Alan Furst, a New York Times bestselling author whose archive resides at the Harry Ransom Center, recently published his latest novel Midnight in Europe.
Furst is widely recognized for his historical espionage novels set in the World War II era. His 2008 novel, The Spies of Warsaw, was adapted into a miniseries starring David Tenant and Janet Montgomery that premiered on the BBC in 2013. His works have been translated into 18 languages, and in 2011 he received the Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award.
Midnight in Europe is set in the outskirts of wartime Paris in 1938. Cristián Ferrar, a Spanish émigré and lawyer at an international law firm risks his life in a mission to help supply weapons to the Republic’s army. He is joined in his efforts by a motley crew of idealists, gangsters, arms traders, aristocrats, and spies, all compelled by different reasons to fight for righteous principles and democracy.
To celebrate the release of Midnight in Europe, the Ransom Center will be giving away a signed copy of Furst’s 2008 novel Spies of the Balkans. To be eligible to win, tweet a link to this blog post and mention @ransomcenter. If you’re not on Twitter, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with “Alan Furst” in the subject line. By entering via email, you are also opting-in to receive the Ransom Center’s monthly email newsletter. All tweets and emails must be sent by Thursday, June 26, at midnight CST, and winner will be drawn and notified on Friday.
Dariusz Pachocki, an assistant professor in Polish studies at John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin in Poland, worked in the Bolesław Leśmian papers at the Ransom Center in 2013. While here, he investigated the provenance of the collection and pieced together the long journey the papers took before their arrival at the Ransom Center in 1970, and below, he writes about that journey. Pachocki’s research was supported by the Edwin Gale Fellowship.
Manuscripts of many outstanding writers are stored in the collections of the Harry Ransom Center, and there are even archival materials from writers who never visited the United States and never wrote anything in English. For example, the Ransom Center has a great collection of manuscripts by Polish writer Bolesław Leśmian. How did the manuscripts of one of Poland’s greatest writers end up in the United States? This is the short story of a long and complex tale that brought these manuscripts to Texas.
Bolesław Leśmian (1877–1937) came from an assimilated family of Jewish intelligentsia. In importance, he ranks with other such poets of his time as T. S. Eliot or Rainer Maria Rilke. However, his work was appreciated only at the end of his life. Scholars of literature have described him as a great poet with a brilliant style of language, which he used skillfully in his creation of numerous neologisms. A man of great culture, he combined old philosophies with modern skepticism. He wrote fables, essays, and dramas, among other things, but poetry was the most important. Though he published only three books of poems during his lifetime, he influenced the history of Polish literature. Few manuscripts have been preserved, so the collection at the Ransom Center is very important for Polish culture.
The journey of the manuscripts begins in 1944 during the Warsaw Rising, a rebellion during World War II that was violently supressed by Nazi Germany. Many civilians, including Leśmian’s wife Zofia Chylińska and his daughter Maria, left the city because of military action. Leśmian had died two years before the outbreak of World War II, and so his wife and daughter were forced to manage on their own during the occupation. Before the women left the city, Chylińska divided his literary output into two parts and placed them in suitcases. The first included manuscripts of literary works that had been published, and the other contained manuscripts that were unknown and unpublished. The women did not know what their fate would be, and so they took with them only the most necessary and most valuable items. They could not take both suitcases, so they decided to leave the suitcase with published manuscripts in the basement of their acquaintance. Leśmian’s daughter Maria recalled these events after the war in her memoir:
“Notebooks in a black cover made from oilcloth. Lost manuscripts. It was impossible to save them all and take from the burning house. Mother was weak from despair. She could not lift a leaf from the ground. But Warsaw was burning. And despite this I carried bulging suitcase on Rakowiecka Street to the house which was not in flames. It was opposite to the fortress improvised by Germans. There, on the ground floor, lived our friend. Her surname was Czarnocka. We placed the manuscripts in her basement […]. These were published literary works.”
The second half of Leśmian’s works travelled with his family on a long and dangerous journey:
A few essays, unfinished poems had a similar fate as their owners, they travelled with us to Mauthausen concentration camp. They, through work camps, got to another hemisphere. I remember when I was carrying them. I was exhausted, with terrible pain of heart, after three days and nights of trip with a sealed train. We were surrounded by soldiers with torches. We climbed the hill, we carried valuable bundle with difficulty, in the light of these torches whose scrappy, fiery flames reflected darkness of the night. It was in August 1944.
