The verbal acrobatics of Vitezslav Nezval


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''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.