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LAND FAR FROM TRANQUILITY:

SPOTLIGHT ON POLISH ROMANTICISM

by ALEKSANDRA MAJAK

Seldom does a literary epoch, philosophical movement, or aesthetic proposition divide readers as much as Romanticism. And no matter what we do or study, when our preferences and affinities with Romanticism are at stake, they tend to be an either/or option. When we think about the end of the eighteenth century, we are likely to recall (in tranquillity or not) the well-known image of a wanderer above the sea of fog from Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 painting or one of J. M. W. Turner’s atmospheric landscape or marine paintings.

Image 1: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich (1818)

We are quick to talk about it all in bullet points: ‘extreme individualism’, ‘introspection over objectivity’, ‘return of the irrational and fantastical’, ‘poetical genius and inspiration’, ‘escapism’, ‘renewal of oral and folklore tradition’. The list goes on. Nevertheless, characterising the whole literary epoch by extrapolating from several, albeit influential, artworks or reading salient poems does not give a full picture. Ranging from the emotional unrest of the early Sturm und Drang movement in Germany; through the huge impact French Revolution had on all European art, to the metaphysical conundrums of the Russian poet and writer Alexander Pushkin, Romanticism is far from monolithic.

In England, the words that are often invoked to describe romantic principles are these of William Wordsworth from Lyrical Ballads (1798). Poetry, for him, is ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ that ‘takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity’ [1]. Years later, in his seminal 1919 essay about the representation of feelings in modern verse, modernist poet T. S. Eliot would attack a long-dead Wordsworth by opposing an idealistic romanticism of tranquillity and modern unrest [2]. The Wordsworthian idea from The Prelude was indeed romantic. And here, we may use ‘romantic’ in its adjectival and colloquial sense that indicates — to follow OED — a certain quixotism, sentimentality, naivety, or idealism.

Image 2: Portret Adama Mickiewicza na Judahu skale by Walery Wańkowicz (1827-1828)

If Wordsworth saw the historical moment as ‘a glorious time’ full of the ‘events / Of that great change’, others had reasons to be less optimistic. The roots and ambitions of Romanticism differ from country to country. By this logic, only by exploring paths ‘less travelled by’ – to follow Robert Frost’s ironically mainstream line – can we widen our understanding of the period and maybe even challenge the myths surrounding ‘unified’ Romantic sensibility and so-called ‘organic form’?

The glory of honourable defeats

Romanticism might well be glorious in the grandiosity of its poetic aspirations but – in Polish literature – it was far from tranquil. After the subsequent partitions (1772, 1793, 1795) of Poland between neighbouring Russia, Austria, and Prussia the country was totally swindled and spend 123 years under occupation. So, formally, there was no country, and Poland was erased from the maps of Europe. The suggestively entitled painting Rejtan, or the Fall of Poland by acclaimed artist Jan Matejko depicts Partition Sejm in 1773 and Rejtan’s (the character on the right bottom corner) dramatic protest against it.

Image 3: Rejtan, or the Fall of Poland (1866) by Jan Matejko

When twenty-year-old Matejko finished Rejtan in 1866, the painting gave rise to heated debate. With the still-fresh memory of the failed January Uprising (1863) hanging heavily in the air, the young painter decided to criticise the elites and their responsibility for Poland’s tragic political situation. Cyprian Kamil Norwid — a late-romantic poet — would, for instance, criticise the painting, saying that ‘Rejtan is a demon with a moustache’. The daunting situation had a lasting impact on the culture and even the current national anthem, composed in 1797, opens with the line: ‘Poland has not yet perished / So long as we still live’. Given the genre, ‘not the most optimistic or conventional opening’  — as one of my undergraduate students aptly observed.

One of the many problems with Polish romanticism is its self-perceived seriousness, its idealised self-image, its lack of critical detachment. All of these continue to impact today’s perception of national symbols that are too often prone to political manipulations. The prominent critic and scholar Maria Janion thought about these issues diagnosing, after 1989, the end of  the Romantic paradigm. Still, if transformation brought Poland a free market, rapid economic development, and international mobility; ‘how would Poles define themselves when they had nothing to fight bravely against?’ [3]

Image 4: Melancholia by Jacek Malczewski,  Muzeum Narodowe w Poznaniu

Even if Polish writers shared and borrowed from all European traditions, the role ascribed to literature differed from its Western counterparts [4]. The poet was treated like a prophet, soothsayer or bard while poetry was read seriously and in the hope that it would have some causative power. It is common to refer to the well-known trio of Polish romantic poets – Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, and Zygmunt Krasiński – as wieszcze narodowi, meaning ‘The Three Bards’.

Literature fights against oppression

Still, the oddest idea developed by Polish romanticism was ‘Poland as a Christ of Nations’ that made Roman Catholic Christianity a distinctive part of its cultural heritage. The canonical literary works of the time drew a parallel between Poland’s suffering and the suffering of Christ. This messianism was therefore used by Poles in their fight for eventually re-gaining independence in 1918.

In his late and unfinished poetic drama Forefather’s Eve, Mickiewicz would fortify this tradition. His hero, Gustav, is a typically self-absorbed romantic lover. Here, however, Gustav transforms into Konrad, who is determined to fight against oppression. Notice how the symbolic death and rebirth of the hero is represented graphically, as if alluding to the ancient genre of epitaph so the text that is inscribed on a tombstone or plaque.

