A la dérive

Philippe Soupault
1897 to 1990

Collector Louis Koopman stayed in occasional contact with French authors and artists in order to have his copies of their books dedicated personally. On a few occasions, he addressed Philippe Soupault, one of the few Surrealists whose work he collected. Several letters from the avant-garde author have been preserved as part of the Koopman Collection, but only one of them was definitely addressed to Louis Koopman, concerning itself merely with making an appointment in May 1938. (The two other letters are from 1923 and 1925, but the names of the addressees are unknown.) During one of their meetings in 1938, the author provided various books with a handwritten dedication.

Philippe Soupault, A la dérive (1923)
Philippe Soupault, A la dérive (1923)

Philippe Soupault, A la dérive (1923)

Philippe Soupault, A la dérive (1923)
Title page and verso

Philippe Soupault, A la dérive (1923)

Philippe Soupault, Proofs for A la dérive (1923)
Proofs, Folio 1 on 3

Philippe Soupault, Proofs for A la dérive (1923)

Philippe Soupault, Proofs for A la dérive (1923)
Proofs, Folio 55

Philippe Soupault, Proofs for A la dérive (1923)

Philippe Soupault, Proofs for A la dérive (1923)
Proofs, Folio 66 on 67

Philippe Soupault, Proofs for A la dérive (1923)

Koopman also purchased special copies, including the first edition of Les champs magnétiques from 1920. This book was written by André Breton in collaboration with Philippe Soupault, and it was signed by both, with a dedication from Breton to art dealer Léopold Zborowski and a later dedication from Soupault to Koopman. The two authors had known each other since World War I. Soupault had read Lautréamont's Les chants de Maldoror while in the military. It was a 'revelation'. 'I was lying in a hospital bed when I first read Les chants de Maldoror. That was on June 28. Since that day, I am a different man.' Influenced by this work, Soupault and Breton wrote Les champs magnétiques in two weeks. At the end of spring in 1919, 'écriture automatique' was born, and with it, Surrealism, the movement of which Breton would take leadership. But Soupault and Artaud were banned from the Surrealist group because of their divergent views. Their fate would be shared by many writers in Breton's circle.


Koopman collected not only books by Soupault; he also acquired a number of manuscripts and printing proofs. One of the documents in the collection is Soupault's answer to an opinion poll on Symbolism. His position was that Symbolism was dead, and the better for it. The poll was published as 'Réponse à une Enquête sur le Symbolisme' in Le disque vert of February-April 1923. This document contains Soupault's original response, with instructions for the magazine's typesetter.
Another document also contains his copy for a magazine article, this one on Charlie Chaplin: 'L'exemplaire de Charlie Chaplin'. An introduction in which he defines Chaplin as a genius on a par with Sarah Bernhardt is followed by the prose poem 'Une vie de chien' (published in Littérature, June 1919). This copy contains two more of these prose poems, i.e. 'Café Bar' and 'Ils sont là', and it closes with a commentary on Waldo Frank's opinions of Chaplin.

Sloppy and friendly

Koopman bought one of the ten copies of Soupault's second novel A la dérive that were printed on Dutch Van Gelder paper. The book, uncut and bound with its broad deckle edges intact, was published by Ferenczi (1923) on Colette's request. The dedication in the front is to André Breton 'à cause de sa destinée et à quelques autres probablement'. This somewhat enigmatic dedication, which may be considered ironic, can be found in handwriting on a set 'épreuves premier état' in the Koopman Collection: 'à André Breton à qui ce livre est dédié ces épreuves très sales mais très amicales'. It is indeed a rather sloppy-looking package of handwritten pages and notes on various different kinds of paper (letter paper, air mail paper, carbon paper), enhanced by a series of guards or galley proofs. Thetypeface in the proofsis listed at the top of the first page: '12 Elzevir 2pts, sur 18'. These proofs have corrections in ink by the author, not only on the proofs themselves, but also on slips of paper that have been pasted and folded onto them. Added are pages in typescript, also provided with strikethroughs, corrections and additions. Soupault wrote his texts in green or purple ink. The entire work seems to follow the correct order, but it is still a maze of interjections and impulsive ideas. And yet this package served as printer's copy for the novel's first edition, in which the corrections were carried through. The whole illustrates the novel's problematic genesis.


The expression 'à la dérive' signifies wandering about and moving downhill. The story is a sequence of events and stories within stories, with protagonist David Aubry travelling to Portugal and Australia. The printing proofs indicate that those stories were actually added to the narrative by Soupault in a later stage. It was based on the life story of someone from Soupault's neighbourhood, a decrepit sailor who sought comfort in opium and ended up on the fringes of society.
The ironic tone in the dedication to Breton is made clearer when we read that Soupault felt that the main character from A la dérive reminded him of an older Breton. (But Soupault saw similarities with Breton everywhere: a young beggar in Portugal also reminded him of the poet.) The novel about letting go of values is typical of Breton, and of Surrealism. Not only do the printing proofs offer insight into Soupault's methods and the application of 'écriture automatique', but they also sketch out the relationships within a literary community in turbulent times.

Bibliographical description

Description: À la dérive / Philippe Soupault. – Paris : Ferenczi, 1923. – (Collection Colette). - 220 p. ; 23 cm
Printer: Ramlot et Cie. (Paris)
Edition: 30 copies
This copy: Number 5 of 10 on Hollande
Note: With handwritten dedication by the author.
With the original proofs, containing dozens of pages with manuscript and typescript additions, signed. With handwritten dedication to L.J. Koopman, 1938. Paper, 133 fol, 270x206 mm. Paris, [ca. 1923]
Shelf-mark: Koopm B 469 (book), 77 G 48 (proofs and letter)


  • Arlette Albert-Birot, Philippe Soupault, l'ombre frissonnante: Colloque de l'ICP. Paris, Jean-Michel Place, 2000
  • Keith Aspley, The life and works of surrealist Philippe Soupault (1897-1990): Parallel lives. Lewiston, Edwin Mellen Press, 2001
  • Cahiers Philippe Soupault. Villejuif, Association des Amis de Phillippe Soupault, 1994-2000
  • Paul van Capelleveen, Sophie Ham, Jordy Joubij, Voices and visions. The Koopman Collection and the Art of the French Book. The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, National Library of the Netherlands; Zwolle, Waanders, 2009
  • Henri-Jacques Dupuy, Philippe Soupault. Paris, Seghers, 1957
  • Philippe Soupault, Ecrits de cinéma. Paris, Plon, 1979
  • Philippe Soupault, Histoire d'un Blanc. Paris, Lachenal & Ritter, 1986
  • André Vielwahr, S'affranchir des contradictions: André Breton de 1925 à 1930. Paris, L'Harmattan, 1998