ON THE AFTERLIFE OF CZECH SURREALISM: Vítězlav Nezval’s ‘The Absolute Gravedigger’ translated by Stephan Delbos and Tereza Novická

Vítězlav Nezval The Absolute Gravedigger. Translated from the Czech by Stephan Delbos and Tereza Novická (Prague: Twisted Spoon Press, 2016)

by Anna Förster

In 1938, at a time that can be called both the peak and the end of Surrealism in Czechoslovakia, the influential Czech critic Václav Černý published an article amounting to no less than a harangue.[1] One might think that as a romance scholar by training, Černý would have been interested in the fact that a French-born artistic movement had such a stronghold in his home country. On the contrary, as he repeatedly expressed, he was very annoyed with Surrealism – not only because of its flirtation with Freudian psychoanalysis, which he despised for reducing everything to sexuality, but also because of its proponents’ endorsement of radical Communist positions. At any rate, what Černý stated was that Surrealism didn’t lead anywhere, that it was, so to speak, just so much ado about nothing, one big “hokus-pokus”. He predicted that very soon no one would look at its pictures, and no one would read its texts in years to come.

There was one writer, though, that he was particularly critical towards: Vítězlav Nezval. Nezval (1900-1958) was one of the most prominent figures in interwar Czech literature, especially in the field of poetry. In the 1920s, he was a leading figure of the avant-garde artist association Devětsil, and later he became actively engaged in the vivid and extraordinarily fruitful exchange between the Prague Surrealist scene and its French counterpart. [2] He was the first to translate not only André Breton‘s Surrealist manifesto, but also texts by Paul Éluard and Tristan Tzara into Czech, to only name a few. However, for Černý Nezval’s writings were the epitome of the “Surrealist circus” whose decline into total oblivion Černý predicted sooner rather than later.

Was he right? This is, of course, a rhetorical question. Nezval’s writing has long been available in German, often the first foreign language into which Czech literature was translated, for obvious historical reasons. The first translation of one of his collections of poetry dates as far back as to the 1930s when Czechoslovakia, and Prague in particular, were still very much a multilingual terrain. Though to a much lesser extent, Nezval’s poems had also already been published in French in the 1920s, when he was still in personal contact with figures such as Breton and Éluard and when Paris-based Czech artists such as Jindřich Štyrský and Toyen served as mediators for Central European avant-garde arts. With the exception of occasional appearances in anthologies, however, none of Nezval’s major works has been available in English until very recently. Only in 2001 and perhaps due to the author’s 100th birthday, an American university edition published Nezval’s Alphabet, a series of poems accompanied by (photo)graphical works by Karel Teige and Karel Paspa, featuring the letters of the Roman alphabet, as embodied in a dance performance. [3] The same year, the Los Angeles-based publisher Green Integer published a first collection of Nezval’s poems. [4] In 2009 the British Bloodaxe press, which specializes in poetry and focuses significantly on translations,  published Prague with Fingers of Rain, a collection of truly Surrealist poetry, dedicated, like many other of Nezval’s works, almost exclusively to the Bohemian capital. [5] In the last few years, however, one publisher in particular has seemed particularly concerned with making Nezval’s writing available to a global readership: Twisted Spoon Press, which is based in Prague and specializes in English translations of Central and Eastern European literature. In 2004, it published an anthology of erotic literature, beautifully illustrated by Štyrský [6] as in the very first Czech edition from 1931, and in 2005 it published a translation of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, Nezval’s only novel and a strange tale about the sexual awakening of a young girl at the moment of her first menstruation. [7] Heavily referencing the writings of Marquis de Sade and involving grotesque and gothic elements such as vampires, Valerie  served as the basis of one of the most remarkable films of the Czechoslovak New Wave. [8]

Now Twisted Spoon has published The Absolute Gravedigger, another collection of Nezval’s poetry. This book is remarkable, for (at least) two reasons. First, because the two translators, Tereza Novická, American-born of Czech descent, and Stephan Delbos, an American writer, editor and translator lecturing at the department of Anglophone Literatures and Cultures at the Charles University in Prague, have done an outstanding job transferring the highly complicated syntactical structures and semantic antics of Nezvals poetry into concise, rhythmically flowing English verses. Second, because this very book is the one upon which Černý based his withering assessment of Surrealism.

