Surreal Lives: The Surrealists 1917-45 by Ruth Brandon (1999)

Surrealism is not a new or better means of expression, not even a metaphysic of poetry; it is a means of total liberation of the mind.
(Surrealist declaration, January 1925, quoted page 233)

Born in 1943, Ruth Brandon will turn 75 this year. She’s written four novels and seven biographies of figures from the early twentieth century (such as Houdini, Sarah Bernhardt). This big book (524 pages) is a long, detailed and very accessible account of the origins, rise and spread of the Surrealist movement, from its sources in the Great War, through into the 1920s and 1930s when it was, arguably, the dominant art movement in Western Europe.

However, Surreal Lives is, as the title suggests, more a story about the people than about their writings or art. And when it does touch on the latter, it’s mostly about the writing than the paintings. Around page 325 Brandon briefly refers to the core Surrealist painters – Jean Arp, Yves Tanguy, André Masson, Joan Miro – at which point I realised that we’d heard almost nothing about them in the preceding pages.

No, the central thread of the book is the life and career of the ‘pope’ of Surrealism, the writer, poet, critic and organiser, André Breton. Each of the nine longish chapters focuses on a key figure in the history of Surrealism – the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire who first coined the word ‘Surrealism’, the joint founder of Dada, Tristan Tzara, the inventor of conceptual art Marcel Duchamp, Breton’s partner in crime the poet Louis Aragon, the Catalan phenomenon Salvador Dalí who joined the movement right at the end of the 20s – but the text always reverts back to their effect on Breton, their threat to Breton, how Breton managed them, alienated them, dismissed them from the movement, and so on.

Along the way we meet plenty of colourful characters, such as the experimental writer Raymond Roussel, Breton’s close friend Jacques Vaché who committed suicide aged just 25, the American photographer Man Ray, the millionaire socialite Nancy Cunard (who had an affair with Aragon), the domineering Gala Eluard who left her husband the poet Paul Eluard to become Salvador Dali’s lifelong muse and protrectress, the young psychiatrist Jacques Lacan whose collaboration with the Surrealists made his name and who went on to become one of the most influential French intellectuals of his day. All these and many more.

The book is full of stories of scandalous behaviour, passionate affairs, casual sex, drug addiction, madness and suicide, in the best bohemian manner.

I was particularly struck by the ‘open marriage’ of Paul and Gala Éluard, both of them enjoying multiple partners. For a while the marriage blossomed into a ménage à trois with the painter Max Ernst, and I enjoyed the anecdote of the three of them travelling to Rome to lure the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico into the Surrealist camp, using Gala’s body as bait. All four of them went to bed together, though de Chirico later said he didn’t enjoy it – and he didn’t join the movement!

But, as I’ve mentioned, in its focus on the writers, on their manifestos, questionnaires, articles and reviews, their letters and diaries, Surreal Lives tends to be very text-based and so doesn’t shed much light on the art of Surrealism (for example, the first Surrealist exhibition, La Peinture Surrealiste, was held at Galerie Pierre in Paris in 1925 and I don’t think Brandon even mentions it.)

but then this reflects the historical reality, since Surrealism was first and foremost a literary movement, founded by three poets (Breton, Aragon and Philippe Soupault) and dedicated to writing volumes of verse, manifestos, publishing a succession of magazines (La Révolution surréaliste 1924-29, Le Surrealisme au service de la revolution 1930-33, Minotaure 1933-39), and so on.

It was only towards the end of the 1920s that the Surreal painters came to prominence – in 1928 Breton wrote Surrealism and painting to reflect this. It was only with the arrival of Salvador Dali in their midst in 1929 that the visual arts side of the movement began to vie with the writing and then, during the 1930s, to dominate it.

So Brandon’s focus on the writers reflects the history, but not the Surrealist legacy as we experience it today. Most of the Surrealist writings have disappeared, a lot was designed to be ephemeral anyway, a lot was never translated into English.

Instead Surrealism’s enduring impact in the English-speaking world has been via the bizarre and striking paintings of Dali, Max Ernst, Magritte and many others. The Surrealist heritage is almost entirely visual and Brandon doesn’t have a lot to say about the visual arts (or sculpture). The only visual artist she describes in any detail is Dalí (although the chapter about him is actually about the trio of talented Spaniards – Dalí, Luis Buñuel the film-maker and the poet Frederico García Lorca, and their close relationships and rivalries).

I can imagine a completely different book which would cover the exact same period of time, but focus on the relationships between Arp, Miro, Masson, Tanguy and so on, trying to clarify their relationship to the artists who came before them and how they thought of and interpreted ‘surrealism’. None of that is here.

For this reason, and because the influence of Surrealism becomes considerably more diffuse in the 1930s, with a bewildering cast of hangers-on, increasingly diverse artists and writers all showing its burgeoning influence – I felt the first half of the book was the most compelling. I particularly enjoyed the detailed description of the character and importance of Apollinaire who coined the word Surrealism, and of Duchamp’s trips to New York and his early friendship with Man Ray. I was also thrilled by the riveting account of Dadaism in Zurich and Berlin which, for the first time, really explained the origin and history of that movement to me, making it real in terms of the people and personalities involved.

I’ve known the names of many of these people – Tzara, Aragon – for decades. Brandon’s book for the first time brought them vividly, fascinatingly, to life. It’s a great read.

