René Crevel Essay - Critical Essays

Crevel, René


René Crevel 1900–-1935

French novelist, critic, and essayist.

Despite the brevity of his life, Crevel is remembered as an integral member of the French surrealist movement. Surrealists believed that literary and art movement was dedicated to expressing the imagination as revealed in dreams, without the convention of rational thought. In literature, surrealism was confined almost exclusively to France, in the works of Andre Breton and Paul Eluard, and was based on the associations and implications of words. Throughout his works, Crevel maintained a central theme that logic was confining, and morality futile. In particular, Crevel's novels are noted for their lack of traditional structure, character development, and plot. However, in spite of his work's unconventional traits, they are also praised for tremendous wit and lucidity. In addition to the arts, Crevel was actively involved in politics. When it appeared that the two could not exist together peacefully, Crevel ended his life.

Biographical Information

Crevel was born in Paris to a troubled family. His father committed suicide while Crevel was a youth, and his death strongly affected the young boy. Despite personal problems, Crevel excelled academically, atttending high school and university in the French capital. After university, Crevel entered the French military. There, he befriended several other young writers who introduced him to members of the popular Dada movement. Crevel's new friends included Breton and Eluard, who contributed to the journal Litterature. Their journalistic endeavors, in turn, inspired Crevel to introduce his own publication, Aventure. At the same time, he began writing novels. Influenced by the French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, Crevel sought to break the traditional confines of prose and narrative in favor of more uninhibited writings.

As Crevel became involved in politics, he attempted to intermingle the harshly logical world of communism with the surrealist realm of the irrational. In the mid 1920s, Crevel became ill with tuberculosis and retreated to a sanatorium in Switzerland. His illness compounded his already existent depression, and frequent absences from his intellectual milieu diminished his influence among his literary and political peers. At a gathering of communists in 1935, Crevel begged for the surrealists who were present to be permitted to speak. When the communists ignored his request, Crevel went home and hung himself.

Major Works

Crevel's output, though small, is praised for its creativity. Novels such as La mort difficile (Difficult Death; 1920) and Babylone (Babylon; 1927) are representative of his free-form style. In addition, these works are considered autobiographical for their reflections on the conflicts and development of a youthful writer. Though difficult to follow from a narrative standpoint, Crevel's novels are remembered for their vivid images and volatile emotionalism.

Critical Reception

Uniformly, critics praise Crevel's literary talents, and recent translations of Crevel's work have brought him more critical attention. Crevel was unabashedly homosexual and his work reflects the conflicts of his sexual identity. Additionally, his work points to the contradictions of the liberation of classes and communism with the surrealist's desire for freedom. In particular, Crevel's black humor offers an eccentric and amusing look at frequently tragic circumstances. Today, as his work becomes more available to readers, the beauty and emotional insights of Crevel's prose continue to be admired.

Principal Works

La mort difficile [Difficult Death] (novel) 1920

Détours (novel) 1924

Mon corps et moi (novel) 1925

Dali, ou l'anti-obscurantisme (monograph) 1926

Babylone [Babylon] (novel) 1927

L'esprit contre la raison: Cahiers du sud (notebooks) 1928

Êtes-vous fou? (novel) 1929

Paul Klee (monograph) 1930

Le clavecin de Diderot (essays) 1932

Les pieds dans le plat [Putting My Foot in It] (novel) 1933


Marie-Rose Carre (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: “René Crevel: Surrealism and the Individual,” in Yale French Studies, Vol. 31, May, 1964, pp. 74–86.

[In the following essay, Carre examines Crevel's role in the evolution of surrealism and discusses his philosophical and literary legacy.]

“The greatest masterpiece,” Jean Cocteau once remarked, “is never more than an alphabet in disorder.” For once, his Surrealist enemies might want to agree with him. When, after the thunder of the great war had been stilled, Breton and his friends assumed the task of building up, from its basic notions, the new consciousness of our society, their hope was precisely that of finding a way of arranging the alphabet so new, so striking, and so binding in its force that it would suppress any memory of the old system of verbal expression. Instead it would nurture into the reborn world an outburst of feelings, perceptions, and thoughts, infinitely richer and more luminous than what could be expressed within the limits of Cartesian and Christian systems of reason then imposed on modern man, the victim of his civilization. “Europe is crystallizing; it is being mummified by the wrappings of its frontiers, its factories, its tribunals, its universities. Spirit is frozen and cracking under the mineral planks which press up against it.” This was the cry the Surrealist group of 1925 sent out to the “Recteurs des Universités européennes.” In the same year, turning to the “Ecoles du Bouddha,” they hailed the spiritual freedom which they imagined resplendent in the Orient: “There the soul finds the absolute word, the fresh phrase, the interior landscape … create new dwelling places for us.”

