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t h e a b s o l u t e g r av e di gge r

Vítězslav Nezva l

t he a bsol u t e gr av edigge r

Translated from the Czech by Stephan Delbos & Tereza Novická

tw isted spoon pr ess pr ague 2 016

Copyright © 1937, 2016 Vítězslav Nezval – Heirs, c/o DILIA English translation & Afterword © 2016 Stephan Delbos, Tereza Novická This edition © 2016 Twisted Spoon Press All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any form, save for the purposes of review, without the written permission of the publisher. isbn 978-80-86264-49-3 This translation was made possible by grants from the PEN/Heim Translation Fund and the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic.


a man composing a self - portrait out of objects the windmill

The Fording Horses • 21 The Roofer • 23 The Sunflower • 24 The Reapers • 26 The Grape Harvest • 27 In the Courtyard • 28 The Library • 30 The Dry Goods Shop • 32 The Wayside Inn • 34 The Bowling Alley • 36 t h e a b s o l u t e g r av e d i g g e r

The Absolute Gravedigger The Fetishist • 49 Milking • 58 The Blacksmith • 63 The Plowman • 73 s h a d o w p l ay s

Dusk • 85 The Flypaper • 87 The Snare • 89



The Cask • 91 The Tuffet • 93 The Spool • 95 The Anthill • 97 The Gloves • 99 The Lamp • 101 The Swarm • 102 b i z a r r e t o w n [1-4 3 ] decalcomania



Idol of a Woman • 160 Owl Man • 167 Monkey Man • 169 Waves • 170 After the Cyclone • 173 Magical Evening Landscape t h e i b e r i a n f ly


Afterword • 201 Notes • 209 About the Author • 213 About the Translators • 214


a man composing a self - portr ait out of objec ts

A man composing a self-portrait out of objects Walks And sits Walks His coarse skeleton a chair With movable legs A chair accustomed to mechanically measuring paces Down unforeseen paths These paths are bold brushstrokes That intensify His incomplete self-portrait And lead Alongside things He is part of In the morning he strolls through a deep sleep Reluctant to wake Because Down There Dwell the robust women of his deepest thoughts They surrender to him With hips resting against the footboard As he thinks In the form of these plastic bodies That take on Familiar faces His obsession Is stairs 9

And sometimes takes the form Of a sloping wall Or a bowler hat A fur coat Is thrown over the back of a plump armchair He enjoys strolling through the city At the close of afternoon Staring at the ground Staring ahead He imagines encountering a few of his nocturnal thoughts He wants to greet them To place in their hands the blossom of dusk He turns after them As if a stubborn reminder His incomplete self-portrait awaits The tiniest detail Without which the whole thing is dead Now his ear is bugging him A cricket Sits in the laundry room droning The incomprehensible tune Of a partially deaf eardrum A great horizontal partial deafness Composes the poignant flagging sounds of field work The shepherd’s bell chimes on the horizon The blades of a windmill are the cricket


One day he fixed his gaze on a false window In a lovely secluded villa On the coast Of a country with a name forever terrifying A funeral processed from the villa On the black coffin a white stork cowering An ugly runt mule hitched to the hand-cart Carrying off the dead body He will never know who claimed those last respects But from that moment He searched eagerly For a hat in the shape of a small coffin Finding one later In a junk shop window Sometimes he places it upon his head To doff it reverently To fifteen-year-old girls selling watermelons Who thank him kindly for this gesture and are saddened They approach him And take him by the hand To express their condolences with a quick kiss Another time on a dusky day In a street of rain He bowed his head over a dingy windowsill His head A cactus Covered in spines Of agonizing thoughts 11

The more quickly evening came the more certain He would never find the peace Of a well-lathed duck egg The last potato beetle flew from his head In the form of a seven-spotted tear A tear jabbed by seven stingers One time At the dentist’s He discovered Two millstones in his mouth Grinding the glass eye Of his cannibal desires He dared not move his mole-shaped Tongue And cringed in fear Incapable of saying yes or no When the anesthesia wore off He glimpsed his head In ten windows across the street Spitting A cloud of quails That settled on the platform of the stagecoach He was leaving in Curiously dismantled Like a bed being transported In those days A bundle of Havana cigars 12

