Written in early 1922, this is the first prose work by Surrealist poet and exemplary practitioner of automatic writing Robert Desnos (preceding Mourning for Mourning and Liberty or Love!, also published by Atlas Press). Its protagonists are swept into violent journeys through Paris by train and steamship; fabulous events consume their everyday lives; oracles spout nonsense or wisdom. All of Desnos’ friends in the Paris Dada movement—André Breton, Louis Aragon and Benjamin Péret, among others—make an appearance, and all find a grave in the “cemetery” toward the end of the book, for the past must be buried (even though most of these now legendary names were then in their 20s and had barely made their mark).
By the time this book was written, the Dada movement seemed played out, killed off by a mixture of public success, internal dissent and boredom with the predictability of its scandals. The Punishments of Hell lies between Dada and Surrealism, harking back to the belligerent obfuscation of, say, Tristan Tzara and overwhelming it with the savage lyricism for which Desnos would become known.
Robert Desnos (1900–45) was one of the most celebrated and celebratory of the writers allied to the Paris Dada and Surrealist groups. He effortlessly combined mystery, eroticism and an irrepressible joi de vivre in a flood of poetry, prose fiction, radio plays and even children’s verse. An active member of the French resistance, he died of typhoid just days after his liberation from the Terezin concentration camp.