In Nezval’s own words, The Absolute Gravedigger, or Absolutní hrobář in the original Czech, is “the beginning of the second movement of my work”. Even if one doesn’t like to follow a writer’s claims too closely, the poems brought together in this collection constitute something very different to what Nezval had written previously. In the 1920s and early 1930s, he was co-founder of the movement poetism, a type of avant-garde aesthetics that developed in close contact with other European avant-gardes but which was also a genuine Czech iteration of an “ism”. This was based on the idea of foregoing the differentiation between life and art and, on the contrary, considering life itself as art. [9] Since poetism was heavily literature-based, despite a considerable amount of graphical works, life was not to be seen as a painting, a photograph, or a dance, but rather as a poem. The majority of the associated artists shared expressly left-wing views and many, including Nezval himself, were members of the Communist party and became part of the official Socialist literary élite after WWII. In the interwar period, however, poetism was supposed to be a-political. As the author of its programmatic manifesto, Karel Teige, explicitly put it, it was meant to shield and shelter art and literature from becoming a means of political propaganda, as had been happening in the Soviet Union. Thus, poetism focused on the moment, on everyday life, on joyfulness and cheerfulness. It embraced popular culture, hence circuses, fairs, and varietés became popular motifs. Urban settings were preferred and technical innovations such as mass transportation or radio telegraphy heavily influenced content and imagery. Over the course of the 1930s and initiated through personal contacts with French artists, poetism evolved into or converged with Surrealism, at least that’s how most Czech scholars view it today. Nevertheless, Nezval himself had a slightly different stance on how to define and historically situate poetism and Surrealism. He did not think of them as succeeding one another, but rather understood the former to be the adaption of the latter to Czech cultural and historical sensibilities.

Against this backdrop it becomes clear why Absolutní hrobář stands out. Firstly, it turns away from urban space, and from the popular sites of amusement of the 1920s. The collection largely consists of almost pastoral images, quiet, void and often motionless landscapes or farmyard settings. There are poems about grazing horses, sunflowers on a field or workers on their way to the wine harvest. But don’t be mistaken, this is not an anticipation of Socialist realism, to which Nezval gravitated after WWII. Quite the contrary. It marks, so to speak, a transcendence of the earlier urban limitations of Surrealism. But what seems even more significant is that the collection puts a definitive end to poetism’s programmatic joyfulness and optimism. Sinister atmospheres and dark, eerie images abound; metaphors are often nauseating and downright repelling. This manifests itself, first of all, in the eponymous figure, the Absolute Gravedigger. He is an uncanny persona, a “gigantic man”, whose face resembles “a crumpled hat from afar/and an anthill up close”, who doesn’t drink from glasses nor pitchers, but “from bottomless vessels” and smashes birds’ skulls and brains by snipping his fingers. He has his

left eye like a pickled egg

[…] fixed

On a map made by a spider on a mold-covered salami

While from his right eye

Enameled with bluebottle larvae

A button-sized bluebottle takes of at intervals

Through an open window

Looking like a field of wheat

Flooded with blue vitriol

Under a gallows made of rakes festooned with cornflowers and the guts of small field mice

Day after day, from dawn to afternoon dusk, he shovels dirt and digs graves, until he becomes, finally, himself “stuffed with graveyards”.

Another one of these creepy creatures, who also lends its name to the title of one of the poems, is “The Iberian Fly”. As if mimicking Kafka’s metamorphosis, this poem creates the image of an enormous insect sitting on a peak of the Pyrenees,

[a] fly


Whose body appeared to cover the entire Iberian peninsula

As dusk descended

One of its wings consists of maggots, crawling all over the land, raping women, killing their children and blowing up their husbands’ limbs as though they were filled with dynamite, while the other is

lined with wire barriers

Spiked with

The swelling heads

Of bulldogs

From whose mouths

Peered bullet-ridden helmets

Bent over the cut glass of binoculars

Taking into account the a-politicism of poetism and bearing in mind that people like Breton frowned upon such a thing as littérature engagée (it was, in the end, artistic expression that was supposed to liberate the masses, not politics), this is exceptional. Hence, while the rhetoric and the artistic devices of Nezval’s collection are still very much grounded in Surrealism, its content and imagery are already on their way out of that very program. One could say that at the moment when the book was first published, in 1937, Czech artists faced menaces that were too real to be fought by the means of dream protocols and automatic writing. In neighbouring Germany Hitler had already been in power for four years and his threats towards independent, democratic and economically striving Czechoslovakia were already very pronounced and real. The Munich Agreement, which resulted in the Czech lands being occupied by the German Wehrmacht and its German-speaking regions being fully incorporated into the Reich, was, at the time this collection was published, only a month away. From this perspective, these poems can be read as referring to the rise of Fascism, or, as in the case of the ‘Iberian Fly’, to the Spanish Civil War. But enough context on Absolutní hrobař.

