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Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders Paperback – June 10, 2005
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"The book is a tour de force in that Nezval adopts the genre of the pulp novel for his own arch purposes. Have literary historians noticed that it is a precursor of some of our own aesthetic concerns, in other words a sort of pre-postmodern fantasy?" -- John Taylor, The Antioch Review
"Gothic sleazefest, menstrual fantasy, dime-store pulp fiction―Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a collage of a collage of a collage, a dream of a dream, an important early-century surrealist novel only now translated from its native Czech into English by the able David Short." -- New York Press
"Somewhere between the existential fables of Franz Kafka and the macabre animations of Jan Švankmajer lies Vítězslav Nezval. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders reminded me of a hyperactive Hammer Horror film as directed by Luis Buñuel." -- The Absinthe Literary Review
About the Author
Vitezslav Nezval (1900-1958) was perhaps the most prolific writer in Prague during the 1920s and 30s. An original member of the avant-garde group of artists Devetsil (Nine Forces), he was a founding figure of the Poetist movement. His output consists of a number of poetry collections, experimental plays and novels, memoirs, essays, and translations. His best work is from the interwar period. Along with Karel Teige, Jindrich Styrsky, and Toyen, Nezval frequently traveled to Paris, engaging with the French surrealists. Forging a friendship with André Breton and Paul Eluard, he was instrumental in founding The Surrealist Group of Czechoslovakia in 1934 (the first such group outside of France), serving as editor of the group's journal Surrealismus.
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There is also a subtext of incest in these novels. In Otranto, Manfred decided he would marry his son Conrad’s bride. It was barely touched upon in the novel, but Isabella resembled his daughter so much that the man who loved Matilda often couldn’t distinguish the two. In Valerie we see some of these tropes as well; Orlik in Valerie’s clothes is “like her sister." I admit I was a little disappointed by this suggestion, as I was expecting a love story from the moment Orlik sent Valerie the letter in Chapter III, a clean love story to balance out the evil of the people around them, not an incestuous attraction.
A reader primarily of fantasy and science fiction, I like a book that throws dreamlike sequences at me, so long as they add up to an intrinsic logic in the novel. Bonus points if the bizarre experiences are clues to a greater mystery. But Valerie is a troubling heroine. Here is a young woman who is often a victim of circumstance. Her adventures seem to happen to her, orchestrated by other people. Orlik, ostensibly a “good” character, manipulates her as well. Valerie is saved from being a victim by acting on her curiosity. She chooses to aid Orlik several times and attempts to figure out what is going on with her grandmother. Yet Orlik too is a victim of the Polecat.
I’ll be honest, I enjoyed reading the book immensely, but I’m not sure I entirely understand it. My best guess is a symbolic coming-of-age story about a young girl’s transition from childhood to adulthood, including menstruation and the awakening of sexual desire. These are fascinating themes and I was onboard with the story until the last two chapters, which mystified me no end. The analytical essay appended to the novel qualified it somewhat by giving me a cursory history of surrealism and the concepts Nezval was interested in, as well as a specific interpretation.
According to the author of this essay, most of the book is Valerie’s dream sparked by her first period. The last few chapters take place in the waking world (around the time Valerie wakens and questions her Grandmother, only to find that her Grandmother doesn’t remember any of the adventures she relates). The final two chapters shift from reality to surreality, or a kind of intensified, spiritual reality.
This seems to me as good an interpretation as any, except for the explanation of the final chapters. How exactly do the characters transition from material reality to spiritual hyper-reality? Do they simply pack up their bags, drive the coach to a mansion in the country, and live peacefully in the woods? Did the coach stray into a parallel dimension of some kind? Are they perhaps in an afterlife? Or is it simply Valerie’s imagination at work again, the forest a peaceful space she created as a mental retreat? This would explain the ease with which she allows herself to be close to Orlik, a desire that bothered her (but not him!) during the course of the novel because of the incestuous angle. It is perhaps a stroke of skillful ambiguity that we never find out if Orlik and Valerie will become lovers.
