Posts Tagged ‘Surrealist Novels’

When I read the book One Hundred Great French Books’ by Lance Donaldson-Evans recently, one of the books from Donaldson-Evans’ list which intrigued me was ‘Nadja’ by André Breton. It intrigued me because of two reasons. The first reason was the story – it was about the narrator meeting a strange woman in the streets of Paris and carrying on a conversation with her everyday. The story appealed to be very much, as it reminded me of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s ‘White Nights’ which I like very much. The second reason was the fact that this was regarded as the first Surrealist romance ever written and probably the best. I wanted to see how a Surrealist romance looked like. (I think Mansoura Ez Eldin’s ‘Maryam’s Maze’ is also surrealist, but it is probably not a romance.) So I got ‘Nadja’ a couple of weeks back and finished reading it a few days back. Here is what I think.

 Nadja By Andre Breton

‘Nadja’ has three parts, each spanning around fifty pages. The first part doesn’t have a story – in it, the author, who is also the narrator, describes images of people, places and things that he encounters in early twentieth century Paris. He also describes some events. This part of the book was extremely hard to read. After I read the first two pages, I realized that I can’t read this book like a regular novel. It required lingering on sentences and meditating on words and the images they were trying to paint. Still, I read the first fourteen pages like a regular novel and then went back and read them again from the first page. Then I read the hard paragraphs again, starting from the first one.


The first part of the book was not uniformly difficult – some passages, which described people and events, flowed smoothly, while others, which described ideas, required a lot of intellectual effort and moved slowly. The first passage went like this :


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 things 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.


Difficult to read, but also very beautiful, isn’t it? So far, so good. How I wished most of the pages were only as difficult as this. Ten pages later, I encountered this :


We might establish a number of intermediate steps between such slope-facts and such cliff-facts. Between those of which I can be only the agonized witness and those others about which I flatter myself I possess the full details, there is perhaps the same distance as between one of those declarations or series of declarations which constitutes the sentence or the text known as “surrealist” and the declaration or series of declarations which, for the same observer, constitutes the sentence or the text whose every term he has fully weighed and measured. He does not consider his responsibility involved, so to speak, in the first case; it is involved in the second. On the other hand, he is infinitely, more surprised, more fascinated by what happens in the former than in the latter. He is also prouder of it, which is certainly remarkable, and feels the freer for it. This is the case with those privileged sensations I have mentioned and whose share of incommunicability is itself a source of pleasures that have no equal.


Harder, isn’t it? But also very beautiful. This passage was like reading a text version of a complex computer program. The love of French writers for long sentences with multiple clauses, made it harder for me to read the book. But when I was able to penetrate the meaning of those long, labyrinthine sentences, it was very rewarding. I also thought that it was good practice before starting to read Marcel Proust 🙂


The second part of the book was about how the narrator met Nadja in the streets of Paris one day and how they started meeting regularly everyday taking long walks, having conversations and sometimes sitting in a café and talking for long hours. Nadja appears to be a very unique woman. She is a free spirit, she roams the streets, she has a few friends who are all very unique and she discusses art, literature and poetry with the narrator with her own unique insights. Nadja lives in a hotel and it is not very clear how she earns her living. Once she confesses to the narrator that she tried smuggling in cocaine from Amsterdam for one of her friends but she got caught by the police. But the fact that Nadja leads an unconventional life appeals to the narrator even more. At some point, the narrator and Nadja stop meeting and then the narrator discovers that Nadja has been committed to a psychiatric ward. The narrator doesn’t believe that Nadja is mad but he believes that she is just different. This part of the book was an easy read compared to the first part, because most of the pages here were filled with conversations between the narrator and Nadja or described their meetings.


The third part of the book has reproductions of paintings and sketches that Nadja has done and given to the narrator. They are all surrealistic with unconventional, powerful images. The narrator also describes these paintings and sketches and gives his own interpretations of their themes.


I don’t know how to describe ‘Nadja’. I liked the first part of the book very much, though it was hard to read, because after I learnt to penetrate the meaning of those long sentences, I found it very rewarding. The second part of the book was the story part and logically this should have been the most interesting part of the book. I went into this part expecting delightful conversations like in Dostoevsky’s ‘White Nights’ and the movie ‘Before Sunrise’, but for some reason the conversations didn’t have the sparks that they had in these other works of art that I love. I think that if Dostoyevsky or Chekhov or even Somerset Maugham had written this part of the book, it would have been a roaring success. The third part of the book had a lot of pictures and their descriptions and interpretations – it was like reading a critical appreciation of someone’s work of art. The whole book is interspersed with paintings, sketches and photos of different people and places that the narrator mentions or discusses about in the book. These images are either an integral part of the book or enrich our reading of it.


‘Nadja’ is not a book for everyone. It is a challenging read and while there were parts of the book that I loved, there were parts of the book that I wasn’t sure about or which I felt could have been written better. I will however keep coming back to the first part of the book again, because I want to read all those beautiful sentences (which taxed my brain so much) again.


I will leave you with some of my favourite lines from the book.


…let no one speak to me of work – I mean the moral value of work. I am forced to accept the notion of work as a material necessity, and in this regard I strongly favor its better, that is its fairer, division. I admit that life’s grim obligations make it a necessity, but never that I should believe in its value, revere my own or that of other men. I prefer, once again, walking by night to believing myself a man who walks by daylight. There is no use being alive if one must work. The event from which each of us is entitled to expect the revelation of his own life’s meaning – that event which I may not yet have found, but on whose path I seek myself – is not earned by work.


We are in front of a fountain, whose jet she seems to be watching. “Those are your thoughts and mine. Look where they all start from, how high they reach, and then how it’s still prettier when they fall back. And then they dissolve immediately, driven back up with the same strength, then there’s that broken spurt again, that fall…and so on indefinitely.”


I envy (in a manner of speaking) any man who has the time to prepare something like a book and who, having reached the end, finds the means to be interested in its fate or in the fate which, after all, it creates for him.


“…each man hopes and believes he is better than the world which is his, but the man who is better merely expresses this same world better than the others.” (this is a quote from Hegel)


Have you read ‘Nadja’ by André Breton? What do you think about it?

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