NYRB Poetry: Charlotte Mandell & Edwin Frank discuss "The Magnetic Fields," by André Breton & Philippe Soupault

October 28, 2020, 7:30 PM

Charlotte Mandell and Edwin Frank read from and discuss Mandell's new translation of The Magnetic Fields, by André Breton and Philippe Soupault. This program is part of an going virtual event series with NYRB, and will take place on Zoom. Register here:

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In the spring of 1919, two young men, André Breton and Philippe Soupault, one a student of law and the other of medicine, both in a state of moral shock after the carnage of World War I, embarked on an experiment in writing. Sick of the literary cultivation of an individual voice, sick of the “well-written,” they wanted to unleash the power of the word as such, the better to create “a new morality” that would stand in place of “the prevailing morality, the source of all our trials and tribulations.” They devised a plan. They would write over the course of a week; they would write for only so much time on each day of the week; they would write fast and then faster. When the week was over, the writing would be over, and they would not go back to it or clean it up in any way. Finally, the project must proceed in perfect secrecy. They must not tell anyone what they were up to.

This was how The Magnetic Fields, the first sustained exercise in automatic writing as a form of literary composition, came to be. Charlotte Mandell’s brilliant new translation reveals a key work of twentieth-century literature anew.

André Breton (1896-1966) was a writer, poet, and co-founder of the surrealist movement. A student of psychiatry and a devout Marxist, Breton saw surrealism as the ultimate means to liberation both personal and political.

Philippe Soupault (1897-1990) was a co-founder of the surrealist movement alongside André Breton. Soupault left surrealism behind following political disagreements with Breton, remaining a lifelong writer.

Charlotte Mandell has translated nearly fifty books from the French, including works by Guy de Maupassant, Marcel Proust, Maurice Blanchot, Jonathan Littell, and Mathias Énard. She has been awarded a translation prize from the Modern Language Association and the National Translation Award in Prose. Her translation of The Magnetic Fields by André Breton and Philippe Soupault will be published by NYRB Poets in 2020.

Edwin Frank is the founder and editor of the NYRB Classics series and the author of a book of poems, Snake Train.