THE WORD `SURREALISM’ first appeared in Paris during the summer of 1917. It was coined by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. That summer saw the first performance of his play Les Mamelles de Tir’sias, staged under the auspices of the review SIC (Sons, Idées, Couleurs).
The performance was announced for Sunday, 24 June, at the tiny Salle Maubel in Montmartre. André Breton, a young poet then serving as a medical auxiliary at the Val de Gráce hospital near the Sorbonne, urged his friend Jacques Vaché”, who was due for some leave, to meet him there. Vaché agreed; he would try to arrive in time for the show, `which I suspect will begin a little late perhaps’.
So it did. By the time the curtain rose the audience had been sitting in the tiny theatre for more than two hours, with nothing to watch except a curtain of a blue so brilliant as to be almost offensive. Their impatience was becoming deafening.
Madame Rachilde, self-styled queen of literary Paris, and no friend of Apollinaire, yelled above the hubbub: `Enough of that blue!’ Finally however, the moment came. The curtain rose, a fat woman entered and unbuttoned her blouse to reveal her breasts: two gas-filled balloons. She pulled them out and flung them into the audience. The first Surrealist drama was under way.
In fact the term Surrealism had first appeared six weeks earlier, on 18 May, in Apollinaire’s programme note for the ballet Parade: scenario by Cocteau, choreography by Massine, d”cor by Picasso and music by Erik Satie (scored for typewriters, sirens, airplane propellers, Morse tickers, lottery wheels and two pianos). This new alliance of all the arts, Apollinaire announced, had `given rise, in Parade, to a kind of Surrealism. In my view this is just the first of many manifestations of the New Spirit now abroad.’ He added characteristically, `We may expect it to bring about profound changes in our arts and manners through universal joyfulness.”
Joyfulness, alas, was far from universal. In the embattled atmosphere of wartime France, Apollinaire’s quenchless appetite for the new was not widely shared. Xenophobia reigned. Modernism, Cubism and their ilk were perceived as some kind of suspicious German-Jewish conspiracy. Parade was tarred with a traitorous, dreyfusard brush, and consigned to oblivion.
Apollinaire, however, pleased with his new coining, was unwilling to abandon it. He took the opportunity of his own play to air it once more. The piece, as he freely admitted, though as yet unstaged, was not new. It had been written (all but the prologue and the last scene of the second act) as long ago as 1903. Nevertheless the new adjective was pressed into service to define `an artistic tendency which, if it is no more new than anything else under the sun, has nevertheless not been used to describe any artistic or literary credo or affirmation’. He went on to define this tendency by means of an example: `When man wanted to imitate walking, he invented the wheel, which does not look like a leg. Without knowing it, he was a Surrealist.’
`The d”cor’, Apollinaire instructed his designer, Serge F”rat, `will be the air in the theatre. If you like, on the night before, it could be given a Zanzibarian appearance by a strip of paper to look like roofs.’ The author announced that his drama would discuss `a vital question … the problem of repopulation’ – a subject offering ample opportunity for buffoonery. The opening joke was one he had long wished to stage. The jettisoned balloons transformed the leading lady from Th”r’se (who won’t let her husband have his way because `I am a feminist and I don’t recognise man’s authority’) into Tir’sias, a member of the very gender whose authority she doesn’t recognize. Great play was made with these eponymous accessories, which doubled as nipples, contraceptives or rubber teats. When a (real) baby began to cry, a wit in the gallery urged Tir’sias to `Pass it the tits! It wants some milk!’
Unfortunately, though full of wit, the play was entirely devoid of structure. Soon the theatre was in uproar once more — so much so that nobody seemed to notice the young officer in English uniform who entered the stalls at the end of the first act, pulled out his revolver, and prepared to discharge it into the audience. In the nick of time another young man, a studious-looking fellow with thick auburn hair, dashed up and dissuaded his friend (for evidently they were acquainted) from his murderous intentions. This tangential irruption was to become part of Surrealism’s legend. Whether or not the play was surreal, it was thus an occasion for Surrealism, the movement which was to take its name from Apollinaire’s coining.
