Nadja by André Breton

Saturday, November 21, 2015 § 0

Nadja by André Breton: A Romantic Mini-Novel written in Objective Philosophical Prose

A Book Review by
David Detrich

Nadja (1960) by André Breton was published by Grove Press in a translation by Richard Howard of the original 1928 edition from the Librairie Gallimard: Paris, and with its cover design featuring large colorful letters Nadja intrigues the mind of the reader from the first page. It is a short novel written in the objective prose of a writer skilled at philosophy, with the stylistic eloquence and spirit of the Enlightenment, a short romantic novel in the tradition of The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Nadja is an intricate description of the narrator's relationship with the alluring multifaceted character Nadja, whom he considered a potential Surrealist, and in appearance a very close match to himself, a short illustrated book written as a meditation on love which has become the first classic of the Surrealist novel. 

The identity of André Breton is also complex, and with black and white photographs which reveal his exact image, Nadja becomes a meditation on identity throughout a series of pictures with the time frame of the novel extending back into the previous epochs of French history.

Who am I? If this once I were to rely on a proverb, then perhaps everything would amount to knowing whom I "haunt." I must admit that this last word is misleading, tending to establish between certain beings and myself relations that are stranger, more inescapable, more disturbing than I intended. Such a word means much more than it says, makes me, still alive, play a ghostly part, evidently referring to what I must have ceased to be in order to be who I am.
                                                                    André Breton

The ghostlike apparition that André Breton has become reveals the subtlety of the European mind which has an awareness of the past tense of narrative time, a cyclical perspective which transcends the present moment of writing into a larger time frame extending not only to the distant past, but to the future moment of reading, when the novel comes into existence as a phenomenon of psychic interaction between the narrator, the character Nadja who speaks as a prophetess, and the reader who recognizes a significance to what is spoken in dialogue, and what is written as objective prose. 
The beginning of Nadja is a discussion of esthetic theories of novel writing with the concept of characterization perceived as a multiplicity of personality traits, which is a foreshadowing of techniques developed in Surrealist painting, where a character transforms into metaphorical likenesses and resemblances to those women the narrator may wish to remember. 

Out of one real character about whom they suppose they know something they make two characters in their story; out of two they make one. And we even bother to argue! Someone suggested to an author I know in connection with a work of his about to be published and whose heroine might be too readily recognized, that he change at least the color of her hair. As a blonde, apparently, she might have avoided betraying a brunette.
                                                                 André Breton

The exact identity of Nadja remains an enigma to the reader who may be happy to discover that the character Nadja is modeled on Léona Delacourt, who appears to be a very good match for the narrator, André Breton, in this autobiographical novel which begins on a small scenic island in the Seine, not far from Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris, and just across the river from Shakespeare & Company.

I intend to mention, in the margin of the narrative I have yet to relate, only the most decisive episodes of my life as I can conceive it apart from its organic plan...
                                                                  André Breton

Once again I notice an allusion to my own large scale Surrealist novel-in-progress Dream the Presence of the Circular Breast Starfish Topography, with its marginal typographic designs, a direction that André Breton might like to pursue himself, since we have both followed the trend of the romantic novel which describes a short relationship in detail. This convergence of narrative lines has produced a novel influenced by the philosophical writing of Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, and Derrida as one line of thought, and that of Descartes, Goethe, Freud, and Bachelard, as another line converging on the narrative of Nadja. André Breton uses a multiple image approach to characterization, and an intricate plotline which is antiquated at times, wide ranging in galactic location, with a futuristic awareness of the writers of Surrealism, even the second and third generation Surrealists of the 21st Century.

But it is also, and perhaps, in human terms, much more, the relatively long but marvelous series of steps which man may make unfettered.
                                                                    André Breton

The innovative novel has become a series of steps to be taken as each decade produces more literary star performers, including the writers of the Fiction Collective Two, with the influence of Raymond Federman and Lance Olsen. This collective consciousness converges on the typographic innovations of Mark Z. Danielewski creating a contrast between objective prose writing, and that of subjective art oriented writing.

