If you look at the photograph of leading Surrealist artists and writers, taken in 1932 at Tristan Tzara’s, you will find René Crevel in the back row, and that is where he long remained. The others, including Andre Breton, Salvador Dali, and Paul Eluard, all seem to know what to do with their hands, whereas René Crevel is leaning forward, one hand placed for support on the shoulder of Max Ernst, the other on that of Man Ray. Born in 1900, the golden boy of the Surrealist movement, Crevel is perhaps remembered more for having killed himself than for his writings, though even in death he is surpassed by other suicides, by the revolver-brandishing Jacques Vaché, for instance, whose myth was sedulously fostered by Andre Breton. Why, then, has David Rattray chosen to publish now a translation of Crevel’s autobiographical novel, La Mort difficile, sixty years after its first appearance in 1926?[1] The answer to that question may well have as much to do with a certain climate of opinion that has flourished since the Sixties as with Crevel’s undoubted talent as a writer.

It was in 1947 that Jean-Paul Sartre accused the Surrealists, who deeply influenced him, of being young men of good social position who were hostile to daddy. Crevel senior, however, hanged himself in 1914, and his young son was left under the domination of a mother he loathed and who is caricatured as the odious and pretentious Mme. Dumont-Dufour in La Mort difficile. Still, unlike many of the budding Surrealists in the Twenties, Crevel was indeed well-to-do and well connected. He was a great friend of the Vicomte Charles de Noailles and his wife Marie-Laure, who financed the notorious film, L’Âge d’or, by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali; and it was he who introduced the inventor of limp watches to one of the earliest of that artist’s princely patrons.

Crevel appears indubitably handsome in the portrait photograph by Man Ray, and in fine line drawings of the period. His looks were of a type that should have given him a role in one of Cocteau’s later films, had he survived and if Breton and Cocteau had not been at daggers drawn. One of Crevel’s friends, the Surrealists’ ally, André Thirion, remarked in his memoirs on the engaging personality and polished charm of the author of La Mort difficile. André Breton’s portrait of his associate is more somber: it stresses the disquiet and the complexity of the young man’s character.

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In his books Crevel made no secret of his homosexuality or bisexuality. As for Breton, he wrote paeans to heterosexual love, and like most of the Surrealists he viewed homosexuality with disfavor, although the colleagues tolerated what they regarded as an aberration in their friend. It is plain from Crevel’s highly personal narrative, Mon Corps et moi (“My Body and Me”), that the young author felt deeply divided about his sexual proclivities. Moreover, he had long suffered from ill health: tuberculosis took him at frequent intervals to boredom in Swiss sanatoria, and his sickness was complicated by alcohol and drugs (opium, cocaine). The theme of suicide haunted him. In his very first book, Détours (1924), he imagined the scenario of death by gas that he was to follow eleven years later in 1935. With Man Corps et moi, he betrays his doubts about the reality of his own existence.

The great event of Crevel’s life was his meeting with André Breton in 1921: a strong, aggressive character under whose aegis the Surrealist enterprise often appears as a succession of insults, cuffs to celebrated heads, and expulsions. Crevel made an important contribution to the movement and yet he also figures as its victim. Having been initiated into spiritualism by an aristocratic English lady, he introduced Breton to “hypnotic sleep,” which played so large a role in the development of Surrealism and its use of automatic writing or image-making. In a deep sleep, Crevel declaimed, sang, yet apparently he had no memory of what had passed. These experiments led the young writer to try to hang himself, and Breton put an end to them. In the famous “Inquiry into Suicide,” conducted by La Révolution surréaliste, Crevel eloquently justified suicide as a solution to his dissatisfaction with his life.

The risks involved in Surrealist practices, such as the debate on suicide and the rehabilitation and simulation of madness, are obvious. The extravagant declarations of Breton—that “living and not-living are imaginary solutions,” or that the distinction between true and false, good and evil, is “absurd”—must have had a harmful effect on one like Crevel, whose hold on life was so precarious. The whole objective of Surrealism was to undermine reason and logic. Crevel could write a book paradoxically entitled L’Esprit contre la raison (“Mind against Reason”), but he valued highly his own critical intelligence and, having worked on a thesis on Diderot while at the Sorbonne, he never lost interest in the eighteenth century as the age of enlightenment.

Meanwhile, profoundly loyal to André Breton, he was among those who “gave proof of ABSOLUTE SURREALISM,” as Breton’s first Manifesto has it. Only too well known is Breton’s concept of absolute Surrealist revolt: to go down into the street with a revolver and to fire haphazardly into the crowd. Time and experience have not been kind to such irresponsible language, and too much real blood has been shed in the streets for Breton’s words to be regarded as mere ink. One difference between words and paint is that words have meaning and, however “poetic,” cannot be totally divorced from reason and logic. Perhaps that is why some Surrealist art tends to make a greater impact than a good deal of strictly Surrealist literature. Certainly, the confusion in Crevel’s mind between unreason and reason must have been acute.

