French

Desire: The Drive & Death of Surrealism

Philippe Soupault by Béatrice Mousli
Flammarion, 2010, 473 pgs
Purchase at Amazon

Philippe Soupault is no longer a well-known writer on this side of the Atlantic, although his work was very well-known in the 1920s and 1930s, the period during which he co-founded the Surrealist movement with André Breton.

In 1926 Soupault was ejected from the movement for a variety of peccadillos including his rejection of the Surrealist movement’s newfound Marxism. Soupault had been a member of the haute bourgeoisie of Paris by birth. As a young man he had run the French Atlantic petroleum fleet. He also later edited books for Bernard Grasset, ran Radio France in Tunis during World War II, and worked for UNESCO as a globe-trotting executive, as well as working as a journalist for a variety of French dailies and monthlies for decades. Soupault’s journalism was sometimes artistic, but he also covered French elections and followed various candidates, as well as reporting from the United States, Russia, Germany and many other countries.

Soupault’s energy and enthusiasm, as well as his multidimensional talents, enabled him to publish at least a dozen novels, at least again as many critical studies, some twenty volumes of poetry, a half dozen mémoires—to note only a few of the genres in which he worked. When Soupault was excommunicated from Surrealism the movement lost one of its most talented contributors, and it could be said that after his departure in 1926 the movement collapsed into various kinds of stasis and never really regained form.

Beatrice Mousli’s biography of Philippe Soupault (Flammarion, 2010, 473 pages) is a massive undertaking. I’ve read 35 or so volumes of Soupault’s work, but always found it difficult to understand the gaps between the words and the life, particularly in terms of his romantic escapades. Soupault himself said that in his Mémoires he would not attempt to give details about his romantic life, only his public life. He claimed this was a question of discretion (or perhaps it was the indiscretions). I never understood what happened between the first, second, third and fourth wives.

Muriel Reed, his lover and former student, was never an actual wife, but by American standards she would have been a common-law wife. Reed lived with Soupault in Paris after the Second World War and committed suicide from the balcony of their apartment. The few fugitive references to this woman were scarce in the literature until now. In the timeline that Soupault’s French editor Lydie Lachenal offers, she refers with one sentence to Reed’s fate: “Suicide de Muriel: un soir comme les autres elle se précipite par le fenêtre, du cinquième étage” (Chronologie 15). There is no motivation given in the Lachenal timeline.

In the Mousli biography much of the context surrounding Reed is reconstructed. We discover that she (who had lived with Soupault for twenty years outside of wedlock) was depressed and working on a story about depression. She had traveled in Russia, Albania, the United States, and to the island of Mauritius as a journalist for the magazine Réalities. In the winter of 1965, a few days after her 45th birthday, Reed killed herself. Getting more of the story of Muriel Reed helps give context to this period of Soupault’s life. Perhaps she was upset that he was so thoroughly unfaithful to her?

Soupault was also seeing a Surrealist woman named Nelly Kaplan, whom he dated several times a week (he shared Nelly with Abel Gance and André Breton). Soupault met Kaplan in 1954, and their relationship lasted until 1964, “…déjeuners et diners en ville les reunissant plusieurs fois par semaine” (421) a fact he didn’t hide. Soupault was still married to his wife, Re, during that time. The story of Soupault’s myriad, overlapping amours (only the official ones are sketched out, as there were prostitutes mixed in too) is evidenced in the testimonial Derniers Nuits de Paris.

The Surrealists had read Freud and took him to mean that the freeing of the id would result in a better society, in which alienation was no longer present as one could find immediate satisfaction and the result would be happiness. (Freud never actually said this, but most of the Surrealists had not read him very carefully.) Soupault had been raised Catholic but had discarded this tradition in favor of the notion that the Father and the Ten Commandments should be dismissed in order to free desire. Desire became the elixir of Surrealism, the gasoline that drove the movement: but it was also a Pandora’s box.

If desire became the goddess of the Surrealists, and if they sought to link erotic dreams to life, they created nightmares for the actual women in their lives. Only the toughest survived. Some ended up in mental hospitals, others killed themselves. The story of Reed is just one small part of Soupault’s life, but it is also important as he had put his apartment (and thus all his cash) in her name. When her well-connected American family arrived to clean up after her death they confiscated everything in the apartment including the paintings and pushed Soupault out. He never published much again, although he lived another twenty five years. Soupault’s race through life came to an abrupt halt.