Nadja by André Breton has influenced my own novel-in-progress because I was reading the paperback edition at a cafe in Santa Cruz when I decided to write a Surrealist novel myself, which became Dream the Presence of the Circular Breast Starfish Topography, a monumental innovative novel written in two columns with color illustrations inspired by Nadja. 

Nadja refers to a star which may be the goal of a lifetime of prolific writing, and her words may have prophetic significance in relation to an imagined starmap. 

It was really a star, a star you were heading toward. You can't fail to reach it. Hearing you speak, I felt that nothing would hold you back, nothing, not even me... You could never see this star as I do. You don't understand: it's like the heart of a heartless flower.
                                                                   André Breton

Nadja realizes that André may not be good for her, since he revealed that he is already a married man, and here we perceive the foreshadowing of an unhappy ending, so that Nadja is attempting to avoid André on the street when they meet as if by chance.

She advances as if she doesn't want to see me. She seems quite unable to explain her presence here in the street where, to forestall further questions, she tells me she is looking for Dutch chocolate.
                                                                   André Breton

The plot of the novel is disturbed when Nadja tells a story about how she was involved in a cocaine bust, and hoping to profit from this transaction she was approached by a police investigator who gave her his card. Fortunately she was released from custody, but tragic results occur when towards the end of the novel she experiences a crisis which leads to her hospitalization. 

Since recent studies have shown that cocaine has the benefit of enhancing nerve growth it seems the law is not in harmony with scientific evidence, and that cocaine should be legalized as a prescription drug in France, and throughout the world, so that harsh penalties will not adversely influence the plot of life. 

I am reminded of Nadja's drawings often when I see clover leaves that resemble her heart shaped images.

The more Breton pulled away, the more Nadja's attachment seemed to grow. She began sending him letters, often decorated by strange drawings. One featured a "symbolic portrait" of Breton, as a lion whose tail ensnared that of a mermaid Nadja. Another represented "the Lover's Flower," made of two hearts and two pair of eyes, and bore the message: "You must be very busy at the moment? Find time to send a few words to your Nadja."
                                                           Revolution of the Mind:
                                                           The Life of André Breton
                                                           Mark Polizzotti 

From the metaphysical prose of The Magnetic Fields (1920) with Philippe Soupault, to the Paris Dada influenced subjective poetics of Soluble Fish (1924), André Breton has introduced the Surrealist novel as a genre that is innovative in style, ranging from the poetic prose of metaphor, to the objective prose of philosophy in Nadja (1928), showing a dialectical balance between the subjective and objective in his literary works which span the decades from his first poetry collection Pawn Shop (1919), to the poems of Earthlight (1966). The prose poems of Constellations (1959) are inspired by a series of paintings by Joan Miró, and show that Surrealist writing is often conscious of the art esthetics of painting, which give it more sophistication in the description of reality. This superior perspective gives Surrealism a psychic reality that is often lacking in purely realistic description, and which makes Surrealism an enlightened movement in both literature and art.

With Nadja (1960) André Breton has written a short novel that is based on a relationship which inspires the feelings of love and attraction, with journal entries that create a sense of reality as it happens. While reading Nadja I looked up the places mentioned in the book to find that Paris is a city that is more beautiful than one might imagine, and has inspired many of the novels of Surrealism, and of innovative fiction, as the street theatre
 where things can happen for those who believe in love. 

David Detrich lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where he has just completed The Convergence of Two Narrative Lines Ascending, an ultramodern Surrealist novel written in minimal squares. He is working on Dream the Presence of the Circular Breast Starfish Topography, a monumental Surrealist novel written with innovative typographical design. His first novel Big Sur Marvels & Wondrous Delights (2001) is available from Amazon. He edits Innovative Fiction Magazine and Surrealist Star Clustered Illuminations.

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