Report from Sirius B
- Phantom Africa by Michel Leiris, translated by Brent Hayes Edwards
Seagull, 711 pp, £42.00, January 2017, ISBN 978 0 85742 377 1
In L’Age d’homme, his early excursion into autobiography, Michel Leiris recalls his mother warning him to beware of ‘bad people’ in the Bois de Boulogne. He imagined the predators in the woods to be ‘satyrs’, and later, cannibals: he had been struck by an exotic colour illustration in Le Pêle-Mêle, a humorous weekly, of ‘savages’ eating an explorer. Leiris (b. 1901) went on to become an ethnographer, though he is much more famous for his lifelong self-investigation in a series of startling autobiographical works. L’Age d’homme, which began to take shape in 1930, was the first. By then, he had finished his military service, abandoned his studies in chemistry and was moving in a world that suited his tastes and interests. He had married Louise Godon, daughter of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the connoisseur, gallery owner and dealer who championed many of the great artists of his day, including Picasso, Juan Gris and Braque. Leiris seemed to know everyone without having scurried from soirée to soirée: the dumbwaiter simply arrived at the floor where the most illustrious guests were dining and he was delivered up for their inspection. André Breton made a meal of him but in 1929 he broke away and joined the team of Documents, the short-lived dissident Surrealist periodical edited by Georges Bataille. Leiris was both a marginal and a promising figure. Dangerously self-obsessed, fatally inclined to turn his hand to anything that passed for literature – in 1925 he published a volume of verse with illustrations by André Masson – he was struggling bravely against the pull of drink and sexual torment.
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