Image 5: An excerpt from Mickiewicz’s Forefather’s Eve

Ironically, the title of Mickiewicz’s drama, Dziady, which established the idea of ‘Poland as a Christ of Nations’ comes from nothing other than… a Slavic pagan ritual! The ritual of dziady was a feast of commemoration of the dead now celebrated mostly, if not only, in Belarus. It also made it into the game based on Andrzej Sapkowski’s saga, The Witcher 3 where one of the quests is to meet the master of the ceremony and help villagers in addressing incoming souls.

Well-educated, well-read, having lived abroad, and determined to address ‘Young Friends’ who are ‘Strong in unison, reasoned in rage’, the great rivals Mickiewicz and Słowacki began their work with youthful enthusiasm. They set their youthful energy and rebellion against the inertia of their elders. Sometimes, like in my favourite romantic poem My Testament by Słowacki, both patriotism and youthful determination intertwined. Think, for instance, about the following passage. Now, you may even recognise Slowacki’s allusion to the forefather’s eve ritual.

But you that knew me well, in your reports convey

That all my younger years were for my country spent:

While battle raged, at mast I stood, be as it may,

And with the ship I drowned when vanquished down she went.

Oh that my friends at night together gathered be,

And this sad heart of mine in leaves of aloe burn!

And give it then to her who’s given it to me.

Thus mothers are repaid: with ashes in the urn.

Oh that my friends around a goblet sit once more,

And drink unto my funeral and their poor lot.

Be I a ghost, I will appear and join them or —

If God may spare me pain and torture — I shall not.

But I beseech you — there is hope while there is breath.

 Do lead the nation with a wisdom’s torch held high,

And one by one, if needed be, go straight to death,

As God-hurled stones that densely over ramparts fly. [5]

The last stanza of the excerpt exemplifies how Slowacki urges his friends to sacrifice their lives in the fight for freedom. Moreover, years later, in 1943, Aleksander Kaminski would use Slowacki’s words for the title of his book Stones for the Rampart. Through the book we, yet again, see how authors echo the romantic vision of sacrifice as the story follows a group of young friends whose hopes, dreams, and joys of their early twenties are interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War and the failure of the Warsaw Uprising. In his war movie Warsaw 1944 (available on Netflix) Polish director Jan Komasa borrows from romantic imagery, ideals, and myths. The English trailer gives a sense of this post-romantic symbolism. 

The urgency of longing

Sometimes poets would evoke political messages less directly, for instance, by adopting a nostalgic tone. One of the most well-known lines of Polish Romanticism comes from the epic poem Pan Tadeusz, written by Mickiewicz and published in Paris in 1834. The most recent English translation of the book – by the acclaimed translator and former Oxford student, Bill Johnson – is brilliant and gives the poem the freshness and dynamism that canonical works every so often lack if read within their own cultural circle. [6]

Image 6: Manuscript of Pan Tadeusz

The epic, like all epics, begins in a serious, high-style tone that does justice to the author’s yearning for the missed Fatherland:

Lithuania! My homeland! You are health alone.

Your worth can only ever be known by one

Who’s lost you. Today I see and tell anew

Your lovely beauty, as I long for you.

The epic has the subtitle ‘The Last Foray in Lithuania’. Across twelve books, all written in the unique metre of the Polish alexandrine, Mickiewicz tells the feel-good, nostalgic story of the eponymous Sir Tadeusz. He is a young man from an upper class of nobility who returns from his studies abroad to an idyllic Soplicowo. In a way, the character of young Tadeusz enables Mickiewicz, as an author, to express his personal longing.

[…] Meanwhile, transport my yearning soul

Back to those wooded hills, those meadows wide

And green, that line the pale blue Niemen’s side;

Those fields adorned with many-colored grain

Where golden wheat and silvery rye both shine,

Where clover with its maidenly red blush,

White duck wheat, and amber rapeseed all grow lush,

Ribboned round by a green field boundary where

A tranquil pear tree nestles here and there.

Even if the scenery is indeed tranquil, the reader knows the backstory that makes such an idyllic description of nature into something more complex, and ambivalent, filled with juxtapositions that are not obvious at the first glance.

Image 7: Photo from Andrzej Wajda’s 1999 adaptation of Pan Tadeusz

Full of national traditions, subtleties, and idiosyncrasies, much of Polish romantic poetry, epic, and drama was written against the grain of failed uprisings, buried hopes, tragic defeats, and longing for a lost fatherland as expressed by émigré writers. The well-known historian of Eastern Europe, Norman Davies, observed that the Polish political microclimate allowed ‘myths to flourish’. And since myths are known to have broad applications and functions, it is now fascinating yet dramatic to observe how the romantic ideas strongly embedded within Polish culture have or have not been used.

[1] More about the leading ideas and forms of European Romanticism can be found in a comprehensive book by Nicholas Roe, Romanticism: An Oxford Guide. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

[2] See https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69400/tradition-and-the-individual-talent

[3] See the article by Stanley Bill in  Being Poland : A New History of Polish Literature and Culture since 1918 ed. Czaplinski, P., Nizynska, J., Polakowska, A., & Trojanowska, T. (2019). Toronto, 2019.