Rene Crevel – Βλέμμα

A way out of the impasse appeared to be at hand for intellectuals in revolt: adherence to the Revolution and membership in the Communist Party. Crevel discovered Marx and dialectical materialism, and he began to quote chunks from Engels and Lenin in his writings. He was among those who wrote for the periodical Le Surréalisme au service de la Révolution, doubtless believing with Breton that to propagate the idea of revolution would hasten the advent of the great cataclysm. In 1927 the author of La Mort difficile joined the French Communist Party; he was expelled in 1933 and readmitted in 1934. None worked harder than he did to try to reconcile the mistrustful party hacks and the would-be revolutionary Surrealists or, as it was then put more grandly, “Communism and Culture.” His efforts to establish harmony during the preparations for the Communist-inspired First International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture in 1935 were thwarted by the exchange of insults and slaps between Ilya Ehrenburg and André Breton, which led to the author of the Surrealist Manifestos being denied permission to speak. This Congress proved to be one of the early successes of Stalinism in the international cultural sphere. There was in fact no way of reconciling such fundamentally opposing attitudes to free thought and free expression.

Crevel’s failure to secure agreement between Surrealists and Communists is thought to be one contributing cause of his suicide. Shortly before his death, the former Communist André Thirion had expounded privately—much to Crevel’s surprise—his own conviction that Stalin represented as much of a threat to culture as Hitler. When Crevel stayed with Dali at his home at Port-Lligat, the painter could not have been very helpful when employing his “paranoia-criticism” to provoke “the maximum number of hopeless antagonisms in every situation.” Meanwhile, Crevel was becoming more critical of Andre Breton, and was losing faith in Surrealism, as his letters to Tristan Tzara of 1934-35 reveal. An adverse medical report prompted the young novelist to write: “Please have my body cremated. Disgust,” and to take his own life.

There is a certain irony in prefacing Difficult Death with Dali’s memoir of 1954, as David Rattray has done. Crevel would have hated Dali’s support for General Franco: he himself was keenly opposed to fascism, having helped to create a committee of anti-fascist writers at the time when the French fascists almost overthrew the government in February 1934. It is equally ironic to find Ezra Pound’s essay on Crevel, with its laudatory reference to Mussolini and its refrain on usury, being used to preface a reprint of Crevel’s satirical novel, Les Pieds dans le plat (“Putting One’s Foot In It”). Crevel forcefully expressed his hatred of anti-Semitism and Hitler in that novel, and his detestation of Mussolini elsewhere.

Une Vie, une œuvre : René Crevel (1900-1935)

With La Mort difficile, written in the year of his mother’s demise, Crevel probes the conflict within the mother-fixated Pierre. The protagonist is torn between his ambivalent regard for the self-sacrificing Diane and his passion for Arthur Bruggle, an equivocal American modeled on the painter Eugene MacCown, to whom the author was devoted. Dreamlike elements and a rather mannered insistence on repetition betray the work’s Surrealist connection. Black humor merges with self-pity. David Rattray’s translation is at times ingenious. However, Pierre’s mother admires slim legs as a token of breeding (signe de race), not of “race.” In her prejudiced vocabulary, “foreigner” is too anodyne a word for the pejorative métèque. A reference to the poet Lamartine, hero of the Second Republic, is eluded: Crevel liked to satirize the liberal “Lamartinian current,” otherwise graciously qualified as “the dustbins of liberalism.” To find an equivalent for the American’s amusingly painful misuse of French genders looks impossible. One realizes how skillful, witty, and idiosyncratic Crevel’s use of language can be. He had no small talent as a punster, satirist, and polemicist.

After the événements of May 1968 there was a revival of Crevel’s work in France in the Seventies, when several of his books were reprinted. One admirer went so far as to declare: “The explosion of May [1968] places the figure of Crevel, that dark archangel, in the forefront of those who refuse to live divided against themselves.” A curious observation, surely, since in Crevel’s case that refusal meant self-immolation. The rebellious author of Babylone could serve as model for a new generation of rebels. He, too, was opposed to religion, family, country (in whose name so many had perished in the 1914-18 War), and all existing institutions.

High among his pet hates were liberal parliamentary democracy, capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism. His terminology sometimes recalls that of fashionable theorists of the Sixties and after. When he excoriates the privileged swine (salauds) or invokes “oceans of wrath” to drown the bourgeoisie and all its works, he sounds like a precursor of Sartre and his heirs. Crevel’s heady combination of revolt, homosexuality, and drug-taking doubtless remains in vogue in certain circles even today. To some, however, Crevel may appear as yet another of those gifted, confused, and misguided writers who found a temporary haven for their disarray and their nihilism in a totalitarian ideology: in short, a weak reed.