Throughout his novel Nadja, André Breton details and illustrates the city of Paris (as well as other places in France) through his own eyes as he uses his own perspective to help him shape his view of the city, including its occupants. By examining the text of Nadja, the reader is able to create of vision of Paris in his own head, but in addition to this, the reader is also able to see into Breton’s personal perspective. While these details and observations may lead one to think that Breton is acting as a flâneur, I think it is rather the case that Breton begins the novel as a flâneur, whether consciously or unconsciously, but slowly progresses into a man who is only observing one small aspect of the city: Nadja.
When Breton begins his novel, he describes the city in a manner that sets up the dreamlike state. He describes the city as he moves from one place to the next, creating the floating feeling of drifting through Paris. He gives the reader a sense of the setting where the plot of his story will later take place. In this beginning section, the details that Breton uses to orient the reader help to create the image of Breton as a flâneur observing his environment. He takes note of his surroundings in a way that let’s the reader know that Breton had the time to leisurely enjoy his city in the same manner as a flâneur. As he is setting himself up to recount of his interactions with the character Nadja, Breton writes, “…I am concerned, I say, with facts which may belong to the order of pure observation…” (19). With this statement, the reader can see how Breton is using his observations as the basis for creation of the world in which his narrative will take place; he is concerned with using what he has noted in personal experiences to verify his stories of Nadja.
While at times it seems as though Breton floats through the city, (as he leads the reader to believe: “I cannot see, as I hurry along [the Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle], what could constitute for me, even without my knowing it, a magnetic pole in either space or time. No: not even the extremely handsome, extremely useless Porte Sainte-Denis” (32).) , he still does take note of things that he finds to be unique to Paris. These places work in the mind of Breton as associations, and as the novel progresses, the reader is able to see how these associations are linked to the character Nadja. Breton tells the reader of how he walks through the city, seemingly not noting his surroundings, yet detailing boulevards and establishments that build his city of associations. Whether wanting to admit it or not, these details show the reader Breton is more than just a man of the crowd being swept up with the flow of people but rather, a flâneur noting the special details of Paris. For example, even when criticizing what he notes, Breton writes, “Located at the end of the now destroyed Passage de l’Opéra, the “Théâtre Moderne,” aside from the fact that the plays put on there had still less importance…[t]he ridiculous acting of the performers, who paid only the faintest attention to their parts, scarcely listening to each other and busy making dates with members of the audience, which consisted of fifteen people at the most…” (37-38). Breton notices the buildings, establishments, and people that make up this city, and uses this to set the stage for the plot he unfolds.
However, as soon as Breton encounters Nadja, the way in which he notes and describes what is happening in the city around him shifts from that of the flâneur, in my opinion. At this point, Breton interacts almost solely with Nadja, and the places he visits are centered around what will work for himself and Nadja. In this way, Breton is adhering to his concept of the individual creating his own city through the associations he makes with different establishments. The reader does not see the Paris that he knows, but rather, the Paris that Breton has constructed around the thoughts of Nadja. When Breton first encounters Nadja, the reader can see how he is still playing the role of the flâneur: “I had just crossed an intersection whose name I don’t know, in front of a church. Suddenly, perhaps still ten feet away, I saw a young, poorly dressed woman walking toward me…” (64). Breton continues on to give a detailed description of this woman he has noticed in the crowd. From this point onward, the novel is centered around this woman and Breton does not seem to notice the crowd and the city the same way he did previously; he constructs a new city of associations, proving the ephemeral nature of Paris. It is with the interaction with Nadja that Breton makes the transformation from flâneur to the man infatuated with this woman.
While Breton still tries to give accounts of what he notes throughout the city, his accounts are now limited to attractions concerning Nadja, or to accounts of the woman herself. On October 7th Breton writes, “The whole morning…I have been bothering myself about Nadja; it was a mistake not having made a date with her today….When I am near her I am nearer things which are near her” (90). The reader can see how this initial attraction to the woman in the crowd on behalf of the flâneur has turned into an infatuation that his blinded Breton to everything except for that which concerns or surrounds Nadja.
While Breton does begin his novel as a flâneur of Paris, the moment he meets Nadja becomes pivotal for the novel as he switches the tone in which he notices his environs and draws his associations. Previous to this encounter, Breton freely gives accounts of the city and what he thinks are important aspects to be noted from his point of view as a critic and intellectual. After meeting Nadja, all accounts quickly switch to anything describing his infatuation with this woman and what surrounds her. Breton describes the venues the two visit, as well as the journeys they take through the city to get there, however, instead of having the tone of the flâneur who is noting the crowd, the city, and their details, Breton is swept up in the details of Nadja and their adventures together. In this way, the encounter with Nadja changes Breton from a more analytical observer to a man of the crowd blinded by a woman he meets in the streets of Paris.