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This review is taken from PN Review 79, Volume 17 Number 5, May - June 1991.

THE PHANTOM OF THE OEUVRE Michel Leiris, Aurora, translated and introduced by Anna Warby (Atlas Books) £5.99

Of the three categories into which the work of the late Michel Leiris naturally, though by no means systematically, divides - Surrealism, ethnography and autobiography - Aurora offers us access principally to the first, with only a few scattered indicators of the interests that were to make him one of France's most original and challenging post-war writers. Like others who, within a few years of its birth, seceded from the orthodox Surrealism defined by André Breton, Leiris claimed in later life he had never abandoned the movement's most important doctrines, which helps to explain why he was ambivalent in his feelings towards Aurora, a dawn of sorts but a compromised one, and a compromise he could only acknowledge publicly after confronting himself head on from the belatedly 'mature' perspective of L'age d'homme (Manhood). Though heavily freighted with the fictional baggage which Leiris was subsequently to disavow, Aurora - written in the late 1920s, but left unpublished until 1946 - became the test of a hyperbolic commitment to 'the maximum of lucidity and sincerity', and at the same time a cultivation of its subsoil, an exposé of sorts in spite of its traffic with obscurity and rhapsodic rhetoric. In a brief essay on the Elizabethan magus John Dee, published at about the time Aurora was begun, Leiris describes the 'almost magical action' that the alchemist's Monas hieroglyphica 'exercises on the spirit', albeit not one without its 'profoundly troubling' aspects. In the late 1920s Leiris would scarcely have permitted himself ...

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