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INTERVIEW: Nezval’s ‘The Absolute Gravedigger’

Stephan Delbos and Tereza Novická. Photo: Bohemist

We sat down with the team that produced the first English translation of Vítězslav Nezval’s ‘The Absolute Gravedigger.’


PRAGUE – Translating a surrealist and literary giant like Vítězslav Nezval from the original Czech is by no means an easy task, but Prague poetry specialists Stephan Delbos & Tereza Novická took on the herculean challenge and after two years of sweat have produced the first English-language translation of one of his important works,  The Absolute Gravedigger.

The Absolute Gravedigger.
The Absolute Gravedigger.

Nezval is one of the most prolific avant-garde Czech writers of the first half of the twentieth century and a co-founder of the surrealist movement, which produced such greats as Salvador Dali. Though a global phenomena, surrealism in Prague was overshadowed by Paris and Brussels. However, by many counts the Czech avant-garde of the twenties was more mature, politically and artistically.

Indeed, with this book and the careful translation of Delbos and  Novická comes a valuable insight into the inner-workings of Nezval’s poetry, bringing to light the ideas that would for decades define how Czechs think and live.

To talk about their project and the impact of Nezval’s work ahead of the book’s official launch on Thursday, we sat down with Stephan Delbos & Tereza Novická.

  1. What brought you two to take on this project?

Nezval is a very impressive figure in Czech poetry and there was a previous English translation of a selection of his poems by Ewald Osers. So we were familiar with his work and enthusiastic about it. A few years ago Twisted Spoon Press approached Stephan about translating The Absolute Gravedigger, and here we are. Nezval was prolific and incredibly gifted, so the book is over 200 pages, and contains a range of styles from traditional rhymed quatrains to freewheeling litanies and dense, paranoiac prose. A challenge to translate, to say the least, so approaching it as a team seemed like a good idea. And it was!

  1. The surrealist technique known as paranoiac-critical method that Nezval employs is something born of a particular era. Would you say that those literary discoveries have had any impact on contemporary literature?

Surrealism definitely remains a relevant movement in literature, not just in the Czech Republic or Europe, but around the world. It’s not exactly the dominant mainstream mode of writing, but there are many individuals and groups who specifically identify themselves as surrealists or neo-surrealists. The paranoiac-critical method certainly proved fruitful for Nezval and several of his contemporaries, like Salvadore Dali from whom it stemmed. It’s one of a host of different methods or techniques the surrealists innovated and utilized, and as ways of generating writing and art, they remain as usable today as they were back then.

  1. How do you think the idea of surrealism in literature will resonate with a wider readership today?

Nezval is a charming, beguiling, impressive, surprising, humorous, intelligent and audacious poet. He’s fun to read even if you know nothing about surrealism or Czech poetry. The book has poetry, prose and paintings. It’s a zany collection and people will love it. For readers already interested in surrealism, the book brings one of the key texts of surrealism’s key figures into English for the first time. Also, I think that elements of surrealism have seeped into mass culture, so readers are probably already comfortable with some of its techniques, though they might not know it.

In addition, the interwar avant-garde which included surrealism is a very interesting subject for study and reconsideration. It’s a very rich period, a kind of shining moment between the wars when a great deal of really interesting creative work took place fueled by the optimism of ending World War I and the dread of another war impending. So there’s a very well developed field of scholarship on the topic, but as said above, many important texts, like The Absolute Gravedigger, have never been translated into English. In that way, the book will open Nezval’s work to wider appreciation and study.

  1. Nezval uses his work to touch on political issues. How would have that kind of freedom of thought been perceived in Czechoslovakia in the years leading up to World War II?

The last poem in the book, “The Iberian Fly,” is a perfect example. In Nezval’s notebook, the poem was much longer and also contained references to a man with a “Hitler mustache” which in the final version is rendered as a “Chaplin mustache.” And remember, this is three years before Chaplin’s film The Dictator! At the time, 1937, there was an official directive to appease the Reich, so Nezval censored this passage and others in the poem which have political connotations. Nezval’s views on the Spanish Civil War and Fascism in the late 1930s remain relatively clear in the published poem, even if they are more subtle than the notebook version.

