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Vítězslav Nezval: Žena v množném čísle (Woman in the Plural)

This book is not even vaguely a novel. It is a collection of various pieces, including drama, poetry and prose pieces. It is here because Nezval is a fascinating writer, a leading, probably the leading Czech surrealist. He did write novels but only one has made it in English. He is best known as a poet and there are a few of his poetry collections available in English.

This one starts with a few poems and we can straight-away see his surrealist imagery. There is no moon in June imagery here. The opening poem is the titular Woman in the Plural. They stroll decomposing and composing themselves in my dream immediately brings to mind Daliesque decomposing landscapes. Even stranger images appear: the midnight swooning of widowed scallops and a a chess-playing flea. Song Of Songs continues this imagery.:

Your eyes two gunshots fired blindly
Your eyes two thimbles of hemlock
Your eyes two gags for eternal silence

He goes through her various body parts: lips, hands, breasts, belly, sex, legs, hips, brow, teeth, ears, neck. Her demurely named sex is described as:
Your sex is a split willow whistle
Like the residue of reseda soap
Like the mouth of an earthworm

In Women After Bathing, he states: Our poems shall be cursed Like bacteria so sublime under a microscope
That blooms best in the enervated blood Of our debilitated century
A century of calamity and poetry

I like that: A century of calamity and poetry .

You may have noticed at this point that there is a lot about women but that these are not by any stretch of the imagination conventional love poems. Indeed, all too often, women are treated merely as poetic objects, along with the other imagery. No-one ever accused the Surrealists of being feminists.

We see this when we move on to the prose or the stories/prose poems. We learn of his relationship with Miss K. but, of course, we first meet her not in the flesh but in a dream. Dreams were, of course, important to the Surrealists. He seems to be somewhat offhand with her and she seems to just fade away, just one more prop for his stories.

He does not write nature poems either or, rather, he does but there are no daffodils floating in the breeze.

This time I want to express most precisely what nature means to me My poetry is not the poetry of falling leaves And I never pick flowers on my walks and Let others investigate the nature of matter
I investigate the nature of my emotions

He does get onto talking directly about Surrealism. Surrealism, the discoverer of the human being, will be the discoverer of the manifold marvellous in reality and of the poetics of cities, destroyed by the idiocies of national heritage bureaucrats. He tells a story – it is not clear if it is entirely fictitious or (partially) factual – about various Surrealists visiting Prague, including Paul Éluard and Guillaume Apollinaire. Nezval and the Czech surrealist Toyen accompany them. They will also see Isaac Laquedem. This is the French name for the Wandering Jew.

The largest part of this book is taken up by a play. We can tell it might be different as the early characters include the Bird of Doom and a Neurasthenic Woman. We open up with some sort of event. What it is we do not know. Equally important, the people attending, who have all had to buy tickets in advance and, indeed, it would seem, the organisers, do not know what it is about either. Further scenes include dirty deeds in a theatre, a family walk in the woods that ends up with an anthill, murder and mayhem, a dead woman reviving and the owner of the opening event being involved in selling peanuts, kidnap and murder.

Why I am a Surrealist is an interesting piece, not least because it clearly should not be taken too seriously.

For the shrieks of dreams
For the shrieks of dreams to open the torture chamber door to human mystery
For the shrieks of dreams for the key to childhood
For the keyhole of night
For my hatred of the mirror

… and so on, ending with a tribute to his fellow Surrealists:

For the sun with its crown of night that is Andre Breton
For the morning star that is Paul Eluard
For the telescope and microscope of his poetry
For the burning resinous wreaths of Benjamin Peret’s imagery
For the Columbian eggs of Max Ernst’s collages
For Man Ray s seismograph
For the otherworldly plant messages in the paintings of Yves Tanguy
For the topsy-turvy Inquisition that is Salvador Dali

The book ends on a combative note:

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 the fool who laughs at this desperate poem of mine
Which is how I should end all my books

Well, I certainly laughed at some of his poems but not this one. I found this a fascinating collection of assorted pieces – prose, poetry, drama. The imagery is thoroughly surrealistic so do not look for any rational meaning. There isn’t any nor is there intended to be any. Indeed, that is what it makes the collection so interesting. Nezval is relatively little known in the English-speaking world, compared to his fellow French surrealists but this and his Valérie a týden divů (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders) will hopefully garner him more attention.

Publishing history

First published in 1936 by F. Borový
First published in English in 2021 by Twisted Spoon Press
Translated by Stephan Delbos & Tereza Novicka