I was dubious when first recommended ‘Nadja’, perhaps the alpha and omega in surrealist prose. The word surrealism today, thanks in no small way to the public misconception of the movement lead by the press, has become merely a totem for the comically absurd or the arbitrarily pretentious. So to have a book described to me as “the best surrealist romance ever” was no great endorsement and only inspired the quickly stifled question “can you name me another surrealist romance?”. However after deciding to brave the introduction it became quickly apparent that this ‘love story’ was not about love or even much of a story. Instead it was a mantra about discovering life through the back door, hidden in the secret halls of a bizarre and echoing narrative.
At her most human Nadja is a naïve young woman basking in the glow of her lover, but at her most elemental is a symbol for the city of Paris itself. In 1928 at the time of writing Paris was the centre of the artistic world and for Breton and his ilk the seat of a cultural revolution designed to inspire the subconscious release of a materially burdened world. Nadja’s frequent and haunting past life memories detail pivotal moments in the city’s history making her a haunted conduit for the city’s soul. Like Paris, she is both Breton’s muse yet sees him as a God while in awe of his manifesto.
The elaborately wrought prose style can, for those of a certain temperament, be highly intoxicating and sometimes genuinely mind altering. It is marred somewhat unfortunately by Breton’s intoxication with himself. This is not so much the story of a city or a woman but a conversation occurring within Breton’s mind, of which Breton is the main subject. So seen from a surrealist perspective it could be seen as a success in its collaged depiction of ones inner mind set free, but must fail as art. It is too self-involved to have general application and too particularly detailed to capture and retain interest.
The novel is the very much like the surrealist movement; original, sometimes eye opening, unique and not without creative or intellectual merit, but ultimately unsustainable and unfulfilling. Certainly not the great revolution that Breton details but an interesting and essential piece of our cultural progression. This is a book to inspire literature undergraduates to endlessly wander the streets of Paris trying to find themselves with the same self-importance of Breton yet without the creativity.
Lawrence Hodkingson – St. Pancras Bookseller
£9.99 and in stock
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