Political Surrealism, Surreal Politics

By Carl FreedmanDecember 26, 2016

Political Surrealism, Surreal Politics

The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville

WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP between radical aesthetic practices and actual political radicalism? There are many — and various — answers to this question. One of the most interesting is suggested by a famous exchange between Lenin and the Romanian-Jewish writer Valeriu Marcu. During his exile in Zurich, Lenin took many of his meals at a restaurant frequented by radically avant-garde painters, poets, and other such bohemian types, Marcu among them. In conversation one day, Lenin said to Marcu, “I don't know how radical you are, or how radical I am. I am certainly not radical enough. One can never be radical enough; that is, one must always try to be as radical as reality itself.” Marcu was so sufficiently impressed by the great Russian revolutionary that he went on to write his first biography.

To try to be as radical as reality itself is a good motto for anyone wishing to accomplish anything of value in art or in politics. Brecht, who was unswervingly radical in both spheres, however, maintained that the artistic comprehension of reality in all its “radicality” is not necessarily best achieved through traditional literary realism. China Miéville would certainly agree. All of his numerous works are animated by revolutionary Marxism, and all diverge in one way or another — or in many ways — from classical realism. His recent volume, The Last Days of New Paris (2016), is set in France, mainly in Paris, during Nazi occupation; but this occupation is quite different from the one you can read about in the history books. The text can be classified as an alternative-history novel (or novella, as Miéville labels it). Yet a knowledge of the canonical achievements of this genre — like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962), or Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004), or any of a number of works by Kim Stanley Robinson — will suggest only a very partial idea of what is to be found here.

Like any other alternative-history fiction, The Last Days of New Paris is set in a timeline different from that of real history. The only exception is an appendix titled, “Afterword: On Coming to Write The Last Days of New Paris,” which is set in our actual timeline and feigns to relate how the principal character of the story — one Thibaut — somehow made his way to our reality and provided Miéville (or the “I” of the afterword) with the facts from which he has fashioned the novella. Within the alternative timeline, there are two distinct narratives, one set in 1941 and the other in 1950. The latter is developed at considerably greater length, though the former provides the basic donnée of the whole story. In the 1941 narrative, Jack Parsons, an American engineer and occultist, arrives in Marseille. He falls in with a group of anti-Nazi activists that includes various Surrealists and the paramount theorist of the movement himself, André Breton. Through a weird combination of engineering, occultism, and aesthetic creativity, Parsons is indirectly responsible for what becomes known as the S-blast: an explosion that results in numerous strange images from Surrealist art and poetry manifesting in material reality and taking on lives of their own. Salvador Dalí’s lobster telephone and the Exquisite Corpse (1938) of Breton, Jacqueline Lamba, and Yves Tanguy are among the most famous works that come alive in this way. No one but the most devoted student of Surrealism could possibly identify the sources of all these manifestations (or “manifs,” as they are known in the text) without aid. But Miéville has helpfully provided about two dozen pages of notes that identify many of them: a clever combination of mock-scholarship and genuine scholarship that recalls T. S. Eliot’s similar venture with footnotes and sources in The Waste Land (1922). It is worth recalling that Eliot’s poem, though produced far from Surrealism and with quite different intentions, has genuine aesthetic affinities to that movement.

Nine years later, in the alternative-history narrative set in 1950, the Nazi occupation endures, and most of the story concerns Thibaut’s fight against it. Thibaut is a member of the Main à Plume, a Surrealist group (taken from real-world history) dedicated to opposing the Nazis, often through armed struggle. Thibaut and his colleagues consider themselves social revolutionaries (Breton famously said that Surrealism was above all a revolutionary movement). Therefore, they fundamentally oppose the conservatism of the Gaullist Free French, though ad hoc tactical alliances with such right-wing anti-Nazism are occasionally necessary. Throughout much of the story, Thibaut is accompanied by a female companion named Sam, an American photographer in Paris to record the life of the occupied city, whose pictures are ultimately collected in a book titled “The Last Days of New Paris.” Sam, however, is more than just a freelance photographer. She is also a secret agent who at one point seems to be working for US intelligence and at another for hell itself: the United States and hell (the implicit juxtaposition is not without its point) are both conservative, antirevolutionary forces; yet both, in a kind of ultimate popular frontism, may function as allies of the Main à Plume against the Nazi Germans. As Thibaut and Sam fight against the occupiers, the Surrealist manifs powerfully range themselves in support against the Nazis — though not always in a reliable way and almost never in a predictable way. The Nazis are so intimidated by the radical energy of the manifs that they attempt to seal Paris off from the rest of the world in order to keep these moving, fighting avatars of Surrealism from spreading. They also attempt, with limited success, to produce fascist manifs of their own.