The German Mauthausen concentration camp was built in Austrian territory. As in other concentration camps, people from across Europe were exterminated, and inmates who survived lived in unimaginable conditions. The most important thing was to survive, and in such circumstances, bread outranks manuscripts. However, Leśmian’s wife and daughter did not part with the manuscripts. They protected them as their most valuable treasure.
After a few months of appalling living conditions, they were freed by the American Army in May 1945. Starving and ailing, they made it to Italy with the aid of the International Red Cross, and they decided not to return to Poland because the Soviet Army was not only a liberator but also an occupier.
After World War II, Poland was under the influence of the Soviet Union. It had been placed within the communist bloc, where thousands of soldiers maintained order. Consequently, many members of the intelligentsia—writers, artists, or soldiers, and Leśmian’s family—chose not to return to communist Poland. After leaving Italy, Chylińska and Maria Leśmian lived for some time in London, where they published some of the saved manuscripts. Soon after that, they emigratedto Argentina and settled in the suburbs of Buenos Aires. While it seemed like the women and manuscripts would be safe there, both women had problems finding jobs, and they experienced poverty and suffered from illnesses. Also, despite being treated with care and reverence, the manuscripts were deteriorating because of the damp climate in Argentina.
The women could not afford professional conservation, and so they made a dramatic decision to sell the materials both to save themselves from starvation and to preserve the manuscripts. Polish intelligentsia emigrants and people connected with Polish culture were interested in the materials, but no agreement could be reached with Polish institutions, even though Chylińska’s health and the condition of the manuscripts were worsening.
Finally, a Polish antiquarian bookseller from New York, Aleksander Janta-Połczyński, was travelling throughout Argentina, met with Leśmian’s family, and was interested the manuscripts. He searched for an institution that could purchase the manuscripts and preserve them properly. When that proved impossible, he decided to pay for them with his own funds in 1967. Sadly, Leśmian’s wife had died three years earlier.
The antiquarian bookseller came to an agreement with the then-Humanities Research Center (now the Ransom Center). House of El Dieff auction house brokered the transaction, and after a long journey across three continents, the manuscripts arrived in Austin in 1970.
This collection of manuscripts includes seven literary works that are very interesting. While there is evidence that the family rescued more manuscripts from burning Warsaw, a considerable part of them seem to have been lost. However, the manuscripts that survived are perfectly protected and available to scholars interested in the literary output of Leśmian. The Ransom Center’s collection is now the largest collection of manuscripts of Bolesław Leśmian in the world. However, that could change one day if the other suitcase that was hidden in the neighbor’s basement resurfaces. The building survived bombardment and all military actions, but the suitcase has never been found.
Robert Capa (1913–1954), proclaimed “The Greatest War Photographer in the World” by the Picture Post in 1938, famously created some of the only surviving photographs of the Allied Invasion of Normandy in 1944. When his rolls of film arrived for development at the Life magazine office in London,a darkroom assistant was told to rush the processing to get the photographs to New York for publication in the next issue. The assistant placed the newly developed film in a drying cabinet on high heat, melting the emulsion on three of the four rolls. Luckily, ten images from the fourth roll were not entirely destroyed and appeared only “slightly out of focus,” the title Capa would cleverly give to his memoir in 1947. The blurred photographs became known for their sense of drama and immediacy, as Life’s story captions falsely attributed the blur to Capa’s trembling hands.
In the Ransom Center’s exhibition Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age, on view through January 5, this photograph is presented in a way that shows both the front and back of the print. Visitors are able to see the stamps, inscriptions, reference numbers, and notes that trace the trajectory of this individual press print, one of nearly 200,000 recently donated to the Ransom Center. Also on view are four additional photographs from the larger group that constituted Capa’s D-Day picture story, facsimile versions of his handwritten captions submitted to Life magazine, and copies of the June 19, 1944 issue of Life showing how the story was published.