Left to right: Tristan Tzara, Paul Éluard, André Breton, Hans Arp, Salvador Dali, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, René Crevel, Man Ray

Left to right: Tristan Tzara, Paul Éluard, André Breton, Hans Arp, Salvador Dali, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, René Crevel, Man Ray (Paris, 1930)

I made brief notes on the first four chapters or so, before my review began to feel too long. For what it’s worth, here they are:

1. A bas Guillaume

We start with Guillaume Apollinaire, the poet, writer and art critic who was gifted with an uncanny sense for the new and important, who had championed cubism in the early 1910s and is here because of his role as patron to the young and ambitious André Breton, the humourless bully who would become the pope of Surrealism.

Apollinaire encouraged Breton and introduced him to the other ‘musketeers’ of the movement, Louis Aragon and Philippe Soupault. And it was Apollinaire who coined the world ‘Surrealist’, in a review of Parade, an avant-garde show put on by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, premiered in May 1917, based on a one-act scenario by Jean Cocteau set to music (and experimental noises) by Erik Satie. Cocteau had himself described the ballet as ‘realistic’ but, with its experimental music and highly stylised costumes, Apollinaire described Parade as sur-realistic, the French word ‘sur’ meaning on or above. Above-realism. Beyond-realism.

This new alliance – I say new, because until now scenery and costumes were linked only by factitious bonds – has given rise, in Parade, to a kind of surrealism, which I consider to be the point of departure for a whole series of manifestations of the New Spirit that is making itself felt today and that will certainly appeal to our best minds. We may expect it to bring about profound changes in our arts and manners through universal joyfulness, for it is only natural, after all, that they keep pace with scientific and industrial progress.

As with all the other characters in the story – Duchamp, Tzara, Dali and so on – this is a very personal history and Brandon gives full descriptions of the characters’ height and build, their faces, eyes, mannerisms, ways of speaking, their charisma and presence. The aim is on getting to know these people, feeling as if you were being introduced to them at a party. Brandon deals with their theories about literature and art as they emerge from the personalities, but is thankfully lacking in the jargon-heavy theoretical interpretations of an art scholar like the feminist, Whitney Chadwick. It’s a people-first account.

The most remarkable event in Guillaume Apollinaire’s life was that, despite being the doyen of the avant-garde, he made strenuous attempts to volunteer for the French Army (despite being Polish by birth) and surprised everyone by loving the Army and fighting bravely. He was invalided out in 1916 with a shrapnel wound to the head, but died suddenly of the Spanish flu which swept the world in 1918.

2. The death of art

The next chapter focuses on the life and early career of Marcel Duchamp. Since reading the World of Art account of Duchamp by Dawn Ades and Neil Cox I have a much better sense of the overall shape and purpose of Duchamp’s career. It’s still very interesting to have loads of details added in about his time in New York during the War, how he made fast friends with the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Emmanuel Radnitzky, soon to be known as Man Ray, and also the bull-like connoisseur of fast living and high life, Francis Picabia.

They got to know the circle around the American photographer Alfred Stieglitz and his art gallery and magazine, titled ‘291.’

Duchamp was invited to stay in the vacant apartment of business millionaire Walter Arensberg, who became a lifelong patron and sponsor. The descriptions of the drunken parties they attended, of drunken debauchery, through which shine Duchamp’s icy detachment, his addiction to chess and bad puns, are all super-readable.

Brandon takes the incident when Duchamp’s wonderful Nude descending a staircase was rejected by the organisers of the 1912 Cubist Salon des Indépendants as the moment when Duchamp decided to abandon painting with oils on canvas (which he didn’t enjoy doing, anyway).

Duchamp vowed to abandon ‘retinal art’, which appeals only to the eye, and try and evolve an art of the mind, founding – in the process – the whole idea of ‘conceptual art’. Hence his massive importance through to the present day.

3. The celestial adventure of M. Tristan Tzara

Next we jump to Zurich during the Great War where I found Brandon’s account of the birth of Dada extremely illuminating. She describes how a disparate gang of émigré artists (Emmy Hennings [Germany], Tristan Tzara [Romania], Jean Arp [Alsace], Marcel Janco [Romania], Richard Huelsenbeck [Germany], Sophie Taeuber [Switzerland] and Hans Richter [Germany]) crystallised around the tall, blonde figure of Hugo Ball, who founded the Cabaret Voltaire in February 1916.

It was in this tiny bar-cum-theatre that this disparate group staged their epoch-making anarchic performances, shouting nonsense poetry through megaphones or to the accompaniment of a big bass drum, wearing cardboard costumes, playing random instruments, packing the performances with schoolboy pranks and silliness. The Cabaret had been going for several months before they came up with the word ‘Dada’, precisely who was responsible and what it means continuing to be a subject of argument to this day. Anti-art, anti-reason and logic, anti-bourgeois, Dada was deliberately anti everything which had led to the stupid, slaughterous war.

While Zurich was a kind of playground of irresponsible émigrés, Berlin at the end of the war witnessed the collapse of the Wilhelmine Empire (November 1918) leading to street fighting between organised, armed Communists on one side and the police and army militias on the other, to decide the future of the country. (It was during this street violence that the the well-known Communist leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were murdered by right wing militias in January 1919). The philosophy of Dada appeared here and Berlin Dada was founded by John Heartfeld, the inventor of photomontage, and the satirical painter George Grosz.

The fiercely political Richard Huelsenbeck had argued with Tzara back in Zurich – Tzara saw Dada as another new art movement which would propel him to superstar status in the European art world, whereas Huelsenbeck saw it as a tool in the life or death struggle for Europe’s political future. ‘Dada is German communism,’ he said, simply.