[4] More about the political underpinnings of Polish Romanticism see: https://culture.pl/en/article/polands-unique-take-on-romanticism-why-is-it-so-different

[5] http://wolnelektury.pl/katalog/lektura/slowacki-my-testament

[6] See https://archipelagobooks.org/book/pan-tadeusz-last-foray-lithuania/

FRENCH FLASH FICTION: THE FINAL STORIES

And here are the last brilliant stories from the Year 12 and 13 highly commended entries in the French Flash Fiction competition 2021:

Sur une île isolée, il ne restait plus que deux hommes âgés qui parlaient la même langue. Chaque jour Jon et ses nombreux animaux rencontraient Paul pour maintenir leur langue ensemble. Un jour, Paul est allé rencontrer Jon. Mais en arrivant, il a remarqué que la porte était ouverte. Quelque chose n’allait pas. Paul est entré. John s’était éteint sur son fauteuil. Un mois plus tard, un notaire est arrivé avec le testament. Jon avait laissé à Paul son perroquet comme cadeau. Ce dernier s’est mis à pleurer quand le perroquet a commencé à parler la langue !

Harrison Cartwright, Year 12

Allô P-p-puis-je parler à Monsieur Bordeaux ? Il est là ?

Ouais c’est moi, imbécile. Tu veux quoi cette fois ?

On doit c-c-causer en personne… si c’est possible. J’peux pas te le dire maintenant.

Dis-moi, personne n’écoute, t’as fait quoi ?

J’ai… J’ai fait une p’tite erreur.

Mais t’as fait quoi ?

Il est devenu silencieux pendant un moment.

Mon coffre-fort a disparu. Ils ont fouillé tout mon appartement, ma chambre est en désordre.

Et ils ont pris combien ?

Tout.

Monsieur Bordeaux tenait le coffre-fort sur ses genoux.

Je suis désolé, mais j’peux rien faire, mon ami.

Elishe Lim, Year 12

L’Estrade

Je pense. Je pense à la puissance, aux possibilités infinies, aux occasions que cette estrade fournit. Je m’émerveille. Je m’émerveille devant la beauté de cette scène boisée : ses pièces distinctives, ses caractéristiques élaborées soigneusement et ses changements prévisibles des couleurs comme une discothèque monochrome.

Je regrette. Je regrette des erreurs que j’ai faites, des signaux que j’ai manqués, des occasions que j’ai gâchées. « C’est votre tour. »

J’espère. J’espère que j’ai bien pensé, que j’ai apprécié le moment, que je n’ai pas de regrets, que je peu m’exprimer en lettres et nombres… « Échec et mat ! »

Joseph Oluwabusola, Year 12

Il nous reste 24 heures.

J’ouvre la porte doucement. L’air se faufile dans ma maison. Je me sens bien. Mieux que bien; je me sens à la fois en sécurité et libre.

Il nous reste 16 heures.

Je sens une légèreté dans l’air, mais aussi plein d’espoir et de joie. La tension constante a disparu.

Il nous reste 8 heures.

La nuit tombe. Il fait un noir sombre, mais je n’ai plus peur. Plus besoin de me retourner en marchant. Plus besoin de craindre pour ma vie quand je marche seule dans la rue.

Il ne nous reste plus d’heures.

La journée sans hommes s’est terminée, mais elle était magnifique.

Safiyah Sillah, Year 12

Je me suis baladé dans la rue avec mon chien remuant sa queue. Ce matin était calme ; j’écoutais seulement le son des oiseaux qui chantent. Le soleil a jeté un coup d’œil à travers les nuages. Soudainement, mon chien est commencé à aboyer, avec un sens de l’urgence. Le ciel et les nuages a confondent en une couverture grise. Les vague de gens qui voyagent m’a frappé comme un tsunami. Vite et impitoyable. C’est lundi, le temps est venu de mettre vos masques pour la semaine. Préparez-vous, mais n’inquiétez pas, les jours passeront avant vous le connaissez !

Teniola Ijaluwoye, Y12

FRENCH FLASH FICTION: THE SIXTH-FORMERS

Here are five brilliant ultra-short stories that were highly commended entries in the Years 12 and 13 section of our Flash Fiction Contest. Hope you enjoy them — more next week…

La nature d’aujourd’hui

Rivières scintillantes, et soleil chaud. Tu la sens dans tes os, la tendresse de la pluie de l’été. Que la vie est belle ! Tout ce que ton âme veut, ce n’est rien. Il vaudrait mieux rester ici, pour toujours. Tu sais que Mère Nature est avec toi.

Tu enlèves les lunettes et sens la saleté. « Sont bonnes, n’est-ce pas ?» dit le commerçant. Tu acquiesces et tu te tournes pour partir.

« Attendez, madame ! Vous avez oublié vos boîtes d’oxygène ! »
Tu fais demi-tour et tu te demandes pourquoi le monde est devenu si gris.

Jamilya Bertram, Year 12

L’habit ne fait pas le moine. Bien sûr ; ce serait toujours lui. Il est aussi parfait que sa photo. La façon dont ses yeux regardent les miens en dit plus que les mots ne le pourraient jamais. Je veux le tenir pendant qu’il pose ses bras sur moi, sans jamais lâcher prise. Une larme tombe sur mon visage. Nous parlons sans mots ; nous n’avons jamais eu besoin de mots pour parler. Deux garçons ne pourraient-ils pas être amoureux ? Je ne sais plus. J’éteins mon téléphone. Il n’est pas là, il n’était jamais là. Je suis seul.

Benjamin Fletcher (Y12)

Lors d’une soirée d’hiver au ciel ténébreux, une sinistre bête plane vers les égouts à la rencontre de son ami, le rat. La chauve-souris vient échanger avec son ancien complice son dernier délit.

