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Glorious Nemesis

The turbulent life of Czech writer Ladislav Klíma is echoed in one of his works of fiction, Glorious Nemesis. Born in 1878 in Bohemia (today the Czech Republic), Klíma was expelled from school in 1895 after ostensibly insulting the ruling Hapsburgs. From then on, he rejected most aspects of a traditional life, shunning regular employment to live off of inheritance money and publishing royalties. Before he died of tuberculosis in 1928, he destroyed a reputed 90% of his own manuscripts. A great deal of what he wrote was published posthumously.

The turbulent life of Czech writer Ladislav Klíma is echoed in one of his works of fiction, Glorious Nemesis. Born in 1878 in Bohemia (today the Czech Republic), Klíma was expelled from school in 1895 after ostensibly insulting the ruling Hapsburgs. From then on, he rejected most aspects of a traditional life, shunning regular employment to live off of inheritance money and publishing royalties. Before he died of tuberculosis in 1928, he destroyed a reputed 90% of his own manuscripts. A great deal of what he wrote was published posthumously.

Philosophically, Klíma adhered to the precept of subjective idealism, the idea that any external reality is dependent upon the mind of the person apprehending it. Klíma took this idea further to state that man is the creator of his own divinity, an idea that he referred to as “deoessence.” Though influenced by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and others, Klíma rejected all cultural and moral norms and schools of thought.

These philosophies result in a novella characterized by chaos and drama. Set in the Dolomite Alps of the Tyrol (northern Italy), Glorious Nemesis focuses on Sider, a 28-year-old whose worldview and experience echo Klíma’s. Out hiking one day, Sider runs into two women, dressed in blue and red, respectively. He does not speak to the women, but within a week he has a disturbing encounter with them at the top of Stag’s Head, the mountain at the edge of town. There, the woman in red flees down the mountain in a fright, urging him to come after her, but he climbs further to find the woman in blue. She taunts him, apparently wanting him to leap to his death in a crevasse. Sider flees and leaves the town, not returning for another twelve years; he then picks up the trail of the two women and finds himself entangled in their lives again.

Though the narrative is straightforward, the reader is kept guessing right along with Sider. Is the woman in red, Errata, correct when she characterizes the other woman, Orea, as a jealous phantom? Is Orea the “ghost of Stag’s Head”? What happened at the foreboding black cottage under a hanging rock, as well as at its doppelgänger in another town he visits—and why does the 137-year-old woman who lives in (one version of) the house call him a murderer?

The book resolves these questions with an ending that is surprisingly satisfactory, given the slightly surreal nature of the events throughout. But to reach this explanation, the reader will have to be comfortable with Klíma’s style, which resembles that of Edgar Allen Poe or Poe’s Gothic contemporaries: the narrator’s emotions run continually high, as if every moment contains an epiphany of some sort, and the exclamation point key on the author’s typewriter no doubt took a beating. For example, when the narrator finds a portrait of Orea in his billfold (ellipses in the quotes below are the author’s):

I still have it! — And having it means I’m richer than all the kings in the world! Oh, with this picture and this handwriting I’ll be happy forever! . . . She lives! And She loves me . . . All the horrid strangeness of this my tale of romance makes it all the more beautiful and beguiling. Who can boast of such a fantastical, poetic Romance as mine?

The giddy nature of his feelings is more striking by his description of Orea just a few pages before: “This was not the sweet face of a lover, but the transcendentally terrible visage of a dragon. And almost every night She visited his dreams, hideous, stifling, chaotically maniacal dreams, a diabolical gorgon forever sharing his bed.” This back-and-forth continues, highlighting the feeling of dread that pervades the narrative.

Though the tone and style are similar to Poe, Klíma’s ultimate goal seems to be conveying his philosophical concepts. At times, his characters’ thoughts are simply direct expressions of these beliefs, as when Sider contemplates death:

“To die, to die . . .” he whispered to himself after a moment. “How beautiful and heroic . . . and how repulsive and trivial and low it is to live . . . Every measly insect is alive. To have the power by Divine Free Will to die at any time in glory—that is the greatest gift of the gods to humanity.”

As he says this, a voice nearby urges him to “Be God!” Here we have Klíma’s deoessence—he who takes control of his actual being, his death, forms his own divinity. Or, as the author writes, “Whoever is capable of Will is capable of every act and all things.”

These sometimes haphazard musings elevate the book beyond a simple Gothic tale, and understanding Klíma’s philosophical leanings does offer a more layered reading of the text. Conversely, however, it’s a treat to have concepts like these wrapped in such an entertaining package. The book, like most translations, does have an occasional hiccup in terms of phrasing (one characters sputters, “you—you unsavoury person!”), but for the most part, Marek Tomin deftly translates the tone and mood of the novella as well as its language. Between the somewhat mystical narrative itself and the ideological doctrine underlying it, Glorious Nemesis lends itself to multiple readings—luckily, an enjoyable proposition.

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