Tzara proved himself the most feverishly active of the Zurich Dadaists, pouring out provocative manifestos, sending out invitations to contribute to Dada magazine to all the avant-garde artists he’d heard of anywhere in Europe, with the result that Duchamp, Picabia and many others got roped in.

Tzara’s invitations found their way to Apollinaire, and so on to his acolyte Breton, along with wartime pals Louis Aragon and his closest friend Soupault. The ‘three musketeers’ invited Tzara to Paris.

Brandon gives a hilarious account of the anticipation on both sides as they waited for the Great God of Dada to make his pilgrimage to Paris – only to be seriously disillusioned by the short, dark, nervous figure who actually materialised, and the respectful relationship which followed but never blossomed into real friendship.

4. Dada comes to Paris

The three very young friends, Breton, Aragon and Soupault, had already published the first number of their magazine Littérature, in Paris in March 1919, with financial help from the grand old man of letters, André Gide. In 1920 they published a joint work by André Breton and Philippe Soupault, Les Champs magnétiques (The Magnetic Fields), the result of days spent doing ‘automatic writing’, i.e. setting down words and sentences unfiltered and just as it came to them.

Although they tried to muster enthusiasm for madcap Tzara and his notion of Dada ‘happenings’, Brandon depicts the Parisians as more intellectual, detached and sceptical than the original Dada gang.

It turned out that Dada was a product of the unique war-time conditions in Zurich, of a mood of hysteria amid the bloodshed. Post-war Paris on the contrary, quickly returned to being a battlefield of avant-garde sophisticates, determined not to be impressed by anything. Jean Cocteau, refused a place on the editorial board of Littérature, complained in his new journal that the Dada events were boring. He complained that ‘not a single Dada has killed himself or even a member of the audience.’ Dull, eh.

It began to be clear that Paris Dada might shock the bourgeoisie – or those members who bothered to turn up to their rather tame happenings – but not many of the over-sophisticated Paris élite. What next? Brandon pinpoints this as the crux: Dada didn’t lead anywhere because it wasn’t meant to lead anywhere, it was against the whole idea of leading anywhere. But the Paris contingent thought it should lead somewhere.

The three musketeers had been experimenting with ‘automatic writing’ just before Tzara arrived, and Brandon gives a fascinating account of what that meant in practice, namely the way the poet Robert Desnos had the ability to be put into a trance or half-sleep and then write, actually write poems, while in this dream state.

Tzara’s arrival led to several years of Dadaist outrages, performances and feverish manifestos, few of which had the drive to really épater les bourgeoisie. It was after one particularly disappointing performance in 1923 that the group and its various hangers-on and associates made the decisive split which led to the founding of a new movement, named by Breton ‘Surrealism’, after the word Apollinaire had introduced seven years earlier.

And so, in June 1924 the final edition of the Dada-era Littérature appeared; and in December 1924, the first edition of La Révolution surréaliste was published, inaugurating the first phase of Surrealism (p.229).

The word ‘revolution’ was used right from the start but, as Brandon points out, at this stage none of the Surrealists were politically revolutionary; the revolution they had in mind was purely cultural and all they really knew about it was that it would involve dreams.

‘Only dreams offer man real liberty’ (quoted page 230).

They set up a ‘Bureau de recherches surréalistes’ at 15 Rue de Grenelles, opening hours 4.30 to 6.30, in order to ‘gather all the information possible related to forms that might express the unconscious activity of the mind’. Breton liked questionnaires – he wanted to be scientific and factual about his investigations of the unconscious mind: so Littérature contained many and La Révolution surréaliste even more.

Other themes

That’s a thumbnail summary of the first 230 or so of the book’s 458 pages of text, taking us up to about 1925. The rest of the book continues in the same vein: introducing new characters as they arrive on the scene, with long chapters devoted to Louis Aragon, Buñuel and Dali, and so on.

The chapter on Aragon was particularly interesting in explaining the appeal of his early lyrical poetry and prose (Paysan de ParisTraité du style 1928, and Irene’s Cunt) and how this airy fluency was squeezed out of him by Breton’s fierce policing and encouragement – Breton banned novels and lyrical writing from the movement, two things Aragon excelled at – in September he made an attempt at suicide.

But apart from the lengthy excursions into the private lives and writings of these lead figures, I’d say three big themes emerge in the rest of the book:

1. The pope of Surrealism

Breton exerted a steely grip over ‘his’ movement in a whole host of ways, including kangaroo courts which held ‘trials’ of anyone accused of betraying Surrealist values or bucking Big Breton’s authority. The first of many ‘heretics’ were his old colleague, Philippe Soupault, and the radical dramatist Antonin Artaud, both expelled after a ‘hearing’ into their crimes, in November 1926.

In 1929 a dissident group of Surrealists based round the writer Georges Bataille began publishing a rival magazine, DOCUMENT. In its nihilism, Breton’s Second Surrealist Manifesto of 1929 reflects the bitterness of these schisms, plus the turmoil in his own personal life. This is the text which contains the notorious line that the most Surrealistic act conceivable would be to run out into the street with a loaded gun and start firing at passersby (p.265). Means modern America must be the world’s most surreal nation.

