Lost Profiles: Memoirs of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism
by Philippe Soupault; Alan Bernheimer, Translator
City Lights Books, San Francisco, 2016
102 pp., Paper, $13.95
Reviewed by Allan Graubard
The attraction of this little book pivots on the first word of its subtitle. Memoires, yes, but not only just that, considering their author - along with Andre Breton and Louis Aragon - is a founder of Parisian Dada and surrealism. Charming, deft, the profiles that the author paints of those he knew, and one he didn't, though all to him were friends in truth or feeling, reach out and ever so subtly ensnare. It is not that they reveal anything completely new after nearly a century of scholarship and criticism. Nor is that the point. But freshness is a value, both personal and poetic that, for Soupault, is as natural as breath.
The writers and artist that Soupault discusses helped, in part, to found the modernism that is our heritage: Guillaume Apollinaire, Rene Crevel, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, George Bernanos, Pierre Reverdy, Blaise Cendras, Baudelaire ("rediscovered"), and Henri Rousseau, le Douanier. An opening chapter sets the time and the context: the bloody carnage of WWI, an entire generation devastated, and a cultural explosion that ignited in response.
Yes, it is a story we know well, and one that we can seem to know too well, lessening in retrospect the significance it had. But when Soupault tells it to four students who have found him out in Paris, perhaps in the early 1960s, it resonates. And in the first text, "Following the Footsteps," Soupault does just that for us, his readers now.
From there we meet Apollinaire, a recollection 40 years after his death, which places this profile from 1958. Commenting on the man, not the "glory" that came to him as the premiere, French poet of the "new," 20th century, Soupault reminds us that Apollinaire may not even have known "his true dimensions." But rather was happy to illuminate the cultural landscape as a flare fired from a gun does, which others would explore in their fashion and time. It is a telling character trait of Apollinaire, which brings him close and calls me to read him again and consider his life. Following is Soupault's "Ode to Guillaume Apollinaire" that ends with a cautionary note about the effects of celebrityhood and how it can deaden the vivacity and freedom at the heart of poetry -- which certainly inspires when present in person and text.
Astute comments on Rene Crevel that imply but also avoid his homosexual appetites end with a plea for a full study of his entire life, which at the time of the writing of this profile had yet to be done. Thereafter comes Proust, and Soupault's thanks for his keen appreciation of the first surrealist work, Magnetic Fields, written by Soupault and Breton in 1919, an exchange between the elder novelist and younger poet to keep in mind.
Soupault knew Joyce as well, having concluded the French translation of the Anna Liva Plurabell section of Finnegan's Wake, published in 1931 in Nouvelle Revue Francaise and speaks of him with astonishment: a writer more dedicated to language and the language he sculpted than anyone Soupault had known before.
Profiles on the other writers follow as noted above, including an exceptional "rediscovery" of Baudelaire, written in 1967. Here, Soupault captures the 19th century poet at the point of his greatest accomplishment: finally having freed himself from poetic conventions in the late prose poems of The Spleen of Paris, which Rimbaud first recognized when noting the "trivial" formality of Baudelaire's still magnificent poems in Flowers of Evil. This distinction, which surrealists adapted for their purposes, also clarifies how Paris fed Baudelaire's evolution as poet and more precisely the relationship of the city to the poetic after him.
A final, poignant profile on the artist Henri Rousseau, le Douanier, an artist we celebrate but whose life was mostly struggle to survive, concludes this section, the majority of the book. An afterward by American poet Ron Padgett recalls Soupault's charm, simplicity, and generosity when Padgett with his young son met Soupault at the Café Apollinaire on the Blvd Saint-Germaine, or was that the Café de Flore, in the mid-1970s.
Thankfully, for us, Lost Profiles has returned, lost no more.