BOOKS: LIVES & LETTERS:; A tough line on fiction and vermouth

REVOLUTION OF THE MIND: The Life of Andre Breton by Mark Polizzotti, Bloomsbury pounds 25

SURREALISM, the movement which Andre Breton helped to found in the years after World War I, was a reaction to 19th-century rationalism and also, perhaps, a response to the futility of war. The way had been paved by Dada, started in Zurich in 1916 and transported to France by the Romanian, Tristan Tzara. Tzara enrolled Breton and his friend, Louis Aragon, both then in their early twenties and editors of a radical literary magazine. But while Dada was content to mock for mockery's sake, sending up the Establishment and its traditional art forms with nonsense poetry, "found" art or anti-dramas, Breton and Aragon believed in a more directed cultural revolution. In 1921, they broke away from Dada and in 1924 Breton published his first Surrealist Manifesto, which defined Surrealism as "pure psychical automatism", aiming to express "the actual functioning of thought, devoid of any control by reason and outside any aesthetic or moral considerations". Surrealism, he declared, believed in the superior reality of previously neglected forms of association, in the untrammelled workings of the mind and in the omnipotence of dreams.

Arguably, Surrealism was to be the most significant single trend in French intellectual life over the next 15 years; its importance would only start to decline after World War II, with the arrival of Existentialism, then Structuralism. From the first Manifesto to the end of his life, Breton was the central figure in the movement. "I am Surrealism," he told an interviewer in 1951, in the course of the last major row between the leader and his followers, when some of them accused him of betraying the cause.

His biographer finds little to say about Breton's childhood: because of an allegedly mystical numerical coincidence, the poet decided to date his life from 1913, when he was already 17. On the surface the preceding years were uneventful: church school in Pantin, then the Lycee Chaptal, where he began to exhibit a rebellious streak. By the time he was called up into the army, in 1915, he had met Paul Valery, who was to encourage his poetic vocation - the association of the two names is surprising, but less so than Breton's appointment after the war as proof corrector for Marcel Proust. When he first showed up at 11 pm (Proust only worked at night), he found that the novelist had ordered asumptuous takeaway from the Ritz, and Breton felt obliged to eat it, even though he had already had dinner.

These were uncharacteristic contacts with the Old Regime. The Surrealists wanted to dump most of the literary canon, in favour of Sade, Rimbaud, Lautreamont and Alfred Jarry, whose play Ubu Roi gave an authentic foretaste of the Surrealist tone of savage mockery. Breton and his mates set about the Establishment with joyful malice, timing a vicious attack on the writer Anatole France, Un cadavre, to coincide with his death, and carrying on enduring feuds with Claudel, Cocteau and others. So often was Breton on the attack, switching bewilderingly from one target to the next, that Mark Polizzotti has him denoucing Gide for a failure to live up to his own character Lafcadio and the idea of the acte gratuit, four years before Les Faux-Monnayeurs, the novel in which Gide depicted the character and his "gratuitous act".

Venom was not reserved for the movement's natural enemies. From the start, Breton led his followers like the founder of a religious sect, dictating not only what and how they should write (novels were banned, for a start), but the minutest conduct of their lives. The closest friends were allowed some latitude: Aragon got away both with writing fiction and with drinking vermouth (which was otherwise considered unsurrealistically weak). Trivial interdictions were imposed with the same vigour as larger ones: there was no joke that the Surrealists would not pursue with deadly seriousness, no hint of opposition that Breton would not try to crush. When he divorced his first wife, Simone, he put pressure on his brother-in-law, Raymond Queneau, to sever relations with her as well; Queneau was married to Simone's sister.

Breton's desire to control those around him meant that life was an apparently endless succession of betrayals and disloyalties. Dali, Eluard, Giacometti, Prevert, Queneau, Soupault, Tzara and many more came and went, "driven away," as Polizzotti says, "by the conflict between their need to develop freely and Breton's will to maintain a Surrealist cohesion in his own unstable image".

The most damaging and significant split was that with Louis Aragon. Both men joined the Communist Party in 1927, but Breton found party discipline unbearable. There had always been a strong political element in Surrealist revolutionary iconoclasm (though not necessarily of the Left: Emmanuel Berl and Drieu de la Rochelle went from Surrealism to Fascism); and Breton for a time envisaged an equal partnership with Communism, playing the role of artistic avant-garde. But Aragon, who attended the 1930 Writers' Congress in Kharkov, realised that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had other plans. Breton moved closer to Trotsky, while Aragon went on to become the dominant writer of the French Communist Left. The breach between them was painful, and on Breton's death in 1966, when they had not spoken for more than 30 years, Aragon wrote a moving tribute to "the friend of my youth whom I have never ceased to love".

Polizzotti does not quite manage to capture the charm that inspired the loyalty of Breton's followers, or the powerful appeal of Surrealism for so many writers and artists. At times the story becomes a tedious succession of rows, scandals and provocations, no doubt fun at the time, but merely childish in retrospect. Breton must have been easy to like in life, but he can be a pain on the page; even Polizzotti appears to feel some satisfaction at Salvador Dali's success in brushing aside accusations of treachery and upstaging the leader when the time came. However, despite the difficulty of the material, he has written a readable biography, which pays tribute to the significance of an influential figure in 20th-century thought.