Surrealist Encounters—When We Could Still Have Them

In June 1933, launching the first issue of the Surrealist magazine, Minotaure, [1] poets André Breton and Paul Éluard conducted a survey that posed two questions to its readers: “What do you consider the most important encounter of your life? To what extent did this encounter strike you as being fortuitous, or preordained?” These questions seemed to be a mould for some special pass key, one that could unlock a buried treasure trove of the mind. Once unearthed, a profound emotional response is triggered; nobody is immune from it. Doesn’t everyone, if they really thought about it, have an encounter they’d consider the most important of their life?

What would Breton have said himself? Maybe it was his encounter with Nadja, the luminous adventure he’d recount in his “novel” Nadja, from 1928? Somehow he’d be effected forever more. He had never seen such eyes before. Was Nadja fated to enter his life? Nadja, the phantom woman who’d chosen for herself the name “Nadja” because in Russian it marked the beginning of the word for hope, and because she, Nadja, was only a beginning. One of the strangest romances ever written, Nadja leads us into that liminal zone where dream and reality blur and where we’re left wondering if any of this really happened at all—this infatuation with a woman, this infatuation with the streets of Paris.

Often we’re not sure if Nadja is a person or an event or a metaphor for the Surrealist city itself, or just a figment of Breton’s fertile and sometimes febrile imagination, an unconscious wish-image. Perhaps it’s all those things. “Who is the real Nadja,” Breton wrote. “The one who told me she had wandered all night in the forest of Fontainebleau with an archaeologist who was looking for some remains which, certainly, there was plenty of time to find by daylight… I mean, is the real Nadja this always inspired and inspiring creature who enjoyed being nowhere but in the streets, the only region of valid experience for her, in the streets?”

And yet, she was real. Nadja really did exist, a twenty-something woman, semi-destitute, alone, a beguiling presence, perhaps a bit mad. Or maybe she was made mad by a world ill-equipped for her, a woman free from conventional appearances and conventional discretion, from conventional behaviour, a woman, Breton said, who seemed to “foment a private conspiracy” inside her own head, inside her own imagination. Nothing about Nadja’s sense appeared common.

Hailing from the curiously named Saint-André, a commune now part of metropolitan Lille, in Northern France, Nadja’s real name was Léona Delcourt, born 1902. In 1919, aged seventeen, she’d had a fling with an English soldier, who’d stuck around after the Great War, the result of which was Marthe, Léona’s illegitimate daughter. The birth, in 1920, caused a scandal; not wanting to bring shame to her family, Léona immediately escaped to Paris, leaving baby Marthe with her grandparents. The mother had to save herself somehow. Léona was now her past. Her only future was Nadja, her new beginning. [2]


With no high-school diploma and little means, in fragile health (asthmatic) and with few prospects, Nadja lived in a shabby rented room at the Hotel Becquerel, rue Becquerel, in Montmartre. Her ambition, never realized, was to work in fashion. She refused a job offer in theatre because of insultingly poor pay. She sat in cafés instead, often writing letters, walked the streets, occasionally went to the cinema; for a while she had an elderly male “benefactor.” One time Nadja was arrested at the Gare du Nord for transporting two kilos of cocaine in her handbag and hat, bought in the Hague. Never an addict, nor any kind of real trafficker, she took the risk only for the money. Still, it was clear to the police then that she was a psychologically troubled young woman. They questioned her at the 18th arrondissement’s police station, releasing her later without charge. (One of the few written records of Nadja’s existence—still officially “Léona Delcourt”—is this police report, from March 21, 1927.) It had been the autumn prior, out on the street, late on a gloomy, idle afternoon, that Nadja and Breton first set eyes on each other.

In Nadja, the encounter was recorded as October 4, 1926. But Nadja’s letters to Breton, of which a dozen or so are beautifully preserved as part of Breton’s Archive, the encounter may have actually been on October 7. Why did Breton, so meticulous a man, say October 4? And why, too, did he say along rue Lafayette, when, in another of Nadja’s letters (January, 27 1927), she recalled the site of the encounter as near the entrance to the Saint-Georges métro station, almost a mile from rue Lafayette? Perhaps it was Nadja who’d misremembered? We’ll never know. Yet this is how Breton memorably described their coming together:

[A]fter stopping a few minutes at the stall outside the Humanité bookstore [rue Lafayette] and buying Trotsky’s latest work, I continued aimlessly in the direction of the Opéra. The offices and workshops were beginning to empty out …[and] people on the sidewalk were shaking hands, and already there were more people in the street now. I unconsciously watched their faces, their clothes, their way of walking. No, it was not yet these people who would be ready to create the Revolution. I had just crossed the street 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, she had noticed me, too, or perhaps had been watching me for several moments. She carried her head high, unlike everyone else on the sidewalk. And she looked so delicate she scarcely seemed to touch the ground as she walked. A faint smile may have been wandering across her face. She was curiously made up, as though beginning with her eyes, she had not had time to finish… Perhaps I had never seen such eyes. Without a moment’s hesitation, I spoke to this unknown woman, though I must admit that I expected the worst.

