The verbal acrobatics of Vitezslav Nezval

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Today's Czech books looks at the poet, surrealist, and one-time minister Vitezslav Nezval, charting his progress from 'enfant terrible' to 'homme d'etat'. The story all starts in 1900, with the birth of Vitezslav in the Moravian town of Trebic. He lived in the region until 1919, when he dropped out of university in Brno and moved to study in Prague.

Nezval took to the Czech capital like a duck to water. He was dazzled by the big city lights, and all of the literary possibilities that Prague presented him with. He became a member of the avant - garde 'Devetsil' group at its inception. 'Devetsil' translates botanically as 'butterbur', or more literally as 'nine forces'. Its members were influenced by the extravagant and nonsensical actions of the Dadaists elsewhere in Europe. While submitting articles to periodicals left right and centre, Nezval never finished his degree because he didn't hand in his written thesis. At the time the young rogue was busier writing stuff like this...

The mid twenties were a golden period for Nezval in Prague. He was enchanted by the city and wrote a book about it, called 'the Prague Pedestrian'. He headed numerous revues and literary groups and later wrote of the time that 'such an atmosphere of miracles can only ever be experienced once'. It is often said that he produced his best work during this period. The 'Song of Songs' comes from a collection called 'Edison' published in 1928. As the title would suggest, it is Nezval at his most lyrical:

Your eyes are two shots in the dark

Two shots in the dark which don't miss their target

Two shots in the dark round the corner of the street that I walked down

Like an inmate looking for the end of the prison-yard

Your eyes are two fairground kazoos

Two merry go rounds in the distance

Two bells

Two seals

Two thimblefuls of headache

Two gags which stop mouths for all eternity

Two woven baskets

Two test tubes

Two cogs in a brass clock

Two marigolds

Two nuclear rhymes

Two field drums

Two sad funerals two leaps from a window

Two nights without dream

Two apothecary's scales

A double barreled shot gun

Like two farewells

Nezval's ideal was to produce art that reflected and enhanced people's lives. He kept tabs on science and progress. Here is an excerpt from the title poem of Nezval's anthology 'Edison' - so called after Thomas Alva Edison, the inventor of the lightbulb, among other things. The translation is by Ewald Oser.

And now the sky beyond the trees is brightening

electric wires tremble in the snow

now promenades and corsos are aglow

now our souls are viewed on the X-ray screen

like ichthyosauri from the pliocene

now the clock's hand is moving towards six

now we go off together to the flicks

now spectral shades of gamblers and of witches

are put to flight by our electric switches

and now applause and cheers ring through the house

and Thomas Edison now takes his bows

The party's over now your soul is dark

the guests have left and you are back at work

Look at those inventors and at their resources

yet the stars have not deviated from their courses

look at all those people living quietly

no this isn't work nor even energy

this is adventure as on the high seas

locking oneself in one's laboratories

look at all those people living quietly

no this isn't work it's poetry

It's intention and a bit of accident

to become one's country's president

to become a poet who's outstripped you all

to become a songbird holding you in thrall

to be always lucky at roulette

to be the discoverer of a new planet

'Valerie and her Week of Wonders'
At one point or another Nezval tried his hand at songwriting, playwriting, painting and prose. He was rather good at most of these things. One of the first pieces of prose that he published was 'Valerie and her Week of Wonders'. This gothic fairytale has been turned into a film, and also an 'avant-garde electronic opera'. The book itself is a series of labyrinths and dead-ends, and this excerpt is no less confusing in context than out. Some useful information to approach the excerpt with, however, is that the young woman who doesn't want to age is Valerie's grandmother, Elza - and Skunk is Valerie's father. Enjoy figuring it out...

"Tell me how I can preserve my youth!"

"I can't. But I can make you immortal when you change back into an old woman."

"I don't want to live forever old."

"I'm thirsty. If you don't bring me wine, then I'll die in agony."

"If you can't help me stay young, then I don't care whether you live or not. I'm not going to waste my time on you."

Skunk didn't respond. His kidneys went into spasm again, and this time was more terrible than the last.

Elza had her eyes fixed upon the ceiling and noticed the hatch.

"What is that that I can see? The maid comes in here every day to clean, and has never once thought about that being a fire hazard. What lies directly above?"

A means of passing from basement to cellar, she was informed by Skunk.

"If my daughter's still alive, I'll save your life."

"And my youth?" She asked.

"That too," he replied, and his strained eyes brightened a little.

"Come back, come back soon." He implored.

"I'll bring you the strongest wine we've got," said Elza, and the wall swiveled to let her into cellar, where the sounds of the dying echoed.

Nezval's introduction to 'Valerie and her Week of Wonders' is one of the highlights of the book. In it, he describes poetry as 'the paying back of debts owed to life and its mysteries'.

From deep down in our own creepy underground archives, we managed to dig out a clip of Nezval himself talking about poetry. Here he is in 1936, in glorious gramophone sound.

"Poetry that was written in the past doesn't continue to mean exactly the same as it did when it was first written. Even if its structure stays the same. Even if the poem itself remains the same, some of its components come to stand for different things. Poetry is like a moon which appears each night slightly altered in the ever-changing sky of history and time."

Nezval joined the Communist party in 1924. He supported the communist party all through his life, and between 1945 and 1950 he was head of the Ministry of Information's film department. Secondary literature on his work from this time is rather thin on the ground. When it is mentioned, there is generally one line dedicated to it, saying it is not very good. Contemporary Czech poet, Jiri Kubena doesn't agree.

Autumn pays in leaves its costs

Autumn pays in leaves

Love is over, Hate is over

Now these things are lost

It's just superb, the overarching melody, it's so lyrical."

One of Nezval's last plays was titled 'The sun sets over Atlantis again tonight'. It warns of what could happen in the event of nuclear war. But a swathe of this would be a rather bleak conclusion to this week's Czech books, so instead I leave you with more of the delectable 'Song of Songs':

Your lips are two straggling minnows

Two flints and a sponge

A spice grinder

Two ribbons of honour

Your lips are two glowing coals on which I set fire to my memories

A gigantic carnivorous flower

A cockscomb

Fruit loaf in the morning

Your lips are a bleeding truffle

A beehive in summer

Your lips are an enigmatic monogram

Your lips are a boat painted red

Your lips are a sugar holder

But also a field of corn poppies in which statues have sprung up

A golden spinning wheel

The sea bed a crater on the moon

Your lips are a box for pearls

A sealed last will

A burning rocket

A watch spring

Your lips are the darkening of the moon

The darkening of the sun

The darkening of Venus and the earth

The scissors with which you slice through my dream


Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.