In the consciousness of European youth at this time, the vocabulary transmitted by generations of writers, all of them suspect, had suddenly lost its inner strength and collapsed into ridiculous intestinal rumblings. In his attack on Anatole France—Un Cadavre—, Breton had sounded the trumpet: “Loti, Barrès, and France—mark with a red letter the year that laid low these three sinister men: the idiot, the traitor, and the bloodhound.” With such representatives the old order of the well-to-do bourgeoisie was bankrupt, despite what some people insisted on calling a military victory. Why should the words that explained, justified, honored, and exalted this order and its concomitant horrors survive? “The modern age is at an end. The stereotyped gestures, acts, and lies of Europe have completed the cycle of disgust.” This text of 1925, published under the title La Révolution Surréaliste was signed by fifty-one young men. Since then, their anger has not stopped ringing and tormenting the conscience of our affluent society. Destined to separate and follow their own paths, some failing to pursue an inhumanly arduous task, some toiling in secret toward the new world of their own choice, some falling victim to the immensity of their vision, they had, nevertheless, revealed to the complacent audience surrounding them with derision or smiles of faked sympathy (“il faut que jeunesse se passe”) that literature was not a refusal to face one's responsibility toward humanity. The poets of the new twentieth century could not be deterred from claiming the right to criticize and soon destroy a respectable way of life, upset their system of value and take away from science the tools with which to build their new City. Their name, derived from the Greek verb to make, was sufficient justification. “Once again,” Breton said in 1926, “all we know is that we are to a certain extent endowed with words and that, because of this endowment, something great and obscure tends imperiously toward expressing itself through us. … It is a singular and untiring summons. Perhaps our only duty is to liquidate a spiritual estate which it is in the bests interests of all of us to give up. Yet it is still a matter of life and death, of love and reason, of justice and crime.”

Among the young men who committed their lives to creating the new breed of man attuned to this singular and ceaseless appeal, few came with more hope and less confidence than René Crevel. For him, the moment when these promises would tend to be realized meant literally that life might become preferable to death. Tragically dispossessed, nurturing a great nostalgia for an imaginary state in which each gesture would be creative and therefore self-justifying, he had to give himself to a faith in need of apostles and recreate his own energy in the face of the infinite boredom of the finite world as he knew it. Born in 1900, he had joined the group of experimenters around Breton toward the end of the Dadaist period and was then still caught in the struggle of breaking away from the hold of a bourgeois family. Like Philippe Soupault and Michel Leiris, he had been educated in the XVIe arrondissement and had attended Jeanson de Sailly. “Ivory towers; but the ones that linger on are so phony they could be knocked down with a flick of the finger. They're done in pasteboard, designed to be coffins for mosquito skeletons. … A being finds his identity in thought and, in his thought, sees primarily his raison d'être. The ‘I think therefore I am’ formula was the keystone of all the structures built in a void.” Such formulas had stunted his mind and those of everyone around him. “The interior life was offered to us as the supreme goal, the goal of goals; living men were advised to embrace silence and immobility; in all this, the attributes of life turned out to be no different from those of death.”

Other attributes of life, projected on planes of still unimaginable richness, were evoked by Surrealist proclamations. “The mind,” said Aragon, “is capable of grasping relations other than those found in reality: chance, illusion, the fantastic, dreams. All these species were brought together under a single genus: Surreality.” This new faith did not propose, then, to refurbish a worn-out vocabulary, to be used in compositions of various kinds, or to set in motion a political revolution, after which certain powers would fall back into armchairs prearranged for a comfortable occupancy. The goal, clearly and frequently stated, was to create new perspectives, for the investigations of the human mind, new forms of thought and perception, so charged with a still undefinable force that they would be at once image, word, and action. At this point, toward which our age is still toiling, reality would not appear as one and definable, obedient to the Academy's insistence that a self-respecting painter should present it only under this guise; rather it would be multi-shared, susceptible to interpretations from many points of departure, each one as acceptable as the one that might have been substituted for it. The advent of Christianity had, in fact, operated a similar change in the mind of pagan peoples. Now the coming of the scientific age threatened to take the lead in a revolution of the same import, but because of the nature of scientific reasoning, its influence would, in our poets' estimation, contribute more to a stiffening of the satisfied dogmatism of our society than to its liberation. “Idealism, pragmatism, and realism, Crevel says, no longer take on the quality of booby-traps which were thought to be poet-traps.” Unlike the nineteenth century romantics, these new poets are not utopians. They are not going to lead the people, in the footsteps of Lamartine and Hugo, to a promised land. The military, the bourgeois industrialists, even the leaders of the Communist party in France, tightening their power over the daily life of the population, had put up barricades against art and poetry, and therefore needed to be swept away. Never had society been so harshly condemned by its youth; the example would set a precedent never to be forgotten; when that had happened, then “l'esprit, l'esprit vainqueur,” rearranging words and images in total liberty, would reach a certain, though perhaps temporary truth which would radiate life, life as it had never before been sensed. Superhuman as these promises sounded, those who made them stood ready to keep them, and Crevel in 1925 marked with emotion the moment when Lautréamont and his “bague d'aurore” had lead him “to the threshold of his shattering friendship with Breton, Aragon and Eluard.”

