The spider in the corner: André Breton, Nadja

André Breton, Nadja. Translated by Richard Howard for the American Grove Press edition of 1960, and by Penguin when they added this title to their Modern Classics series in 1999.

I’ve found this a particularly difficult post to write. Magnolias and daffodils are blooming and spring is on the way. More important than troublesome books, perhaps.

Nadja has some fine passages that make rewarding reading. But it’s a morally bankrupt book, I feel. I know I should be assessing it from an objectively literary or artistic perspective. But there it is: it’s beyond my control. This is a blog, not an academic journal.

André Breton, 'Nadja': PMC cover Nadja’s opening paragraphs set the tone of strangeness and authority that resonate through much of the book (I can’t call it a novel or romance – a generic problem which the Breton biographer Mark Polizzotti discusses in his informative Introduction). If anything it’s an unreliable autobiography. The narrator bears AB’s name and many of his views, though of course it would be naïve to take this at face value: he’s a literary construct.

He begins with an attempt to set out the answer to the question with which the narrative begins: ‘Who am I?’ His first response is to suggest he is whom he ‘haunts’. He plays a ‘ghostly part, evidently referring to what I have ceased to be in order to be who I am.’ He goes on:

Hardly distorted in this sense, the word suggests that what I regard as the objective, more or less deliberate manifestations of my existence are merely the premises, within the limits of this existence, of an activity whose true extent is quite unknown to me. My image of the “ghost”, including everything conventional about its appearance as well as its blind submission to certain contingencies of time and place, is particularly significant for me as the finite representation of a torment that may be eternal.

These looping, intricate sentences have a poetic-philosophical potency that is both weird and elusive while at the same time existentially dramatic. That final phrase is tremendous. Artful.

He goes on to suggest he is ‘doomed’ to try and learn just a fragment of what he has forgotten –

an idea of irreparable loss, of punishment, of a fall whose lack of moral basis is, as I see it, indisputable…I strive, in relation to other men, to discover the nature, if not the necessity, of my difference from them.

This is typical of the plaintive quest for truth and identity that the book presents – but I’ve quoted them at length because, for me, these extracts also show where I have a problem with it. It’s all about HIM. And ‘men’. Women play a secondary role in the surrealist world Breton constructs.

Perhaps I’m reading this wrongly; it’s not an easy text to understand. Breton is surely trying hard not to be coherent, comprehensible or to create a conventional, linear narrative. As he says later on, the psychological novel with its empiricist basis is, for him, dead. He has no interest in the nature of bourgeois reality; his focus is on himself and his own experience.

This is all very interesting, for a while. But I found it palled – and there are 60 pages of it before Nadja herself appears. 60 pages full of the dropping of names of his important avant-garde friends, from Aragon to Picasso. The influence of Huysmans is acknowledged (not a good sign).

When Nadja does appear the narrator clearly suspects she might be a prostitute. Only French male intellectuals can be flâneurs in Paris (as Lauren Elkin has recently demonstrated in her challenge to this assumption, Flâneuse, reviewed in the Guardian HERE.)

 

He immediately invites her for a drink in a café, the first of many assignations (bizarre trysts) over a ten-day period. He’s clearly infatuated, fascinated by ‘the soul in limbo’ as she describes herself, this proto-beatnik with the kohl-rimmed, fern-coloured eyes and the sultry (inauthentic) Russian name, who clings on to existence by smuggling cocaine, and possibly selling herself.

He clearly tells her he’s a writer, for she makes him promise to bring her some of his books when they arrange to meet next day. He urges her not to read them:

Life is other than what one writes.

She leaves him glowing with self-satisfaction, for she confides that the quality about him that touched her most was his ‘simplicity’ (his italics). Really?! All this is transparently disingenuous and pompous of him.

