A Private Conspiracy

by Mersiha Bruncevic

My new apartment is around the corner from where André Breton lived for most of his life. Breton’s house on 42 Rue Fontaine was also the unofficial Surrealist headquarters. This address is far from the only landmark in the area associated with the movement and its now iconic lore. Many of the group’s storied exhibitions, parties, affairs and feuds happened in and around the Saint-Georges neighbourhood.

I don’t know if it is because of my new place in the heart of Surrealist country, or because of where I’ve been lately in terms of my work, but I have started experimenting with different types of automatic writing. Although Surrealism never adhered to a unified credo, automatism always remained a core principle. My attempts, so far, have ranged from regular stream of consciousness stuff to more profound, almost spiritual endeavours. The reason is simple. After more than a year of writing a novel I am stuck. These experimental writing warm-ups are an attempt to unstick.

The problem is not the plot, but the main character — the I of the story. Even though the novel is not autofictional in terms of events, it is nevertheless based on what I know intimately. Because of this, it has been difficult to decide how close the main character can cut to me, before it stops being a fictional I.

The prompt for my exercises was chosen from Breton’s Nadja, an autofictional account of his real-life affair with a girl called Léona, who went by the name of Nadja at the time. Breton’s story begins with a question, which is also a play on words: Qui suis-je?, meaning both ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Whom am I following?’ And so, I begin by writing Qui suis-je and let the words flow from there.

The Surrealists claimed that automatic writing can unjam the jammed mind. If done correctly, it should release creativity from the constraints of reason and reveal how random coincidences are actually linked in a metaphysical way. The practice can serve as a cosmic connector of dots, it seems. This particular method is also part of a larger scheme, one that Breton calls the ‘private conspiracy’. The idea is that the artist is a prisoner and logic is the prison. According to Breton, an artist must always conspire to get out of that mental jail. Automatism is one way of breaking free.

After a long day of bad writing and a few days into my Surrealism-inspired experiments, I needed a break. I scrolled around for some content to take my mind off things and came across a short film by Éric Rohmer from 1964 called Nadja à Paris. The name caught my eye.

As it turned out, the film is about a young Yugoslavian woman, now a citizen of a Western country, who lives in Paris and writes a thesis about Proust. She spends her days avoiding classes at the Sorbonne, preferring to hang around Belleville and the Buttes Chaumont Park. This, in a nutshell, could be my story. Especially the early years of preparing my Proust thesis, when I actually lived in Belleville and would go to the Buttes Chaumont rather than attend lectures at the Sorbonne.

Rohmer had apparently been planning a cinematic reinterpretation of Breton’s Nadja when he unexpectedly met a girl called Nadja Tesich. She was a westernised Yugoslavian living in Paris who spent most of her time cutting classes, going to parties and exploring the city. Rohmer was intrigued and invited Tesich to write a script for his film, based on her life. They shot it over a few days that summer, and it was a hit.

In 2015, the New York Review of Books published an essay by Nadja Tesich about Rohmer’s film. She recounts how, for years, she had remembered that period of her life as being ‘Hollywood dream-perfect’. This is why, years later, when she went to see the film again, she was ‘afraid it would depress [her] the way old photos do.’ What Tesich found instead was a ‘girl, a child, so thin and lonely looking, so sad in spite of the voice-over, which was all wisdom and lightness.’ It was nothing like she had imagined it.

In the cinema lobby, after the screening, Tesich bumped into an old friend from those days. She asked him if she really had been that sad at the time, to which he replied ‘this is not a documentary, it’s Éric’s portrait of you.’ She had written it, but was it her story? The line that separates a documentary from a portrait is not necessarily evident.

A Yugoslavian in Paris is not the same as an American in Paris. It is not a trope. These days it is a weird anachronism at best, since Yugoslavia hasn’t been a thing since like 1992. But what do you then call the weird overlap between mine and Nadja Tesich’s life?

If I were to write an autofictional work, what she wrote decades before I was born could easily be the plot. Although in the book I am writing, there is no Proust and no Sorbonne — most of it is set in Paris, yet none of it plays out in Belleville. The story that my novel does tell, however, was inspired by my great-grandmother, and her name was Nadja. A meaningful coincidence, perhaps.

Have I figured out what’s next, where my novel goes from here? Hard to say. The automatic writing seems to have set something in motion, I’m just not sure what. Creatively, it has felt good to ‘foment a private conspiracy’ and ‘thrust one’s head, then an arm out of the jail — thus shattered — of logic’, as Breton proposes. Because while there is much truth in fiction, there is certainly little logic to the process by which it takes shape.

Experimenting with Breton’s ‘who am I / whom am I following’ conundrum has been like stepping into a surreal house of mirrors. But these mirrors don’t repeat one image of me endlessly. They show different versions of myself and the people in whose footsteps I have walked, whether intentionally, by chance, or even by some cosmic design.