Le Surréalisme by Michel Murat (review)
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Le Surréalisme. Par Michel Murat. (Livre de poche: Références, Inédit.) Paris: Librairie générale française, 2013. 406pp.

The French national programmes of set texts for schools and competitive examinations continue to influence the nation’s publishing output and bookshop displays. The inclusion of Paul Eluard’s Les Mains libres in the 2013–14 programme for the literary baccalauréat and his Capitale de la douleur in the syllabus for the Agrégation de lettres modernes makes Michel Murat’s new paperback guide to surrealism a timely enterprise. Maurice Nadeau’s Histoire du surréalisme, published by Seuil in 1945 and still in print, provided the first chronological survey of the movement but implied that surrealism ended in 1940, sidelined and scattered by the war. Murat retraces the history of the movement from 1917, when Breton met Aragon and Soupault, through to the 1960s and on to its current status, institutionalized by major museums and auction houses. Other chapters are devoted to key concepts and philosophical positions, to surrealist poetry, prose, and periodicals, to surrealist visual arts and politics, and to the movement’s international impact, reception, and legacy, concluding with a chronology, a dictionary of participants, a bibliography, and an index. The whole package is neatly designed, although the author recognizes that the scale of the subject means that parts of his coverage are necessarily selective and brief, skipping like a stone across the water, listing titles, and providing sign-posts. Murat emphasizes Breton’s legislative authority and ‘force dogmatique’ (p. 25) and tends to focus on the ‘surréalistes majeurs’ (p. 267), mainly Breton, Aragon, Eluard, and Desnos, underplaying female contributions and the centrifugal diversity of surrealism. He also warns against ‘idéalisation sentimentale’ (p. 255) and regularly exposes failings and weaknesses, including the stereotypical predictability of much surrealist automatic writing, the male protagonists’ ignorance of female sexuality, naivety in their early dealings with the Parti communiste français, and ways in which ethical purity limited their capacity for effective political manoeuvring. This is surrealism viewed from a distance, dispassionately reassessed. Murat is also, however, sometimes intentionally provocative, suggesting, for example, that Breton’s libertarian views in the 1950s left him closer to Le Figaro than to Les Lettres françaises. The most personal and fervent pages come in the third chapter, highlighting the qualities of the best surrealist poetry and prose (particularly Nadja). Murat shows how surrealism differed from other avant-garde movements in its longevity and fundamental conceptual consistency, and also because, beyond theories and manifestos, it produced a stunningly beautiful and generically varied treasure trove of work. He also emphasizes the ethical imperatives underlying surrealist politics, the strength and impact of surrealist anti-colonialism, the long-running surrealist fight against bourgeois hypocrisy regarding sex and domestic violence, and Breton’s uncompromising opposition to Stalinism from 1935 (I would say 1934). Throughout the book, brief, apposite quotations from primary sources encapsulate and illustrate points and arguments. The sections defining and discussing key terms such as automatism, [End Page 432] convulsive beauty, objective chance, and black humour are clear, well documented, and very useful, and certainly to be recommended to students.

Peter Read
University of Kent