Signs of Life in a Surreal World: A Conversation with Charlotte Mandell on Breton and Soupault’s “The Magnetic Fields”

IN THE SPRING of 1919, the poets André Breton and Philippe Soupault began an experimental collaboration that would become a foundational document for surrealism: The Magnetic Fields. One hundred years after its initial publication, The Magnetic Fields feels prescient, and at times unnerving, due to the context of global war and pandemic in which it was written. To celebrate the book’s centennial, NYRB Poets has just published Charlotte Mandell’s new English-languge translation of Breton and Soupault. In translator Mandell’s hands, the text feels as thrilling and as bewildering as ever — and, I would add, remarkably timeless. I spoke with Mandell about the book’s context and the joys and complexities of translating this foundational work of surrealist automatic writing.


PAUL MAZIAR: The Magnetic Fields came before Dada and Surrealism took hold. Where is this work situated, relative to those movements?

CHARLOTTE MANDELL: The Magnetic Fields seems to have been written at a pivotal period in France, before Dada took hold there in 1920 and before the advent of Surrealism in 1924, with the publication of Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto. Breton’s close friend, Jacques Vaché, was an admirer of Alfred Jarry — a French progenitor of Dada and Surrealism — and introduced his work to Breton. Vaché died of an opium overdose in January 1919; Breton and Soupault began writing The Magnetic Fields soon afterward, using automatic writing as a way to transcend everyday life, a way for Breton to take his mind off his friend’s death. The Magnetic Fields is dedicated to Vaché, and Breton would later go on to mythologize Vaché as a founding force of both Dada and Surrealism in France.

In the imagery or subject matter of The Magnetic Fields, there’s a wonderful preoccupation with nature — often versus industry — as well as with childhood. The authors reference “signs of life,” and “games on the warpath.” Can you talk a bit about the book’s postwar context?

There’s an interesting contrast in the book between semi-deserted cities (“We run through noiseless cities and the enchanted posters no longer touch us”) and natural landscapes full of life (“Love deep in the woods gleams like a great candle”). It’s important to remember that in World War I, most of the fighting was done in the country — like, for instance, the beautiful forests of the Ardennes — and so those peaceful country landscapes were being ruined by war. Breton’s and Soupault’s images of forests and other natural landscapes can be interpreted as way of trying to reclaim a nature destroyed by war and a childhood whose illusions were similarly destroyed.

During the war, Breton had been an intern at a psychiatric center in northeastern France, where he was introduced to the theories of Freud, which would not be translated into French until 1921. According to Mark Polizzotti’s excellent biography of Breton, Revolution of the Mind, Breton was very taken with Freudian psychoanalysis; he was also impressed with the hallucinations of the shell-shock victims in the hospital. Soupault spent most of the war in hospital, having had a bad reaction to a typhoid vaccine administered by the army; a close friend of his died as a result of maltreatment by the army, so he was very much opposed to the military. It seems to me that both Breton and Soupault were using automatic writing as a way to escape the sordid realities of the war, and as a way to explore the subconscious, with its fertile imagery and surprising non sequiturs. You’ll find there is also a lot of aquatic imagery in the book, as if by diving into the subconscious, Breton and Soupault were discovering a kind of underwater world, a completely different universe from the one they found themselves in.

You make a good point about the poetic reclamation of natural scenes ruined, as you say, by war, and how these landscapes relate, and perhaps echo, the peace and promise of our interior childhood landscapes. This aptly captures what Polizzotti has described in Breton’s will to revolution first and foremost by way of the mind. Do you think poetry can change the world?

I do, in that it can change the way people think, and the way they perceive the world, by presenting “reality” in a different and unexpected way. I think poetry works a little the way homeopathy does: the changes it enacts are subtle and sometimes invisible to the naked eye, but they’re profound. I think by showing us the world as we’ve never seen it before, poets do a life-saving service — as William Carlos Williams writes, “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” I think of Pound’s famous mandate to “make it new.” The Magnetic Fields did just that — it’s breathtaking in its innovations, of both language and form. Through it, the world becomes new again.

Guillaume Apollinaire urged “Let’s go / for God’s sake / Let’s go” — that is, for a journey out of the old world. Breton and Soupault are definitely taking us on this journey. But The Magnetic Fields rails against the modernity that Apollinaire glamorized, during the war that killed him, no less. (Legend has it he was singing as bombardments burst over the trenches he lay within.) Breton and Soupault, on the other hand, are against war and automation. How might the collaborative, automatic writing in this volume — ego-managed, sharing voice and perhaps even consciousness — jump off from Apollinaire’s “New Spirit”?

