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  • Robert Desnos and the Play of Popular Culture by Charles A. Nunley
  • Elizabeth Benjamin
Robert Desnos and the Play of Popular Culture. By Charles A. Nunley. New York: Peter Lang, 2018. 176 pp.

In this succinct and accessible text, Charles A. Nunley delivers two analytical chapters on the work and social context of Robert Desnos, early twentieth-century writer and, later, victim of deportation to several concentration camps. ‘Reportage and the Reenchantment of Actualité: Robert Desnos at Voilà (1933–1935)’ and ‘Radio and the Cultivation of the Popular in Time of War: Good Evening, Ladies and Gentlemen (1944)’ give background to and perform an analysis of the primary texts, which are provided in their original French and in translation in the pages that follow. Given its diminutive length, one might presume that the book’s inherent value is to make available and lend exposure (at a price) to works of this avant-garde writer that would otherwise remain invisible or forgotten. Despite this, Nunley does not shy away from discussing the perception that ‘impl[ies] that the writings themselves are of little or no aesthetic or literary value’ (p. 9). [End Page 477] As is common for those who write on the avant-garde, it is necessary always to engage with the idea that the constituent works of study are, deliberately or otherwise, devoid of academic value, whether through artistic intent or academic precedent. Happily, the text goes on to demonstrate successfully that the dearth of critical attention towards these works to date is unjustified. Nunley executes a thorough chronological analysis of Desnos’s career in engagement with popular culture, and outlines his difficult relationship with Breton’s Surrealism. The latter discussion is particularly useful in highlighting the negativity expressed by the Surrealist group towards Desnos’s engagement with journalism (p. 11), and it is precisely the emphasis on this element of Desnos’s career that allows the author to demonstrate the writer’s importance independent of the movement and its domineering central protagonists, as well as rehabilitating the potential damage to Desnos’s reputation through his persistent commitment to popular culture. This is particularly valuable given the important and often dangerous interaction that popular culture had with the enemy during wartime and under the Occupation, as Nunley stresses, including any resulting ambiguity of allegiances. An element that lets this book down in terms of expectations is the shortage of space given to analysis. Much of this is displaced for the inclusion of English translations for each quotation in French throughout the body of the text. The inclusion of both languages does not justify its bulk, unless it is simply to render visible the original French. The extensive notes and a bibliography given for each chapter increase the pressure on space, further highlighting the fact that there are only two chapters in total, when excluding the primary sources in original and translation. Nonetheless, this work reasserts the value of this avant-garde writer while contributing a pertinent commentary on the interaction of literature and visual culture, in a way that makes it accessible to academics and non-academics alike.

Elizabeth Benjamin
Coventry University


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pp. 477-478
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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