Yet she did respond. And it wasn’t the worst. She smiled, Breton noted, “quite mysteriously and somehow knowingly.” (His italics.) She claimed to be going to the hairdresser, which, he sensed, was a lie. They stopped at a café terrace near Gare du Nord and there Breton “took a better look at her.” “What was so extraordinary about what was happening in those eyes?” he wondered to himself. “What was it they reflected—some obscure distress and at the same time some luminous pride?” They talked, awkwardly, hesitantly, for a while, and arranged to meet again the following day. About to part, Breton wanted “to ask her one question which sums up all the rest, a question only I, probably, would ever ask, but which has at least once found a reply worthy of it: ‘who are you?’ And she, without a moment’s hesitation: ‘I am the soul in limbo’.” [3]

There’s something charming and chivalrous about Breton’s tonality here, about his whole portrayal of Nadja, the touching passages he’d eventually put down in a book she always knew he’d write. “You will write a novel about me, André,” she’d said. “I am sure you will. Don’t say you won’t. Be careful: everything fades, everything vanishes. Something must remain of us…” I’m moved each time I read words like these. Breton seems honest about trying to enter Nadja’s mind, about entering into her desolate space, on her terms, genuinely out to understand his attraction, their mutual attraction, their fleeting Surrealist encounter, enduring for an eternity.

Perhaps encounters like these are really modern encounters. Or are they already archaic in our pandemic age? They symbolize, symbolized, what the Surrealists called the “new spirit,” a thoroughly urban spirit, were men and women “freely” encountered one another, by chance, by objective chance, out in the public realm; never, certainly, on equal terms, but the gaze would cut both ways, would look back. People watched one another, lost and found one another, did so amid the throng. It was the stuff of modern poetry as well as modern life. In one of the last letters Nadja ever wrote to Breton (January 27, 1927), she, too, remembered seeing him for the first time, in the memorable scene he had described, “with a blank look on your face,” she’d said, standing out in the crowd “like a ray of calm grandeur.” The radiant light seemed to get “caught up in the curls of your hair.”

When Breton wrote Nadja he was thirty years old, only six years Nadja’s senior. They belonged to the same generation, living out an interregnum between wars. Perhaps they sensed the impending doom. He’d quit his medical studies; and, while fascinated by medicine, especially psychiatry, he had no more pretensions about practicing it—indeed about practicing any profession. By the early 1920s, Breton had already vowed to devote himself exclusively to literature, art and Surrealism. Surrealism would be his day as well as his night job. He’d suffer financially for it, but stuck throughout to his belief that “there’s no use being alive if one must work. The event from which each of us is entitled to expect the revelation of life’s meaning—that event which I may not yet have found but on whose path I myself seek—is not earned by work.” (Again the italics are Breton’s.)

The other thing about Breton was that he was already married. He tells Nadja this but somehow she’d guessed. She probably recognized this marriage was kaput, was effectively over. Breton had met Simone Kahn in Luxembourg Gardens and they’d wed in 1921. She’d been a frequenter of La maison des amis des livres, along rue de l’Odéon, in the 6th arrondissement, the nation’s first female-owned and run bookstore, Adrienne Monnier’s passion. Simone interested herself in art and the avant-garde and so her liaison with Breton was always likely to happen. She’d participated in early Surrealist ventures around unconscious “automatic writing.” But she and Breton drifted apart, eventually divorcing in 1931, though they remained on amicable terms.

She knew all about her husband’s thing with Nadja, and was, to a certain degree, complicit in it. She and Nadja spoke at least once to each other over the telephone. And Nadja wrote to Simone. Breton told Simone about Nadja. He told her what he and Nadja did together. They met in cafes. They wandered the streets. They talked. They argued. They fell silent. Breton recounted the first kiss, their debut evening together, in a flea-bitten hotel, how they took late-night trains beyond Paris, to provincial faubourgs, where everything was closed and there was nothing to do, nowhere to stay.

Breton lends Nadja his books, hoping she won’t read them. One was Les pas perdus [The Lost Steps], a series of essays published in 1924, an important Surrealist opening gambit, bits and pieces on artists and figures like Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp, Lautréamont and Jacques Vaché; some are collaborative commentaries written with Philippe Soupault and Louis Aragon—“L’esprit nouveau,” for instance—as well as a position statement on Surrealism’s relationship to Dada. Nadja is intrigued, bemused by its title. “Lost steps?” she queried. “But there’s no such thing!” Her life, however, would suggest otherwise: it was full of lost steps; or at least full of past footprints she’d taken care to efface, purposely wanted to cover over. It’s evident that their affair is stormy. We know it from the letters she’d write Breton, frequently shifting between the formal and informal, between vous and tu, depending upon mood. Nadja rarely bothered with punctuation.