What about the Absolute Gravedigger? What about the book’s recent publication in English? First of all, its editors have done well in bringing the English version close to the original, much closer in fact than many Czech editions that have been subsequently published, including the official edition of Nezval‘s Collected Works. Not only does the book include the same frontispiece as the first edition, showing a graphical work by Štyrský, it also contains a series of Nezval’s own illustrations that had also been part of the first edition. In doing so, it pays respect to what is said to be one of the collection‘s most important artistic features; the poems are of an overwhelmingly ekphrastic nature [10], as pointed out by early structuralist readings, and make more or less explicit reference to visual phenomena or pieces of visual art, and poetically functionalize their description. This is, as the translators themselves mention in their afterword, most obvious in the ‘Decalcomania’ section, named after a “classic” Surrealist technique. [11] In The Avsolute Gravedigger, ‘Decalcomania’ displays reproductions of such images often reminiscent of Rorschach tests, each of which is followed by a poem that in one way or the other refers to the picture. In two additional pieces of short prose, Nezval auto-exegetically does not call the pictures illustrations of the poems, but the poems “interpretations” of the decalcomanic structures.  What’s more, he traces all of the poems of his collection, including images and figures like the Absolute Gravedigger and the Iberian Fly, back to this very technique. But there are even more elements of Nezval’s poetry that can be read as ekphrastic or, at least, as inspired by visual arts. The first section of the book, e.g., named ‘A Man Composing a Self-Portrait Out of Objects’ and its depiction of a human body as a composition of objects, such as pieces of furniture or clothing, plants or clocks, has been linked to Giuseppe Archimboldo’s famous portraits composed of fruit or animals. Or the little man with the Chaplin moustache riding on the wing if the Iberian Fly, which could be read as a transmedial reference to Charlie Chaplin’s performance in The Great Dictator. Or some of the even more bewildering images in the section ‘Bizarre towns’ that can be understood as surprisingly accurate descriptions of (photo)graphical and pictorial works by other Czech Surrealist artists.

When it comes to actual translational work, I would like to point out only a few of the difficulties the translators had to overcome in this collection. Syntax is always a major challenge when translating poetry from a flective language such as Czech into an analytical language like English because one has to cope with the fact that the latter is not as flexible in its syntax as Czech. Czech, for example, expresses relations between elements and clauses by grammatical suffixation and can, thus, play relatively freely with word order. On top of that, English simply needs a higher number of words to express the same thing as Czech. However, this causes considerable problems if one wants to keep the rhythm while translating poetry. In The Absolute Gravedigger, Nezval “invented” something that Novická and Delbos refer to as “telescopic syntax” in their afterword. As in his earlier collections, the majority of the poems in this book are written in free verse. In earlier collections, though, Nezval tended to stick to typical Czech syntax and write verses consisting of whole phrases or at least of complete syntagmas. However, in The Absolute Gravedigger, he started to split units of meaning, and continuously redistributed their elements over several lines, thus complicating understanding and slowing the speed of reading (which is particularly baffling, if one tries to read the poems aloud). Novická and Delbos, however, cope with those problems creatively, for instance by making abundant use of the fact that English words tend to be much shorter than their Czech counterparts, and that one can compensate losses due to syntactical restraints by opting for more words with fewer syllables and thereby at least retaining the rhythm.

Another translational challenge arises in the ‘Shadowplays’ section, which is the only one written not in free verse, instead implementing short paragraphs with fully end-rhymed lines. In general, even today rhyming tends to be much more common in Czech poetry than in most other European literatures, which might be due to the fact, among other things, that the need for grammatical congruence often results in distinctive syllables occurring at the end of many words in one sentence. Thus, rhymes can be created not only semantically, as in English, but also grammatically. However, in this case the rhymes seem often mismatched, since they don’t always respect the length of the vowels (in Czech very significant), thus creating a somehow naive, almost silly effect. [12] Nevertheless, they follow a mostly stable rhyme scheme. In the translation, however, alterations occur not only with regard to the distribution of the respective elements to the different lines and to the placement of the end rhymes. The translators also allow for a couple of considerable shifts in imagery, sometimes, as it seems, only to keep the rhyme. Thus, on one side, the silly effect is occasionally lost or at least considerably softened. On the other side, this seems more than consistent, considering what Novická and Delbos outline in their afterword as their overall translational approach:

We have sought out, as all translators must, fidelity to both sound and sense […]. We have attempted to remain faithful to what we believe was Nezval’s intentions, changing word or stretching the limits of meaning only when necessary and – to our minds – aesthetically permissible […] We have tried our best to transfer the poems into English, privileging neither eye nor ear, but utilizing both.

