The Absolute Gravedigger
Vítězslav Nezval, trans. Stephan Delbos and Tereza Novická
Twisted Spoon Press, $21 (cloth)
The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová: A Biographical Collage
Kelcey Parker Ervick
Rose Metal Press, $17.95 (paper)
Czech lands have been occupied and linguistically dominated for much of the last three centuries, a fact that perhaps accounts for Czech literature’s aptitude for fragment, collage, and uncanny, composite visual effects. The Habsburg Monarchy eliminated the Czech language from civic life from 1627 to 1918. The Nazi (1938–45) and Soviet (1948–89) occupations censored and curtailed Czech literature and cultural life. Fragmentation, surrealism, and collage techniques work against what Jean-François Lyotard called the “grand narratives” of modernity, accounts that tend to confer a progressive and singular sense of the course of human history. Czech writers found themselves resisting totalitarian narratives over and over in the last two centuries, and they did so with self-ironic, self-critical, and grimly humorous gestures. Much of Czech literature from the early nineteenth century to the 1930s focused on creating and encouraging a Czech national awakening and then building a responsive, resilient body of poetry and fiction to bolster it.
Božena Němcová (1820–1862), one of the more influential members of the Czech National Revival, is best known for her novel The Grandmother (1855), which is the first great work of modern Czech fiction—and it is written by a woman, in the rhythm of ordinary spoken language, about an ordinary woman. Along with Karel Hynek Mácha’s long poem May (1836) and K. J. Erben’s A Bouquet of Czech Folk Stories (1853), The Grandmother is one of three foundational texts of Czech literature. For this novel, and for her numerous fairytales, Franz Kafka, Jaroslav Seifert, and Milan Kundera, among others, have acknowledged their debt to her.
Two recent books emphasize the power and versatility of the fragment and the collage to create a fully embodied experience from an incomplete, or unraveling cloth.
By the time the efforts of the National Revival bore political fruit with the establishment of the first Czechoslovak Republic in 1918, the country had a number of talented writers creating literature in the Czech language, including Seifert, the only Czech to win a Nobel Prize in Literature (1984), and Vítězslav Nezval, one of the most prolific Czech avant-garde writers of the first half of the twentieth century. The first Republic saw the birth of Devětsil, the avant-garde association of poets and illustrators, of which both poets were a part. When the association felt the need for an organizing theory behind their activities, they began the Poetism movement, which championed “the art of being alive,” advocated the law of antagonism (historical progress as reliant on discontinuity), and emphasized the common, the non-heroic, and the erotic. Typography and optical poetry responded to new developments in photography, and Karel Tiege (author of the Poetist Manifesto) and Siefert began using the dissolve technique in their film scripts to morph one object poetically into another. Nezval cofounded the Surrealist Group of Czechoslovakia, the only surrealist organization to exist outside of Paris at the time.
Two recent books, works of collage and fragmented biography, reconnoiter this period. Part fractured historical account, part memoir, Kelcey Parker Ervick’s The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová explores Němcová’s life and works through visual collage and prose fragments that engage her fairytales and novel. Stephan Delbos and Tereza Novická’s new English translation of Nezval’s The Absolute Gravedigger, originally published in 1937, depicts village life at the end of the first Czechoslovak Republic through a surrealist experiment in “decalcomania,” both as a verbal and visual technique. Visually, decalcomania involves pressing paint between two pages of paper to create images for tracing or transfer (the term is the origin of the modern “decal”). In this tradition the resultant image inspires and yields a type of verbal decalcomania when spontaneously and systematically “concretize[s] what he describes as “irrationally subjective images springing from associative automatism,” rendering those descriptions in poetic form. Each drawing from this aesthetic legacy, these two collections bring Czech masterworks to new readers, emphasizing the power and versatility of the fragment and the collage to create a fully embodied experience from an incomplete, or unraveling cloth.