Did the incident really take place? Perhaps it was a purely imagined act. No one except Andr” Breton, the auburn-haired young man, remembered this episode; the other participant, the `officer’ (who was Jacques Vach” and not English at all) never gave his side of the story. The only certainty is that, years later, Breton defined `the simplest Surrealist act’ as `going into the street, revolver in hand, and shooting at random into the crowd’. Not that he himself would ever have done any such thing. But Vaché might – or so Breton liked to think, and — perhaps – Vaché really had.
* * *
Apollinaire at this time was the undisputed leader of the avantgarde. His collection Alco’ls, published in 1913, had established him as a gifted and original poet, but this was not the only talent of this complex and ambiguous man. Perhaps even more remarkable was his faultless taste. He followed his rather long nose, and (for reasons he could not always articulate) it led him to the truffles. He was, said Max Jacob, who knew everyone – who had known Picasso since his first arrival in Paris in 1901 – `an improviser’.
It was true; but few have improvised to greater effect. He and his friend Alfred Jarry had been the earliest promoters of the na’ve painter Henri Rousseau, whom Apollinaire immediately nicknamed le douanier (he was in fact an employee of the municipal toll service). Rousseau had been exhibiting for years, but Apollinaire was the first to sense that something extraordinary might be lurking behind the old man’s na’vet’s. And Rousseau was but one of many such discoveries. Apollinaire was Picasso’s earliest champion in the art world. He, almost alone, welcomed the manifesto of the Italian Futurists; he supported Derain, Picabia, Duchamp, Chagall and Chirico. Painting (he noted after a dinner in Picasso’s studio) was `a wonderful language that no literature can describe, for words are made in advance, alas!’ What was this New Spirit he now so eagerly proposed? No one, not even Apollinaire, could be sure. But he would know it when he saw it. He was, in a friend’s wonderful phrase, `situated at the centre of his time like a spider at the centre of its web’.
He was universally loved. The sight of his tall, rotund yet nimble figure, his large, smiling face with its small features and close-set eyes, was a pleasure in itself. Fernande Olivier, Picasso’s mistress at the time when the two were intimate friends, remembered his `little mouth, which he often seemed to make deliberately smaller when he spoke, as though to give more bite to what he was saying’. As if by osmosis, his admirers picked up certain habits and gestures, so that long after his death a particular mannerism or phrase could be traced back to him. Thus, a certain slightly affected way he had of laughing behind his hand as he spoke became fashionable during the glory days of the Boeuf sur le Toit nightclub, whose habitu’s attributed it to Jean Cocteau. His authoritative way of closing all discussion by pronouncing: `C’est une chose forte belle‘, given weight by the slight prolongation of the final double l, was passed to the Surrealists by way of Andr” Breton. Immortality takes many forms, and Apollinaire remained as various after his death as he had been in life. `How delightful he was!’ remembered his friend Andr” Billy. `Whenever I saw him I wanted to rush up to him and laugh. Life was suddenly wonderful. It was so difficult for his friends – every one of them wanted Apollinaire all to himself.’
And Apollinaire wanted them all.
Je souhaite dans ma maison
Une femme ayant sa raison
Un chat passant parmi les livres
Des amis en toute saison
Sans lesquels je ne peux pas vivre.
In my house I hope to find
A woman of sound mind
Among the books a cat
Friends of every kind
What’s life without all that?
Among these friends was the young man, Andr” Breton, who had been involved in the disturbance (and possibly prevented a massacre of the audience) at the performance of Les Mamelles de Tir’sias. Breton had helped with the play’s preface, and it was he who had thought of the line about walking and the wheel.
Breton and Apollinaire had at this time known each other for two years. In 1915 Breton, then a conscript in the artillery, had written to Apollinaire, enclosing some of his own poems. He was nineteen years old, and officially a medical student, though inevitably his studies were in abeyance for the duration of the war. His father, after a variety of jobs (gendarme, commercial traveller) was now assistant manager of a small glassworks in Pantin on the outskirts of Paris, and it was intended that Andr” should complete the family’s rise to the ranks of the comfortable bourgeoisie. But medicine never really interested him, any more than did material prospects. Since the momentous day a teacher at his lyc”e had read to the class a poem by Mallarm”, poetry had filled his thoughts. To be a poet was all he wanted.
