The Mother of Czech Prose: A Review of ‘The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová’ by Kelcey Parker Ervick
originally published in Redivider
February 16, 2017
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Once upon a time, there was a Czech writer of fairy tales named Božena Němcová who left her home in the fairy tale city of Prague to rediscover new stories from the Bohemian countryside where she was raised. Throughout her travels, she wrote letters — countless longing and lyrical missives — to her sister, children, estranged husband, and multiple clandestine lovers. She smoked cigars and dabbled in politics, advocating in support of the Czech National Revival movement. Her work culminated in what has become the most widely-read book in Czech literature, a novella titled The Grandmother, which portrays a fairy tale-like version of her own childhood.
The remarkable details of Němcová’s life story have inspired a legacy not unlike a fable or tall tale. Milan Kundera anointed her the “Mother of Czech prose” during a 2004 Radio Prague broadcast, and Franz Kafka, in one of his Letters to Milena, once described that prose as “the only [Czech] music of language.” But despite such a monumental legacy, Němcová’s work has received surprisingly little attention outside of her home country — a deficit that author Kelcey Parker Ervick addresses in her latest book, The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová.
Published by Brookline-based Rose Metal Press — whose catalog is filled with experimental books that blend, compress, and expand a variety of genres — it’s not surprising that Ervick’s book eschews easy categorization. Although the cover art describes the text as a “biographical collage,” Ervick quickly asserts in the book’s introduction that “This Is Not a Biography.” Instead, she compares its creative spirit and literary DNA to Virginia Woolf’s popular novel, Orlando: A Biography, which uses satire and an age-less, gender-shifting narrator to expose the limitations of biographical representation.
The Bitter Life is a collage of found fragments created by and about Němcová: books, letters, newspapers, broadcasts, and images, organized into five chronological sections. Ervick provides minimal editorial context in the footnotes that accompany each fragment, describing only the most essential details (such as source, author, or date) and occasionally a brief historical anecdote. The primary creative aspect of the project is therefore the structural design of how its various voices are arranged and presented. For example, there are only two times in the text that Ervick interrupts the steady progression of fragments: following the death of Němcová’s son, and just before Němcová’s own death years later. In these passages, Ervick uses a kind of poetic “erasure” to pause and meditate upon a single found fragment, gradually removing words to form sequentially shorter partial-fragments, until the prose is distilled into its most essential words (such as “Hynek,” the name of Němcová’s son, or Němcová’s anxious deathbed repetition of “I am / I am / I am”).
The collage-based approach, which Ervick describes as an “an excavation and hopefully an unveiling,” is in some respects a direct refutation of more conventional notions of biographical “truth.” Every historian or biographer confronts the impossible task of reconstructing the past from incomplete information; The Bitter Life chooses to embrace those epistemological gaps and contradictions rather than paint over them with a narrative brush like most traditional “biographies.” After listening to a series of dialogues over multiple pages, Ervick’s readers do not necessarily possess a crystallized understanding of Němcová’s life story, but they do gain a deeper awareness for the nuance and complexity of the conversation her unconventional life has inspired. Uncertainty over Němcová’s life still abounds. Scholars agree Němcová was born in 1817, 1818, or 1820, was probably (though not certainly) the child of an Austrian horse groom and Bohemian servant girl, and her name might actually have been Barbora Panklová. Ervick, through the collage form, shows enlightenment sometimes means coming to terms with what you cannot know.
There are more pragmatic reasons for why Ervick employs collage: her admittedly novice understanding of the Czech language, and the limited library of English-language source material about Němcová. The Bitter Life is a unique, and potentially innovative, response to those constraints, but at times the structural experiment can also distract from the depth of its scholarly inquiry. Wikipedia serves as the endpoint for much of Ervick’s research, and Google Translate the extent of her original translations.
If The Bitter Life wasn’t already ambitious enough, the biographical collage is followed by an epistolary memoir titled Postcards to Božena, which consists entirely of letters written by Ervick during her time abroad in Prague. These passages reveal the story of a serendipitous literary kinship: Ervick discovers Němcová’s fairy tales by chance while browsing a Prague gift shop and the uncanny similarities between their two lives mystify her. Both women struggle to balance writerly ambitions, unhappy marriages, and the oppressive conventions of contemporary gender roles. By cosmic coincidence, Ervick’s midlife infatuation with Němcová corresponds with the end of her own marriage and the death of her grandparents, major life events that also characterize Němcová’s work. They share a complicated philosophical stance towards the relationship between life and death, reality and fantasy. “Everyone says your life was bitter,” Ervick writes. “But your endings, they say, were happy.”
Compared to the dissonant voices in The Bitter Life, the singular narration of Postcards to Božena provides some much-needed psychological relief, and it is exciting to finally see Ervick flex her own writing chops. She visits parks, cathedrals, classrooms, and graveyards across Prague, revealing the magical city through her world-weary eyes and lyrical prose. Carefully arranged transitions between letters build and sustain a rhetorical momentum from passage to passage, as she contemplates unanswerable questions that nevertheless must be asked, like how she might be able to describe happiness as something other than “a heap of half-broken things called togetherness.” One memorable passage recounts a sense of temporal vertigo she experiences while hunting for an old Czech typewriter:
The antique shop was full of clocks, the pendulums swinging madly, as if time, in this store that tried to capture time, go back in time, as if time, the ticking seconds of one clock echoed by the next, the seconds, the minutes, the overlapping ticks and clicks, as if time itself was accelerated, hurried, and everything was racing to the end and I was going to be old or dead or both in an hour, tops.
There is a curious tension between The Bitter Life and Postcards to Božena. Ervick is so completely absent from the original biographical collage that the subsequent Postcards section can read like an entirely separate project. In the book’s introduction, Erick writes that, “If the main text is an unveiling of Božena Němcová, Postcards to Božena is an unveiling of me.” But this description still begs the question of why those “unveilings” couldn’t have happened simultaneously (as they almost certainly did in reality). Maybe the idea of merging the two sections into a more cohesive narrative would have corrupted the original intention of the project — to convey a purer and more restrained sense of biographical truth, as revealed through the literal fragments and voices of history. As Ervick writes in one of her letters to Božena, “Once upon a time is always the beginning of an elaborate lie.”