In 1924 Breton included Crevel in the list of nineteen young men having passed the test of “Surréalisme absolu.” Crevel's contribution to this period of surging enthusiasm had been important, for it was Crevel who introduced them to the fruitful practice of hypnotic sleep coupled with automatic writing, as well as with other activities. Matthew Josephson tells of an evening at the home of one of Picabia's friends, “Mme de la Hire,” when most of the company had been “put to sleep.” Among various incidents, he reports that Crevel was found, a rope in his hand, trying to persuade a group of young men and women to hang themselves from the ceiling light.

In the atmosphere of extraordinary exaltation and assurance permeating the group in 1925, Aragon had written that “Surrealism's data have the value of experimental scientific data.” To which Breton, in another tone, had added: “The really extraordinary thing, Madame, is that on the shore where you had tossed us half-dead, we hold on to a wondrous memory of our disaster.” Crevel, who had confessed in 1924 that “there was no human contact which prevented him from feeling alone,” had learned both to absorb some strength from Surrealist ideas and attitudes and to assert his independence. If necessary, he would set himself apart from a group whose intentions ultimately were different from his own. We know that he very soon withdrew in bitterness from the sessions of hypnotic sleep and later, in his review of Les Pas perdus, accused Breton of having prolonged the evenings mercilessly in order to bring his subjects beyond sanity, just to prove that this was not a game, nor simply minds playing with words. For Crevel, the expected reward was to find, by incontrovertible intuition, that he was really a being different from what a distorted system of values let him now perceive himself to be. The result would give him possession of a method of expressing himself and his real, multiformed truth.

Playing with words, then, was criminal when lives were at stake: “I have no idea of what [Breton's] present intentions are. … André Breton's responsibilities, which had been dispersed, are now joined in a weighty bundle, are becoming more precise. A bastard vanity gives the impression of fleeing from overly human beaches. Is it a constantly lowering tide? … There is no moisture on the sands. Les Pas perdus? They are annals of the life of a littérateur—the last littérateur. Victimized by words, Breton is no longer aware that they have meaning and value and impose a commitment on whoever uses them. … Breton's self-assurance is reminiscent of Montherlant's.” For Breton had cried: “Drop everything, take to the roads, …” and then let the words die on the page. In the manner of the symbolists, they were decorative play-words used for their harmony in a sentence; they revealed how he believed in words for themselves, the way priests claimed God as a guarantee of their precepts, chiefs of state used Fatherland, Duty or Fraternity, and mothers respect, affection, or brushing one's teeth. Breton was seeking to acquire a certain power for himself which he would exert over human beings around him. The century of the new world risked being brought to a stop on the last, fabricated word of “Lâchez tous.”

“I would like to set up a combination that would give me the innocence of a checker player. I would not give up happiness, but would live, act, play with thoughts … happy to hear, to dance, to drink in order to forget the others who have placed limits on me without aiding me.” “To act with thoughts” is precisely the Surrealist dream of supreme power that was still inaccessible to the man “étranger, extérieur au spectacle” who sought in human beings, beyond the trite exchange of words, “tristes simulacres,” the...

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J.H. Matthews (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: “The Surrealist Novel,” in Surrealism and the Novel, J.H. Matthews, 1966, pp. 59–73.

[In the following essay, Matthews compares Crevel's novel, Babylone, with other surrealist writings published in the same year.]

Novelists whose work antedated the formulation of the surrealist aesthetic enjoyed a kind of freedom that those referring to surrealism for inspiration and looking to it for guiding principles could not know. This is not to imply that the surrealist novelist has in view a prescribed form of proven validity or even a narrative pattern in which certain characteristics take their origin in opposition to tradition. The very idea of advocating...

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Times Literary Supplement (review date 1974)

SOURCE: “Suicidal tendencies” in Times Literary Supplement, Issue 3788, October, 1974, p. 1138.

[In the following review, the critic offers an overview of the new editions to La mort difficile, Mon corps et moi, and Les pieds dans le plat.]

