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.
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.