The Times Literary Supplement, 23 April 2014.
Michel Leiris, Aurora and Cardinal Point
Translated by Anna Warby and Terry Hale
184pp. Atlas Press. £15.
In the English-speaking world Michel Leiris is probably best remembered for his “anti-memoir” Manhood (1939; 1963 in English), admired for its “coolness”, intelligence and subtlety by Susan Sontag in Against Interpretation. Leiris was an ethnographer as well as a writer, and two of his earlier works, Aurora and Cardinal Point, comprise a kind of Surrealist ethnography, reflecting Leiris’s unique engagement with Surrealism and his rejection of its Bretonian parochialism.
Written in 1927–8, when Leiris was twenty-six, but only published in 1946, Aurora is the story of an “un-repression”. Its narrator, Damocles Siriel (an anagram of Leiris), who has been shut up in an attic, has decided to return to the world, hoping that “by moving to a different room on a different floor I would bring about an imaginary rearrangement of the organs in my body and thus of the thoughts in my mind”. This change in location duly summons all kinds of hallucinatory images of castration and decay.
The novella is essentially a philosophical investigation in the form of a pseudo-autobiography-cum-travelogue. The chief question is: what can we ever know of ourselves? As Damocles voyages across Egypt and Greece, Leiris takes up the mythological tropes and symbols so powerful for the Surrealists. But true escape is impossible; the windows are “scissors”; doors are knife-like; even grammar dissolves into free association (Leiris provides a memorable declension chart of the noun “moi”). Damocles Siriel may have voyaged into the world but there is no way out of his own mind, no self-knowledge to be gained from the encounter with the exotic. The temporary refuge of the novelistic third person in the middle part of the novella boomerangs back to the inevitable “I”, which, he acknowledges, “epitomises the structure of the world”.
Leiris himself was never entirely happy with the novella, complaining of its “blustering prose”, its “hotch-potch . . . of apparent symbolism”. This early work is indeed overwritten in some places: there is an adolescent solemnity to lines such as “Yet this desert whiteness did not rule out all subsequent possibilities, when it too would coagulate to form directions in the blood and when it too would know the three congruences of putrefaction”. But this same line has an incantatory rhythm that becomes revelatory in the novella’s stronger passages, anticipating the horrific collapse of European civilization to come. The short novella Cardinal Point (1927) is a similarly oneiric traveller’s tale. The strange power of these stories carries the hint of work to come from Georges Perec and Angela Carter.