VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS BY VÍTĚZSLAV NEZVAL

Maturation is, of course, an ongoing process; a process that, you might argue, ends only with your death. It is, therefore, difficult, perhaps even absurd, to attempt to pinpoint a moment in your life when you became aware of yourself as a adult. Yet, when I cast into the pool of my memories, I am able to dredge up a number of incidents or experiences, which at the time struck me as pivotal in my development towards becoming a man. My first ejaculation, for example. My seed has adorned the faces, the bellies, the breasts, the backs, and backsides, of various women; it has been swallowed and spat out; it has dried slowly into bedsheets and t-shirts; but none were as significant, as world-shaping, for you are the world, as the afternoon it made its debut, dribbling down my own hand.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders by Vítězslav Nezval is not, you may be relieved to hear, about masturbation, or not explicitly anyway. It could, however, be described as a sexual coming-of-age story, if you’ll permit me that trite phrase. The girl of the title is seventeen years old, and very early in the novel, on the first day in fact, she feels ‘a thin stream of blood trickling down her ankle.’ She has, of course, started her period, her first period we’re led to believe, an event that, at least for society at large, indicates that she is now no longer a little girl, but a woman. Not everything that follows is as easy to decipher, nor as directly related to menstruation, but it is telling that the action takes place over seven days, which is [the upper end of] the length of time a period can last.

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Also telling is that Valerie is said to feel ‘great dismay’ when she notices the blood, suggesting that she isn’t happy about leaving her childhood behind. It is interesting, in this regard, that the novel’s action is so fantastical, so reminiscent of a certain kind of children’s literature – Alice in Wonderland immediately springs to mind, of course – and of the games and fantasies of children themselves, what with the strange creatures, hidden rooms, magic phials, and so on. These peculiar, often frightening, situations, characters, and objects represent Valerie’s inner turmoil, the sturm and drang of her emotions and the changes occurring in her body. Yet one might also regard them as a product of her imagination, as the girl fighting against the onset of adulthood by retreating into a childish fantasy world, which is, one ought to note, scary, yes, but never genuinely harmful.

In any case, there is much in the novel about the importance of age, and this is often linked to sexual desire or appeal. For example, one of Valerie’s friends, Hedviga, agrees to wed a much older, and richer, man. When Valerie asks her grandmother why he would want to marry a poor girl, her grandmother replies that ‘she’s young. That explains everything.’ The idea is that youth equals sex appeal, that the old man wants her because she is firm and virginal; and so he uses his money to snare, and in turn fuck, this local beauty, who otherwise he would have no chance with. Later, the grandmother bargains away her house in order to be made young again for a week. What Elsa – who, by the way, is only given a christian name once the transformation has taken place – does with this gift is endeavor to seduce, and at times succeeds in seducing, people younger than her real age.

In addition, there are repeated references to Valerie’s own sexual awakening, such as when she attends the instruction of virgins at church. During the service the minister speaks lustily of buds that ‘will burst when the time is ripe’ and ‘uncleft pomegranates’, and his words are said to touch ‘the girl’s very body.’ There is also more than one occasion when she witnesses people copulating, and makes no move to depart, being, in one instance, ‘unable to stop her eyes from feasting on the strange looking crab writhing on the bed.’ Furthermore, there is the suggestion that others can sense her ripeness, her newfound sexual potency. Indeed, one of the people Elsa attempts to seduce is her granddaughter. The Polecat, who at times is said to be Valerie’s father, does likewise. It struck me that the incestuous element of the narrative is a way of indicating how powerful the sexual urge is, in that it can transcend moral boundaries. This is backed up when the minister intends to rape Valerie.

“Valerie had lost her way. For the third time, without knowing how, she had entered a deserted square that seemed to be enchanted.”

It is said that, both in style and content, Nezval was paying homage to old gothic serials [and the marvellously silly Pulp genre]. I don’t have much to say on that, in the way of insightful criticism, beyond what I wrote earlier regarding Valerie’s turmoil/retreat into childish fantasy. Yet, even if you dismiss those theories, it is certainly the case that the ‘wonders’ element of the novel is its most immediately appealing feature. Indeed, were I attempting to convince someone to read the book I would, without question, mention the vampire polecat; the plot to steal a boy’s heart and transplant it into another; the hanging, the accusations of witchery, the despairing crowing of a cock, the burial ground, the ghost. In relation to this, Nezval himself wrote in his foreword that his work is ‘bordering on the ridiculous’, and there is, as far as I am concerned, no greater selling point than that.

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6 comments

  1. A young woman having her first period at seventeen is very late. Sounds like quite a strange work and apparently it was made into a film. Nezval’s Absolute Gravedigger, a poetry collection recently released from Twisted Spoon, is one of my favourite books of the year. The poems range from traditional, bucolic rural to sprawling pieces seemingly straight out a Bosch painting—surreal, sexual, and grotesque. Think I’ll stick to that over this one.

    1. Yeah I thought that too. But I suppose there are aspects of her character, and certain plot points, that necessitated she be older than, say, 13. I guess you could argue it isn’t her first, but that would mean the book made less sense to me. I have the collection of poems, but I am not in the mood for poetry at the moment, and find reviewing poetry collections a real chore. The film is great, by the way.

  2. Thanks for the review. The conclusion I came to regarding Valerie’s age is that because of the censorship laws at the time she couldn’t be “underage” and have all that sex stuff happen, like a priest trying to jump her (which would also make him a pedophile rather than just a lecher). So Nezval just compromised and made the age acceptable. In the film she is younger.

    1. You’re welcome. I enjoyed it. Yeah I figured as much. I think it would have suited the mood of the book if he hadn’t mentioned her age at all, but that may have resulted in even more controversy and sanctions.

  3. I thought so too, that it would be better just to leave her age out of it. It is so noticeably incongruent. I also thought for a moment that perhaps a little fixing in translation could be justified, but then quickly dispelled the idea. I’m somewhat of a purist in these matters, and if the author has written something that looks like an oversight and doesn’t make complete sense, and he/she can’t be asked about it and there are no mentions of it in diaries or memoirs or wherever, then it’s best to leave as is.

    1. I’m glad you didn’t fix it; that was definitely the right decision. I’d say so even if the author were alive to ask and confirm that he wanted her to be younger himself or made a mistake. I think you have to be a purist in these matters, because it isn’t about what one thinks or what ought to have been the case [in my opinion, anyway], it is about what is i.e. what is actually there in the text. Also, we wouldn’t be having this discussion without that incongruity.

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