The Doll — Reviews

The Review of Contemporary Fiction,  XXVI, no. 2, 2006.

Hans Bellmer. The Doll, trans. and intro. Malcolm Green, with Antony Melville.

Atlas, 2005. 154 pp.

We all have our lists of small publishers that are candidates for their own kind of sainthood, and England’s Atlas Press—perhaps best known in the United States for their marvelous Oulipo Compendium, recently released in a second, revised and expanded edition—have clinched their nomination with this, the first complete English translation of Hans Bellmer’s Die Puppe, originally issued anonymously in 1934. The book is a hybrid, and in both form and content somewhat prophetic. Bellmer’s prose is a cross between poem, memoir, manifesto, and philosophical treatise, setting out his theories of how the body is perceived, and how, indeed, the operation of both our minds and our bodies already aspire to a kind of surrealism, exemplified in play both physical (with dolls), and mental (in misunderstandings, in texts and dreams). Most particularly, Bellmer instructs us on how desire informs our awareness of reality, and thus how striking disjunctions of erotic imagery can pique new and more poignant forms of this productive lust—as exemplified by his constructions and sketches. Malcolm Green’s translation brings out Bellmer’s mesmerizing, occasionally sinister voice wonderfully: a voice so convinced of its own internal coherence—happy to provide examples in prose and poetry to substantiate his claims, each of which becomes its own little gem, achieving a tone reminiscent of Wittgenstein, Blanchot, and Klossowski by turns—that it has an intoxicating effect on the reader, regardless of whether Bellmer manages to persuade. And then there are the dolls—first constructed in order to challenge the burgeoning Nazi ideal of flawless, symmetrical beauty—here accompanied by the prose poetry of Paul Éluard. The images are astounding, alarming, and gorgeously reproduced: photographs colored by Bellmer almost to belie the physicality of what’s being depicted (the eye wants to see the pictures as flat, harmless paintings). Legs turn into arms into necks, thighs conjoin, attached to no known waist. In brief, this is an essential book, both as a work of art and a treatise on the malleability of the body—a concept that has only become more relevant since Bellmer’s passing. This edition is limited to a thousand copies . . . rush over to the Atlas website and get yours before it’s too late. [Jeremy M. Davies]