The Die Is Cast

The Die Is Cast

Robert Desnos

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Translated, with an introduction, by Jesse L. Anderson / July 2021 / 5.375 x 8, 224 pp. / 978-1-939663-69-6

In twenty years, drug use will have spread to every level of society, perhaps even to the countryside, and by then it will be too late to stop its advance.—from the preface to The Die Is Cast

Published in 1943 (just a year before its author would be arrested by the Gestapo), The Die Is Cast was a departure for Robert Desnos: a shift from his earlier frenetic surrealist prose to a social realism that borrowed as much from his life experience as from his career as a journalist. Drawing from his experiences with drugs in the 1920s and his doomed relationship with the chanteuse Yvonne George (the inspiration for some of his most famous poems, who would herself ultimately succumb to opium addiction and tuberculosis), Desnos here portrays a band of opium, cocaine, and heroin users from all walks of life in Paris, a motley group who share nothing but their addiction and their slow and steady descent into ruination and despair. It is a startlingly contemporary portrayal of overdoses, arrests, suicides, and the flattened solitude of the addict—yet published in occupied Paris, years before “junkie literature” would begin to establish itself as a genre with the Beat generation. In a distinct break from the “artificial paradises” explored by his predecessors in French literature, Desnos inaugurated with this novel a new era of “artificial hells.” An anomaly both in his career and for having been published under the Occupation by an active member of the Resistance who would die in the camps only a couple years later, The Die Is Cast stands as a piece of work as timely now as it had been untimely when it first appeared.

Robert Desnos (1900–1945) was one of the leading lights of the surrealist movement and its most accomplished practitioner of automatic writing and dictation before his break with André Breton in 1929. His busy career in journalism and radio culminated in an active role in the French Resistance. Desnos was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944, and would pass through several concentration camps until finally dying of typhoid in Terezín in occupied Czechoslovakia in 1945, a few days after the camp he was in was liberated.

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