Reviewed by Lucina Schell, Editor
Born in 1920 and discovered at just fourteen by André Breton, Gisèle Prassinos became the darling of the surrealists. Regarded as a sort of living incarnation of the surrealist ideal of the child-woman, a pure, uncorrupted talent, she had been writing ecstatic literature from her unconscious with no knowledge of the surrealist practice of automatism. The prolific Prassinos, who continues to write and publish to this day, released her first book La Sauterelle Arthritique (The Arthritic Grasshopper) in 1935, supported by Paul Eluard’s preface and the photograph, below, by Man Ray. Holding her own among the formidable male personalities of the surrealist group, she was one of two female writers included in Breton’s 1940 Anthologie de l’humour noir. Now, Black Scat Books, a small publishing venture dedicated to “sublime art and literature,” offers the first comprehensive selection of Prassinos’s neglected surrealist texts to appear in English. Falling somewhere between short stories and prose poems in fluid translation by Ellen Nations, Surrealist Texts is an indispensable introduction to this fascinating writer.
As strange as Prassinos’s texts are—and they are tremendously, unmooringly strange—they typically proceed from recognizable narrative frameworks. As Inez Hedges, another translator of Prassinos, observes, “Prassinos’s texts do have some similarities to automatic writing, yet they are distinctive in that the semantic incompatibilities occur mostly on the level of narrative and representation” (Hedges, 27). There are frequently strange lapses in logic that the reader must simply accept as reasonable in Prassinos’s fictional worlds, such as in “Arrogant Hair”:
In the meantime, someone, no doubt, came in. It could be a little girl because I heard her teeth crack the shell of a nut…She looked at me, then, pointing her yellowish hands to the first child, said to me: ‘His hair must be smelly because I have found a small woodchip on the floor’ (14).
The narrator assumes the entrant is a little girl because, apparently, little girls crack nuts with their teeth. Woodchips are indicative of bad smelling hair, and, even more strange, although the smelly hair seems to permeate the entire room, the girl is only made aware of its smell by a visual input. The short stories in this collection often concern children, or are written from a childlike point of view, from which this sort of imaginative logic might seem perfectly reasonable.
Written as Prassinos was emerging into womanhood, these texts seem to represent a tension between childhood and adulthood that the surrealists no doubt found compelling. While they were busy trying to artificially stimulate a more childlike state, here was a young girl writing completely free from the impositions of adult thinking. The stories often turn the conventions of fairytales on their head, transposing onto this template contradictory details that make them bizarre, and often violent and grotesque. It is here that we can see the social commentary inherent in Prassinos’s black humor.
“Water Drama,” for example, concerns a “pretty young girl” named Péaudrine who “On Sundays… wore small red ribbons beneath her eyelashes.” We are told that, “Apart from a one-eyed son who made movies, this family was respectable,” so naturally, the young girl is expected to be married. Yet, after her fiancée dies, “she was despondent at first but the next day she went to buy herself a silver pin to celebrate her solitude” (29). Prassinos makes fun of the lengths to which women go in order to make themselves attractive (wearing ribbons beneath the eyelashes sounds very painful), as well as the absurd conventions that determine respectability in society. Rather than lamenting her fate, the young woman instead celebrates her solitude, the time alone to develop into herself. Yet the story has a tragic end: after retreating to live under water, Péaudrine is ultimately unable to avoid a repulsive toad suitor who, happily possessing her, ends up crushing her and gouging out one of her eyes. Hedges recognizes Prassinos’s humor as “a form of social criticism expressed in a style that approximates verbal collage,” in some ways akin to the visual collages of Eluard (Hedges, 29).
These familial dramas, treated like fairy tales in a linear manner, masterfully compress a family’s destiny into a very concise form. Yet, it is in this radical compression that the layers of surrealism can make Prassinos’s stories difficult to follow, since they move so quickly from one strange logical conclusion to another. In the story that begins emblematically, “We are a nice family,” which can only be immediately refuted by the narrative, a woman waits for her husband to return home once a year with fish to feed the whole family—mother, and sister. Gradually, we learn of the men in the family—apart from the sister’s husband, there are two brothers, one of which “fought in the war,” and the other of which “did not fight in the war but in the revolution” (33-34). The first brother dies in a rather surreal way, from the lingering effects of the wounds he sustained in combat; the second brother also dies, though we are not told how. Finally, a third brother is discovered, who returns to the family to fill the hole of grief left by the absence of the two other brothers, yet he too dies inexplicably. The story concludes, “Our mother will have no more fish, and we remain alone with two dead men” (35).
It is easy to imagine where this bleak vision came from. Prassinos’s Greek and Italian parents were forced to emigrate from Turkey to France for political reasons when she was just two years old, and the stories themselves originated in the volatile interwar period. Women took on increasingly independent roles when their men had either died in the war or remained too emotionally scarred to support their families, while a nascent movement for women’s rights had not yet gained them the support or protection of society. As Hedges asserts, “Prassinos breaks through the worn scripts for what little girls are supposed to dream of (the happy endings of fairy tales) and gives us, instead, some real dreams from the unconscious” (30).
While many of the stories seem to be written in Prassinos’s own brand of automatism, with one peculiar detail following another, others follow a more recognizable, but no less surreal logic: that of dreams. In “The Pharmacy,” a mountain of sparkling pastilles tempts the narrator to enter a twenty-four hour pharmacy. Although the character is not ill, she quickly describes a horror story that is the stuff of nightmares, in which the pharmacy attendants in white coats “opened up thousands of places on unsuspected tumors” with their eyes. In the last brief paragraph, the narration suddenly changes from past tense to present. After the attendants turn their backs, and begin to laugh and curse amongst themselves, the story ends, “That is when I begin to scream, begging them to save my life. And I still cry. Outside, the nights of the all-night pharmacy follow one after the other.” The at-first jarring change of tense seems to call the translation into question, and yet it is clearly very intentional on the part of the author. By bringing the narration into the present, Prassinos makes the story one of a recurring dream. The last line also has a strange ring that seems at first glance to be perhaps an incorrect translation, since it would seem that from outside, it would be the lights of the all-night pharmacy that would distinguish themselves from the night, evoking passing headlights on a dark street. Yet the last line crystallizes the terror of the story: time moves on outside the pharmacy, the nights flowing one into another, while inside the pharmacy, the narrator exists in an inescapable limbo of the past, as the dream recurs night after night (47).
Nations’s translations admirably resist the urge to clarify or normalize Prassinos’s surrealist prose. Complemented by Bruce Hutchinson’s beautiful watercolors in a limited edition of only 85 copies, Surrealist Texts makes a lovely gift for connoisseurs of surrealism. But the significance of this collection extends beyond its historical value. Like most surrealist literature, the stories are strange and even off-putting on the surface, but plumbing their depths reveals repressed truths, hidden within the subconscious, that are no less painful or true than when they were written.
Hedges, Inez. “What Do Little Girls Dream Of: The Insurgent Writing of Giséle Prassinos.” Surrealism and Women. Ed. Caws, Kuenzli, Raaberg. MIT Press, 1993.
Prassinos, Gisèle. Translated by Ellen Nations. Surrealist Texts. Black Scat Books, 2014.
Disconcerting, but on second take the underlying social comment is appealing. Very interesting post, thanks.
Thank you for this review. Just ordered the book…it looks fantastic!