That René Crevel was one of the Surrealist writers who committed suicide is well known. But much less is known about what sort of a writer and what sort of a person he was. This re-edition of three of his important books (a fourth is to follow shortly) goes a long way towards filling in the gaps.

Born in Paris in 1900, Crevel was brought up to be a comfortable, conforming bourgeois. When he was...

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Renee Riese Hubert (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “Writers as Art Critics: Three Views of the Painting of Paul Klee,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 18, 1977, pp. 75–92.

[In the following essay, Hubert discusses Crevel's written criticism of the artist Paul Klee.]

Many major French writers have devoted critical essays to painting and, in a sense, have created a new literary genre. Eluard, Aragon, Leiris, Apollinaire, Bonnefoy, among them, have provided a wide range of examples of what appears to be by now almost an established genre quite distinct from the Salons of Diderot and Baudelaire. Many of these texts have such outstanding literary value that the reader may hardly notice their success or...

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Merle Rubin (review date 1985)

SOURCE: Reveiw of Babylon, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August, 1985, p. 5.

[In the following review, Rubin praises the wit and satire of Crevel's work in Babylon.]

Often, we feel we are drowning in an ocean of print. This illusion of plenty obscures the surprising gaps in what is actually available to us. Who would have thought, for instance, that a classic of the surrealist movement, Rene Crevel's novel Babylon, published in French in 1927 with illustrations by Max Ernst, has only just now been translated into English 50 years after Crevel's death at age 35, the first of his works to appear in our tongue?

Kay Boyle's brilliant...

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Kirby Olson (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “Disgusted,” in American Book Review, Vol. 9, Issue 1, January, 1987, p. 18.

[In the following essay, Olson offers a brief biographical overview and considers Crevel's writings to be the work of a frustrated Utopian.]

I am hitting 30 this year. When I was 19, and depressed, my uncle told me to wait until I was 25, because after a quarter of a century everything gets better. He was right. I am almost 30 and quite happy.

Gerry Reith, however, shot himself at the age of 25. René Crevel hung himself at the age of 34. They are the subjects of today's essay.

First, a few facts about each. Gerry Reith was born in 1959. He was...

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Leonard Schwartz (review date 1987)

SOURCE: Review of Difficult Death, in American Book Review, Vol. 9, Issue 4, September, 1987, p.21.

[In the following review, Schwartz examines the surrealist elements in Difficult Death.]

Difficult Death is not a particularly difficult novel, but its author, Rene Crevel, remains one of the most contradictory and hence difficult writers produced by the first half of the twentieth century. Along with Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, Benjamin Peret, and others, Crevel participated in the Surrealist movement of the twenties and thirties in Paris. Of that bunch, he was perhaps the most earnest in his attempts to unite the practice of the liberation of desire...

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Michael Sheringham (review date 1988)

SOURCE: A review in The Times Literary Supplement, Issue 4453, August, 1988, p. 855.

[In the following excerpt, Sheringham considers Crevel's novels as monologues that reflect the hardship of his life.]

René Crevel acted in Tzara's play, Le Cœur à barbe, on the memorable night in 1923 when a ritual punch-up marked a watershed in Dada's evolution into Surrealism. From then until his suicide in 1935 Crevel participated in all the reviews, signed all the tracts, attended all the meetings in cafés (health permitting). Yet when one reads him it is not always easy to see how this can have been. An active homosexual with misogynistic tendencies, Crevel must have...

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Pamela A. Genova (review date 1993)

SOURCE: Review of Putting my Foot in It, in World Literature Today, Vol. 67, Issue 2, Spring, 1993, p. 333.

[In the following review, Genova praises Les pieds dans le plat for its humor and satirical insight.]

In 1954 Salvador Dalí wrote in his foreword to René Crevel's novel La mort difficile, “Crevel offers a new bombshell in the genre of confrontation.” The same holds true for Crevel's 1933 novel Les pieds dans le plat, long considered a classic of surrealism. This, Crevel's third novel to be translated into English, presents a direct yet humorous critique of the intellectual, political, and artistic corruption of post-World War I...

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Garett R. Heysel (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “René Crevel's Body Algebra,” in Articulations of Difference: Gender Studies and Writing in French, edited by Dominque D. Fisher and Lawrence R. Schehr, Stanford University Press, 1997, pp. 155–66.

[In the following essay, Heysel evaluates Crevel's philosophy of desire in Mon corps et moi.]

In his preface to Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus, Michel Foucault characterizes the France of the 1920's and 1930's as dreamy and utopian. Certainly these two terms apply to the surrealists. In 1924, Breton himself locates “sur-reality” at the intersection of dreams and reality—an absolute and pure state of reality—a point, for Foucault, at which...

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