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‘Nadja est une initiatrice’. Discuss the function of Nadja in Breton’s account of his surrealist adventure. Illustrate your essay with specific examples.

Initially an essayist and poet, André Breton's initial foray into novel writing came in the form of Nadja. Excerpts were first published in the literary magazine "Littérature" in 1926, with full publication in 1928. Despite an earlier scorn by the author 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 through its 'âme errante' heroine. He established the movement as a progression from Dadaism and it began to gain momentum steadily from around 1920 onwards. The defining moment was probably the publication of the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, as this consolidated the movement's theories and Breton's position as leader.

Breton's purpose was to create a new way of thinking that discarded the structures of traditional literature; he felt these structures to be extraordinarily limiting and this "lead Breton himself to create, in Nadja, a new novel, one which ignores the 'moments nuls' to evoke only the 'moments privilégiés". Mary Ann Caws specifies how Breton "remained faithful to an image […] of Surrealism as a total and permanent revolt against accepted judgements and habits." Literature should not dwell on the past or box itself in with conformity but rather should be a means of transferring to paper, present moments and actions, the more inconsequential the better. For Breton Surrealism was a "crystallization of his notion of life, which galvanized abstract thought into living experience and promulgated personal adventure through language" and "pure psychic automatism, by which an attempt is made to express, either verbally, in writing or in any other manner, the true functioning of thought".

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. 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 happens upon Nadja purely by chance in rue Lafayette. The fact that Nadja is "une âme errante" who wanders the streets of Paris "sans aucun but" (p.73) makes her ideal; her purpose is to abet Breton's 'aleatory ambulation' and inspire him along the way.

As the founder of Surrealism, Breton's Nadja is a seminal text in showcasing the author's surrealist ideologies. Nadja herself personifies the carefree, unregimented spirit who flows freely from the conscious to the unconscious "J'ai pris, du premie au dernier jour,  Nadja pour un génie libre, quelque chose comme un de ces esprits de l'air que certaines pratiques de magie" (p.130) and Breton makes full use of her character to illustrate his ideologies. Paris, for example, is Breton's watching ground, his playground, his theatre; it is his inspiration, 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 such as the train travellers who Nadja quietly observes every evening at 7 o'clock. Although Breton naturally wandered the streets of Paris, wandering with Nadja allowed him a significantly different insight into the city, Surrealism, insanity and women. 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. In personifying Surrealism in her entire make-up, by living and breathing Surrealism, Nadja functions as muse and mediator. Most importantly, however, is the way Nadja aids him, knowingly, on his quest. In reference to her retrospectively prophetic words "A vous entendre parler, je sentais que rien ne vous en empêcherait : rien, pas meme moi…" (p.81), Lynes comments that "here the title character envisions the realization which will come to the hero after she has disappeared and recognises her own role in his quests". Through Nadja he is able to reach something of a solution to the "Quis suis-je?" he proposes at the very start of the novel, which is what fully defines his and Nadja's adventure. Her function is to provide Breton with an answer, which she clearly does, at least to a certain extent, as Breton is later able to conclude in the novel in the third part, long after their original meetings. Nadja is a superlative example of Surrealist literature and Breton is most definitely the leader in the field. As Caws says: "Breton, and Surrealism as he conceived it and guided it, stand out as unique examples of total involvement and complete passion." Nadja makes for an enchanting yet haunting character who is difficult to forget.

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