Surreal Lives: Ruth Brandon

Ruth Brandon
BY Mark Chichester-Clark

RUTH BRANDON is a writer and journalist based in London and France. She is the author of many works of both fiction and nonfiction, most recently a thriller, Caravaggio’s Angel, published by Soho Press in 2009. Her book Surreal Lives: the Surrealists 1917-1945, appeared in 1999, and was much praised.

This interview was conducted via mail from October 2007 until January 2008… I thought Ruth Brandon wrote a great book on the Surrealists, and wanted to find out why the book spoke to me as deeply as it did.

This interview was first published in Complete with Missing Parts: Interviews with the Avant-garde by my press, (VOX Press, 2008), in a limited edition of seventy-five copies.

Il faut changer la vie.
— Rimbaud

What led you to write Surreal Lives? Since when did you begin envisioning such a complex book project?

Ever since I was a student reading French and Spanish, I’ve been attracted to Apollinaire and Tzara. Dada appealed to my childish knee-jerk anti-authoritarianism. Still does. My tutor at Cambridge, Alison Fairlie, actually knew Tzara, so I have a Tzara number of one. A little later, when we graduated, my closest Cambridge friends started a magazine called Form. As the name implies, it was about formalism in art, so very counter-Dada and totally anti-Surrealist. But people like Arp and Raoul Haussman and Hans Richter kind of crept in. I wasn’t involved with Form personally, and actually had little real idea what it was about, but it all stewed together in there — something I was interested in.

Then studying Spanish meant I spent quite a lot of time in Madrid during the Franco period. My friends there were an absolutely charming but terrifically Catholic family, so pious that they’d cross themselves every time they even passed a church. So I was introduced to that extraordinary overheated hyper-religious atmosphere, which I’m sure hadn’t changed very much for centuries. In London, where I grew up, I belonged to a very left-winged set, and it never crossed my mind that people I liked could ever be anything other than socialists. So when the penny finally dropped — that my Spanish friends had been on the Francoist side during the civil war — that was quite a jolt to my narrow little world. All these made me very interested in Buñuel’s films. I remember seeing Viridiana when it first featured — in the light of what I’d seen in Madrid, it was quite something.

After that, I didn’t think about any of that stuff for a long time, though it did vaguely cross my mind that the Surrealists would be an interesting subject. When it became clear that I wasn’t going to make a living as a novelist — which my publisher had at one time thought I would — I was casting about for a nonfiction book to write, and thought about the Surrealists again.

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