ARCANUM 17 by André Breton


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 Another never-before-translated volume by the famous surrealist, from the translator who, along with Bill Zavatsky, recently won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month-Club translation award for Breton's Earthlight. Taking its title from the Star card in the Tarot deck, this heavily annotated 1944 work is extremely dense, difficult to read and to categorize--it combines poetry, memoir, philosophy, a journal, social commentary (criticizing France and the rest of Europe from the safe harbor of America and Canada), a cautionary tale, mysticism (verging on automatic writing), and a political treatise. As in his better-known novel Nadja, Breton turns woman into myth, endowing her with dreamlike, superhuman qualities. Written for (and inspired by) his third wife, Elisa, these ramblings are haunted on a large scale by the shadow of WW II and on a small scale by personal loss. (One bond between Breton and Elisa, if we are to believe surrealist authority Anna Balakian's introduction, was that both had lost a child: he to divorce, she to drowning.) The theme of Arcanum 17, not stated directly until its final page, is the Utopian quest for ``light,'' which ``can only be known by way of three paths: poetry, liberty, and love.'' Breton appended three ``Apertures'' to the text in 1947 in an attempt to make it more accessible. He begins with an apology for his ``polemical fervor'' in the earlier work, but these three pieces are even more polemical, if only because they are more straightforward. He expounds upon elements that his readers found difficult three years before: war, surrealist love, and a friend's account of a chance (most likely preordained) meeting. Truly an unusual work, elegantly translated. Whether readers will be any more receptive to it now than they were 50 years ago remains to be seen.

Pub Date: Aug. 19th, 1994
ISBN: 1-55713-170-8
Page count: 148pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 1994


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