The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová is divided into two parts. The first is a biographical collage of found texts, footnotes, fragments, and images by and about the Czech fairy tale writer, whose work during the nineteenth century Pan Slavic movement was instrumental in bringing about the first Czechoslovak Republic. Ervick’s innovative collage form, with its many voices and viewpoints, questions the concept of biographical “truth” while also revealing a nuanced portrait of Němcová. Inspired by Němcová’s letters, the book’s second section, “Postcards to Božena,” is Parker Ervick’s epistolary memoir of her own failing marriage and her quest for a Czech typewriter, as well as a meditation on reading, writing, and happy endings. The two sections combine to create a book befitting its namesake. Ervick explains that the fragmentary form of her book arises in part from her lack of facility with the Czech language—Němcová’s letters are largely un-translated—and the paucity of reliable sources about Němcová’s life in any language. Němcová’s story is told both through fragments of “strong voices”—“the dismissive scholar, the enthusiastic biographer, the awkward English translator, the experts on radio interviews, . . . Němcová’s husband and lovers, and Němcová’s own voices as fairy tale writer, novelist, lover, and letter writer”—and through Ervick’s engagement with these sources and her projections onto them. Interspersed throughout the sections are Evrick’s travel photographs, postcard-sized paintings, and mixed-media collages of images of Němcová against the backgrounds of her fairy tales, correspondences, and landscapes real and remembered.
The collage aspects of Ervick’s book function in part by untethering time from its single direction, by separating moments of time and allowing them to exist, as moments, for all time.
Evrick opens Němcová’s life story with a mystery: who were her parents? None of her contemporaries or subsequent scholars is certain—Goya? Metternick and the Duchess of Sagan? the stable groom and servant girl who raised her? This fairy tale aspect of Němcová’s biography warrants, for Evrick, a reading of this life through the astonishing and influential fairy tales and letters that Němcová penned. The fairy tale has been particularly popular in Czech literature because it was one of the first genres of Czech literature written in the Czech language, as opposed to Latin or Old Church Slovanik. And Němcová was one of the leading practitioners of the form. In later times, the fairy tale was often the genre of choice during the Nazi and Soviet occupations—in it, political and hortatory messages of resistance could be safely encoded. In Němcová’s writing especially, the fairy tale celebrates friendship, goodness, love, and beautiful deeds and figures, so it is especially fitting that Ervick weaves the fragments describing Němcová’s life with Němcová’s own fairy tales and fairy-tale-like letters. Němcová’s life resembles the tales she penned: an unhappy marriage at seventeen on the night she was crowned queen of the first Dahlia Ball, erotically charged friendships and correspondences with women, and love affairs with seven members of the Czech National revival, whose poems and letter fragments are included here as well.
Němcová may even have viewed her own life as a fairy tale, as her story “Diva Bara” suggests (“Bara” is a diminutive of Barbora, the name with which she was christened). Ervick includes this excerpt:
What girl can carry two buckets full of water and yet walk as if she were
toying with them? And who can look after a herd as she can? A horse or
bull, a cow or sheep, all obey her, she controls all of them. Such a girl is a
real blessing in a household.
But if a youth here or there announced, “I’d like to make her my wife,”
the mothers at once shrieked, “No, no, my boy, don’t bring that girl into
our family. No man can say how things will turn out with her. She is the
Like her character Bara, Němcová was ostracized by her various communities because she did not conform to their restrictive and sometimes superstitious ideas about what was acceptable for women. The fairy tale genre likely helped Němcová read the painful vicissitudes of her own life into some meaning-making beauty. Writing was a balm for her, and a particular blow spurred her to write her most enduring work of literature, The Grandmother—the death of her son, Hynek, at the age of fifteen. She described her work as “carrying me from the grief of life” : the titular grandmother is the embodiment of Czech folk wisdom and kindness, always appearing surrounded by nature, and at her death the local princess (who has had her own share of pain) pronounces her a “happy woman.”
Ervick’s visual collages, interspersed throughout the text, superimpose fragments from Němcová’s stories and letters on images of Němcová herself; sometimes they place Němcová’s image in landscapes suitable for her stories. These collages reflect Němcová’s own tendency to read her life through the lens of literature. Friends and critics shared this tendency, as evidenced in the letters and observations of others, especially those emphasizing Němcová’s extraordinary beauty in fairy tale terms.
