Fragments of a Life
The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová: A Biographical Collage
By Kelcey Parker Ervick
Rose Metal Press, 2016
Reviewed by Seana Graham
A couple of months ago, Rose Metal Press contacted us here at Escape Into Life and asked if we would like to receive a review copy of The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová. I had never heard of the Czech writer, but was intrigued, and the more I learned, the more intrigued I became. Kafka was influenced by her fairy tales. Milan Kundera calls her the “mother of Czech prose.” Yet how many of us here in the West have even heard of her?
Kelcey Parker Ervick came across Božena Němcová (BO-zhena NYEM-tsovah) by chance. She points out in her introduction that the great Kundera himself wrote “chance and chance alone has a message for us.” In her case, chance led her to Prague, where she purchased a beautiful edition of Czech Fairy Tales by Němcová and Karel Erben. At some point, she realized that the portrait on the 500 crown note with which she paid for the book was of Němcová herself. How had a woman born in the beginning of the nineteenth century ended up on the Czech national currency?
This question led to research, but the research only led to more questions. It is impossible to pin down the year of her birth, and her parentage is shrouded in mystery. Though Ervick gamely tried to learn Czech, she soon realized that she would never become adept enough to read much in Němcová’s own language.
Like Němcová I am a storyteller, and I wanted to tell her story, even if I didn’t have access to all of the information. My lack of access, even the lack of information, therefore has become part of the story. The information I gathered came in bits, and those bits had strong voices: those of the dismissive scholar, the enthusiastic biographer, the awkward English translator, the experts on radio interviews, Němcová ’s husband and lovers, and Němcová herself as fairy tale writer, novelist, lover, and letter writer.
The structure of the book is unique, or at least I have never seen it before. Ervick takes these fragments—the stories, the letters, the recorded reminiscences, the biographical elements– and assembles them on separate pages, footnoting the sources for each beneath. As Ervick says, this “biographical collage” is told “entirely through these voices and found fragments.” As perhaps the most extreme example of the fragility of her sources, Ervick cites a faculty page on which Božena Němcová is remembered by Professor Emerita of Biology Margaret H. Peaslee, who herself seems to have come to Němcová inadvertently. But the faculty page can no longer be accessed because Peaslee is now deceased.
The book is handsomely illustrated with color plates of Ervick’s own art, much of it collage work itself. The final section consists of Ervick’s “Postcards to Božena” in which, as she makes her pilgrimage to discover more about her subject, she speaks to Božena of her own marriage and difficulties, mirrored in some ways by Němcová’s own.
The title of this work takes its name from the many references to the short and bitter life of her subject, and it does all end sadly for Němcová. But in the course of her research Ervick finds a book called Women of Prague by Wilma Iggers, in which she encounters a much more complex Božena Němcová than the one she had previously learned of—the woman as portrayed in her own letters.
I hadn’t heard of Rose Metal Press before “chance” brought them my way, but a note in passing is due them simply for bringing this marvelous book into existence. They bill themselves “as an independent, not-for-profit publisher of hybrid genres specializing in the publication of short short, flash, and micro-fiction; prose poetry; novels-in-verse or book-length linked narrative poems; and other literary works that move beyond the traditional genres of poetry, fiction, and essay to find new forms of expression.”
In an age of publishing expediency, I was greatly heartened to see a press take such care with a book of complex layout and lavish artwork. If you had asked me if a book like The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová were likely to find a home in today’s publishing world, I would have told you no. I am very glad to have been proven wrong.
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She also reviews for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. You can find links to many of her short stories at her blog Story Dump. She has co-authored a trivia book about her native Southern California and is currently working on a screenplay. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.