The Letter as Literature: Jacques Vaché

Alex Shakespeare

Lately I find myself fascinated by works of literature that do not quite exist: Pierre Menard’s Quixote, Benno von Archimboldi’s Bifurcaria Bifurcata, Fanshawe’s Blackouts, Roland Barthes’s long unwritten novel. The list goes on. What fascinates me about these imaginary works I am not exactly sure. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that they cannot be read, because they were never and can never be written. It may also have something to do with the way these texts, which do not exist, seem to haunt, and to be haunted by, texts that do exist.

A similar fascination has led me to the works of Jacques Vaché, a French writer who lived from 1895 until 1919, when he killed himself with an overdose of opium. Among English readers, Vaché is perhaps most famous—to whatever degree an obscure writer can be called famous—for his suicide. Among the Surrealists and their followers, he is remembered as something of a legend. But I wonder whether he shouldn’t also be remembered as a writer who makes us wonder: when is a letter only a letter, and when is a letter literature?

Vaché’s “visible work” (to borrow a phrase from Borges) consists of an aborted novella of fewer than 500 words titled The Bloody Symbol, a still shorter prose poem titled “White Acetylene,” and fifteen letters from the trenches of World War I. These letters, addressed to André Breton, Louis Aragon, and Théodore Fraenkel, would, after Vaché’s death, shape the aesthetics of Surrealism and Dada alike. Together with Vaché’s largely unrecorded but reportedly brilliant conversation (his “invisible work,” to continue the Borgesian theme) they would direct the course of French literary history.

It seems fair to say that Vaché himself could not have been less interested in directing the course of literary history, French or otherwise. He appears to have been far more interested in disrupting whatever went under the name of Literature or Culture. Breton, in his novel Nadja, would recall sitting down to a picnic dinner with Vaché “in the orchestra of the former Théâtre des Folies-Dramatiques, opening cans, slicing bread, uncorking bottles, and talking in ordinary tones, as if around a table, to the great amazement of the spectators who dared not say a word.” (When, fifty years later, in Mexico City, Roberto Bolaño and the Infrarealists stormed literary readings and ate and drank and talked with abandon, they were imitating Breton and Vaché.) It was this taste for disruption, this half-mad revolt against the crush of conventions that make Vache’s letters from the trenches at once so urgently appealing and so lurchingly bizarre.

Here, for example, is most of a letter that Vaché wrote on June 4, 1917, to André Breton:

Dear friend,
I hope, on a visit to Paris in the near future (around the 15th or 20th)—that I’ll see you there[….]
It’s scorching hot, very dusty, and sticky—but there it is, it must be on purpose. The lines of big lorries shake up the parched earth and sprinkle the sun with acid—How funny it is!—Apollinaire—too bad!—the glossy magazines with blond cover-girls and satin smooth nostrils of the detective-horse are so beautiful…“the girl I love is on a magazine cover”—Never mind! Never mind!—And anyway, what difference does it make, as that’s the way it is—All the same, the white lilacs which ooze out of the base of the shells and droop at the climax of their worn solitary pleasures get me down a lot—summer florists of asphalt where hose-pipes smash up the collar-and-tie neatness[…]
     —Well—I await a letter from you, if you would be so good, whilst the banal throbbing of the aeroplanes glorioles itself with tufts of white powder; and whilst this horrible bird flies straight along through the garish, pissing stream of vinegar.
     Your friend, J.T.H.

It is difficult to imagine this included in an anthology of Great War writing or in Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. Indeed, on first reading, it would be easy to regard Vaché’s epistolary style as a symptom of madness or feigned madness. On rereading it, however, we start to see the way in which the letter functions as a piece of artful rhetoric. Vaché begins conventionally. Dear friend, he says, I hope to see you when I’m in Paris. It’s hot and the air is sticky. Military trucks are raising dust. Then, in part because he is responding to Breton’s letter, which relates news of the poet Guillaume Apollinaire (whom Vaché did not much care for), and in part because he is carried away by a stream of thought, or perhaps better to say a stream of language, the letter veers into proto-surreal sequence of sentences, jump-cutting from the image of a blonde covergirl to a masturbatory image of white lilacs oozing and drooping, and then, onward, to the letter’s half-conventional, half-mad close about the “horrible bird.” We can understand why Breton would later say, “Vaché is the surrealist is in me.”

Vaché’s legend depends in no small part on the difficulty of distinguishing his madness from his art. As a legend, he prefigures the surrealists’ dreamlike juxtapositions and at the same time consummates Rimbaud’s idea of the poet who becomes a seer through le dérèglément de tous les sens. Yet Vaché’s last letter in particular, written to Breton in November 1918, seems considerably closer to clinical than to aesthetic dérèglement: “I was at the end of my tether, and still THEY lied… They suspected something. As long as they don’t lobotomize me while they have me in their power!” Here, it is more than difficult, it is impossible to tell whether Vaché is writing as a Surrealist avant la lettre or as a traumatized soldier who has lost touch with reality.

A letter, after all, is a document of life before it is a work of literature; most letters are never considered literature at all. With a few notable exceptions (Madame de Sévigné comes to mind), we tend to think of them as subordinate documents, secondary or tertiary to a writer’s poems, plays, essays, fictions. It’s true that we treat the letters of Rimbaud and Keats with respect, but without “Le bateau ivre” and “Ode to a Nightingale,” what would their letters be? But then what would Vaché be, without his letters? Only a series of fragments and anecdotes. A ghost of a ghost. Even with them, he is perplexing to approach. They tempt us to read him either as a stifled genius, whose great works would never be written, or as a clever young man who happened to teach his friends a thing or two.

Having read Franklin Rosemont’s very fine Jacques Vaché and the Roots of Surrealism, and having pored over Vaché’s letters time and again, I am still uncertain whether they are the scribblings of a half-mad soldier with a head full of Rabelais and Jarry or texts to be considered alongside Pantagruel, Ubu Roi, and Nadja. Truth be told, if the facts did not controvert it, I might guess that Vaché, like Pierre Menard and Benno von Archimboldi, was an imaginary writer, dreamed up by Breton and Aragon. But the facts do controvert it. Vaché did once exist. His letters serve as proof of that existence, but also of something more. They are not, in any case, mere documents. Literature or not, they haunt and are haunted by literature. They perform, as Roger Shattuck once said of the Goncourt journals, a “very strong magic.” And perhaps that is enough.


ALEX SHAKESPEARE is a visiting assistant professor of English at Skidmore College. His essays and reviews have appeared in North Dakota Quarterly, The Hemingway Review, and Literary Imagination.