Can you name any Surrealist novels? I don’t mean books with surreal elements such as magical, illogical or dream-like ideas or events, I mean novels about Surrealism as a movement or depicting Surrealist artists. No? That’s because there are very few.
When I conceived the idea of a novel about the mysterious woman at the centre of Breton’s 1929 book Nadja I was quite prepared to find it had already been done, but my research turned up nothing at all. Great, I thought, I’ll write a Surrealist novel about Nadja. But is a Surrealist novel simply one in which Surrealists appear or must it be Surrealist in a deeper sense?
In Nadja, Breton attacks the novel as a form of literature, even though the book he’s writing has many things in common with a novel and is often referred to as a novel. His view (which held sway in the Surrealist group he led) was that the novel was a bourgeois form of literature and in the service of oppressive conventionality. The realist novel, which attempts to show life as it is in a faithful reflection of reality, is the absolute opposite of Surrealism’s aim to corrupt and explode normality in every way possible. In particular, Breton writes in Nadja that he doesn’t like books with “keys”, in other words where characters are recognisably based on real people.
Of course some Surrealists of the early movement did write novels, such as Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant (1924), and Angela Carter, for instance, wrote an incredibly interesting surrealist-influenced novel called The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman in the early 1970s, but I want to talk about two recent Surrealist novels: one published in the 1990s and the other just a couple of years ago, as well as mentioning my own, which has yet to find the right publisher.
Robert Irwin’s The Exquisite Corpse (1995) and China Miéville’s The Last Days of New Paris (2016) take completely different approaches to the thorny problem of writing about Surrealism in the novel form.
Irwin’s book is squarely in the realist tradition (apart from the final chapter which I’ll mention again later) and gives a wry, ironic account of the British Surrealist group in the late 1930s and beyond. The main character is Caspar who is not, I think, based on any real person although some figures connected with British Surrealism like Conroy Maddox are mentioned by name, as is the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley. Caspar is an artist and meets Caroline, a conventional middle-class girl who works as a typist. Her ordinariness enchants Caspar, who is entirely habituated to his life as a Surrealist (their first meeting occurs when he is conducting a Surrealist experiment by travelling around London blindfolded) and he falls in love. Caspar’s obsession with Caroline (who finds him faintly ridiculous) structures the novel and he finally suffers a complete mental breakdown, accelerated by his experiments in mesmerism. Caspar is in Munich as the Nazi threat is rising and some of the novels most original observations are on the way that the Nazi command actually takes Surrealism seriously.
The menace of Nazism is also the main feature of China Miéville’s book (which is billed as a novella). The Last Days of New Paris, in total contrast to Irwin’s The Exquisite Corpse, is a Surrealist narrative in which Surrealism has infiltrated the story itself, but even the Surrealist events and altered reality of Miéville’s book are told using the usual techniques of the realist novel: a chronological tale with character, dialogue, action, back-story and so on. (In fact it’s an open question as to whether as truly Surrealist novel could still be a novel at all: logical connections and a recognisable reality are surely vital to the novel as a form.)
In The Last Days of New Paris, a young man called Thibault is in Nazi-occupied Paris, in a parallel timeline. In this Paris, Surrealist imagery has manifested (as “manifs”) meaning that actual incarnations of Surrealist painting, writing and games (from real historical artists and writers) are everywhere. For instance, an exquisite corpse (a picture created from a paper-folding game like Consequences) made by Breton, Jacqueline Lamba and Yves Tanguy in 1938 has manifested as a sort of robot three metres tall and is roaming the streets. Phenomena such as this have come about because of an accident with a machine that was powered by Surrealist energy and exploded, causing an “S-blast”.
Miéville’s novel is hugely original and exciting but it suffers from a deluge of action sequences which mean there is very little time to grow to care for the central characters (Thibault, and an American photojournalist called Sam who turns out not to be who she says she is). The part I enjoyed most was the long set of notes at the end in which Miéville details the original Surrealist works of art and writing which, in the story, have become manifest.
In The Last Days of New Paris it turns out that the narrative has come from an eye-witness to the events and that he has told his story to the author (who then supplemented it with more research on Surrealism). This is metafiction, where a fiction comments on itself as fictitious, and Irwin’s novel does the same: it turns out that the story Caspar writes is a book he has published so that Caroline will find him again (and it works, they are reunited many years later).
My novel Swimming with Tigers also works as metafiction by presenting a novel within a novel. It’s closer to Irwin than Miéville and recreates the Surrealist group in Paris in the 1930s using composite characters made from real figures (Breton would have hated it!). My characters see, dream, make, and sometimes even become, versions of works by Alberto Giacometti, Meret Oppenheim, Leonora Carrington, and many others, but I don’t alter reality in the way Miéville (who writes in the fantasy and sci-fi genre) does.
In the earlier stages of writing, I did experiment with allowing Surrealist elements to break through and shatter the realist style. I experimented with passages in which works of art came to life and so forth, but these were unsuccessful and seemed mannered and artificial. In the end I staked everything on the ghostly in-between state of the Nadja figure herself.
The novel within the novel is about a woman called Suzanne and appears to tell the true story of Breton’s Nadja by someone who knew her. The narrator of the frame story, however, suspects that Suzanne might be merely the fictitious creation of the novel-within-a–novel’s author. I tried very hard to hold these two possibilities in balance and produce a Surrealist double image: not one thing or another, but both. By mixing the historical figure of Nadja (who some people regard as fictional anyway) with a fictitious history of her I hoped to create a richly ambiguous portrait worthy of this mysterious Surrealist mythic muse.
The challenge of writing a novel about Surrealism, for me, was to neither capitulate to the realist bias of the novel form, nor to end up in the territory of fantasy or science fiction. After all, Surrealism is not the flight from reality into fantasy; it is the weird and unsettling merging of the real with the unreal.
Do tell me about any other recent novels about Surrealism that you have read: there may be many more that I have missed. And do let me know what you thought of Irwin’s and Miéville’s stories if you’ve read these too.