A Happening Babe by Jesse Hilson

Nadja. Andre Breton, translated by Richard Howard. Grove Press, 1960 (1928). 160 pages.

Andre Breton, considered one of the originators of Surrealism as a literary and artistic movement, if not the main evangelist, wrote a novel in 1928 called Nadja. On the back of my Grove Press/Evergreen Original copy from 1960, the back copy calls it “the first and perhaps best Surrealist romance ever written.”

Being new to reading about Surrealism and its first practitioners and theoreticians, there is a ton I don’t know about Breton and the company he kept as they tried to formulate a new approach to creating, thinking, and living between the World Wars in Europe. In my Dictionary of French Literature edited by Sidney D. Braun (1958), the entry in Surrealism goes on for seven densely printed pages. The definition offered by Braun reads that Surrealism is “a form of psychic automatism whereby human expression is liberated from the confines of reason and from established standards of esthetics and morals; in its encyclopedic extension it assumes a metaphysical connotation based on belief in the superior reality of the dream and of those verbal and pictorial associations created by the mind when it is allowed unbridled activity.” Surrealism as an artistic mode has had such an absorbing influence on western culture since the 1920s, to the extent that to 2021 eyes it may not look like anything remarkable per se. The contortions of the mid and late 20th century have produced such monstrosities and challenges to the notion of order, which Surrealism is antagonistic to, that one could say that we have inherited a “user-friendly” surreal age, and surreal interpretations of life are ever present and commonplace. It is hard to pinpoint exactly what it is, or could be in the 21st century.

In the 1920s, to Breton, it was encountering a strange and hypnotic woman on the streets of Paris and agreeing to meet her repeatedly to walk, talk, drink, and be with, even though it is not entirely clear that this woman, Nadja, exists. The character dominates the novel and is the focus of all of the author’s thoughts and desires, if one interprets desire as an intellectual force. Nadja tells Andre (the novel seems to be autobiographical in that the narrator is named Andre Breton, big surprise) that her name comes from the Russian word for hope, “Nadezhda,” but it is “only the beginning” of hope. Andre meets Nadja in various locations all over Paris, and even if one has never been there (I haven’t) one gets the feeling that with Nadja by your side the pedestrian life of Parisian sidewalks, cafes, cabarets, and random people is heightened several notches in reality. “As she points out, it is true that everyone—even people in a great hurry—is turning around to look at us; it isn’t Nadja they’re looking at, but us. ‘They can’t believe it, you see, they can’t get over seeing us together. That’s how rare that fire is in your eyes, and in mine.’” Later, Andre writes, “I mean, is the real Nadja this always inspired and inspiring creature who enjoyed being nowhere but in the streets, the only region of valid experience for her, accessible for interrogation from any human being launched upon some great chimera, or (why not admit it) the one who sometimes fell, since, after all, others had felt authorized to speak to her, had been able to see in her only the most wretched of women, and the least protected?”

The novel is perforated throughout by forty-four photographs and illustrations, locations, addresses in Paris, paintings, drawings, all of which evoke Nadja’s presence to the reader as Breton describes their peculiar and specific energy and how she fits into them. The book invites you to travel around the city with its characters via the illustrations like you are looking at evidence of a paranormal haunting. What is “surreal” about all of this? I’m not sure but there is a kind of dreamy texture at play in the way the novel moves from place to place and registers Andre’s fascination with the mysterious woman and makes her into a myth. It’s important that she’s a woman.

She slips in and out of his life over the course of several months, and once she’s gone he hears that she might be in a sanitarium, saying “the essential thing is that I do not suppose there can be much difference for Nadja between the inside of a sanitarium and the outside.” Nadja represents a kind of an elemental life form of the mind unbound by logic and order as Breton contemplated it at the birth of Surrealism. “The well-known lack of frontiers between *non-madness* and madness does not induce me to accord a different value to the perceptions and ideas which are the result of one or the other. There are sophisms infinitely more significant and far-reaching than the most indisputable truths: to call them into question as sophisms, it must be admitted that they have done more than anything else to make me hurl at myself or at anyone who comes to meet me, the forever pathetic cry of ‘Who goes there? Is it you, Nadja? Is it true that the beyond, that everything beyond is here in this life? I can’t hear you. Who goes there? Is it only me? Is it myself?’”

The book is a little slow in places and certainly more than a little mystical, but it is effective in painting an impressionistic picture of a love story between a man and an idealized woman who might in the present day be called a “manic pixie dream girl.” Nadja is a happening babe, in the truest sense: she is only a “happening.”

Of interest in the novel is the appearance of Breton’s contemporaries in the surrealist scene, Paul Eluard and Louis Aragon and others, truth colliding with fiction, real personalities intersecting with a story that takes place in a zone that is beneath reality. The presence of these fellow thinkers strengthens the vertigo of the novel’s world and allows it to be included in the manifesto-construction that Breton was doing at the time. The novel is an annex on the superstructure of surrealism as an idea and a movement.

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