The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

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MAY 2020 Issue
Art Books

André Breton's Nadja: fac-similé du manuscrit de 1927

A publication of the manuscript of the 1927 masterpiece long thought lost reveals truly majestic overwritings

André Breton, edited by Jacqueline Chénieux-Gendron and Olivier Wagner
Nadja: fac-similé du manuscrit de 1927
(Gallimard/BnF Editions, 2019)

An immense dark sky-blue box contains a more-than-handsome heavy cardboard book of the facsimile of André Breton’s NADJA (Trésor national). With 25 pages of autographed writing full of suppressions, alterations, and additions, with side panels and nine iconographic sheets of documents, drawings, and letters, this marks a monumental publishing event. The cover bears the name “NADJA” lettered in glossy bright blue with a flower-shape; this feels like a rewriting of the myth, laden with a sense of magic. This is the manuscript thought lost for a very long time, purchased by the fashion designer Pierre Bergé, and then ceded to the Blibliothèque Nationale de France, 90 years after its writing, Bergé having felt he had “bought a fragment of the True Cross.”

How not to be mesmerized by the self-portrait of Nadja from 1927? She is inscribed within the left curve of the moon, echoed by the two curls beside her face, bright eyes confronting us, with the inscription on the inside front cover: “A garder sur vous Nadja” (To keep with you, Nadja). To keep with you, and us, indeed. It is, as the editors point out, one of the most trembling and vibrating of texts.

In 1927, Breton set himself the task, alone, of writing the first two parts of this bizarre and captivating story of his meeting with Léona Delcourt, named “Nadja” after the beginning of the Russian word for hope. This optimistic start ends miserably for the named “passerby,” since Nadja will be taken to an insane asylum in Vaucluse, as Breton turns to another, the sane and un-named “toi,” the desired and complicated Suzanne Muzard. Looking at the text, the supersaturated texture with its collages and suppressions and rethinkings has us meditating on the importance of control, censorship, adjustment, as the moment changes. It is about adventure, flavored with the strong and bittersweet taste of wandering, of a quest then redoubled by its uncertainty and plunge into disaster.

Nadja seems to know of the end already at the start, asking, “André?…you will write about me. Something has to remain from us…” And so this does. The red-hot link of the two lives from October 4–13 of 1926 fades, as she predicted, and their talk came to seem “exterior to what she is and to what I am.” Her letters and her despairing adoration (“But what stays in my strangled throat—my sobs remain and my teeth are chewing our kisses”) plunge him into an anguish he pours out to his no-less-suffering wife, until his final break with Nadja in February of 1927. We cannot help admiring her admiration in this intolerable situation: “Everything you do will be well done. Let nothing stop you.” And, in a sense, it doesn’t. The text published in 1928 is about what happens, specifically mentioning the night the two spent together in a hotel, while the re-edition of 1962 concerns their liaison more generally, the idea rather than specifics, explain the authors of the boxed book. What we are seeing here in the revised edition and notes is the action of writing itself, as if “the writing were to make the event.”

The present reader, confronted by the manuscript in its truly majestic overwritings, with these notes in their disorganization and distortion of the “original,” feels as if Surrealism itself—of which this is surely the major document—were to be imbued with yet more mystery in its mythology. Another textual/mental/psychological adventure: in 1962, the author retouches the text, sentences resentenced, thoughts rethought, and the erotic adventure of the night in a hotel le Prince de Galles on the 13th of November, with Nadja erased, gone, unthought. It had been, we see in the manuscript of 1927, heavily doctored already, before leading to the simple and undoctored self and myth-question: “Can it be that this desperate pursuit comes to an end here?” As the commentators put it, after the private dialogue between the writer and the future publication, there are added these invaluable nine pages of documents he kept close by him, added after the 1928 publication, different from the proofs of the book, which he kept with him all his life. A kind of reliquary, with reproductions of photographs stuck in, with envelopes and letters, all feeling in a peculiar relation to the world beyond this extraordinary publication.

Breton’s writing to his wife Simone: “I am still haunted,” comes over to us all the more strongly for our entanglement with his textual anguish. To close, as Nadja, that prose poem of a novel begins, about the haunting: “Who am I? If this once I were to rely on a proverb, then perhaps everything would amount to knowing whom I ‘haunt’?” This re-booking of Surrealism’s major document, bursts upon the writerly-readerly scene with its crucial offering as reliquary opened for anyone who cares, haunted anew by the text as by the lives.


Mary Ann Caws

Mary Ann Caws is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature, English, and French at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Her many areas of interest in 20th-century avant-garde literature and art include Surrealism, poets René Char and André Breton, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, and artists Robert Motherwell, Joseph Cornell, and Pablo Picasso. Conceptually, one of her primary themes has been the relationship between image and text.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

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