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Breton Nadja 1945

I finally reread Andre Breton’s 1928 novel Nadja for the first time in many years and it was hard not to see intriguing parallels with the photography-embedded books of W.G. Sebald.   It was a little shocking to realize that Nadja, first published in Paris in 1928, wasn’t available in English until Richard Howard’s 1960 translation for Grove Press.  Nadja often gets referred to as a Surrealist love story, although Nadja doesn’t appear until more than sixty pages into this this brief 160-page novel (in the English version, that is).  Those first sixty pages or so are a blend of theory, Surrealist gossip, Breton’s back story, dreams, and assorted excursions through Paris.  When Nadja appears, the book briefly shifts to dated diary entries, as if the impact of their meeting momentarily demands immediacy.  Ultimately, Nadja is commited to a sanatarium and the novel returns to straightforward prose when the narrator finally has the distance to analyze Nadja’s impact on his life and thinking.

After Nadja, the second most important character in Nadja is the city of Paris.  Breton’s Paris serves a similar purpose as cities like London, Manchester, and Antwerp do for Sebald, acting as a kind of stage, potent for its ability to disorient the viewer and reward him with strange new sights and insights.

There are many ways of thinking about Nadja and what she represents for Breton.  She’s a free spirit who describes herself as a “soul in Limbo.”  She’s clinically unable to exist long in the normal world and ends up in a sanitarium, where she spends the remainder of her life.  “The essential thing is that I do not suppose there can be much difference for Nadja between the inside of a sanitarium and the outside,” the narrator grimly notes. Neverthelss, Nadja unlocks endless unforeseen possibilities for the narrator, who is immediately captivated by her eyes.  “What was it they reflected – some obscure distress and at the same time some luminous pride?”

The character Nadja reminded me of Ernst Herbeck, the prolific Viennese schizophrenic poet that Sebald visits Vertigo.  The two spend a long day taking a walk, during which they seem to exchange very little with each other.

When we parted, Ernst, standing on tiptoe and bowing slightly, took his hat from his hand and with it, as he turned away, executed a sweeping motion which ended with him putting the hat back on; a performance which seemed to be, at the same time, both childishly easy and an astonishing feat of artistry.  This gesture, like the manner in which he had greeted me that morning, put me in mind of someone who had travelled with a circus for many years.


Breton and Sebald find in Nadja and Herbeck a kind a inexplicable, inarguable authenticity that no “normal” person seems to offer up.

“Happily the days of psychological literature, with all its fictitious plots, are numbered,” Breton wrote early in Nadja, prematurely predicting the demise of traditionally plotted fiction.  Nadja is not too dissimilar to Sebald’s style of prose fiction in which history, autobiography, travel, literary criticism, and other genres coexist.  Curiously, both  Sebald and Breton elevate coincidence to a higher level of meaning; although for different ends, I think.  For Breton, good Surrealist that he is, accidents and coincidences are much like automatic writing; they are events that set aside the limits of traditional logic and perception and spontaneously create new, unexpected connections.  Sebald, on the other hand, often uses coincidences to suggest a sense of hidden interconnectedness.

As far as I am aware, Nadja, with its forty-four illustrations, is just the second novel to appear with embedded photographs – the first being Georges Rodenbach’s novel Bruges-la-Morte (1892) which included a number of scenes of the city of Bruges.  Breton doesn’t embed photographs in the same way that Sebald does.  Instead, they are treated like illustrations in a typical work of non-fiction.  Each illustration is a full-page plate, with plate numbers, captions, and, on occasion, a credit to the photographer (Man Ray, for example).  To assure that the reader makes the correct connection between the illustration and text, each plate mentions the page number on which the related quote appears.  Nevertheless, Breton’s playful selection and use of illustrations foreshadows Sebald’s own practice.  In addition to portraits and buildings that let the reader visualize his text, Breton adds some Surrealist touches by reproducing incidental things like documents and drawings.

Breton Nadja p55

Breton Nadja p59

Breton Nadja p89

The great book cover for Nadja, by the way, which Grove Press has stuck with for nearly fifty years now, is by designer Roy Kuhlman, who did many of Grove’s classic book covers.

Breton Nadja

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Chris #

    You might also be interested in Breton’s ‘Mad Love’, which uses photographs in a similar fashion. While it’s been a long time since I’ve read either book, I recall it being better than ‘Nadja’.

    August 19, 2009
  2. I find it fascinating how Breton is actually writing as himself, listing all his (famous) friends and contemporary artists. In this sense the novel reads like a blog today: which if course didn’t exist in 1928

    December 22, 2011
  3. sarhan #

    I´m a bit puzzled by the term “novel” that you use to describe the book. english is not my mother tongue, but if i´m correct, novel refers to a fiction work. And, as Breton wrote many times, there is not a gramme of fiction in his books, he hates fiction, and he devots a long section of the first manifesto of surrealism in explaining why fiction is a no go. It may seema detail, but i think that to take that into account places this book, and all his books, in a completely different perspective: close to his life, a life, testimmony, existential questioning, where the literary dimension is neglectable.

    July 7, 2016
  4. Sarhan, What a great question! I think Nadja is traditionally considered a novel in spite of whatever Breton said about it. Yes, Breton disavows “fiction” (meaning stuff that is completely imagined), but his books (like Nadja and Mad Love) take on structures that are inheremtly novelistic. Early in the book, Breton writes that “I am concerned with facts of quite unverifiable intrinsic value, but which, by their absolutely unexpected, violently fortuitous character, and the kind of associations of suspect ideas they provoke – a way of transforming gossamer into spiderweb…I am concerned, I say, with facts which may belong to the order of pure observation, but which on each occasion present all the appearances ofa signal, without our being able to say precisely which signal, and of what.” To me, it is this transformational aspect of his writing that makes this a novel rather than an example of autobiography or travel writing. Breton may well have experienced everything that is mentioned in Nadja, but he presents it to us in such a way that we are continually forced back to Breton’s text precisely because it has become its own self-enclosed universe.

    July 13, 2016
  5. EmJay #

    Terry, both you and Sarhan make cogent points about the genre to which Breton’s work belongs, but I personally think that Nadja is neither a novel, in the historically founded sense of the word, nor an autobiography in the commonly accepted meaning of that category – instead, I would suggest the term autobiographical fantasy. It seems to me to belong to a genre of writing that derives from such Romantic authors as Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater and George Borrow’s Lavengro. In fact the former also presents us with an encounter between the authorial “I” and a waif-like prostitute, which may have inspired Breton’s book to some extent (Breton later included part of De Q’s Murder, Considered as one of the Fine Arts in his anthology of black humour, so he was conversant with De Q’s work). Ultimately, such works as these, like Iain Sinclair’s “novels”, are sui generis. – Is J.G.Ballard’s Empire of the Sun autobiography or novel, by the way? He himself calls it “a novel about my life as a boy in Shanghai during the second world war, and in the civilian camp at Lunghua, where I was interned with my parents.”

    August 5, 2017
    • EmJay, I totally agree with you that terms like “novel” and “poem” and “story” are really pretty meaningless on close inspection. This is why, among other reasons, Sebald insisted his writing was “prose fiction.” I tend to use these terms in lieu of any better, simple term.

      August 7, 2017

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