Every so often a monster comes along. Here’s one — but a monster of fact not fiction, over 700 pages recounting the French expedition from Dakar to Djibouti 1931–33. It doesn’t matter that this travel diary — part field study, part confessional, first published in 1934 — has arrived so late for an English readership. It comes with the additional resonance of a lost world.
Michel Leiris was an exceptional man, a Parisian surrealist writer and protégé of Max Jacob. He was also close to Picasso, with whom he shared an interest in primitive art, shamanism and Mithraism; and he married a girl who was the illegitimate daughter of the wife of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Picasso’s dealer. During the second world war, Leiris was part of the ‘Flore’ set — a coterie that included Sartre, de Beauvoir, Eluard and Camus — and after the war he became a great friend of Francis Bacon. Thanks to his wife, who’d taken over the Kahnweiler business, he was rich and often turned up in Savile Row for fittings. In London, Sonia Orwell led the chorus which told Leiris that he was the greatest living French writer.
Another key friendship was with Georges Bataille, and was based on a mutual interest in sado-masochism and satanism, to which Leiris brought his own castration complex and suicidal depressions. In 1957 he swallowed so many sleeping pills that he went into a coma and had to have a tracheotomy. But like many self-obsessed neurotics, he tended his ailments carefully, with the saintly help of his wife, and lived to be 89 (he died in 1990).
You’d never guess any of this from his translator’s 61-page introductory essay, which is far more occupied with today’s skin-colour politics than with the man who wrote the book.