“Bel ami qu’as-tu fait ces deux dernières années ?” interroge le rat.

“Ma chère vermine terrestre, j’étais occupée à répandre dans le monde une maladie plus destructrice que ta propre petite peste ! Actuellement en route pour mettre fin à l’homme je suis…”

“Félicitations !” répond le rat.

Soudainement, les eaux des égouts montent, causant un déluge, qui noient les deux créatures.

Nul parasite vaincra l’humanité.

Charles Blagburn (Y12)

Les colonnes blanches entre lesquelles un agent de sécurité lui a regardé soigneusement étaient immenses. Derrière une vitrine, les bijoux de son arrière-grand-mère brillaient et à côté desquels il y avait une photo avec du texte, racontant son histoire par les mots de ceux qui l’avaient détestée.

Il était si proche à ses racines, jusqu’à ce que les conservateurs aient éteint les lumières pour annoncer l’heure de fermeture. Tout à coup les yeux de son arrière-grand-mère ont disparu dans l’obscurité. En sortant avec ses propres yeux pleins de larmes, ses mains à son cœur, il a rempli de joie.

Jamie Hopkins, Year 12

Je suis allongé, rigide. De l’acier dans mon teint. Les doigts de glace s’agrippent à ma gorge. Un portrait de ma grand-mère me dévore de son oeil sévère.

Virginia Woolf croit que toutes les femmes sont liées, ourlées ensemble par un fil invisible. Alors pourquoi ai-je l’impression que le tissu du monde n’était pas assez élastique pour s’étirer jusqu’à moi? Mes pensées sont grandes aujourd’hui. Adultes. Dangereuses. Mais je ne suis pas une adulte, et certainement pas grande.

Les murs ont des oreilles. Peuvent-ils entendre mes pensées, aussi?

Mes pensées s’arrêtent.

Je crois voir ma grand-mère tourner la tête.

Allie Gruber (Y12)

FRENCH FLASH FICTION: HIGHLY COMMENDED 7-11

As promised, the second and final batch of our highly commended French Flash Fiction entries from Years 7-9. Many, many more of the entries we received were also brilliantly clever, funny, touching and thought-provoking, and we’re only sorry we don’t have space to include them all. (Highly Commended Years 12-13 coming next.)

Les trois princes

Il était une fois, il y avait un roi qui avait trois fils. Le roi devait décider qui gouvernerait le Royaume après sa mort. Il a inventé un défi pour les princes intitulé ‘Qui est le but de la vie ?’ Le premier prince lui a donné de l’argent, le deuxième – une femme, et le troisième – une barre de chocolat. Le roi a demandé : ‘Pourquoi tu me donnes une barre de chocolat ?’ Le prince a répondu : ‘Le but de la vie est de répandre le plus de joie possible !’ en distant cela, prince est devenu roi et a vécu heureux pour toujours.

Fin.

Ava Preston, Y9

Cette histoire ne termine pas bien, car Cendrillon écrit sa propre fin. Elle fait le ménage pour sa

famille et va au bal, mais quand les aiguilles de l’horloge s’arrêtent à douze, elle s’enfuit. Elle ne

rentre pas à la maison, ni ne cherche pas sa bonne fée, parce que qui veut une vie avec un prince

quand les dix-neuf années de liberté qu’elle n’a jamais reçues sont au coin de la rue? C’est une nuit

sombre alors que la princesse fuit, une traînée de mensonges et verre brisé derrière elle. Mais elle

ne s’arrête jamais de fuir.

Chung Yu Kwok, Y9

Je me souviens des passagers qui sautaient du bateau dans gelee l’eau. Ils étaient désespérés mais esperaient survivre. Je me souviens je étais un de ces enfants accrochée à mon frère qui flottait mort dans l’eau. Je me souviens de l’eau glacée qui encerclait mes pieds nus. Finalement quand ils m’ont tiré de l’eau, ils parlaient une langue je n’ai pas comprise. Ils m’ont mis un gilet de sauvetage et m’ont enveloppé dans un couverture. Je savais que j’étais en sécurité, pour l’instant.

Emily Seager, Year 9

Des rayons lumineux attirent mon attention en cet autre jour silencieux. Le corset autour de ma taille plus serré, plus serré, plus serré alors que je lutte pour une bouffé d’air usé. Ma voix verrouillée, mes droits verrouillés, ma liberté verrouillée. Pourquoi dois-je m’habiller pour une autre journée de solitude dans son château. Sa maison, ses chambres, son lit. Je suis la chose. Je ne suis pas mais maintenant je dors, en espérant que cette fois je me réveillerai avec une voix, avec de l’air frais, avec une maison légitime et surtout avec un but.

Alice Hadwen-Beck, Y9

L’Histoire de voyage de mode

Il y avait une fille nommée Angélique, qui avait la passion de créer des vêtements uniques. Un jour, alors qu’Angélique était chez son grand-père, elle a trouvé quelque chose d’intéressant dans le sous-sol ; c’était une mystérieuse caisse en bois avec une description d’avertissement dessus. Sans hésitation, elle ignora et ouvrit la caisse. À l’intérieur il y avait une machine à l’aspect étrange alors elle a essayé de la peaufiner un peu, *ZAP* elle était partie. Puis elle se rendit compte qu’elle était dans une pièce avec une inconnue ; c’était Coco Chanel. Après une rencontre avec Madame Coco, Angélique rentra chez elle et créa quelque chose d’extravagant avec inspiration.

