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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

The Absolute Gravedigger

Vítězslav Nezval

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To purchase The Absolute Gravedigger

Title: The Absolute Gravedigger
Author: Vítězslav Nezval
Genre: Poetry
Written: 1937 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 208 pages
Original in: Czech
Availability: The Absolute Gravedigger - US
The Absolute Gravedigger - UK
The Absolute Gravedigger - Canada
  • Czech title: Absolutní hrobař
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Stephan Delbos and Tereza Novická

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Our Assessment:

B : solid collection

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Vítězslav Nezval's 1937 collection The Absolute Gravedigger is, as the translators note in their Afterword in many ways a political one -- hardly surprising, given the time and locale. The title of the collection (and of one of the sections) even alludes to Marx's The Communist Manifesto -- "What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own gravediggers". But Nezval's surrealist approach make these far from the usual political fare.
       The first poem, a longer one, revolves around the beautiful concept of: 'A man composing a self-portrait out of objects' -- an opportunity for a vivid mix of imagery, such as:

In those days
A bundle of Havana cigars
By a plain tight high collar
With large points
Formed his throat
Instead of a necktie he would fasten
A tamed swallow
       By contrast, the shorter poems in 'The Windmill'-section are much closer to traditional realism -- and with a more melancholy feel, including in the beautiful 'The Library' (which begins: "The library / is an unsuitable room").
       In 'The Absolute Gravedigger'-section Nezval pictures, in distinctive style, a variety of labors -- of the blacksmith, plowman, milkmaid. Even the poem titled 'The Fetishist' takes place in a workshop, the 'Cartesian diver'-protagonist on a cobbler's stool. There's a rawness to much here, and 'The Blacksmith', in particular, is a powerful extended piece, right down to the "dissonant revolutionary anthem" tapped out "by the savage blows" of his sledgehammer:
This anthem
Like a sack of wind
A swaying abstract ideal
       'Bizarre Town' is the longest sequence, forty-three scenes from this alter-world that reflects our own world. These are the most accessibly warped-surreal pieces of the collection, with beautiful strange imagery and scenes such as:
In the fountain
Amid the square
A diver
For yesterday's sunset
       The collection closes with the longer 'The Iberian Fly' -- "a major poem of the 1930s", the translators say in their Afterword, calling it: "Nezval's Guernica". The Afterword also usefully shows how Nezval "emended the poem for book publication", toning down some of the more obvious references -- but even if no longer named, "the little man with the Chaplin mustache" is of course easily identifiable. It is indeed a powerful picture of the (Spanish Civil War) times -- reading all the more eerily obviously with the knowledge of the extension of these earlier horrors that was to come soon after.
       The Absolute Gravedigger is an appealing little volume, with many striking pieces, with some context and useful background provided in the Afterword, where the translators also discuss some of their translation choices and approaches (as, unsurprisingly, some of this is hard to translated directly). It is also an impressively varied collection: while certainly of Nezval's surrealist-period, this manifests itself in a variety of ways and approaches -- welcome shifts of poetic strangeness from section to section.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 November 2016

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The Absolute Gravedigger: Reviews: Vítězslav Nezval: Other books by Vítězslav Nezval under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Czech author Vítězslav Nezval lived 1900 to 1958.

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