Three years later, Capa and his close friends Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger, and David “Chim” Seymour founded the Magnum Photos agency in the penthouse restaurant of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (Photographer William Vandivert also joined the group but left after about a year.) These were photographers who had experienced a catastrophic war and were united by their belief in a shared obligation to be the historians of their own causes. Magnum Photos continues to be fully owned and supported by its members, numbering over 100 since its founding in 1947, with offices in New York, Paris, London, and Tokyo.
Photography department intern Josephine Minhinnett contributed to this post.
A few weeks ago, the Ransom Center received as a gift an unusual volume to add to our holdings of hard-boiled detective writer Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961). Kevin Berger, a journalist from New York, donated this booklet, which Hammett wrote for the U.S. military while he was stationed in the Aleutian Islands off the Alaska Peninsula during World War II. Berger’s father was a draftsman who also served in the Aleutians, and Berger had found the volume among his father’s drawings. We enthusiastically accepted the gift knowing that it would remedy what we call a “want”—a gap in our holdings. The Ransom Center is an important research site for scholars of Hammett in part because we have a small collection of Hammett’s papers and the massive archive of his longtime lover, the playwright Lillian Hellman. This gift is a boon to Hammett scholars not just because it fills a bibliographical gap, but because the Hammett papers, it turns out, contain a series of letters Hammett wrote to Hellman while stationed in the Aleutians.
In June 1942, the Japanese attacked a United States military base in Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island and went on to occupy two far western islands in the Aleutian chain. After more than a year of air, sea, and land battles fought in brutal conditions, the United States defeated the Japanese in July 1943. Hammett was posted to the island of Adak almost immediately after the crisis ended. From that time on, the island was under little threat of invasion, and Hammett was assigned to keep the 50,000 troops stationed in the islands informed of current affairs through an official newspaper, The Adakian—a sleepy journalistic assignment, since news arrived in this remote outpost well out of date. As part of his work, Hammett composed the history The Battle of the Aleutians in September 1943, a project for which he and his collaborators received a commendation. Its narrative has the feel of hard-boiled suspense writing, as in this passage describing the U.S. preparing for a counter-attack:
And then trouble came, a williwaw, the sudden wild wind of the Aleutians. Nobody knows how hard the wind can blow along these islands where the Bering meets the Pacific….The first morning the wind stopped landing operations with only a portion of our force ashore and, by noon, had piled many of the landing boats on the beach. The men ashore had no tents, no shelters of any kind. They dug holes in the ground and crawled into them for protection against wind and rain and cold. When the wind had quieted enough to let the others come ashore, they too dug holes and lived like that while the cold, wet and backbreaking work of unloading ships by means of small boats went on. And they did what they had to do. They built an airfield. They built an airfield in twelve days.
Hammett undertook related projects such as working at the radio station, offering film screenings, and delivering evening lectures on current events.
The famous writer was admired by his young staff at the newspaper and was himself an appealing curiosity for an isolated community often suffering from low morale. In letters to Lillian Hellman, he wrote detailed descriptions of life in the Aleutians; in the example shown here, he covers subjects such as his living conditions, his Texan bunkmate, Fred Astaire, and his thoughts on another work of war writing by Ralph Ingersoll. Biographer Diane Johnson (whose research materials on Hammett are part of her archive at the Ransom Center) writes that “if there were a happiest year for Hammett, it might have been this one, 1944.” Despite the austere landscape and the lack of news—not to mention fresh food—he stopped drinking and found himself to be unusually content. Hammett remained stationed in Adak—interrupted by a brief, unhappy period at Fort Richardson on the mainland—until the summer of 1945.
Hammett’s decision to enlist had seemed strange to those close to him—he was almost 50, he had long suffered from tuberculosis, and he had a well-known distaste for mainstream American politics. But his hatred of fascism was stronger, and he performed the service he was assigned with vigor, as this little booklet shows. As Diane Johnson tells it, a confusion over Hammett’s given name may be the only reason he made it to the Aleutians in the first place: over the course of several months in 1943, the office of J. Edgar Hoover issued memos to the General Staff office seeking validation of a rumor that Hammett—a known Communist Party sympathizer—had somehow made his way into the U. S. Military, but they assured him there was no such serviceman. The fact was only confirmed in 1945. By that time, Hammett had been reassigned, and the magic of Adak was over. He returned to drinking and after a short time requested a discharge; he officially left the military in August 1945.
Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.