Robert Desnos, Surrealism, and the Marvelous in Everyday Life


Robert Desnos, Surrealism, and the Marvelous in Everyday Life

Katharine Conley

282 pages


May 2008


$24.95 Add to Cart

About the Book

In this critical biography of Robert Desnos (1900–1945), Katharine Conley reevaluates the surrealist movement through the life and works of one of its founders. Desnos was as famous among the surrealists for his independence of mind as for his elaborate “automatic” drawings and his brilliant oral and written performances during the incubational period of the group. He stayed with the official surrealist movement in Paris for only six years but was pivotal during that time in shaping the surrealist notion of “transforming the world” through radical experiments with language and art. After leaving the group, Desnos continued his career of radio broadcasting and writing for commercials. Though no longer part of the official movement, he remained committed to his own version of popular surrealism: Desnosian surrealism and the search for the “marvelous” in everyday life. Near the end of World War II he was deported and imprisoned for his work in the French Resistance and died at the newly liberated camp of Terezin in Czechoslovakia. Reports from within the camp indicate that Desnos took with him into Terezin his most deeply held surrealist beliefs.

Author Bio

Katharine Conley is an associate professor of French at Dartmouth College. She is the author of Automatic Woman: The Representation of Woman in Surrealism (Nebraska 1996).


"Katharine Conley has now given [Desnos] the critical biography he deserves in English. . . . Conley's great contribution is in tracing the whole of his trajectory, filling the gaps with archival research and her own interviews with surviving friends and witnesses, judiciously separating fact from pious, apocryphal legend. She thus successfully demonstrates the aesthetic and existential consistency that underpinned all of the poet's life and work. . . . Conley effectively reinforces Desnos's status as an oceanographer of the unconscious and as a magnificent poet who extended the range and credentials of automatic writing, then strove to take the Surrealist spirit to a broad and varied audience."—Peter Read, The Times Literary Supplement

"Conley's revitalizing work—a virtual tour de force in Surrealist studies—explores . . . Desnos's central role in a movement too often read only through the lens of Breton."—Rain Taxi

"In this first biography of Robert Desnos, Katharine Conley demonstrates how the great French poet influenced the course of surrealism in the 20th century. . . . This is a lively and important work of biography and criticism and a major achievement in surrealist studies."—The Bloomsbury Review

“Katharine Conley, connoisseur of the bizarre, resuscitates the most established practitioner of automatism in Robert Desnos, Surrealism, and the Marvelous in Everyday Life."—Elissa Schappell, Vanity Fair

"[An] engrossing book. . . . Conley is especially informative about the events leading up to Desnos's arrest. . . . She has, about this heart-rending topic as about everything else in this book, done a great deal of research. . . . Conley is careful in recounting details of both Desnos's life and the texts she chooses, clearly elucidating them."—Mary Ann Caws, London Review of Books

Robert Desnos, Surrealism, and the Marvelous in Everyday Life is bound to revolutionize and invigorate the field of surrealist studies. Conley proposes a succinct reading of Desnos’s poetics as well as a new approach to ‘everyday life’ in surrealist communities: she unveils a new role of the surrealist poet as a mediator of popular culture and as a popular intellectual.”—Martine Antle, author of The Rhetoric of the Other: Lesbian and Gay Strategies of Resistance in French and Francophone Contexts

“One of the essential and so far missing pieces in the history of surrealism in this country.”—Serge Gavronsky, author of Toward a New Poetics: Contemporary Writing in France

“Katharine Conley’s remarkable critical biography, Robert Desnos, Surrealism, and the Marvelous in Everyday Life, presents a new interpretation of the question of engagement. . . . [It] is an important work that makes us rethink the history of surrealism and its socio-political significance. With its thorough historiography and detailed literary analyses, this book will make an invaluable contribution to the fields of cultural history, literature, and literary criticism. It is one of interest to scholars and the general public alike.”—Terri J. Gordon, Journal of Surrealism and the Americas


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