"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

August 24, 2014

"Nadja" by André Breton (Book Review)

Nadja is the most famous literary work of André Breton (1896-1966), the founder of surrealism. Breton published his surrealist manifesto, in which he defined surrealism as "pure psychic automatism" in 1924, just four years before writing Nadja, which would become one of the iconic works of the surrealist movement.

Nadja is a near-novel that incorporates autobiography, a case study, and surrealist theory. It is decidedly a non-psychological novel, as Breton himself indicates at the beginning (“Happily the days of psychological literature, with all its fictitious plots, are numbered”). Interestingly, Breton has also included black-and-white photographs of Paris streets, buildings and of several drawings, in the same way as W.G. Sebald would do sixty years later.

The book starts with a blend of Surrealist theory, gossip, and Breton's back story. When Nadja appears, the novel shifts to dated diary entries, which take up most of the book, until the ending which is a straightforward epilogue. Besides Nadja, the city of Paris is also an important protagonist, as Breton as a flaneur roams its streets and takes pictures of houses and shop fronts. The book ends with an important and famous statement about beauty: "Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all."

[André Breton in 1924 - Photo Wikipedia]

Nadja is a young woman Breton happens to meet on one of his walks through the streets of Paris. He immediately strikes up a conversation with her, and is struck by the fact that she seems the personification of the surrealist ideal. She is a totally free spirit who calls herself a "soul in limbo." She is called Nadja “because in Russian it is the beginning of the word hope." For a Surrealist like Breton, coincidences like the present accidental meeting were very important, as they were events transcending the limits of traditional logic. They spontaneously created new and unexpected connections.

Breton and Nadja meet daily over ten days in the book for bizarre conversations, about Surrealism and art, but also the surrealistic aspects of daily life. Nadja is a desperately poor but lovely woman, with gorgeous eyes outlined in black. She clearly holds power over Breton (who is already married), but although there are indications of a short romance, this is not a love story in the normal sense - Breton is in the first place in love with her bizarreness, her surrealistic attitude towards life. He stops meeting her when he has learned so much about her background that she becomes demystified. You can feel in Breton's prose when the obsession starts waning. But Nadja does not give up so easily and for a time keeps sending him letters with interesting surrealistic drawings (some of which have been reproduced in the novel).

The character of Nadja is based on an actual young woman Breton met in 1926, Léona Camile Ghislaine D. (1902-1941) - their meetings lasted a bit longer than in the book, but in early 1927 Léona was committed to a sanatorium for the mentally ill, where she also would die fifteen years later. So this is in fact a very sad story: Nadja paid with her sanity for her subversion of the rigid norms of society. She could not exist any longer in the normal world. It is rather unfeeling of Breton that he never visits her after her hospitalization (he only rants about the problems of psychiatry which causes more problems than solving them). But he does what Nadja has once asked him: write a book about her.
Andre? Andre? You will write a novel about me. I'm sure you will. Don't say you won't. Be careful: everything fades, everything vanishes. Something must remain of us...
P.S. Nadja was the second novel to appear with embedded photographs. The first one was Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach (1892). Besides Sebald, another contemporary author who uses this technique is the Soviet author Leonid Tsypkin (Summer in Baden-Baden, 1981).

Nadja is available from Penguin Books in a translation by Richard Howard.