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I'd never encountered the spirit--the story I mean--before. But in the past five months I've encountered her twice: once in Andre Breton's Nadja, once in A.S. Byatt's Possession. When I searched for her face I recognized it.



Nadja is Breton's narcissistic love story. It's a book that swims amphibiously through genres: equal parts autobiography, fiction, and manifesto, all filtered in that particularly French way through Breton's own ego. Over the course of the book, Breton wanders the streets of Paris and falls in with a mysterious young woman who seems untethered to the usual conventions, a moody whimsical creature who serves for Breton as a muse. She stands in as the divine female spirit of Surrealism, automatic writing personified.

In the end, she turns out to be a madwoman.

It troubled me to find this held up as a love story, as a moving and vital piece of writing. Even as the story unfolds, even before you know she's a patient at a nearby hospital, something does not sit right. You can feel the force of Breton's own perception shaping the reality of the woman into what he wants her to be and claiming that act as an act of love. It felt violent to me, all the way through. My sense is of a woman in pain whose pain is being interpreted as freedom, as art, by an entitled male. I suppose the opposite could be true too: perhaps Nadja is a real artist, a visionary, and she's being labeled mad as a result. I'm not sure which would be worse.

But in the midst of all this, the fairy Melusina asserts her voice. Describing the sketches he and Nadja make in the cafe one afternoon, Breton observes: "Nadja has also represented herself many times with the features of Melusina, who of all mythological personalities is the one she seems to have felt closest to herself." The drawings are reproduced the book: images of Melusina, facing away.

In all my combing of folklore and fairy tale I somehow missed this one nixie. The stories vary, but for the most part they go this way: Melusina, a wise and beautiful fairy, marries a mortal. Each week she takes a bath, alone in a chamber, and forces her husband to promise not to spy on her. Of course he does, and sees her in her true form: a woman with a tail that is either a snake or a mermaid, sometimes with wings. Sometimes she forgives him and they live happily. Sometimes he calls her a snake and she leaves him, taking her magical protection away from the kingdom.

Melusina seems a perfect allegory for poor old Nadja, whose magic is mis-appropriated by man and then cast aside once it seems distasteful to him. That one sentence moved me more than any other moment in the book, than any other proclamation of love.

And then, just a few weeks later, I started Possession. Much of the plot involves a Victorian poetess, all but unknown by the twentieth century, who wrote an epic poem about the fairy Melusina. She embarks on a romantic relationship with another poet, a much more famous man. He cannot quite understand the frantic tone of her letters, how she insists that her privacy is her only freedom. He cannot empathize with the fragility of her identity. A woman who writes poetry, a woman who allows Melusina's tale to be strong and beautiful even as it is monstrous:

"The sinuous muscle of her monster tail
Beating the lambent bath to diamond-fine
Refracting lines of spray, a dancing veil
Of heavier water on the breathless air

How lovely-white her skin her Lord well knew,
The tracery of blue veins across the snow....
But could not see the beauty in the sheen
Of argent scale and slate-blue coling fun."

How is a woman who can write such verse to surivive a love affair in Victorian England?

Here the myth is also used to the hilt, though not in the same way Breton does (to my mind better, but I'm showing my bias). Byatt's poet, Christabell Lamott, has that same fairy power, a power that's both a strength and a disturbing anomaly--and she is self-aware enough to fear its loss beneath a man's gaze. She understands that she can only truly be herself in seclusion. She understands that to leave the bath, to fall in love, will be a kind of death, a kind of change that she might not survive.

Those of us who have tangled with identity, how easy it can be damaged by what we call love, know perfectly well that it is a sea creature, a thing that plays in sea foam and salt. A creature at home in the depths, that breaks the surface sometimes to behold the sky.
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December 2009

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