Additional Book Information

Series: NYRB Poets
ISBN: 9781681374604
Pages: 112
Publication Date: October 13, 2020

The Magnetic Fields

by André Breton and Philippe Soupault, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell


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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.


The first Surrealist text.
—The Metropolitan Museum of Art

With distance, a sort of unity has established itself, and The Magnetic Fields have become the work of a single author with two heads. This double gaze has made it possible, as nothing else would, for Philippe Soupault and André Breton to push forward on the path where no one had preceded them, into these shadows where they were both speaking aloud.
—Louis Aragon

The Magnetic Fields opened the verbal floodgates for the writers aligned first with Dada and then with Surrealism: Breton, Soupault, Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon, Robert Desnos, Benjamin Peret.
—Christopher Merrill, Los Angeles Times