Bound By a plain tight high collar With large points Formed his throat Instead of a necktie he would fasten A tamed swallow That kept its nest in a perfumery Where all summer he stored His typewriter On his breast Covered by a linoleum shirt-front Inlaid with Swiss watches Slumbered the flaxen head Of a siren Whose mythological tail was attached To his abdomen And who At times dreamlike Raised up like a snake Searching For his lips Covered in cellophane There were days Of premature aging So his hair Looked Like white wood shavings 13

And fell Under the merciless impact of the plane Of great self-torment That never for a moment ceased grinding His bump-covered scalp And grated The head of cabbage stuffed with pain Until finally the fingers of slumber Pushed away that terrible hairbrush He also suffered from Troubling mental states During which he changed Into two rams Treacherously butting head against head And striving To destroy his every joy For a while he believed He was a horse Condemned by his offspring To gallop And crash headfirst into walls Transform them into tunnels And flee through them Past bedrooms Where people indulged In blissful sleep


He also took To dismantling A very intricate clock Assembling from its gears A seahorse That could represent him before a tribunal Where he would be tried By five uniformed men from the funeral home For his pathological absent-mindedness Today he is cured of these corporeal phantasmagorias His Slightly bowed Or slightly twisted Head Is screwed on straight Aging And getting younger Proportionately And hardly going gray A priest walked by the window It began to rain And a nuthouse is hurtling down the street Disguised as a big moving van Cigars with charming labels Are better Than graveside candles Lightning combing the hair Of a country girl 15

Seems to be a necessary evil That can be confronted Death Is almost always Banal A fatal convulsive coincidence Love A grand art That must be studied One’s whole life Its opposites are phantasmagorias Gourmet mackerel Irritating anemic and noble dropsical creatures That defy with billiard misgivings The experience of love Which is the negation of the phantasmagoric By the very fact That one has to assume the phantasmagoric As one assumes Naked women in cages Suspended in air shafts And blackboards In strawberry groves Because without these naked women in wire It is not possible In the rain Which has a malignant effect on neurasthenia For men To throw themselves in the street 16

Into women’s arms The same way that without blackboards In strawberry groves It is not possible For a woman Feeling an immense need for love To lift In the window of a restaurant Her legs Into the air Nor for the man composing a self-portrait out of objects To fall madly in love At first sight With the woman Who came out Of the wine bar Into the courtyard Where he met her Purely by chance And so suddenly He had to take her hand Embrace And passionately kiss her


owl man

ow l m a n

The owl man bathing in his own knee That forms a trough Hides beneath his long beard Flowing Like a stony creek Over his belly A black-haired youth Striving To escape his tyrannical embrace And holding in his left arm Elbow severed A cloud dog Lunging Into a deep pit This black-haired youth Who is actually The owl man’s Athletic shoulder Is a plastic representation Of the relationship between father and son Who Inseparably bound By an ardent embrace Painfully tear apart Their common chimerical body 16 7

In a lacerated landscape At the foot Of slate cliffs overgrown with horsetail Eroded By a prehistoric waterfall run dry

16 8

a f t er word

The Absolute Gravedigger, published in 1937, is in many ways the culmination of Vítězslav Nezval’s work as an avant-garde poet, combining the Poetism of his earlier period and his turn to Surrealism in the 1930s with his political beliefs in the years leading up to World War II. It is above all a collection of startling verbal and visual inventiveness. And yet, emerging from the surrealistic ommatidia are a number of pressing political concerns. Nezval composed the book in the summer of 1936, two years before the infamous Munich Agreement would open the gates of Bohemia to Nazi Germany. Nezval’s politics are apparent even in the title of the collection, which alludes to the gravedigger of the bourgeoisie, a concept from The Communist Manifesto: “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own gravediggers” wrote Karl Marx. In this sense, Nezval is not only writing about death, but about class and the specters haunting Europe in the ghastly decade of the 1930s. The figure of the absolute gravedigger appears in the title poem as a source of sublime putrefaction, a force that will overpower not just one social class, but all life. The poem “The Blacksmith” evinces an even more fervent revolutionary bent, as the protagonist hammers “a dissonant revolutionary anthem . . . dished out by vengeance,” which demolishes the church roof, transforms the prison, and clears out the storerooms of “gold accumulated by entire generations.” This is radical politics wed to radical poetics. Revolution is less present in other poems in the book, and The Absolute Gravedigger is not completely — or not only — a collection of political poems. But, even more than Nezval’s craft, imagination 2 01

