The Magnetic Fields by Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault
Translated by Charlotte Mandell

I first stumbled across the Surrealist Andre Breton a looooooong time ago – 1976 to be precise – although at the time I didn’t know it was him….. On the insert sheet of Patti Smith’s “Radio Ethiopia” album was a quote: “Beauty will be convulsive or not at all – Nadja” . I had no idea who “Nadja” was or where the quote came from; it wasn’t until much later in my reading life that I stumbled across the surrealist authors of the twentieth century and discovered that “Nadja” was actually a book by Andre Breton. I obtained my copy (I think!) in my twenties, and haven’t returned to it since. However, the Surrealists fascinate me, and a programmes about them which debuted on the inaugural night of the nascent BBC4 channel, “Surrealissimo!”, was a real joy, signalling what the channel would be at its best. Alas, it only occasionally reaches those heights nowadays, but that’s another matter…

Anyway, apart from “Nadja”, I don’t think I’ve read anything else by Breton; but I was very interested to see that NYRB were bringing out a new translation of the seminal work “The Magnetic Fields” by Breton and Philippe Soupault (co-founder, with Breton, of the Surrealist movement), translated by Charlotte Mandell. Composed in the spring of 1919, when both men were recovering from the horrors of WW1, it was conceived of as a reaction to over-composed literary works. Instead, the authors embraced ‘automatic writing’, a form of composition involving writing without consciously engaging with or controlling the words which would come out. Breton and Soupault would write every day for a week, as fast as they could, in secrecy and without revisions. The results would be left to stand exactly as they were; and that process created what has been called the first work of literary Surrealism.

On these shores of bloodstained pebbles, you can hear the tender murmurs of the stars.

Excited as I was to be able to read this, the question *did* arise as to how to approach it! There’s quite a lot of baggage and expectation built into this book, but in the end I just plunged in and wallowed in the language. And I think that’s key here; automatic writing of whatever form is not going to be linear, or tell a story, or necessarily make sense. There are nine sections, some of which are written in poetic form and some in prose, and each is filled with the most beautiful language. As you read through suddenly wonderful imagery springs out, or a sentence which lodges in the brain, and it’s full of the most stunning phrases. The pictures the writing paints are often vivid and, yes, surreal because of the unexpected juxtapositions. As I read on, the writings sparked my imagination and sent it off in all manner of directions – this was really unlike anything else I’d read (the nearest comparison I can think of off the top of my head is maybe Burroughs’ cut-ups but they’re more controlled).

We shatter like stars into incomprehensible directions, among the great blue veins of distance and in mineral deposits.

You might be wondering, well what does it all mean? Frankly, I think it means what you want it to mean and what you take from it is up to you. The fact that early in the text the authors refer to “constrained songs” immediately made me think of the OuLiPo group and their writing constraints, and in a way the Surrealists and their automatic writing were early precursors of this. In the end, I think what matters most here is the beauty of the words, rendered most wonderfully in Charlotte Mandell’s translation. Interestingly, in her afterword she reveals that the order in which the images appear in the verse was crucial to her, and I think that brings out a key element; these are words which create striking visuals, and they may cause the reader to bypass conscious controls when reading in the same way as the authors did when writing. If that causes you to dig more deeply into your unconcious, that’s an interesting side-effect of this book of beautiful words. And in the same way as surrealistic art succeeds by using unusual juxtapositions of visual items to expand the mind, so do the unusual word sequences in this book.

I dream of summer in the dormitory
They said to me What do you have in place of a heart

As you might have guessed, I found reading “The Magnetic Fields” a fascinating and stimulating experience! I’ve mentioned before how I love to wallow in words, not always worrying about meanings but instead taking images and emotions from them. Certainly, this kind of writing seems to me to be very much about stepping away from regular narrative and into something looser, more experimental and very exciting to read. “The Magnetic Fields” was everything I hoped and expected it would be, and if you want to have your preconceptions challenged concerning what writing should be like, this is definitely the book for you! 😀

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)

Does poetry count as non-fiction? i think so!