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TaTa Dada: The Real Life and Celestial Adventures of Tristan Tzara

by Marius Hentea
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2014
360 pp., illus. 60 b/w. Trade, £24.95; paper, $34.95
ISBN: 9780262027540.

Reviewed by Edith Doove
Transtechnology Research, University of Plymouth


It is rather shocking that it took almost a 100 years after the ’official’ 1916 start of Dada in Zurich for a first comprehensive biography to be published in English on its main instigator Tristan Tzara. Beautifully designed and with a title worthy of this poet that points to his first ever published book La Première Aventure céleste de Monsieur Antipyrine, it makes for a truly enticing read.

Tzara was born, for lack of a birth certificate and also a somewhat Dadaist start, on either 14, 16 or 17 April 1896 in Moine
ști, north of Bucharest, Romania as Samuel Rosenstock. He would move to Zurich in the late autumn of 1915, where on the opening night of the Cabaret Voltaire on 5 February 1916 he would declaim poems in Romanian. While still at school he already wrote literary reviews, amongst others on Apollinaire’s Alcools, and set up the magazine Symbolul with the later Dadaist Marcel Janco and Ion Vinea, setting the tone for his further main occupation in life. The magazine Chemarea that was run by Vinea and Tzara in 1915 was, according to Vinea, the “embryo” for Dada and the first to publish poems signed with the pseudonym Tristan Tzara.

Young and enthusiastic, Tzara quickly took over from the more restrained Hugo Ball as organiser of the Cabaret Voltaire events and eventually led Dada in Zurich from more performance-based to publication-oriented with a wide international appeal. He would over the years edit and publish several issues of the magazine Dada, also after Zurich Dada had ended and had dispersed itself over Europe with, amongst others, Huelsenbeck in Berlin, Ernst in Cologne and Tzara himself in Paris. Tzara maintained strong correspondences with Dada enthusiasts and disciples all over the world. This led to the (surely somewhat tongue-in-cheek) statement in the collective tract ‘Dada n’est pas mort’ of 1921:”We are organizing 72 exhibitions in all the capitals of Europe and the two Americas (Africa, Asia and Oceania are spared); the same day, at the same hour, the 392 presidents of the Dada Movement will speak in 118 different cities.”

Where Tzara throughout his life defended the inherent freedom of Dada and poetry, in Paris he had to eventually give in to the urge by Andre Breton for a stricter organisation, leading to the demise of Dada in 1923 and the more or less simultaneous birth of Surrealism. The relationship with Breton would always remain problematic, but from 1929 Tzara nevertheless fell for his courtship and actually became one of the most active surrealists of that period, connecting back to his old Dada friends and the collaboration he so strongly believed in. With the Second World War looming he, however, also became convinced of a need for political action, which led to a final break with the Surrealists in 1935 whom he accused of being purely aesthetic.

Tzara would, in the years to follow, engage himself more and more with politics, be it via various cultural organisations, such as the Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires that had strong links to the French Communist Party, or as director of the Support Committee for Spanish Intellectuals during the Spanish Civil War. He worked on the organisation of the Second International Congress of Writers in Defence of Culture that took place in Valencia, Madrid, and Paris in July 1937 and represented France during the 16th World PEN Congress in Prague in June 1938. But as a Jewish immigrant without a passport, his situation became quite difficult during the war, which he spend mostly in hiding in Souillac in Southwest France where he hooked up with Pierre Betz of the still-existent cultural magazine Le Point. As soon as Souillac was freed, Tzara started publishing again, and he moved to Toulouse where he became an important member of the Centre des Intellectuels and worked with, amongst others, Henri Lefebvre. He became a French citizen in 1947 and only regained his Paris home and belongings, left behind during the war, in 1948. Joining the Communist Party, he would publish his poems mainly in small luxury editions due to the fact he got little support for work that was not immediately of use as cultural propaganda. It probably also did not help that he was quite a critical member.

Towards the end of his life Tzara became known as a specialist in African art, which he started to collect in the 20s. Politically disappointed and isolated, he started an exhaustive study of anagrams in literature, mainly in François Villon but extending also to Dante and Rabelais that, however, never was published, as he could not let go of the manuscript. This research connected, as Hentea states, to Tzara’s lifelong fascination with language and his wish to find its secret as well as his mania as a collector. But equally, this endeavour seems to connect back to an academic approach that also came afore in the Study Group of Human Phenomenology that he had set up with, amongst others, Roger Caillois as forum for contemporary philosophy, the human spirit and modern science in 1935. In the one and only issue of the magazine Inquisitions that the group published, Tzara’s friend Gaston Bachelard wrote an article on ‘Le Surrationalisme’. As a scholar Tzara was, in 1962, invited to take part in the 10-day International Congress of African Culture in Salisbury, Rhodesia “because of his expertise on the relationship between traditional African art and contemporary practice.”

For this review I have concentrated mainly on the possibly lesser-known aspects of Tzara’s later life, but Hentea pictures a very detailed account of the Romanian and Dada episodes as well. The book, overall, is extremely well-researched, and although much of the Dada history can be found in various other books, it is certainly good to read it from Tzara’s perspective. After a somewhat laborious start in which Hentea, in any case, sets a clear international scene, a sense of the “virulent anti-Semitism in turn-of-the-century Romania” and the strong early French relationship, the book really takes off. One of the things that become clear is Tzara’s knack for the ‘commercial’ – he stressed and made good use of the commercial strength of the word Dada and always had an international approach. Hentea analyses Tzara’s poetry and numerous manifestos throughout the book, which is helpful, with it only being a shame that the French original text is not included alongside its translation.

As Hentea states at the beginning of his book, it took the Library Jacques Doucet six years to get the Tzara archive organised, donated by his son Christophe and consisting of 54 book manuscripts and over 4000 letters, postcards, and telegrams. Interestingly enough, and not mentioned by Hentea but to be found on their website, the Tzara archives already date back to 1922 when Doucet bought amongst others the manuscript of Vingt cinq poèmes on advice of Breton and Aragon.

Last Updated 28th November 2014

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