Reymont, recognition, and relegation : the November 2014 Slavonic item of the month


Front cover of v. 1 of a 1931 edition of Chłopi, Uc.8.6564

In November 1924, the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to the Polish prose writer Władysław Reymont, the second of four Polish-language literature laureates to date. To mark the award’s anniversary, we look at the University Library’s Reymont holdings, consider our scant acquisitions in recent decades, and search for Reymont in the card catalogue.

Ninety years ago this month, Władysław Reymont was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.  The Swedish Academy always explains its choice.  In Reymont’s case, this was given in some brevity: Reymont was recognised “for his great national epic, The peasants“.  He is one of nine laureates, so far, for whom the Academy has “singled out a specific work for particular recognition” (see the Nobel literature fact page and Reymont’s Nobel page), and the second Polish-language literature laureate, following Henryk Sienkiewicz’s award in 1905.The University Library’s earliest copy of The peasants (Chłopi in Polish) dates back to 1931.  With the exception of this and a Polish-French bilingual copy of one other work, the Library’s holdings of books published before Reymont’s death in 1935 are all translations – into English, into German, and even into Spanish.  All told, there are at the time of writing only 20 records in the Library’s online catalogue listed under Reymont as author.  Against the three other Nobel literature laureates who wrote predominantly in Polish, this is not a strong record.  Czesław Miłosz (who won in 1980) leads the field with 124 items; next is Sienkiewicz (1905), with 76 records; and even Wisława Szymborska, the 1996 laureate known for her relatively slim corpus of work, is in front of Reymont with 22 items.

This blog has seen other posts talk about literary prize-winners in other languages and gaps in the Library’s holdings.  Poland’s national library, the Biblioteka Narodowa, lists today over 1000 holdings by Reymont, but a closer look suggests that we might not have missed quite as many publications as that figure suggests.  It includes a vast number of translations into other languages, plus all multi-volume sets have been catalogued at the volume level (so a 10-volume set, for example, becomes 10 catalogue records to our one).  Interestingly, breaking the results down by date shows that the BN holds fewer books by Reymont published in the last 60 years than before.  This is born out to some degree in NUKAT, the Polish union catalogue, although multiple copies and a spike in numbers when the centenary of Chłopi was celebrated with jubilee editions earlier this century change the figures somewhat.

Looking, then, at the University Library’s records in the light of these searches, our few holdings reflect to some extent Reymont’s gradual decline in Polish publishing schedules.  Our most significant holding is without doubt the 20-volume Pisma (Writings;  758:53.c.90.207-226).  Published by Gebethner and Wolff in Warsaw between 1949 and 1952, it contains all Reymont’s main literary works.  Among these are of course his most famous novels – Chłopi (The peasants, named in his Nobel award) and Ziemia obiecana (The promised land).  The set’s final volume and the 6th in the set described in the catalogue record’s contents note as containing Nowele (shorter prose works) includes a shorter novel called Bunt (Revolt).  This dystopian piece describes the takeover by animals of a farm which ends in terror.  The debate about whether or not George Orwell knew of Reymont’s early 1920s work when he wrote Animal farm appears to be alive and well – various Google searches for terms such as Orwell Reymont Bunt or Orwell Reymont Revolt bring up tens or hundreds of thousands of hits.

No major new critical edition of Reymont’s collected works has appeared for decades. Should the centenary of his Nobel prize in 2024 and/or the centenary of his death the following year see such an edition appear, the Library will of course do all it can to procure a copy.  In the meantime, any modern signification editions of separate pieces of work will also be sought out.

The first illustration on the page shows the first volume’s front page of our earliest copy of Chłopi.  A rather fragile paperback 4-volume set, it can be ordered to the West Room (Uc.8.6564-6567).  No publication date is provided on the set itself, but a cataloguer has at some point determined the date from another source to be 1931.  Below the Roman figure I on the title page is the word Jesień – autumn.  Chłopi follows the course of the year, from autumn to summer.

201411_Card cat

An entry for a 1920s London translation of Chłopi in the Library’s card catalogue.

The second illustration shows an entry in the Library’s card catalogue for Reymont – in this case, an English-language translation of Chłopi.  Many readers are unaware of the existence of the “supplementary catalogue” this card is in.  It is housed in the corridor running off to the south from the Reading Room’s main door and contains records for material considered of a secondary, non-academic nature by librarians at the time of accession.  The card catalogue holds records for secondary material from 1906 to 1977, and the majority of these records are not online (the retrospective conversion cataloguing project team managed to reach the very early 1920s before the project was halted, so all the records in the slip catalogue on the other side of the hall, which covers 1800 to 1905, are online).  Readers interested in material such as translations of foreign works into English within the 1920-1977 time frame are therefore strongly encouraged to check the card catalogue during their research.  All books in the card catalogue can be ordered to the West Room.

Reymont’s 20 holdings in the online catalogue are supplemented by a total of 2 more items in the supplementary catalogue, all English translations: the four-volume 1925 London edition of Chłopi whose card is shown in the picture, and a 1945 Birkenhead edition of selections from Chłopi (titled Burek, the dog that followed the Lord Jesus, and other stories).  There is a third card in the catalogue, for a 1921 New York edition of The comédienne (Komediantka in the original), but this was reached by the conversion team and is therefore also represented in the online catalogue.  The 1925 and 1945 volumes bring Reymont’s total haul in the Library, albeit predominantly in translation, to 22 – neck and neck with Szymborska.

[Confession: this post was updated after publication when a colleague alerted me to the fact that the retrospective conversion team had managed to cover part of the card catalogue and that the 1921 record was therefore also in the online catalogue.  The post originally stated that the Library had 23 holdings for Reymont (20 online plus 3 in the card catalogue).]

The Slavonic item of the month feature aims to celebrate, through examination of particular pieces, the diversity and riches of Cambridge University Library’s Slavonic collections.  It has been running since April 2013.  Items featured in previous months can be found here on the Slavonic webpages.

Mel Bach

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