Philippe Soupault - A haunting depiction of a world in which the characters find themselves both the ghosts and the spooked
Philippe Soupault, Last Nights of Paris. Translated by William Carlos Williams, Exact Change; Reprint edition, 2008. [1928.]
Written in 1928 by one of the founders of the Surrealist movement, and translated the following year by William Carlos Williams (the two had been introduced in Paris by a mutual friend), Last Nights of Paris is related to Surrealist novels such as Nadja and Paris Peasant, but also to the American expatriate novels of its day such as Day of the Locust. The story concerns the narrator’s obsession with a woman who leads him into an underworld that promises to reveal the secrets of the city itself… and in Williams’ wonderfully direct translation it reads like a lost Great American Novel. A vivid portrait of the city that entranced both its native writers and the Americans who traveled to it in the twenties, Last Nights of Paris is a rare collaboration between the literary circles at the root of both French and American modernism.
“Soupault’s nocturnal ramblings include street murders, stopped clocks, and unexpected breezes. This sweet strangeness may very well make you sentimental.” — Voice Literary Supplement
“A haunting depiction of a world in which the characters find themselves both the ghosts and the spooked.” — Review of Contemporary Fiction
Philippe Soupault is perhaps best known as one of the pioneers of the Surrealist (literary) movement, together with the irrepressible André Breton.
However, his writings in the early 20th century, thriving with avant-garde experimentation, have been overlooked somewhat - perhaps overshadowed by Breton's Nadja, which many consider to be the seminal Surrealist text.
The Last Nights of Paris, however, is a masterpiece. Ably translated by American expatriate poet William Carlos Williams, the text reads much more fluidly than Nadja, as the nameless protagonist stumbles upon a murder scene, and becomes infatuated not merely with the details of the crime, but also with a woman he happens upon at the scene, the femme fatale Georgette.
The unattainable Georgette is also a prostitute. Such unlikely juxtapositions scatter Soupault’s novel, as well as unexpected metaphors. Just like the (recurring) dogs in the text, the prose is gloriously aimless; conscious decisions and rationality are unimportant - in nocturnal Paris, one must surrender oneself to the vagaries of chance, investigating and musing upon details of intrigue, drifting from chance encounters with no discernible motive.
The real triumph of the novel is Paris itself. Humans are mere accessories to the evolution and motion of the city, reduced to two-dimensional stereotypes as the convoluted city heaves to prominence.
Time is constantly stopping, starting and re-starting, it is fluid and changeable, just like the narrative thread.
When a conclusion is reached, it is predictably, almost comically, anti-climactic. However, the weaving intricacies of the journey and the vivacity of Soupault’s prose ensure that the novella itself is anything but. - Danny Arter
But what gave her person a charm that could be described as special was her resemblance to a shadow. One might well be astonished, and I never failed to be so, by her strange ability to escape judgment. She resembled at times gleams of light, at times their sisters the shadows. Before memory and words she was as evasive as a fish. She withdrew, even while she remained present, or even when she became burdensome and immense.
Philippe Soupault (1897-1990) was a French poet and novelist. Though initially attracted to the anti-rationalism of Dadaism, Soupault eventually rejected its nihilism and, along with André Breton, sought to explore other revolutionary forms of self-expression. In 1919, Soupault, Breton, and Louis Aragorn (author of Paris Peasant, which I'll be reading next) founded the magazine Littérature, an event which for many marks the definitive start of the Surrealist movement. The following year saw the publication of Les Champs Magnétiques, a collaborative effort by Soupault and Breton to compose the very first book of automatic writing. 1928's Les Dernières Nuits de Paris (Last Nights of Paris), though authored solely by Soupault, may also be thought of as artistic collaboration. Its translator is none other than William Carlos Williams, who was introduced to Soupault by a mutual friend.