Gabriela Duniec, Year 7

FRENCH FLASH FICTION: HIGHLY COMMENDED Years 7-11

Here is a first batch of our highly commended entries from Years 7 to 11 in this year’s French Flash Fiction contest. A feast of super-short storytelling! (More of them, along with the highly commended 6th-form entries, to follow shortly…)

C’était le rêve le plus étrange. Les gens dehors portaient des couvre-visages. Leurs bouches cachées, laissant deux yeux perlés. J’ai été pris en otage dans ma propre maison! Captif de la liberté. Rues désolées remplies de silence froid. Les trottoirs illuminés la nuit avec la faible lueur des lampadaires, guidant seulement les résidents ailés de la nature à leur domicile. Quand les rues furent enfin rallumées par la présence des gens, elles semblaient si éloignées les unes des autres, à environ deux mètres l’une de l’autre. Des machines bizarres se tenaient à l’extérieur des magasins, giclant fort, odeur sanitaire visqueuse qui collé aux mains des victimes. C’était le rêve le plus étrange.

Scarlett Chappell, Y9

Une Rencontre d’Après-Midi

Je vois la couleur du son expression ; un mélange de crème et de brun. Je vois la vapeur du son calme. J’accélère mon rythme, un peu plus rapide, une promenade devient une course. Je tends ma main, un peu plus loin. Le vent souffle, je respire le parfum doux. Il me voit, il voit ma main. Il sent la prise de ma main et sa chaleur rayonne dans ma main comme la lumière d’une bougie. Il est soulevé et mis dans une table. J’inhale l’arôme de noisette et je bois mon café au lait.

Marina Yu, Y11

Silence assourdissant. Poussière épaisse. Les bibliothèques, abandonnées et inutiles.

Chaque livre reste dans sa position, confinée en forme de grille, alourdi par couche après couche de particules grises. Les couleurs vives sont sourdes et pâles; des titres fascinants emportés par une mer grise et misérable. Les émotions, les espoirs et les rêves sont enterrés par le vide étouffant. Tout sentiment est perdu.

Sauf.

Alors que les livres ne sont rien de plus que du papier et de l’encre, les personnages piégés aspirent toujours à s’échapper dans l’esprit des gens. Ils croient toujours aux histoires.

Quand les lecteurs reviennent. À l’avenir.

Mairead Mitchell, Year 10

Le crayon jaune

Je suis toute seule. Je m’ennuie. Maman fait les courses. Papa est au travail. Louis fait ses devoirs. Eléonore joue avec ses amies. Je vois un crayon jaune sous mon placard marron. Ce n’est pas le mien. Il y a une note. Elle dit : « Utilise-moi bien ». Je prends le crayon et je dessine sur mon mur. Je dessine un papillon, des livres, un chat, un arc-en-ciel, un gâteau à la framboise et des notes de musique. Je dessine une porte avec une poignée. J’ouvre la porte et oh là là !!!

Juliette Shaw, Year 7

Le Tueur

Moi, j’ai pas choisi la vie de tueur, c’est la vie de tueur qui m’a choisi. Chuis pas humain; chuis une créature mortelle. En voyageant dans l’air, j’entre à travers vos narines et vos yeux. Après entré, je commence à m’amuser, à vous faire souffrir sans cesse. L’hôte, faible et fragile, n’arrêtera jamais de tousser, ses os auront l’air d’être poids de musculation et son poumone désintégrera impitoyablement. Sans doute, il se demandera si est la fin, s’il vivra encore. C’est quoi qu’ils dissent aux infos? Mes jours sont comptés. Chuis votre cauchemar. Chuis votre solitude. Chuis Covid.

 Adam Noad, Y11

FRENCH FLASH FICTION: THE WINNERS

We’re delighted to present the winners and runner-up entries for this year’s Flash Fiction contest. We’ll be publishing some of the highly commended entries over the coming weeks.

Thank you to everyone who entered. There was excellent creative use of language and incredible feats of imagination on display, all wrapped up in small packages of 100 words or fewer. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as we did.

YEARS 7-11

WINNER :

Trouver X

C’est un autre jour dans le cours préparatoire et les enfants apprennent la phonétique. Le pauvre X est coincé sur un mur, très frustré. Les élèves récitent (encore) “A – c’est pour arbre, B – c’est pour banane…” X jete un coup d’oeil à W et Y et dit “ennuyeux à mourir! Les petits connaissent seulement jusqu’a ‘M’. Je m’en vais!”

Dans une autre salle de classe X trouve un cours de l’algèbre, où tout le monde semble chercher X.”Mon Dieu! Ils savent que je suis absent!” il pense. “Ces équations me trouvent toujours. Je m’en vais, encore!”

Cormac Mitchell, Y7

RUNNER-UP

L’ours d’Or

L’ours était triste ! L’air était froid et le sol était glace, le lac était comme gelée. Elle a marché la plaine froide. Soudainement elle a vu une caverne mais elle était très fatiguée donc elle est entrée et dormi là… Cependant quand elle s’est réveillée, elle a vu un rayon de soleil briller à l’entrée de la caverne ! Sa fourrure brillait dans la lumière dorée.  Elle est sortie de la caverne et elle a vu que les plaines n’étaient plus froides – il y a avait des fleurs, des abeilles et des arbres partout ! Elle a souri !

