Vítězslav Nezval is the most outstanding Czech avant-garde poet of the period between the wars. Like his fellow artists, he combined literary modernism with revolutionary communist tendencies. Nezval was a most prolific writer. He wrote a great number of poems, plays, prose works and essays. His output is however unequal in quality. His best works are his poems from the twenties and thirties. After the Second World War, he became the official cultural agent of the communist regime and the quality of his work deteriorated.
Nezval came from the countryside in south Moravia. He was born in Biskoupky where his father was a primary school teacher. Among other things, his father had been a pupil of the famous composer Leoš Janáček. In 1903, the Nezval family moved to another village Šamikovice, where Nezval spent a large part of his childhood and to which he often returned on holiday. From 1922 to 1932 the Nezval parents lived in Dalešice near the Moravian city of Brno, later in Brno itself. The poet often went back there to see them. After his school leaving examinations in 1919, he enrolled in the Faculty of Law in Brno. In 1920 he transferred to the Faculty of Arts in Charles University in Prague to study modern languages. However he never finished his studies. From 1924 to 1925 he was employed in editing Masarykův slovník naučný (Masaryk's Encyclopaedia). From 1927 to 1929 he was literary adviser in the Osvobozené divadlo (The Liberated Theatre), otherwise till 1945, he made his living by writing, translating and scriptwriting.
Nezval made his debut as a poet writing for his school magazine. The Brno poet Jiří Mahen, on whom he modelled himself as an artist and who became a friend, had a great influence on him. Nezval became the leading poet of his generation with the poem "Podivuhodný kouzelník (The Amazing Magician)" published in Revoluční sborník Devětsil 1922 (The Revolutionary Collection Devětsil 1922) and later in the author's own book Pantomima (Pantomime, 1924). A new artistic movement, Poetism, took shape in this book. Nezval was its chief representative along with the poets Jaroslav Seifert and Konstantin Biebl, the prose writer Vladislav Vančura, the essayist and theoretician of the movement Karel Teige and a number of graphic artists Šíma, Štýrský, Toyen and Muzika. Poetism, whose devotees associated themselves with the group Devětsil, was connected with the vision of communism that attracted the younger generation in the unsettled atmosphere in society after the First World War. Nezval was a member of the communist party from 1924 till his death. But Poetism was not trying to be the voice of the poor in the contemporary world but to be a blueprint for a happy life. It tried to remove the existing boundaries of art and by its poetic lyricism to come nearer to everyday life and become a new style of life. That is why it was inspired not only by related avant-garde movements (dadaism and the poet Guillaume Apollinaire), and by their dynamism of time and place, but also by the pleasures of the big city, circus, jazz and silent films, modern civilization as a whole. So Nezval's texts are not based on logical constructions but on startling combinations and free association. There is a stream of metaphors, memories, the source of which is often childhood, experiences and fantastic images. Erotic images are very important. In this spirit, Nezval wrote a number of other books of poetry, for example Menší růžová zahrada (A Small Rose Garden, 1926) and Dobrodružství noci a vějíře (Romantic Nights and Fans, 1927), dramatic poems and stage plays Milenci v kiosku (Lovers in a Kiosk, 1932), prose works depicting the magic world of childhood Dolce far niente, 1931, imaginative stories for children Anička skřítek (The Brownie Anička) and Slaměný Hubert (Hubert the Straw Man, 1936) reminiscent of Lewis Carrol's Alice in Wonderland. He wrote screen plays for films that were never made - the films that were made based on his subjects were conventional pieces of work apart from the film Erotikon, directed by Gustav Machatý. He also wrote manifestos for literary movements and essays Falešný mariáš (A Sham Game of Cards, 1925). While producing this rich literary output, he led a bohemian life and was involved in various scandals and in "dráždění měšťáků" - "scandalizing the bourgeoisie". He later wrote, "This was a particularly happy time. I revelled in life. I was carefree in the pursuit of love".
Towards the end of the 1920s, Nezval's work and Poetism itself changed. His very long poem Edison, dedicated to the famous American inventor, is symptomatic of this change. It was published on its own in 1928 and along with other similar Nezval poems in 1930. The events of Edison's life however simply provide the stimulus for Nezval to express the anxiety that comes with knowledge and the risks and courage required for any creative work. The anthology's enthralling melody comes from its wonderful rhythm, changes of intonation and precise cyclic structure. Two refrains
" here there was something beautiful that crushes
courage and joy from life and death"
"here there was something burdensome that crushes
sadness, longing, angst from life and death"
express not only joy but also a new tragic outlook previously unknown in Nezval's work.
