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Running early for an art opening in Paris, the French writer Michel Leiris stops at a café for a beer before hitting the show. When he arrives at the nearby gallery he barely lingers among the artworks and never discusses them in the enigmatic personal essay that recounts the evening. That’s the tale in a nutshell. The uninitiated reader might wonder — what did I just miss?
As Leiris explains in Scratches — the first installment in the autobiographical quartet The Rules of the Game (1944–76) — narration, or storytelling, is just a pretext. Ignoring plot, Leiris writes to construct a “bridge between the author’s intimate emotion and the reader’s consciousness,” a connection that requires uncompromising attention to the “too particular and personal” — what he calls “concretions that have been deposited [in him]” over time. His work magnifies these slivers and its structure resembles the pattern of free association in the psychoanalytic setting; the memoirs are fueled by misconstrued language, destabilizing obsessions, and transformational detours.
Reading Leiris entails rereading. And the reader’s reconnaissance parallels his autobiographical writing technique. The mysterious opening episode of the gallery show — contained in the newly published collection The Ribbon at Olympia’s Throat — is an everyday fable about the city as a seducer. He is lured into the café by its maritime name. Once inside, he is enchanted by the bar’s trapdoor that opens, as if in a ship’s cabin, to reveal “a mysterious and ominous” carousel that evokes a pirate’s loot-filled cellar. All this while he’s mollified by the “caramelly opaque brown beer” and wooed by the café’s “galleyman’s cat” who has leapt into his lap, forcing the writer to unfasten a jacket button (“a disc made of galalith”) to prevent it from being pulled off by the burrowing animal.
Leiris harnesses and harmonizes such distinct fragments of experience so that, like the thin ribbon around Olympia’s neck in Edouard Manet’s famous painting, minutiae reveal greater significances than the apparent subject matter. The stray detail outmatches orderly wholeness. Life’s meaning comes from its deviations, not its intentionality.
In contrast to the autobiographical labyrinths it produced, his biography appears straightforward. Born in 1901 to a middle-class Parisian family, the young writer became a Surrealist poet mentored by artist André Masson. He studied philosophy, wrote regularly about the arts and culture, and became a prominent leftist intellectual and leading member of the Collège de sociologie. He was a career-long resident ethnographer at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, an institute he helped to establish. Even in a country known for loquacious literary figures, Leiris was extraordinarily prolific. When he died in 1990 at age 89 he was a canonical figure in France, mainly for having remade the genre of memoir in his own image.
He became an autobiographer by accident. As a young writer and editor who had just broken with the Surrealist movement, he sought a change of scenery and agreed to be secretary-archivist for the Mission Dakar-Djibouti, led by leading anthropologist Marcel Griaule. The expedition trekked eastward across sub-Saharan Africa from May 1931 to February 1933, spanning colonized territories that straddle at least 10 present-day independent nations.
Phantom Africa, just released in its first English edition, is Leiris’s daily journal from that expedition. Smartly edited, with a nuanced, contextualizing introduction by translator Brent Hayes Edwards, the text — nearly 700 pages long — includes the original mission photos taken in Africa.
Leiris wasn’t yet trained in ethnography and lacked practical skills that could directly assist the expedition team. His main task was to transcribe African words, concepts, and backstories to help catalog the artifacts and documents amassed by the team. And, as noted throughout the journal (especially in accompanying letters sent home to his wife), he was at best ambivalent about — and prone to prolonged self-loathing over — the morality of the mission, which involved hustling, conning, and otherwise robbing indigenous people of their cultural artifacts for the collection of the Trocadéro Museum in Paris.
This conflicted complicity provides a through-line of tension, which he couldn’t quite mitigate even decades later, when he published a long essay in the Marxist journal Les Temps modernes trying to differentiate the ethnographic projects in Africa and Asia from the ruthless colonial-capitalist system that sponsors them. Were he to be posthumously summoned into a court for postcolonial reckoning about his role in the mission, his evolution as a political thinker indicates that Leiris would probably plead “guilty as charged.” Though he was an establishment figure in the public square, his writings question humanist pretenses and professed ideals: He wasn’t sure Western culture could ever justify the corrupt and corrupting nature of the civilization that produced it.