Writers who were expelled from the ‘movement’ and who often took their revenge in vituperative criticism of Breton, included Robert Desnos (him of the automatic writing experiments), the pornographic fantasist George Bataille, experimental writers Raymond Queneau and Michael Leiris and, in the deepest cut of all, his closest compadre, Louis Aragon.

In 1931 Breton went ahead and published criticism of the way French Communist Party officials had given Aragon the third degree over a piece of pornography by Salvador Dali which was published in the fourth number of the magazine Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution. Aragon had begged him not to include criticism of the Party, to which he was becoming passionately attached. Breton did so anyway, and the one-time musketeers never spoke again.

2. The impact of Dalí

The arrival of Dali, and to a lesser extent Buñuel, at the end of the 1920s, was a much-needed shot in the arm to a movement which was running out of steam. Dali not only crystallised his own peculiar style of painting in the early 1930s but helped to cement a Surrealist visual identity, the one posterity now remembers it by.

Brandon’s extended chapter about Dali, Buñuel and Lorca is absolutely riveting on everything from the backward culture of 1920s Spain, through their collaboration on the famous Surrealist movies Le Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or, to the collapse of Buñuel’s fortunes during the Second World War just as Dali was rising to fame and fortune in America.

And the stories about their bizarre sex lives! According to Dali, (gay) Lorca was in love with him and tried to sodomise him on two occasions. However, Dali was not gay (although he was not exactly a ‘normal’ heterosexual, being obsessed with masturbation and voyeurism). The closest Lorca could get to having sex with Dali, who he was obsessed with, was by hiring a (flat-chested and therefore boyish) woman, who he had sex with while Dali watched. It’s worth buying the book for this extraordinary chapter alone.

From the moment of his arrival Dalí dominates the story till the end of the book. The final chapter relates the contrasting fortunes of Dali and Breton, who were both compelled to spend the Second World War in New York. Dalí thrived, gaining enormous publicity through a series of ever-giddier publicity stunts. He was on the front cover of Time, he sold everything he painted and began to get seriously rich. Breton, in sharp contrast, refused to learn English, refused to give interviews, and struggled to make a living delivering broadcasts on the French-language part the Voice of Liberty radio service.

Breton was disgusted that, for Americans, Dalí became the face of Surrealism. The final pages in the book are devoted to a thought-provoking debate about who, in the end, had the most lasting legacy, Dalí the showman, or Breton the thinker and doctrinaire.

3. Surrealism and communism

In the later 1920s and then throughout the 1930s Breton’s rule became more dictatorial and more overtly political.

Breton’s relationship with the Communist Party of France was troubled (he was formally expelled from it in 1933) and fraught with paradox. He decided he wanted to put his movement at the service of the Party and the proletariat at precisely the moment – the late 1920s – when Stalin was cementing his grip on the Soviet Union, expelling Trotsky in 1928 and introducing the doctrine of Socialist Realism (in 1932).

Insisting that Surrealism was a revolutionary movement, and larding his manifestos with references to the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, but excluded from alliance with the official Soviet Party line, Breton sought out the leading exponent of World Revolution, travelling with his wife, the painter Jacqueline Lamba, to Mexico to meet Trotsky (staying as the guest of Diego Rivera’s former wife Guadalupe Marin). Even here, as Brandon shows, Breton couldn’t stop himself from lecturing Trotsky (of all people) just as he harangued all his colleagues back in Paris. I’d love to know more of what Trotsky made of his humourless acolyte.

Surrealism’s relationship with Communism is a vast topic, the subject of countless books. It of course varied from one Surrealist writer and painter to another, and also varied with individuals over time. What comes over from the book is that their vexed and troubled relationship with Communism became more central to the movement in the 1930s. Whenever Communist commissars or officials of the French Communist Party appear in the narrative, it’s hard not to sympathise with their patronising attitude to the artists. Compared to the fratricidal stresses they were having to negotiate and the fraught power politics back in Moscow, the Surrealists must have seemed like spoilt schoolboys.

Footnote – surreal suicide

Early in the Second World War Albert Camus wrote his philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus to address what he saw as the most pressing issue facing intellectuals, the issue of suicide. The immediate context was France’s catastrophic defeat and occupation by Germany in 1940 which, for many ordinary French people, had overthrown all their values and made them wonder if there was any meaning or purpose in the universe.

But reading this book about often quite hysterical artists made me realise that a surprising number of Continental artists and writers were afflicted by suicidal thoughts between the wars.

In fact Breton included the question ‘Suicide: Is It a Solution?’ in the very first issue of La Révolution surréaliste in 1925 (to which the Surrealist writer René Crevel had answered ‘Yes, it is most probably the most correct and most ultimate solution.’)

Later on, the writer Jacques Rigaut said: ‘Suicide should be a vocation… the most absurd of acts, a brilliant burst of fantasy, the ultimate unconstraint…’ (quoted page 375) before he did, indeed, kill himself.

It sheds much light on Camus’ work to read it against the wave of artistic suicides in the previous twenty years.

