Tuesday, June 9, 2020

the rest of my French reading in May - André Breton's war and Jean Giraudoux's peace

Two authors, aside from Kessel, filled out my May reading in French, André Breton and Jean Giraudoux.

Nadja (1928), Breton’s novel-like textual art object, some mix of the early history of Surrealism, art criticism, and a fictionalized encounter with a mentally ill woman who is perhaps what we now call an “outsider artist.”  Breton’s use of photographs – of his friends, his art collection, his favorite cafés, documents, scraps – is the most notable feature of the book, full of ideas.  I suppose I found all that more interesting than the central story about the woman in the title.

I read the revised 1964 version of Nadja, which seems to be the one in print in France.  The only English translation is of the original 1928 version.  So strictly speaking, whatever I read is not available in English.  My understanding is that there are some substantial differences in the texts, but I do not know what they are.  All of this was a surprise to me.

Second Manifesto of Surrealism (1930).  The original Manifesto of Surrealism (1924) felt like a work of Surrealist art, while this one read more like an important historical document.  Breton fights with his enemies and also his friends, some of whom will be enemies soon enough.  Freud is diminished a little, Marx, or maybe more accurately Stalin, elevated.  Passages on the great Surrealist predecessors – Lautréamont, Rimbaud, Poe – were interesting, but this is not really a work of criticism.  A couple of later essays included in the same volume, written when Breton had some distance and was not getting in fistfights, have more insight into the artistic purpose of Surrealism.

Both Nadja and Second Manifesto were difficult texts, sometimes discursive and obscure.  An important aspect of learning a language by reading is to puzzle out words and phrases from context, but Surrealist writing often deliberately jerks the language away from the context.  That is much of its fun.  But perhaps the French language-learner should not spend so much time with Surrealism.  Yes, perhaps.


I read two Jean Giraudoux plays, Intermezzo (1933, in English as The Enchanted) and La guerre de Troie n'aura pas lieu (1935, The Trojan War Will Not Take Place – I would add an exclamation point).

Intermezzo is about a young woman who has fallen in love with a ghost, and the small-town bourgeois officials (the mayor and so on) who try to save her.  Aside from the good comedy about the pompous, self-centered officials, I did not understand this play, “the point,” I mean.  I think I was all right with the language.  I have read two earlier Giraudoux plays, Siegfried (1928) and Amphitryon 38 (1929), both of which were about divided identities, or divided loyalty.  Intermezzo belongs with them, at least I can see that.

The Trojan War Won’t Happen! has a point that is clear enough.  Giraudoux day job was in the diplomatic service, and this play is an outraged warning.  Paris has just brought Helen to Troy, and the Greeks are in pursuit.  Hector, the great warrior, and a few other characters do everything they can to stave off war, but we know that Cassandra is right, the Trojan War will happen, and poetry will pass from Troy to Greece, as she says in the last line.  The old men, hotheads, incompetents, and theorists will make sure of that.  The Trojans are the French, the Greeks the Germans.

The most audacious scene, I thought, features an expert in international law, who first argues that the law requires peace, then, just as easily and logically, that it requires war.  I think this is where I double-checked the date of the play.  No, this is 1935, not 1938, long before “peace in our time” and all that.  Giraudoux obviously saw what was happening, for all the good it did him.


  1. I'm reading Dali's Diary of a Genius, and that begins with a falling out with Breton about which of them is the most surrealist.

    I've had a copy of Nadja about 20 years without getting beyond the first page.

  2. The Surrealist movement provides a lot of good comedy. High conflict; low stakes.

    Nadja has a bit of an obligatory, much-assigned feel, at least to me. Still, it was good to read how he met Desnos, etc., the Paris flea market bit, the art criticism in the last quarter or so.

  3. I suspect the character in Raymond Queneau's "Odile" who is modeled after Breton and occasionally says ridiculous things about crocodiles is enough Breton for me.

  4. Another nice place to encounter Breton is in Lisa Goldstein's The Dream Years, a kind of time-travel novel that mixes the Surrealists with May 1968. I should re-read it and write it up.