Tristes tropiques

Levi Strauss

Claude Lévi-Strauss has died, aged 101.

Lévi-Strauss fled Vichy France in 1940, having been dismissed from his job due to Vichy racial laws. The New School for Social Research in New York, a reconstituted version of the Frankfurt school set up to rescue German refugee intellectuals, found a job for him, and the Rockefeller Foundation had a programme to rescue European scientists and thinkers. He made his way to Marseilles, and set sail for freedom in March 1941.

Other passengers on the boat, the Captain Paul-Lemerle, were Victor Serge, Andre Breton and Anna Seghers. The three of them were among the anti-fascists rescued by the great Varian Fry, a story told in his colleague Mary Jayne Gold’s Crossroads Marseilles 1940 (1980, now out of print) and more recently Rosemary Sullivan’s Villa Air-Bel (2006 HarperCollins).

Seghers was a German Communist writer. She had fled Nazi Germany for France, and was active in the exiled German writers union, which met at the Cafe Mephisto on Boulevarde St-Germain. Seghers had slipped across the line from German-occupied France to Vichy France the same month that Walter Benjamin took his life after being turned back from Spain in his bid to get to New York.

She had played a major role in the Congress for the Defence of Culture, held in Paris in 1935. At the Congress, Henri Poulaille, a French anarchist writer and editor, Magdelana Pa, a French Trotskyist, and Gaetano Salvemini, an Italian socialist, raised the question of Victor Serge’s incarceration in the Soviet gulag. (Serge was exiled in Orenberg at that time, the subject of his book Midnight in the Century.) Seghers, disgracefully, said this was a distraction: “When a house is burning, you can’t stop to help someone with a splinter in their finger.” It is not recorded, as far as I know, what conversation they had on the Captain Paul-Lemerle.

The Captain Paul-Lemerle, which had been built in 1921, landed in Martinique and then in Puerto Rico. At the latter, Lévi-Strauss had document trouble, and the Americans almost stopped him from proceeding. The fortunage intervention of another anthropologist, Jacques Soustelle, who happened to be PR in the service of De Gaulle’s Free French, rescued him. Levi Strauss went on to New York, where he was known as Claude L. Strauss, to avoid confusion with the popular jeans. Once the war was over, he worked as cultural counsellor of the French Embassy in Washington, before moving back to France in 1948. The first, very short, version of his wonderful memoir, Tristes Tropiques, was published in Encounter, the CIA-sponsored journal of the anti-Stalinist left.

Serge’s journey was not straightforward. He went to

Mexico (on a visa granted by President Cardenas hiniself), via Martinique (where he was detained in a camp for a month), Ciudad Trujillo and Havana. He reached Mexico in September 1941, and was immediately the object of violent articles, threats (to his life) from local and refugee Stalinists. (Jean Riére)

Seghors also went on to Mexico. Her anti-fascist novel, The Seventh Cross, which she had written in France, was published in English in New York and in German in Mexico. It has been serialised by a Soviet journal, International Literature, but the serialisation abrubtly halted with the Hitler-Stalin pact, when anti-fascism was no longer a Stalinist cause. Her Transit Visa, published in 1944, was a fictionalised account of the escape from France of the anti-fascist intellectuals, and the complex choreography of accidedents, lucky breaks and dishonesties by which they were able to obtain visas – “The Battle of the Visas” was Serge’s phrase for this.

Breton spent time in Martinique, then went on to New York.  He returned to France in 1946, and was active in radical politics until his death.

Added: Pierre Bourdieu on Levi-Strauss.