Surrealism/Avant-Garde Novel

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Surrealism/Avant-Garde Novel

Deborah Jenson

Surrealism itself was conceptualized by its founder André Breton as an antidote to the novel. In the first Manifesto of Surrealism (1924), Breton described the novel, shaped by realist and positivist conventions (see REALISM), as hostile to the growth of the reader's intellect or ethical sense. The realist novel's informational and descriptive style, epitomized by the phrase “The Marquise went out at five” (7), had all the clarity of “a dog's life” (6) and fostered characters who represented the repetitive construction of a human type in the context of a prescriptive social logic. In the face of the novel's ready-made humans, Breton concluded: “The only discretionary power left to me is to close the book” (7). But although the Surrealists consistently aligned themselves against stasis, convention, and the psychosocial character formation that perpetuate them, they were also intrigued by the possibility of using narrative techniques and literary character formation to cultivate alternative experiences of the world in authors and readers. The psychic revelations of the avant-garde novel associated with Surrealism were born of the imagination's encounter with the technology of narrative, inflected by the fields of psychiatry and neurology in which Breton had been trained.

The first published book of literary Surrealism, Breton and Philippe Soupault's Les champs magnétiques (1920, Magnetic Fields), has been called a novel, but its strict use of psychic automatism, displayed at three writing “speeds,” deconstructs or avoids constructing virtually all temporal and spatial narrative continuity of character and story (see TIME, SPACE). Other Surrealist novels from the early 1920s include Mort aux vaches et au champ d'honneur (1923, Death to the Pigs and to the Field of Glory) by Benjamin Péret and, in Spain, El Incongruente (1922, The Incongruent One) by Ramón Gómez de la Serna.

The best-known example of a Surrealist avant-garde novel is Breton's 1928 Nadja. Nonlinear in its structure, this hybrid photo-narrative, anchored partly in the tradition of intimate or autobiographical writings, represents the Parisian trajectory of the author's brief relationship with a young woman who was a patient of the psychiatrist Pierre Janet (1859—1947). Nadja is an interrogation of the subjective relation to the enigma of the other's existence, mapped in urban space. The unpredictable female protagonist stimulated productive forms of non-knowing and experimental cognition for the author, who opens the text with the question “Who am I?” Nadja was preceded by Le paysan de Paris (1926, Nightwalker) by Louis Aragon and La Liberté ou l'amour! (1927, Give Me Liberty or Give Me Love!) by Robert Desnos. It was contemporaneous with the composition of the novel Aurora by Michel Leiris and Les Dernières Nuits de Paris (Last Nights of Paris) by Soupault.

Visual artists figure strongly in the history of the Surrealist avant-garde novel also, showing its fundamentally transmedia approach to experimental narrativity. Giorgio de Chirico published Hebdomeros in 1929, and Salvador Dalí published Hidden Faces in 1945. Max Ernst innovated with the collage novel A Week of Kindness or the Seven Deadly Elements (1934), in which illustrations from pulp novels and catalogues were arranged in book form so as to stimulate unconscious or libidinal narratives in the viewer (see PSYCHOANALYTIC THEORY). British painter and writer Leonora Carrington, born in 1917, wrote novels including The House of Fear (1938) and The Oval Lady (1939). Her fiction served as an inspiration to later avant-garde novels by women writers like Angela Carter and Kathy Acker, in which the hierarchies of gender and power that had been so evident in avant-garde works such as Nadja were destabilized.

The Surrealist avant-garde novel is related to novelistic experimentation in the Bloomsbury group and also to other areas of the modernist tradition, including novels such as Nightwood (1936) by expatriate Djuna Barnes (see MODERNIS). Raymond Queneau, who was briefly affiliated with Surrealism, later founded the avant-garde literary group OULIPO (“Workshop for Potential Literature”), famous for its use of constrained writing techniques. Queneau's surrealist novel Le Chiendent (1933, The Bark Tree) was a precursor to the avant-garde genre of the nouveau roman or “new novel,” and shows a genealogy leading from the Surrealist novel to later avant-garde fictional forms. In effect, despite the Surrealist rejection of the novel as the emblematic form of bourgeois modernity, iconoclastic Surrealist revisions of the novel mark a lasting tension between the realist mode and the experimental mode in fiction, rather than a disavowal of the novel per se. It is in this sense that Breton ultimately would claim the novel as one of Surrealism's lasting claims to the avant-garde. Maurice Nadeau notes that after the two world wars, Breton cited a Surrealist novel by Julien Gracq as a sign that in the absence of a “more emancipating movement,” Surrealism remained in the front lines—“in the avant-garde” of experimental culture (216).

SEE ALSO: Adaptation/Appropriation, Decadent Novel, Definitions of the Novel, Intertextuality, Life Writing, Metafiction, Modernism.


1. Biro, A. and R. Passeron (1982), Dictionnaire général du Surréalisme et ses environs.

2. Breton, A. (1960), Nadja, trans. R. Howard.

3. Breton, A. (1969), Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. R. Seaver and H.R. Lane.

4. Breton, A. (1978), What Is Surrealism?, ed. F. Rosemont.

5. Breton, A. and P. Soupault (1985), Magnetic Fields, trans. D. Gascoyne.

6. Chadwick, W. (1998), Mirror Images.

7. Nadeau, M. (1989), History of Surrealism.