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Recherche littéraire/Literary Research

Fall 2019


Edited By Marc Maufort

Daniel Acke, Mark Anderson, Eugene L. Arva, Franca Bellarsi, Valérie-Anne Belleflamme, Thomas Buffet, Ipshita Chanda, Mateusz Chmurski, Wiebke Denecke, Christophe Den Tandt, Lieven D’hulst, César Domínguez, Manfred Engel, Dorothy Figueira, John B. Forster, Massimo Fusillo, Gerald Gillespie, Marie Herbillon, S. Satish Kumar, François Lecercle, Ursula Lindqvist, Jocelyn Martin, Jessica Maufort, Marc Maufort, Sam McCracken, Isabelle Meuret, Delphine Munos, Daniel-Henri Pageaux, Danielle Perrot-Corpet, Frank Schulze-Engler, Monica Spiridon, Jüri Talvet, Daria Tunca, Cyril Vettorato, Hein Viljoen, Jenny Webb

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Jenny Webb: Delia Ungureanu. From Paris to Tlön: Surrealism as World Literature. New York: Bloomsbury, 2018. Pp. 340. ISBN: 9781501333194.

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Delia Ungureanu. From Paris to Tlön: Surrealism as World Literature. New York: Bloomsbury, 2018. Pp. 340. ISBN: 9781501333194.

Reading Delia Ungureanu’s recent study From Paris to Tlön: Surrealism as World Literature evoked for me the sensation of walking along a well-worn and familiar trail, only to look up and realize that at some point the path had somehow shifted, and that as a result, the landscape surrounding me was suddenly reworked in startling ways, new and fresh. I still knew the general direction and destination; the route was not completely foreign. Still, the unexpected sights inevitably held my attention in engaging and productive ways. The nature of Ungureanu’s project – to trace out the various social, ideological, and cultural networks through which surrealism moved during its geographic expansion and aesthetic translation from poetry, to visual art, and eventually the novel – inherently lends itself to the imagery of traversing such trails as they continually fork into interlaced and overlapping paths.

Ungureanu describes the various aspects inherent in her approach in a useful introduction, in which she frames surrealism as a conceptually international group practice from its inception. Surrealism may have begun in Paris, but it did so only through the combined efforts of an international group. Focusing on “the complex circulation of surrealist ideas between Paris and newly rising cultural centers, from New York to Buenos Aires and points beyond” (2), Ungureanu “build[s]; on the concept of network theory from social anthropology” with the goal of “rethinking surrealist ideas within a crisscrossed intellectual history [in hopes of going] beyond existing studies of the more obvious networks of circulation and cultural institutions that the surrealists used” in order to “better understand the subtle, oblique, but very fertile impact of surrealist ideas on writers working in the United States, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East” (3). Using this approach, Ungureanu employs three structuring principles throughout her project. First, she consistently considers the influence of traditionally marginal forms and genres, such as magazines, in the dissemination of surrealist ideas, motifs, and themes. Second, she emphasizes the international character of the ←319 | 320→movement from its inception, consistently noting the varied nationalities not only of surrealism’s core adherents, but also those of the artists and authors who shared social and physical spaces, such as Adrienne Monnier’s Parisian bookstore, with the surrealists. And third, she focuses “on the theory and practice of the surrealist object as a prime element traded throughout the intellectual network” (7). This third structuring element produces some of the book’s most useful work in that, despite the necessarily heavy emphasis on history, the focus on the continual theorization of the surrealist object allows Ungureanu to consistently enrich such history through repeated examples designed to reveal the theoretical push and pull of the surrealist object through its multiple translations, adaptations, and reconfigurations throughout the expansion of the surrealist project. This work, which occurs consistently across all seven chapters of the book, makes a necessary argument for surrealism not as a historically isolated aesthetic practice, but a global project with continued aesthetic and theoretical influence, and as such, justifies the inclusion of Ungureanu’s book within Bloomsbury’s “Literatures as World Literature” series.