  • January 1919 Andre Breton’s bosom buddy Jacques Vaché takes an overdose of opium
  • December 1925 Russian and Soviet poet Sergei Yesenin hangs himself
  • July 1928 Greek poet Kostas Karyotakis shoots himself
  • September 1928 Louis Aragon takes an overdose of sleeping pills, but survives
  • November 1929 Surrealist poet Jacques Rigaut shoots himself through the heart
  • April 1930 Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky shoots himself through the heart
  • December 1931 American poet Vachel Lindsay poisons himself
  • March 1932 English artist Dora Carrington shoots herself
  • April 1932 American poet Hart Crane jumps overboard an ocean liner
  • December 1935 German-Jewish journalist, satirist and writer Kurt Tucholsky takes an overdose
  • February 1937 Uruguayan playwright and poet Horacio Quiroga drinks a glass of cyanide
  • October 1938 Argentine poet Alfonsina Storni drowns himself
  • August 1941 Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva hanged herself
  • September 1940 German literary critic and culture theorist Walter Benjamin took a morphine overdose
  • March 1941 English novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf, drowned herself
  • February 1942 Austrian novelist and playwright Stefan Zweig takes a barbiturate overdose

Read in this context, Camus’s notion of ‘the Absurd’ seems less like a bold new concept than a belated attempt to catch up with and define a mood of nihilism which began during the Great War itself and had became steadily more oppressive during the 1930s, well before France’s humiliating defeat.


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Nadja by André Breton (1928)

What was so extraordinary about what was happening in those eyes? What was it they reflected – some obscure distress and at the same time some luminous pride? (p.65)

Reading Ruth Brandon’s group biography of the Surrealists, Surrealist Lives, prompted me to track down this, the most famous work by the group’s domineering leader, the writer, poet and critic André Breton. It is, according to the blurb, ‘the most important and influential work to emerge from Surrealism’.

It is also a huge disappointment. After only a few pages I wanted it to hurry up and finish and was relieved to realise that since it includes quite a few illustrations (44 in fact) this mercifully reduces the length of this tedious book – only 150 or so pages in the Penguin paperback edition – to under 110 pages of text.

It is not shocking or revolutionary or subversive. Nadja is characterised by:

  • a contorted prose style which makes it hard to understand
  • an inability to gather its thoughts into a coherent order
  • the crushing triviality and irrelevance of its examples
  • a dismaying heartlessness towards the young woman at its centre
  • Breton’s astonishingly humourless self-absorption

Part one

Nadja is in three parts. Part one jumps straight in with the most important subject in the world – Breton himself – in its opening sentence:

Who am I?

The answer relies on a French proverb which is not quoted in full or explained in a note, so we never learn what it is exactly, but which apparently involves the word ‘haunt’.

This linguistic accident gives rise to a long disquisition on how the ghost of dead selves ‘haunt’ the current self, about how the ‘self’ can’t be defined by existing social or psychological categories and so on. Breton here rewords ideas about identity that had been discussed by the poet Arthur Rimbaud 60 years earlier (‘je est un autre’, as Rimbaud famously wrote) and far more systematically by Sigmund Freud a generation earlier – in fact much better, by lots of other writers.

Breton’s style is dry and airless, without any colour or (as mentioned) humour, convoluted and contorted, evincing a kind of academic self-importance. To say that Breton is a man who gives himself airs is an understatement.

Such reflections lead me to the conclusion that criticism, abjuring, it is true, its dearest prerogatives but aiming, on the whole, at a goal less futile than the automatic adjustment of ideas, should confine itself to scholarly incursions upon the very realm supposedly barred to it, and which, separate from the work, is a realm where the author’s personality, victimised by the petty events of daily life, expresses itself quite freely and often in so distinctive a manner. (p.13)

It’s all like that. It’s like reading concrete. It’s like drowning in a giant vat of glue. He means the artist’s personality is more important than the work – pretty much the opposite to the current point of view.

Part one moves on to a list of works which have moved Breton, with a predictable jog-trot through the accepted canon of proto-Surrealist writers – Arthur Rimbaud, the Marquis de Sade, Lautreamont.

It seamlessly moves on to discussing places in Paris, particular streets or statues or shop signs, which have strangely moved the author, along with (to him) odd coincidences, like being able to predict where shops with particular names will be along a street, or bumping into someone at a theatre and later receiving a letter from them without realising it was the same person (Paul Eluard). The banality is stupefying.

Only very slowly does it become clear that this section is meant to be about what Surrealists called ‘petrifying coincidences’. Apparently (and it’s only by reading the introduction to the book and the Wikipedia article about it that you can really understand this) the notion of ‘significant coincidences’ was a key element in early Surrealism (along with ‘automatic writing’ and the importance of dreams).

For the Surrealists they were all strategies or techniques for evading the mind’s rational ‘bourgeois’ constraints and tapping directly into our unconscious, into the true and deepest sources of human creativity.

Here’s an example of such a ‘petrifying coincidence’. On one of his dates with Nadja, she and Breton walk from the Place Dauphine to a bar called ‘the Dauphine’ and Breton points out that, when he and friends play the game of comparing each other to animals, more often than not he is compared to a dolphin (‘dauphin’ in French)! Wow, eh!

It would be easier to understand what Breton was on about if he explained it lucidly – if there were some sentences early in Part One describing what he’s trying to do (list spooky places and strange coincidences designed to help you appreciate the non-rational Surrealist worldview) – or if he could write simple clear declarative sentences. But he can’t.

Have you ever had a conversation with someone who has a really bad stutter? Quite quickly you find yourself willing them to just spit it out; you can see what they’re driving at and you just want to help them get over their crippling debility, which is obviously causing them agonies of frustration.

Reading Breton is like that. He has got something to say but he seems cripplingly unable to express it. And instead of the fluency he so sorely lacks, his prose displays a kind of roughshod, domineering quality, a determination to make himself heard, no matter how incoherent what he’s saying actually is.

