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TaTa Dada: The Real Life and Celestial Adventures of Tristan Tzara. Marius Hentea. Cambridge (MA): MIT Press, 2014. Pp. ix + 339. $34.95 (paper).

Tristan Tzara’s life was more closely interwoven with the histories of Zürich and Paris Dada than that of any other artist, yet despite his central place in Dada’s emergence, Tzara never aspired, in the manner of André Breton, to police the movement’s borders or to set its artistic [End Page 206] agenda single-handedly. As Marius Hentea shows in this impressive biography, for long periods Tzara’s life was that of a foreigner—of someone who, as a Jew in Romania, a Romanian avant-garde artist in Switzerland, and a Jewish-Romanian Dadaist in France, seemed unable and unwilling to fit in. As Hentea notes, “one of the persistent charges lodged against Dada was that it was a foreign import,” whose non-conformity threatened to violate the artistic traditions of the nations which served as its hosts (150). Tzara was arguably Dada’s most ardent propagandist, contributing like no other member of the group to its identity as a “movement” and to its international expansion—a task that involved starting the Zürich-based magazine Dada, organizing the infamous Dada soirées, sending out propaganda by mail, and “carefully protect[ing] the Dada legacy” (277) when the movement’s artistic fortunes began to wane in the 1920s. But Tzara’s outsider status meant that he was never going to be a domineering Breton-like figure. Indeed, one of the less savory anecdotes in Hentea’s biography concerns Breton’s attempts to disparage Tzara in a missive that was thick with “xenophobic connotations” (180) after the latter had refused to participate in Breton’s 1922 “Congrès international pour la détermination des directives et la défense de l’Esprit Moderne”—a congress that was effectively designed to bury Dada and to establish surrealism as the new European avant-garde movement.

One of the great merits of Hentea’s book, partly reflected in the opposition of Breton and Tzara, is that it brings into focus the Central European avant-gardes, whose place in the emergence, rise, and long life of “modernism” tends to be obscured in Western-centered accounts of interwar writing. For example, TaTa Dada emphasizes that the uneven spread of modernity to pre-First World War Romania provided a powerful impetus for Tzara’s earliest works. The opening chapters of the book show that Tzara’s prewar poetry was written in response to the contradictory strains and pressures of modernization: the boom in the Romanian oil industry brought unprecedented wealth to the country, but it also subjected the “natural world Tzara inhabited as a child … to a process of transformations” (6). Similarly, the stance of épater les bourgeois that Tzara cultivated in postwar Zürich is prefigured in the accelerating rhythms of modern life he witnessed during his student years in Bucharest, where he became involved in avant-garde circles and cofounded the magazine Simbolul. Central to Hentea’s account is the social unrest—the socio-economic “abyss between urban and rural Romania”—that erupted violently in the peasant revolt of 1907, an event which taught Tzara the proto-Dadaist “lesson … that the settled world could be overturned in an instant” (23).

Similarly important to the young Tzara’s artistic development, and to the germination of Dada, was the politicization of Romanian culture brought about by the conflict between progressive forces and a deeply-rooted ethnic nationalism that celebrated “the country’s folkways and peasantry” (44). Rather than finding a home in some form of cosmopolitan internationalism, Tzara’s poetry was driven, from his early years in Romania onwards, by a strong anti-nationalist sentiment. Tzara learned at an early age that art “operated in a wider social context” (45), and the politicized avant-gardes of Romania formed the historical context in which early ideas about Dada were able to grow: “If modernism in Western Europe was marked by the artist’s growing alienation from society …, literature in Romania was necessarily political because culture itself was politicized” (42). This division of modernism into a Western and...

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