At the beginning of the 1930s, a split appeared among the avant-garde generation of artists. The great economic crisis, the rise of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and Fascism in Italy and Germany created a new, more oppressive social atmosphere. Enthusiasm for revolution was waning, aesthetic Poetism was losing its initial impact. Some of the poets of that generation, for example Seifert, were inclining towards traditional poetry. Nezval and the theoretician Teige tried on the other hand to keep art "modern" and "revolutionary". In Nezval's collection Sbohem a šáteček (Farewell and Handkerchiefs, 1932), inspired by a journey through Europe, he restored poetic magic by introducing exotic faraway places. In the 1930s, Nezval and Teige inclined towards surrealism and created the nucleus of the Czech surrealist school (founded in 1934 and still in existence today). First and foremost, they cooperated closely with the French surrealists Breton and Eluard whose highly successful visit to Prague in the spring of 1935 Nezval organized. He also translated their poetry. Surrealism, like Poetism before it, was seen as a revolt against bourgeois society. Its aim was to free the imagination from the straitjacket of rational control, to shed light on the unconscious and the repressed, mainly sexual, impulses, to give free rein to "the principle of pleasure". Nezval's poetry in the collections Žena v množném čísle (Woman in the Plural, 1936) and Absolutní hrobař (The Absolute Gravedigger, 1937) was now, in comparison with the twenties, darker, more staccato, full of sudden twists:
"The absolute gravedigger
Old as that granite country
from whose crib the tethered donkey drinks
the remainders of yesterday's storm
He lifts up his head, hair like a burned steak
a mushroom has brown through his hat
He hangs his head over a hoe of a great bee sting"
(The Absolute Gravedigger)
In addition to writing this kind of poetry and continuing with prose and dramatic work, Nezval also wrote "antilyrical", militant poems, committed to communism, for example the collection Skleněný havelok (The Glass Cloak, 1932). Socialist motifs also appear in the Robert David cycle (52 hořkých balad věčeného studenta Roberta Davida (52 bitter ballads of the eternal student Robert David,1936), etc., where the lyrical hero is stylized as an unemployed intellectual. Nezval wrote it in strictly regular verse form, in the Villon's ballad and sonnet forms. He published it anonymously, for in writing these poems, he was at odds with surrealist doctrine. The Robert David poems caused an absolute sensation when they were published and its author was eagerly sought. It was Karel Čapek who identified the author on the basis of an analysis of the poems.
Between 1936 and 1938, after the news of the Stalinist purges and trials in Russia, there were bitter quarrels between left-wing and communist men of letters in Czechoslovakia. There was even a split in the surrealist group. Nezval, loyal to Stalinist communism, officially "disbanded" the group, however under Teige's leadership it continued to function. From the time he broke with the surrealists Nezval's work lost some of its explosive sensuous quality. He resorted more and more to regular versification, well-tried figures of speech and sentiment as in his popular play based on Prévost's novel, Manon Lescaut, 1940. He began expressing his ideas in non-figurative language, for example in the collection Historický obraz (A Historical Picture, 1939, which was published in an expanded form in 1945).
During the repressive era of the German occupation of Bohemia from 1942 to 1945, Nezval, like many other writers, could not publish, so it was with all greater enthusiasm that he launched himself into public life in 1945. He was head of the film department of the Ministry of Information from 1945 to 1950 and he became an important political activist. In 1950, he suffered a heart attack.
Nezval fully supported the communist party line even after February 1948, when the communists took full power in Czechoslovakia and introduced a totalitarian order. The level of his poetic work visibly declined, becoming mere skilful rhetoric transforming political ideas into verse (Stalin, 1949, Zpěv míru, Song of Peace, 1950 etc.). It was not until the mid-1950s that Nezval attempted to return in the collection Chrpy a města (Cornflowers and Cities, 1955) to his avant-garde period. These late poems and some of Nezval's public performances, when he refuted descriptive, didactic socialist realism, were an inspiration to the younger generation of writers - Milan Kundera, Jiří Šotola and others - who could now cite Nezval in their fight against the deadening literary forms presently in vogue. In the end, Nezval went back to his stormy youth and his avant-garde period in Z mého života (From My Life), his memoirs that appeared in the magazine Kultura (Culture) between 1957 and 1958. However he did not complete them. He died in Prague from a heart attack on his return from Italy in the spring of 1958.
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