Nandhitha Agilan, Y9

YEARS 12-13

WINNER :

Le marriage Zoom

Les portes de chapelle s’ouvrent avec un grincement tonitruant. Sans délai, Le Canon de Pachelbel commence à jouer. Sous ma robe blanche, les pieds marchant vers l’autel ne se sentent pas comme les miens. La musique s’estompe dans un silence assourdissant lorsque j’arrive. Deux mètres de nous, protégé par l’écran transparent, le ministre s’éclaircit la gorge.

Je regarde, impuissante, la mer de visages flous en sourdine sur l’ordinateur. Je regarde les bancs vides qui ne m’offriront aucune aide. Je regarde l’homme souriant devant moi, et avant que le ministre puisse commencer, je jette mon bouquet de roses et je cours.

Chung Sze Kwok, Y12

RUNNER-UP:

Une petite fille sur une petite plage d’Angleterre se penche pour ramasser un déchet.

Un vieillard au Madagascar examine son vieux bateau; l’arc-en-ciel du pétrole se diffusant sur l’océan Indien.

À Genève, plusieurs gouvernements débattent de plusieurs conséquences de leur surconsommation. Après avoir posé pour une photo, chacun retourne en ignorant l’état de la planète, rien ne change. 

Ce n’est pas certain que se passe-t-il ensuite. Peut-être l’enfant retournera chez elle, le vieillard de la mer, les gouvernements de la conférence. Peut-être des années plus tard la fille, maintenant adulte, annoncera au monde la solution qu’on n’a pas encore inventée…

Holly Singleton, Year 12

Modern Languages Teachers’ Conference 2021: All Welcome!

SRTS Teachers' Conference, offline version
The SRTS Teachers’ Conference, pre-pandemic version

We’re delighted to announce that our Oxford University Modern Languages Teachers’ Network, the Sir Robert Taylor Society, is holding its annual conference this year on Thursday 23 and Friday 24 September. If you’re UK modern languages teacher, or have an interest in modern languages teaching at school and university in the UK, you’re warmly invited to attend. Due to Covid, the conference will once again be online this year, with two evenings of roundtable talks and guest speakers.

On Thursday 23 September, from 19:30-21:00 on Microsoft Teams, the theme will be Modern Languages and Careers.

We’ll be talking about, among other things:

  • Career paths of modern languages graduates
  • Employability and demand for modern language skills in the workplace
  • Transferable skills from modern language study
  • STEM pressure and the value of humanities subjects

On Friday 24 September, again from 19:30-21:00, the theme will be Modern Languages and Diversity.

We’ll be talking about, among other things:

  • Revisiting the canon: diversifying and decolonizing the curriculum in language, literature and film
  • Race, gender and sexuality as topics of study in language, literature and film courses
  • Racism, homophobia and other prejudice in literary texts and film
  • Diversity in the student body: widening participation in modern language courses

If you’d like to attend either or both events, please email us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk, and we’ll send you the link to join.

During the events, participation from delegates through the chat and live discussion will be warmly welcome. If you’d like a seat at the Round Table to talk more substantially about either of these topics in secondary or higher education, please let us know, and we’ll be very pleased to accommodate you.

PRISMATIC JANE EYRE SCHOOLS PROJECT

Prismatic Jane Eyre Project

The Prismatic Jane Eyre Schools Project is an AHRC-funded joint project with the University of Oxford and the Stephen Spender Trust (SST), the leading UK charity for creative multilingual activities in schools.  

Over 2021, the Project is running workshops in translation and creative writing for young people who are learning modern languages or are speakers of community languages. Using the classic novel Jane Eyre and research about how the text has been translated across the world since its 1847 publication, professional translators will deliver workshops to secondary schools in the UK.  

A nation-wide creative translation competition will be launched on 30 September 2021 – International Translation Day! The competition deadline is March 2021. Entrants are asked to produce a poem in another language inspired by a selected passage from Jane Eyre. The competition accepts submissions in any language, and all entries need to be accompanied by a literal translation into English.   

Up to 100 entries to the competition will be published in a printed anthology, which will also be available online.  

Support materials will be available on our resources page:  https://prismaticjaneeyre.org/resources/. Additional activity packs will be provided in the workshop languages (Arabic, French, Polish, and Spanish) by October 2021. These materials give learners and teachers the chance to take part in creative translation activities related to Jane Eyre at home or in the classroom.  

The competition guidelines and selected passages will be made available online on 30 September 2021 on this webpage: https://prismaticjaneeyre.org/competition-details/.   

If you are a teacher who would like regular updates about the competition or the project more generally, please register your interest using this form. https://forms.office.com/r/JV2k133s3Z.  

Queries can be directed to Dr Eleni Philippou at PJEschools@ell.ox.ac.uk

Writing Humanity: on the Readings of a War Reportage

BY ALEKSANDRA MAJAK

War correspondent Marie Colvin used to say that what she fears the most is not a war, but indifference; a moment when stories of terror and injustice might cease to matter. Driven by a need to bear a witness, for over four decades she covered virtually all contemporary military conflicts: Iran–Iraq War; Kosovo; the intervention in Libya; Sierra Leone; Afghanistan; Gaza. The list goes on, as impressive as it is terrifying. By driving into the epicentre of danger, Colvin hoped to give voice to the voiceless; civilians whose stories might otherwise remain untold. ‘Marie has an eye for that’ – Colvin’s friends reflected, darkly, referencing her loss of an eye in a grenade explosion at Sri Lanka. 