and outlandish artistry, the political poems elevate the book to international importance as literature not only of witness, but revelation. The collection’s most significant poem in this regard is “The Iberian Fly,” a hellish portrait of Europe, the Spanish Civil War, and a brutal sadist with “a Chaplin mustache.” It is a prescient description, given that Charlie Chaplin would satirize Hitler in The Great Dictator in 1940. In fact, early drafts did refer to a “Hitler mustache,” but Nezval emended the poem for book publication in line with the increasing censorship of inflammatory statements against the Führer and his Reich. For example, the printed poem contains the relatively innocuous lines: Image Of a vile kiss Between the snout Of a mustached codfish And two paralytic generals But in Nezval’s original handwritten version of the poem, these lines were far more blatant: Image Of a vile kiss Between Mussolini Hitler General Franco And General Delaroche Over the bloody surface Covering the five continents 202

One could argue that the connotations of the Chaplin mustache remain clear enough, but Nezval’s normalization of these lines certainly obscures their meaning. Nevertheless, the poem’s horrifying depiction of life and politics in Europe during the Spanish Civil War cannot be ignored. “The Iberian Fly” is a major poem of the 1930s. It is Nezval’s Guernica. Equally present, and ultimately more optimistic than Nezval’s politics, is his belief in the creative power of the imagination and his insistence on the importance of exploring it. This is evident in the Surrealist method and the fecund creative atmosphere of these poems, where even decay is part of the process of life. It is clearest in the section “Decalcomania,” where Nezval’s furious creativity flows into his prose vignettes, which describe the poems in the section as well as the generative processes that led to the book’s conception. Nezval’s creative enthusiasm is visualized, as he includes his own decalcomanias that the corresponding poems describe. This technique, invented in the mid-18th century for transferring engravings, was taken up in the early 1930s by the Surrealists. It involves laying a dense layer of paint on a surface, then pressing it against a piece of paper or canvas, creating a textured abstract image. The fluidity of the shapes and the chance abstraction of the method are good metaphors for the processes of the entire book. The poems in The Absolute Gravedigger do not focus on Prague as specifically as some of Nezval’s other work, but the wayside inns, courtyards, fields, villages and towns, no matter how bizarre, are indelible to the Czech countryside. The windmill, which is a central image in the book, is a common sight throughout the Czech lands and a recurring symbol in Czech fairy tales. Despite the avant-garde nature of Nezval’s poetics, most of these poems take place in traditional rural settings. A 203

sense of unease permeates the homegrown imagery. Even the most communal poems take place in desolation. Tables are set but deserted. The characters who do appear are strangely out of time, like the 21 sisters in a kaleidoscopic existence of eternal return in “Bizarre Town.” Jan Mukařovský, one of Nezval’s perceptive early critics, wrote in 1938 of the book’s atmosphere of “disturbingly mysterious uncertainty.” He also pointed out the connection between Nezval’s method of portraiture and the technique of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the Italian court painter who served in Vienna and Prague in the 16th century and was known for composing portraits from fruits, vegetables, and other foods. This is especially true of “A Man Composing a Self-Portrait out of Objects,” and the aforementioned “The Iberian Fly,” as well as the title poem, where the eponymous gravedigger has, among other attributes, “hair of charred schnitzel.” The landlady, meanwhile, is portrayed thus: With a head of overripe cabbage With breasts of two tallow puddings With a womb of calamus And with legs of soaked sacks of grain Surely such constructions have as much to do with Arcimboldo as they do with Lautréamont’s “chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella.” Nezval first met André Breton and Paul Eluard in Paris in 1933, having become acquainted — and enamored — with their work in an important Surrealist exhibition at Prague’s Mánes Gallery the previous year. In 1934, Nezval initiated the founding of the Surrealist Group of Czechoslovakia with other Czech writers and artists including Karel 204

