I wrote a novel to fill a gap. A gap in Surrealism. The name of that gap is Nadja, and in my novel, Swimming with Tigers (currently being considered for publication by Honno Press) she is called Suzanne. Let me explain.
Anyone who knows a bit about Surrealism will know Nadja’s name, and that she was a crucial inspiration to the leader of the movement, André Breton. Breton wrote a book about his encounter with this elusive and unstable, visionary woman in 1928. But Nadja died young and alone in a mental institution, abandoned by Breton. There are no photographs of her, and although some of her drawings are reproduced in his book, she remains a mystery. There was even some doubt about her ever having existed at all.
Breton’s portrait gives tantalising glimpses of her originality and frailty; she is a free spirit but cripplingly shy and insecure, with terribly low self-esteem. Nadja is a fascinating document but is, in the end, about Breton himself, and Nadja, like all beautiful male artists’ muses, exists primarily as his creation.
So I wondered if I could tell Nadja’s story, using Breton’s account, and my own imagination. I wanted to give her centre stage this time. What a gift to a novelist! I spent quite some time searching and expecting that such a thing had already been done, but I seem to be the first to attempt to bring Nadja to life in a new novel.
Then, when I read in the introduction to the Penguin edition of Nadja that there were rumours that she didn’t die in ’41 but was living in France and working as a typist in the 1970s, my novel started to really come to life. I decided to engineer a meeting with another women surrealist who would help her. I wanted to create a new myth that was as powerful as Breton’s, but much more hopeful.
So I wrote some scenes in which Nadja (renamed Suzanne) makes a friend who saves her from despair. I named this friend Penelope and mixed in details from the lives, works and appearances of Leonora Carrington, Eileen Agar, Lee Miller and Meret Oppenheim in order to create her. Then I constructed another, later, narrative in which a woman, Vera, finds this account of Suzanne and Penelope’s friendship, a discovery that entirely transforms her life.
Nadja said of herself (according to Breton) “I am the soul in limbo” and in the past so many gifted, creative women have remained in limbo, unknown and unacknowledged. I hope that my novel, if published, will be part of that valuable enterprise, inspired by feminism, of rescuing women writers and artists from obscurity and reassessing their place and contributions.
Women in Surrealism are gradually being recovered and given proper attention. I’m very happy to say that Tate Liverpool are putting on a major exhibition of Leonora Carrington’s work this spring .
We may never know who Nadja was, but that shouldn’t stop us asking, and imagining.