By Marius Hentea

The MIT Press. 356 pages. £24.95. ISBN 978-0-262-02754-0

Reviewed by Jim Burns

It’s probably true to say that if the name of Tristan Tzara is known to British readers it will be most probably be because of his links to the Dadaist activity in Zurich and Paris between 1916 and 1923. He played a key part in events in both cities, but after 1923, when Dada more or less disappeared from view, and its role as an influential and controversial movement was taken over by the surrealists, Tzara tended to be pushed into a less-prominent position in the international avant-garde. He certainly didn’t completely slide into obscurity and he continued to write. But I doubt that even the most enthusiastic of his advocates would want to claim any sort of fame, or notoriety, for him following the heady days of Dadaist provocation.

Tzara was born Samuel Rosenstock in Romania 1896. There appears to have been some confusion over the years regarding both his name and date of birth, a confusion that was never clarified by Tzara himself who, in Marius Hentea’s words, “kept a mysterious aura about his origins.” Hentea goes on to say: “If one fact is central to Tzara’s childhood, it is being born Jewish.” Very few Jews in Romania were classed as citizens, a fact which may have influenced his later feelings about taking pride in being stateless. Anti-Semitism was rife in Romania among both peasants and intellectuals, and after boarding school Tzara moved to Bucharest, a city that had some of the trappings of modernity alongside traditional habits and customs. It was in Bucharest that he came into contact with various young poets and artists, including Marcel Janco who later accompanied him when he arrived in Zurich. Tzara began to publish poems in some of the little magazines of the day. And he sampled the vibrant café life of Bucharest.

What was significant about Bucharest was that the French influence in cultural matters was strong. Hentea quotes one Romanian philosopher and literary critic as saying that Romania was “intellectually nothing but a province of French geography.” Not everyone was happy about this state of affairs, though, and there were riots resulting from the staging of three French plays at the Romanian National Theatre. Tzara was firmly in the camp that welcomed French ideas and his poems showed that he had read Rimbaud and others. But it wasn’t easy being a Jewish poet, with a liking for things French, at a time when certain critics talked about “today’s Parisian insanities,” and the word “foreigner” was a coded way of referring to a Jew.

When Romania seemed likely to be drawn into the First World War in 1915 Tzara was sent to Zurich to avoid being conscripted and so he could re-start his university studies, his student career at Bucharest having been disrupted by disputes with the academic authorities. The Swiss city was “an intellectual and cosmopolitan hotbed,” largely thanks to the war having forced many artists and writers into exile there. James Joyce had arrived in 1915 and was busy with Ulysses and Lenin was busy plotting the overthrow of the Russian government. But neither Joyce nor Lenin appeared to have attracted much attention, certainly not as much as the Dadaists at the Cabaret Voltaire once they got up to their tricks.

Tzara’s friend, Marcel Janco, was already in Zurich and introduced him to various artists who he met in cafes and a second-hand bookshop they frequented. But he later recalled that his first few months in Zurich were difficult and that “Boredom, with its painful varieties of melancholy, invaded.” His academic record in Bucharest wasn’t good enough for him to be able to enrol at the university in Zurich. He was, therefore, at something of a loose end until Janco, in February, 1916, took him to the Cabaret Voltaire. An advertisement had appeared in a local paper a few days previously saying that it was to be “a centre for artistic entertainment and intellectual exchange,” and that young artists in Zurich were “invited to bring along their ideas and contributions.” Tzara took some of his poems with him which were later described by Hugo Ball as “traditional-style,” though they perhaps didn’t seem all that out-of-place in a programme that included music by Saint-Saens and Rachmaninov. The “great matadors of the Dada movement,” as Hans Arp described them, hadn’t yet started to pool their talents to turn the Cabaret Voltaire into a location for artistic mayhem.