Replying to Breton’s first letter, Apollinaire wrote: `I’m obviously in excellent company in your circle, and I’m grateful to you for thinking of me. Your lines show a remarkable talent.’ Over the next three months, the two maintained a copious correspondence. `I’m delighted to write to you,’ Apollinaire assured his new young friend, whom he addressed as `Mon cher po’te‘. `Ask me whatever questions you want, and my letters will be the replies.’
Breton took him at his word. He wanted to know about Apollinaire’s taste in books (he liked catalogues, medical journals, fairy tales, grammars, fragments of poets and travel-books, American westerns and detective stories, but `I don’t spend much time reading, especially not new books’), about his painter friends (`Picasso is working in Paris, progressing in his art. Matisse, in my view, is standing still, though enormously talented. As for Derain, he’s a soldier like me, he drives a tractor in a heavy battery, and the guns have made his wonderful spirit even purer, if that were possible …’), about his own poetry. Its uneven form, Apollinaire explained, was an attempt to reflect the unexpectedness of life itself.
Yet the notice pinned to Apollinaire’s front door read: please don’t waste my time. Everyone may want to know you, but time is finite: you can’t encompass the world. How was it, then, that he was immediately prepared to spend so much of this precious commodity on a young man he had never met?
This was not Breton’s first such conquest. The previous year he had struck up a similar friendship with Paul Val”ry, the grand old man of French poetry. Breton passionately identified with M. Teste, the ultra-cerebral protagonist of Val”ry’s An Evening with M. Teste. That had appeared fifteen years earlier, and Val”ry had published nothing since – a fact which only added to his glamour in the young man’s eyes: the abrupt, unexplained decision to renounce one’s gift (as Rimbaud had done, as Marcel Duchamp was to do) engendered a mythic gloss he would always find irresistible. When, in 1921, Val”ry began to write once more, the effect was instant and fatal: the spell broke; Breton lost interest. But that was still far in the future, inconceivable. For the young Andr”, the unbelievable immediate fact was this: Val”ry – Val”ry himself and no one else – opened the door, showed him up the stairs, welcomed him to the house in the Rue Villejust where wonderful Impressionist canvases fought for space on the walls and overlapped the mirrors.
And so the pattern was established which would persist until he died. Andr” Breton was someone people wanted to know. His friendship, his good opinion, were important to them.
He was a striking and already somewhat intimidating figure. He had thick, wavy hair brushed back from his forehead, heavy, handsome features, a full-lipped mouth with an unusually prominent lower lip, and jade-green eyes. `Breton didn’t smile, but he sometimes laughed,’ observed Adrienne Monnier, proprietor of the bookshop Aux amis des livres in the Rue de l’Od”on, the rendezvous of all the younger poets and writers. His laugh was `short and sardonic … It welled up when he spoke without disturbing the features of his face, like a woman who’s careful of her beauty.’ Occasionally he wore spectacles with heavy tortoiseshell rims, but lenses (an acquaintance realized) of clear glass. Why? `If I told you, you wouldn’t believe me,’ he confessed. `It’s in memory of a grammatical example: “noses were made to hold glasses.” So I wear glasses.’ He spoke slowly, some thought affectedly; `words fell from his lips like drops of syrup’. He was unnervingly self-possessed, certain of his own opinions and devastatingly unmoved by what others thought of them. Mlle Monnier often argued with Breton about poetry: they invariably disagreed, even about poets they both liked. `He had very particular views which disconcerted me. He was much more “advanced” than me. I felt very reactionary.’ She remembered him leaning against the wall with a `fixed, panic-stricken stare … awaiting his orders from the black god, the Invisible One’.
It was a potent observation. Breton would spend his life under orders; his constant struggle would be their decipherment. His black god, the source of these commandments, was no less than the problem of life itself. `Il faut changer la vie,’ said Breton’s poetic hero, Arthur Rimbaud. `We must change life’, and Breton agreed with him.
In 1912, the year before Adrienne Monnier observed Breton at the Rue de l’Od”on, an extraordinary letter by Rimbaud was published in the Nouvelle Revue Fran”aise, the leading Paris literary magazine. When he wrote it, in 1871, Rimbaud was not quite seventeen – the same age as Breton when he read it. The true poet, said Rimbaud, must be a seer. And how was this to be achieved? `By the unchaining of all the senses.’ (`Le d”r”glement de tous les sens.’) `Every form of love, suffering and madness … He needs all his faith, all his superhuman strength, to become the greatest invalid, the greatest criminal, the greatest unfortunate – the supreme Savant!’
