This year marks the centenary of the establishment of Czechoslovakia as an independent state. Today we also commemorate the 60th anniversary of the death of one of the new countryâs most notable poets, VĂtÄzslav Nezval. He belonged to the generation which found its voice as Czechoslovakia itself was finding its place on the international stage in culture as well as politics.
Many of the young poets of the First Republic were members of the left-wing avant-garde, in general strongly influenced by modern French poetry. They had made their acquaintance with it through Karel Äapekâs outstanding anthology of translations FrancouzskĂĄ poezie novĂŠ doby (Prague, 1920; Cup.410.f.663 ), and it would leave a lasting imprint on Nezvalâs own development; in particular he was strongly influenced by Guillaume Apollinaire.
It was in this decade that the Poetist movement evolved as modernityâs recreational counterpart to Constructivism. Its leading figures included the writer on art and architecture Karel Teige (1900-51), who summed up its nature as âeasy-going, mischievous, fantastic, playful, non-heroic, and eroticâ, a spirit which Nezval gleefully evoked in polythematic poems such as PodivuhodnĂ˝ kouzelnĂk (âThe Marvellous Magicianâ, 1922) and Akrobat (âAcrobatâ, 1927).
The dancer Milca MayerovĂĄ posing as one of the letters of the alphabet, and the cover of Nezvalâs Abeceda (Prague, 1926) Cup.409.b.5.
Nezval, as the son of a musical and art-loving schoolmaster from Moravia, had displayed a talent for music early in life and was far more at home in artistic circles than at Charles University, where he studied philosophy but never graduated. His companions in Pragueâs cafĂŠs and studios included not only Teige but also JindĹich Ĺ tyrskĂ˝, Jaroslav Seifert and Toyen (Marie CerminovĂĄ), and in 1922 they bonded together to found the avant-garde group DevÄtsil (literally ânine forcesâ, the Czech name of the butterbur plant, but with an implicit reference to the nine founding members of the group). They frequently collaborated on artistic and typographical projects; Nezvalâs poem Ĺ˝idovskĂ˝ hĹbitov (âThe Jewish Cemeteryâ), for example, featured six original lithographs by Ĺ tyrskĂ˝ and typographic design by Teige.
Above: Lithograph by JindĹich Ĺ tyrskĂ˝ from Ĺ˝idovskĂ˝ hĹbitov (Prague, 1928) Cup.410.g.577. Below: the authorâs signature from the flyleaf.
It was natural that Nezvalâs interests should lead him to visit France, where he made contact with many of the most significant figures in the Surrealist movement, including AndrĂŠ Breton and Paul Ăluard. As a result of this a specifically Czechoslovak Surrealist group was established in 1934; Nezval had already translated Bretonâs Surrealist Manifesto in 1930, and he went on to edit the groupâs journal Surrealismus. His collections from this period, such as Praha s prsty deĹĄtÄ (âPrague with Fingers of Rainâ; Prague, 1936; Cup.408.zz.27) reflect this influence, while a later collection, AbsolutnĂ hrobaĹ (âGravedigger of the Absoluteâ; Prague, 1937; X.989/38352), was strongly influenced by the paintings of Salvador Dali and might be said to be his most Surrealist work.
Cover of Surrealismus (Prague, 1936) RF.1999.b.2.
Initially the young Poetists had been eager for more extreme political action than that advocated by President Masaryk and his followers, and had identified with the international Marxist and proletarian movements. Nezval subsequently rejected AndrĂŠ Bretonâs doctrine, and returned to a less experimental poetic style which was linked to his staunch support for Communism. Unlike his contemporary Jaroslav Seifert, for example, who left the party in 1929 and went on to become one of the signatories of Charter 77 , Nezval remained loyal to it and from 1945 to 1950 even headed the propagandistic film department at Czechoslovakiaâs Ministry of Information. He also composed an effusive poem in praise of Stalin, which makes uncomfortable reading when one considers the worst excesses of the era following the Communist takeover of 1948.
However, when his writings of this nature have been justly forgotten, it is perhaps for his evocations of Prague itself, its people, buildings and landscapes, that Nezval will be remembered. He portrays in loving detail its shop-windows at Christmas-time, its office girls waiting for a tram, its bridges, chimneys, markets and acacia-trees, and Prague in the midday sun, âbeautiful as the mystery of love and improbable cloudsâ. And, summing up the quirky contradictions of Poetism, here is one of the best-loved poems from his collection Sbohem a sĚaĚtecĚek (âA Farewell and a Handkerchief'; 1933), âPocket Handkerchiefâ:
Iâm taking off today; I feel like cryingâ
Just time to wave my handkerchief, I see;
If all the world were one great gaudy poster,
Cynic, Iâd tear it, throw it in the sea.
Just like a fish, this vale of tears absorbed me,
Its image, broken thirty times, composed;
Now leave me, skylark, your great glorious error,
If I must sing, Iâd sob a bit, one knows.
The kerchief flutters down; the city opensâ
Grotesquely, at the tunnelâs mouth, it breaks;
A pity deathâs not just a long black journey,
From which, in some unknown hotel, Iâd wake.
You whom I loved like Andrea del Sarto,
Turn a silk kerchief for fair womenâs eyes;
And, if you know deathâs just a leap, a momentâ
Donât flinch, nowâGood day, goshawk!âup one flies!
(Translation ÂŠ Susan Reynolds, 2011.)
Susan Halstead (Reynolds), Subject Librarian (Social Sciences) Research Services.