I must insist, lastly, that such accidents of thought not be reduced to their unjust proportions as faits-divers, random episodes, so that when I say, for instance, that the statue of Etienne Dolet on its plinth in the Place Maubert in Paris has always fascinated me and induced unbearable discomfort, it will not immediately be supposed that I am merely ready for psychoanalysis, a method I respect and whose present aims I consider nothing less than the expulsion of man from himself, and of which I expect other exploits than those of a bouncer. (p.24)

What?

The pope of Surrealism

Breton became known as the ‘pope’ of Surrealism for the iron control he exercised over the movement. He regularly staged trials and inquisitions into members who had in any way strayed from what he defined as the True Faith, which in practice meant dropping writers, poets or artists if they disagreed with him (which almost all the other Surrealists did at one stage or another).

This self-centred self-importance is on ample display in this book in the casual self-importance:

  • I must insist…
  • Which leads me to my own experience…
  • Nantes: perhaps, with Paris, the only city in France where I feel that something worth while can happen to me…
  • I have always, beyond belief, hoped to meet, at night and in a woods, a beautiful naked woman or rather, since such a wish once expressed means nothing, I regret, beyond belief, not having met her…
  • Meanwhile, you can be sure of meeting me in Paris, of not spending more than three days without seeing me pass, toward the end of the afternoon, along the Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle between the Matin printing office and the Boulevard Strasbourg. I don’t know why it should be precisely here that my feet take me…

Paradoxically, the technique of recording every dream, every strange coincidence, every funny feeling you have about a statue or a narrow alley somewhere in Paris, it all runs the risk of seeming very inconsequential.

For example, Breton informs us that his favourite film is called The Grip of the Octopus, giving us several scenes from it which haunt his imagination. Then by far the longest section of Part One (six pages) is devoted to retelling the entire plot of a play he once saw, a thriller which leads up to the discovery of a child’s corpse in a cupboard, which was accompanied by a piercing scream which riveted him to his seat.

It is unbelievably self-absorbed, trivial and boring.

Similarly, we learn that reading Rimbaud in 1915 gave Breton an ‘extremely deep and vivid emotion’. That one day, years later, he was walking in the countryside in the rain when a strange woman fell into step beside him and asked if she could recite a Rimbaud poem to him. And then again, just recently, that he was at the Saint-Ouen flea market when he came across a copy of Rimbaud’s poems amidst the bric-a-brac, which had some hand-written poems among the pages. The book, and the poems, turn out to belong to the stall-keeper, a pretty young woman. That’s it.

It’s only towards the end of this first part that Breton explains (in his convoluted way) that he has been trying to give us examples of what the Surrealists called ‘petrifying coincidences’ and explains a little about the non-rational world he thinks they open up for us.

I imagine he intended all these trivial anecdotes to form a dazzling insight into his and the Surreal worldview. But instead they seem thumpingly banal and ineffectual. If this is it, if this is the basis of the entire Surrealist movement in art and literature – some places give you a spooky feeling, some coincidences are a bit eerie – then you can see why so very little of Surrealist literature has survived or been translated into English.

It seems crushingly boring.

Part two – Nadja

Having got this ham-fisted and disappointing insight into the worldview of Surrealism out of the way, Part Two of the book is finally about the woman of the title. On page 63 Breton finally meets ‘Nadja’, bumping into her in the street. She’s an attractive young woman, who immediately engages him in intense conversation – about her work (about work in general, and ‘Freedom’), about her lover who jilted her, about her family. He is entranced by her candour.

If Part One has done anything it has shown how Breton melodramatises quite humdrum events and feelings into Great Insights Into the Unconscious.

So it’s prepared us for the fact that Breton now reacts to every tremble and hesitation from this strange young woman as if it physically touches his oh-so-precious sensibility.

She carried her head high, unlike everyone else on the sidewalk. And she looked so delicate she scarcely seemed to touch the ground as she walked. (p.64)

I met lots of young women like this at parties in my 20s and 30s, fey, sensitive and spiritual souls, bruised by the hard world, treated badly by beastly men, cramped by horrible jobs – women who are too good for this world, women quick to tell you how spiritual they are, how much they care about the environment, how they only live for their cats.

She is so pure, so free of any earthly tie, and cares so little, but so marvellously, for life! (p.90)

Breton presents his idealised portrait of a hauntingly sensitive young woman as being somehow new, when it struck me as being incredibly old, really really ancient, a timeworn Romantic cliché. 115 years earlier Lord Byron had written:

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes

and this story of a sensitive poet falling under the spell of a delicate young woman struck me as the opposite of innovative, new or interesting.

I’ve recently read descriptions of the Futurist Marinetti in 1912 yelling through a megaphone at tourists in Venice to burn the gondolas – that was funny and original.

I’ve been reading about the madcap provocations of Tristan Tzara and the Dadaists in Zurich, dressing up in cardboard costumes and reciting poetry to the beat of a bass drum.

I keep reading about Marcel Duchamp exhibiting his famous urinal in 1917. All these are still startling, new and entertaining.

André Breton sitting in a café in Paris listening to a slightly unhinged young lady telling him about her boyfriend problems…. well… it just seemed incredibly dull and ordinary. And sentimental, Christ! he sounds like a puppyish teenager scribbling in his diary.