Three years later, Rimbaud abandoned poetry and France for gun-running in Africa. His words, however, remained; and in 1912, when this now-famous letter was published, it was easy to fall under their spell. Art might change life. Why not? A century and a half of French history underpinned this belief. As Sartre was to point out (somewhat smugly, but nonetheless truly), the French intellectual occupies a position quite different from his lonely counterpart in Britain or America, condemned to isolated struggle and individualism. He is part of a recognized group, a power in the land. It was, after all, intellectuals who set the revolution upon its way; and a little later, in 1830, a group of poets, the young Romantics, precipitated yet another revolution, unseating yet another monarch. As a result (noted Sartre), `the class in power … still does us the honour of fearing us a little (a very little); it treats us tactfully’.
Change was certainly in the air. In Russia the Bolsheviks plotted revolution, in Britain the trades unions organized and suffragettes threw themselves in front of racehorses, in Italy the Futurists trumpeted the coming machine age, in Germany the Kaiser grappled with Bismarck’s militaristic heritage. And in France? In France the Commune had come – and gone: hence Rimbaud’s despair. Politics was no longer interesting. All the energies that elsewhere went into politics, in France were concentrated on the arts. Paris, as Gertrude Stein remarked, was where the twentieth century was happening – in painting, in writing, in music, and (with the arrival in 1913 of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes) with the triumphant amalgam of all these. It was therefore natural that, being who he was, where he was, at this extraordinary moment in this extraordinary place, Breton should see the answer to his question in poetry. Poets, in Paris, were figures seriously to be reckoned with. He would change life, and poetry would be his weapon.
The unrelenting struggle this entailed would occupy the rest of Breton’s life. Both the life and the man possessed a sense of clarity and purpose both intimidating and (while the current swept you along) exhilarating. Friends either shared this dream, or ceased being friends. A few endured. Most were shed along the way, found wanting and forever abandoned. Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, one of this larger group, remarked on Breton’s `strange integrity which enabled him to distinguish different levels of humanity and gave ideas, as it were, a solid existence’. Twenty years and a war after their falling-out, Ribemont-Dessaignes tried to contact Breton in order to make a radio programme. He did so with difficulty; finally they met, the ice was broken, the programme arranged. `I had hardly got back home when a telegraph-boy rang the bell. “Certainly not! You said this here, you said that there, you wrote that article …“‘ The goal was so clear, the prize so immeasurable. What could compare with it? Never mere friendship. Breton ploughed on, his erstwhile companions churned in his wake. The struggle took precedence, always.
* * *
In August 1914, poetry was abandoned. All the young men of Europe prepared themselves to kill or be killed.
Breton, predictably, loathed the army. He was called up in February 1915, and sent to an artillery training camp in Brittany. Awkward, aloof, unremittingly intellectual, he hated most of all the mindlessness of his new life. `Thought fights a losing battle on the parade-ground,’ he observed – hardly surprising, the parade-ground’s function being, precisely, to stamp thought out. Fortunately this posting did not last long. He was sent to Nantes as a medical auxiliary, which meant he would not come under fire nor be subject to drilling. Even so, the army was hell. The correspondence with Apollinaire, which he now began, was part of an effort to spend as much time as possible away from it, if only inside his head.
Apollinaire, who was by then at the front and under fire, did not share Breton’s gloomy view of army life. Quite the contrary. `Imagine my pleasure at going back to Nice in uniform,’ he wrote soon after he had enlisted. `I opened the eyes of a good many people and here I am again, dead-beat after my leave … I am very well and think soldiering is my true profession. I like it very much.’
Apollinaire? Enlisted? Once again, this extraordinary man had astonished all his friends. Not only was he in his mid-thirties when war broke out, he was not even a French national. Born Wilhelm Apollinaris de Kostrowitzky in Rome, he was the son of a disreputable Polish aristocrat and (he liked to hint) a cardinal (though more probably the scion of a prominent Swiss Catholic family). What, then, was he doing trying to enlist in the French army?
But birth, though of some administrative importance, is but a fleeting moment, done with as soon as experienced. Apollinaire’s home, the place where he had been educated and lived all his life, was France. And there was the rub; for this kingpin of French culture lived in constant terror of rejection by his adopted country.