It seems to me that the most effective allegorical stories function first and foremost as straight narratives. The symbolic narrative enriches the work but is ultimately not necessary to understand the story. This was mostly true of Valerie until I got to the end. The ending puzzles me because it seems that I need that essay on the history of surrealism and its ideals in order to make sense of the story. I need the theory that Valerie is also questing for liberation from gender limitations, she and Orlik two halves of a whole, reunited at the end as the androgynous perfect being. I would not have come up with this interpretation on my own because my first reading of the book was on a surface level. My concern was piecing together the plot, but it appears it’s not entirely possible to separate plot from symbolism and expect logic from the ending. The bigger question is: would a modern audience accept a resolution that can only be understood through careful analysis? I don’t think they would, and for this reason I think so much of a narrative’s power depends on a carefully constructed ending.
My qualms with the final chapter aside, there is much to like in this book. I paid close attention to the way Nezval used language and narrative techniques to keep me turning the pages. The story is filled with magical moments but the writing itself is clear, brisk, and economical. There are no wasted words in the descriptions. Nezval’s descriptive paragraphs were a real breeze to get through.
He also excelled at pacing. Something was always happening in each chapter, perhaps too much, which gave the novel an episodic feel, but he was writing it partly in imitation of gothic serials, in which case the episodic nature of the plot is appropriate. I admit I questioned the demise of the Polecat, a powerful antagonist who seemed to orchestrate the entire plot. Valerie, Orlik, Grandmother, or some combination of the three would have been appropriate choices to take him down.
This means that Valerie ultimately has very little agency in her story. Despite her plucky courage, her adventures happen to her. Her liberation comes not through her own agency but through the intervention of others. In the end, a meandering and strange book.
However, 'Valerie and Her Week of Wonders', a novel Nezval wrote in 1935, is not so impervious to the efforts of translators, and I am very grateful to the indispensable Prague-based English-language publisher Twisted Spoon Press for issuing a first, long overdue English translation of this extraordinary novel. I first read this novel in Czech a couple of years ago, and while I can't pretend that nothing has been lost of the lyrical qualities of Nezval's writing, 'Valerie' is more concerned with narrative than with the poetic possibilities of language, so the essence of the novel has been preserved in translation.
I'm delighted that it's been translated because it makes a great introduction not only to Nezval's work, but also to the Surrealist novel, of which it is an uncommonly accessible example. The protagonist of the story is a girl on the threshold of puberty, and the plot concerns her often frightening adventures at the hands of a treacherous grandmother, a lecherous priest and an aged vampire who may be Valerie's father. Whether or not the outrageous, convoluted plot is taken seriously, whether these events are seen as 'real' or as an expression of Valerie's burgeoning sexuality, depends on the reader's personal interpretation. Nezval concocted the story from elements of the Gothic novel (especially Lewis' 'The Monk'), de Sade, Murnau's 'Nosferatu' and 'Alice in Wonderland', but its sexual preoccupations and oneiric ambience make its author's Surrealist leanings fairly explicit. If the book seems somewhat novelettish or even 'trashy' in its implausibilities and lurid details, then this is intentional, as Surrealism was deeply preoccupied by popular, unrespectable literary genres for their ability to evoke the form and content of dreams. And if you have read and enjoyed this book, check out also Jaromil Jires' equally compelling, better-known film version from 1970 - though buy the UK Redemption version rather than the US Facets one.
Reading this book might be easiest if you have strong visual imagination. Imagery includes bizarre revival tent exhortations, supernatural transformations, dank crypts, and more. Somehow, these scenes beg to be brought to life.
This isn't for everyone. It leads the reader through a very personal vision, populated by mythic beings of uncertain meaning. If that, plus a vivid pictorial sense can pull you in, then you'll find a remarkable experience between these covers.