East of Eden: Vítězslav Nezval and Czech Surrealism

By Benjamin CunninghamNovember 11, 2016

East of Eden: Vítězslav Nezval and Czech Surrealism

The Absolute Gravedigger by Vítězslav Nezval

THE SURREALIST MOVEMENT is almost always associated with France. This is not particularly surprising, as it was André Breton who penned the first Surrealist manifesto in 1924, and the word itself was coined by Guillaume Apollinaire in The Breasts of Tiresias, which was written in 1903 and premiered in 1917. But here it serves to recall that Apollinaire was actually born Wilhelm Albert Włodzimierz Apolinary Kostrowicki to a Polish mother in Rome.

And Surrealism’s ties to Slavic lands are more than an accident of birth. Some of the movement’s most innovative, if underappreciated, works were written in Slavic tongues. Prague — which Breton himself once described as “one of those cities that electively pin down poetic thought, which is always more or less adrift in space” — was home to the only official Surrealist group outside of France. The Czech poet Vítězslav Nezval translated and published Breton’s Surrealist manifesto in 1930. In 1932, the Czech capital’s Mánes gallery hosted what was, at that point, the largest ever single exhibition of Surrealist art. The works of Czech artists like Jindřich Štyrský, Josef Šíma, and Toyen were displayed alongside those of global notables like Max Ernst, Paul Klee, Joan Miró, and Salvador Dalí.

In 1933, Nezval and artist Karel Teige met Monsieur Breton in the Café de la Place Blanche in Paris, and in the spring of 1935, Breton himself spent two weeks in the then Czechoslovakia. And yet, despite the clearly documented interplay between the two Surrealist groups, Czech Surrealists — both then and now — still largely go unrecognized outside their native land. Milan Kundera has written about what he called “small nations” or “‘another Europe,’ whose evolution runs in counterpoint with that of the large nations,” and the pattern looks to hold for art as well as politics.

The inaccessibility of the Czech language to a mass audience and, later, the constraints of the communist regime limited access to the works of these Surrealist pioneers. But even if they are still largely unknown, their influence is apparent in the works of authors and artists that have gained far wider acclaim, including Franz Kafka, Jaroslav Hašek, Václav Havel, the aforementioned Kundera, and the cartoonist Jan Švankmajer.

A new translation of poems by Vítězslav Nezval will help pierce his veil of anonymity, granting Anglophone readers access to one of the most prolific and linguistically innovative poets of his generation, and allowing them to give credit where credit is due. The Absolute Gravedigger, translated by Stephan Delbos and Tereza Novická, is a seminal composition of the 1930s — one that is firmly rooted in Surrealist methods and images, but that also challenges the standard techniques of Nezval’s French contemporaries by incorporating rhyme. Like Breton, Nezval aims to resolve “dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality,” but the resulting poems retain a distinctively Czech flavor.

In recent years, cultural critic and historian Derek Sayer has done a great deal to expose the intricacies of Czech Surrealism to Western readers. The title of his 2013 book Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century is intentionally hyperbolic, but, as the author notes, 20th-century Prague was, after all, ruled by an emperor, democrats, fascists, communists, and democrats again; that arc does indeed reflect the trajectory of the century. And the artistic and cultural life of the “City of Spires” — as Nezval described it in his 1936 collection Prague with Fingers of Rain — have just as much to say about that turbulent epoch. Published in 1937, just one year before the Munich Agreement gave swaths of Czechoslovakia over to Nazi Germany, The Absolute Gravedigger figures Nezval’s drift from Poetism — a Czech movement that was essentially Dadaistic and Futurist in spirit — through Surrealism, and beyond, amid Mitteleuropa’s drift into political chaos.

With that in mind, it should be clear that Nezval poses a formidable challenge to his translators. For instance, Nezval often piles up clauses, adding more action or description in cascading rhythms and rhymes, before circling back to end up where he began — like a series of waterfalls that repeatedly drop you back at the top again. In Czech, with its rigorous case system, one can extend sentences in perpetuity simply by adding commas. (The author Bohumil Hrabal wrote two novels that each consist of a single sentence.) Combine this with a Surrealist’s enmity for punctuation, and one can hardly separate where things begin and end. Verbs are a rarity. One of the tamer examples, which Delbos and Novická navigate with great skill, occurs in “The Plowman”: “But at the instant / When these raptors / Incapable of flight from sudden passion / Descend / Upon the twig-covered pate / Of the saliva spitter’s head / To settle an ongoing fight.”

Nezval is also known for his frequent use of double entendre and puns, which are almost impossible to replicate in English. “Dnes se udát výbuch,” reads one line in the Czech original. Translated literally, that means, “Today an explosion takes place.” But when spoken, it can sound almost exactly like “Dnes se udáví Bůh,” or, “Today God chokes to death.” The translators opt to simplify it to “TODAY AN EXPLOSION,” implying that an explosion is taking place and that today is an actual explosion.

The surname Nezval means “uninvited,” and, skilled though its bearer was, one can see why he hasn’t been accepted into the pantheon of world-famous poets. Beyond the general density of his work, as well as the barriers posed by the Czech language and the Iron Curtain, the poet himself was not a simple, or necessarily sympathetic, figure.