Je suis Guillaume Apollinaire
Dit d’un nom slave par vrai nom
Ma vie est triste toute enti’re
Un áho répond toujours non
Lorsque je dis un pri’re
I am Guillaume Apollinaire
But my real name is Slav
My life is a sad thing
No says the echo
Whenever I pray
Apollinaire’s fear of rejection was not entirely irrational. It had first become acute in 1909, on the occasion of the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. The poet had a ne’er-do-well friend who, some time previously, actually had stolen various Iberian and Phoenician statuettes from the Louvre. Two of these had been bought by Apollinaire’s friend Picasso; and this man, who occasionally worked as Apollinaire’s secretary, now took the opportunity to sell his story to the press in return for anonymity. The obvious implication was that the same group had committed this new and greater crime. Apollinaire and Picasso, terrified, spent a fruitless evening wandering round Paris with a suitcase containing the statuettes, vainly seeking an opportunity to fling them into the Seine unobserved. They failed, and furtively abandoned their booty at a newspaper office. Shortly after this, Apollinaire, suspect by association, was arrested and thrown into prison. The police seemed determined to convict him, though he knew nothing whatever about the Mona Lisa. `[They] did everything they could to justify their action; they cross-examined my concierge, the neighbours, asked if I brought in young girls, or little boys, and I don’t know what else.’ Terrified that he might be deported, he called upon Picasso to attest his innocence. But to Apollinaire’s horror, his friend, who was also an alien and also afraid of expulsion, refused to help. Confronted with Apollinaire, he would not even admit he knew him.
Eventually other friends procured the poet’s release and got the charge dismissed; but the terror of that time – his arrest, the police search of his apartment, his days in the grim Sant” prison – would never be forgotten. When war was declared, and Picasso retired discreetly to the Midi, Apollinaire’s one aim was to be granted French nationality so that he might prove himself the most patriotic possible Frenchman: a desire reinforced, in the view of one friend, by a hankering after those certainties of objective form and classical formula which he himself had done so much to break, `the expression, in another sphere, of all the traditions and instincts he had suppressed in life and in literary form’.
Friends tried to dissuade him. They invited him to join them in Switzerland or Spain for the duration; even if he stayed in France, there was no need to fight. Nationality apart, he was already past the age of conscription. Finally, however, an unhappy love affair spurred him to action. On holiday in Nice at the end of 1914 he fell hopelessly and entirely under the spell of Louise de Coligny-Chatillon, an accomplished flirt and tease, whose behaviour finally drove him to take the plunge. He went before a recruiting board, which accepted him. `My dearest Lou,’ he wrote. `Tomorrow I leave for the 38th regiment of field artillery at N’mes, where I shall write to you. My application to the recruiting board was rash. I had to join up yesterday. That is why I was so terribly sad today and why you felt that something unusual had happened.’
But he was not sad long, despite his Lou’s continued heartless behaviour; for army life suited him wonderfully. He tremendously enjoyed living with the other men and feeling himself `one of the boys’. From N’mes some time later he wrote to his friend Paul L’autaud:
I am not getting any thinner here in spite of the violent exercise, in fact it has been decided that my constitution is `very good’. I am in the instruction squad for corporals, which means that I work three times harder than other soldiers. Every day polishing galore, theory more than galore, manoeuvres on foot, sabre, musket, revolver, horse management, riding, gymnastics, and a reasoned, practical and thorough study of the 75, which is a beautiful weapon, as beautiful, strong and sweet, I think, as one of my poems.
Even arrival at the front was not enough to shatter this rosy vision, despite the conditions.
The woods are nothing but a swamp, we live like Crusoe on his island … We’ve begun well. We eat outside and the men have made a tiny garden, with pansies and daisies and inscriptions … I don’t have a blanket. They didn’t give me one at N’mes and I haven’t found one to buy. If I survive this damp, with only my footwarmer, I shall be amazingly healthy … Our captain is very bright, he’s a professor at the Polytechnique, so he knows what he’s doing …
Bombardment found him resolutely upbeat: `It’s Obus-Roi here,’ he reported (referring, of course, to Ubu-Roi, the play by his old friend Alfred Jarry). He maintained a vigorous correspondence, trying as far as possible to keep his career going, and even finding time to write a book of poems, Case d’armons, which he published in an edition of twenty-five produced in purple ink on his battery’s mimeograph machine. His powers of invention, his delight in novelty and fun, had evidently not deserted him. He was now experimenting with calligrammes, in which the words are arranged to form a picture that is part of the poem. Even under fire, the New Spirit was unquenched.