Thus, the shifts, alterations, and changes they allowed for do not result from inattentiveness or inconsiderate handling of Nezval’s writing, but from their thorough interpretation and careful hierarchizing of his artistic devices.

It seems, after all, as if Černý’s opprobrium is misplaced. Or, at least, he did not take into account that works of art and literary texts do not only have a life inside a particular cultural community, but that they may also have an afterlife in other places, or maybe even more so. An afterlife which manifests itself often in translation, as Walter Benjamin observed. Most of the interest in Czech poetism and Surrealism in recent years did not occur in the Czech Republic itself, but abroad. In Germany, for example, exhibitions have been organized about the relationship between Czech and French avant-gardes, and most of the academic research that has been undertaken on its influence of contemporary Czech literature has been conducted by foreign scholars, or by Czech academics who teach abroad or who furthermore engage in translation. Thus, it seems as if Czech Surrealism’s grave does not have to be dug quite yet. It seems, at least in translation, as if Czech Surrealism is very much alive.

[1] Černý, Václav: ‘Několik poznámek k Nezvalově surealistické poezii‘ [‘Some remarks about Nezval’s Surrealist poetry‘]. In Tvorba a osobnost [Work and personality], sv. 1, Praha 1992, 601-608.

[2] For more information on interwar exchanges between Czechoslovakian and French artists and writers and, among others, on Breton’s and Éluard’s visit to Prague in 1935 see, e.g. Thomas, Alfred: ‘A Stranger in Prague. Writing and the Politics of Identity in Apollinaire, Nezval, and Camus.’ In: Prague Palimpsest. Writing, Memory, and the City. University of Chicago Press, Chicago/London 2010, 109-136.

[3] Vítězslav Nezval: Alphabet. Translated by Jindřich Toman and Matthew S. Witkowsky. Michigan Slavic Publications, Ann Arbor 2001.

[4] Vítězslav Nezval: Antilyrik & Other Poems. Translated by Jerome Rothenberg and Miloš Sovák. Green Integer, Los Angeles 2001.

[5] Vítězslav Nezval: Prague With Fingers of Rain. Translated by Ewald Osers. Bloodaxe Books, Tarset 2009.

[6] Vítězslav Nezval: Edition 69. Translated by Jed Slast. Twisted Spoon Press, Prague 2004.

[7] Vítězslav Nezval: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. Translated by David Short.Twisted Spoon Press, Prague 2005.

[8] Valerie a týden divů. Directed by Jaromil Jireš. Czechoslovakia, 1970.

[9] The text of the original manifesto of poetism can be found here: http://www.ucl.cas.cz/edicee/data/antologie/avantgarda/AVA2/124.pdf. A German translation was published in Manifeste und Proklamationen der europäischen Avantgarde (1909-1938). Edited by Wolfgang Asholt and Walter Fähnders. Cotta, Stuttgart 1964, pp. 383-388.

[10] Most prominently in Mukařovský: Semantický rozbor básnického díla (Nezvalův ‚Absolutní hrobář‘) [A Semantic Analysis of the Poetic Work (Nezval’s The Absolute Gravedigger)] from 1938. The Czech version can be found online: http://sas.ujc.cas.cz/archiv.php?lang=en&art=231

[11] The technique consisted in thick layers of paint on canvas with different materials such as paper, tin foil, or textiles. After removing the covering, the arbitrary patterns that remained were used as the basis for a new painting. One of the most prominent examples of this technique are the paintings of the German artist Max Ernst.

[12] This is something Nezval was highly criticized for, at the time his collection was published. Today, as it seems, scholars are increasingly coming to the opinion that this phenomenon is not regressive, as it has been seen before, but quite the contrary, rather something pointing already ahead to what became evident in Czech poetry after Surrealism and after WWII. In the 1950s, poets like Egon Bondy, Ivo Vose’dálek, and Honza Krejcárová created something that they themselves called “trapná poezie” [“embarrassing poetry”], which, in some ways, bore many traits of the absurd silliness that is characteristic for Nezval’s rhymes in The Absolute Gravedigger. An example for this interpretation can be found here: http://www.typlt.cz/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Typlt_Absolutni.pdf