Many bore the letterheads of the cafes she sat in. Café Terminus at Gare St. Lazare was a favourite; another was Café de la Régence, along rue Saint-Honoré; elsewhere, Chez Graff, near Place Blanche in the Pigalle, a café Breton didn’t much like, despite being near to his own apartment at 42 rue Fontaine; ironically, its location today bears his own name: Place André Breton. Another haunt was Café Wepler, Place Clichy, immortalized by Henry Miller, a regular in the early 1930s, who’d always hope to encounter some acquaintance or another there, if only to bum a meal.

In one letter (October, 9 1926), only days after they’d first met, Nadja tells Breton: “I’ve some things to say to you, come and listen to me this afternoon around 5:30pm at the little café on rue Lafayette. There’s a misunderstanding between us. I will explain it to you. I want to see you again—Nadja.” (Was the French postal service almost as good then as our e-mail today? Or did Nadja deliver her letter by hand?) In another correspondence, Nadja kisses the page in red lipstick, leaving her luscious pouting imprint, alongside the inscription: “C’est moi.” “GARDER SUR VOUS!” is emblazoned overleaf. “It’s me.” “KEEP IT WITH YOU!”

Nadja makes pencil sketches in cafes, too, doodling and designing mysterious creatures from her dreams; she never had the inclination to draw before encountering Breton. Some sketches are naïve; others move and intrigue him. Nonetheless, he keeps them, seemingly all, for the forty remaining years of his life. “Nadja has invented a marvelous flower for me,” he wrote. It was “La fleur des amants”— “The Lovers’ Flower.” “It is during a lunch in the country that this flower appeared to her,” Breton said, “and that I saw her trying—quite clumsily—to reproduce. She comes back to it several times, afterwards, to improve the drawing and give each of the two pairs of eyes a different expression. It is essentially under this sign that the time we spent together should be placed, and it remains the graphic symbol which has given Nadja the key to all the rest.”

Nadja evidently loved Breton. He was her “Saint André,” her “Lion-King,” paired with herself, Lionne, after Léona, the “Lionne-Reine”—the Lioness-Queen. Breton is deeply affected by Nadja. And yet, he knows, when he’s writing about her, recalling what had happened to them over that late 1926/early 1927 period, so paltry a time-span, that he didn’t truly, deeply, madly love her. How did he know?

“I had not been granted the realization until today,” he mused in the closing sequences of Nadja. It had been a car ride they’d taken together, returning to Paris from a trip to Versailles. Nadja was beside him. Suddenly, without any warning, she pressed her foot down on his, on the accelerator, and tried to cover his eyes with her hands, “in the oblivion of an interminable kiss, desiring to extinguish us, doubtless forever.” They might collide at full speed, with one of the splendid trees lining the route, in a frenzied test of love, of two lovers deciding to spectacularly end it together, in a poetic suicide pact. But Breton hadn’t yielded to the desire and it was clear then, at that moment, how he really felt, perhaps how he’d always felt, about Nadja.

She was, for him, a concept of love, an abstraction. Was he a rat, a sleaze-bag, leading her on this way, using her as literary grist? Perhaps. For he loved her intellectually, as a sort of metaphysics. On November, 8 1926, Breton wrote his wife Simone, explaining himself, typically cryptically, outlining to her, and maybe to himself, what might be this thing called love: “I don’t love her,” he said. “She’s only capable of calling into question all that I love and the manner in which I have to love.”

Nadja established Breton as the magus of Surrealism; his bewitching book set the high bar of the Surrealist love encounter, and of how objective chance might underwrite this encounter. The encounter strikes. Sometimes it strikes. It strikes like a meteor. Like a rain shower immediately bursting into flames. In post-pandemic times, will it ever strike again?

[1] Minotaure was the Surrealists’ “Artistic and Literary Review,” running thirteen issues from June 1933 up until the onset of the Second War War in 1939. Founded by a young Swiss publisher Albert Skira, whose eponymous press had that year opened an office in Paris. Breton and Pierre Mabille assumed editorial direction. The pedigree of contributors is staggering, running like a Who’s Who of the modern movement. The list of artists illustrating Minotaure’s lavish frontispieces is alone enough to set the remarkable tone: Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Salvadore Dali, Joan Miró, René Magritte, Henri Matisse, André Masson, André Derain, Max Ernst, and Diego Rivera. We’ll never see the likes of Minotaure again. Then again, maybe we will.

[2] The Dutch novelist Hester Albach once went in search of the real Nadja, and produced an affecting homage, a sympathetic biography with fictional flourishes, translated into French as Léona: héroïne du surréalisme (Actes Sud: Arles, 2009). Albach tracks Léona’s enigmatic existence and traces out a life that would end in 1941, aged thirty-eight, in a Bailleul mental asylum, not far from her birthplace. She’d been interned since Spring 1927, certified as hysterical and maniacal, likely schizophrenic.

[3] This translation is Richard Howard’s 1960 Grove Press rendering of Breton’s original French: “Je suis l’âme errante.” I’ve always thought that “the soul in limbo,” while poetic, was never quite right. It somehow casts resigned light on Nadja’s tragic yet more affirmative response: “I am the wandering soul.”

About Andy Merrifield

Writer, Urbanist, Marxist, Educator
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