Vítězslav Nezval: Valérie a týden divů (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders)
I first became aware of this work when I saw the film of the book. At that time the book had not appeared in English so I was unable to read it. The book has now been available in translation for some time, thanks to the wonderful Twisted Spoon Press.
The book, though not published till 1945, was written in 1932, at a time when Nezval was very much under the influence of André Breton and Surrealism. Surrealism was under the influence of the Gothic – there is even a book devoted to this topic. The book under review clearly shows this Gothic inspiration with works ranging from Matthew Lewis, Dracula and Nosferatu cited as influences.
The book, however, is about a seventeen year old girl and this week is her first week of menstruation. Yes, seventeen does seem a bit old but it may well be that Nezval is using it more as a symbol, as our heroine changes from being a girl to a woman, though, yes, we do get the blood, albeit fairly discreetly.
We first meet Valerie as she comes out into her garden at night. She lives with her grandmother, both her parents (he a bishop, she a nun) are dead. Suddenly she notices that everything seems to have changed. She hears voices with one of them suggesting he stole her earrings.
The two speaking are Orlik, a seventeen year old boy and a man called, for now, the Constable, but who will have a variety of names during the book, ranging from Richard to The Polecat. His age is unsure but he is certainly over a hundred and claims, at one point, to be a hundred and four. Orlik seems very much under the control of the Constable.
Both will play ambiguous roles. Within the first few hours of meeting Orlik, she will see him dressed in her clothes, she will also see him naked and, separately, he will see her naked. He can be seen as both an alter ego of hers but also indicative of her new sexuality. However, it becomes more complicated as we get a series of theories as to who their respective parents really were. One of the theories holds that they are siblings or, at least, half-siblings, but this theory is rejected and revived more than once, as different people give different versions. Yes, we have various unreliable narrators.
The Constable is more complex. In one form he can be considered as a devil-like figure or even a Nosferatu figure. He is also a vampire. He certainly likes chicken blood – his main diet – but may well like human blood, too. However, he is also, to a certain degree, a human male. We will learn that some years ago when she was young and he was younger, he had an affair with Valerie’s grandmother which left her devastated. Here we learn of another of his names, as she calls him Richard. He will also play the role of a missionary, preaching to the girls about their virginity. How is it that among you there is one who, calling herself a virgin, is a sinner, whose womb yields at the touch of a vulgar right hand? Valerie sees him as a polecat. Orlik is afraid of him. He can manage far tougher jobs than deceiving a handful of priests. Besides, he’s in league with all sorts of rogues.
It seems that he used to live in the house where Valerie and her grandmother, Elsa, now live and knows all sorts of strange underground passages and chambers between the house and elsewhere in the village, which he takes Valerie through. He even shows Valerie another missionary who is lodging for a few days in the house and with whom the grandmother also apparently had a fling in her youth. She scourges herself in front of the missionary (called Gratian) and is clearly still attracted to him. Indeed, she seems so enamoured of him that she is prepared to leave the Constable the house in her will in exchange for her returning to her youth for a week which, apparently, he can do. As part of the book is certainly mockery of the church, Gratian sexually assaults Valerie or, at least, tries to.
Essentially, we follow Valerie’s situation and her issues with a host of dangerous characters – Richard/The Constable/Polecat, her grandmother who changes from being a sweet little old lady to being something of a monster, Gratian, and even the townspeople, who consider her a witch and want to burn her. Only Orlik seems willing to help her and each appears in the other’s story at a key juncture to rescue the other from the hands of one of the evil-doers, aided, where necessary, by magic potions and the like. We also are trying to discover both Valerie’s and Orlik’s origins, which get more complicated as the book progresses, and the real identity of Richard/The Constable/Polecat.
Does it work out? Is it all a dream? Valerie asks at the end. Well, may be, maybe not. In the distance there was a clap of thunder. And with that thunderclap Valerie’s week of wonders came to an end.
We can read this book several ways. Firstly, it is a Gothic novel but, secondly, it is a Gothic novel written by a surrealist, so all sorts of mysterious, magical and unreal events take place. Thirdly, it is clearly intended, at least in part, to be a spoof of the traditional Gothic novel. Indeed, if you do not take it too seriously, you will find it great fun to read, not least because whenever our hero or heroine are in trouble, you know they will be rescued by the other or by some mysterious force. In addition. a whole host of improbable events take place. And, as it is above all surrealist, there is no conclusion, no moral to be drawn from it, just a view of life that is beyond the real.
First published in 1945 by Müller
First published in English in 2005 by Twisted Spoon Press
Translated by David Short