If Mousli’s book gives us new information about Soupault’s women (information heretofore unavailable to all but the inner circle), it also gives new and precise information about the friendship that Soupault shared with Breton and many other Surrealists and members of the Parisian elite. While this information was covered to some extent in Bernard Morlino’s biography of 1986 and in Soupault’s own memoirs, much new information has been collected. Mousli gives us insight into Soupault’s writing career (including the mountains of journalism that has never been collected) and into his continuous travels on four continents to support his work for magazines and for UNESCO.

Much remains to be understood about Soupault’s intimate life, including the quality of his relationships. He appears to have put his sexual well-being first, and then his social prestige, but although he had time for many flings and impromptu relationships he did not take good care of his health. He smoked throughout his life, was hospitalized in his twenties for nervous exhaustion, incarcerated and given electro-shock therapy by the Vichy government in World War II, and was punched by Breton, among others in various misunderstandings, but still lived to be 93. It has long been thought that Breton was the adventurer in the sexual realm and that Soupault had been more or less a different species of fish.

This biography undoes that myth and reveals that Soupault and Breton were more similar than previously thought, and that long after they had parted company as founders of Surrealism they remained in touch. Mousli’s work breaks new ground and opens whole new areas for investigation while remaining fast-paced and illuminating.

 

Lachenal, Lydie. Philippe Soupault Chronologie. (Paris: Lachenal & Ritter, 1997).

 

How I Am Not Learning French in Eight Weeks or Less

By Sunday, I am undone.

Managing a rapidly-growing poetry blog, working five Facebook pages and three Twitter pages, serving an audience of over 22,000 writers, poets, and insurance adjusters is energizing, but when the week ends, it’s over; I deeply experience the metaphor underlying that well-worn phrase: I can’t think straight.

The first order of business to deal with my bent frame of mind is, of course, a bath. I take my time. I lock the door. I do not bring my computer with me—and not just because of the electricity-conducting nature of bathwater (with or without the bubbles). I need to be alone.

This need for solitude is often surprising to those who know me. After all, I appear to be an extrovert—outgoing, talkative, and rivaling the best of them when it comes to the characteristic New York talk-with-your-hands citizens. Yet, come Sunday, the introvert truth is apparent: I need my space and (I love this metaphor too) I need to unwind.

Sinking into the water, in a quiet room, the process begins. A hundred Facebook updates and comments, a hundred more strings of tweets float away, and my arms begin to move freely. I think of nothing. It is the ideal setup for what comes next: French.

I bought a three hundred page book of Malherbe’s French poetry. I thought it would have English translations. I was about 1/300ths correct in this assumption. There is a page directly before the one that says, “Poésies de François Malherbe.” On this page, I recognize the words public domain and the disclaimer that this valuable book might have missing or blurred pages, poor pictures, errant marks.

It’s okay, this imperfection situation; I wouldn’t know anyway if a poem about Henri lapsed suddenly into one about le frère de Louis XIII, due to that minor point about the translations also being… missing.

All in all, it is the perfect arrangement for a Sunday. After my bath, I take up a notebook, a thin-line Sharpie, and my Malherbe. I understand very little of the French, but I begin to copy words…

Il ne faut qu’avec le visage
L’on tire les mains au pinceau
Tu les montres dans ton ouvrage,
Et le caches dans le tableau *

My brain registers… not much, and this is Sunday serendipity. I feel more of my work-heavy self delightfully lighten as my pen makes its curvy, flowing marks across the page. I soak in the sounds and happen to notice the rhymes. I smile because I can’t help but remember avec from fifth-grade French class and dans and mains. Then I smile again at the internal rhyme playing in lines 2 and 3. (Those clever French, to make poeming so simple through the structure of their language.)

My grandmother was French, and sometimes when I was a child I would hear her either sing or swear in French. I learned nothing but the lilt and the intrigue. I have not made much linguistic progress since then; nevertheless, I rather like the feel of it all. And, I might point out, it is important to absorb the lilt and intrigue of the French language, lest one ultimately speak it a little wrapped-too-tight.

It will probably take me ten more years of Sundays to understand what my grandmother sang and swore, and what I’ve been copying for so long from Malherbe and others to come. Maybe in a decade I will, belatedly, surge with political passion or faint from shock or love. One cannot predict what ten years of after-bath French will do to a person.

If I had a need to actually learn French, if it was pivotal to secure my solitude or decipher the bath faucets, I might attempt to accelerate my progress. As it goes, I’m perfectly happy that I’m not learning my heritage Français in eight weeks or less.

 

*Translation:

Your hands should not, together with the face,
be drawn with the brush
You reveal them in your work
And hide them in the painting