The first two chapters, “Intellectual Networks and Surrealist Objects” and “On the Road to Establishment: Surrealism in the 1930s” cover the beginnings of surrealism, loosely structured around first André Breton and then Salvador Dalí. Breton and Dalí are established as the heads of two distinct versions of surrealism, both of which would spread internationally along the various networks of cultural and capital exchange. Breton is positioned as the movement’s father, intent upon theorizing the symbolic, the dream, the code, and the game – and Ungureanu uses Breton to provide articulate discussions on the concepts of revolution (both aesthetic and political), automatism (and automatic writing), the subconscious, the dismissal of reason, the symbolic object, plagiarism, convulsive beauty, and the ascendant sign. In the same manner, Dalí’s eventual differences with the original surrealist group and his work to transform the symbolic into cultural and economic capital provide a loose frame for the second chapter: the paranoiac critical method, dreams, cannibalism, the objective hazard, the chance encounter, and a continued look at the evolution of the symbolic object are all productively discussed as a result. Ungureanu will utilize Breton and Dalí as representative figures throughout the book in order to draw out the nuanced distinctions operating within surrealism. Often, these comparisons are facilitated through the use of literary figures: Breton ←320 | 321→becomes Alice, and Dalí, the White Rabbit. In another instance, Ungureanu reports their different concepts of the object: “For both, the object is feminine and sexual; but while for Breton she’s the ideal space for all metamorphoses, for Dalí she is merely the passive reflection of metamorphoses. These responses illustrate their opposite conceptions of love: focused on the object versus the perceiving subject, the ‘I.’ For Breton, she is Circe; for Dalí, she can be associated with Narcissus” (63, emphasis in original). With concision and insight, Ungureanu’s literary comparisons draw out such subtle differences in ways that allow even those unfamiliar with the finer details of the movement to appreciate the distinction.

The fourth and fifth chapters, “Surrealism on the New York Market” and “The Battle Over the New World,” continue to follow the general contours of the historical developments within surrealism. Ungureanu follows Dalí to New York, where the collaborative Parisian spaces of the salon, the bookstore, and the magazine are changed for the legitimization of an established movement through the curated spaces of Julien Levy (in his avant-garde gallery) and Alfred Barr (in the Museum of Modern Art). Dalí built economic capital and cultural popularity through his relationship with Vogue and other, more visible work (e.g., “One of the ways surrealism entered real life was through the artificial paradises of Manhattan shop windows” [153]). The result of Dalí’s willingness to pursue commercialism was that “even a concept that was Breton’s property, his version of the surrealist object – the trouvaille or found object – was received across the Atlantic as if it were Dalí’s” (153). When Breton arrived in New York in 1941 fleeing Nazi-occupied France, his own ideological commitments to revolution over economic popularity, combined with the language barrier and unfamiliar culture, made his American experience in many ways more difficult. Ungureanu draws out this difference in terms of their distinct social and cultural networks: “Just as he’d done in the 1920s, Breton activated the avant-garde networks he could find, rather than the upper-scale social networks that Dalí sought out” (182). She also continues to compare the ways in which Dalí and Breton continue to theorize the surrealist object, considering their respective uses of a woman’s shoe (190–204) before finally bringing these historically-oriented chapters to a close, linking the revolutionary position of surrealism with the Parisian protests of 1968, the Haitian revolution, 1970s Romania, and protests against communism in 1980s Poland.

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The remaining chapters – the third, sixth, and seventh – are centered around a type of literary detective work in which Ungureanu unearths a variety of clues that point toward a connection between the surrealist project and authors generally considered unconnected with surrealism: Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, Orhan Pamuk, and Mircea Cărtărescu.

The third chapter, “Pierre Menard and the Sur-realist,” untangles an odd connection between the Borges story “Pierre Menard, Autor del Quijote,” which appeared in the magazine Sur in May 1939, and a study of the poet Lautréamont’s handwriting by Dr. Pierre Menard, which appeared in the magazine Minotaure, also in May 1939. Ungureanu carefully builds a persuasive case that Dr. Menard’s piece had been completed and available through editorial circumstance to Borges as early as the spring of 1938. The chapter functions, however, as an exploration of the poetics of plagiarism as developed by Lautréamont and later taken up by Breton and the surrealists. Cannibalistic and kleptomaniac impulses fed the poetics of plagiarism as past texts and projects were consumed and recontextualized, demonstrating “the futility of the obsession for novelty and originality that stood at the heart of the romantic agenda” (94). With the romantic project exhausted, a poetics of plagiarism offered a new way to engage old problems; Duchamp’s readymades and Breton’s la trouvaille were thus presented as “the synonymy between necessity and desire. The found object becomes a creation once it is placed in a new web of signifiers” (96). This theoretical focus allows Ungureanu to thus interweave Borges’s text with a poetic practice that is nothing short of foundational to the surrealist project. Borges’s own interest in the nature of textuality, repetition, games and puzzles, and real-world connections with his fictional universe thus is itself recontextualized in terms of Ungureanu’s argument for a Borges-surrealism connection: “Beyond his specific engagements with the surrealists’ poem-objects, automatic writing, and plagiarism, Borges’ fictional universe is structurally related to the world of surrealism as he defines his short stories as dreams that will only continue to grow and ramify through their readers’ imagination” (124).

