“When we remember the experience of reading a book, we imagine a continuous unfolding of images.” (What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund)
In Nadja, Andre Breton presents the story of his interactions with a woman in Paris both in text and images. Most of the images presented are photographs, and they appear in the text shortly after Breton has mentioned them as a place he has visited in his narrative. The places are almost always empty of other people, or include people that are far away, their backs turned. When reading Nadja, the images had an unsettling quality that I could not pinpoint until Breton described his reasoning behind including them: “I wanted in fact – with some of the people and some of the objects – to provide a photographic image of them taken at the special angle from which I myself had looked at them” (151-152). The eerie feeling then is not from the emptinessof the images, but from the force of the voyeur behind the camera lens.
“These images we ‘see’ when we read are personal: What we do not see is what the author pictured when writing a particular book. That is to say: Every narrative is meant to be transposed; imaginatively translated. Associatively translated. It is ours” (Mendelsund 207).
But throughout Nadja, Breton asserts his presence. He lays claim over this narrative again and again, and is preoccupied with the concept of sight.
“I have seen her fern-colored eyes open mornings on a world where the beating of hope’s great wings is scarcely distinct from the other sounds which are those of terror and, upon such a world, I had as yet seen eyes do nothing but close” (Breton 111).
Breton is terrified of not seeing. In fact, it is the story of Nadja’s covering his eyes while he is driving that is so powerful and haunting that he cannot bring himself to recount it fully, and mentions it in a footnote where her identity is at first elided.
When Breton’s relationship with Nadja begins to dissipate, there is no clear scene in the narrative that marks their goodbye. Instead, Breton shifts from Nadja the person to Nadja the artist, and begins detailing the drawings that she has given to him. Breton claims ownership over these as well, asserting that Nadja did not draw at all before meeting him. Like the men he describes who look at portraits of women late at night in museums (112), Breton disposes himself of the living person in order to view her through her art.
“Perhaps life needs to be deciphered like a cryptogram” (Breton 112).
Nadja does not care about her name. She foresees the future when Breton will write this recounting of their relationship, and asks for him to choose a suitable pseudonym for her. But Breton is, from the beginning, full of names. He names people he sees, those he corresponds with, the places he has been and will go. He has an unquenchable need to be regarded as a writer, to be seen as an artist.
Amid this I think of Breton’s clique of surrealism, deciding who is in and who is out, and how this is the opposite spirit of the collective. In asserting the self as the creator of art, the art loses the power of community. The fire in Nadja’s eyes is partially due to mental illness, but is also the result of her full embodiment of art and experiences, without regard for recognition or praise. The fire in Breton’s is for the claiming of it, of anchoring his name to his art.