Thursday, November 24, 2005

Figuring Out Handwriting

It's Thanksgiving, but of course that's a purely North American holiday, so the only people I know who are celebrating it today are those who (in an apparently random fashion) got invitations to dine at the Embassy. There will be a big Fulbright gathering on Sunday, however.
So, my thoughts--some of them--are back on Nezval. One of the major challenges of archival research is the deciphering of handwriting. This is a particular when the researcher is dealing with a foreign language, and especially a complicated one. I am usually pretty good at figuring out anything written in English after about 1700 (handwriting changed to something much more like what we use now around that time), but otherwise I am heavily dependent on the legibility of the text and my knowledge of the language and topic.
Nezval’s handwriting, which varies depending on what he was writing, is small and relatively consistent in the diaries. In these, Nezval clearly wanted to keep track of what he had done, and was not concerned with detailing his feelings at length. Thus, the handwriting is relatively clear. Yet even so, it can be quite mystifying. Czech has a good many one and two-letter words (mostly but not only prepositions), such as a, i, o, u, do, s(e), si, v(e), k(e), po, ne, na, mé, ta, te, ti, to, tu, ty, za, and z(e). A fair number of these look identical in Nezval’s script, so one is obliged to rely on context as to which one is meant. Is that a or s(e)? Aha, it is followed by Štyrským rather than Štyrský, and therefore we are dealing with “se Štyrským.” But is the main word Manesa or Manesu, and thus what is the word before it? (And why does Nezval, usually so good about diacritical marks, never write Mánes?) Nezval also throws in spaces in mid-word, so that what one initially imagines to be something like “k oleum” looks more like “kolem” upon reflection. Something that looks like olijknti is probably diskusi. Likewise, has he put Pak Nikodem or Pan Nikodem? Either is usually possible. This sort of interpretive game makes me all too aware of my inability to remember most Czech case endings, as if I could only remember these, I am sure I would immediately recognize much of what I’m looking at. The fact that Nezval constantly uses the instrumental singular (a case that I have next to no problem recalling) is helpful, but then, that is also relatively easy to figure out from context, whereas the accusative and locative can get tricky. (It would help if cases never—or on the other hand always—shared the same endings, and if words like “na” didn’t sometimes require one case and sometimes another.)
As regards little tricks to aid comprehension, it is also useful to know the names of books, and of minor characters who might pop up suddenly in the narrative. An illegible mess suddenly confesses to being “s Išou Krejčím”. Another one admits to being “s Nečasem” despite looking more like “p Nečere su”. Fortunately, I know that Vincenc Nečas cowrote a guide to Paris with Štyrský and Toyen (or, as Nezval would put it, “se Štyrským a s Toyen”), and Iša Krejčí has crossed my path a couple of times even though I am not quite sure who he was (possibly the same person as the Marxist journalist Jan Krejčí, who died in prison in 1941). On the other hand, for quite some time I thought Nezval was referring to Jaromír John when in fact he was writing “Jdu.” I don’t think I have ever before encountered someone who liked to keep the parts of the small letter “d” separate from one another. And, in fact, it appears that Jaromír John spent his time in cafés not usually frequented by Nezval, and probably had relatively few ties to the surrealists—although we cannot be too sure of that, as in 1930s Prague, anyone who was Anyone on the cultural scene does seem to have been at least acquainted with everyone else who was Someone. (On April 3, 1934, Nezval refers to going somewhere with Toyen and Brouk, where he was “forced” to sit with Konrád and an illegible person.)
Another issue in deciphering handwriting is, to be blunt, my level of tiredness. I don’t always do well when I first sit down with a Nezval diary, because I have to reacclimate myself, but within a few minutes I can usually figure out words that baffled me at the end of my last session. This means that it is best for me not to spend more than about four hours a day with Nezval, and other amusements (um, research areas!) must be pursued.

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