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Write a critical review of Andre Breton’s Nadja (1928) and how it sheds light on his vision of Surrealism, woman and the city of Paris. Illustrate your essay with specific examples.

Initially an essayist and poet, André Breton's first foray into novel writing came in the form of Nadja, published in 1928. Despite an earlier scorn for this particular literary genre the novel was actually rated much more highly than his poetry. Breton is internationally considered to be the principle figure in the creation of the Surrealist movement and Nadja conforms quite clearly to his vision of Surrealism. Indeed, there are three main themes that can be identified throughout the novel:  Breton's vision of the aforementioned Surrealism, as well as those of woman and the city of Paris. I shall discuss each theme separately, firstly examining what Breton's vision of the theme in question is and then demonstrating how Nadja specifically supports these themes.

The novel loosely narrates a period of ten days in Breton's life between October 4 and 12, 1926 during which time he meets and gets to know a young woman, a patient of Breton's close friend Pierre Janet who is of unsound mind. A young woman with a real name of Leona, she informs Breton however that she has assumed the name Nadja from the beginning of the Russian word for hope, "et parce que ce n'en est que le commencement," she adds with an air of mystery (Nadja, p.75). Anna Balakian (1971) describes Nadja's state of mind as having "let down the barriers between the rational and the irrational" and indeed at the end of the novel the heroine is incarcerated for apparent insanity. Although named after its eponymous heroine, Mary Ann Caws (1971) points out how she does not in fact appear in the novel until a third of the way in, and disappears toward the end, transforming the novel into more of a search for Breton's self-identity than hers. Despite being married at the time of the novel and his encounter with the young mad woman, Breton saw in Nadja a possibility of a romantic adventure, "she emancipated the poet from his bonds at the very moment when he might be settling down to a conventional domesticity. She freed his imagination for the free union," (Balakian, 1971, p.114). However, despite Nadja loving him "like the sun", his vision of a new, exciting adventure fades away before long; his fascination and love draw to a steady nothing towards the end.

Of course, there is no better example of these "aleatory ambulations" than Nadja, a novel which makes countless references to walking the streets of Paris: "Nous voici, au hasard de nos pas, rue du Faubourg-Poissonnière" (p.81), stopping in cafés: "Nous convenons de nous revoir le lendemain au bar qui fait l'angle de la rue Lafayette" (p.82) and promenading by the Seine, all while getting to know one of the random characters thrown up by the city in the way that enchants Breton so greatly "Que peut-il bien passer de si extraordinaire dans ces yeux?" (p.72). Chance encounters are one of the greatest pleasures and most significant experiences that the city streets provide for Breton and an illustration of their importance is the very moment when Breton, leaves his hotel, starts off on a walk looking for a moment of convulsive beauty and happens upon Nadja, purely by chance in rue Lafayette. "je me trouvais rue Lafayette… Tout  à coup, alors  qu'elle  est peut- être encore à dix pas de moi, venant en traverse, je vois une jeune femme" (p.72). Breton is an author of place, and Nadja is infused with constant reminders of the Paris outside and around him "Et, de ma fenêtre, aussi le crâne de Jean-Jacques Rousseau, dont la statue m'apparaissait de dos et à deux ou trois étages au dessous de moi" (p.31).

In conclusion, therefore, as the founder of Surrealism, Breton's Nadja is a seminal text in showcasing his surrealist ideologies. Nadja herself personifies the carefree, unregimented spirit who flows freely from the conscious to the unconscious. Paris in turn is Breton's watching ground, his playground, his theatre. It is his inspiration, an experiment, the embodiment of Surrealism in its disorder and the chance occurrences it occasions. For Breton, Nadja and Paris are nearly one and the same thing, from the point of view of their catalystic effect on the author and the way they mediate him seeing things he would normally be blind to. Finally, as a Surrealist, Breton's vision of woman is aesthetic and spiritual. He idealizes her and uses her as a source of inspiration, a muse for daily life and his literature. Nadja is a superlative example of Surrealist literature and Breton is most definitely the leader in the field. As Caws (1971, p.118) says: "Breton, and Surrealism as he conceived it and guided it, stand out as unique examples of total involvement and complete passion."

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