“Simone is the completed version of myself”
When Léa Chauvel-Lévy discovered the existence of Simone Rachel Kahn, André Breton’s companion, her fascination prompted her to imagine Simone’s life story. The result is Chauvel-Lévy’s poignant first novel, which hovers between reality and fiction. An astonishing plunge into the 1920s and the Surrealist movement, the narrative portrays Simone as an ultra-contemporary heroine. Two periods, two women, united by sensitivity and strength of character.
How did Simone Rachel Kahn come into your life?
First there was a decisive encounter with the gallery owner Vincent Sator. He told me that his grandmother had also been a gallery owner, back when it was difficult for a woman to be one. She had two galleries [on Rue de Seine and Rue de Furstenberg, in the 6th arrondissement] where she showed all the Surrealists. She was Simone Rachel Kahn, the first wife of André Breton, the Surrealist movement’s leader. Little is known about Simone’s life; so Vincent suggested I tackle it. “We know very little, so it would have to be a fictional work.” He advised me to read two books of letters that turned out to be precious for me: letters from Breton to Simone, which he wrote to her every day – he was madly in love with her; and letters from Simone to her cousin Denise Lévy, who became Aragon’s muse. The novel came out of that. An epiphany. One morning, the story was there. I wrote for seven months.
Did you have to do research first?
I wanted to pierce the mystery of Simone, so I headed out to gather information. The people who knew her are dead. Her family knows little about her life. So I called historians, in particular Georges Sebbag, who knew her a little. I went to the library. I found a lot about Breton, Aragon, Soupault and all of the characters found in the story, but very little about her. So I had to go for a fictional account, with a blank check from the family.
One of the great strengths of the story lies in the force of the heroine’s inner narrative. How did you build Simone’s psyche?
Simone is weak and vulnerable, and at the same time extremely determined. Her emotions are a bit like mine. I put my own flesh into her. The starting point of a novel is oneself. Melancholy, depressive states… that’s me. When she fights with time, it’s the story of my life. I am someone who falls deeply in love, so I have her falling deeply in love the way I do. But other elements are totally fictional. I had fun, it was my free space.
Was it important for you to create a feminist figure?
I wanted my character to have an abortion because I guessed that Simone had also done so. And I wanted to talk about the condition of women in 1920. Deschanel’s government passed a law ensuring abortion shifted from being a misdemeanor to being a criminal offense. As a woman, exercising your right over your body sent you to prison; I wanted to talk about that. I wanted to talk about the fact that women were physically subjected to the power of men. I wanted people to know that Simone was a feminist figure who got free of the family home very early on; a strength I lacked. I often say Simone is the completed version of myself. I wanted her to succeed, in a way that I do not.
Her feelings toward Dadaism are ambivalent…
Again, it’s me who you find in Simone. Basically I don’t like the Dadaists. My rapport with language is very classic. The Dada movement is noisy, phonetic, coarse. It challenges the rules of spelling and punctuation. It makes no sense, unless it’s intuitive, subconscious sense. The first time she meets Breton, she says to him “I detest the Dadaists. I know you are a Dadaist. Do you still want to talk to me?” I wanted Simone to be strong intellectually and make Breton doubt himself… But she is going to learn to get to know and love them.
Like Simone, did you learn to love the Dadaists?
As I was doing my research, they interested me. From a theoretical point of view, it’s the renaissance. It’s how you pick yourself up from the rubble of the war. It’s how art overcomes. Breton was a nurse during the war. Apollinaire was injured by a mortar shell… All these people returned home traumatized; they tried to bury the pre-war world so that there could be a rebirth of words and thinking.
Whereas Dada often goes hand-in-hand with joy, performance!
Because you have to live again. The Dada parties were over the top. People shaved their heads, threw potatoes in each other’s faces, sang, put on makeup! Everyone recited a poem at the same time, it was a cacophony of nonsense, but that was the aim. Total deconstruction. The arts mixed together: literature, cinema, poetry, fine arts. It was a time of great intellectual cohesion. I had a wonderful pretext to talk about this effervescence, this interdisciplinary excitement. They had a way of laughing after having suffered that’s magnificent. It’s a victory of life. A vitally important jolt. In the end, it’s like the character of Simone, who comes alive again in this novel. She picks herself up from the traumatic experiences she’s been through.
The 1920s details immerse the reader in the era. How did you go about restituting it?
I was a blank slate. I knew nothing about how Paris looked at the time. I read the newspapers from the period and watched film clips – lots of Americans filmed Paris in 1920. I had a few vague points of reference but I didn’t even know how they used the telephone. I found all of that by studying articles, fashion magazines, and those letters I mentioned. It was a lot of research, down to knowing what they ate and drank.
This is a first novel. What was the writing process like?
I always told myself I would write a novel once in my life. It was intuitive and organic. Each chapter is a scene. I didn’t have the feeling of building this novel, but of living it. After a scene, I felt like Simone must have felt. I reacted to the emotions that she felt and I wrote accordingly. When she was depressed, for example, she had to go exercise. A bit like us!
Is it part of the writing process, in your opinion, to be in symbiosis with your main character?
I often dreamed about Simone, she was really right by my side. Other authors confirmed to me that they had the same experience. When she has her abortion, I had a huge pain in my belly. My doctor assured me that I wasn’t going crazy but that I was reacting empathetically.
Simone is above all the telling of a passionate, subtly erotic love story…
I didn’t want Simone to give herself to her lover right away. I really wanted her to be reserved and modest, and for Breton to be at her mercy. I don’t have a huge amount of sympathy for him but I wanted to restore his image by making him relatively jovial and above all, dependent on Simone’s amorous states of mind. I wanted him to be secondary in relation to her force. In this sense, I wanted once and for all to put her in the light. Though in real life, that wasn’t the case. It didn’t happen that way. The passion was totally reciprocal. But I wanted to reverse the trends. I wanted to think of things differently: that the white man was more vulnerable than the woman, that she could hold the reins of their life story.
The novel and the fictional life of Simone are completed. What’s next for you?
I don’t want to go on to anything else. I’m unable to let go of her. I would like to write a documentary on the real life of Simone Kahn, or that it be adapted for the cinema. But writing is there, central. I choose to write.
“Simone”, Léa Chauvel-Levy, Éditions de l’Observatoire
Interview : Marie Cheynel
Portrait : Jean Picon