While the Borges connections are indeed interesting and well worth thinking about more thoroughly, in the fifth chapter, entitled “From Dulita to Lolita,” Ungureanu demonstrates a dazzling display of literary detective work that unquestionably connects Nabokov’s Lolita with specific surrealist artists and works in thought provoking ways. She tracks down a photo from Life in 1941 showing Dalí planting a ←322 | 323→mannequin in a pond, arguing that it is in fact the very photo Nabokov describes in Lolita as a “surrealist painter relaxing, supine, on a beach, and near him, likewise supine, a plaster replica of the Venus de Milo, half-buried in sand” (qtd. in Ungureanu 205), and from there launches into a series of thematic connections between Dalí and Nabokov centered around their aesthetic interest in the erotic. Ungureanu repeatedly notes Nabokov’s voiced disinterest in and even disdain for the surrealist project, asking why this disinterest was taken at face value, given the thematic overlap between Nabokov and “the movement that most searchingly, and often outrageously, probed the relations of art and lust, repression and revolution” (216). When she asserts that “Attending to the novel’s surrealist heritage can offer a new way to assess Nabokov’s provocative interweaving of refined aestheticism and raw sexuality” (216), Ungureanu is convincing. However, her argument has really only set the stage for the rest of the chapter, which takes up a startling connection between Dulita, a young Spanish girl who became an object of his sexual fantasies and about whom he wrote as a figural character on several occasions, and Lolita. The two figures both occupy a similarly forbidden space as objects of desire embedded in fantasy: mothers facilitate the pursuit of their daughters; the daughters are caught up in the game of desire; that desire ultimately leads to a mixture of both sex and death driving them onward through the text. “Lolita’s most direct predecessor has been hiding in plain sight in the pages of Dalí’s Secret Life and The New Yorker’s reviews” (225) Ungureanu muses. Once the connection is established, Ungureanu continues to work with the texts, positioning Lolita as a “surrealist object, decomposed and fetishized” (227). While there is not room in this review to cover all the connections developed by Ungureanu, by the time she ends the chapter with a quotation asking if we can tell who wrote the passage, “Humbert-Nabokov or Breton?” (258) the argument for surrealism’s relevance for and influence on Nabokov’s project has been successfully and compellingly put forth.

The final chapter, “The Ghosts of Surrealism in the World Novel,” argues for the continuing relevance and influence of the surrealist project within contemporary world literature. “Two generations removed from the surrealist era, Pamuk and Cărtărescu create their fictional worlds in a kind of second-order surrealism, drawing as much on the surrealists’ modernist contemporaries and on the intervening generation of surrealist-influenced writers, from García Márquez to Calvino, as on the surrealists themselves” (259). Ungureanu’s approach here weaves in ←323 | 324→and out of both texts and artworks; she reads Pamuk and Cărtărescu not so much in order to argue for a direct connection with the surrealists (although there are certainly moments, such as Pamuk’s boxes in the actual Museum of Innocence, where the connection with the force of the surrealist object is quite clear), but rather to demonstrate the ways in which the themes and motifs of these contemporary projects connect, with or without intention, to the surrealist provocation. The previous work of the preceding chapters culminates not in the shock of a newly uncovered undeniable literary connection, but instead in the growing realization that, as a reader, we have been brought to a point in which we can recognize the way in which our own ability to discern the potential effect and influence of surrealism itself has been assiduously cultivated. We are thus willing to accept not only the initial internationalism of the surrealists, but also likely to agree with Ungureanu’s positioning of surrealism as a current worth tracing in world literatures, since “the surrealists had a remarkable legacy in Latin America, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and beyond” (306).

From Paris to Tlön is complex and compelling. The blend of cultural history, literary criticism, theory, and detective work results in a work that at first approach may appear somewhat disjointed, but the truth of the matter is that the historical material, thematic material, and theoretical material involved in the reading of these particular literary texts is itself so tightly intertwined that separating it out would significantly diminish the volume’s impact and usefulness. And it should be noted that the volume itself is well conceived to enhance such usefulness: richly illustrated throughout, with a thorough bibliography and robust index, the overall care and thoughtfulness evident here make the occasional typo and the even rarer rough patches in the writing itself of negligible import.

In the Borges story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” the fictional world of Tlön is brought into a relationship with the “real” world of the text through a series of unanticipated and at time inexplicable interactions: Tlön seeps, as it were, through its fictionality via texts and into the world, irrevocably changing the world itself to the point that Borges’s narrator posits that the current national cultures are in the act of disappearing as the entire world fills with dream of Tlön. Ungureanu traces a similar trajectory for surrealism itself in From Paris to Tlön. The fiction/surrealism thus becomes the real, yes, but the work here is more than merely drawing our attention to the ways in which surrealism had more influence and interlocutors than previously thought. Rather, it is ←324 | 325→the motion of this particular seepage from the aesthetic into reality itself and the resultant changing of that reality that is significant. Following surrealism through its slow but steady flow down a complex crossing of continually forking paths into the world proves to be a fascinating journey, and one this reviewer highly recommends.


Jenny Webb

Independent scholar

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