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"
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."