Saturday, March 31, 2012

"Something Wrong": Women Who Crash

First edition, 1928

 (Notes on Breton's Nadja)                   

Nadja. The book looks as if it’s going to be about her. Or chance. But really, it’s all about him.

Double Breton, 1927
“Qui-suis-je?” he asks in the beginning. “Who am I?”

His first answer: “I am whom I haunt.” And then, something like this, though not in so many words: “I am incommunicable but marvelous experiences that serve up telling truths about me.”

Muette et Aveugle by Marcel Mariën
What then of her? Why call the book by her name? 
“Mute and blind, dressed in the thoughts that you here loan me.” Is that how it is in Nadja?

Rene Magritte La femme cachee, 1929

Or is it like this? A rebus: "I don't see the [woman] hidden in the forest."

After all, early in Nadja, Breton says, “I have always, beyond belief, hoped to meet, at night and in a woods, a beautiful naked woman or rather…I regret, beyond belief, not having met her…I adore this situation which of all situations is the one where I am most likely to have lacked presence of mind. I would probably not even have thought of running away.” He adds, quickly, “Anyone who laughs here is a pig.” (N 39).

After Breton dies in 1966, Magritte remembers the moment of this look, this cliché: “In 1927, André Breton and I, each in turn, caught sight of an ad for a certain aperitif hanging from the wall in a bistro. We exchanged looks that neither reason nor insanity could explain. We had the same complicit look another time, when I suggested taking his picture with his eyes closed.  Well, his eyes are closed, but eyes open or shut, one can’t forget that his mind was seeking the Truth through poetry, love and liberty."

In other words, one man catches sight of another--catching sight of a woman? Or hiding from her?--and they are friends forever.

Breton, "Eyes of Nadja" collage

Again and again Breton speaks of Nadja's eyes: “I had never seen such eyes.” (N 64)
“What was so extraordinary about what was happening in those eyes?” (N 65)
Her eyes open on hope which is “scarcely distinct from terror” (N 111)

 Envelope in Nadja's hand addressed to Breton
30 Nov 1926
Nadja. Who is she? Wait, I can’t tell you. Not yet. Nadja really is all about him. What an enigma he is. His dreams. His encounters. His loves.

de Chirico The Song of Love 1914

Enigma? What is that?  

In 1913 the painter de Chirico writes something that Breton admires:
One must picture everything in the world as an enigma…To live in the world as if in an immense museum of strangeness, full of curious many colored toys which change their appearance…

Enigma. In other words, a mystery--now you see it, now you don’t. (I love the way Breton cuts out her eyes but covers his own.) Is this surrealist method?

Nadja, The Lovers’ Flower

Fact. On 4 October 1926, Breton runs into a woman on the street and falls for her. They agree she will go by the name Nadja—short for Nadjezda [Надежда], or “hope” in Russian.  (Does every love affair begin thus, with a pseudonym for “hope”?) 

Despite the hopefulness of her drawing, “The Lovers’ Flower,” those who fall in love rarely have their eyes wide open.

Does the production and reproduction of this image prove she existed?

Nadja, letter to Breton
"Merci, Andre, j'ai tout recu--j'ai confiance en l'image qui me fermera les yeux/
Thanks Andre, I've gotten everything--I have confidence in the image that will close my eyes"

For nine days they see each other every day, Breton and Nadja. Then they take a trip to St-Germain by train, arrive at around 1 am, and take a room in the Hotel du Prince des Galles. (This is a detail that Breton will efface from the novel when he re-edits it in 1964.)
Nadja, Note to Breton

The affair ends here, apparently, despite ongoing meetings and exchanges of letters between the two lovers for several more months.

Simone Kahn, 1927

On November 8, Breton writes to his wife, Simone Kahn, and complains about Nadja, asking, what shall I do with this woman who I don’t love and whom I will never love?  She is, he says, capable of “putting in question everything I love and the way that I have of loving.  No less dangerous for that.”

