LATE LAST YEAR, City Lights Books published Lost Profiles: Memoirs of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism, a collection of work by French poet Philippe Soupault, rendered into English mostly for the first time by Alan Bernheimer. The book traces the history of those seminal early 20th-century aesthetic movements, offering penetrating portraits of many of Soupault’s close writer and artist friends, such as André Breton, with whom he co-founded Surrealism. A more amiable figure than many of his cohort, Soupault was, according to Breton, “joy personified, the poetry of the fleeting moment, prodigiously tactful, a beautiful space that slips away.” Poetry was at the core of Soupault’s wordview: he called it “the only acceptable language, the sole means of making contact with the world.” Yet Soupault also wrote several penetrating novels, as well as the autobiographical works collected here.

As a young man, Soupault was befriended by Guillaume Apollinaire, who introduced him to Breton. Although the two would eventually part, their early collaborations forged an artistic theory and practice that broke with the nihilism of Dada, with which Soupault had previously been associated. Breton later spoke of Soupault’s crucial contributions to modern poetry, especially his escape from “the poetic old-fashionedness that Rimbaud, by his own admission, had never managed to eliminate.” Along with Louis Aragon, Soupault and Breton formed the so-called “Three Musketeers,” collectively searching for “total liberation, not only from ways of thinking but also from preestablished means of expression” — for, in Breton’s words, “a maximum of adventure.” Boredom and careerism were out, as far as these earnest young men were concerned — though Soupault would ultimately come to reject what he saw as the careerism and rigid intellectualism of his fellow Surrealists. Soupault’s lively, up-close account underlines the astonishing vitality and versatility of the avant-garde he helped to create and shape.

In “Following in the Footsteps,” the opening chapter of Lost Profiles, Soupault relates his affinity for Dada as a reaction to the cataclysm of World War I — a reaction that refused “to accept the taboos that the patriotic writers, in declaring victory, wanted to impose.” Instead, Dada sought to mimic the unexpectedness of life, its unmediated surprise. The goal was to inspire “a sudden awakening,” the sense of freedom that only the most subversive art can inspire. Yet Soupault eventually grew disillusioned with Dada’s negativity and repetitiveness. “I was the first,” he writes, to announce “Dada’s death pangs” — a posture that ended some friendships while inspiring others.

Soupault’s split with Surrealism was due in large part to the fact that others in the group “made the mistake of wanting to put Surrealism in service of a political party.” In his view, this approach detracted from the value of artistic practices conceived as unburdened acts of freedom. Soupault was also dissatisfied with the movement’s dogmatism, competitiveness, and academic rarefaction, as personified in the egoistic Breton. Yet even in exile (he was ousted from the group in 1924), Soupault remained loyal to its ideas and creative energy, and he kept its compositional practices — such as automatic writing — alive. “I have never ceased to be a Surrealist,” he writes of his later years. “Indeed, Surrealism is not a literary school or a religion. It is the expression of an attitude and a state of mind and especially the expression of freedom.”

Despite his preference for poetry, Soupault writes prose with gusto and élan. He beautifully conveys the passage of time and its impact on individuals and their relationships. “I had the somewhat vague but persistent impression that I was witnessing the end of a world,” he writes in 1958 in his profile of Apollinaire. He rigorously avoids sentimentality and misty-eyed nostalgia in favor of a keen expression of feeling. Throughout Profiles, Soupault vividly recalls his encounters with a wide range of writers and artists. Marcel Proust, he attests, was endlessly curious, inquiring “what time of year, exactly […] do the cherry trees bloom in the orchards of Cabourg, not apple trees, cherry trees?” Though very social, Proust always “seemed to be in a hurry to get back to his room and the silence.” James Joyce was likewise “compelled to write,” and “abandoned himself entirely to it,” while at the same time having “a unique pleasure of being in contact with the crowd” at the theater, the opera, and other entertainments. “Everything pleased him, even the crudest vaudeville.” The book includes a striking 1931 photo of Joyce and Soupault looking over a manuscript together. 

On a few occasions, Soupault recalls an aimlessness in his friends and in himself. Apollinaire, “whose contours are hard to define,” didn’t seem to “know what he wanted or where he wanted to go.” Likewise, the poet Blaise Cendrars “didn’t know where to go or where he was going. There was no destination at the time. […] Every opportunity was a good one.” Lost Profiles captures the restlessness and aspiration of a generation of writers for whom received wisdom was cant, but who could never shake their own self-doubt and propensity for disenchantment.

In the book’s introduction, Mark Polizzotti, author of an excellent biography of Breton, Revolution of the Mind (1995), calls Soupault’s memoirs “a voice of living history, relating events it had experienced not in countless academic treatises but first-hand.” Lost Profiles picks up where Roger Shattuck’s classic study The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant Garde in France, 1885 to World War I (1955) leaves off, though its tone is more irreverent and its anecdotes more personal and eccentric. Soupault goes at lengths to denounce the rumor that the painter Henri Rousseau was a “pitiable person,” a talentless naïf. “Without a doubt,” Soupault insists, “Henri Rousseau took himself seriously,” going on to add he “never accepted the distortions, the burdens of this myth.” What Polizzotti calls Soupault’s “personal panorama of 20th-century modernism” includes similarly incisive portraits of René Crevel, Georges Bernanos, Pierre Reverdy, and others — striking impressions that might otherwise have been lost to history. Crevel, Soupault avers, “was born rebellious, as others are born with blue eyes.” Lost Profiles deserves a wide readership for its shrewd, provocative, totally unique insights into the evolution of 20th-century French art and literature.

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Paul Maziar is a writer, curator, and small-press editor. A chapbook of his poems, Little Advantages, was published in 2013, and his first full-length collection, Opening Night, is forthcoming from BlazeVOX Books. His art writings can be read at artcritical.com and orartswatch.org.