Absinthe Literary Review, Book Reviews
B O O K   R E V I E W

Autumn/E&T  2006



Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

by Vítězslav Nezval


Twisted Spoon Press

Prague 2005

229 pages

Review by Steve Finbow

Somewhere between the existential fables of Franz Kafka and the macabre animations of Jan Švankmajer lies Vítězslav Nezval. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-glass as illustrated by Max Ernst. In fact, the whole book owes a great debt to Max Ernst; it is heavily influenced by his collage novels, most notably La Femme 100 Têtes and Une Semaine de Bonté ou les Sept Eléments Capitaux; the main villain of the story – the Polecat – is a nightmare version of Ernst’s Loplop.  However, it is also the Marquis de Sade’s Justine with tableau by Paul Delvaux and scenery by Giorgio de Chirico. And it is Matthew Lewis’s The Monk re-written by Sigmund Freud.
The problem with classics, and this is a classic of Czech Surrealist literature, is that what has come after is infused by it. And, so, this novel not only resonates with literature preceding it – notably Isidore Ducasse
Comte de Lautréamont’s Maldoror, Giorgio de Chirico’s Hebdomeros, and Raymond Rousel’s Impressions d’Afrique and Locus Solus – but it is ingrained in the literature which follows: Jonathan Carroll’s fantasy love stories, Michel Tournier’s Gemini, and Bohumil Hrabal’s baroque fairytales I Served the King of England and Closely Observed Trains. Even if none of these writers managed to read Valerie, it has seeped into the literature of post-Surrealist fantasy. There is stock Surrealist philosophy: Valerie is anti-religious – think Max Ernst’s The Blessed Virgin Chastising the Infant Jesus Before Three Witnesses: André Breton, Paul Éluard and the Artist; yet it is spiritual, see Salvador Dali’s Raphaelesque Head Exploding. It is superstitious – the Surrealists were obsessed with folklore and magic; yet very modern – embodying Rimbaud’s rallying call to be ‘absolutely modern.’ It harks back to the Victorian penny dreadfuls and Fantômas; yet it is more experimental in form than other Surrealist novels such as Louis Aragon’s Le Paysan de Paris.

Written in 1935 but not published until 1945, Valerie, like most Surrealist novels, with the possible exception of André Breton’s Nadja, is more a novel of images and collage. It owes more to the paintings and montages of Toyen than it does the novels of Tolstoy. It is a fairy tale, a melodrama, and a modern morality play. If D.H. Lawrence was Thomas Hardy on Viagra, then Viteslav Nezval is Thomas Hardy on peyote. 

Valerie is a pulp-serial novel shot through with gothic horror, eroticism, and philosophy. The overall structure of the book is dream, reality, and surreality. It moves from the unconscious to the conscious to the post-conscious. Its characters are clichéd or fantastic. Valerie is experiencing her first menstruation as the novel begins. The novel is a quest, a search for sexuality, identity, and experience. It is deeply Freudian – the narrative is full of cellars, enclosures, and passageways – Valerie and the reader are exploring a symbolic vagina. There are doubles, reversals; there is death by fire and water; the sex is incestuous, vampiric, and violent. Yet, the overriding eroticism is shadowed by a Platonic theory of love. Orlick is, variously, Valerie’s long lost brother, suitor, and tormentor. He is also her Other. Her other half separated at birth; the hermaphrodite cleaved in two by the gods, only to be one again when they meet and fall in love. This is straight out of Plato’s The Symposium by way of René Magritte’s The Rape.

 While reading this entertaining and enjoyable book, I was reminded of the classic horror films that were made in England during the sixties and seventies, and the television series they spawned – lightning strikes, thunder roars, a man is seen in an instance of light outside a rain-spat window, and then he is inside leering over the white-nightgowned figure of a beautiful blonde woman, her breasts heaving, her eyes flickering with troubled dreams – Valerie and Her Week of Wonders reminded me of a hyperactive Hammer Horror film as directed by Luis Buñuel.



– S.F. –