of Don Juan, while Cassandra (1907) looks at the fall of Troy through the eyes of a seemingly marginal female character. During Ukrainka’s lifetime, her plots were deemed too ‘exotic’ by Ukrainian critics who, in accordance with the 19th-century populist doctrine, identified the Ukrainian nation with the peasant class. Ukrainka’s ambition lay elsewhere. Envisioning Ukrainian literature as an equal participant in the conversation with major world literatures, she almost single-handedly coined the required cultural vocabulary through her dramas. Poetic translations of several of these works by Percival Cundy were printed in Spirit of Flame in 1950 (12263.d.14.). A selection of dramas was also translated by Vera Rich and published in Lesya Ukrainka: Life and work in 1968 (X.900/3941.). Run by the Ukrainian Institute London, the Ukrainian Literature in Translation Prize 2021 has focused on Ukrainka’s work and is promising to give an English voice to a greater number of her dramatic characters. The winners will be announced at the event on 16 November.

Title page from Lisova pisnia

Lesia Ukrainka, Lisova pisnia (Kyïv, 1914). 20001.g.48.

Forest Song 

The neo-Romantic Lisova pisnia ('Forest Song') is a poetic drama that has historically introduced young Ukrainians to Ukrainka’s work. Even in Soviet Ukraine, the neo-Romantic story of a forest nymph Mavka’s love for a peasant seemed a fitting choice for school syllabi and, unlike Ukrainka’s dramas that openly deal with the questions of power, an ideologically harmless one. The first book-form edition of Lisova pisnia appears to lay the groundwork for the provincialising perception of the drama as a naïve folk tale. Apart from the text and the author’s picture, the book includes three photographic landscapes and three portraits of peasant ‘types’ from the Volyn region of Ukraine as well as 16 musical notations for a reed-pipe (supposedly the simple songs played by Mavka’s beloved). Such a quasi-folkloric presentation distracts from some of the more radical aspects of the drama, including Ukrainka’s subtle commentary on female agency, creativity, and embodiment. Indeed, Lisova pisnia taps into the foundational questions of European literature about the power of art, traceable from the myth of Orpheus to Gerhart Hauptmann’s The Sunken Bell (1896). Unusually for this tradition, Ukrainka subverts the male-centric plot and transfers the creative power to her female character. As she straightforwardly stated in a letter to her mother, ‘Mavka’s story can only be written by a woman’. Lisova pisnia was translated into English by Percival Cundy (12263.d.14.) and by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps (YF.2009.a.28990).

Cover of Notre Dame d’Ukraine with a photo of Lesia Ukrainka

Oksana Zabuzhko, Notre Dame d’Ukraine: Ukraïnka v konflikti mifolohiĭ (Kyïv, 2007). YF.2007.a.26516

Notre Dame d’Ukraine

An intriguing reading of Lisova pisnia in the light of Gnosticism and chivalric culture is offered by a pioneering and widely translated Ukrainian author Oksana Zabuzhko, who interprets Ukrainka’s fairy-tale drama as the Ukrainian version of the Grail epic. Starting with her influential novel Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex (1996), Zabuzhko’s writing has foregrounded feminist and postcolonial perspectives on Ukrainian culture while repeatedly acknowledging her debt to Ukrainka. The most significant testament of Zabuzhko’s commitment to reviewing and reviving Ukrainka’s legacy is the 600-page magnum opus Notre Dame d’Ukraine. This volume positions Ukrainka as the last representative of the Ukrainian chivalric tradition. Aided by her passion for the subject and her engrossing literary style, Zabuzhko argues that Ukrainka and her small intellectual milieu had embodied the idealism and knightly code of honour exterminated in Ukraine under Soviet rule. Pointedly, Zabuzhko is also the most compelling advocate of Ukrainka’s Europeanism and of the international significance of her oeuvre. This accent is particularly important in relation to the canonised national writer whose image has been habitually subjected to reductionist nationalist approaches. As Notre Dame d’Ukraine will not let us forget, Ukrainka’s worldview is not only firmly grounded in European culture; her literary voice is also this culture’s knowledgeable and at times subversive interlocutor.

Screen shot from a Zoom performance of 'Virtual Forest Song'

Screen shot from a Zoom performance of 'Virtual Forest Song' in June 2021. Credit: Yara Arts Group

Performance 

Some of the most innovative productions of Ukrainka’s work have been created by the New York-based Yara Arts Group. Taking Lisova pisnia as a starting point, in 1993 Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps created an award-winning English translation of the play. Over the years, Yara Arts Group has staged different versions of the play, including a bilingual show at the Kurbas Theatre in L'viv and at La MaMa in New York, and the immersive ‘Fire Water Night’ in 2013. Their translation of the play is included in the bilingual anthology In a Different Light, which was published in 2008.