Hentea’s book is a biography of Tristan Tzara, but he includes biographical sketches of many of the people that Tzara encountered, and Hugo Ball had as varied, and some would say chaotic life, as any in the ranks of the Dadaists and surrealists. He started as an apprentice in the shoe trade, had a breakdown when he was eighteen, studied philosophy and art in Munich and Heidelberg, joined Max Reinhardt’s drama school in Berlin, worked in theatres in Munich and Plauen, launched a little magazine which the police confiscated as being subversive (according to Hentea the judge at Ball’s trial said that the poems didn’t make sense so couldn’t be subversive), and promoted Futurist, Expressionist, and Cubist art. When the war started he moved to Switzerland with his companion, Emmy Hennings, “a cabaret performer, convicted thief, published poet, morphine addict, and registered prostitute.” Ball eventually parted company with Dada. I recently read a translation of his 1918 novel Flametti or the Dandyism of the Poor, an account of the ups and downs of a travelling theatrical outfit. It isn’t Dada, but it is thoroughly entertaining.

Once Tzara got involved with events at the Cabaret Voltaire he “did everything possible to make himself indispensable. He performed on stage, recited poetry, selected material for the evening programmes, and also displayed a reservoir of organisational skills.” It may seem that every night was built around the kind of chaos associated with Dada, but Hentea points out that Tzara read poems by Verlaine, Mallarme, and Apollinaire, and that the star of the show was often Emmy Hennings who sang songs that the audience liked. It’s true that some performances did involve nonsense poetry and members of the group in outlandish costumes, but I have the feeling that there may be a difference between what happened and what we like to think happened. The Cabaret Voltaire “became a meeting place of the arts. Painters, students, revolutionaries, tourists, international crooks, psychiatrists, the demimonde, sculptors, and polite spies on the lookout for information.” But Hentea adds that on some nights there were only a handful of people in the audience, and the Zurich police imposed a strict curfew which meant that bars had to be closed by ten o’clock. Performances had to start early. The local press doesn’t seem to have taken a great deal of notice of what was happening at the Cabaret Voltaire. Its impact was to be felt later when reports of what had taken place in Zurich began to reach France, Italy, and other countries. And a kind of mythologizing about the Cabaret Voltaire started to develop.

It’s stressed that “the desire to make overt political statements” was always affected by the police keeping a close watch on what happened among the Dadaists. And the fact that all the Dadaists were foreigners, and so liable to be deported if they broke local laws, helped to keep the lid on their activities. Hugo Ball was in Switzerland on false papers, and Tzara was ostensibly there as a student but wasn’t actually a citizen of any country. It could be argued that the real political activity was, in any case, taking place not far from the Cabaret Voltaire where Lenin sat formulating plans for the Bolshevik take-over of Russia.

It would seem that the word “Dada” first appeared in print in Hugo Ball’s editorial in Cabaret Voltaire, a publication designed to promote the movement. Hentea says that no-one has yet managed to come up with a convincing explanation of its origin. Arguments started as early as 1920 when Kurt Schwitters said that Richard Huelsenbeck was not a true Dadaist and that the description belonged really to Tzara and Hans Arp. Not much later, Christian Schad stated: “I was in Zurich at the time of Dada. Tzara has usurped his title of founder of Dada. He is not the inventor of the word.” Tzara then asked Hans Arp to testify that he (Tzara) had first used the word. Arp duly came up with what Hentea rightly refers to as a “mock deposition” to that effect. And so it went on, with claims and counter-claims. In 1936 Richard Huelsenbeck stated that he got “dada” from a German-French dictionary, “dada” being the French for rocking-horse. Hentea points out that there was a hair elixir marketed in Switzerland under the name of Dada. He also stresses that the question of “use” of Dada as a name for the movement was more important than who hit on it. Huelsenbeck took it back to Berlin with him, but Tzara’s “postal internationalisation” of it was probably more important in terms of reaching out to a wider audience and allowing individuals to “do with Dada whatever they wished, which was the modus operandi of the original Dada participants.”

