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French Forum 26.1 (2001) 108-109

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Book Review


Robert Desnos. Oeuvres. Ed. Marie-Claire Dumas. Paris: Gallimard-Quarto, 1999.

Robert Desnos played a key role in the establishment of the surrealist movement. In the first Manifeste du surréalisme (1924), André Breton confirmed Desnos’s status as the star of the movement at its inception: "Robert Desnos parle surréaliste à volonté." When Breton defined surrealism in the Manifeste as "l’automatisme psychique pur," he used in part as his inspiration the experience of the collective experiments in hypnotic sleep known as the époque des sommeils engaged in by the young surrealists two years earlier. The undisputed star at automatic sleep and verbal-visual automatic creation during that period was Desnos. With his "Troisième Manifeste du surréalisme" (1930), written after he was excluded from official surrealism by Breton in the Second Manifeste du surréalisme, Desnos proclaimed that surrealism had fallen into the public domain. He proceeded to show how surrealism could be effectively deployed in popular culture by continuing to work as a surrealist on the radio throughout the 1930s. His final poem, written in a Nazi transit camp in 1944, evokes for the last time his surrealist alter-ego Rrose Sélavy–playfully appropriated from Marcel Duchamp at the outset of the époque des sommeils twenty-two years earlier–and demonstrates how he remained a surrealist until the end of this life.

Now for the first time Desnos’s works are readily available in a single volume at a reasonable price, something that Desnos, the advocate of popular surrealism, would have appreciated. The Desnos Oeuvres is an invaluable research tool for several reasons. First, it collects in one volume Desnos’s poetry, prose, film scenarios, and journalism that have previously been available only in multiple separate volumes, most of them edited by Marie-Claire Dumas. These include Corps et biens, Fortunes, Destinée arbitraire, La Liberté ou l’amour!, Deuil pour deuil, Le Vin est tiré, Contrée, Calixto, Les Chantefables et Chantefleurs, Les Nouvelles Hébrides, Ecrits sur les peintres, Les Rayons et les Ombres, and Domaine public. Second, it includes diverse materials such as the essays Desnos published in Georges Bataille’s journal Documents; articles published throughout his career as a journalist; letters [End Page 108] and notes on his own work which have never before been published; reproductions of drawings and paintings; some of the scripts from his radio shows from the 1930s; and articles and letters by others who knew him well, such as Breton, Antonin Artaud, and Théodore Fraenkel. Third, the organization of the material by Dumas, her pertinent introductions to each section of the book, and the inclusion of previously unpublished biographical material makes of this edition of the Oeuvres an effective combination of works and biography. Dumas, who has written the most important book to date on Desnos, L’Exploration des limites (1980), and who has extended her work in that volume with multiple articles, introductions, and prefaces, sums up the key points relating to each work in this volume together with pertinent information about the reception of the works and how each one fits into the global picture of Desnos’s output.

From Desnos’s first poem, published in 1915 when he was just fifteen years old, to his final letters home to his companion Youki from the Nazi work kommando Flöha prior to his premature death at Terezin in June 1945, this volume gives a complete picture of Desnos the poet, journalist, surrealist, radio personality, film writer, antifascist, and member of the Resistance. It appropriately contextualizes Desnos’s many talents within the cultural history of his time. This edition of the Oeuvres, so well compiled by Dumas, brings out better than ever before the versatility of the poet whose genius helped to define surrealism and whose life was emblematic of his time.

Katharine Conley
Dartmouth College



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