Teige, Konstantin Biebl, Jindřich Honzl, Jindřich Štyrský, and Toyen. The group met regularly at Café Axa, a modest public pool with a tiny café in what was an impressive modernist building. Nezval became a prolific and vocal supporter of Surrealism in his poetry, prose, and speeches. He translated Breton’s Nadja and Communicating Vessels, and published the Second Manifesto of Surrealism in his magazine Zodiac in 1930. The creation of the Surrealist Group of Czechoslovakia — the first Surrealist group outside France to be approved by Breton — was the result of more than a decade of engagement by the Czech avantgarde with their French counterparts. Nezval published his first book in 1922 (The Bridge, referenced in “Decalcomania”). The same year he joined the artistic group Devětsil, which embraced the poetry of the modern world as well as the bright optimism of a postwar decade in a country that had finally gained independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. According to Karel Teige’s 1924 text “Poetism,” poetry was to be found in “film, the circus, sport, tourism, and in life itself.” Nezval was a prolific star of Czech Poetism, producing masterpieces in several styles and genres, including Abeceda, a collection of short poems on each letter of the alphabet, lavishly designed by Teige with photographs of dancer Milča Mayerová posing each letter. The typographic attention Nezval pays in Abeceda can be seen in “The Fetishist,” where he writes of “the slightly protruding chin of the words I love you.” Beyond this, however, the images so familiar to Poetism, such as the Eiffel Tower, Egypt, cowboys and Indians, have been jettisoned. This is not the optimistic poetry of the 1920s. In contrast, as Karel Teige would write in his 1937 essay “From Artificialism to Surrealism:” “when the city clocks chime the approaching midnight of the old order, poetry cannot be the song of a bird, the intoxication of the summer 205

sun; it is a mouth spewing blood, a crater overflowing with lava in which the Pompeii of luxury and banditry will perish, a geyser of forces against which the censor of social morality will be powerless.”1 This dramatic shift is evident in the way The Absolute Gravedigger fuses the strangest elements of light-hearted Poetism with the darker Surrealism Nezval would embrace in the early 1930s. As he writes in “Decalcomania,” “The Absolute Gravedigger [is] the beginning of the second movement of my work, a conscious beginning that ‘strives to spontaneously and systematically objectify and concretize irrationally subjective images springing from associative automatism.’” In this sense, there was another burial taking place in this collection, namely of Nezval’s earlier methods of creating poetry. By 1937, Nezval was deeply immersed in Surrealism, having published two such poetic masterpieces the year before: Woman in the Plural and Prague with Fingers of Rain.2 But by 1938, he would attempt to disband the Surrealist Group of Czechoslovakia, alienating himself both from Breton and many of his Czech peers. Nonetheless, Nezval did send Breton a copy of The Absolute Gravedigger in November 1937 immediately after it was published with a frontispiece and layout by his friend and fellow Surrealist Jindřich Štyrský. According to the opening of A Prague Flâneur, which came out the following year, Nezval handed in the manuscript of The Absolute Gravedigger on June 9, 1937, at the offices of publisher František Borový, where his friend and editor Julius Fürth was supportive of even the poet’s most experimental work. In Breton’s copy of the book, Nezval wrote: “To my wonderful 1. Quoted in Derek Sayer, Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 242. 2. See end note to “Decalcomania.” 206

friend André Breton, whose star illuminates poets’ nights, Forever his friend, Vítězslav Nezval.” Just a year later Nezval would be trying to reconcile with Breton about the dissolution of the Surrealist Group of Czechoslovakia. A year after that, Hitler would pose for a portrait looking out a window at Prague Castle. The ensuing repression of the Czechoslovak avant-garde would persist until 1989, largely divorcing the country’s vibrant and significant literary and artistic contributions from international appreciation. Nezval would come to embrace the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, relinquishing his avant-garde artistic pursuits in favor of official government posts in the 1950s. Considering the social, artistic, and political context in which The Absolute Gravedigger was written, and the future that lay ahead for Nezval and for the European avant-garde, it would seem that the poet was tuning into more than his own associative automatism while composing the volume. We have sought, as all translators must, fidelity to both sound and sense. This proved particularly challenging with the tight rhymes and twisted syntax of “Shadowplays.” In certain poems, like “The Tuffet” or “The Cask,” liberties were taken with the imagery in order to convey the tone of the piece in concert with its musical form. In the longer poems, Nezval’s telescoping syntax, where sentences are continuously elaborated upon with clauses intertwining in a way that is more elegant in Czech than in literal English translation, in some cases could have necessitated revisions of line order, but we have generally tried to maintain the dynamism of the original. There is a shifting sense of imagery throughout the collection, not only as objects and characters are set in unlikely places, but as those unlikely places are set atop objects and characters. A sense of uncertainty and surprise pervades, 2 07

