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This review is taken from PN Review 205, Volume 38 Number 5, May - June 2012.

Justly Mad ROBERT FRASER, Night Thoughts: The Surreal Life of the Poet David Gascoyne (Oxford University Press) £30

The eponymous character in André Breton's Nadja is a glorified madwoman. The glorification of madness, which brings unconscious processes of the mind visibly and audibly to the surface, is explicit in the credo of surrealism (and, indeed, in Breton's manifesto). The freedom of the imagination is to be preserved, or won back, at all costs. While Breton himself may have experienced no more than the universally known, only-very-slightly-mad state of hypnagogia (the one between wakefulness and sleep), other artists who, consciously or not, found themselves under surrealism's (anti-)umbrella, such as David Gascoyne, actually went mad and wrote the surreal first-hand.

For the first four years of his literary career - that is, from age sixteen to twenty, unquestionably the most productive period of his writing life - Gascoyne could reasonably be given a rare, oxymoronic-sounding designation: English surrealist. A fluent Francophone and resident in Paris for much of his early life, Gascoyne thought of himself as a European first and an Englishman second. Knowing him to be from England, it is difficult not to approach poems with titles such as 'And the Seventh Dream is the Dream of Isis' as English parodies of a quintessentially continental (one might say, Parisian) phenomenon: le surréalisme. Instead, the early poems often come across as English attempts to be un-English, too sincerely searching for something foreign and not yet understood. Though the subtitle of Gascoyne's first biography emphasises the 'Surreal', what its writer Robert Fraser deems the 'enduring kernel of his ...


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