There are times in our life of reading where the book seems more than the squarish paper object that presents the information. Times when the book, through the transformative process of intent reading, becomes something other, something strange or new or mysterious or intensely desirable, simply through its effect on imagination. Times when awake world and dream world merge in the process of reading the book, so that where we were before and where we might be afterwards have been suspended by the experience of reading. Such is the effect being elucidated (if that is the word) in the wondrous poem ‘Book City’ by the Czech poet Vitezslav Nezval. Without the book we could not enter into the other world that the book evokes.
Then also, the very existence of books is a reality of our world. Books confront us with their presence. Books are objects of desire. Books meet us with their own beauty, their own possibilities and demands. Their very existence tests our self-awareness, our psychology, our own thoughts and actions. They can arouse us, inspire us, amaze us. They can stand as silent judges. Books are physical entities in the same way everything in our world of animal, mineral, and vegetable is physical entity. We may see the book in terms of those entities, and vice versa. Books are touched, smelt, listened to, and looked at, just as they are read; we even talk of ‘devouring’ a book, so taste is there too. A book may become very close to us, as close as our feelings about the city wherein we live our lives. Prague is that city for Vitezslav Nezval, and all these physical effects of the book are promulgated in his poem ‘Book City’. There seem to be no boundaries.
The city and the book are juxtaposed. In so doing the poet proposes their inherent symbiotic relationship. How shall we understand the existence of one without the other? Each is explanatory of the other. Yet there is a third person, the poet, involved here too; it is a love poem. We can see that the poem is two poems, two attempts to say the same thing in different ways. In the first poem a series of analogies describe the beloved, the book city that is also the city within its books, while the second poem describes both the beloved’s pursuit of the reader, i.e. the poet, and the beloved’s surrender to the reader. Evocative words about the object of love in the first poem are followed by the short story of the relationship, in the second. So here is the poem ‘Book City’ by Vitezslav Nezval (1936):
There are mysterious cities and books bound in leather
Like naked women in forests
Like mulatto women with silver tattoos
Like water nymphs on subterranean paths
Like encounters between the eyes of wild pansies and men
Like preserved red currant in the beak of a storm
Like periwinkle valleys with the song of shepherds
Like flakes of snow and wild geese
Like anger of the womb
Like the touch of the fingers of night and burdock
I love them and forever seek them as I seek you, Prague in your libraries exposed to the rain
There are days when the book city pursues me
I’d like to describe it
It’s book bound in green leather
Like naked women in forests
A book that’s a nocturnal moth
Or a book that’s a lake
It surrenders to my hands
Like a centifolia rose
It phosphoresces in the night
Like Prague under the full moon
Peter Demetz in his masterful history ‘Prague in Black and Gold’ (1997) describes the reign of the extraordinary Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia during the later Renaissance, and how “The legend of ‘magic Prague’, prepared by English, German, and American writers on their grand tours in the nineteenth century, richly cultivated by Czech and German writers of the fin de siecle, and later renewed first by French surrealists and then by Czech dissidents under neo-Stalinist rule, largely rests on diffuse clichés about Rudolf’s life and his court.” This is what is happening here. Nezval’s poetry runs riot with the sense of ‘magic Prague’, a place of natural and alchemical transformations, of strange visions from the past that seem infused in the present. Religion and the occult mix together, with the sense that new and wondrous discoveries will happen, happily and inevitably. ‘Magic Prague’ is also a place of books. It exists because of books and books are its origin and continuation. The two go together: the city and the book are interchangeable.
Although reference works define Nezval as a Czech surrealist, a more useful clue to his motives is expressed in the purposes of Poetism, the movement he helped instigate in Prague in the 1920s, “a movement which aimed to combine life with art.” Nezval was an original with forms who happened to encounter surrealism during its formative poetic phase, but it was only one of the means to his poetic ends. While the book is “like periwinkle valleys with the song of shepherds”, an exotic image we would expect a French surrealist poet to project onto Bohemia, this and the other book images in the poem are the poet’s own personal landscapes, his array of mysteries that only manifest themselves because of Prague, his own library of special histories of this unique city. He is poet first, surrealist by an accident of time. One of the real wonders of Nezval’s poetry too, it must be observed, is how the work of this man of his time, a Czech Communist, survived the clampdowns on art judged to have “bourgeois tendencies”.
Only a Czech speaker can appreciate all the word play and sound effects of the original ‘Book City’. The rest of us stare at this poem, wondering at the simple first level of meaning in the translation. As I say, the city and the book are juxtaposed in the poem, the poet proposes their inherent symbiotic relationship. The ‘silver tattoos’ remind us of Bohemia’s historical reliance on its silver mines. ‘Flakes of snow and wild geese’ speak of Prague’s central landlocked place in Europe. When the book ‘phosphoresces in the night’ we are reminded of the alchemical and scientific experiments simultaneously encouraged in the reign of Rudolf II. Elements of Prague memory rise from the unconscious, reminders that may or may not be Nezval’s intention, but that nevertheless have a life of their own. The book itself is a rose, an object of mystery and also the gift given, entire unto itself, more than enough.
The version here of ‘Book City’ by Vitezslav Nezval (1900-1958) is Ewald Osers’ translation, published by Bloodaxe Books in 2009. It comes from his celebrated collection ‘Prague with Fingers of Rain’(1936).