The pleasures of being at the front, however, carried with them certain occupational hazards. In March 1916, a piece of shrapnel buried itself in Apollinaire’s head. One moment he was leaning against a tree trunk reading the Mercure de France: the next, though he had felt hardly a thing, the page in front of him was covered in blood. His army career was over.
At first the wound, though severe, did not appear to have caused any permanent damage. The shrapnel, or most of it, was removed, and the poet seemed to be recovering. But then an increasing paralysis set in, and it was decided he would have to be trepanned in order to relieve pressure on his brain. `Come and see me,’ he wrote Breton, who was just then in Paris on leave. Breton did so on 10 May, the day after the operation. It was the first time he had met Apollinaire in the flesh. The invalid appeared `sad and feeble,’ reported Breton. He tried to impress his young visitor by chatting about poetry. `It was very touching. He still can’t write.’
He was indeed much changed. The day before the operation, despite his paralysis, he had been his usual genial self, laughing and joking. But afterwards was another story. He became gloomy and irascible. His large face, crowned by its bandage and deprived of its jovial wit, seemed unprecedentedly heavy; his figure, always pleasantly stout, ran to fat; he shunned company. `Please don’t come and see me, I couldn’t stand the upset,’ he implored his fianc”e, Madeleine Pag’s, who had succeeded Lou in his affections – he for whom visitors had always been an unfailing source of delight and interest. `And don’t send anyone, people I don’t know are too much for me.’ His latest book, the fantastical semi-autobiography Le Po’te assassin”, had just appeared. The title seemed only too apposite.
But he was not dead yet, and some months later appeared somewhat recovered. With the help of friends he found a job in (of all places!) the censor’s office, which would provide a salary without taking up too much time and energy. Even the abuse aroused by Parade and Tir’sias did not dampen his spirits. `All these literary storms leave me cold – I’ve seen too much of real death for that,’ he told a friend. `My only worry is that the fuss will come to the attention of my boss … who doesn’t like scandal, and I don’t relish the prospect of being sent to my regiment in B”ziers as an instructor.’
Fortunately this did not happen; and newly married (not to Madeleine, but red-haired Jacqueline, the subject of his last wonderful poem La Jolie Rousse) and installed in his old apartment at 202 Boulevard Saint-Germain, his busy and sociable life resumed where it had been set down before the war so rudely interrupted it. `I am at your disposal any time,’ he assured his cher po’te in April 1917. `I think I’ve already told you that I’m home to friends around 5 o’clock.’
Breton, who had now been posted to the Val de Gr”ce hospital in Paris following a stint among shell-shock victims at Saint-Dizier, needed little urging. Almost every day until Apollinaire’s death eighteen months later he visited his mentor, either at his apartment or at the Caf” de Flore just opposite, where Apollinaire held court on Tuesdays, just as he always had.
* * *
The Andr” Breton who became Apollinaire’s close companion in Paris in the spring of 1916 was a very different person from the young man who first wrote to him a year earlier. The intervening months had been momentous, setting Breton on a path which was to colour the rest of his life – the path which led to Surrealism.
The first important event was his meeting with Jacques Vach”, the young officer with the revolver at Les Mamelles de Tir’sias. This encounter was to transform Breton’s life. Not long after Vach”‘s early death he wrote: `In literature, I fell successively under the spell of Rimbaud, Jarry, Apollinaire, Nouveau, Lautr”amont, but it is to Jacques Vach” that I owe the most.’
Yet Vaché’s literary legacy hardly exists. Whatever he might have become, the fact remains: he did not live to become it. As Breton himself once said, Vaché’s good fortune was to have produced nothing. His life’s work amounted to a couple of sketches, a handful of letters. And even these, divorced from the halo of legend surrounding them and read in the cold light of day, seem unexceptional. A thousand very young men might write such letters. But, for Breton, Jacques Vaché was as far as possible from being one of a thousand young men. `The time I spent with him at Nantes in 1916 seemed almost enchanted,’ he wrote. `I shall never forget it, and although I still meet people I am drawn to, I know I shall never abandon myself to anyone in quite that way again.’