The title alludes to the gravedigger of the bourgeoisie, a concept from Marx’s The Communist Manifesto.
In the collage used to illustrate this essay, Ervick depicts Němcová in blue, floating in a blurred chaos of unfulfilled expectations and a prosaic world in earth tones. In this image the subject transforms the materials from which Němcová herself comes, suggesting an eternal dance with chaos as an impulse behind artistic endeavor.
Evrick’s final autobiographic section, “Postcards to Božena,” opens with a beautifully apt excerpt from one of Franz Kafka’s letters to Milena Jesenská, his translator into Czech, one of his most well-known and passionate correspondents:
Writing letters is actually an intercourse with ghosts, and by no means just
the ghost of the addressee but also with one’s own ghost, which secretly
evolves inside the letter one is writing.
The reader sees the transformative work of ghosts and letters here, as Ervick contemplates the dissolution of her marriage and examines her Slovak family heritage and her fascination with Němcová. In this section, we see collage working as a way of removing movements from the stream of time, allowing them to exist in an eternity of art. One among Evrick’s postcards, all of which are addressed to Němcová with the initial of Němcová’s first name, provides a cogent basis for doing so—the idea that this process is built into the Czech language for time:
Sometimes we hide behind language and metaphor. But Czech is often
very literal, as in the names of the months. It was 2012 and the language
class was in the month of July, červenec when the fruit ripens. January is
leden, named after ice. November is listopad, for the falling leaves.
The collage aspects of Ervick’s book function in part by untethering time from its single direction, by separating moments of time and allowing them to exist, as moments, for all time, as in this postcard:
I secretly snapped a picture of the young lovers on the bus. The bus’s
digital clock is in the top right. Are they still in love? Maybe all that
matters is that they were in love one summer’s day at 16:28.
Unlike Němcová, whose life was bitter but whose novel ends with the words “a happy woman,” Ervick’s story ends with finding love after the end of her marriage.
Or perhaps, B—
I can just stop here, now, in this moment, and this will be my happy ending
This gesture is a fitting ending to a work that celebrates the singular moment over the complete narrative, a work that is unafraid of what it does not know, what it cannot know.
Nezval’s studies are populated by the same workers and characters who inhabit Němcová’s fairy tales and novel, characters who work with vital activity to create temporary shelters against external forces.
The first self-governing Czech State that Němcová worked so tirelessly to accomplish through literary diplomacy lasted a mere twenty years. In 1938 Western Europe would sacrifice Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany in the Munich Agreement, and in 1939 Hitler would establish a puppet government in Bohemia. After World War II the Soviet occupation would continue to repress Czechoslovak avant-garde expression, and isolate the country’s literary and cultural contributions from international appreciation. One might view Němcová, K.J. Erben, and Karel Hynek Mácha, as the precursors of this first flowering, and Vítězslav Nezval, as among the last. Nezval’s The Absolute Gravedigger, previously untranslated into English, might be the most significant book of avant-garde poetry concerning the onset of World War II. Composed in 1936, it is likely the earliest. Certainly the culmination of Nezval’s work as an avant-garde poet, it combines the Poetism of the earlier period with his turn to surrealism in the 1930s. Unlike most of his colleagues, Nezval would come to embrace the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, relinquishing his avant-garde artistic pursuits in favor of official government posts in the mid-1940s.
The title of the collection alludes to the gravedigger of the bourgeoisie, a concept from Marx’s The Communist Manifesto: “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, its own gravediggers.” The collection’s most politically significant poem, “The Iberian Fly,” depicts an infernal Europe and the Spanish Civil War. An early draft reads:
Of a vile kiss
And General Delaroche
Over the bloody surface
Covering the five continents
The published version replaces the names with “snout / Of a mustached codfish / And two paralytic generals.” Nezval’s grim and prescient view of politics is balanced by his belief in the creative power of the imagination and his insistence on the importance of exploring it.
