In front of a crowd of gawking spectators — of whom I am one — a series of executions is being carried out, and this rivets my attention. Up until the moment when the executioner and his attendants direct themselves toward me because it is my turn now. Which comes as a complete and terrifying surprise.”
A few weeks ago I reviewed Spurl Editions’s new translation of Jean Lorrain’s novella Monsieur de Bougrelon (1897) — about two Frenchman on a strange vacation in Amsterdam, led by the enigmatic Bougrelon, which takes them through brothels and seedy bars — and one of their upcoming releases would make a perfect follow up: Michel Leiris’s Nuits sans Nuit et quelques Jours sans Jour (Nights as Day, Days as Night, 1961). A book that largely resists classification, this is a combination of surrealist autobiography (literally, in the sense that is was written by a leading Surrealist and figuratively in the sense that it is predictably and wonderful surreal), prose poem (which is how translator Richard Sieburth refers to it), and dream journal. Anyone who has a fascination with the Surrealists or 20th century Paris will find much to love and the work’s appealing strangeness certainly lingers in the memory — I can’t stop thinking about it.
Leiris may be remembered as one of the more minor personalities of Surrealism, but he is a fascinating figure, as is evidenced by Nuits sans Nuit et quelques Jours sans Jour. It’s as if Leiris has cracked open his own heads and strewn the contents across the page; despite its oneiric and disjointed subject matter, the vignette-like work touches upon many different aspects of his life. He was introduced to Surrealist circles by artist André Masson, though he also counted figures like Robert Desnos and Max Jacob among his friends; many of them briefly appear throughout these dream sketches. Like seemingly everyone in France in the ‘20s, he had a falling out with Surrealist leader Breton, before going on to collaborate on Georges Bataille’s Documents magazine (which Spurl should add to their list of future translations). In the sense that these figures and fragments of memories appear in the journal, Nuits sans Nuit et quelques Jours sans Jour is reminiscent of Paul Bowles’ collection of short fiction, Points in Time (1982), inspired by Bowles’ years on the African continent and his anthropological (and musicological) study of its many cultures.
Like Bowles, Leiris traveled to Africa, where he became an anthropologist, though he continued his surreal writing experiments. His 1934 book, L’Afrique fantôme, led to his position at the Musée de l’Homme, one he would hold for the next 30 years. He visited the country again and became passionately involved in the protest against the Algerian War. War creeps into Nuits sans Nuit et quelques Jours sans Jour, and it becomes the most personal and visceral when Leiris reveals his fears about being tortured or executed in WWII; the book was written — or rather compiled — across several decades and thus details a fascinating shift in both his writing style and thematic concerns. There is something genuinely unselfconscious about Nuits sans Nuit et quelques Jours sans Jour, and in particular Leiris excels at portraying the ordinary as exotic; it is impossible not to be drawn into his world despite (or perhaps because of) the frequent terror and anxiety that possesses both his dreams and waking thoughts.
In addition to violence, erotic fixations constantly reappear and this text transcends the Surrealist fascination with automatic writing for something divine and deeply personal that captures the feeling of lucid dreaming in literary form. In her introduction to one of Leiris’s masterworks, L’age d’homme (known as Manhood: A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility in English), Susan Sontag writes,
In 1929, Leiris suffered a severe mental crisis, which included becoming impotent, and underwent a year or so of psychiatric treatment. […] His character, too, is described under the aspect of limitation: Leiris presents it as ‘corroded’ with morbid and aggressive fantasies concerning the flesh in general and women in particular. Manhood is a manual of abjection — anecdotes and fantasies and verbal associations and dreams set down in the tones of a man, partly anesthetized, curiously fingering his own wounds.”
This self-analysis is a major feature of Nuits sans Nuit et quelques Jours sans Jour and in it Leiris regularly attempts to analyze his own dreams. He writes of “nocturnal disturbances” that possess and obsess him. His wife, Louise Gordon — known only as “Z” (for her nickname Zette) in the book — appears as a figure of romantic and erotic love, as well as a balm for his fears. His dreams include many sex scenes between the two of them, including one of my favorite moments, when he describes a tryst with her that takes place in front of a painting authored by Leiris’s close friend and collaborator, Bataille. Other writers known for their own erotic obsessions figure into the book; Nerval is referenced often — along with Baudelaire, though less so — and the persistent yet subtly perverse sense of eroticism evokes Bataille. But Leiris also writes of attraction to (and possible affairs with) other women, which he writes about with guilt and anxiety.
But his greatest anxiety seems to come from the dreams where he realizes — with horror — that he is dreaming and is either slipping into the void, or has lost control over his own consciousness. He writes, “The dream I’m in the middle of begins to resemble a state of waking that is about to end: unable to resist falling asleep in the dream itself, I sense that this dream is about to conclude, not with a return to reality, but with a plunge into the void of unconsciousness.” As with L’age d’homme, his fixations are just as physical as they are abstract and damage to or invasion of bodies is a persistent theme.
Perhaps my favorite of the longer chapters details a dream where he and Z enter into a torture museum. Leiris writes:
“Everywhere I see racks, torture boots, gibbets, corpses splayed on wheels, pillories, stairways littered with dismembered limbs, and every conceivable type of torture device or other contraption reminiscent of Piranesi’s Prisons. In the first hall, torturers wearing white smocks are engaged in human vivisection.”
It is this sort of vivid detail that explodes throughout the book and though a relatively short work at less than 200 pages, many of them comprised of “chapters” that are single paragraphs, Nuits sans Nuit et quelques Jours sans Jour is a compelling example of Leiris’s power as a writer and is certainly proof that he deserves as much attention as some of his colleagues (and arguably more attention than, say, Breton).
Speaking of colleagues, French philosopher and writer Maurice Blanchot provided a worthy introduction that crystallizes many of the book’s themes, while also brilliantly (in his way) examining dreams themselves. Blanchot writes,
Dreams are sites of similitude, mediums saturated with resemblances, in which some neutral power of similarity, existing prior to any particular designation, is constantly on the lookout for a figure whom, if need be, it might activate into a likeness. It is Faust’s mirror, and what he sees in this mirror is neither the young girl nor the likeness of her face, but rather resemblance itself, the undefined power of similarity, the infinite scintillation of reflection.”
The figures and events within Nuits sans Nuit et quelques Jours sans Jour is made up of a series of mirror images and reflections. Leiris’s preoccupations, fears, and desires begin to resemble each other as we become acquainted with him and, through them, he becomes a strangely charismatic figure. Sympathetic, introspective, and perhaps doomed, Leiris’s powers of observation of his own dreams are every bit as potent as any anthropological writing and I hope that this volume introduces many new readers to his charms and powers. Spurl’s new volume captures the poetry, absurdity, and beauty of Leiris’s book thanks to a translation from Richard Sieburth. A comparative literature professor at New York University, Sieburth specializes in writing about and translating German and French literature; perhaps I’m biased, because he has translated a number of some of my favorite authors, from Walter Benjamin and Georg Büchner to Henri Michaux, as well as Nerval, and I suspect his knowledge of the latter assisted him here. Regardless, he does Leiris proud.