Last Nights of Paris concerns the after-dark exploits of its narrator (who never seems to sleep - or work, for that matter), who gradually becomes acquainted with the various nocturnal creatures of the City of Lights. Ever since witnessing a bizarre, weirdly staged spectacle conducted on the rue de Seine around midnight - involving a procession of laborers, a desperate woman, and a giant sack - the narrator has grown obsessed with his companion at the time, a young prostitute he had just met named Georgette, who seemed all too knowing of what exactly they were observing. Hearing a newspaper account the next day of a sailor who had killed and dismembered one of his friends, the narrator finds himself slowly drawn deeper and deeper into an underworld that comes to life only in the dark. Presiding over it all is Georgette, whom the narrator comes to view as the embodiment of all the moods and mysteries of the Parisian night.
Last Nights of Paris is set in the same city chronicled by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler in their recent non-fiction book, The Crimes of Paris, which covers not only the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre, but also a place alive with the experimental spirit of Modernism and in love with spectacles of all kinds. Parisians especially enjoyed hearing about criminals and crimes of all sorts, as seen in the gruesome productions of the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, the wildly popular anti-hero Fantômas of the French pulps, and the sensational stories publicized by newspapers since the repeal of the censorship laws in the 1880s. The Great War may have ended the Belle Époque, but the provocative character of Paris survived into the 1920s, along with its place as the epicenter of radical thought in art and literature.
(Note the muted colors of the Fantômas poster, which are very Art Nouveau. Its cleaner, more streamlined look, however, seems to indicate the growing influence of Art Deco. Not surprising, since it is an early film poster and nothing reflected the speed and spirit of modern times like Art Deco.)
If real-life career criminal-turned-police investigator Eugène François Vidocq influenced Edgar Allen Poe's creation of the detective story, so too does Last Nights of Paris represent a mingling of two distinct cultures. "As the many memoirs of Paris in the twenties attest," says my edition's introduction, "the disparate worlds of the French avant-garde and the American expatriates rarely collided." As such, Williams's translation "stands at the unlikely juncture of both French and American literary modernism." With its cast of tough, amoral characters (including the obligatory femme fatale), evocative urban setting, and the protagonist's quest into the urban labyrinth unlock a puzzle, Last Nights of Paris is very reminiscent of the contemporary development of American noir and hardboiled detective fiction. Sam Spade would hardly be out of place.
At the same time, however, Last Nights of Paris is an undeniably Surrealist novel, following a recognizable plot but infused with the atmosphere of a dream. The night is a living character in its own right, personified by Georgette. It stands for the Surrealist fascination with the subconscious and for its desire to create art out of pure imagination, unordered by thought or reason.
I knew well that Paris is a city dark and full of mysteries, that the men who haunt it are often creatures in hiding, tracked or lost, but I had not believed it really possible thus to escape the power of all those laws which constantly threaten innocents like me. I seemed to forget the night, but suddenly I called to mind long solitary walks during which it would have been possible for me to commit the most irregular acts without drawing attention. And to give myself immediate proof of it: I was surprised that no one seemed to be concerned with the singular posture of the two of us, the sailor and I, seated on the steps of the Pont des Arts.Although the narrator eventually arrives at an explanation (of sorts) for the events that transpired that first night he met Georgette, he does not get there, as your average detective hero would, by seeking, arranging, and interpreting clues. He drifts. He meanders from place to place. He pursues Georgette like the white rabbit. Coincidences arise: he meets a man in a cafe who claims to be a thief who meets regularly with other thieves to discuss the news of the trade. Later on, wandering through one of his favorite nightly haunts, the aquarium at the Pont d'Jena, the narrator comes across precisely that meeting, and hears Georgette's name mentioned.
Soupault's portrayal of Georgette is another fascinating aspect of the novel. She could have very easily turned into yet another stereotypical female symbolizing mystery and instinct and all that stands in opposition to the "male," Apollonian perspective of a rational world. Instead, Soupault makes it very clear that she is a fiercely independent woman who is well-respected by otherwise misogynist men. I wouldn't go as far as to call her a feminist character, but nor is she simply a reiteration of one of Western culture's long-running female tropes. And considering the basic tenets of Surrealism - its embrace of precisely those "female" realms of dreams, emotion, and intuition - Georgette, placed in this context, carries different connotations. She is exactly what Soupault's narrator (who may well be an author surrogate) is seeking as he lets the random power of chance take hold and strays further into a world that materializes only when most people are sleeping.
