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.

Paints, feathers, beads: Donald Barthelme, ‘The Indian Uprising’

From Sixty Stories, PMC, and the collection Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968, this 6-page story was one of the first of Donald Barthelme’s that I encountered, read on a podcast some years ago. I was quite unprepared for its wild surrealism and bizarre non sequiturs – but beneath the surface charm and throwaway appearance of ease is a subversive seriousness – I think.

My Penguin Modern Classics copy of Sixty Stories

My Penguin Modern Classics copy of Sixty Stories

It begins with a typically allusive, short sentence that immediately sets the tone of strangeness and mystery:

We defended the city as best we could.

Who are ‘we’, what was the nature of the threat that had to be defended against, and which city? The next sentence suggests a Western genre:

The arrows of the Comanches came in clouds.

 

We’re then told of ‘earthworks along the Boulevard Mark Clark’ – why the French term, and who is Mark Clark? The distinguished American officer who served in both World Wars and Korea?

‘People were trying to understand.’ So is this reader. Each accumulating sentence takes us not closer to comprehension or coherence, but further from it, as more and more unrelated details are added:

I spoke to Sylvia. “Do you think this is a good life?” The table held apples, books, long-playing records. She looked up. “No.”

The time-frames are telescoped unsettlingly. Characters’ names are dropped in as if we should know who they were. What’s the relationship of this first person narrator with Sylvia, and why does he ask this question? Why her negative minimal response? Later she seems to be in league with the Indians. Who is the ‘Miss R.’ who appears later?

There’s a paragraph about a ‘captured Comanche’ being tortured to reveal information about his tribe’s plans that seems to allude to perhaps the Vietnam war (or the genocidal history of How the West Was Won). The IRA are also name-checked.

Then there’s another of the strange lists of seemingly random objects of which much of this story is composed, when we’re told that in the ‘outer districts…trees, lamps, swans had been reduced to clear fields of fire…’

Until I came across Barthelme I’d been accustomed to short stories that gradually clarified the significance of the details within the narrative, arriving at either an epiphany (Joyce, Mansfield, Woolf) or resolution (almost everyone else). That doesn’t happen with this writer. Instead all is dislocation.

After another stretch of dialogue between the narrator and Sylvia, in which they cite Fauré and making sex scenes in movies, as if this was the most natural combination possible, the story turns back to intermittent coverage of some kind of urban defence against the ‘Red men in waves’ – Barthelme isn’t interested in politically correct vocabulary.

Barricades had been hastily erected from another strangely implausible list of items:

Window dummies, silk, thoughtfully planned job descriptions (including scales for the orderly progress of other colours), wine in demijohns, and robes.

At this point I abandon any attempt to summarise the rest of the story; to do so would require quoting every sentence, for to omit any detail would be to diminish the overall, dizzying effect.

Breton cited the proto-surrealist, the Comte de Lautréamont (1846-70), and his iconoclastic prose poem Les Chants de Maldoror (published 1868-69) – another non-linear, untrustworthy narrative – in defining the surrealist impulse: in canto 6 a boy is described as ‘beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella’. Max Ernst described a surrealist work as a linking of two realities that by all appearances have nothing to link them, in a setting that by all appearances does not fit them.

A random example from this story that fits that description, to add to those given already: the narrator states with disarming sang-froid that the attackers had infiltrated the ‘ghetto’ (what ghetto?!), a development that causes ‘we’ to send in ‘more heroin’ and ‘hyacinths’. The allusion to ‘The Waste Land’ develops subversively: Sylvia says: “You gave me heroin first a year ago”. A line from Hamlet also pops up. Valéry. ‘Death in Venice’. Jean-Luc Godard. Among others.

The final paragraph mentions how ‘we killed a great many in the south suddenly with helicopters and rockets but we found that those we killed were children’. It’s tempting to interpret (Vietcong? White Russians?), but to do so is to fail to interpret. The narrator is ordered to remove his belt and shoelaces, perhaps about to be tortured himself; his future, like this story, seems uncertain. The knockabout style deployed for what purports to be a war story is disturbing, and subverts the complacency that conventional narrative might invite.

This kind of fragmented collage narrative won’t appeal to some, and I can’t read too much of it in one go: it becomes a glut. ‘Strings of language extend in every direction to bind the world into a rushing, ribald whole’, says the narrator at one point; Miss R, on the other hand, prefers the horizontal (or it can be vertical) lists of ‘the litany’, and dislikes the increasingly ‘unpleasant combinations’ [of language? Dialectic?] favoured by the young as they ‘sense the nature of our society’; she insists

“I hold to the hard, brown, nutlike word.”

The story, then, could be seen as a postmodern metafiction about the making of stories with language. Or the importance of socially systematic…something: values? Youthful ideals? Of love and sex?

Whatever it might signify, and despite the wiful obscurity of this story, I like its exuberance and irreverent wit. Many of the sentences are prosometric, like Lautréamont. Barthelme as counter-culture poète maudit, perhaps.