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The Musics of Michel Leiris

Richard Sieburth—

Autobiography and autofiction are all the rage in France, viz. Annie Ernaux’s recent Nobel Prize.  Anticipating this trend, ex-surrealist Michel Leiris devoted much of his literary career to experiments in self-portraiture. Francis Bacon’s famous dismantling of Leiris’s face, featured on the cover of Frail Riffs, reveals the author peering out from behind the mask of his sincerity. The title of his four-volume autobiography is The Rules of the Game—Leiris the verbal card shark (and professional anthropologist) being only all too aware that without rules, there would be no transgression, no possibility of the sacred, no field of play.  For over thirty-five years Leiris gamed himself out on the page, ever rereading and rewriting himself by consulting the field notes of his life that he kept stored away in the (literal) file boxes of his memory. This practice of autoethnography reaches its crisis when, at the end of volume three, Leiris coolly records the details of his failed suicide attempt of 1957 as a kind of initiation rite that allowed him to cross over to the other side. Frail Riffs, the fourth volume this tetralogy, the previous three having been translated by Lydia Davis, is Leiris’s path back from suicide. A book of which he playfully pretends to be the posthumous author, a Lazarus (or a Scheherazade) risen from the dead—only to ghost his way through the indignities and debilities that signal the onset of old age. Composed between 1966 and 1975, that is, when Leiris was in his mid-sixties and early seventies, this book is also a fellow traveler’s meditation in a time of revolution: he chronicles his two visits to Cuba in 1967 where he met Fidel Castro, as well as his participation in the events of May 68. Both dreams of renewal shattered when the Soviet tanks invaded Prague. Often compared to a modern Montaigne, the Leiris of these autumnal Frail Riffs plays the role of a public figure now in retirement, addressing himself to that greatest of Stoic lessons: “que philosopher, c’est apprendre à mourir.”  That to philosophize—or to write—is to learn to die.  Leiris is the twentieth-century’s greatest practitioner of autothanatography.

Readers of memoirs and autobiography as well as those drawn to the intellectual history of modern France and, in particular, to the links of Leiris (via his wife’s family’s Kahnweiler gallery) to the history of modern art—personal friendships with Picasso, Masson, Giacometti, Wilfredo Lam, Bacon—will find much to interest them in Frail Riffs. In addition, through his close collaboration with such figures as Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir, Leiris emerges in these pages as the model of an “engaged” intellectual. This is particularly evident in his critique of the colonialist foundations of modern anthropology and his participation in various of manifestos and demonstrations of the Left over the course of the 50’s and 60’s. He is a figure who is constantly trying to reconcile his commitment to leftwing “revolution” with his equally strong belief that it is only by “poetry” (and art in general) that human consciousness can be fully transformed in the end.  An opera aficionado and a lifelong jazz fan who discovers Archie Shepp’s Free Jazz at the Pan-African Arts Festival in Algiers in 1969—and is quite taken by the sixties sense of art as sheer event or “happening”—in this final volume of his autobiography Leiris perfects his most private mode of song, in these freeform “riffs” of prose and poetry, whose various musics I have tried to body forth in English.


Michel Leiris (1901–1990) was a French writer, pioneer of modern confessional literature, noted anthropologist, poet, and art critic. Richard Sieburth is professor emeritus of French and comparative literature at New York University.


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