Plunked down in translation in the year 1963, Michel Leiris’s brilliant and repulsive autobiographical narrative L’Age d’Homme, is at first rather puzzling. Manhood, as it is called in English, appears without any covering note. There is no way for the reader to find out that Leiris, now in his sixties and the author of some twenty books none of which are yet in English, is an important poet and senior survivor of the Surrealist generation in Paris in the 1920s, and a fairly eminent anthropologist. Nor does the English edition explain that Manhood is not recent—that it was in fact written in the early 1930s, first published in 1939, and republished with an important prefatory essay, “Literature Considered as a Bullfight,” in 1946, when it had a great succès de scandale. Even aside from the fact that autobiographies are not usually attractive unless we have some prior interest—or reason for becoming interested—in the writer, the fact that Leiris is unknown here complicates matters, because his book makes unusual demands on our interest in the author as a man.
In 1929, Leiris suffered a severe mental crisis, which included becoming impotent, and underwent a year or so of psychiatric treatment. In 1930, when he was thrity-four years old, he began Manhood. At that time, he was a poet, strongly influenced by Apollinaire and by his friend, Max Jacob; he had already published several volumes of poetry, beginning with Simulacre (1925); and in the same year that he began Manhood, 1930, he wrote a remarkable novel in the Surrealist manner, Aurora. But shortly after beginning Manhood (it was not finished until 1935), Leiris entered upon a new career—as an anthropologist. He made a field trip to Dakar-Dijibouti (Africa) in 1931-33, and upon his return to Paris joined the staff of the Musée de l’Homme, where he remains, in an important curatorial post, to the present day. No trace of this startling shift—from bohemian and poet to scholar and museum bureaucrat—is recorded in the wholly intimate disclosures of Manhood. There is nothing in the book of the accomplishments of the poet or the anthropologist. One feels there cannot be; to have recorded them would mar the impression of failure.
Instead of a history of his life, Leiris gives us a catalogue of its limitations. Manhood begins not with “I was born in…” but with a matter-of-fact description of the author’s body. We learn in the first pages of Leiris’s incipient baldness, of a chronic inflammation of the eyelids, of his meager sexual capacities, of his tendency to hunch his shoulders when sitting, and to scratch his anal region when he is alone, of a traumatic tonsillectomy undergone as a child, of an equally traumatic infection in his penis; and, subsequently, of his hypochondria, of his cowardice in all situations of the slightest danger, of his inability to speak any foreign language fluently, of his pitiful incompetence in physical sports. His character, too, is described under the aspect of limitation: Leiris presents it as…
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