All the rest is literature


The New Left Review run an extract from Victor Serge’s previously unpublished Mexican notebooks.

2 January 1942.André Breton. Entirely stylized. Personality that is a pure act, deliberately put on like make-up. For lack of a real personality. Always playing a part, for him the world is a stage. But if the actor is no more than his role, there is no longer an actor, there is nothing but a fictitious, false person. This is not higher reality or surreality, but unreality, insipidness.

None of his ideas stand up to a more probing critique that takes things seriously. As coherent as a well-constructed arabesque. Snippets of Marxism, astrology, Freudianism, Sade, Nouvelle revue française picked up at the flea market for hackneyed ideologies. The whole is no more than an attitude that is purely literary (the word ‘literature’ being taken not in the sense given to it by Dostoevsky or Lawrence of a direct, imperiously sincere expression of life, but in its NRF–Deux Magots sense: a construct, a game, commerce, to impress). ‘Automatic writing’ using dictionaries: special effects, artificial automatisms, less revelation and spontaneity than in simple writing that is not intended to be automatic. A process used in the absence of spontaneity or a capacity for work rooted in self-confidence. (Since there is no self, nothing but an act.)

Remarkably decadent character.

Is there not, in this objective judgement (which I want to be objective) something profoundly unjust? Not to underrate André’s perfect dignity, the strength of character (sometimes courage) evident in his stylization, even internal, his authentic bursts of poetry, a very sharp but uneven mind given to sudden flashes and capricious probing rather than a sustained effort; at times more profound than broad, more egotistical—in other words more preoccupied with his own importance than with true understanding. The stuff of a big, strong personality, but ruined in Paris, by this inter-war Paris, living on that literature of which Verlaine said ‘all the rest is literature’.