Lost Profiles: Memoirs of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism
by Philippe Soupault
Translated by Alan Bernheimer
City Lights Books, 2016
In 1920 André Breton and Philippe Soupault published Les Champs magnétiques (The Magnetic Fields), a defining text of Surrealism. The collection brought together works of “automatic writing” by both young poets announcing a breakthrough model of composition which continues to influence further poetic innovation and remains one of the greatest contributions to literature made by the original Surrealist group. Breton went on to declare himself Surrealism’s Grand Poobah. Many of his works have been broadly translated and are readily available to anglophone readers. Soupault, on the other hand, soon backed away from continuing to associate himself too closely with the Surrealist movement. Perhaps as one result, his works have not received as much attention from English translators. Soupault, however, lived a long, literarily active life, never ceasing to write and publish. Poet Alan Bernheimer’s translation of Lost Profiles (Profils perdus) delivers Soupault’s charming 1963 memoir with its character portraits of several renowned poets and authors to an anglophone audience for the first time.
Curiously, the subtitle “Memoirs of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism” is not found in the original French. No doubt it has been added to help stir up interest from prospective readers and hopefully sell a few more copies. It is nevertheless slightly misleading given Soupault’s idiosyncratic penchant for always going his own way. “Perdus,” in addition to its more straightforward meaning “lost,” also carries a sense of “errant” with its more purposeful feel of a willful wandering. Indeed, there is often something quite deliberately distracted and perhaps even mischievously errant in Soupault’s writing concerning the literary history of his personal relationships.
Whatever else, this is a decidedly eclectic gathering. Soupault recalls his friendships with several figures involved in the three key French avant-garde movements mentioned in the subtitle: Guillaume Apollinaire, Pierre Reverdy, René Crevel, and Blaise Cendrars all receive individual chapters. Yet he also includes individual chapters on novelists Georges Bernanos, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust, each of whom he likewise knew, but none of whom are generally associated directly with any of these movements. In addition, the sketch “Baudelaire Rediscovered,” framing the poet as a precursor-figure, is included, along with a quick biographical survey of painter Henri Rousseau, whom Soupault himself never met.
There is also the coyly playful chapter “Steps in the Footsteps” (“Les pas dans les pas”), which has here been moved to open the collection rather than appear at the end as it does in the original French edition. This is Soupault’s cagey and digressive recollection regarding “four young people, students, come to visit with the pretext of bringing me some poems.” He shortly surmises that what they really wish to hear is “why and how the Dada movement was born.” He entertains their query, recalling how he came to know Tristan Tzara and participate in the earliest Paris performances of the Dada movement when it arrived freshly imported from Zurich.
Spurred on as a reactive force to counter the stultifying boredom found across the French literary mainstream of the day leading up to and just after World War I, Surrealism was well underway by the time Tzara arrived (Soupault and Breton having first been brought together by no less of a powerful force than Apollinaire’s friendship). Soupault has no shame acknowledging how fortunate Tzara was to make the acquaintance of him and his pals: “The Dada movement did not reach its full significance and explosive force until Tristan Tzara came to Paris to meet those who, with Louis Aragon, André Breton, and myself, were becoming aware of our desire to be done with the literature of the past, with all its sacrosanct traditions.”
Soupault, of course, had his own falling out with Surrealism. It was both political and personal, arising from the movement’s increasingly Communist ties and Breton’s self-anointment as leading arbiter, laying down rules and regulations to be followed or else. Soupault gladly accepted the “or else” but never looks back with anything but appreciation and confidence, well aware that he was a major contributor alongside some remarkable co-conspirators to a significant set of activities:
Surrealism has never ceased exercising its power. I cannot forget that, in spite of the excommunication that always seemed ridiculous to me, like all excommunications, I have never ceased to be Surrealist. 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. All the rules, all the definitions, all the masks imposed on it have not diminished its power. Historically, one can claim that it is lost in the sands, but like a river, it continues to bore its course deep underground. Surrealism, like Dadaism, has become an “epoch” in the history of the human spirit, and it is not for me, as witness and participant, to judge its significance. I think, however, that after a quarter of a century it remains very great.
The self-assured generosity with which Soupault recounts his days during this startling period of literary history is at once admirable and quite entertaining. Soupault himself remains the center of attention throughout this entire collection yet never does it feel gratuitous or, for that matter, undeserved.
If there’s anything to be critical of here it’s the brevity of Soupault’s remarks. Yet that’s also undeniably a key virtue of the book. Soupault takes for granted a certain level of interest in and familiarity with the subject matter from his reader. It is not the facts so much as feeling, the intensity of the individuals and the time in which he knew them, which he focuses upon relating. After all, this is not a general historical overview of the birth of the avant-garde in Paris. For that, readers would do well to turn to the “sumptuous meal”—as Bernheimer describes it—that is critic Roger Shattuck’s essential classic The Banquet Years. Bernheimer relates it was in fact from Shattuck’s book that he first learned of Soupault’s Profils.
Lost Profiles offers witty and unexpurgated views of a daring era in the Arts when the world became shatteringly altered. These are the memories shared some forty odd years later by one actively involved with multiple fellow players in various scenes of the time. It’s a delightful, thought-provoking read that will have those who are already familiar with the material returning to favorite books, while those who are unfamiliar will be busy becoming acquainted with marvelous characters from a key period in world literary history. Even more importantly, Lost Profiles signals a necessary reminder of how much joy there is to be found in discovering terrific, epochal texts freshly translated.
Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at Gleeson Library for the University of San Francisco. A graduate of the Poetics Program from the now-defunct New College of California, his books include The Duncan Era: One Reader's Cosmology (Spuyten Duyvil, 2016).