Saturday 25 April 2009

Ivan Klíma on Vítĕzslav Nezval

Vítĕzslav Nezval: A remarkable member of the Avant-garde

Foreword to Vítĕzslav Nezval: Prague with Fingers of Rain, translated by Ewald Osers (Bloodaxe Books, 2009)

Vítĕzslav Nezval, one of the greatest (but also most controversial) Czech poets, lived in a country whose history was rich in reversals and paradoxical changes, but also a country where poetry enjoyed extraordinary interest. Not only monthlies, but even the most serious Czech daily paper would carry a poem on their title pages. Some of the poets (even some rather bad ones) were considered national bards and every new collection they published became a social event. This was of course due to historical circumstances - it was the poets who became the main symbol of the national revival and the resurrection of the Czech language, and thus the birth of the modern Czech nation. The poetry of the nineteenth century was conservative and often didactic; one of its aims, repeatedly reiterated, was to prove that the Czech language was capable of expressing the most complex situations and that it was possible to translate into it the greatest works of world literature. Not until the end of the century did poetry begin to diversify and to reach artistic standards comparable to the poetry of the rest of Europe.

Almost symbolically, Nezval was born at the turn of the century - in the spring of 1900. He belonged to the exceptionally strong generation of poets that included the future laureate of the Nobel Prize Jaroslav Seifert (one year younger than Nezval) and the gifted Jiří Wolker (who, however, died before he was able to develop his talent to the hights of his generational coevals). This generation also included the outstanding prose writer Vladislav Vančura (who was just under ten years older), as well as Karel Čapek, who was already internationally famous as a prose writer and playwright at a time when Nezval published his first poetry. Even though Karel Čapek never wrote poetry, he influenced the language of a whole generation by his superbly translated anthology of modern French poetry.

That generation was, while still young, marked by three historical upheavals - the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, followed by attempted revolutions in Europe, and finally by the emergence of an independent Czechoslovak Republic.

Nezval succeeded during the war in avoiding military service (though he lost several friends in the war); what influenced him much more at the time was the Bolshevik Revolution. Like most young poets he sympathised with it, he believed that socialism would do away with poverty and enable the socially weaker ones to lead a dignified life. In his first, youthfully naive (but formally astonishingly ripe and unconventional), poems we still encounter a social note or the belief that an Uprising is impending.

Look into each other's eyes
Into the hearts
No one above you
All in a circle
Holding hands
All of you
Each has his own mother country
In your mother tongue
Thunder forth
All of you
- Already we know
This moment a world will rise from its swoon -
It's breathing

At twenty-four he joined the Communist Party, but it seems that he was fascinated not so much by Lenin's utopian (and bloody) vision as by the Russian modern movement, which in the first years after the Revolution was for many artists identical with the idea of a poetry liberated from all constraints and bourgeois prejudices. Years later Nezval reminisced: ‘To us the Soviet Union was an untouchable country ... There, poetry had freed itself from trite symbolism, academism and tedious realistic miniature. We came to know the grand poetry of Mayakovskiy and his friends ... 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...’

Although he declared himself for the Communist movement and also for the movement of revolutionary avant-garde artists in Czechoslovakia that called itself "Devĕtsil", a group aiming at what they called "proletarian art", Communist ideas gradually diksappeared from Nezval's work. For a revolutionary he lacked one basic ability - the ability to hate and to write gloomily about a world that had not yet been "cleansed" by the proletarian revolution. Nezval was the very opposite - an essential optimist, a hedonist who enjoyed whatever life had in store for him. In a letter to a friend he admits: ‘Teige, Vančura and a few of his friends have realised that we shall not be redeemed by the art of social hope, that the simple people are not asking social experience from us, and that proletarian art can be practised without official sentimentality...above all, that we do not lack non-militancy or the courage to take off and fly cheerfully.’

One might say that an original and effective rhyme (never mind an evening in the company of friends or a pretty girl) was more important to Nezval than any revolutionary slogan.

