Nadja: Person vs. Character, Flâneuse vs. Muse

While reading Nadja, one is given the direct impression that it is not a “novel” in the traditional sense of the word. André Breton describes particular places and people in Paris in such detail, that we know that the narrative takes place in the “modern” world of the 1920s. However, though the novel describes people that existed and things that actually occurred, it is not an autobiography—that is, it doesn’t constrict itself to being an exact and true account of Breton’s affair with Nadja, the principle character of the story. Breton needs Nadja to function as a character and muse in his novel, not as a direct reflection of the person that she was in real life.

This particular edition of Nadja contains an introduction in which her true identity, and true role in Breton’s life, is revealed. If one were to skip the introduction, however, they would still get a good sense of the fact that Nadja is a real person from Breton’s informal “introduction” in the first section of the book. He discusses at length his hatred for thinly veiled truths that some writers try to pass off as fiction (17), and later quotes Nadja as saying that she wants him to write a novel about her (100). She is even quoted as picking out her character’s name (66). What he allows her to control about her own character and her own story effectively ends here.

Throughout the rest of the narrative, Breton carefully controls what he tells us about Nadja, and what he allows her to tell us about herself through direct citations. We learn about her character predominantly through his descriptions of her, and not through what Nadja herself has said. The few instances where we are shown evidence of Nadja’s own surrealist musings, they are clustered together, and then heavily analyzed by Breton, rather than being allowed to speak for themselves; this occurs most prominently with the section of fragmented quotations (116), and with the section devoted to her drawings (117-126). This could be considered Breton’s tool for manipulating his muse, and not allowing her to take control of the narrative.

Does Nadja function only as a muse in Breton’s text, or as a flâneuse in her own right? She is certainly Breton’s muse—he describes her several times as inspiring and mystical—but it is also possible that he considers her a wandering observer of Paris herself as well. As a surrealist, he believes that the insane have a deeper and more profound understanding of the world; he says that he reads Nadja’s letters “the same way I read all kinds of surrealist texts,” (144) which could imply that he considers Nadja as more than merely a muse. He does, however, seem to credit himself with fueling Nadja to create [“Before we met, she had never drawn at all,” (130)].

Though Nadja creates many of the deep thoughts that Breton focuses on in the novel, he is the one who ultimately analyzes and communicates them to us. Nadja, apparently, enjoys taking the metro and trying to decipher what the people around her are thinking by the expressions on their faces (68). She begins with a simple musing about them—“They are good people”—and it catapults Breton into a rant about his hatred of the servitude that these people have to endure. Whenever she observes something in her wanderings, it is Breton who takes those observations and turned them into surrealist narrative. Nadja has been simplified into being the fuel for Breton’s creative genius. As she has been converted from person to character, she also been converted from flâneuse to muse.

Perhaps this occurred because Nadja was institutionalized. It is possible that Breton wanted Nadja to be a surrealist thinker in her own right, but it was made impossible due to her incarceration. It is fairly clear, after all, that Breton does not think positively about institutions. He considers them to be the source of someone’s ultimate fall into irreparable insanity, rather than the cure (140). Is he insinuating that had she not been institutionalized, she could have been an artist or a writer herself? Or did he think that the only way that Nadja’s musings would mean anything was if he justified them by writing about her? Breton clearly comes off as being egotistical–the question is whether or not he respects Nadja as the original creator of profound thought, or as the one who inspires Breton to be so.

post by Diana Caudill

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