There is definitely a divide between Apollinaire’s somewhat romantic perception of war — as in his poem “Du coton dans les oreilles” — and Breton’s and Soupault’s focus on nature and the bucolic in The Magnetic Fields. But in a way, I think that through his visionary poetry, Apollinaire set the stage for The Magnetic Fields; I’m not sure it could have been written without him. He introduced Soupault to the work of Breton; they say the word “surrealism” itself originated with Apollinaire. Even though Breton had begun to turn away from Apollinaire’s influence by the time he and Soupault began writing The Magnetic Fields, Apollinaire and Paul Valéry had been the two main literary influences on the young Breton. Apollinaire’s seminal poetry collection Alcools, published in 1913, with its amazing stream-of-consciousness poem “Zone,” set the stage for The Magnetic Fields’s stream-of-subconsciousness. Modernism owes so much to Apollinaire — Jean Cocteau, for instance, borrowed lines from his poems (“un seul verre d’eau éclaire le monde” [a single glass of water illumines the world]; “l’oiseau chante avec ses doigts” [the bird sings with its fingers]) to use as the cryptic messages broadcast on the car radio from the Underworld in his film Orpheus. So much of Apollinaire’s imagistic and surreal verse could be mistaken for lines from The Magnetic Fields.

So many lines from The Magnetic Fields resonate with what it feels like living in a pandemic. (A favorite of mine: “The cities we don’t want to love anymore are dead.”) The freedom in the text also feels necessary, given our relative social limitations and the hellish times we’re living in. Did translating this work feel cathartic, as if you were writing poetry of your own?

It did! As I translated it I was trying to follow the automatic method as much as I could — I didn’t read ahead, and I tried to translate as quickly as I could, without thinking too much about the various options for each word, just going with my instinct. It was an exciting process since I felt as if I was discovering the text as I was translating it. (Of course, later on I went over the text many times and corrected or changed things that didn’t sound right — just as Breton did to the original.) I found myself getting absorbed in the passages and transported to a different world as I was translating, which was a wonderful feeling.

This sounds exhilarating! Bouncing back and forth, from your translation to David Gascoyne’s 1985 British version, it’s easy to see that you’ve provided a vastly improved, fresher English-language version. Were there particular difficulties in translating?

I’m glad you think so! I waited till I was done to look at the Gascoyne version, and I did think it sounded stilted in places. The main difficulty in translating the text was the lack of context; the poems at the end were especially difficult since there’s not much narrative continuity, just image after image, which sometimes was difficult to decipher or visualize. The text is very dense in places, and it was a challenge unpacking the syntax and trying to figure out the meaning without any context to go on.

It’s funny, some of the fragmentary and out-of-context poems at the end are my favorite parts, probably because of my own predilections. The sense of abandon — precisely because of that lack of context and constraint — gives a good picture of the headlong racing that loosed thoughts can do. Do you find your process of translation to be a creative one and do you ever see it as collaboration?

I do find translation to be a creative process — it’s one of the reasons I try not to read ahead, in any book I’m translating. I feel if the author couldn’t read ahead, why should I? In this way I’m always kept in suspense, and I’m also part of the creative process as the work unfolds. I like your term “headlong racing” — apparently Breton and Soupault had to put a stop to the experiment after those poems at the end, since they felt as if they were becoming mentally unbalanced. There is such an element of surprise all throughout the book — and also such enjoyment — at times you could feel the writers laughing at themselves, and at each other. I could feel that sense of joy and discovery as I was translating the book, and it fueled my own work.

In translating The Magnetic Fields, I wanted to engage directly with the text itself, so I didn’t read any background material while I was translating it, and I also didn’t look in the Pléiade to see who wrote which section — I wanted to approach the book as if I were its first reader, and it was a completely new text. One of the reasons Breton and Soupault created automatic writing was to transcend the accidents of biography, to have access to a subconscious that was beyond “reality” — it was surreal. In The Space of Literature, Maurice Blanchot writes that when we know nothing of the circumstances of a work’s production, then “the work comes closest to itself.” My goal in translating The Magnetic Fields was to create an intimate voice that spoke directly to the reader with the same immediacy and urgency I encountered in the original.


Paul Maziar is a writer and small-press editor.


Banner image: “Plaque André Breton et Philippe Soupault, hôtel des Grands hommes, 17 place du Panthéon, Paris 5e” by Celette is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been darkened.



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