Bozena Nemcova - the mother of Czech prose

Bozena Nemcova

Hello and welcome to Czech Books, which this week will be looking at the Czech icon and -in the words of Milan Kundera - the mother of Czech prose, Bozena Nemcova. We'd like today to dig a bit deeper into the reality of the woman behind the image, which is embedded in Czech culture. Nemcova lived from 1820 to 1862 and was a major figure in the Czech national revival. She's most famous for her book about an idealized rural community in the early 19th century, "Babicka" - The Grandmother. This book has been translated into many languages and is known by all Czechs as part of their school reading. Nemcova's image is also very much a part of Czech culture. Here are a few lines from Babicka in a 19th century translation by Frances Gregor.

"It was long, long ago when last I gazed on that dear face, kissed those pale wrinkled cheeks, and tried to fathom the depth of those blue eyes, in which were hidden so much goodness and love. Long ago it was when, for the last time, those aged hands blessed me. Our Grandmother is no more: for many a year she has slept beneath the cold sod. But you used to say, "Upon this earthy ball, not a soul that pleases all." If then, a few readers shall find as much pleasure in reading about you as I do in writing, I shall be content."

And today, with me to discuss Bozena Nemcova is Eva Kalivodova, who teaches at Charles University's Institute of Translation Studies and has also worked with the recently founded Centre for Gender Studies at the university. I'd like to talk specifically today about her classic work "Babicka", this book which I think every Czech knows, though maybe not many of them as adults. Why is it such a classic, and really the question I want us to look at today is - is it still worth reading?

Eva Kalivodova: "It's definitely still worth reading, but maybe it's good to re-read it as adults, not as children. Then we can appreciate it better. If we consider this book we should realize that Czech literature, unlike for instance English literature in the mid 19th century, did not have a novel at that time. What did exist at that time was the short story, but among many of them it had problems with schematic plots, that were often shaped by Czech nationalist ideologies of the time and by didacticism. And Nemcova avoided these dangers by using a mode of remembering. Nemcova ingeniously used the language means of an oral narrative. It means the rhythm of spoken sentences and even the vocabulary must have sounded very authentic, not the artificial intellectual language that the Czech intellectuals in Prague tried to invent. This was authentic."

I'd like to look more closely at some of the characters. There are very many strong female characters in the story of the Babicka who brings such harmony to the lives of all she encounters. So I'd like to read a few lines about one of the most interesting of the characters, Viktorka.

So this is Vitkorka. Could you say a little more about her story?

Eva Kalivodova: "Well, Viktorka is in fact counterpointed to the Grandmother in this narrative. Definitely these two are the two central characters. But there are many more characters on the scene of the narrative, on the scene of one village, where they just live, work, meet, talk and experience things together. And most of them enjoy the company of Babicka, the Grandmother, who is the source of active and helpful goodness and generosity and common sense, guiding other people in life. This is a very comlex world of its own, pulsing with life through the four seasons of the year. It may seem to be an idyll, but Babicka is not an idyll, because there is this one character of Viktorka, whose fate is very dark, and it's a very dark counterpoint to the Grandmother's. Viktorka is a young woman, whose passionate love for a mysteriously romantic figure of a lover becomes a way to self-destruction. And Viktorka, after probably being betrayed by her lover, returns to the village, and she returns mad and mute. She cannot talk any more. She remains in the woods and she is only full of grief. There are hardly any human needs left in her, and she cannot be helped by Babicka. That's probably the only character which cannot be helped by Babicka."

You mentioned there a rhythm in the book, a seasonal rhythm. You used the term "the four seasons" and in fact I know that you've been involved in some recent scholarly research into some quite amazing piece of writing by Bozena Nemcova, which I think would be very surprising to those who only perhaps know her classic novel Babicka. This is called "The Four Seasons" and I'd just like to read a short piece of this.

"The irresistible desire impels me here and there; I would like to bathe my brow in the fires of the sun's rays at one turn, immerse it into the depths of the sea at another, and on the pinions of the winds I would like to orbit the world! With ardent love I embrace the world; I give love to people - and they - with a pin they lacerate my heart! My veneration of love they call a sin; for my love of freedom - they crucify me, - when I speak the truth, it is evil, and if I tell a lie, they rail at me! How can I bear it? My shoulders are not titanic! I am a weak woman - I am sick, I am a sinner!"

The sculptural group in the Grandmother's Valley
Eva Kalivodova: "This is a unique text. It's a text in which she portrays the emotional and existential struggles of a woman at which she hints in other works - in her stories or in Babicka. Here she portrays them in really unveiled, strong images, and this text is both directly confessional and highly romantically stylized. It's a text that is a big step forward by Nemcova toward a woman character freely expressing herself. Recently my colleague has had an English translation done and we are thinking of its publication. Unfortunately if it's published soon it will be one of very few texts available in English by Nemcova, because the two translations of Babicka that exist - the one from the end of the 19th century by Frances Gregor as well as the younger one by a well-known English writer, Edith Pargeter, who was very fond of this country - these are sold out at the moment, out of print. Well, that might be a hint to publishers who can hear this and get inspired for a new editorial project!"

Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.