In his Surrealist method decay is part of the process of life. Nezval describes his over-arching mode of “Decalcomania” in an essay of the same title:
If decalcomania is the type of spontaneous manic activity that causes one who is fascinated by the bizarrely modified appearance of external reality to stop reading into his own being and become an amazed observer of his self against the background of a nebulous obsessive image that has suddenly defined him, then this activity gives our consciousness, accustomed to speculative methods, an opportunity to observe, without its volition and without its consent, as an unsuspected and intentionally unapprehended dream of ours materializes, as a never-suspected desire of ours assumes absolutely concrete and visible form.
In this edition six examples of Nezval’s decalcomania paintings, abstract images created by applying a thick layer of paint on a surface and then pressing it with a piece of paper or canvas, appear in tandem with the poems they inspired. Even in the poetic sequences not accompanied by decalcomania, the technique is apparent. The opening poem, “A man composing a self-portrait out of objects,” displays fascination with thoughts as physical objects that, random as they appear, are appropriated into the narrator’s psyche to create who he is:
He imagines encountering a few of his nocturnal thoughts
He wants to greet them
To place in their hands the blossom of dusk
He turns after them
As if a stubborn reminder
His incomplete self-portrait awaits
The tiniest detail
Without which the whole thing is dead . . . .
In the title poem, “The Absolute Gravedigger,” the imagery of natural world, with its vegetation and soil, fuses into the animate world of humans in a manner reminiscent of the paintings of the Italian Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who was patronized by Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor from 1576–1612 and King of Bohemia. Nezval, like Arcimboldo, composes images of people through fruits, vegetables, and other vegetation, objects the subject is both ingesting and contemplating:
The absolute gravedigger
Consumes one of his putrid workaday lunches
Left eye like a pickled egg
On a land map made by a spider on a mold-covered salami
Objects do not remain stable—nouns shift into adjectives, and the adjectives transform themselves into different concrete objects. The vehicle and the tenor of his metaphors change places and transform themselves as they go, as the body is transformed back into the earth, as all concrete human actions become symbols, and as the meanings of these symbols, these bodies, change in different contexts:
The blistered thumb of the absolute gravedigger
The blister actually
Part of a bulging slightly trampled woman’s eye
With a blue iris
Covered by a fingernail
Bearing the print of a holy icon
Crushed by the snap fastener
Of deformed slippers
At the center of these physical transformations, though, is the human participant, who is created by what he perceives, and whose actions are circumscribed by his condition and surroundings.
Nezval is notoriously difficult to translate; such metamorphoses as described above come at a price when rendered into another language. Delbos and Novická provide a helpful afterward and a series of contextualizing notes on some of the more complicated translation choices. For example the phrase “exquisite virginal pea pod” , from the same poem, derives from the Czech word lusk means “hull” or “husk,” but is also a play on the idiom děvče jako lusk (a pretty girl). They note that in Surrealist imagery the pea pod evokes a vagina. One line down the virginal pea causes a praying mantis to salivate—the mantis known for eating its mate after copulation. The translation is as multi-faceted and metamorphic as Nezval’s subject matter.
If in “The Absolute Gravedigger” figures flow into one another in an infinite present, the long lyrical series “Bizarre Town” offers snapshots of discrete moments taken out of time—lifted, as fish from one of Bohemia’s hundreds of freshwater lakes, with time still dripping off the scales. Each short image tells an entire story.
A beam of fire
Through a bedroom window
Where a blind man airs out
Covered in little handprints.
Figures who appear in this series are witches, trapeze artists, prisoners, the elderly, doctors and their patients, pharmacists, boys and mannequins, jewel-encrusted beautiful hands stretching from dormer windows in the rain, forgotten keys, cockroaches in churches, priests, hairdressers, soldiers, glove makers, and a child learning to count on dominoes. Nezval’s studies are populated by the same workers and characters who inhabit Němcová’s fairy tales and novel, characters who work with vital activity to create, out of the worlds they inhabit, temporary shelters against external forces encroaching from abroad. For, in Božena Němcová’s fairy tales and novels, even those with shared common sources upon which Western fairy tales drew, the Czech were distinguished by their proletarian nature, and their inner lives and personal agency. It is eerie to realize that these figures are about to be violently thrust back into the earth, for these poems depict a world on the brink of collapse.