Watteau, Embarkation for Cythera, 1717, detail

Here’s what Breton says in Nadja about the end of the affair with Nadja: Nothing can be forgotten. Nothing.  Not the glitter of rare and volatile metals like sodium, not something so unlike as phosphorescence in stone, not a burning chiming clock, not even “the fascination which, despite everything, The Embarkation for Cythera exerts upon me when I determine that despite the various postures and attitudes, it displays only one couple…nothing of what constitutes my own light for me has been forgotten.” (N 108)

Who was this dangerous woman whom he preferred not to see [again]--and perhaps, hoped we would not see either, except perhaps as a sign for his special mode of seeing, surreal vision, surreal blindness? She even signed her letters, "Nadja."

Hester Albach,
Léona, héroïne du surréalisme 
Actes Sud, 2009
On 21 March 1927, the woman known to Breton as "Nadja" had a major breakdown, thought she saw men on the roof and began banging the walls of her apartment building.  "For some time I had stopped understanding Nadja," Breton writes (N 130). "I was told, several months ago, that Nadja was mad...I do not suppose there can be much difference for Nadja between the inside of a sanitarium and the outside." (N 136).

 In fact, it seems the woman known as "Nadja" was hauled away by the police, diagnosed with “polymorphous psychic troubles, depression, sadness, anxiety….episodes of anxiety mixed with fear,” and interned.  Thus she began a sojourn of 14 years in various mental hospitals.   

She died 15 January 1941 of “cachexie neoplasique” or extreme wasting thanks to a cancerous tumor.  But it’s also thought that she died of typhoid fever, “aggravated by under-nourishment.”  In other words, she starved to death, in occupied France.  

 Forgotten. A woman-phantom who has haunted many more fantasists than Breton, but was no more substantial than a shadow, a few lines, some sketches: une femme-reve, a dream woman.  Fiction--or almost.  Until Dutch writer, Hester Albach, following the clues Breton left in his book, and the revelations of a cache of letters by Nadja bound up with his manuscript, uncovered some of the details of an identity and a life.

Leona Camille Ghislain Delcourt

Who was this “Nadja” loved and loathed and turned into a symbol of the ineffable, the mysterious, a perfection of surrealist enigma by Breton?   

The name of the author of that cache of letters to Breton was Leona Camille Ghislain Delcourt.  She was born in 1902 near Lille, gave birth to a daughter in 1920, and arrived in Paris two or three years later, likely in the “care” of an elderly patron. She frequented dance halls, bars, the streets, was perhaps a heroin addict, and made money as she could, by picking up clients or admirers or patrons. Breton was perhaps all of these things. And then he dropped her, preferring the echoes of her memory to the echoing wards of the mental hospital. 

Andre Breton and Suzanne Muzard

The second part—Nadja’s part—of Nadja ends thus: “Who goes there? Is it you Nadja? Is it true that the beyond, that everything beyond is here in this life? I can’t hear you.  Who goes there? Is it only me? Is it myself?”  (N 144).   

Andre Breton and Suzanne Muzard

The last five pages of the book, Nadja, are addressed to an "irreplaceable you." Is this Nadja?  Nadja-dream? Nadja is long gone by then. Perhaps not so irreplaceable.   

Nadja’s is not a story Breton writes for Nadja, but for someone else.  Nadja's is, the narrator confesses, the story he “yielded to the desire to tell” some “you, when I scarcely knew you” (N 156).  It is widely believed that this you is a figure for Suzanne Muzard, (who is, at the time, married to writer Emmanuel Berl). 

 Breton goes on: “Without doing it on purpose, you have taken the place of the forms most familiar to me, as well as of several figures of my foreboding. Nadja was one of these last, and it is just that you should have hidden her from me. All I know is that this substitution of persons stops with you, because nothing can be substituted for you…You are not an enigma for me. I say that you have turned me from enigmas forever” (N 157-8). 

I say even he knows he is lying.

 Frances Grayson's plane before its crash in December 192
Nadja ends with the declaration, "Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all.” But before that, just before that, we’re offered a small item, a clipping from the morning news for December 26, 1927. A voice has gone mute following a transmission near Sable Island Nova Scotia: “there is something that is not working” Breton writes.  Due to “bad atmospheric conditions and static” nothing more can be discovered (N 160). 