She told me her name, the one she had chosen for herself: ‘Nadja, because in Russian it’s the beginning of the world hope, and because it’s only the beginning.’ (p.66)

As you might well imagine it turns out that Nadja’s health is delicate – exactly like any number of beautiful poor young women in 19th century novels or Romantic operas. Nadja loves her mother (‘I love mother. I wouldn’t hurt her for anything in the world’). And – surprise – she’s no good with money.

In other words, Nadja comes across as more stupefyingly dull and clichéd than words can convey. And yet the stolid humourless Breton seems to be endlessly moved by her tedious vapourings.

  • More moved than I care to show…
  • I am deeply moved…
  • This is one of the compliments that has moved me most in my life…

I couldn’t really believe the tone of fatuous self-importance which dominates the text and, for me, was epitomised when, towards the end of their first chat, strolling through the streets:

About to leave her, I want to ask one question which sums up all the rest, a question which only I could ever ask, probably, but which has at least once found a reply worthy of it: ‘Who are you?’ (p.71)

I have read and reread this, but Breton really seems to think that asking a stranger who he’s just met who she is, is a mark of genius, is ‘a question which only I could ever ask’.

Of course, he means it in a more poetic sense than you or I could ever mean it, because he is a POET. He is driving at a deeper enquiry into her soul and identity than just her name (which she’s already given us) and I suppose is referencing the ‘discussion’, if you can call it that, of identity with which he opened the book.

And she answers as only the sensitive young woman in a POET’s life could ever answer:

I am the soul in limbo. (p.71)

This is sentimental horseshit, and I am staggered at its sub-Romantic, pimply, teenage clichédness. Who would ever have predicted that ‘the most important and influential work to emerge from Surrealism’ would be so tiresomely ‘sensitive’ and boring.

The novels of Jean-Paul Sartre are infinitely more weird and disorienting than this. Nadja feels like the work of an immensely boring, utterly normal person trying to force himself into being interesting and sensitive and spooky – and the best he can come up with is ‘odd coincidences’ and an encounter with a slightly bonkers young woman. Really?

The encounters start as a diary of a sequence of days in October, going into detail about their meetings, conversations and wanderings round Paris over the course of a week or two.

Without any explanation the narrative then breaks into scattered memories of Nadja’s increasingly disconnected sayings, random phrases, fears of underground passages and of people watching her. It includes a series of pictures she scribbled on the back of postcards and scraps of paper which Breton takes as signs of uncanny genius, but which look like exactly the kind of pictures you or I might scribble on the back of scraps of paper in bored moments.

And then, suddenly, the narration pulls right away from Nadja. With sudden detachment Breton reports that he was told, ‘several months ago’, that Nadja was found raving in the hallway of her hotel and sent to a sanatorium.

You might have thought this would elicit some kind of concern about her, maybe a visit to the sanatorium, letters to get her released and so on.

But no, instead this news prompts a lengthy diatribe against psychiatry, Breton ranting against the power doctors have to deprive people of their freedom, in which he loses sight of Nadja altogether and instead imagines the fight that he, the Surrealist poet André Breton, would put up in an insane asylum, taking the first opportunity to murder a doctor and being locked up in solitary as a result.

Typically self-absorbed. And typical macho bullshit from bully boy Breton.

Part three

Part Three is short, at just ten pages or so, with a few photographs thrown in. It starts with characteristic self-absorption and bewildering lack of clarity, making it quite difficult to figure out what it’s about.

I envy (in a manner of speaking) any man who has the time to prepare something like a book and who, having reached the end, finds the means to be interested in its fate or in the fate which, after all, it creates for him. (p.147)

So it’s a passage at the end of a book about how difficult he finds it to imagine someone who can end a book.

After struggling to express himself on the subject of how difficult he finds it to express himself, there are a few last scattered memories of Nadja – one particularly hair-raising one where they are driving along and she puts her foot over onto the accelerator pedal, making the car suddenly jerk forward, till he manages to get her to take it off again.

But then, in the last four pages, the entire narrative completely changes tone altogether. Out of the blue it suddenly addresses someone referred to only as ‘You’, a ‘you’ who, apparently, is a bringer of huge emotional turmoil to our confused author, addressed in Breton’s usual rambling manner.

That is the story that I too yielded to the desire to tell you, when I scarcely knew you – you who can no longer remember but who, as if by chance, knowing of the beginning of this book, have intervened so opportunely, so violently, and so effectively, doubtless to remind me that I wanted it to be ‘ajar, like a door’ and that through this door I should probably never see anyone come in but you – come in and go out but you. (p.157)

Confusingly, the entire story of Nadja suddenly seems a thing of the distant past, completely eclipsed by this sudden inexplicable obsession with this mysterious ‘you’.

Since you exist, as you alone know how to exist, it was perhaps not so necessary that this book should exist. I have decided to write it nevertheless, in memory of the conclusion I wanted to give it before knowing you and which your explosion into my life has not rendered vain. (p.158)

This incoherent finale to the book only made any kind of sense when I turned to read the Introduction to this Penguin translation.

The introduction

The introduction to this Penguin edition of Nadja is by Mark Polizzotti who is a biographer of Breton.

To my surprise he quotes some of the tritest, most sentimental passages about Nadja with apparent approval, which at first dismayed me. But then he goes on to give a fascinating account of what actually happened – what Nadja is actually about – which is far more interesting than any of Breton’s bombastic bragging.

Polizzotti explains that ‘Nadja’ was actually Léona-Camile-Ghislaine D., last name unknown to this day, born in 1902, who Breton met in the street in October 1926, and then met again and again obsessively over the period of a month or so. Breton introduced her to his Surrealist colleagues (all impressed by her spooky intensity) and to his long-suffering wife Simone Kahn (intellectual collaborator, sounding board but not, apparently, sexual partner).

