I first read this book in the original French when I was writing my undergraduate thesis in French Studies (and my level of comprehension was much better), so re-reading it in English was like remembering a dream (appropriate for a surrealist text, eh?). Surrealism has always intrigued me: its bewildered misogyny, its emphasis on the subconscious, its view of woman as other.
So what’s the book about?
Nadja is a story of Breton’s encounter with a woman called Nadja, “Because in Russian it’s the beginning of the word hope, and it’s only the beginning.” She beguiles him on their first encounter, and he is entranced by her impassioned view of the world and the fervor with which she does anything. But the book is less about the relationship between Nadja and André as it is about Nadja’s effect on André and the surrealist movement. In fact, in the first third of the novel, Breton ruminates on other women he has encountered. The reader gets the sense that Nadja could have been any one of those women, and, in the final pages, after her departure, we are led to believe that it is more André’s idea of Nadja that affects him than Nadja herself.
Simultaneously frustrating and thrilling
I’ll admit, in the first third, Breton rambles on about who knows what, with very few connecting threads, name-dropping other artists and purveyors of the movement, and I found those sixty pages very difficult to get through. Going back and re-reading the first paragraph, however, gives me a better appreciation for them:
Who am I? If this once I were to rely on a proverb, then perhaps everything would amount to knowing whom I “haunt.” I must admit that this last word is misleading, tending to establish between certain beings and myself relations that are stranger, more inescapable, more disturbing than I intended. Such a word means much more than it says, makes me, still alive, play a ghostly part, evidently referring to what I must have ceased to be in order to be who I am.
This quote ties in to the last chapter, the one in which Nadja’s absence in a way magnifies her presence. It also identifies the subject of the book: Breton’s search for himself through those with whom he interacts, namely, Nadja.
But the story…?
The action of the novel takes place over the course of ten days, during which, the narrator, André, feels simultaneously repelled by and drawn to the titular character. He drifts in and out of his encounters with her, seemingly addicted to her presence. He holds her on a pedestal and nearly cuts ties with her when she tells him a story of her past in which she displays unsavory attributes. Their time together is primarily spent discussing his own works and those of other surrealists, and the one bit of action that could have made a nice climax in an externally-driven novel was confined to a footnote in the last chapter of this one.
This is a short novel, and worth a read-through. But it’s also important to take into account when it was published (1928), and the fact that it is one of the founding texts for an artistic movement. It is not a conventional novel and therefore should not be read like one. Even taken only at face value, however, it is an interesting rumination on two characters who can think of nothing other than themselves and each other.
My Rating: 3.5/5 stars