Who has disappeared thus, into foul weather and atmospheric interference? Breton does not tell us, but given the date, and the place, certain details can be discovered.   

The person who has gone missing is, of course, a woman.

Frances Wilson Grayson, aimed to be the first woman--with Norwegian pilot, Oskar Omdal, navigator Brice Goldsborough and her radio engineer, Frank Koehler—successfully to fly across the Atlantic Ocean.  Financed by Aage Anker, daughter of a Pittsburgh steel magnate, Grayson ordered a new amphibious Sikorsky aircraft (S-36), and left Curtis Field, New York, on the 23 December 1927 for Harbour Grace, Newfoundland.

Frances Wilson Grayson on the nose of the S-36 Dawn

According to the front page of the New York Times on 26 December 1927, “Grayson Plane Radioed 'Something Wrong' Friday Night; Then the Signaling Ceased, Silent for 54 Hours Since; Probably Lost Off The Nova Scotia Coast in a Storm."

Another ambitious woman, lost. Crashed.  Downed.

The name of her plane? The Dawn.
Frances Wilson Grayson with her crew in Maine

In 1928 the Ontario Surveyor General named a lake in the northwestern quadrant of the province after her.  The remains of Frances Grayson and her crew have never been found, but Lake Grayson may be precisely located on any map at 50°52'49" North latitude and 89°25'46" West longitude.

Grayson left a written statement with a reporter in case she didn't survive her attempt at flight. In it she said, "Who am I? Sometimes I wonder. Am I a little nobody? Or am I a great dynamic forc--powerful--in that I have a god-given birthright and have all the power there is if only I will understand and use it?"

That almost sounds like Breton.  Convulsive, compulsive beauty, indeed.


I'll bet you think I made this all up.
And what if I did? (I didn't.)

"Photos" and "facts" are such strange tissues these days: fantastical indices, nothing more.
Still, so little of ordinary life, ordinary loves, ordinary deaths, is made up.  Most of it just happens, and sometimes, as here, it is recorded.

Frances Wilson Grayson, 1927

Nadja is a documentary novel, the second known published novel with photographs.  The first was a Belgian book published in 1892, Georges Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-morte.  The photos there were of Bruges, of course.

Correspondence between Breton and Kahn cited by Marguerite Bonnet in Andre Breton Œuvres complètes, “notice et notes,” Gallimard, La Pléiade, Paris 1988, p. 1514.

Hester Albach's book, Leona: Surrealist Heroine is only available, at this writing, in Dutch or French. Several reviews of the work are available in French, including this one: club/article/010809/leona-nadja-heroine-du-surrealisme

Images and letters documenting the relationships between Breton and Nadja (Leona Delcourt) and Breton and Suzanne Muzard may be found here on a French language site sponsored by l'Association Atelier Andre Breton:
I am grateful too, to Susan Elmslie, for her inspired account of Nadja in I, Nadja, and Other Poems (London, ON: Brick, 2006.  See also
for sample poems and a discussion of them.

Information about Frances Wilson Grayson and her crew from wikipedia; photographs of her with the plane come from a set posted by the Boston Public Library entitled "Aviation: Boardman, Earhart & Grayson at

A Pathe newsreel video clip of Frances Grayson doing a test flight in Maine in October 1927 (date has to be wrong--Grayson was dead in October 1928) may be viewed here:

A nod, too, to Hal Foster's rereading of Breton and surrealism in Compulsive Beauty (Boston: MIT 1993).


  1. Hi Karin,

    I loved coming across this blog entry of yours! Wonderful! Really inspiring! The Frances Grayson story is fascinating! I'm intrigued by the "women who crash" angle.

    Since publishing *I, Nadja, and Other Poems* with Brick in 2006, I still occasionally look for signs of Nadja, and was delighted this time to encounter on the web your reflections--and the information, with photos, about Hester Albach's book. I had never before seen that photo of Nadja. Her dark brown eyes, slightly frizzy hair, the prim blouse with pearl buttons up to the chin--I was quite moved to see the image. Thank you so much for putting it out there.