In some ways, The Last Days of New Paris, as literary art, does not seem to me among the author’s strongest works. Miéville, in his previous books, has created an impressive gallery of strongly individuated characters, but here his powers of characterization are exercised less memorably than usual. Jack Parsons, Thibaut, and Sam are all initially intriguing, and one sees how they could have been developed into really interesting, three-dimensional figures. But in fact they remain (except, perhaps, for the elderly Thibaut in the “Afterword”) somewhat dim and abstract, and it is thus difficult to remain engaged by their doings. Also, toward the end of the 1950 narrative, the story acquires a few too many moving parts, so to speak. As occasionally happens in the Miéville oeuvre (for instance, in much of Kraken [2010] and, to a lesser degree, in parts of Embassytown [2011], in spite of that novel’s excellent quality), the author’s powers of narrative invention run a bit ahead of his powers of narrative structuration, and the reader may have unnecessary difficulty following the action.

There is also a more fundamental problem, one virtually inevitable given the general project of the volume. Though Surrealism certainly had a literary and poetic side, it was most consequentially a movement of visual art. It is not by accident that the painters Dalí and René Magritte and the filmmaker Luis Buñuel remain the most enduringly popular of the Surrealists. The primacy of the visual over the verbal in Surrealism is, indeed, well illustrated by the selection of Surrealist works from which the manifs of The Last Days of New Paris materialize. Yet language, which has always been a medium relatively unsuited to the description of complex visual shapes and patterns, is at a particular disadvantage when it comes to conveying the shockingly unusual images of Surrealism. Not even a writer who has mastered language as brilliantly as Miéville can completely mend this deficiency in his medium. Interestingly, Miéville — a talented graphic artist as well as a great novelist — contributes a few illustrations to the volume, and these, I think, convey a sense of the manifs more effectively than the written text generally manages to do. One wishes for more of them. Perhaps, indeed, The Last Days of New Paris would have been more successful in a more visual medium, as a graphic novel (a form in which Miéville has worked), or even as a film, rather than as a work of prose fiction.

Perhaps the greatest appeal of the volume as we have it is as a kind of allegory of the author’s longstanding relationship with Surrealism. Though Miéville has never made any secret of his interest in Surrealism, the notes to The Last Days of New Paris suggest this interest is more systematic and scholarly than one might have guessed, and the volume ought to remind us how indebted to Surrealist techniques the author has been throughout his career. Such techniques are prominent at least as early as his second (and still perhaps most popular) novel, Perdido Street Station (2000). Within it, for example, the crime boss Mr. Motley who is constructed of various parts from different species, closely resembles a manif from The Last Days of New Paris. Indeed, Motley may well be directly inspired by the Exquisite Corpse so influential for the later book. In Miéville’s latest, and very different, work — The Worst Breakfast (2016), a picture book for small children produced in collaboration with Zak Smith — Surrealist-influenced art illustrates the meal that the story’s two young characters remember with intense distaste.

The Last Days of New Paris, however, is more a book about Surrealism than a Surrealist book. The revolutionary struggle against Nazi oppression waged by Thibaut and his colleagues of the Main à Plume, assisted by Surrealist manifs, allegorizes a productive and mutually supportive relationship between radical art and radical politics. The nature of the struggle makes clear, however, that this relationship is neither symmetrical nor untroubled. Least of all is it serenely inevitable. Art and politics are both transformative activities, but politics can seldom attain the degree of purity that is possible in art. One thinks of the occasional points of contact between the Main à Plume revolutionaries and the Gaullist conservatives, for example. Additionally, the Nazis’ attempts to produce their own kind of manifs should remind us that no aesthetic technique is immune to corruption and political reaction. Surrealist art and anti-Nazi revolutionary communism both attempt to be as radical as reality; and, as Lenin would remind us, in both spheres the attempt is exceedingly difficult. Yet the attempt must be made, during an alternate World War II, and in our own present day. As the “I” of the “Afterword” puts it on the volume’s final page: “Perhaps some understanding of the nature of the manifs of New Paris, of the source and power of art and manifestations, may be of some help to us, in times to come.”


Carl Freedman is the Russell B. Long Professor of English at Louisiana State University. His best-known book is Critical Theory and Science Fiction (2000); his most recent is Art and Idea in the Novels of China Miéville (2015).

LARB Contributor

Carl Freedman was born in 1951. He is the William A. Read Professor of English Literature at Louisiana State University and the author of many books, articles, and reviews that cover a wide range of topics in modern thought and culture, most notably Marxist critical theory, science fiction, film, and United States electoral politics. His best-known book is Critical Theory and Science Fiction (2000); his most recent is Art and Idea in the Novels of China Miéville (2015). He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.


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