150 years after her birth, Ukrainka’s work continues to inspire and adapt to a changing world; in June 2021, Yara Arts Group performed its ‘Virtual Forest Song’ on Zoom. Reviewing the production in Ukrainian Weekly, Olena Jennings praised the online format, observing that it ‘[…] emphasizes the connection between nature, humans and technology. The space between the Zoom boxes becomes fluid as actors reach across boundaries.’

Sasha Dovzhyk, writer and scholar, and Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections

The event The Unknown Feminist of Fin-de-siècle Europe: Lesia Ukrainka will take place at the British Library on 16 November 2021. 

Additional reading and resources:

Lesia Ukrainka at 150: A journey through the British Library collections (Part I)

Sasha Dovzhyk, ‘Subverting the Canon of Patriarchy: Lesya Ukrainka’s Revisionist Mythmaking’, The Los Angeles Review of Books, 25 February 2021

Olga Kerziouk, ‘Lady on Banknotes’, European Studies Blog, 1 August 2013 

Lesia Ukrainka: Fin-de-siècle Ukrainian Feminism (short film), Ukrainian Institute London, 2020

Lesia Ukrainka, Dramatychni tvory (Kyïv, 1923). 20009.ee.71.

In a Different Light: a bilingual anthology of Ukrainian literature, translated by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps; compiled and edited with foreword and notes by Olha Luchuk; introduction by Natalia Pylypiuk (L’viv, 2008). YF.2009.a.28990

26 October 2021

Lesia Ukrainka at 150: A journey through the British Library collections (Part I)

The modernist Ukrainian writer Lesia Ukrainka (pen name of Larysa Kosach-Kvitka) pioneered a new feminist literature at the forefront of European trends of the time. Her dramas, poetry and prose address concerns from gender and race to feminism and environmentalism. In the year of the 150th anniversary of her birth, the British Library and the Ukrainian Institute London will shine a light on this remarkable figure at an event on 16 November 2021. To whet your appetite, this two-part blog post explores aspects of Ukrainka’s life, work and legacy through items held in the British Library. It is co-authored by Dr Sasha Dovzhyk, a Ukrainian writer and scholar based in London, who will take part in the event.

Cover of Pershyi vinok: zhinochyi al’manakh

Cover of Pershyi vinok: zhinochyi al’manakh (New York, 1984). X.958/33534

The First Wreath

Born in 1871 into a family of intellectuals, Ukrainka’s upbringing profoundly shaped her socio-political outlook and literary career. Her mother, Olha Kosach (better known by her pseudonym, Olena Pchilka), was a writer, ethnographer, activist and central figure in Ukrainian literary life. Unusually for the time, she educated her children exclusively in Ukrainian, laying the foundations for Ukrainka’s love and command of the language. It was Pchilka who encouraged her daughter to write, inventing Ukrainka’s pen name, ‘Lesia (a diminutive of Larysa) of Ukraine’, when she sent her first poems for publication as a young teenager.

Pchilka was also active in the Ukrainian women’s movement, which emerged in the late 19th century. Together with Nataliia Kobrynska, she edited and published the first Ukrainian feminist almanac, Pershyi vinok (‘The First Wreath’) in 1887. The teenage Ukrainka was among its contributors with her poem ‘Rusalka’ and other verses. Published by the Ukrainian Women’s League of America in 1984, almost a century later, this second, expanded edition includes an introduction and biographical notes by Larissa M. L. Z. Onyshevych.

Cover of Starodavnia istoriia skhidnykh narodiv

Cover of Lesia Ukrainka, Starodavnia istoriia skhidnykh narodiv (Luts’k, 2008). YF.2013.a.13005

The Ancient History of Eastern Peoples

The Ancient History of Eastern Peoples is a textbook Ukrainka wrote in 1890–91 at the age of 19 to help with the education of her younger sister, Olha Kosach-Kryvyniuk. In popular introductions to the author’s life and work, this prodigious textbook is routinely mentioned among the top ten quirky facts. Olha Kosach-Kryvyniuk published it in 1918, and a facsimile edition was produced 90 years later. What is most surprising about this volume is the sheer distances Ukrainka travelled in her research, both time- and geography-wise. The 252 pages of her History delve into the beliefs and literatures of ancient India, Media, Persia, Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Phoenicia, and Israel. The book also includes Ukrainka’s poetic translations of sacred hymns from Rig Veda, one of the earliest and most important texts in the Hindu tradition.