The Cabaret Voltaire eventually closed, but Tzara, still based in Zurich, was in touch with Andre Breton and others in Paris and would soon move there as the city, following the end of the First World War, began to regain its place as the centre of artistic avant-garde activity. Most of the original Dadaists had left Zurich for various reasons, and Tzara realised that if the movement was to continue it needed a new impetus. As Hentea puts it: “Tzara also knew that to truly internationalise Dada, Paris had to be conquered; its judgement was, as it had ever been, final.”

What happened in Paris once Tzara arrived and met with Breton, Aragon, Eluard, and Soupault is documented by Hentea, and anyone wanting even more information can be usefully referred to Michel Sanouillet’s Dada in Paris (MIT Press, 2009. See my review in Northern Review of Books, October, 2012). There were readings which turned into near-riots, publications, and the inevitable arguments among the participants, with Breton seemingly determined to take over Dada and shape it to his own tastes, which were what came to be known as surrealism. Tzara was increasingly pushed to the sidelines of most of the activity that took place in Paris. There were differences of temperament, as well as of policy. Hentea quotes a significant statement by Picabia when he announced his decision to break from Dada: “Dada, you see, was not serious, and it is for that reason that, like a trail of gunpowder, it reached the world; if some people now do take it seriously, it is because it is dead!” Picabia and Tzara had fallen out, but the latter must have realised that Picabia perhaps had a point and the influence of Dada in artistic circles was fading. Tzara himself continued to attract publicity for his personal behaviour, but it’s doubtful if he had much influence on many other writers and artists. Some commentators might point to the article, “Some Memoirs of Dadaism,” which he wrote for the fashionable magazine, Vanity Fair, as evidence that he was aware that Dada’s role as a functioning movement was coming to an end. When, a little later, Tzara published Sept Manifestes Dada, critics indicated that the most recent manifesto was four years old. And they declared that the fact of the book being a de-luxe limited edition was even more evidence that Dada “had become a collectible museum piece.”

By 1927 Tzara was conscious of his “increasing literary isolation,” and he was critical of the way in which the surrealists were identifying with communism, “a bourgeois form of revolution” which would lead to “bureaucracy, hierarchy,” and ultimately respectability. Tzara said that “Right now I continue to write for myself and unable to find other men, I keep searching for myself.” I suppose there may be some ironies involved in the fact that Tzara was eventually accepted back into the surrealist group and later (post-1945) joined the French Communist Party. Breton was of the opinion that Tzara’s desire to be part of the surrealists again was “strategically motivated.” And other people referred tellingly to his Manifeste Dada 1918 to point out that there was “an irresolvable contradiction between his former positions and his current fidelity to surrealism.” Tzara’s uneasy relationship to surrealism came to a head in 1935 when he was again expelled from the movement. Hentea provides a full account of what led up to Tzara’s expulsion and it makes for fascinating reading even if, at times, one tends to despair at the way in which intellectuals and writers preen  and posture while in  the wider world major events are taking place.

Tzara became increasingly involved with the Communist Party and was in Spain for a time when the Civil War started in 1936. In 1937 he was one of the organisers of the Second International Congress of Writers in the Defence of Culture. There’s no doubt that the Communist Party played a major part in what could be said by speakers at the Congress and Hentea quotes a Pravda editor who gave a speech in which he justified the purges being carried out in Russia. Hentea says that Tzara didn’t go that far but “nonetheless agreed that liberty of expression could no longer be absolute given the greater goals of revolutionising society and sweeping away `centuries of oppression.’ “  To be fair to him he was not alone in the 1930s in moving away from a previous position of pacifism, liberal ideas of personal freedom, and detachment from extreme politics, to one of commitment. Hentea sums up his situation in this way: “In a world where saving one’s skin no longer made sense because the problems of the times spared no one, the need for communal action was, in his view, indisputable. Tzara had the honesty to admit the individual cost that this would entail, yet a horrible moral algebra infuses his address.”