Marie Colvin covering the 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square, Cairo. Photograph: Ivor Prickett/Sunday Times/EPA 

Against the backdrop of a turbulent century, reporting means witnessing – integrating oneself into the situation and writing about the experience with honesty and compassion, hoping to provoke a sense of activism in the reader. Despite the usual associations we share for the noun ‘report’ as an objective, evaluating account, a summary, the genre of reportage departs from the verb ‘to report’ that specifically designates an action of relating, recounting, describing, and telling a story. It offers the reader the account on humanity in extremis. For those of you who would like to delve deeper into the topic, the Washing Post’s list of the 100 best pieces of journalism (at the same time reflecting on the likely absurdity of creating such rankings) can be a helpful source, though not a definitive one [1]. Following the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction would also provide recommendations to start on.

Studying comparative literature brings with it the excitement of reading material, yet it its purpose is to reveal unobvious links between authors, their biographies, and styles that we now call ‘intertextuality’, in the vocabulary of literary theory. It is not a simple source-hunting (or flex during literature classes) but an attempt to get ‘behind the scenes’ of the creative process and better understand an author’s motives, hopes, and anxieties. If Colvin’s war correspondence is now among the genre’s finest – lately popularised by the biography suggestively entitled In Extremis (2018) by Lindsey Hilsum, and film The Private War – she is certain not alone at the top.


The Book Cover of In Extremis 

Her exceptional journalism is only part of a larger tradition of reportage; deploying changes of style and technique to keep the reader’ attention, and the examining the ethics of witnessing war.

In taking on this genre, the most salient question is: ‘what are my motivations for reading non-fiction?’ Why, of all of the books and work available to me, do I choose those that ground me in reality, instead of taking me away from it; floating me away into the welcoming arms of fiction? Asking these basic questions of ourselves helps us define the expectations we share about non-fiction and verify whether they accord with our actual experience of reading this work.

In recalling my own encounters with the genre I think of Martha Gellhorn; an American journalist and correspondent for Collier magazine, one of the first non-fiction writers to strike me as deeply observant and very well-written. In the early 1940s, her writing re-shaped modern war correspondence. In much of her journalism Gellhorn describes scenes from conflict zones with remarkable ease and vividness. Her attention, however, quickly shifts from a comprehensive presentation of facts to a subjective description of standing at the epicentres of conflict and, most importantly, listening to people’s stories.

Portrait of Martha Gellhorn w Collection at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Consider, for instance, this author’s reports from the RAF control station in 1943 as ‘The Bomber Boys’ prepare for taking off:

The motors were warming up, humming and heavy. Now the big black planes wheeled out and one by one rolled around the perimeter and got into position on the runway. […] Then the first plane was gone into the blackness, not seeming to move very fast, and we saw the tail-light lifting, and presently the thirteen planes that were taking off from this field floated against the sky as if the sky were water. Then they changed into distant, slow-moving stars. That was that. The chaps were off. They would be gone all this night. […] They were going to fly over France […] to bomb marshalling yards, to destroy if possible and however briefly one of the two rail connections between France and Italy. If they succeeded, the infantry in southern Italy would have an easier job for a little while.

The author paints this scene with broad strokes; detailed and novelistic descriptions intertwine with very short sentences, making the prose pulse and pause. The purpose of this cinematic technique is to replicate the intensity of what the author has witnessed and bring the reader into the scene. What would later come to be called ‘New Journalism’ [2] in the 1960s deployed techniques such as: realistic though often ‘eavesdropped’ dialogue, scene-by-scene reconstruction, recounting of the prior life and experience of ‘characters’ in the story, alternating between first- and third-person narrative. Even if the author condemns any form of violence, vivid prose poses questions about the potential fetishization of war and conflict, especially if augmented by a representation of brutal, yet still somehow glorious, war. The excerpt reads like an action novel, or the opening sequence of a blockbuster movie. [3]


Martha Gellhorn with Royal Air Force pilots, England 1943 

Even though this short excerpt does not do justice to all the variation in Gellhorn’s style, one quickly notices that her prose does not claim objectivity. Reflection on the place of the author’s subjectivity in the genre of reportage pervades Gellhorn’s entire body of work. Known for her sharp tongue, Gellhorn despised the conventions of writing from the distance, referring to it bluntly as ‘that objectivity shit’. Among her most well-known books, we may list The Trouble I’ve Seen (1936) – a set of short stories taking the reader through America during the Great Depression; A Stricken Field (1940) – a novel set against the backdrop of a war-tormented Czechoslovakia; and The Face of War (1959) – a wide collection of war journalism. The only openly autobiographical book she published was Travels with Myself and Another (1978), in which the titular ‘another’ refers to Gellhorn’s late husband husband, Ernest Hemingway.

Judging from the title, we might indeed suspect that the marriage was not a great success. The biopic film Hemingway and Gellhorn from 2012 captures some of their personal tensions, against the background of subsequent wars. After their divorce Gellhorn would tactfully avoid commenting on the writer; any interviewer bold enough to bring up the topic of their failed marriage was reportedly treated to a stern look. Given how one of Gellhorn’s first books, The Trouble I’ve Seen, was warmly received and prized for an ‘amazingly unfeminine’ quality, perhaps her stand against what she called seeing oneself ‘as a footnote to someone else’s life’ is self-explanatory.