Working on her study in a remote Ukrainian village, Ukrainka relied on the correspondence with her uncle, a revered Ukrainian historian and political thinker in exile Mykhailo Drahomanov, as well as works by French orientalist scholars Louis Ménard (Histoire des Anciens Peuples de l'Orient, 1883 (9055.bbb.5.)) and Gaston Maspero (Histoire ancienne des peuples de l’Orient, 1875 (9055.a.34.)). Ukrainka remained fascinated with ancient spiritual beliefs and practices throughout her life.

Cover of ‘Die Weber’ H. Haĭne v perekladi Lesi Ukraïnky

Petro Odarchenko, ‘Die Weber’ H. Haine v perekladi Lesi Ukrainky, Slavistica, no. 77. 2nd ed. (Washington, 1976/77). Ac.9890.a[77]

Translation of Heinrich Heine’s ‘Die Weber’ 

An accomplished polyglot (by all accounts she knew nine languages in addition to her native Ukrainian), Ukrainka translated a number of works from English, German, French and Greek. This booklet includes a copy of her translation of Heinrich Heine’s political poem ‘Die schlesischen Weber’ (‘The Silesian Weavers’ or ‘Weaver-song’), which he wrote in response to the attempted uprising in 1844 by Silesian weavers against exploitation and falling wages. 

Ukrainka’s unpublished translation was identified by the writer and critic Petro Odarchenko in the literary museum of the Drahomanov family. It first appeared in print alongside Odarchenko’s commentary in 1927 and was published in a second edition as part of the Slavistica booklet series.

Cover of Poezii: vybrani tvory

Lesia Ukrainka, Poezii: vybrani tvory (Regensburg, 1946). 11588.a.59.

Cover of Ternovyi vinets: zbirka poezii 

Lesia Ukrainka, Ternovyi vinets: zbirka poezii ([Germany], 1946). Awaiting shelfmark

Displaced Persons Camp poetry editions 

Petro Odarchenko also wrote the introduction to a small volume of Ukrainka’s works published in the Regensburg Displaced Persons (DP) Camp in 1946, the 75th anniversary of her birth. Like thousands of Ukrainians who were displaced at the end of the Second World War, Odarchenko lived in the Augsburg DP camp before moving to the USA with his family in 1950. Ukrainka’s younger sister, Olha Kosach-Kryvyniuk, also spent time in the same camp, where she died in November 1945.

Permitted by authority of the US Military Government in the American Allied Occupation Zone, the British Library copy also contains the stamp of the London-based Central Ukrainian Relief Bureau, which is believed to have donated the book to the Library in 1948. It is one of two rare DP camp editions of Ukrainka’s poetry published in her anniversary year and held by the British Library. The other, a collection of 25 poems entitled Ternovyi vinets (‘Crown of Thorns’), was reproduced from typescript and illustrated by Edvard Kozak.

Postcard from Lesia Ukrainka to her sister Olha

Postcard from Lesia Ukrainka to her sister, Olha. In Lesia Ukrainka, Lysty (1876-1897), compiled by Valentyna Prokip (Savchuk), (Kyiv, 2016), p. 22. YF.2017.a.2022

Letters

The three volumes of Ukrainka’s letters comprise a palimpsest in which the layers of Ukrainian and European cultural history coexist with the personal trials of the emergent heroine of her time, the New Woman. Whether it is the nation-building work of the secret societies of the Ukrainian intelligentsia in the Russian Empire, the latest breakthroughs in Scandinavian theatre, or the challenges encountered by an emancipated woman traveller at the turn of the century, Ukrainka’s analysis is sharp, lucid, erudite, and often interlaced with humour. Her correspondence offers a unique perspective on some of the topical issues of the period, from the redefinitions of the traditional family to the anti-colonial ethical code. Ukrainka dismantled patriarchal hierarchies in her literary work and in her personal life. Thus her letters shed light on such matters as the writer’s opposition to her family’s wishes concerning the choice of her life partner, a confrontation viewed by Ukrainka as a stepping-stone in the general struggle for women’s liberation. Her correspondence with another pioneering feminist writer of the Ukrainian fin de siècle, Olha Kobylianska, reveals a search for a new radical model of female intimacy which the literary scholar Solomiya Pavlychko called a ‘lesbian phantasy’. Like Kobylianska, Ukrainka was a feminist committed to the Ukrainian national project, which was at the time dominated by patriarchal and populist approaches.