In short, Vaché was the love of Breton’s life. As to whether or not this love was sexual, it is impossible to say. If so it triggered only guilt and defensiveness. Breton had a horror of homosexuality – the more bizarre considering the uninhibited circles in which he lived, and the cult of sexual frankness he initiated. This distaste, and its irrational nature, are clear from the investigations of sex held among the Surrealists during 1928 and 1932:
MAN RAY: I don’t see any great physical distinction between the love of a man for a woman and homosexuality. It is the emotional ideas of homosexuals which have always separated me from them: emotional relations between men have always seemed to me worse than between men and women.
QUENEAU: I find these emotional relations equally acceptable in both cases.
BRETON: Are you a homosexual, Queneau?
QUENEAU: No. Can we hear Aragon’s view of homosexuality?
ARAGON: Homosexuality seems to me to be a sexual
inclination like any other …
BRETON: I am absolutely opposed to continuing the discussion of this subject. If this promotion of homosexuality carries on, I will leave this meeting forthwith …
But whatever the nature of the love between Breton and Vaché, its existence is undeniable, at least on Breton’s side. The emotion glows through the extraordinary introduction he wrote for the first edition of Vach”‘s Lettres de guerre, in 1924. `I have seen him covered by a breastplate, covered is not the word, he was the clear sky. He shone with a jewelled waterfall at his neck, I think it was the Amazon, which still waters Peru …’ To the end of his life, Breton remained enchanted. In an essay entitled `Trente ans aprés’ (`Thirty Years Later’), introducing a new edition of the Lettres, he describes a wonderful recurring dream. In it, he realizes that, in spite of all that has happened, `Jacques Vaché is not dead … He is suddenly beside me, I don’t know how, giving me his news, I recognise him in a doorway, I use some unknown, all-powerful password which instantly removes all doubt as to his identity. And once again we freely share that sombre gaiety of his, which marked me so strongly. He disposes of my questions before I can formulate them; they seem so naíve. Obviously I am the only one moved by all this (or at least, only I fail to hide it) …’ Elsewhere Breton tells how, in the most unlikely places – in a heap of sand by a canal, in a bar in the Nevada desert – he becomes suddenly certain that his friend is just around the corner, waiting to step into the scene.
The two met in Nantes, Vach’s home town, in February 1916. Breton, then just twenty, was a medical auxiliary, serving in the neurological centre there; Vach”, a year older, was hospitalized with a calf wound. In civilian life he had been an art student. He passed the time in hospital drawing little postcards and sketches, marking time till he could get out and plunge back into life.
The impression given by Breton is that he was always too occupied with the inner life to be much concerned with the outer shell. Vach” was just the opposite. His life was a series of roles, or perhaps out-takes – for like many of his generation, he was enchanted by the cinema, then so new and exciting. He was part-Irish and liked to be taken for English; he sported a monocle, wore exaggeratedly English-style clothes, and sometimes even spoke with an English accent. (His job in the army was to act as interpreter between the French and English forces: this was how he had come by his British uniform.) He would sign himself variously Harry James or J.T.H. (for Jacques Tristan Hilar) or Jean-Michel Strogoff. In the street he might acknowledge you or not; he might dress as an airman, a lieutenant of hussars, a doctor. He shared a room with a girl who was introduced only by her first name: Louise. Although he liked to call her `my mistress’, he denied any sexual relations between them, affirming that they simply slept side by side. When Breton visited, Louise sat silently in a corner. At five she served tea, and Vach” kissed her hand. From the front (a foxhole in a ruined village) he wrote: `My dream just now is to wear a red shirt, a red cravat and high boots – and to belong to a pointless Chinese secret society in Australia.’ `What a film I’m going to star in! … I shall be a trapper, or thief, or explorer, or hunter, or miner, or caver – Bar de l’Arizona (Whisky – gin and Mixed?) and great forests to exploit, and you know those wonderful riding-breeches with a machine pistol, and being very clean-shaven, and beautiful hands with a solitaire ring. It all ends with a fire, or in a salon, having made one’s fortune. – Well.’
