about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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The Bitter Life of Bozena Nemcova: A Biographical Collage
A Review of The Bitter Life of Božena Nĕmcová:
A Biographical Collage
by Kelcey Parker Ervick

Spencer Dew

One of Kafka’s favorite artists, the author of the first Czech novel, her image is on the Czech 500-crown note, yet Nĕmcová’s is that dubious fame, the ubiquity that becomes invisibility. Think of Alexander Hamilton, a few years ago. Or, for that matter, think of Alexander Hamilton now, for that resurrection is akin to what Ervick has accomplished in this entrancing “biographical collage,” a book that brings Nĕmcová out of widespread obscurity outside her homeland and, simultaneously, delves deep into her story to reimagine her legacy as that of “a feminist, revolutionary” as well as a “writer who collected fairy tales and folklore from the Bohemian countryside.”

This is also an intensely intimate book, in two senses. First, the composition draws one in, like a mystery to be solved: poems made of erasures of letters, visual art crafted from postcards ghosted over with layers of paint to which fragments of text have been pasted. To read here is to follow crumbs deeper into a woods, with real terrors lurking in the shadows. Yet the intimacy is also with our guide, our redactor and author, whose life parallels that she unearths in these archives. Ervick, in Czech classes and on Google Translate or Wikipedia, at the Bone Church, remembering her Sadie Hawkins dance back in Indiana: she, too, is the heroine here, and through her Nĕmcová comes alive, has meaning.

Nĕmcová’s story says much about the ways religion rationalizes suffering. She, after all, “wrote about marriage as a blood sacrifice, as a punishment, as bondage, as death” and she, after her own death, received something like cultural canonization due, in part, to her “saintly suffering.” “Many generations of admiring poets, patriotic critics, / and, at times, official propagandists have long transformed // the bitter life of Božena Nĕmcová, / the first Czech woman writer of importance, // into a cherished national myth” reads a poem appropriated from—crafted out of—another text. Another line (likewise lifted, or likewise revived) says that Nĕmcová “has often reminded men of the traditional idea of the Virgin Mary.” And how did she suffer? Her husband said, for instance, “You good for nothing. You will croak somewhere behind a fence, nobody will even spit at you, you should be selling matches.” The abusive husband who would not let her go (“Your husband, whom no one remembers, once told you: ‘No one will ever remember you.’”), the son who died as a teenager, even the later waves of Nazi atrocity and those they martyred—all these, collaged together, build a sinister background for Ervick’s project of “an excavation and hopefully an unveiling.”

Yet if darkness—death, horror—is ever-present here, its presence is akin to that which it has in fairy tales, a genre with which Nĕmcová is inextricably bound, even as she bound those stories—of her own as well as of traditional origin—to Czech identity. She writes, “I have to write an introduction for the fourth part of my fairy tales, and I have to say what is mine and what is national; I will do, but not with pleasure, for I will have to confess that many a tale was not national, and I know beforehand that this will be held against me.

Ervick, for her part, claims “I don’t believe in fairy tales,” even when they happen, more or less, to her, which allows for some celebration of that which Nĕmcová celebrated when she wrote of peasants dancing in the face of death or children rewarded with treasure. This is not a tragic book, but a book about the surprising boons one can be given, by the world. Nĕmcová described marriage as “like an inflated pillow / Once there is even the smallest tear in it, all the air escapes. / The lazy, heavy body remains.” Ervick writes of her own marriage as “a heap of half-broken things,” but in neither case does such collapse mark an end. Ervick’s living on, emerging from failure, is entangled in her resurrection of Nĕmcová as a living, and in many ways contemporary—certainly contemporarily relevant—voice. The Bitter Life is a remarkable and subversive experiment in biography, in history, in literary criticism, and in autobiography.

Official Kelcey Parker Ervick Web Site
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