Book review: Nadja by Andre Breton

A “self-portrait” of Nadja

Andre? Andre? … You will write a novel about me. I’m sure you will. Don’t say you won’t. Be careful: everything fades, everything vanishes. Something must remain of us… (100)

Andre Breton may be many things– hyper-masculine, self-absorbed, controlling, and a bit of a womanizer– but the following must be conceded: he is a beautiful writer. The best contemporary comparative description I have for his writing style is “cinematic”: in his sequences in which he is walking around Paris, you are full of feeling and almost forget that you are reading words. It is almost as though you are with him and are drinking in the sights and sounds of 1926 Paris. I was irresistibly reminded of how I feel when I watch “Amelie,” with its warm colors, intriguing characters, and quirky situations. But I digress.

Nadja is somewhere between an autobiography and historical fiction with a hint of magical realism. It is first and foremost a love story, but the big question is whom the object of affection is. The simple answer is the titular character, Nadja, a beautiful and intriguing woman whom Breton (writing both as the narrator and playing a main character) becomes obsessively infatuated with for 10 days. However, Nadja is full of many Surrealist ideas, thus raising the question if she is Surrealism itself. When Breton first meets her, he asks, “Who are you?” to which she answers, “I am the soul in limbo.” Nadja lives by intuition and sees the world differently than even Breton, who is arguably logical and reliant on reality (and if you’ve read the First Manifesto of Surrealism, you know that “reality” represents everything that is wrong with people. Lots of irony right there). The two contradictory ways of thinking lend to an interesting revelation about Breton himself, whom the book REALLY is about, making Nadja more of a secondary character and a conduit to the author/character’s own self-knowledge (of which he is both welcoming and terrified).

The first 60 pages– roughly 1/3– of the book are more about Breton’s Paris; Nadja isn’t even mentioned. They are also Breton’s own assertion of his place as a critic and an account of his contemporaries (you see names like Peret, Desnos, and Eluard pop up. This lends to the autobiographical feel of the novel). These first pages are a bit jarring to read, as there really isn’t a narrative: the “scenes” seem like snapshots of his own experiences. This was completely intentional on Breton’s part. According to analyses of Nadja (I am relying mainly on Annette Shandler Levitt’s analysis here), this novel was an attempt to go against the trends of typical novels, with their coherent narratives and supportive illustrations (if applicable). Nadja is supposed to be incoherent: its illustrations and photographs are ill-placed, page breaks distract you from the words, and the very writing itself is episodic and jarring. However, as I stated earlier, you feel what he is writing, as though you are in a dream that is full of rich imagery but makes little sense.

Nadja finally comes along in the second third of the book– its “meat,” if you will. It is written like a journal, with dates preceding each entry about his experience with (or without) Nadja. She is a desperately poor but lovely woman (with gorgeous eyes outlined in black, which he goes on at length about) who holds a power over certain men, Breton included. He is immediately infatuated with her and captivated by the beautiful, albeit highly unusual (i.e. Surrealist), things she says:

“With the end of my breath, which is the beginning of yours.”

“If you desired it, for you I would be nothing, or merely a footprint.”

“I knew everything, so hard have I tried to read in my streams of tears.”

“The Lover’s Flower”

She also draws bizarre drawings that are so blatantly Surrealist that she becomes Surrealism itself (if she wasn’t already, but let us continue as though she is a person). He is at first so love-sick that he cannot go a day without seeing her and does not even hesitate in talking to his wife about her. Nadja knows that he is completely taken with her, and on occasion she uses it to her advantage (for example, at one point, when he promised to help her with 500 francs, he somehow ends up giving her 1500). Breton wrote: “It would be hateful to refuse whatever she asks of me, one way or another, for she is so pure, so free of any earthly tie, and cares so little, but so marvelously, for life” (90). He likes knowing that she needs him; I attribute this to the hyper-masculinity I mentioned earlier.

However, things soon begin to fall apart. One day he asks Max Ernst to paint a portrait of her, but Ernst refuses because “Madame Sacco has predicted he will meet a woman named Nadia or Natasha whom he will not like and who will do physical harm to the woman he loves” (105). This is the beginning of the end. You can even tell in Breton’s writing that his obsession is waning: he is less captivated by the things she says and instead more questioning. Finally, she tells him a life story– one of many that is both tragic and disturbing– and he knows that he can no longer see her, even though it pains him deeply. He later finds out that she ended up incarcerated in a mental institution, which “explains” her overall bizarreness. However, he does not seek her out again, and even though he does not like the fact that she was institutionalized, he only rants about the problems with psychiatry and how they create more issues rather than solve existing ones (I also find this ironic, considering that later Surrealist works in themselves become a sort of therapy, allowing artists to work out personal issues).

When he rejects Nadja, the unevenness of his point of view becomes very apparent, and this is because of his own internal conflicts. His denial of Nadja is a denial of the internal connection to his feminine side: an expression of fear in pursuing self-knowledge and a rejection of personal vulnerability. Levitt points out that, throughout the novel, he constantly uses visual and literary elements to reassert his masculine authority– basically everything that makes the book so jarring– and Nadja’s incarceration reinforces his rejection of her. Ultimately, he puts himself in a position of “do as I say but not as I do”: though he rejected Nadja for himself, he uses her story as a parable for others.

The conclusion of the book generally goes back to the structure of the first third, though it is blessedly shorter. He reflected upon himself, the world he lived in, and expounded upon the ideals of Surrealism, the latter of which still troubled him. It becomes particularly clear that Nadja may have been based in part on a real person but really is the embodiment of Surrealism.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s