If ever anyone fulfilled Baudelaire’s celebrated definition of a dandy – `the pleasure of surprising, and the arrogant satisfaction of never being surprised’ – it was this bitterly lighthearted poseur. He teased Breton, referring to him as the `poh”te’; he mocked Breton’s enthusiasms. At the time they met, Breton was in the throes of his passion for Rimbaud. `Walking the streets of Nantes, I was entirely possessed by Rimbaud: what he saw, in some quite other place, interfered with what I saw, sometimes even substituted itself. Never since has he possessed me to this extent …’ But Vach” had no time for Rimbaud, and not much more for Apollinaire. `Are you sure that Apollinaire is still alive or that Rimbaud even existed? Personally, I don’t think so – I only see Jarry.’
Indeed, Jarry seems to have pervaded every aspect of Vach”‘s life. His letters are set in the world of Ubu-Roi, Jarry’s terrifying creation with his toilet-brush sceptre, whose mad, prophetic visions of anarchy and destruction were being realized daily all around. The war is referred to, in Jarry’s phrase, as a `debraining machine’ (`machine ‘d”cerveler’); Breton’s friend Theodore Fraenkel, with whom Vach” also corresponded, is le peuple polonais, another protagonist of Jarry’s play. He talks about his `stableful of TANKS – a truly UBIQUE animal, though joyless’.
This furious, flaming nihilism calls to mind not only Jarry, who by then had been dead ten years, but Tristan Tzara and his friends, the Dadaists of the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, then in full throat. Breton always insisted that Vach” knew nothing of Dada, though there is some argument about this. But it hardly matters. Dada did not spring fully-formed from nowhere; Dada was in the air. Vach” was a Dadaist whether he knew it or not.
Vach” was everything Breton was not, and everything he yearned to be: confident, cynical, stylish, where Breton was awkward, earnest, enthusiastic. Vach” said, `A man who believes is a curiosity’ but this did not prevent Breton from believing fervently in Vach”. Vach” had humour – the black humour he christened umour; Breton had none. In his letters, Vach” tried to capture the essence of this fleeting quality for his friend. For instance, explaining some particularly opaque conceit Breton had failed to understand:
And then you ask me to define Umour for you – just like that! IT IS IN THE ESSENCE OF SYMBOLS TO BE SYMBOLIC Example: You know the horrible life of the alarm clock – it’s a monster that has always frightened me because of the number of things its eyes project, and the way in which it stares at me like an honest man whenever I enter a room – why does he have so much Umour, why? Well: that’s just the way it is – There is a lot of wonderful UBIQUE in Umour also – as you will see – but – of course, this isn’t definitive and Umour derives too much from a sensation – I was going to say SENSE – also – of the theatrical (and joyless) futility of everything.
Did Breton get it? If so, only intellectually. Humour, even the darkest, was not part of his makeup. In 1940, engulfed by yet another war, he paid touching tribute to his friend by editing, in Vaché’s memory, an anthology of Humour noir. Introducing this, he conjures him up, `walking the course of the “last” war on eggs with his body facing forward and his face cast in profile … His red hair, “flame-dead” eyes and glacial butterfly monocle supply the continually desired dissonance and isolation … Instead of desertion to the exterior during wartime, which he would only see as a “weak link”, Vach” opposes another form of insubordination which could be called: desertion to the interior … of himself.’
For Breton, the episode at Les Mamelles de Tir’sias was an epiphany. The play, though far from perfect, was `a jolly piece where one could enjoy the release of laughing without a second thought’. But `the sight of Vach” hurling his defiance at that blas’ audience, which was in a way tainted by too much of just this sort of thing, was revelatory. Two ways of thinking were set up in opposition, and within three or four years the break would be achieved.’
Breton’s attempt to force himself into the straitjacket of being Vach” informed the rest of his life. Philippe Soupault, whom he was soon to meet and who would be his inseparable companion during Surrealism’s early years, observed that his friend, naturally so polite, so punctilious, was `keenly aware of the importance and necessity of scandal. [He] never forgot this necessity. In spite of his respectable upbringing, in spite of a certain undeniable shyness, he never omitted to be insolent. It was a sort of dandyism.’ In this sense, Breton was speaking the literal truth when he said, years later, `Jacques Vaché is the Surrealist in me.’
©1999 by Ruth Brandon. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.