Nezval was one of those exceptional creative persons for whom everything they encounter turns into poetry. The lightness of his verses is stunning (and at times dangerous to the poet himself: of his eighty-five titles by no means every one is superb). His ability to find countless metaphors for even the most everyday things was downright extraordinary: his verses, whether free or rhymed, had a magical power of insinuating themselves into the reader's ear and engraving themselves indelibly in his memory. I recall how enchanted I was by the refrain in one of his best poems, Edison:

But there was something beautiful to catch my breath
Courage and pleasure over life and death

I have mentioned Čapek's anthology of translations from modern French poetry. It was, above all, his congenial translation of Apollinaire's Zones that influenced Nezval's first collections. He himself characterised his beginnings as follows: ‘More than anything did we break and cut down forms, more than anything did we renounce forms, for repeated sentiments no longer captivated us; we raised the banner of an art that was able to utter everything for which the language of form had remained mute. I could now permit myself to make any theme the subject of my poetic interest and there was no danger that I would "develop" it the way the older poetry did. As when we water our garden with a watering can, a theme would become for me the subject of centrifugal rays.’

Later, on his frequent visits to Paris, he made the acqaintance of André Breton and became a passionate follower of surrealism.

That period (from which his poems about Prague date) may be regarded as the peak period of his creativity. Nezval had in him that which characterises a genius - the need forever to seek and find something new, a need further enhanced by the atmosphere of his day, which regarded novelty, freshness and rebellion against any tradition as its highest value, a period when artists like Picasso abandoned their style as soon as they had found it and hastened to find a new one. About surrealism Nezval recorded these personal remarks: ‘Has not surrealism come to us just in time, has there not been a need for this moral and intellectual crisis in people who have passed thirty and who have so or so many courageous works behind them, and does not a man of thirty who has achieved this or that find himself on an inclined plane from which the way leads straight to resignation and betrayal...?’

It should be remembered that the avant-garde which he then avowed not only had a demonstratively positive attitude to the Soviet revolution, but also displayed a liking for manifestos and theoretical proclamations, though - fortunately - the creative writers were not greatly bothered with their requirements. Thus, Nezval's poems about Prague, which the English reader is offered here in Ewald Osers' fine translation, are not easily assigned to any school or movement. They are simply the original poems of an inspired poet at the peak of his creative powers.

For a country lad from Moravia, Prague, from the moment he first stood there, became a theme from which emanated "centrifugal rays". Prague between the two wars differed in many respects from the city today. From the but recently collapsed monarchy it retained both its bilinguality and its liking for cafés, wine-cellars and taverns, some of which became famous as the meeting places of writers and artists. Several dozen literary and art periodicals were published in Prague. Czech artists were at home there as much as German or Jewish ones (Franz Kafka was still alive, as was Max Brod, the streets of the city still bore the traces of its natives Werfel and Rilke), there were Czech and German secondary schools and universities, there was a Czech and a German theatre and the mutual contacts of the cultures had a significant influence on the creative environment. There was a lively night life as well as literary discussions. The avant-garde professed collectivism and the protagonists of its ideas were united by ties that were often unaffected by years or frontiers. The person with most influence on Nezval was probably his friend Karel Teige, one of the chief theoreticians of the avant-garde.

In that precipitate inter-war period avant-garde theories influenced all the arts. With contempt for bourgeois art,’ Nezval recalled, ‘and its psychologising filth and seeming glitter we let ourselves be guided by the correct goal, over to the roots, to the roots of man's inner life. That this was not to the liking of even some of our comrades... over that we didn't lose any sleep.’

On the eve of the Second World War, however, the thirty-year-old, or nearly forty-year-old, poet again found himself on an inclined plane. Decisive for his decisions this time were not so much artistic manifestos as political events - above all, the criminal trials in Moscow. While most of his friends in the avant-garde refused to accept them, Nezval by then did not wish to get into conflict with "the comrades". He preferred to part with his friends and his work until then. He left, or rather disbanded, the surrealist group he had helped to found.

The "comrades" seized power in Czechoslovakia after the war, and the avant-garde - totally ignoring the appeals of the Soviet ideologists who demanded that art should serve the building of socialism, the proletariat and its class struggle, and who recognised socialist realism as the only movement - suddenly became the target of furious attacks. Nezval's friend Karel Teige was labelled "the chief representative of the Trotskyite agency in Czech culture". Some of Nezval's avant-garde friends committed suicide and Nezval himself, however loyally he behaved, was in danger.

