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Prague with Fingers of Rain (Vitezslav Nezval)

When reading histories of Prague the modern poet named more consistently and enthusiastically than any other is Vitezslav Nezval (1900-1958). His 1936 collection ‘Prague with Fingers of Rain’ in particular seems to have a hold on the people of that city and its historians. Fingers are the subject, object and verb of the opening poem, ‘City of Spires’:

Hundred-spired Prague
With the fingers of all saints
With the fingers of perjury
With the fingers of fire and hail
With the fingers of a musician
With the intoxicating fingers of women lying on their backs
With fingers touching the stars
On the abacus of night

Nezval is reminding us of all those, living and dead, who have lived in and built Prague, in keeping you might say with the ideological and literary expectations of his socialism. However, nature and its product the city also have fingers:

With fingers deformed by rheumatism
With fingers of strawberries
With the fingers of windmills and blossoming lilac

So that by the end of his long paean we are left with the sensation of Prague and the whole of existence reaching out, creating, working, going about its business, admonishing, flexing, resting. Past and present are active together about the same things and their place is this city, at once romantic and pragmatic, startlingly unique and then dully Sunday afternoon, euphoric and then plunged into doubt. Prague in all its beauty and contradictions, this city of dreams and disappointment, friendships and betrayals, grows real through the splendiferous lines of Nezval.

Passionate love sees everything it wishes to see, but the lover will learn to appreciate the different moods of its desire, if that love is to last. So it is with Nezval and Prague.

Nezval has been called a surrealist. He knew the surrealist poets in Paris and acquired some of the risqué and confrontational methods of contrast for which that movement is famous. He even called himself a surrealist. But I find this only one clue amongst many to the art of Nezval. Here is the short poem ‘Panorama of Prague’, for example, that on first sight uses the tricks of surrealism:

Like berets hurled into the air
Berets of boys, cocottes and cardinals
Turned into stone by the sorcerer Zito
At the great feast
Berets with Chinese lanterns
On the eve of St John’s Day
When fireworks go up
Yet also like a town of umbrellas opened skyward as a shield against rockets
All this is Prague

Leaning over a wall
I want to break this twig of wonderful blossoms

My eyes drink in the lights of the great merry-go-round
Whose ringing chimes call home
All its barges and stray horses
Whose ringing chimes call home
All sparks of light

All the domes and spires and towers and turrets of Prague were built with the same joie de vivre as throwing your hat in the air, or opening your umbrella. Nezval plots out the wonders of the skyline, while playing with mythic history. This is not so much a game of surrealist chance as finding home. The branches of blossom themselves beckon someone who knows he can never be more at home than in this place. To break the twig is to reach back through generations of time. It is to be in touch with all those who have wanted to lean for a sprig of blossom in springtime Prague. The lines synthesise modern change and old ways through a magical sense of song. So he is surrealist, but a classicist also, an ecstatic philosopher, a residual romantic.

At midnight the balcony is a widow
Playing a game of chess with someone above the city
She’s standing naked lamp in hand
A nightmare comes to her like a pocket mirror
A key tinkles against the pavement
A bud falling someone has scattered a handful of diamonds
The balcony rises up like an empty dress
The wind fills its empty glove with jasmine perfume

This verse from ‘Balconies’ conjures the city of defenestrations, the city of those pulled apart by circumstance. With the tinkling of the key we even hear the far future of the Velvet Revolution (1989), if we wish, when the citizens celebrated the arrival of the new freedom of the republic by all tinkling their keys together at the renowned mass gatherings. It makes sense of Vitezslav Nezval’s remarks at the time of the book’s publication:

“Poetry that was written in the past doesn’t continue to mean exactly the same as it did when it was first written. Even if its structure stays the same. Even if the poem itself remains the same, some of its components come to stand for different things. Poetry is like a moon which appears each night slightly altered in the ever-changing sky of history and time.”

His poems name the Castle, Charles Bridge, Wenceslas Square, the Church of Our Lady of Tyn, and many other old familiar places, but Nezval’s Prague is also one of covered markets, shop windows, obscure hotels, and deserted cemeteries. He gives the same caring attention to ‘The Suburb’ as he does to the city’s great libraries and revered river vistas:

The suburb is a bright straw hat
With an unfinished card game
The suburb is a removal van
Everything’s in it chairs and wickerwork
The buildings are badly wrapped cheese
And also a cheap cloth cap
The suburb is smoking like a youth with a tatty whodunnit

These poems appeared at what at the time must have seemed a renaissance in Czech writing, as in society itself. They evoke a city that is alive to its own possibilities. Yet 1936 is a false start, a grand fanfare of nationalist sentiment that cannot anticipate the Munich Agreement or everything that followed: occupation and control from outside its borders for fifty years, first by the Germans and then the Russians. Poets live for the moment and when they do can capture that moment before it disappears into the horrible and disfigured future no one wants, but enough can imagine.

Friendship and betrayal are to be Nezval’s lot too, as they were for so many Czechs, caught in the middle of successive hot and cold wars. It is hard to believe that the man who wrote these loving odes to the breadth and depth of Prague history would, before his death in 1958, have written poems in praise of Comrade Joseph Stalin, simply in order to survive in changed circumstances. Or is it hard to believe? Several of his 1936 poems depict people who must choose the way of cruelty and betrayal, while others conclude with painful expressions of evil accepted, faithlessness recognised, and loss endured. The cost of love for Prague increases as time brings change.

Intimations of what is to come to Prague breathe in some of the lines. ‘If ever, Prague, you are in Danger’ is the title of one poem that recommends the city hold fast should something happen, neither capitulating nor surrendering. It is noticeable that these lines seem to have informed the title of the Prague historian Peter Demetz’s history of the German occupation of the Czech capital. Too soon everything was to change drastically.

Nezval writes a number of poems about the Jewish history of the city, including a moving tribute to the 16th century rabbi most closely associated with the legend of the golem, but it is this four-line verse that speaks directly of the anxious state of mind in Bohemia in the mid-Thirties, living on borrowed time between the end of the Habsburgs in 1918 and the takeover by totalitarian states. The poem is called ‘The Clock in the old Jewish Ghetto’:

While time is running away on Prikopy Street
Like a racing cyclist who thinks he can overtake death’s machine
You are like the clock in the ghetto whose hands go backwards
If death surprised me I would die a six-year-old boy

All lines of poetry quoted here are from Ewald Osers’ translations, published by Bloodaxe Books in 2009. Nezval’s words about poetry (“Poetry that was written in the past …”) are taken from ‘The verbal acrobatics of Vitezslav Nezval’, a broadcast on Radio Prague produced by Rosie Johnston in April 2005.


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