In 1922, Nezval published his first book and joined the artistic group Devětsil, which gave rise to Poetism. Heavily influenced by Dada, Poetism was, according to Nezval’s contemporary Teige, “easy-going, mischievous, fantastic, playful, non-heroic, and erotic.” A typical Nezval work from this period is Abeceda, a collection of poems beginning with each letter of the alphabet, paired with photographs of the Devětsil dancer Milča Mayerová contorting her body into the respective letter. Nezval explained his approach, and the spirit of Poetism, in clear terms: “I jettisoned any kind of theme at all and picked the most subjectless object of poetry as an excuse for gymnastics of the mind — the letter.”

But as the decade wore on, the national mood changed. As Derek Sayer has pointed out, Poetism was suited to the speed of the 1920s, not the weight of the 1930s, and by 1931 the movement was dead. It was superseded by Surrealism, which, as Sayer writes, “tore the veils off both the innocent optimism of the poetism and the confident rationalism of the constructivism, offering instead to trawl the depths where devils lurked and look them in the face without flinching.” In 1933, Nezval and a few of his Czech friends visited Paris. Woman in the Plural, his first collection of Surrealist poetry, came out in 1936, followed by Prague with Fingers of Rain, and The Absolute Gravedigger the year after.

Americans have never attached as much importance to poetry as the Czechs. Today’s Prague is sprinkled with statues, monuments, and squares paying tribute to poets; they remain a part of the national mythology. Young Czechs, for example, still reenact the events from Karel Hynek Mácha’s 1836 poem “Máj,” canoodling under the trees of Petřín hill each May 1.

Czech, as a written language, was essentially dead in the early 19th century, having been rooted out by the Austrian authorities in favor of German. Influenced by Romantic ideas of national destiny, a handful of intellectuals worked hard to revive the language, and by the end of the century their efforts had paid off. Czechs once again spoke Czech. As the novelist Ivan Klíma noted in the introduction to an earlier Nezval collection, the poet was born at precisely the right time — in 1900, just as the Czech language was beginning to find its footing. The future Nobel laureate Jaroslav Seifert, just one year Nezval’s junior, was similarly fortunate. But those artistically fertile times were Janus-faced, and also saw the politics of Central Europe become a global concern. As Seifert wrote in his poem “The Plague Column”: “There was a war all over the world and all over the world was grief.”

Nezval was a creature of this era. Unlike Seifert — who resigned his membership in the communist party in 1929, and later signed the landmark Charter 77 human rights manifesto — Nezval remained loyal to the communists through the worst period of Stalinism, all the way to his death in 1958. From 1945 to 1950, Nezval actually headed the propagandistic film department at Czechoslovakia’s Ministry of Information.

As a younger man, he avoided military service in World War I. The Bolshevik Revolution and the independence of Czechoslovakia, which had been part of the vanquished Austro-Hungarian Empire, were formative in his intellectual development; like many idealistic Czechs, Nezval joined the communist party. It’s clear from the arc of his work, as well as that of his life, that he thought of communism as synonymous with modernism. “To us,” he wrote,

the Soviet Union was an untouchable country. […] There, poetry had freed itself from trite symbolism, academism and tedious realistic miniature. […] Even though we had been students on Montmartre and Montparnasse, none of us could truly regard himself as a “westerner,” because the honest avant-garde in the West understood itself with the honest Soviet avant-garde.

Politics are near the surface of The Absolute Gravedigger, and even inform its title, which, as Delbos notes in a crisp contextualizing afterword, is a reference to Marx and Engels’s The Communist Manifesto. Earlier drafts of the collection’s poems were even more overt in their politics, referring to Franco, Mussolini, and Hitler by name.

In this, The Absolute Gravedigger is a valuable example of the avant-garde’s response to the tumult of the 1930s — but that is far from its only merit. Delbos, a Prague-based poet and editor of the literary review Body, teamed up with Novická, a key player on the city’s literary scene. Their combined effort is innovative in its own right. Published by Prague-based Twisted Spoon Press, this handsome hardcover features Nezval’s own decalcomania design on its cover, and more of Nezval’s art is sprinkled throughout. Under the creative guidance of Howard Sidenberg, Twisted Spoon has again shown its dedication to publishing unjustly overlooked work from Central and Eastern Europe in beautiful editions. “Poetry that was written in the past doesn’t continue to mean exactly the same as it did when it was first written,” Nezval said on one old radio broadcast. “Poetry is like a moon which appears each night slightly altered in the ever-changing sky of history and time.” Thanks to Delbos and Novická, Nezval’s moon shines bright once more.


Benjamin Cunningham is a Prague-based writer and journalist. He regularly contributes to The Economist, the Guardian, Politico, and is a columnist for the Slovak daily SME.

LARB Contributor

Benjamin Cunningham divides his time between Prague and Barcelona. He writes for The Economist, Le Monde Diplomatique, and is an opinion columnist for the Slovak daily SME.


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