  1. Could you elaborate a bit on Nezval as a person?

Nezval (1900-1958) grew up in Moravia before moving to Prague, where he quickly became one of the centerpieces of the city’s rich avant-garde. Throughout the ‘20s there was much admiration in Prague for artists and writers in Paris, like Paul Eluard and Andre Breton, the founders of French surrealism, who came to be friends with Nezval and his circle. Nezval helped found the The Surrealist Group of Czechoslovakia in 1934. There’s a funny story about how he tried to disband the group in 1938. At a wine bar on Národní street, he and his friends got into an argument and Nezval was accused of betraying surrealism by writing Marxist poems about Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the first President of Czechoslovakia. Nezval demanded creative freedom. A chair was thrown and Nezval slammed his fist on the table and declared the group disbanded. They group basically said we’ll be fine without you, and Nezval left. The dramas of the avant-garde!

  1. It is interesting to see this brand of avant-garde work in poetry, as most people tend to imagine the works of Dali as having captured most the use of surrealism in the first half of the 20th Century. Is there something particularly challenging in distilling the foundations of those ideas into poetry as opposed to visual art or non-fiction?

Dali was definitely important to surrealism, but he became a product, like Andy Warhol, and that’s why most people have heard of him over many other equally talented surrealists, including painters, poets, filmmakers and others. On the question of distilling surrealism into poetry, the sense of spontaneity is key. To illustrate spontaneity and the free association of ideas and images, many of Nezval’s poems are written in free verse that rarely completes an image in a single line and often lets it trickle into the next line or lines. For readers, this creates a feeling of uncertainty regarding the sequence of images that have no logical association – the reader cannot anticipate where the poem is going at any time, as Nezval sometimes confirms but usually twists expectations. But then in the rhymed poems in the book, Nezval is purposely showing that he can use surrealist techniques and traditional forms at the same time.

What else is interesting regarding distilling surrealist ideas into poetry is “Decalcomania,” a section of the book that combines visual and poetic surrealism. Here Nezval presents ekphrastic poems that describe the imagery of the decalcs via free association. He creates the abstract image, interprets and titles it, then writes a poem about it. This poetic sequence along with its prose supplement describing how this section came into being offers an intriguing probe into Nezval’s creative process and the associational thinking that gave rise to these poems.

  1. Are there any underlying themes either political or otherwise in The Absolute Gravedigger you would consider pertinent today?

“The Iberian Fly,” which we mentioned above, is a cry of alarm against the rise of fascism. It is Nezval’s Guernica. That seems particularly relevant to the present day, where radical xenophobic and racist groups have emerged in the Western world due to the refugee crisis and rising income inequality, for instance. Nowadays it wouldn’t be a Chaplin mustache though, it would be a Trump combover.

  1. Were there any particular conceptual challenges in translating this work? I imagine there would have been difficulties exacerbated by complexities in the Czech language.

One definite challenge was the “Shadowplays” section, where very tightly rhymed poems sound casual and natural in the original Czech, almost frivolous, but betray Nezval’s mastery of compact rhymes and rhythmic poetry. The issue here was to balance artistic license and the preservation of rhyme schemes and imagery with dynamism and cadence.

Another demanding section proved to be the “Decalcomania” prose text inserted in two parts before and after the “Decalcomania” poems. Nezval, not only in this section, but frequently in his free verse poems as well, employs a complex, long-winded syntax composed of subordinate clauses that results in sentences of epic proportions. This type of writing embodies the associative automatic writing of surrealism, and it was a challenge to capture and retain the momentum of the Czech in the English language, which has a different word order and different preference of syntax.

For more information on the book, including a purchase option here and more about the launch here.

“The Absolute Gravedigger” Launch
Thursday, September 29 @19:30
Cafe Soda
Míšenská 71/3, 11800 Malá Strana, Hlavní Město, Praha

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