Photo of Ukrainka’s funeral procession where her coffin is carried by six women. Reproduced in Spohady pro Lesiu Ukraïnku

Photograph from Spohady pro Lesiu Ukrainku, edited by Tamara Skrypka (New York; Kyiv, 2017-). ZF.9.a.11700

Remembering Lesia Ukrainka

Bringing together memoiristic prose by Ukrainka’s family members and photographs from museum collections and private archives, Remembering Lesia Ukrainka is a precious collage that brings us closer to the culture of the long fin de siècle in Ukraine. The Kosach-Drahomanov family included illustrious scholars and translators, political activists and pioneering feminists, whose memoirs offer a truly gratifying read. During the Soviet period, their aristocratic background led to political repressions as well as the inescapable censoring of their recollections. Some of the pieces in Remembering Lesia Ukrainka are published for the first time in unexpurgated form.

The photographs of the Kosach-Drahomanov estate and of Ukrainka and her siblings in traditional Ukrainian clothes, and musical notations compiled by her husband, famous folklorist and musicologist Klyment Kvitka, open a window onto a vanished society, the relics of which had been hidden from public view for a major part of the 20th century. One of the most haunting images reproduced in the book is a photo of Ukrainka’s funeral procession where her coffin is carried by six women: a testimony of the writer’s feminist legacy.

Linocut of the house in Surami where Ukrainka spent the days before her death

Linocut from Oleg Babyshkin, Lesia Ukrainka v Gruzii (Tbilisi, 1953). 10796.b.58.

Lesia Ukrainka in Georgia 

Ukrainka spent much of the last ten years of her life living and working in Georgia, where she died on 1 August 1913. Since the age of 12 or 13, she had been afflicted by tuberculosis and travelled constantly in search of treatment and warmer climes, from Yalta to Egypt. While it is important not to define Ukrainka by her illness, it undoubtedly had a significant impact on her life and work; she spent long periods away from home and family, often confined to her bed. As Clarence A. Manning observed, ‘It compelled her to live with her books, to think in terms of books, and to frame her intellectual and spiritual life on what she read, rather than on what she saw and experienced’ (Spirt of Flame, p. 13).

Published in Tbilisi in 1953, this book by the Ukrainian literary critic Oleh Babyshkin about Ukrainka’s time in Georgia focuses on three key cities and a town in which she lived: Tbilisi, Telavi, Khoni, and Kutaisi. The final chapter explores her legacy in Soviet Georgia. The text is accompanied by linocuts of significant places and buildings, including the Lesia Ukrainka Museum in the resort town Surami, her place of death.

Sasha Dovzhyk, writer and scholar, and Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections

The event The Unknown Feminist of Fin-de-siècle Europe: Lesia Ukrainka will take place at the British Library on 16 November 2021. 

Additional reading and resources:

Lesia Ukrainka at 150: A journey through the British Library collections (Part II)

Sasha Dovzhyk, ‘Subverting the Canon of Patriarchy: Lesya Ukrainka’s Revisionist Mythmaking’, The Los Angeles Review of Books, 25 February 2021

Olga Kerziouk, ‘Lady on Banknotes’, European Studies Blog, 1 August 2013 

Lesia Ukrainka: Fin-de-siècle Ukrainian Feminism (short film), Ukrainian Institute London, 2020

20 October 2021

‘Writing is a tattoo’ — Kamel Daoud and his work

Kamel Daoud is an Algerian journalist based in Oran, where he has been for several years the Chief Editor for Le Quotidien d’Oran, the third largest French-language Algerian newspaper, and the author of a much-read column ‘Raïna Raïkoum’ (‘My Opinion, Your Opinion’). His articles have appeared in Libération, Le Monde, and Courrier International.

Daoud’s first novel, Meursault, contre-enquête is a response to Camus’ L’étranger. Meursault, the protagonist of Camus’ novel murders a character known only as ‘the Arab’. Camus never gave a name to Meursault’s victim, but Daoud names him Moussa, and re-tells the story from the point of view of Moussa’s brother, Haroun. Daoud’s novel was first published in Algeria by editions Barzakh in October 2013, but mostly started to garner international attention after its publication by French publisher Actes Sud in May 2014; it was a finalist for the Prix Goncourt in 2014 and came second, just short of winning the prize. It did, however, win the 2015 Goncourt First Novel Prize, and was also awarded the prix François Mauriac, le prix des Cinq Continents de la Francophonie. It sold more than 130 000 copies in France and 14 000 in Algeria, ‘A very high number for a novel in French’ according to its Algerian publisher Barzakh.

