Umor in the Trenches

Jacques Vaché and the Roots of Surrealism

by Franklin Rosement

(Charles H. Kerr, 2008, 388 pages)

Rosa Luxemburg described World War I in these terms: “For the first time the destructive beasts that have been loosed by capitalist Europe over all other parts of the world have sprung with one awful leap, into the midst of the European nations.” Surrealist Franklin Rosemont, whose untimely passing in April of 2009 dismayed his many friends as well as those who did not know him, but recognized his contributions to revolutionary theory and practice, has given us a serious study of one who found himself cast into the trenches of the horrible conflict. Jacques Vaché, a young enthusiast of poetry and resident of the literary demimonde of Nantes, was conscripted into the army like hundreds of thousands of the youth of France. His personal form of resistance to the madness of war, the military and patriotism inspired a small group of writers who would go on to give birth to the Surrealist movement.

Vaché’s literary legacy—although he was a disdainful critic of the traditional definition and role of literature in society—consists of a slim volume of letters composed at the front and mailed to a handful of his friends. The principle recipient of the correspondence was the poet André Breton, who met Vaché when the later was hospitalized in Paris.

The letters—translated here by Surrealist Guy Ducornet—are in no way political and attempt no analysis of the cause or nature of the war. They are, however, full of an appreciation of the absurdity of the conflict and Vaché makes clear that while physically present in his assignment as a translator for British Expeditionary Force (his maternal grandmother was English), he was spiritually an accomplished deserter and malingerer. Vaché’s attitude to the war, life and literature was defined by him in his correspondence as “umor” or “umore,” an admixture of nonchalance, dispassion and stubborn rebellion. His umor can perhaps be summed up best in a penetrating statement contained in a letter of Sep. 5, 1918 to Breton: “I object to being killed in time of war.” Breton included a selection from Vaché in his Anthology of Black Humor.

Rosemont explores in detail the little known about Vaché’s life to explain how such an ephemeral figure could have an impact seemingly out of all proportion to the length of his life and the volume of his literary output. Vaché died under somewhat mysterious circumstances after a night carousing with friends shortly after the end of the war. Both Breton and Rosement believe that Vaché took his own life as an act of umor in the spirit of Dada, the anti-war art movement akin to Vaché’s sensibility. For Breton and Vaché’s other friends, Dada was a great achievement, but only a precursor of the more deep and enduring Surrealist endeavor they were to embark upon.

One of the most original aspects of Rosemont’s book is his exploration of Vaché’s interest in non-European cultures—an interest that was to be developed by a strong current in Surrealism. A few years of Vaché’s childhood were spent with his family in colonial Vietnam. Rosemont develops this exposure to a society held forcibly under European domination into a fascinating confrontation with Luxemburg’s “destructive beasts.”

In addition to having a talent with words, Vaché was also an inspired sketchbook artist and Rosement reproduces many of Vaché’s drawings of life at war.

The years before Rosemont’s death were extremely productive. In addition to Jacques Vaché and the Roots of Surrealism, Rosemont published a long book on the Wobblie Joe Hill and edited the important Surrealist Revolution series published by the University of Texas Press. One can say that both Vaché and Rosemont died too soon, but both will not soon be forgotten.

Those interested in seeing a beautiful scanned copy of André Breton’s 1919 edition of Vaché’s War Letters can visit the University of Iowa Libraries’ International Dada Archive.