as each line leads, or perhaps doesn’t lead, to something completely unexpected. For readers — and even more so translators — nothing can be taken for granted. At times, the end-rhymes in these poems seem to have been chosen for the sound rather than the meaning, but in contrast to a poet like Marina Tsvetaeva, who suggested that translators secure her metaphors rather than her rhymes, Nezval’s poetry is musical to a degree that sacrificing the rhymes seemed to us an irredeemable loss. While some of Nezval’s rhymes are surely a result of free association, his poems are always intimately in tune to the syntactical, musical, and homophonic possibilities of the Czech language. We have attempted to remain faithful to what we believe was Nezval’s intention, changing words or stretching the limits of meaning only when necessary and — to our minds — aesthetically permissible. The Absolute Gravedigger is previously untranslated into English. And yet it is one of the finest examples of Czech Surrealism, which should be considered just as groundbreaking as the French incarnation. The book’s political concerns make it an invaluable document of the avant-garde response to the crisis looming in Europe in the 1930s. It might be the most significant — the greatest — book of avant-garde poetry concerning the onset of World War II. It is also likely the earliest. The politics may be oblique, but the poetry is undeniably direct. We have tried our best to transfer the poems into English, privileging neither eye nor ear, but utilizing both. Stephan Delbos & Tereza Novická Prague, 2016


no t e s


seven-spotted tear: “Seven-spotted” refers to the ladybug (the sevenspotted variety is the one most commonly found in Europe), an association Nezval is making with the potato beetle.

42 the great tooth of time: The Czech zub času literally translates as

“tooth of time” but idiomatically means the ravages of time, as it does in English, so the association here is between the shape of the spade and a tooth and time’s decay. Cf. Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, Act V, Scene 1: “A forted residence ’gainst the tooth of time / And razure of oblivion.”

43 Afflicted with a corn: The Czech for a “corn” is the compound noun

kuří oko, literally a “hen’s eye,” thus the association with “eye” in the next line.

64 Looking like an enormous mace: As a reference to the mace-cum-

scepter carried by Hussite commanders, most notably Jan Žižka, it also serves as a symbol of revolution.

73 Penis: The Czech word úd can mean a limb or the male member, and

given the context, it is clearly the latter here.

78 exquisite virginal pea pod: Here the Czech word lusk means “hull”

or “husk,” but it is also a play on the idiom děvče jako lusk (a pretty girl). Likewise, in Surrealist imagery the pea pod evokes a vagina.

93 Is not a tooth: The pun here is on the word stolička, which means a

stool (tuffet) or a molar (which has the shape of a stool).



today an explosion: The line here in Czech, Dnes se udá výbuch, forms a phonetic pun with Dnes se udáví Bůh: “Today God chokes to death.”

158 all my extremities were utilized: See note above for úd. Nezval uses

the plural here, which in almost all cases means “limbs,” but qualifies it with “all of them,” so is including his member as well. Indeed, there is every indication that his penis was utilized in some manner in the process of creating at least some of the decalcomanias.

178 Woman in the Plural: Žena v množném čísle, frontispiece and cover

by Karel Teige (Prague: Fr. Borový, 1936).

178 Prague with Fingers of Rain: Praha s prsty deště, frontispiece and

cover by Karel Teige (Prague: Fr. Borový, 1936).

178 The Bridge: Most. Básně 1919–1921, Devětsil Editions (Brno: St.

Kočí, 1922); 2nd ed., foreword by Vítězslav Nezval, frontispiece by Karel Teige (Prague: Fr. Borový, 1937).

