In Review

pursuit of a messy, complicated fulfillment: a look at The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová 

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová by Kelcey Parker Ervick. Brookline, MA: Rose Metal Press. November 2016. 348 pgs. $17.95 Paperback. Nonfiction. 

Before I became acquainted with Božena Němcová, I had come to think of fairy tales as synonymous with happy endings. I knew about their historic darkness, but I thought of that darkness as either a moralistic warning or a simplistic good vs. evil. Behave, young children, or you’ll be eaten by the wolves of gluttony, etc. I was bored by that simplicity, but then Kelsey Parker Ervick introduced me to Božena Němcová.


She wanted
 to live only by the pen
 and perhaps even paid for it with her life,” Karolina Světlá (230).


Božena Němcová is remembered as the mother of Czech literature and the collector of Bohemian fairytales and folklore. Neither her writing nor her life could be described as simplistic. For a storyteller who is credited as an inspiration to Franz Kafka, and whose likeness appears on Czech currency, very little seems to be known about her short and incendiary life.


“I wont repeat to you how men judge my personality, they normally lie to us and sometimes make us into angels, and sometimes make us into devils” Božena Němcová (88).


In The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová, Ervick unearths her story by way of biographical collage. Through letters, images, and secondary texts, Ervick made me reflect on my own relationships with men, with writing, and with idealism.  While I do not personally have any fiery nationalistic lovers or beloved children dying of consumption, I related completely to Němcová’s unresolved search for happiness. As a newly married woman who volunteered for the Clinton campaign and left a salaried job to travel and write, I recognized Němcová’s questioning as my own. Ervick made me see the supposedly modern dilemma of “having it all” anew. She made me fall in love with Božena Němcová.


“Oh, who could plumb the depths of this unfathomable ocean with its cliffs, its rich treasures, terrible monsters, this ocean called the human heart!Božena Němcová (100).


The collage of these texts looks like poetry, in that the words on the page can be sparse, and erasures of original text help to highlight the many contradictory aspects of Němcová’s life. The book reads like biography, depicting her as a writer with revolutionary ideas, a devoted mother, and a passionate lover of men and of other women, everyone other than her own husband.


“a beautiful sin has its moral dignity and merit—what is not beautiful about it contains its own punishment” Jan Helcelet (84).


The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová is at once an escape into a beautiful and culturally rich past and an intensely modern text. Ervick relies heavily on personal letters to, from, and about Němcová. The 19th century language dates these letters, and the obstruction of the Czech language further veils Němcová’s reality, like a sepia faded photograph. Yet Ervick gives us these voices in short gasps that, together, form a chorus. The result reads like the scroll of a Twitter feed populated by Czech nationalists at the turn of the century, deepening and complicating Němcová at every turn.


 “There is not a drop of bitterness in her heart”  Žofie Podlipská (236).
            “Life is very bitter to me” Božena Němcová (237).


The Bitter life of Božena Němcová is a fairy tale because there is a noon witch, and a grandmother who saves almost everyone, and a peasant girl who is in love with a soldier. It is modern because the girl in the fairy tale is both admirable and unlovable. She is caught in the double bind that is still all too familiar to women. The thing that makes her wondrous also makes her impossible to hold close.


“As though she wants to perish in the wild swirl,
As though she wants to escape from herself” Božena Němcová (54).


Throughout this collage, Ervick embroiders herself into the text. In the introduction, she admits that during the time she was discovering Němcová she was also in the process of dissolving her marriage of 17 years. The biographer’s present day dissatisfaction underscores the relevance of the biographed’s unrelenting hunger. The fairytale of marriage as happy-ending has always been too simplistic for the vitality of women.


A shiver runs down her, she forgets that she is ornamented with a crown of myrtle, and she says defiantly: I will not go!” Božena Němcová (49).


I loved this book, unequivocally. It should be stuffed in the stocking of every feminist on your holiday shopping list. It should be the second night of Channuka gift for the revolutionary in your life who still needs a pocket constitution (on the first night). It is the perfect way to tell your lover you adore them, but you know that your mutual passion is only one of the mediums necessary for a full and beautiful life.


“The days run like waves, as many drops of water as there are in a wave, so many thousand thoughts run to you, dear Ivan!” Božena Němcová (74).


Božena Němcová is fascinating enough on her own to demand our attention, and Ervick is the right artist to guide us. Her dedication to Czech history and language gives this literary matriarch her due, and because Ervick also shares her own lows openly, she invites readers to be vulnerable and collage themselves into Němcová’s story as well. Ervick knows exactly how much space to provide each voice in this chorus, including her own. She engages with the text and then creates the space for readers to do so as well.


Dear B,
Your husband, whom no one remembers, once told you: ‘No one will ever remember you.’
k” Kelcey Parker Ervick (323).


In this review I’ve named Němcová 18 times, and I can bet that most readers would have skimmed over her name without hazarding a pronunciation. Ervick begins the book with an explication of Czech phonetics, of Němcová’s decision to change her name, and the proper pronunciation of the words Božena Němcová, as if to demand our attention and respect.


I know in Czech (with my limited knowledge) only one music of language, that of Božena NěmcováFranz Kafka (105).


Ervick closes with her own letters to Němcová and the unanswered question—was she happy? Is Ervick happy? Are we? Do we want to be ever-after? This biographical collage confirmed at least one belief I held, that happiness, and fulfillment are a messy and complicated jungle. That the arc of history is very, very long indeed. At times the bend appears so subtle, it hardly seems to be an arc at all. All this and nevertheless, she persisted.


“BO-zhena NYEM-tsovah” Kelcey Parker Ervick (7).


Tovah Burstein


Tovah Burstein is a freelancer working out of a camper currently parked in Beaumont, California. Her writing has appeared in MAKE, Defunct, Hobart, The Butter and the Chicago Reader. She is co-editor of TRUE, Proximity Magazine's weekly blog.