Roiled in these contradictions and — and more politically enlightened about colonialism than the average white Parisian aesthete in the 1930s — the Michel Leiris of Phantom Africa prefigures the autobiographical stylist whose sharp, blasé equanimity would demystify the exotic and estrange the mundane. Most of his mission colleagues appear as mediocrities, bland technocrats who failed upward. The Africans he meets are “no more interesting that the inhabitants of Auvergne.”
Occasionally vigilant against his youthful poetic excesses, footnotes he added to subsequent editions often revise earlier characterizations, such as an African ceremony that he’d initially called an “orgy” when, with hindsight, it was about as rowdy as a Western “cocktail party.” As he witnesses tribal mores and rites — what he variously interprets to be funeral dances, circumcision practices, incantatory trances, animal sacrifice, slave systems, fetish huts, and public floggings — his journal adopts the same dry, detailed acumen as in entries about strategy sessions and quasi-military improvisations orchestrated by the mission.
“We are buccaneers at heart,” he notes, before describing himself stealing sacred statuettes related to rain divination, stashing them in his shirt, and then hiding them under the crew’s folded umbrella while pretending to take a piss. As the Macron-led French government has announced an initiative to make restorations for its early 20th-century pillaging of African art and artifacts, Leiris’s journal may soon take on extra-literary value.
Back in France in the mid-1930s, the publication of Phantom Africa was followed by the breakthrough L’Âge d’homme (1939) / Manhood (1964), a coming-of-age memoir about how exposure to opera, theater, and jazz both warped and enriched his erotic development. For over 20 years Manhood was the only available Leiris work in English, until writer Lydia Davis set out on her decades-long project of translating the multivolume Rules of the Game.
The third and most recently published installment, Fibrils, picks up the autobiographical thread as Leiris, by now an internationally known writer, takes a five-week-long tour of Maoist China in the 1950s as part of a delegation of French artists and intellectuals.
Fibrils considers how voyaging afar and bridging distances constitute lifework even on the home front; the memoir recalls recent travels in Italy and finds parallels between his psychic responses to the African trek from the 1930s — that tropical terrain of “involuntary poetry” — and the recently encountered “wise and courteous” Chinese culture where “an amazing harmony reigns between past and present.”
Inevitably, additional fragmented memories become connective fibers and tissue in this literary self-portrait — for instance, a Chinese-inspired knickknack once owned by his mother reminds him of a drunken night spent with fellow French writer (and Africa sojourner) Raymond Roussel in New York’s Chinatown, which in turn summons up a disturbing dream he had in Cannes inspired by Pablo Picasso’s grandson, who’d given a pet dog a Chinese-sounding name.
Mirrors abound. He finds in Chinese theatrical productions a shared interest in foregrounding the “insufficiency and lacunae” within artistic expression. Such ruminations on absence and inadequacy lay groundwork for the unmoored, haunting moments before and after a failed suicide attempt, spurred by an extramarital affair gone awry. Following a night of drinking and socializing with friends in Paris, he consumes enough barbiturates to fall into a coma and wakes up intubated through his neck in a hospital that he mistakenly thinks is located in Brussels; this error conjures extended memories of childhood travels, and the life of his late aunt, a noted opera singer with familial roots in Belgium, who performed in the French debut of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Tosca — a story about infidelity that, like his botched suicide attempt and hallucination-filled convalescence, involves a “union of art and love” and the “union of love and despairing death,” all of it ensnared by uncertainty about what’s real.
Built of fragments and strands like these, this autobiographical lifework isn’t just about going to pieces; it’s about the illusory nature of wholeness. Memoir retrieves and repositions the shattered pieces of experience and transforms them into the medium of words. Ultimately Leiris is an ethnographer about himself, facing that stranger as an equal-other through the magic of language:
a kind of revolution [is] taking place in me–a turning movement in which my mind seems to describe a half-circle and thus stands face to face with itself. It is then that words, instead of combining mechanically (parrotlike) take on weight and color: they move even me, and no longer count as words.
Scratches and Fibrils are published by Yale University Press. The Ribbon at Olympia’s Throat is published by Semiotext(e). Phantom Africa is published by Seagull Books. All are available online and in bookstores.