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  • The Bitter Life of Božena Nêmcová: A Biographical Collage by Kelcey Parker Ervick
  • Abigail Heiniger (bio)
The Bitter Life of Božena Nêmcová: A Biographical Collage. By Kelcey Parker Ervick, Rose Metal Press, 2016, 338 pp.

Kelcey Parker Ervick is a storyteller–scholar who gives readers an impression of Božena Nêmcová that is both literary and visual in The Bitter Life of Božena Nêmcová. This hybridized text is a collage in every sense, blending biography and memoir with fairy tale. Ervick offers readers an introduction to Nêmcová’s fiction, as well as her life. Part 1 constructs a fragmented sense of [End Page 127] Nêmcová’s brief life as a Czech nationalist and fairy-tale writer in mid-nineteenth-century Bohemia, where she shattered conventions by taking lovers and smoking cigars. Part 2 is a memoir of Ervick’s failing marriage and struggle to learn Czech while contemplating reading, writing, and happy endings.

Ervick’s free-verse poetry creates a feeling of Božena Nêmcová’s hazy early life by merging Nêmcová’s personal history with fragments of her fairy tales, particularly Babicka (The Grandmother, 1855) and “Diva Bara” (1920), which translates into “Wild” Bara. An excerpt from Nêmcová’s letter discussing her happy childhood is paired with excerpts from the fairy tales discussing Wild Bara’s happiness in her own strength and independence. In the excerpts that Ervick includes, Wild Bara is a carefree villager who can outrun and outthink the men around her, making her both attractive and threatening to the other villagers. Wild Bara eschews heteronormative assumptions about women’s fairy-tale dreams by choosing her “golden freedom” over the boys courting her (29). Ervick’s celebration of an Orlando-style biography is especially apparent here.

Ervick’s conflation of life and fiction undermines the idea of truth in biography. Ervick’s poem “We Don’t Even Know” emphasizes the uncertainty in Nêmcová’s biographical record, pointing out the conflicting years for her birth in official records (20). Conflicting theories about Nêmcová’s heritage circulating in her biographies are juxtaposed in a series of Ervick’s free-verse poems. They are followed by an excerpt from Nêmcová’s Slovak folk story “The Twelve Months” (n.d.), which describes a mother who did not love her stepdaughter. The story seems to reflect Nêmcová’s relationship with her own mother, suggesting she knew she was not her mother’s biological child.

The sections of the first part work chronologically through Nêmcová’s life. Later sections include a greater number of excerpts from Nêmcová’s letters, as well as selections from scholarly texts about the Czech author. One of the most poignant is Ervick’s “That Child,” which addresses Nêmcová’s dying son, Hyneck (139–42). Ervick arranges a few lines from one of Nêmcová letters like a free-verse poem, progressively deconstructing the text until the reader is left with only the name “Hyneck” repeated on the final page.

Excerpts from scholarly texts, paraphrased or translated by Ervick, give readers a sense of Nêmcová’s legacy and popularity in her homeland. For example, Ervick pairs an excerpt from Babicka with a scholarly history that celebrates the book’s translations and reprintings, concluding with the statement “The old lady is a perpetual comfort in hard times” (146). The Czech author’s long cultural shadow adds another layer of texture to the work.

Free-verse poems by Ervick are punctuated with photographs, paintings, and collages throughout the book. Apart from a few historic photographs or postcards, the images are primarily the original work of Ervick. In the first [End Page 128] section, photographs and paintings of Nêmcová are juxtaposed with paintings of the two different princesses who are rumored to be her mother. The paintings and photographs complement the surrounding text, literally putting faces with unfamiliar names.

Unlike the text, the images rarely include notes besides titles. The reader is left to ponder the images’ relationship to Nêmcová and her life. Images also become increasingly abstract. They are primarily collages, combining photographs, illustrations, and Czech text...