- From Paris to Tlön: Surrealism as World Literature by Delia Ungureanu
‘Where is surrealism?’ asks Delia Ungureanu in this superb comparative study (p. 178). Formidably researched, and supported by social anthropology and network theory, [End Page 486] Ungureanu’s book investigates surrealist ideas in writers from the US, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East — well beyond Paris as the starting point of the movement. Ungureanu also responds sophisticatedly to a central metaphysical question: how is surrealism constituted, as a movement and in individual works? Ungureanu has a knack for spotting literary mysteries and challenging conventional notions of influence. Borges, for example, openly rejected surrealism and Freud. Why, then, would Borges base perhaps his most famous character, Pierre Menard, on a surrealist associate of the same name (p. 77)? Ungureanu’s answer takes us through Borges and Lautréamont on plagiarism, Tzara on all literary ideology as contingent, and the idea that a book should contain its own ‘counter book’ (p. 109). What about the reference in Lolita to a surrealistic painting, missed by all American critics of the novel? Stepping through an image of Dalí in Life magazine, Ungureanu follows a thread worthy of Ariadne through a labyrinthine genealogy that includes master love objects (the Russian language for Nabokov, Gala for Dalí, and the sheer thrill of erotica for both), Arnold Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead, and fantasies of the femme-enfant in ‘Mineuretaure’ [sic] (p. 228). This darkly humoured pun on the surrealist journal Minotaure acknowledges a key problem: if a book is ‘perverse and lewd — but fantastically well written’ (p. 225), does that somehow exonerate or beatify it? An even-handed account of the often vicious power struggle between Breton and Dalí underpins the study: Breton excoriates Dalí for endorsing fascists (Franco, Hitler) and perverting surrealism through narcissism and material greed; Dalí, ever loyal to the twin drives of Eros and Thanatos, dreams of sodomizing Breton and eliminating him along with all father figures. Ungureanu’s Breton is human: he has libidinous power as a leader, is a (soluble) fish-out-of-water in New York during the Second World War, and his extraordinary knowledge and self-belief accompany a superstitious suggestibility and a need to weaponize more or less all human relations. Ungureanu also shows the reciprocal reinvigoration of surrealism and the US fine arts scene, and how the fashion world allowed Dalí to develop aesthetically; not just financially. Via Proust, the final chapter cleverly assembles the cast to support cryptographic readings of Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk and the Romanian writer Mircea Cărtărescu, focusing on subject–object relations; childhood museums of innocence; and maps, memories, and cities. Surrealism’s aspirations to world literature and internationalism are contradictory. Nonetheless, Ungureanu convincingly stresses surrealism’s ability to cross cultural, historical, and political borders. She also demonstrates what Andrew Ginger calls the ‘persistence’ (resistance to boundaries) and ‘intimacy’ (commonality) of comparative connections (‘Comparative Study and the Nature of Connections: Of the Aesthetic Appreciation of History’, Modern Languages Open, 1 (2018), 1–9). Ungureanu leaves us without a schematic method, but this is comparative study as ‘practice and craft’ rather than as fixed, predictive theory (Ginger, ‘Comparative Study and the Nature of Connections’, p. 7). This, in turn, is true to the emphatically open-ended, forward-looking version of surrealism presented in the book.