Aurora by Michel Leiris

Sunday, October 30, 2011 § 0

Aurora by Michel Leiris: The Surrealist Novel as a Historical Narrative of Painterly allure/illusion

A Book Review by 
David Detrich

Aurora (1926-27) published in 1946 by Michel Leiris is a Surrealist novel written in poetic prose with painterly characterizations that give this novel a sense of authenticity, with a time frame that extends back to the days of Alexander, when pirates sailed the seas. Michel Leiris knew the Cubists, including Pablo Picasso, and became a Surrealist when the movement began in 1924. The Surrealist novel follows the example of Soluble Fish (1924) by André Breton, and Aurora is written with the long sentence structures that convey an intricate metaphoric surreality to the precise descriptions by the narrator, who makes a multiplicity of allusions to the moment of reading: the present. Aurora is a brilliant innovative novel that has the perceptive intensity of a personality who has transcended time to write a classic novel of the Surrealist genre.

I was not yet thirty when I wrote Aurora...
                                                           Michel Leiris

The poetic writing of the young narrator describes his life living in an attic, and descending the stairs to perceive historical events that remind the reader of swashbuckling pirate adventures during the time of Alexander. 

It was midnight when the idea occurred to me of going down into that gloomy antechamber hung with old etchings and suits of armor. 
                                                            Michel Leiris 

This is where the narrator of Aurora enters the drama, with the theme of the old man who is defying the younger generation, and the description of his experience in the desert resembles the Burning Man which is held each year in Nevada. The Surrealists are fascinated with the Burning Man, which represents the theme of Surreality on the desert sands of the Black Rock desert. The white sands and mountains of rock create the mood for artistic rave culture, with the Burning Man who resembles a character from a Max Ernst painting.  

I stood upright, my legs like two monoliths swaying about in the middle of a desert and my arms swinging loosely like the strings of a whip, hanging corpses, or two windmills. 
                                                           Michel Leiris

The narrator has discovered historical scenes which inspire his imagination, and the theme of Surrealism appears in time as a way of perceiving the metaphorical nature of existence with the transformation of characters into painterly images. 

A woman dressed in red tucked hocks cut from the roebucks into the tops of her polished boots, thus transforming her legs, which were tightly wrapped in white skin, into wonderful vases of flowers fragrant with the delicate scent of blood. A castle of gray stone and glowing red brick loomed up on the horizon. 
                                                           Michel Leiris

The eroticism of the ancient cultures impresses us with admiration for the well dressed characters, and the appreciation for human sexuality. There is a sense of romance when women appear bare breasted under the harvest rain, and this appreciation of beauty defines the contemporary idea of esthetic theory: love for the nude figure.

His wife is a magnificent creature whose bare chest glistens all the more after the shower's caress, and whose high breasts are made still more erect by the soft touch of the warm rain which is more delicious than the touch of callous hands accustomed to manipulating primitive tools.
                                                           Michel Leiris

Aurora continues with anticipation for the future, and reminds me of my own novel-in-progress Celestial Metaphor Starflower Sun, a Surrealist novel that describes the nature trails above Lake Sonoma and the wines of Dry Creek Valley. order to see the whole history of the world reflected in its absolute reality on the frosted glass, the pure and bare inner surface, when the woman, rising with a sudden but graceful movement, having smoothed out the creases in her crumpled skirt with little touches of her slender hand, took three steps in the direction of a lawn and solemnly greeted the grape harvests of the future which were coming towards her in the form of hailstones. Then I heard the word "Aurora," whispered in a gentle voice softer than despairing flesh...
                                                                 Michel Leiris

Anna Warby, the translator of Aurora, writes in the introductory essay The Dawning of Aurora about the autobiographical and experimental perspective of the novel, where the narrator envisions himself as a painterly characterization inspired by the artwork of André Masson and Joan Miró, two Surrealist artists who he knew in Paris.

Aurora is certainly as close as Leiris has ever come to writing fiction, but the fact remains in this early text the author is already working towards the autobiographical mode which he will never subsequently relinquish. Thus the novel reveals Leiris experimenting with a multiplicity of voices with which to express the self, seeking the definitive autobiographical "I" with which he will become synonymous.
                                                            Anna Warby

The perspective of the narrator is that of the ancient energized culture, which looks at modern society with amazement. The narrator of Aurora writes with a very precise interpretation of events which make up the Surrealist plot, which is often an exaggerated painterly description of characters who are similar to the Surrealist drawings of the 1920s.

During Miró’s first years in Paris, in the early 1920s, he worked in a studio  beside André Masson’s in the rue Blomet. By mid-1922, the two painters, along with the aspiring writer Michel Leiris, formed the core of a close-knit artistic fraternity that all three later credited with playing a determining role in their careers. They were not yet engaged in Surrealism, but the three were all linked to the world of the Cubists.
                                                          Tactile Translucence:
                                                          Miró, Leiris, Einstein
                                                          Charles Palermo

Aurora by Michel Leiris follows the trend of the poetic novel that begins with Soluble Fish (1924) by André Breton, and Liberty or Love! (1927) by Robert Desnos. The novel is written in poetic prose, and is an example of the marvelous trend of historical romance, with many scenes which foreshadow future literary events. The narrator of Aurora has invented a new genre that he calls esprit de l'escalier, meaning the spirit of the staircase, for those who descend to study the history of mankind. Aurora by Michel Leiris expresses love for the experiences of life,  and is written with a sense of the art-conscious esthetic, that helps the reader envision a true surreality. The novel is inspired by the Surrealist painters, and creates characterizations which thrill the imagination with the macabre and the marvelous, the antique juxtaposed to the ultramodern.

David Detrich lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where he has just completed The Convergence of Two Narrative Lines Ascending, an ultramodern Surrealist novel written in minimal squares. This year he is working on Dream the Presence of the Circular Breast Starfish Topography, a monumental Surrealist novel written with innovative typographical design. His first novel Big Sur Marvels & Wondrous Delights (2001) is available from Amazon. He is the editor of Innovative Fiction Magazine and Surrealist Star Clustered Illuminations.

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