I have been dying to read Last Nights of Paris since I first heard of it. So many of my favorite things intersect in it: Paris, Modernism, the literary avant-garde, the 1920s. I was absolutely not the slightest bit disappointed. Despite its experimental nature, Last Nights of Paris is a very accessible read that can be enjoyed by a broad audience, even without any background in Surrealism, Modernism, or French social history. I absolutely recommend it to anyone and everyone.
What has happened
since Soupault gave him the novel
the Dadaist novel
to translate -
The Last Nights of Paris
"What has happened to Paris
since that time?
and to myself"?
A WORLD OF ART
THAT THROUGH THE YEARS HAS
SURVIVED! ~ William Carlos Williams - E. L. Fay
Philippe Soupault, I'm Lying: Selected Translations of Philippe Soupault, Lost Roads Pub, 1985.
Philippe Soupault, Lost Profiles: Memoirs of Cubism, Dada and Surrealism, Trans. by Alan Bernheimer, City Lights Publishers, 2016.
Poet Alan Bernheimer provides a long overdue English translation of this French literary classic. LOST PROFILES is a retrospective of a crucial period in modernism, written by co-founder of the surrealist movement. Opening with a reminiscence of the international Dada movement in the late 1910s and its transformation into the beginnings of surrealism, LOST PROFILES then proceeds to usher its readers into encounters with a variety of literary lions. We meet an elegant Marcel Proust, renting five adjoining rooms at an expensive hotel to "contain" the silence needed to produce Remembrance of Things Past; an exhausted James Joyce putting himself through grueling translation sessions for Finnegans Wake; and an enigmatic Apollinaire in search of the ultimate objet trouvé. Soupault sketches lively portraits of surrealist precursors like Pierre Reverdy and Blaise Cendrars, a moving account of his tragic fellow surrealist René Crevel, and the story of his unlikely friendship with right-wing anti-Vichy critic George Bernanos. The collection ends with essays on two modernist forerunners, Charles Baudelaire and Henri Rousseau. With an afterword by Ron Padgett recounting his meeting with Soupault in the mid 70's and a preface by Breton biographer Mark Polizzotti, LOST PROFILES confirms Soupault's place in the vanguard of twentieth- century literature.
"Philippe Soupault was a central figure in both the Dada and Surrealist movements but throughout his long life walked under no banner except the one of artistic freedom. In this previously untranslated book, he gives us a collection of richly remembered portraits of some of his best-loved friends from the old days of the new modernism. As a glimpse into that time, these lost portraits are invaluable—and often deeply moving."—Paul Auster
"Reading Alan Bernheimer's splendid translation of Soupault's memoir, I forgot that it was a translation, that it was Soupault writing or talking about another time, about his friends of one century past. I read myself into these vivid and virile (so, sue me!) assaults on time, and Time stopped."—Andrei Codrescu
"Philippe Soupault was present at the creation of both Dada and Surrealism—collaborating with André Breton to produce The Magnetic Fields, the first book of automatic writing—before going his own way as a poet, novelist, and journalist. In this present volume, Soupault's fierce independence, deep wit, and generous heart shine through a set of sharply observed portraits of European writers—fellow geniuses, most of them known to him personally. Alan Bernheimer's fine translation allows Soupault's vibrant voice to come to life in our time, and to reanimate in turn some of the greatest spirits of the past century's literature—a marvelous and much-needed apparition."—Andrew Joron
"In this dazzling book-adroitly, smoothly & accurately translated by poet Alan Bernheimer—poet & co-founder of Surrealism Philippe Soupault trains his great secret eye & ear to auscultate an astounding range of core 20th century literary figures he knew personally. And does so with serenity, humor & profound insight. Like none of the academic histories covering this period, no matter how well written and documented, this book makes you say as you devour it: 'Wish I had been there.' Enough said, I'm going to call René Crevel right now."—Pierre Joris