A Brief Survey of the Surrealist Novel

1928 Cover of Nadja-Andre Breton
1928 Cover of Nadja-Andre Breton

Surrealism had an immeasurable effect upon the 20th and 21st Century novel, witness how the term ‘surreal’ is lazily and inappropriately applied to a wide spectrum of works that contain only a slight element of the fantastic, yet only a handful of novels were written by the Surrealists themselves. Andre Breton, the Pope of Surrealism, was vehemently opposed to the novel as an art form, scorning it as the medium of vain, bourgeois careerists and expelled members for publishing novels on occasion. Regardless of the heresy involved several Surrealists and fellow travellers did produce novels and this is a brief survey of the Surrealist novel with a summation of influences and precedents. I cannot possibly claim that it exhaustive and I am happy to hear about possible omissions.  I have taken rather a broad view of what constitutes a novel and more focused view of the term Surrealist, hopefully without being dogmatic, however some limitation of scope needs to be applied otherwise the very word is rendered meaningless. In a further post I will discuss the Surrealist impact upon the novel.

Influences and Precedents

In spite of his disdain for the form Andre Breton heaped lavish praise upon the Gothic novel, in particularly Matthew Lewis’s The Monk. The libertine novels of De Sade can also be viewed as Gothic in a certain light.  Another favourite was Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin, which served as an important model for the quintessential proto-surrealist work, Les Chants de Maldoror by the Comte de Lautréamont. This unclassifiable book that hovers between a novel and extended prose poem would have such an impact upon the Surrealists that it is often called the Black Bible of the movement. Another major influence was the Alice books by Lewis Carroll, as it laid down the template of a compelling dream narrative. Closer in time to the Surrealists is Alfred Kubin’s  Die andere Seite (The Other Side), a vivid expressionistic nightmare set in the mysterious capital of the Dreamland.

Surrealist Novels

I am sure that Breton would argue that his 1928 text Nadja isn’t a novel, that it is part surrealist narration and part philosophical polemic, but it can be read as a novel of his brief relationship with the title character Nadja, after a chance encounter on a Parisian street. Containing some of his best known quotes including the closing line, “Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all”, Nadja is essential reading for anyone with an interest in Surrealism.

Louis Aragon wrote an early invocation of the pleasures and vicissitudes of psycho-geography in Le Paysan de Paris (Parisian Peasant) and the painter Giorgio de Chirico published his strange and otherworldly novel Hebdomeros in 1929, that features many dislocations in time and space. Although both Georges Bataille and Rene Daumal were frequently at odds with official surrealism, though for differing reasons, they both produced novels that can considered part of the surrealist canon. Bataille’s pornographic Histoire de l’œil (The Story of the Eye) is a work of nightmarish eroticism while Daumal’s Le Mont Analogue. Roman d’aventures alpines, non euclidiennes et symboliquement authentiques (Mount Analogue: A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing) became a cult favourite in the 1960’s and was the inspiration of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain. The dissident Cuban surrealist Alejo Carpentier novel about the Haitian Revolution El reino de este mundo (The Kingdom of this World) greatly influence Latin American magic realism.

Herbert Read was the art critic  responsible for introducing Surrealism into Britain and his only novel, The Green Child is an odd but appealing Surrealist fable. Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet is a whimsical delight about the 92 year old Marian Leatherby’s stay in a very strange old peoples home.  Ithell Colquhoun’s The Goose of Hermogenes is an occult romance with some truly bizarre imaginings. Much darker is the hallucinatory Der Mann im Jasmin (The Man of Jasmine) by Unica Zürn describing her mental breakdowns with disquieting exactitude. Lastly there is Dorothea Tanning’s debut novel Chasm, published in 2004, a powerful and poetic work of late, late surrealism.

 

Blind Date

Dorothea Tanning-Children's Games 1942
Dorothea Tanning-Children’s Games 1942

The multi-talented Dorothea Tanning is primarily known for her paintings and sculpture, however she was also an excellent poet and writer. Below is a piece first published in 1943 in the American Surrealist magazine VVV.

Blind Date

It must have been a very bleak winter that year.  I have no recollection of the weather, only the marvellous and relentless order in which everything occurred.  It was the time that the sewing machine broke loose; nothing could have been more inopportune or diabolically calculated-the leaves had been carefully gathered and stored and now they were to be sewn together. They were particularly good leaves, I remember, sere and thin, each with the track of the snail on its under side, exactly the kind of leaf for a birthday. And now the sewing machine had gone, fled without a word of warning. Chagrined, unnerved, and with an inexplicable feeling of portent, it was I who set out in hopeless search. The month was November but the day had no date.

You, casket of the terrible jewel, cove of the silent finless fish, empty socket of the absent eye, today you shall encounter your mirrored image unaware. But you must know that at the moment of occurrence you shall be absorbed utterly, utterly and finally. Speak not of will. Your will is a frail delusion. Once confronted by the image you are like a beam which is projected and withdrawn by the flame. If it is the true, the inconceivable image, then the veil is irreparably rent, and you have achieved the incomparable.

Rain, a gray steady soaking rain. And this demoniacal wind! It heaves and subsides, raves, moans and vomits and then, remembering something, screams. We meet in the street, in a block of elegantly respectable residences, houses inspired by Beckford and those inconsequential romantics who built “ruins” of brownstone and golden oak. And in this flange of dreary facades is one drearier than the rest, because it is the most idiotic in design and because it is abandoned. The rain beats at our raincoats, trickles down between our breasts and up between our toes, and we run up the curving flight of abandoned steps. Here is not simply a momentary shelter, for the door swings open and we are upon the threshold.

Approach, my child, my diabolical daughter of the veiled eye. Reach into that cunning reticule of yours, give me the onerous instrument. You open your eyes so wide, your eyes with the veil lying on them? Do you pretend you have not disposed of the beautiful beloved, the beautiful ones and the dull? Draw nearer, my child of the fateful mouth . . . .

We push our way through a tangled paludine growth which is rooted in the sweating ceiling of the foyer. The rooms are bare, the doors ajar. The silence breathes on our faces, draws blood from our ears and I am aware of a numbing melancholy, that wide featureless melancholy that includes everything and explains nothing. Hand in hand, then, (because that is how such things are done) we traverse the silent empty rooms and, nearing the end, we encounter a sleeping gray-faced man in a panama hat. He is a little like Sasha Guitry, the same bloated look, the same gash for a mouth, the same watch-chain, only instead of the soft belly he has embedded just under his diaphragm, an aquarium.   It is filled with a thick slime, pale yellow, in which writhes our runaway sewing machine. Quickly, I thrust my hand into the warm ooze and withdraw the gasping object.

“Listen to me; have I not already told you what to do here?” says the gray-faced man, waking up “How extraordinary!”

Without further hesitance I reach into my robe for the beautiful shining implement and, with one hand, perform my inevitable task. A final glance at the tangled heap of vine-twisted human wreckage and I perceive that I am now completely and finally alone. That is as it should be. Too late now for the leaves; they have shrivelled and ignited. There will be no sewing now, for the landscape is laid waste, burnt to a cinder, cratered and truncated as far as they eye can see.

Woman, when you lie with the cat who grins obscenely, the red-eyed dog with the hairless human arms, when you gaze with your veiled eyes at the many-armed calamary and helplessly desire him, when you swoon at the thought of the exquisite wound carved in the light of a phosphorous moon, do you then imagine you are sleeping? Is it possible each night to embark on that motionless viscious lake, to roam the interstices of that melancholy, monster-ridden park and still refuse to accept the name that guides your steps? Beware the sickly nobility of conscious will! Beware, my hard-eyed hard-eyed daughter, of the definitive hypodermic!

Arriving at the last room, I feel no pain.  The white tossing foam of my sensations covers and intoxicates me like some inexhaustible nepenthe. (How innocent is black as compared to that arch-color, white!) I see, calmly now, that the trap is set. The paralytic moment has come and I am to lose my castle or my king. But, as always in this precious instance, there is no choice. I am one vast fiery wound, closed and healed with a hardness impossible to the untouched. There is only a marvellous kind of synaesthesic awareness that the wallpaper is singing to me. And this is the song of the wallpaper.

Stitch the leaves then, stitch them carefully and with regard for the isolated time-beat.  Tremble a little upon the threshold. One feigned tremor flung magnanimously to that enormous sloth which is legion.  Today you have been born, out of abysmal sorrow and knowledge, out of warnings, wounds, pestilence, obscene, spasms, defilements; out of hates, and holocausts, guts and gothic grandeurs, frenzy, crimes, visions, scorpions, secretions, love and the devil.  Today you shall be married to your future.

Dorothea Tanning 1943

The Flowers of Evil: The Balcony

800px-bazille_la_toilette1
Frederic Bazille-La Toilette 1870

It is impossible to overestimate the influence  of Charles Baudelaire upon modernity. The entire Symbolism/Decadent movement that so dominated the 19th Century fin-de-siecle in Europe owed its very existence to Baudelaire.

Baudelaire’s importance extends  far deeper that the creation of one transitory artistic school however. Although he didn’t invent the concept of dandyism (that honour belongs to Beau Brummel), his example gave it a wider cultural currency that eventually resulted in the carefully constructed persona of the ultimate aesthete and wit, Oscar Wilde. His wanderings around the Parisian streets led to Walter Benjamin formulating a new type of man, the flaneur. The figure of the flaneur  recurs frequently in Benjamin’s massive, unfinished magnum opus The Arcades Project. The spirit of the Baudelairean flaneur guided the Surrealists in their impromptu flea-market jaunts and nocturnal adventuring. The Situationist International (see Moving Images) took the flaneur a step further and the central tenets of the SI, Unitary Urbanism and psycho-geography are based upon the needs of this recently evolved city-dweller.

Beyond shaping some of the major artistic and intellectual currents of the 19th and 20th Century, Baudelaire presence can be felt in Punk (with his dried green hair and urgent provocations) and dominated Goth (Dreams of Desire 5 (That Look).

His influential art criticism (and the inspiration he provided to visual artists, see The Sleepers) and his re-definition of the poet as cultural agitator and arbitrator paved the way for Guillaume Apollinaire (In The Zone) and Andre Breton (The Pope of Surrealism).

Baudelaire’s fame largely rests upon his volume of poetry, Le Fleurs Du Mal. First published in 1857 it immediately caused a scandal. Baudelaire’s originality lay not in the versification (which is traditional) but in the explicit, morbid subject matter.

Below is a translation of one of his finest love poems, Le Balcon, inspired by his muse and mistress of twenty years, the ‘Venus Noire’, Jeanne Duval (she was a Creole of Haitian-French heritage).

The Balcony

Mother of memories, mistress of mistresses,
you who are all my pleasures and all my duties,
you will remember the beauty of our caresses,
the sweetness of the hearth, the charm of the evenings,
mother of memories, mistress of mistresses.

On evenings lit by the glowing coal-fire
and evenings on the balcony, veiled with pink mist,
how soft your breast was,
how kind to me was your heart!
Often we said imperishable things
on evenings lit by the glowing coal-fire.

How beautiful the sun is on warm evenings!
How deep is space! How powerful the human heart!
As I leant over you, oh queen of all adored ones,
I thought I was breathing the fragrance of your blood.
How beautiful the sun is on warm evenings!

The night would thicken like a wall around us,
and in the dark my eyes would make out yours,
and I would drink your breath, oh sweetness, oh poison!
And your feet would fall asleep in my brotherly hands.
The night would thicken like a wall around us.

I know how to evoke the moments of happiness,
I relive my past, nestling my head on your lap.
For why would I seek your languid beauties anywhere
except in your dear body and your oh-so-gentle heart?
I know how to evoke the moments of happiness!

Will those sweet words, those perfumes, those infinite kisses
be reborn from a chasm deeper than we may fathom
like suns that rise rejuvenated into the sky
after cleansing themselves in the oceans’ depths?
Oh sweet words, oh perfumes, oh infinite kisses!

 

Translation Peter Low 2001

Ballardian Visions

Le Reve-Henri Rousseau 1910
Le Reve-Henri Rousseau 1910

I have previously highlighted the influence of the Surrealists and Pop Artists upon J.G. Ballard, one of the few modern writers whose name is now an adjective; the word Ballardian conjures up visions of dystopian modernity, denuded man-made landscapes, the all-consuming nature of mass media, entropy, psychological withdrawal and anomie.

This most visual of writers has been a source of inspiration to artists in his turn, either directly referencing his work or by touching upon Ballardian themes.

I have taken liberties with this selection of ‘Ballardian’ imagery. Obviously Rousseau pre-dates The Drowned World and Warhol is directly stated by Ballard as an influence in The Atrocity Exhibition, but in some sense they seem to me Ballardian. The unconscious forms its own connections, there are no accidents and there are no coincidences.

Wittgenstein in New York-Eduardo Paolozzi-1965
Wittgenstein in New York-Eduardo Paolozzi-1965
Spiral Jetty-Robert Jetty 1973
Spiral Jetty-Robert Smithson 1973
JG-Still-Tachita Dean-2013
JG-helmut newtonTachita Dean-2013
Peter Klasen-The Fire Mouth 1965
Peter Klasen-The Fire Mouth 1965
Jackie-Andy Warhol 1964
Jackie-Andy Warhol 1964
Crashed Cars Exhibition-J.G Ballard 1970
Crashed Cars Exhibition-J.G Ballard 1970
Orange Car Crash-Andy Warhol 1963
Orange Car Crash-Andy Warhol 1963
Westway
Westway
Balfron Towers
Balfron Towers
Autopia 2-Dan Holdsworth
Autopia 2-Dan Holdsworth
Bergstrom Over Paris-Helmut Newton 1976
Bergstrom Over Paris-Helmut Newton 1976
T.V Murder, Cannes-Helmut Newton 1975
T.V Murder, Cannes-Helmut Newton 1975
Scenes From the Passion:The Hawthorne Tree-George Shaw 2001
Scenes From the Passion:The Hawthorne Tree-George Shaw 2001
Someone else's House-George Shaw 2018
Someone else’s House-George Shaw 2018
Peter Klasen-Blue Dream 2018
Peter Klasen-Blue Dream 2018

 

 

 

The Art of The Atrocity Exhibition

Cover of First UK Edition of The Atrocity Exhibition-J.G Ballard 1970-Based on Salvador Dali
Cover of First UK Edition of The Atrocity Exhibition-J.G Ballard 1970-Based on Salvador Dali’s City of Drawers

J.G Ballard, the genre busting English science fiction writer responsible for such novels as The Drowned World, Crash, High Rise and Empire of the Sun as well as some of the finest short stories in world literature, frequently remarked that he really wanted to be a painter in the surrealist tradition that he so loved instead of a writer.

This deep reverence and constant engagement with the visual arts can be most clearly seen in his demented and wildly perverse cult classic collage novel The Atrocity Exhibition. Referencing Ernst, Dali, Magritte, Dominguez, Matta, Bellmer, Delvaux, Tanguy as well as Pop Artists Tom Wesselman and Andy Warhol in the frequent free association tests and ‘condensed novels’ that comprise the text, The Atrocity Exhibition could easily be used as a textbook primer on surrealism and popular culture in the sixties.

In 1990 RE/Search Publications issued an expanded edition with four new stories, Ballard’s bizarre yet illuminating annotations, disturbing illustrations by the medical illustrator/graphic novelist Phoebe Gloeckner and photographs by Ana Barrado of brutalist buildings and weapon ranges. It also features a preface by the Hitman for the Apocalypse himself, William S. Burroughs.

Below are some of the many paintings mentioned in the text, some of which are very well known and others less so.

The Eye of Silence-Max Ernst 1943-1944

Garden Airplane Trap-Max Ernst 1935
Garden Airplane Trap-Max Ernst 1935
The Annunciation-Rene Magritte 1930
The Annunciation-Rene Magritte 1930
The Disasters of Mysticism-Roberto Matta 1942
The Disasters of Mysticism-Roberto Matta 1942
Hypercubic Christ-Salvador Dali 1954
Hypercubic Christ-Salvador Dali 1954
The Persistence of Memory-Salvador Dali 1931
The Persistence of Memory-Salvador Dali 1931
Dawn over the City-Paul Delvaux-1940
Dawn over the City-Paul Delvaux-1940
Decalcomania-Oscar Dominguez 1936
Decalcomania-Oscar Dominguez 1936
Hans Bellmer
Hans Bellmer
Indefinite Divisibility-Yves Tanguy 1942
Indefinite Divisibility-Yves Tanguy 1942
The Great American Nude 99-Tom Wesselman 1968
The Great American Nude 99-Tom Wesselman 1968
Marilyn Diptych-Andy Warhol 1962
Marilyn Diptych-Andy Warhol 1962