two extracts from
by Michel Leiris, translated from the French by Richard Sieburth. Out now from Spurl Editions.
Nights as Day, Days as Night
Several of us are wandering all over the face of the continent by car, bus, and train. Crimes are taking place in isolated stations; the hotels we stay in are occasionally attacked by bandits and the thing to do is to pack a pistol. I am a juror in a hick town and witness an execution (no doubt that of a chambermaid).
In a street of one of the working-class suburbs of Paris, one of my surrealist friends – Marcel Noll – who is traveling with me, shows me the thirty-meter mattress he always carries with him on his travels. Two couples can sleep on it end to end but they run the risk of losing themselves in the long tunnel of sheets. When he’s on the road the mattress serves as a suitcase; Noll rolls his baggage into it and secures the roll with a strap.
Rimbaud (or Limbour?) is also along in the guise of a sickly child who physically resembles those kids they call “jail bait.” He goes through several cycles of death and resurrection, like all the other characters in the dream.
In one of the towns we visit, on a large public square featuring a plaster statue (a gentleman in a frock coat who reminds me of the ghost of Gérard de Nerval who supposedly appeared in my bedroom one night), there is a prison whose pediment is engraved with the following words: “City Court House” [Palais du Greffe], an inscription I prefer to read “City Graft House” [Palais des Greffes], seeing as how it would thereby gain in significance. Small groups of women, fairly pretty but clearly riffraff by their shabby style of dress, are heading toward the monument. I hear them talking to each other. They are hurrying back to the penal colony where they are doing time; if they are late, they will be flogged or receive some other cruel form of punishment. This was their day off; they went to visit their mistresses and whiled away their time caressing them. For these women are lesbians; men want nothing to do with them, given their wretched clothing and shameful condition.
Accompanied by Z . . . (who is my current fiancée in waking life), I enter the penal colony. The first thing we see is a sort of cloister the length of which is lined with numerous children under the watchful eyes of aristocratic-looking women, no doubt of Anglo-Saxon origin, who are the wives of the jailers or rather of the “colonists,” as they are called. The children are dressed in British fashion and carry leather school satchels under their arms. These are the sons of the convicts; they are waiting for school to start.
Beyond the cloister lies the entrance to the Museum. It is a place that reminds one simultaneously of the Grévin Museum, the Carnavalet Museum, the amusement park at the Exposition of Decorative Arts, the Aeronautics Show I visited as a child, and the Garden of Tortures imagined by Octave Mirbeau. We are aware that this museum is some sort of Museum of Horrors and we make our way into it, dreading its enchantments.
At first things are not so frightening. The place is fairly dark and we see some devices that more or less resemble those dynamometers one finds at county fairs or at establishments devoted to these kinds of games, except that these were almost exclusively composed of moving multicolored electric lightbulbs: figures of demons. Further on, we come across huge stands that are almost completely dark. In the shadows one can vaguely make out some enormous airplanes built in the shape of birds’ heads. These birds’ heads have open beaks: the cockpit is located at the very bottom of the throat, a strange nocturnal space lit up by no more than two or three lights that gleam like precious carbuncles. The dome of the skull, about as tall as a six-story building, is a cupola made of canvas which functions as a parachute (here they call it a “hot-air balloon”).
We are still not that terrified (true, some of the exhibits that we had been told were fairly frightening are out of order), but a bit further on the spectacle becomes truly horrific. There are, as in the Grévin Museum, wax figures that seem to be alive, but also living figures that seem to be made out of wax. These are the convicts. They are being submitted to atrocious tortures. 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.
We leave the Museum and board a steamship in order to visit the rest of the penal colony. An instrument that resembles a water level is set up on the center of the deck, next to the compass. A long vertical tube connects it to the sea and it measures, far more effectively than a waterline would, just how the ship should normally stay afloat. If the level drops, this indicates the ship is taking on water or that a major storm is approaching.
We are in the midst of a crowd of men, women, children, and animals. The ship is already well out to sea when a dreadful panic sets in: the water level has gone crazy, which means we are about to sink. All the passengers leap overboard and despite their efforts to stay afloat, they all drown. My fiancée and I, however, have kept our wits about us and remain aboard the ship which, despite a serious leak and heavy seas, manages to return to shore, depositing us safe and sound on terra firma.
We are congratulated for our courage and are shown a humorous engraving by an unknown artist in the museum catalogue that depicts either this very accident or else a similar accident that had occurred some time before on a ship belonging to the same company. I see passengers trying to swim for safety, bits of wreckage, and, floating upside down among the waves, tripods that look like kangaroos. But I learn these are, in fact, horses that had plunged headlong into the sea and drowned. Only their tails and stiffened hindlegs emerge from the water, which is why I mistook them for tripods.
A meat tree, each of whose roots bears a beefsteak. One night a year, Jesus Christ appears among these roots to proclaim the Republic. Whereupon the roots turn into an inverted Christmas tree, laden with lights and hams, with Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Apostles in a halo at its center.
Michel Leiris (1901 – 90) was an author, ethnographer, art critic, and former surrealist who pioneered a unique form of autobiographical writing. Praised by Susan Sontag, Maurice Blanchot, and Claude Lévi-Strauss, he made powerful contributions to modern French literature. His autobiographical works include Manhood, The Rules of the Game, and Nights as Day, Days as Night.Richard Sieburth
Richard Sieburth is a professor of French and Comparative Literature at New York University. He has translated works by Henri Michaux and Louise Labé, and he received a PEN/Book of the Month Translation Prize for his translation of Gérard de Nerval’s Selected Writings.