Although it is often labelled as Daoud’s debut, Meursault, contre-enquête was in fact the third in a series of texts beginning with O Pharaon published in Oran in 2004. As recalled by Joseph Ford, far from being solely a journalist, Daoud was already a writer of note in Algeria, and knew how to use text to express and magnify his ideas about conflict and power. Daoud’s positions have not been exempt from controversy, be it in France or in Algeria and his work as novelist, as well as journalist and polemist are often the subject of examination, particularly through the prism of postcolonial studies. He has in the past expressed his dreams of forgetting journalism to dedicate himself to pure literature, but a collection of Daoud’s journalistic works: Mes indépendances: Chroniques 2010–2016 was nevertheless published in 2017 and he currently contributes a weekly column to the French magazine Le Point

Two of Daoud’s latest texts, however, have been less embroiled in obvious politics, if still actually describing some facets of Power. They explore the acts of writing and narrating, and hidden aspects of language, and of materiality: the materiality of books and of the body, and the beauty of both.

Cover of Kamel Daoud, Zabor ou les psaumes

Cover of Kamel Daoud, Zabor ou les psaumes (Arles, 2017) YF.2017.a.25074

Zabor ou les psaumes (translated this year in English by Emma Ramadan as Zabor, or The Psalms), first published in French in 2017, is a work of magic realism, but also a hymn to the power of fiction. The narrator is a young man who possesses a gift: he can fight death by writing, and the people whose stories he narrates in his notebooks live longer. This is his gift, his responsibility and his mission. But does everyone deserve to be saved? This allegorical novel draws on myths, religion and fables, and as in One Thousand and One Nights, the storytelling can temporarily stave off death. But the book is also an ode to language, or rather languages, and to their transformations and appropriations, particularly in a post-colonial context: ‘C’est à partir de ce capital que je construisis cette langue, entièrement, seul avec mon propre dictionnaire sauvage’ (‘I built this language, entirely, alone with my own wild dictionary’) and so created ‘une langue folle, riche, heureuse, amalgamée avec des racines sauvages, hybride comme un bestiaire de mythologie’ (‘a mad, rich, happy, amalgamated language, with wild roots, hybrid like a mythological bestiary’).

‘Writing is a tattoo’ reads one of the last chapter’s openings. This image of the book as a body is permeating one of Daoud’s most recent published piece, tellingly titled ‘Textures ou comment coucher avec un livre’.

Cover of BibliOdyssées

Cover of BibliOdyssées: foudre, index, exil, talismans, text by Kamel Daoud, Raphaël Jerusalmy; notes by Joseph Belletante, Bernadette Moglia. (Paris, 2019.) YF.2020.a.5142

This is the opening text of BibliOdyssées, and is a ‘literary piece’ companion to a book published on the occasion of the exhibition ‘L’Odyssée des livres sauvés’ held in the Musée de l’Imprimerie and Communication graphique in Lyon in 2019. Here, books have a skin, and again, this skin is ‘tattooed a thousand times’, with words and with the imprints of the hands that manipulate. In his text, Daoud compares sacred and profane books, licit and illicit objects, books for the ritual and the soul and books for the earthly body; both, with their words, magically able to express the ‘eternal unspeakable’.

Kamel Daoud will be in conversation with Anne-Sylvaine Chassany, the Financial Times’s World News Editor, at the Institut Francais on Thursday the 21st October

Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections 

References/further reading:

Kamel Daoud, Meursault, contre-enquête (Arles, 2014) YF.2014.a.27110; English translation by John Cullen, The Mersault investigation (London, 2015) H.2016/.7708

Kamel Daoud, Mes indépendances: Chroniques 2010–2016 (Arles, 2017) YF.2017.a.18552

Albert Camus, L’étranger (Paris, 1947) 012550.p.23.

Sami Alkyam ‘Lost in reading: The predicament of postcolonial writing in Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation’, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 55 (2019), no. 4, pp. 459-471

Sylvie Ducas ‘L’entrée en littérature française de Kamel Daoud : «Camus, sinon rien!»’, Littératures, 73/2015, p. 185-197. 

Joseph Ford, Writing the black decade: conflict and criticism in francophone Algerian literature (Lanham, 2021) ELD.DS.582067

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