Breton the big-talking poet entranced Léona just as much as she beguiled him – it was a short sharp affair which climaxed in a train ride out of town to a rural hotel where they had sex. This physical act Breton, apparently, found unsatisfying, and soon after he began withdrawing himself from her. She continued to try to meet him, bombarding him with letters and drawings – and it’s these increasingly desperate messages which account for the way the middle part of the book morphs from distinct diary entries into a haphazard set of fragmented memories, notes, sayings, and photos of the drawings which she sent Breton.

One day Léona was found raving and hallucinating in the hallway of her cheap hotel, and was reported to the police who called the medics who took her off to an asylum. According to Polizzotti, some of the Surrealists she’d been introduced to visited her there, but Breton didn’t.

Léona was transferred on to another hospital in 1928 (just about the time Nadja was published), where she remained incarcerated until her death from cancer in 1941.

Breton using Léona

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Breton, desperate to write something, anything, in the mid-1920s, to assert his control and leadership of the Surrealist movement – desperate to compete with the outrageous pronouncements of the Dada provocateur Tristan Tzara or the fluent lyricism of his friend, Louis Aragon – used his chance encounter with Léona, her intensity, her ‘insights’ and ultimate madness, to create a text notable only for its self-aggrandisement and self-promotion.

You don’t have to be a feminist to find this despicable, as despicable as the fact that he had his sexual way with her, then dumped her to return to his wife, letting her go mad and be locked up without once visiting her.

Suzanne

And according to Polizzotti, this was at least in part because Breton had, at just the moment Léona was incarcerated, fallen madly in love with the statuesque mistress of a fellow writer (Emmanuel Berl), one Suzanne Muzard.

After meeting her only a few times, Breton persuaded Suzanne to run off to the South of France with him (from where Breton wrote long letters describing every development in his infatuation to his long-suffering wife, Simone).

But when Suzanne insisted that Breton leave Simone and marry her, Breton didn’t know what to do. Disappointed by his reaction, Suzanne insisted that they return to Paris. Her former lover Berl got back in touch and offered her a secure home and money. What’s a girl to do? She rejoined him and they set off abroad together.

Breton got wind that they were departing from the Gare de Lyon and rushed there to confront her as she left, but she chose money and comfort over passion and love (wise woman).

So it takes all this explaining to get to the point of realising that it is Suzanne who is addressed as ‘you’ in those final pages of Nadja.

Without the long and thorough factual explanation given in Polizzotti’s introduction the reader would have no way of making sense of the way this ‘you’ supersedes Nadja in a firework display of schoolboy gush.

All I know is that this substitution of persons stops with you, because nothing can be substituted for you, and because for me it was for all eternity that this succession of terrible or charming enigmas was to come to an end at your feet. (p.158)

Pathetic.

Failure to communicate

According to Polizzotti, Breton had intended to close Nadja with a final section which would be ‘a long meditation on beauty, a kind of beauty consisting of “jolts and shocks” as represented by Nadja and her unsettling presence’.

You can see how this might have worked – how the uncanny moments and strange insights of Nadja could be associated with the opening section about coincidences and spooky locations, and all drawn together to put forward a sustained case for a new aesthetic, an aesthetic of the irrational, the accidental, the uncanny and the inexplicable.

Unfortunately, Breton found himself simply unable to do it. All he managed was a few last pages about Nadja, into which suddenly erupt a handful of pages of fifth-form gush about Suzanne, and then, abruptly, one page (one page!) which in a half-baked way leads up to the most famous thing in the book, its last sentence:

Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or it will be nothing at all. (p.160)

What a shame, what a real shame that he didn’t have the wit or intelligence to go back over his own text and summarise the findings of a) his general thoughts about coincidence b) the specific case study of Nadja – and produce a systematic and blistering defence of the Surrealist aesthetic.

Instead, the preceding 160 pages amount to a badly organised ragbag of subjective impressions, silly premonitions, pretentious conversations with a fragile young woman, crappy hand-drawn sketches, boring photographs of Paris streets, half-assed gestures towards an aesthetic which in no way build a case.

You could be smart and argue that the text’s very failure to make much sense or mount a coherent argument enacts the Surrealist aesthetic of fragments and the anti-rational, but that’s not very persuasive. There’s a difference between the artful placing of fragments – as done by countless modern artists, collagists and photomontagists, done with wit and style – and this spavined text, which so overtly struggles with Breton’s own lack of style and with his abject inability to write clearly or coherently.

Breton comes across from this book as a humourless, pompous and self-important prig, and this is exactly the impression you get from reading Ruth Brandon’s 450-page long account of the Surrealists. One of the colleagues he expels from the group describes him as a schoolboy bully. Exactly.

And why is he talking about ‘beauty’, like some 18th century connoisseur or some 1880s dandy? In the age of Duchamp’s anti-art, Tsara and Arp and Ball’s Dada, Grosz’s searing satirical paintings, Heartfield’s photomontages or Man Ray’s solarised photographs, it seems almost unbelievably retrograde, reactionary and obtuse to be crapping on about ‘beauty’. Beauty? What has beauty got to do with anything?

In every way Nadja seems to me an extravagantly feeble, badly written, pompous, sentimental, self-centred failure of a piece of steaming, putrid donkey dung.


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