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Exploring Paris as a Woman: Reflections on Women in Surrealist Literature who Embody the City

Part 1 Dissertation 2009
Danika Cox
University of Nottingham | UK
The images of Paris created by Surrealist artists in the late 1920s have an ongoing legacy in their contribution to contemporary conceptions of the city. Thus, the built environment and the culture to which it plays host are inseparable strands woven into the abstraction we know as ‘the City’. This dissertation observes the built environment as depicted in several works of literature by Surrealist authors, seeking to establish why and the city became so central to Surrealist ideology and practice. Where possible, examples of visual art that was produced (or embraced) by the Surrealist group will be called upon to support the literary references.
This enquiry will interrogate André Breton’s Nadja and Philippe Soupault’s Last Nights of Paris, two preeminent Surrealist texts and Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood which shares many of their concerns, although from a female viewpoint. Each presents a female character whose being embodies the city. An examination of the physical topographies illustrated, alongside the characters’ interactions with them, reveals how Paris was perceived by the authors, exposing the strong relationships between literature and space.
The beauty and vibrancy of Paris was comparable to the aesthetic appeal of the women in question. Their novels present the city as unknowable in its entirety, a web in which an ever-increasing number of memories and representations were entwined. In a similar vein, the authors marvel at their heroines’ insights and their ability to transcend time. Nadja and Georgette inspired Breton and Soupault by the spontaneity and irrationality of their wanderings. The Surrealists exalted the city street as a place to meet with adventure. Paris was well-disposed to walking and the young women’s mobility is essential to the identification with the city. The darkness the characters inhabit undermines vision’s dominance, favouring deceit and seduction: in the novels, Paris by night cloaks transgressions from adultery and vice to arson and murder. Ultimately, Surrealist Paris is an ever-changing myth shaped from fluctuations in history, art and memory, while Nadja Georgette and Robin are portrayed as similarly enigmatic and unstable. This dissertation proposes an understanding of the city in which vivid architectural images of the urban environment are envisaged through, and reciprocally influence, the psyche.

Danika Cox

Danika Cox’s Architectural Studies undergraduate dissertation, entitled 'Exploring Paris as a Woman: Reflections on Women in Surrealist Literature who Embody the City', is both highly illuminating and original.

Cox begins with Wilson’s observation that, ‘Poets sometimes likened Paris to a prostitute, but more often sang her praises as a queen. Either way, the city was inescapably female.’ (Wilson 1991, p.47) She proceeds to explore this collation through two key texts authored by founding members of the Surrealist group. André Breton’s Nadja (1928), and Philipe Soupault’s Last Nights of Paris (1929), are both first-person narratives and in each the narrator makes the acquaintance of an exceptional young woman who embodies the Surrealist conception of the city. The dissertation also refers to Nightwood (1936), by Djuna Barnes, as a counterpoint to these novels: the lyrical work is described by Rebecca Solnit as ‘a sort of coda to [Nadja and Last Nights of Paris] … where once again the erotic love of an enchanted madwoman mingles with the fascinations of Paris and the night.’ (Solnit 2001, p.209)

Within this clearly framed enquiry, Cox deftly handles an impressively diverse range of themes: urbanism; subjectivity; Surrealism; the flaneuse; feminism, colonialism, and temporality, to name a few. The dissertation is both rigorous in its research – around Paris and the three beguiling female protagonists– whilst also allowing the scope for searching conceptual explorations. Overall, the writing is significant for its intrinsic inter-disciplinarity - literature being the vehicle through which architectural conceptions of the city are revealed - and its maturity of thought and expression. This is doubtless a significant, intelligent and refreshingly original project, and as such is worthy of nomination in this category.

Dr Laura Hanks
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