Boyd Tonkin: The magnificent Morpurgos

The week in books

Call it professional nosiness, or simply a taste for busman's holidays, but when abroad I like to see a bookshop flourish on a premium site. And it would be hard to find a more picturesque spot to sell books than the corner address near the pocket-sized Venetian Gothic governor's palace on People's Square in Split, on the Dalmatian coast in Croatia. The green-painted bookstore there was founded as long ago as 1860; this summer, it has run a programme of anniversary events. All of which would make for a cute bit of vacation trivia were it not for the name above the arched window: "Knjizara Morpurgo". Down a little alleyway in the labyrinth of Split's old town, you will also find a Morpurgo Place.

Countless British readers (and countless parents) have long had reason to bless that name. The first Children's Laureate, Michael Morpurgo had for decades enriched young readers with his captivating stories of children – and, in several books, animals - overcoming the trials and ordeals of war, disaster, environmental threat and persecution. Then the National Theatre's hit production of War Horse took his fame into a new dimension. The drama opens in New York soon. Steven Spielberg has been filming it in Devon (where Morpurgo has lived, and through his Farms for City Children project introduced urban youngsters to the natural world, since the 1970s) for a cinema adaptation due next year.

But a bookshop in Dalmatia, and one launched 150 years ago? Surely a story lurked here? Indeed - and what a tale. Michael Morpurgo was not born a Morpurgo; he became one. His stepfather, the publisher, author and scholar Jack Morpurgo, had for long acted as executive sidekick – and effective heir apparent – to Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books. Jack went off after various fallings-out to run the National Book League and serve as professor of American literature at Leeds University. His stepson Michael, as many people know, married Lane's daughter, Clare.

Through his original family, Michael already had literary ancestry: grandfather Emile Cammaerts was a celebrated Belgian poet. But in acquiring the Morpurgo name, he became part of what (as research soon showed) is an extraordinary multi-generational narrative that might grace one of his own books. Ultra-English Jack, however, seems from his stepson's quoted comments to have wanted to bury or deny this background.

Originally from Marburg in Germany (Morpurgo is just the Italianised "Marburger"), the family moved into the Habsburg domains of Istria and Dalmatia. There they thrived - under the relative tolerance of the 19th-century Austro-Hungarian empire – as one of the most eminent Jewish dynasties in both Trieste and Split. In those days, a Morpurgo could rise from synagogue caretaker's son to be the leading banker of Trieste, complete with a Habsburg knighthood. That city boasts, in a former family home, the Morpurgo de Nilma civic museum.

But what struck me forcibly about the Morpurgo heritage is its consistent literary current. In Trieste, Rachel Morpurgo (1790-1871) became the first woman ever to publish poetry in modern Hebrew. Critics treat her as a feminist pioneer as well as a linguistic innovator. In Split, Vid Morpurgo not only set up that bookshop but created a public library and helped to steer Dalmatia's cultural life. Lucciano Morpurgo, poet and publisher, later carried on the family tradition. Then, during the darkest days of Fascism and the Second World War, Morpurgos in both cities stood in the vanguard of dramatic efforts both to safeguard their own communities and to succour refugees. To my knowledge, the nearest that Michael's fiction has come to this turbulence is in The Mozart Question, with its Venetian violinist Paolo Levi remembering his traumatic youth.

For all their heroic endeavours, the Jews of Split eventually suffered the same effects from Nazi occupation and local collaboration as similar communities all over Europe. Yet a congregation, and a synagogue, happily remains active in the city today. A local electrical engineer now heads it. His name? Inevitably: Zoran Morpurgo.

A hidden hero of Hollywood hype

Much media excitement over the news that ingénue Rooney Mara has trounced star rivals to snare the role of Lisbeth Salander in the Hollywood remake of Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. As yet a bland-looking lass, Mara has a way to go before she can match the scary Goth glamour of Noomi Rapace (right) in the first, Swedish film. Still, it's heartening to think of those studio execs poring over the work not just of Larsson but of the forgotten hero in this saga: his English translator Steve Murray, aka "Reg Keeland". Fans should sample his other fine translations (as Steven T Murray): of the African novels of Henning Mankell, and of thrillers by Karin Alvtegen and Camilla Läckberg.

Losing the language of history

After an astonishing two-year swansong of essays, polemics and memoirs following his diagnosis, the great historian Tony Judt last week succumbed to the variant of motor neurone disease that ravaged his body but seemed to set his mind ablaze. The author of Postwar, that masterpiece of pan-European narrative, embodied the gifts of a generation that may not be replaced. In Cosmopolitan Islanders, Cambridge professor of history Richard Evans asks why so many British colleagues of their age came to specialise in, even dominate, interpretations of the past of other European countries. Judt himself began as an expert in French radical politics. They owed much, Evans shows, to an education system that, post-1945, gave bright students from non-privileged backgrounds a solid grounding in other languages. That legacy is now almost defunct. Yet, in Nick Clegg, we have a deputy PM of enviable polyglot skills. Could he not use his summer stint to plead, and even act, for a rapid British revival in language-learning?

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

News

literature

News
Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.

television

News
news
Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss