Jim Elkins's Reviews > Nadja

Nadja by André Breton
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A crushingly sexist book

I have written on this book at some length, from another perspective, on the site writingwithimages.com/breton-nadja.

For this review I only want to note an amazing obtuseness. I suppose it could make sense to call Nadja a psychoanalytic masterpiece, because of the time and place it was written, as part of the Surrealist project, and Breton's reading of Freud. But psychologically, it is a horror show. In the book the narrator, Breton, is married; he starts seeing Nadja, and it never occurs to him -- as a narrator, or as an author who might consider his book's structure or interest -- to say anything about how he feels about his wife, or vice versa. At one point he writes:

"I go out at three with my wife and a friend; in the taxi we continue discussing Nadja, as we have been doing during lunch." (p. 91)

This is the first we've been told the narrator has mentioned Nadja to his wife, and Breton doesn't seem to be aware that readers might expect him to put some inflection on this revelation -- either that it was normal in their marriage, or that they had been arguing. A moment later he spots her:

"I run, completely at random, in one of the three directions she may have taken."

Again, no mention of what his wife thinks of this behavior. And at the bottom of the same page:

"This is the second consecutive day I have met her: it is apparent that she is at my mercy."

With no notation about how we're meant to understand that.

When Nadja is committed to an asylum, Breton writes several pages exonerating himself for any responsibility (p. 136), hoping that Nadja doesn't think there's a difference between life outside and inside the asylum, and excoriating the psychiatric community; he then uses that as an excuse for never visiting her!

"My general contempt for psychiatry, its rituals and its works, is reason enough for my not yet having dared investigate what has become of Nadja." (p. 141)

It doesn't seem to occur to him this might seem pusillanimous, or that his intellectual and abstract critique of psychiatry may appear either as heartless, or -- worse, from his point of view -- as a construction that can help release him from his love for her. (After all, if madness and sanity interpenetrate, as he insists, why not continue to love Nadja?)

As a document of Breton's Surrealism, as an experiment with images, an instance of psychoanalysis, dream analysis, and clairvoyance and mysticism in Paris in 1928, "Nadja" is wonderful. As an experiment in writing with images (as I discuss on the other site), is is often fascinating. But as a novel, a memoir, or any sort of reflective narrative, it's appalling -- or at the very least, impenetrably obtuse.
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Reading Progress

December 1, 2013 – Shelved
December 1, 2013 – Shelved as: french
Started Reading
December 3, 2013 – Finished Reading

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