As their strange liaison develops she reveals disturbing details about her past, and is evidently a troubled soul. She speaks in sphinx-like aphorisms and paradoxical, portentous riddles (‘I am the thought on the bath in the room without mirrors’): the very essence of surrealism. Breton is beside himself: she’s his dream woman, for she symbolises…him and all his beliefs.

But as her frail hold on sanity becomes more apparent, and her haunted eccentricity becomes increasingly extreme, he realises he’s mistaken incipient insanity for the embodiment of a surrealist’s rejection of rationality. Even her surrealist drawings, reproduced in this text in blotchy monochrome (a technique Sebald was to make more interesting use of), he chooses to see as preternatural signs of her role for him as Muse. Freud would no doubt interpret them differently.

It’s at this point that Breton finally lost me. Even by their second meeting he’s writing ‘it is apparent that she is at my mercy’. Yes, he loves that she seems ‘so pure, so free of any earthly tie, and cares for so little, but so marvellously, for life’. She’s a ‘Melusina’ spirit, in his eyes. That’s how he chooses to see her at first, rather than as the psychologically vulnerable young woman (she was 24; Nadja is based on a real-life person) he comes to recognise. Which is when he rejects her.

This renunciation comes as no surprise. Soon after meeting her he writes:

How does she regard me, how does she judge me? It is unforgivable of me to go on seeing her if I do not love her. Don’t I love her? When I am near her I am nearer things which are near her.

His egotism excuses for him every exploitative moment he spends with her. He discusses her with his wife and friends. Nadja is not autobiography, but I find the way he portrays his callous treatment of this damaged young woman inexcusable (‘unforgivable’). Not a particularly valid literary response, but one I can’t avoid.

He took her to be ‘a free genius, something like one of those spirits of the air, which certain magical practices momentarily permit us to entertain but which we can never overcome.’ Ominous that he doesn’t say ‘love’, but ‘overcome’. She’s important to him only as long as she inspires him, and ‘takes [him] for a god’, ‘thinks of [him] as the sun’, her ‘master’. Being adored by a gorgeous, abandoned waif is a tremendous aphrodisiac, and he gorges on it.

Towards the end his guard drops, and guilt begins to show:

perhaps I have not been adequate to what she offered me.

 

What did she offer? ‘Only love in the sense I understand it – mysterious, improbable, unique, bewildering…’ Soon after this adolescent self-analysis he declares baldly:

I was told, several months ago, that Nadja was mad.

So all of this has been written retrospectively, in the knowledge that she was becoming insane. What pushed her over the edge? It’s hard to resist the conclusion that it was his inability to return her love. He used her, and when she gave him her essence he took it and then rejected her. It’s all very well spend much of the last 30-odd pages of the book fulminating against the profession of psychiatry (Breton had medical-psychiatric training), denouncing the kinds of sanitarium to which Nadja has been committed (and where he never visited her, though his friends did); this doesn’t exculpate him. This is his heartless response to news of her incarceration:

…I do not suppose there can be much difference for Nadja between the inside of a sanitarium and the outside.

He’s making a cheap surrealist jibe against the relative madness of bourgeois society: Nadja has become nothing more than a convenient tool to facilitate the construction of his private aesthetic-political manifesto.

His denial of Nadja was the ultimate expression of this smug and callous character. I just hope it wasn’t the real André Breton, and he chose to create this monster for some kind of surreal literary exercise.

This is the same character who earlier wrote about writing Nadja in the Manoir d’Ango as he liked, ‘where I was able to hunt owls as well.’ When I first read this I thought it a surreal joke (there’s an equally good one about ‘the spider in the corner’). When I got to the book’s end that sentence took on a different significance; he’s using Nadja’s mental implosion as another aspect of inspiration, pulling fragments of her shattered psyche out of the wreckage and making them into beautiful literary objects. I can’t countenance that, no matter how beautiful they are.

But I’m willing to acknowledge that all of this might be a wilful misreading of a surreal text as if it were written by one of those empiricists Breton hated – you know, charlatans like Flaubert.