Unlike Karel Teige, who refused to yield to the pressure (he died just a few days before he was due to be arrested), Nezval continued along the road he had chosen at the time of the Moscow trials. With the lightness typical of him wrote a long servile poem in praise of one of the bloodiest tyrants in history, Stalin. Moreover, he added a prettily rhymed propaganda poem, Song of Peace, in which, at odds with his temperament, he cursed criminal imperialism in the spirit of Stalinist slogans.

By this unexpectedly degraded poetry he forged for himself a solid shield: none of the Party ideologists could any longer attack the man who had sung the praises of the ruling dictator and fighter for peace. For many admirers of Nezval his propaganda writings from the early fifties were not only a sign of the decline of his poetic powers, but also a stain on his entire oeuvre.

Nezval himself probably had no illusions about this work: for him his propagandist versifications were a tactical manoeuvre to preserve himself and the whole of his past work.

As the most highly acknowledged poet of the regime, honoured with the title National Artist he could now do what no one else could: during the period of the Stalinist darkness he published his entire pre-war oeuvre. I remember to this day how, on that desert that had spread over the Czech book market and engulfed it with socialist-realist literary refuse, Nezval's pre-war poetry had the effect of living water, of an unexpected and unbelievable oasis. As soon as, following Stalin's death, the worst terror somewhat abated, Nezval did whatever he could to cleanse his dead or rejected friends and once more called for freedom for the artists as an indispensable prerequisite of creative work.

When he died in 1958 we printed in the periodical Kvĕten, which the younger generation was allowed for a time to publish, not an obituary - which would have had to deal critically with the profound contrast between his pre-war and post-war work - but a poem that clearly revealed his real attitude to life:

Lift off the burden of all heavy things
Though destitute, walk with the step of kings
Like cypress, moon and friend of dreams you'll try
to raise the mighty sea up to the sky

Let wings of bees your human injuries dress
Fly without wings and rudderless
Make light of human fate, count death for nothing
and fly up to the heavens with your coffin!

Vítĕzslav Nezval  (1900-58) was one of the leading Surrealist poets of the 20th century. Prague with Fingers of Rain is his classic 1936 collection in which Prague’s many-sided life – its glamorous history, various weathers, different kinds of people – becomes symbolic of what is contradictory and paradoxical in life itself. Mixing real and surreal, Nezval evokes life’s contradictoriness in a series of psalm-like poems of puzzled love and generous humanity. Nezval was perhaps the most prolific writer in Prague during the 1920s and 30s. An original member of the avant-garde group of artists Devetsil (Butterbur, literally: Nine Forces), he was a founding figure of the Poetist movement. His numerous books included poetry collections, experimental plays and novels, memoirs, essays and translations. His best work is from the interwar period. Along with Karel Teige, Jindrich Štyrský, and Toyen, Nezval frequently travelled to Paris, engaging with the French surrealists. Forging a friendship with André Breton and Paul Éluard, he was instrumental in founding The Surrealist Group of Czechoslovakia in 1934 (the first such group outside of France), serving as editor of the group’s journal Surrealismus. His mastery of language and prosody was unparalleled – contemporaries referred to it as wizardry. Alongside with surrealist poetry he wrote poems that sounded like genuine folksongs and for some time he teased the Czech literary public by the anonymous publication of three books attributed to a fictitious Robert David – one of 52 Villonesque ballades, another of 100 sonnets, all in strict classical form. His identity was guessed by the critics only because ‘no one else would be able to do that’.

Ivan Klíma is a leading Czech novelist and playwright. Born in 1931, he survived four years of his childhood in the Nazi concentration camp at Terezin (see 'A Childhood in Terezin', Granta 44, 1993, pp.191-208). During the post-Stalin "thaw", he worked as a publisher's editor and with Milan Kundera and Miroslav Holub on the radical arts journal Kvĕten. He spent two years in exile after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and was persecuted and prevented from publishing (except in samizdat) on his return and had to work as a hospital orderly. Much of his fiction has been translated into English and published in Britain and the US, notably A Ship Named Hope (1970), My Merry Mornings (1985), Love and Garbage (1986), Judge on Trial (1991), My Golden Trades (1992), Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light (1994), The Ultimate Intimacy (1997), Lovers for a Day (1999), No Saints or Angels (2001) and Love and Garbage (2002). In 2002 he was honoured with the Medal for Outstanding Service to the Czech Republic and the Franz Kafka literary prize.

Prague with Fingers of Rain by Vítĕzslav Nezval is published by Bloodaxe Books, price £8.95.

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