Monday, September 26, 2011

Nadja by André Breton

It's not often I read a book that I feel like I could read all over again immediately after, but Nadja is one of the few. Billed as a "Surrealist romance", this 1928 French novel, at first reading very light in tone, seems like one that would benefit from rereading.

This "book which defined [the Surrealist Movement's] attitude towards everyday life" is written as a first-person account of a novel affair between the unnamed narrator & the madcap Nadja, a girl he meets on the street (not until page 63 of this 163 page book). But there are also references to fellow surrealists Tzara & Éluard, to the painter Chirico, & to Rimbaud, among others; the first sections of the book are more about the narrator's worldview than anything else.  Early on, Breton's protagonist declares, "Do not expect me to provide an exact account of what I have been permitted to experience in this domain."

Nadja chose her own name "because in Russian it's the beginning of the word hope, & because it's only the beginning".  Her relationship with the narrator seems to exist on a different plane; he is married, she sees other people, but it doesn't seem to matter.  They see each other frequently to talk, far-reaching conversations that range from the narrator's power over Nadja to "who she might have been, in Marie-Antoinette's circle".  People are drawn to Nadja; in a restaurant, a waiter fascinated by her breaks 11 plates in the course of serving their meal. The narrator even says "I have taken Nadja, from the first day to the last, for a free genius, something like one of those spirits of the air which certain magical practices momentarily permit us to entertain but which we can never overcome".

Nadja has many delightful turns of phrase: "Perhaps life needs to be deciphered like a cryptogram"; "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"; "Life is other than what one writes"; "Time is a tease-because everything has to happen in its own time"; & my favorite, "How does it happen that thrown together, once & for all, so far from earth, in those brief intervals which our marvelous stupor grants us, we have been able to exchange a few incredibly concordant views above the smoking debris of old ideas & sempiternal life?"

The novel is not such much a linear storyline as a kind of stream of consciousness; it ebbs & flows on some internal tide of its own.  Much is suggested rather than explicated.  Nadja is an interesting portrait of the time, the place, & Surrealism itself.

The novel is supplemented by 44 pictures, "various 'surreal' people, places & objects which the author visits or is haunted by", which enhance the reader's understanding of the book.

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