When the Second World War started in 1939 and France fell to the Germans, Tzara as a Jew was clearly at risk. He moved to the south of country, which was initially controlled by Vichy, and managed to survive one way or another, even though he was at one point identified in a collaborationist publication edited by Robert Brassillach. He returned to Paris in 1945, associated with French communists like Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard, and attacked surrealism on the grounds that many of its leading lights had escaped abroad during the war, and the movement had consequently lost any kind of moral authority it might have gained had it played a part in the Resistance. Hentea ascribes his disillusionment with surrealism to his close ties with the Communist Party and his disappointment with Andre Breton.

When Robert Motherwell was preparing his ground- breaking anthology, The Dada Painters and Poets, published in 1951, he found that Tzara, along with other Dadaists, was keen to make sure they had a place in the history of the movement. Tzara initially wrote an introduction for the book which, according to Hentea, managed to avoid mentioning the Cabaret Voltaire, Hugo Ball, Richard Huelsenbeck, and several more who had been an integral part of Dada’s early days. Huelsenbeck, for his part, wrote a manifesto which contained a note saying that, “for reasons of historical accuracy,” it was necessary to point out that Tzara had not founded Dadaism. Tzara threatened to withdraw his introduction if Huelsenbeck’s piece was in the anthology, and Huelsenbeck said he’d refuse to let other work by him be used if the manifesto wasn’t included. In the end both pieces were dropped by Motherwell. It’s intriguing to see how old friendships broke down as people competed for their places in history.

Tzara had continued to write poems whatever else had happened to him, and Hentea offers some useful analyses of them, especially as they were only published in small print runs and aroused no more than minor interest.  I have to admit to having read little of Tzara’s poetry, other than a few things in anthologies, though I recall that the English poet Lee Harwood published some translations in small presses many years ago and I must have seen those at the time. Tzara fell out with the French Communist Party over its interpretation of events surrounding the Budapest uprising in 1956 and this led to old friends refusing to speak to him and his being blacklisted by certain publications.

In his later years Tzara lived a quiet life away from any sort of spotlight. Hentea says that “he began an exhaustive study of anagrams in literature, starting with Francois Villon and then moving on to other writers of the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, such as Dante and Rabelais.” He didn’t completely withdraw from other activities and Hentea mentions a ten-day conference, The First International Congress of African Culture, in Salisbury, Rhodesia. Tzara was there because he was an acknowledged expert “on the relationship between traditional African art and contemporary practice.” When he returned to Paris he spent his days researching in the Bibliotheque Nationale, and his evenings at the Café de Flore with old friends. He was diagnosed with advanced-stage lung cancer, and died on the 24th December, 1963. He was buried at Père Lachaise. Hentea notes that the funeral was a “simple affair, but it could not escape the controversy that distinguished his life. Isidore Isou and his Lettrist friends planned a celebration of Tzara’s work against the communist faithful who were now claiming his memory.” The two sides exchanged insults over the grave.

How important was Tristan Tzara? He clearly played a key role in the birth of Dada in Zurich and for a time he was involved in events in Paris, though he was pushed into a minor position as Andre Breton and the surrealists came to the fore. Marius Hentea works hard to make a case for Tzara as a major player in avant-garde circles, and his account is convincing, at least to the point in the mid-1920s when he broke with the surrealists. After that he perhaps didn’t appear to be relevant as he had once been, even though he lived through events such as the Spanish Civil War, the collapse of France, the years of occupation, the post-war years and the 1950s and communist activities. The story of how he escaped being rounded up with other Jews and sent to a concentration camp is fascinating in itself, and certainly needs to be documented as part of his life. And the post-war years are of interest for their portrayal of the twists and turns of French communism, and for Breton’s attempts to revive the fortunes of the flagging surrealist group. But it’s hard get rid of the thought that had it not been for Dada we would know little or nothing about Tristan Tzara.

Marius Hentea has gone into a great deal of detail to tell Tzara’s story and his book is well-researched (there are fifty pages of notes) and is a mine of information about Dada and surrealist events, little magazines, small-presses, and a variety of ephemeral publications It’s always readable, too, and avoids academic jargon.