179 paranoiac thought process: On the paranoiac-critical method see

Salvador Dalí, La Femme Visible (Paris: Editions Surréalistes, 1930), Nezval’s copy of which came from and was inscribed by Dalí himself. In the section “L’Âne pourri,” Dalí states at the outset: “I believe that the moment is near when, by a thought process that is paranoiac and active in nature, it will be possible (simultaneously with automatism and other passive states) to systematize confusion and to contribute to a total discrediting of the world of reality.” And later: “It is by a distinctly paranoiac process that it has been possible to obtain a double image: in other words, a representation of an object that is also, without the slightest figurative or anatomical modification, the representation of another entirely different object . . .” Quoted with slight modification from “The Rotting Donkey,” The Collected


Writings of Salvador Dalí, edited and translated by Haim Finkelstein (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998 ), 223-226 . “L’Âne pourri” also appeared separately in Le Surréalisme au service de la Révolution, 1 ( July 1930), 9-12. See as well the later The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, translated by Haakon M. Chevalier (New York: Dial Press, 1942).


French and Czech Surrealists in Prague, March 1935, left to right: Toyen, Bohuslav Brouk, Jacqueline Breton, André Breton, Jindřich Štyrský (seated), Vítězslav Nezval, Vincenc Makovský, Paul Eluard, Karel Teige

a bou t t he au t hor

Vítězslav Nezval (1900–1958) was the leading Czech avant-garde writer of the first half of the 20th century. A founding member of both Devětsil in 1920 and the Surrealist Group of Czechoslovakia in 1934 (the first such group outside of France), his output consists of numerous poetry collections, experimental plays and novels, memoirs, essays, and translations. In addition to The Absolute Gravedigger, his most important work includes Alphabet, Prague with Fingers of Rain, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, and A Prague Flâneur. Along with Karel Teige, Jindřich Štyrský, and Toyen, Nezval frequently visited Paris, engaging with the French Surrealists and forging a friendship with André Breton and Paul Eluard. He served as editor of the Prague group’s journal Surrealismus.


a bou t t he t r a nsl at ors

Stephan Delbos is a New England-born writer living in Prague. His poetry, essays, and translations have been published internationally. He is the editor of From a Terrace in Prague: A Prague Poetry Anthology (2011) and the author of a poetry chapbook, In Memory of Fire (2016). His collection of visual poems, “Bagatelles for Typewriter,” was exhibited at Prague’s ArtSpace Gallery in 2012. His play, Chetty’s Lullaby, about trumpeter Chet Baker, was produced in San Francisco. A Founding Editor of the literary journal B O D Y, he teaches at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague. A native of San Francisco, Tereza Novická moved to the Czech Republic in 2000 . Currently a student in the American Literature graduate program at Charles University in Prague, she has translated a number of Czech and Slovak poets into English, including Ondřej Buddeus, Jan Těsnohlídek, Sylva Fischerová, Lenka Daňhelová, Pavel Novotný , Nóra Ružičková, and Ondřej Škrabal.


The Absolute Gravedigger by Vítězslav Nezval is translated by Stephan Delbos and Tereza Novická from the original Czech Absolutní hrobař first published in 1937 by Fr. Borový in Prague. We are indebted to Bruno Solařík for his invaluable comments on the translation and grateful to the editors of Asymptote, b o d y, The Ilanot Review, and Plume, where earlier versions of poems appeared. Frontispiece by Jindřich Štyrský from original Czech edition Decalcomania images by Vítězslav Nezval Cover and design by Silk Mountain Set in Garamond / Univers first edition of 1100 copies First published in English in 2016 by Twisted Spoon Press P.O. Box 21, 150 21 Prague 5 Czech Republic Printed and bound in the Czech Republic by Akcent Distributed in the UK & Europe by central books and in the US & Canada by scb distributors

The Absolute Gravedigger excerpt  
The Absolute Gravedigger excerpt  

The Absolute Gravedigger by Vítězslav Nezval, translated from the Czech by Stephan Delbos & Tereza Novická, with a frontispiece by Jindřich...