The eastern avant garde

Vítězslav Nezval – Woman in the Plural (Twisted Spoon Press)

Vítězslav Nezval was a founder of the Czech surrealists. This is the first English translation of Woman in the Plural (1936) along with Karel Teige’s wonderful original illustrations. Twisted Spoon have done a great job of putting this together, in a handsome hardback.

Breton’s Free Union poem (1931) seems to be a model for some of the work here. List poems that begin with ‘like’ open out in the mind, into weird urban blooms.

Like the rotations of a coffee grinder
Like the quivering eye of a neon sign
Like a barmoeter

The Czech surrealist collective Devětsil which Nezval co-founded – in its initial manifesto – advocated that its acolytes turn to everyday modernism. Big buildings, aeroplanes and posters. In this there is a similarity with Apollinaire, with Blaise Cendrar’s ‘Profound Today’, and they are precursors to the poetical sections of Ivan Chtcheglov’s ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’, although by then the european avant-garde were bored with the city.

Here, Nezval takes on the theme of ‘woman’, of an everyday urban eroticism. The translators write that the way Nezval handles the subject of women would cause alarm today. But Toyen, the Czech artist who refused to end sentences with feminine clauses, who was essentially transgender, appears in its pages. It’s very tame, actually, in comparison with the – on one hand – pornified everyday landscape, and on the other the raging gender and culture wars. It feels like a gentler landscape, even though it was not, and in ’36 it was about to become intolerably harsh for a long time.

The founder of the Prague Linguistic School, Roman Jakobson, was also involved with Devětsil. Appropriately, then, there is some formal innovation here. Whole sections run like dramatic dialogue, for instance. The Prague surrealists are in and out of the theatres watching each other’s rehearsals.

A chapter runs as ‘Pages from a Diary’. This section is very rich, historically. A mention of a letter from ‘H Bousquet’ who is terminally ill and never leaves his rooms, makes me wonder if Nezval means Joë Bousquet. The dates fit, Bousquet died in 1950 and was in a bad way from the end of WW1, from 1918. This Bousquet wants to buy a copy of Toyen’s Yellow Specter.

This whole section is a snapshot of the european avant garde when everything was up for grabs, it was all to play for. They were writing to each other across the continent, hooking up, buying each other’s publications. In this section, the night-time dreams overlap with the accounts of daytime.

In one delicious moment Nezval and friends walk out of a museum and a boy comments, when he thinks they are out of earshot, ‘surrealists’. We could easily flash forward to 1977 to hear someone say ‘bloody punks’ under their breath. At the end of the section, Nezval seems to be suggesting the boy’s comment was channelled from the dead Apollinaire. They are practicing automatic writing.

A manifesto piece ‘Why I Am A Surrealist’ cites the ‘hatred of romantic gibberish’, but the Romanticism this movement emerged from is also tangible in the work, at this distance. The thing a movement defines itself against is very often still tangled up in it.

Still, they were Marxist-internationalists, this lot, too. Nezval ends his book with a poem in bold called ‘The Spirit of Corruption’:

This world in which man rules over man disgusts me
And a humanity that does not want this world’s day of reckoning
disgusts me even more
But what disgusts me most is my own impotence to bring
its murderers to reckoning

Especially since they are few enough
For me to strangle with my bare hands
I would scrub up like a doctor
Recomb my hair a bit
And go write my poetry

This world in which man rules over man disgusts me
And a humanity that does not want this world’s day of reckoning
disgusts me even more
But what disgusts me the most is the fool who laughs at this
desperate poem of mine
Which is how I should end all my books

Amen, buy this book.

Steve Hanson

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