Gellhorn was, reportedly, the only woman to see the front lines of D-Day. As the Oxford Companion to American Literature notes, ‘in a characteristic act of daring, when no publisher would send her to the front lines on D-Day during World War II, Gellhorn sneaked aboard a hospital ship and became the only woman in the field and the only journalist to set foot on shore.’ Despite that, Gellhorn held the personal conviction that ‘Courage Knows No Gender’ [4] – as Colvin called the speech she gave whilst receiving one of her many journalistic prizes. Consider its opening passage:

Do women report wars differently from men? The question used to make me bristle. It irritated me to think that I would be judged as a woman war correspondent rather than as a writer, taking the same risks and covering the same story as my male colleagues. My feelings were hardly new. ‘Feminists nark me,’ wrote Martha Gellhorn, one of the great war correspondents of the century. ‘I think they’ve done a terrible disservice to women, branding us as women’s writers. Nobody says men writers; before, we were all simply writers.’

Colvin’s vision of writing not labelled by gender might sound eminently sensible and intuitive. However, it is also decidedly idealistic and the debate on this topic has a rich history (or perhaps more aptly, HERstory) in both second- and third-wave feminism, and in cultural studies. A helpful point of reference in thinking about literature and gender would be to follow readings suggested by Poetry Foundation [5].

Writing about these two female war correspondents is not just a topic in its own right but also an opportunity to think of how we talk about the influence in literary studies. The most well-known single book about dialogues of literature is still Harold Bloom’s Anxieties of Influence. In this indeed influential (and in a way, anxious) book Bloom sees literature as a battlefield, a setting for rivalry between new authors and their predecessors. But does it always need to be this way? What if the authors let themselves be marked, changed, and challenged by the text without a constant urge to battle authority and tradition? In other words: what if inspirations go beyond the notion of rivalry and take the form of imaginative collaboration instead?


Rosamund Pike as Marie Colvin in A Private War Photo: Aviron Pictures

Every time she went to the frontline, Colvin would take only one book. This was The Face of War by Martha Gellhorn, whose reportage Colvin loved dearly; she often spoke about the lasting influence that this previous generation’s correspondent had had on her writing. It is uncertain whether they ever met, but the similarities of their turbulent biographies, styles, and  journalistic achievements alongside their life-long addictions to danger are striking; striking to the extent where the reader might speculate on how they would have related to each other as contemporaries. Of course, for the young Colvin the beloved elder correspondent was not her only inspiration. It was during her studies at Yale that Marie decided to become a journalist, and learnt from another legend of non-fiction.

Addicted to the ‘New York Times’ since her teenage years, in her second year of university Colvin signed up to lessons led by John Hersey, known for his pioneering book Hiroshima (1946). Hersey introduced elements typical of literary fiction to the genre of non-fiction, giving it a fresh and novelistic touch. His work still features amongst the highest-rated books ever written.

In the classroom, Hersey would speak of the importance of searching for truth and cultivating narrative flow over guarded objectivism and gathering information. The values of this approach would not simply resonate with Colvin but would later on become her own:  

To me, bravery is not something gigantic and definitive. I don’t get into a war thinking I have to prove myself brave: that would be about me and that would be bravado. […] The point is to try to report as truthfully as you know how. […] You can’t get that information in a war without going to a place where people are being shot and they are shooting at you. The real difficulty is having enough faith in humanity to believe that someone will care. 

The last line from this excerpt, in particular, invites reflection and encourages a return to the question: ‘what is it that makes me care?’ Complex in its socio-historical focus and multivariate storytelling methods, modern war reportage offers a unique reading experience. Most importantly, it calls for readers to be ready to be – as Colvin once was, reading Gellhorn for the first time – marked, struck, and challenged by the text.

ALEKSANDRA MAJAK

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/1999/03/01/business/media-journalism-s-greatest-hits-two-lists-of-a-century-s-top-stories.html

[2] https://www.britannica.com/topic/New-Journalism

[3] Read more excerpts at: https://www.military-history.org/feature/world-war-2/war-reporters-martha-gellhorn.htm

[4] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/courage-knows-no-gender-r5tqg9zzxjp

[5] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/learn/glossary-terms/feminist-theory

Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation

The Stephen Spender Prize 2021

The Stephen Spender Prize for poetry in translation, in association with The Guardian, is now open for entries. Anybody in the UK and Ireland can enter, regardless of age or linguistic skill. SST’s Multilingual Creativity hub is full of virtual resources to make the prize accessible from home, as well as teaching packs to bring poetry translation into the classroom.

This year the prize is more inclusive and vibrant than ever, from British Sign Language translation to new prizes for first-time entrants. SST’s virtual poetry booklets collect together poems in more than 15 languages.

SST Director Charlotte Ryland:

“Poetry translation is a perfect activity for these challenging times: it is a gentle and structured approach to creativity, without the intimidating blank page that can put off many would-be poets; it is an opportunity for parents and children to work together, in particular in families where more than one language is spoken; and it is a task that can be shared with peers and teachers.”

This year’s judges are acclaimed poets, translators and educators Khairani Barokka, Daljit Nagra and Samantha Schnee.

Closing date: 16 July 2021

  • Categories: Open (adult), 18-and-under, 16-and-under, 14-and-under
  • Top prize of £1,000
  • All winning entries published in a booklet
  • Special ‘Spotlight’ prize for translation from Urdu, judged by Sascha Aurora Akhtar

Full details on the SST website: https://www.stephen-spender.org/stephen-spender-prize/