    I don't know if you've seen my process-piece essay, "Trailing Nadja," which I wrote for the web journal In it, I muse on some of the research I did for my book, including my two-week-long trip to Paris in 2001 (merci Canada Council), where I visited all the sites significant to the Breton-Nadja story. The essay is followed by a section of my poem "Hairpin," which tells the Nadja-Breton story as a series of scenes involving the same prop--an old-fashioned boomerang-style hairpin--which I'd found behind the mantel in my Paris hotel room, and which seemed like a perfect metaphor for the quick turn in Nadja-Léona's life. Here's the link:

    On my author page, I posted some pictures from my Paris research trip: the curlicued railing at Saint-Germain-en-Laye from which one can look across the valley at the city lights of Paris; a couple shots of the hospital Sainte Anne, including the Allée André Breton, and a shot of the Perray-Vaucluse hospital. Here's the link:

    At the time I was writing my book, the letters of Nadja to Breton were in the hands of a private owner but, just as I was getting to close to finishing, the letters appeared as jpeg thumbnails on the website of the auction house Calmels Cohen. I went wild! Enlarging them on the screen and printing them off, I was so glad to have the chance to read them.

    I had suspected that Nadja-Léona would have wanted the notebook she had loaned to Breton returned to her, so I was not surprised to encounter her asking for it outright in one of her letters to him. I revised one of my Nadja poems to include some translated lines from Nadja's letter dated 3 février, which she had sent from café Chez Graff: "Je voudrais mon pot-au-feu qu'il vous paraisse [...] J'ai horror de votre jeu et de votre clique--. [...] Je ne vous ai pas servi à grand chose, mais je vous ai donné le fond de moi-meme le meilleur...jusqu'à en oublier ma Fille."

    My poem titled "Chez Graff" (which takes the form of a modified rondeau-roundel hybrid) is posted on the poems page at my author site:

    Thanks for your words, your work, for making poetry visible. Warmest regards-- Sue

    1. Dear Sue,

      I'm THRILLED you found this entry, and that you filled in some links in your reply. I did come across "Trailing Nadja" at some point and then lost it (as one is wont to do on the internet), so I am delighted to have it nailed down here foursquare.

      I imagined speaking to you as I wrote this piece; I certainly felt you speaking to me as I read your poems--and speaking to Breton and Nadja and to my art students, who both love and hate Breton, as I suppose we all do (l'horror de son jeu et de son clique").
      How wonderful to find you here, now, thank you.

      I have been an admirer of your poetry from afar. And now, nearer.
      Thank you for your words and work. May we meet up again. Soon!

      I'm about to embark on my first "t-shirt poem"--a short piece of wearable art. Here's hoping poetry also becomes tactile. I'll post something here when the design is done.

      All the best,

  2. Thanks for this fascinating piece on Breton's Nadja. I was not aware of Susan's work, which I will now track down and buy a copy. Regarding the uncanny coincedences related in Susan's account "Trailing Nadja", I have one of my own, though it's concerning a translation of a book of Breton's. In 1972, a translation of his "Surrealism and Painting" was published and it was too expensive for me to purchase at the time. Fast forward to the mid '80s and I was looking for a second hand copy of this OOP book in the second hand bookshops here (I live in Glasgow, Scotland and there were a few good second hand bookshops here at that time). Anyway, it must have been around '89/90, after years of looking (before the internet made all this easy) when I thought that I'd ask one of the bookshops who advertised a booksearch facility, if they could do this for me. I went to the shop in my lunch break, asked if they could do the book search for me....the man behind his desk asked "Author?"...I replied Andre Breton, then "Title?"..."Surrealism and Painting" and at that point a figure emerged from behind one of the bookshelves and said "I've got that, I bought it yesterday, it won't be out on the shelves yet, but go to the shop and tell my wife that I sent you and she'll find it." So I found a copy of a book that I'd been hunting down for years and all because, on a whim, I decided to go to a bookstore for a booksearch and the one person who owned a second hand bookshop and had bought the book the day before was there.

  3. "[W]ho both love and hate Breton, as I suppose we all do ('l'horror de son jeu et de son clique')"

    "Love" Breton? Really?

    I say even you know you are lying.

  4. Indeed you are right!
    I am lying!