The twentieth century’s most famous anthropologist might well intimidate any prospective biographer. Claude Lévi-Strauss, who died two years ago, denied that he possessed any individuality of interest. He could remember little of his own past, he said, and did not even feel he had written his own books. He was just a ‘passive crossroads’ where ‘things happened’— ‘I never had, and still do not have, the perception of feeling my personal identity. I appear to myself as the place where something is going on, but there is no “I”, no “me”’. Nor were such claims mere personal avowals. His intellectual system was based on a radical dismissal of the significance, even reality, of the subject. Such a double barrier might seem obstacle enough to a biography. But it could be thought to rear still higher from the fact that Lévi-Strauss was also, paradoxically, the author of a memoir, Tristes Tropiques, by any reckoning a literary masterpiece, in which he set down what he represented as the decisive experiences of his life. Who could hope to improve on it? Certainly no conventional chronicler. In Francophone culture, where the art of biography has long been noticeably weak, the one attempt at a full-length portrait, by Denis Bertholet in 2003, is testimony enough to that.

Patrick Wilcken has defied every such difficulty. Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory is both a biography and a critical study of the thinker at the highest level. Graceful and vivid as a narrative, it is also a model of intellectual judgement. Free equally of any impulse to revere or temptation to debunk, Wilcken has produced a beautifully calm, clear-eyed account of the life and thought of his subject. The story he tells can be divided into five parts. Born in 1908, son of a soon démodé painter and musical enthusiast, in his youth Lévi-Strauss was an active socialist. Attracted to the arts, he was trained in philosophy, at a time of avant-garde ferment and lack of rigid disciplinary boundaries. His first published article was on Babeuf, his dissertation on Marxism. At the age of twenty-six, then teacher at a provincial lycée, he was suddenly offered the chance of joining a small group of French scholars—Braudel was another—to provide instruction at the recently founded University of São Paulo. The patron of this call was his former supervisor, the sociologist Célestin Bouglé, an associate of Durkheim, and the post he chose to occupy at São Paulo was in sociology. He would later open Tristes Tropiques with the celebrated words: ‘I hate travelling and explorers’. But these were strictly for effect. Bored and restless in France, like many intellectuals of his generation (Malraux and Nizan had already made their names with exploits abroad), elsewhere Lévi-Strauss more truthfully confessed: ‘I was in a state of intense intellectual excitement. I felt I was reliving the adventures of the first sixteenth-century explorers. I was discovering the New World for myself. Everything seemed mythical: the scenery, the plants, the animals’.

Here Wilcken, the author of a fine study of the Portuguese court in Rio, has the enormous advantage of an intimate knowledge of the country where Lévi-Strauss landed. For the first time, the experience that transformed him into an anthropologist is more properly contextualized. In France, the sociology of Durkheim and then of Mauss extended indifferently across modern to ‘primitive’—i.e pre-literate—societies, as the more historically minded work of Weber or Sombart in Germany did not. Ethnology was more a loose province of sociology than a distinct discipline. Study of local tribes was thus in a sense the obvious direction for Lévi-Strauss to go, if he was to capitalize on his time in Brazil for advancement at home. He was still drawn to the arts—he and his wife were soon frequenting the milieu around Mário de Andrade, Brazil’s leading modernist poet, with whom the couple became good friends; and he still nurtured political ambitions—though indifferent to the local scene, where a Communist rising exploded shortly after his arrival, and a dictatorship modelled on the regimes of Salazar and Mussolini was installed not long after. In 1936, when the Popular Front came to power at home, he was disappointed not to receive any summons from a Socialist ministry in Paris. It was then that he decided to abandon the idea of a political career. Ethnographic exploration of the Brazilian interior became the alternative.

With the publication of Tristes Tropiques twenty years later, forays to the Caduveo, the Bororo and the Nambikwara became the stuff of legend. Wilcken’s meticulous reconstruction of these sorties, cool but never unsympathetic, shows the reality. By contemporary standards, these were brief, itinerant visitations, involving as much guess-work as field-work in a modern sense. Not even very conversant with Portuguese, Lévi-Strauss knew no Indian language, and spent no extended time with any of the native groups whom he encountered. Nor was his principal expedition, in 1938, at all like the solitary pilgrimage tacitly suggested by his memoir. In Wilcken’s words:

When the crew and equipment were finally assembled on fields on the outskirts of Cuiabá, the herds of pack animals, the boxes, bags and saddles, the bearded men in loose cotton shorts and leather boots looked more like a travelling country fair than a scientific expedition. In the pages of Tristes Tropiques, this large supporting cast often vanishes into the background. In reality, the Serra do Norte expedition was as far from the Malinowskian ethnographic gold standard—the early-twentieth-century loner, painstakingly learning the local language, submerging himself in their culture—as was possible. In contrast to the Conradesque journey to the extremes of humanity, much of the time Lévi-Strauss’s entourage would outnumber the natives he was trying to study.

But Wilcken is not censorious. Whatever its other shortcomings, the expedition was not only complicated and hazardous, but productive, furnishing Lévi-Strauss with a store of imaginative conjectures that would stand him in good stead when he got to his real terrain of enquiry, thousands of miles from scrub or jungle. Back in France in the spring of 1939, just turned thirty, his mind still occupied with what he had seen, he was now so depoliticized that he was oblivious not only to the imminence of war in Europe, but to the realities of Nazi victory and Vichy collaboration in 1940, attempting—if fortunately failing—to move back to occupied Paris as a teacher when Jews were already at risk. Fired under Pétain, denied a return visa to Brazil, he secured an invitation from the New School, and (assisted by the wealthy connexion of an aunt in the us), set sail from Marseilles in a boat whose other refugees included André Breton and Victor Serge, depicted in one of the most piquant episodes of Tristes Tropiques. Eventually arriving in New York, Manhattan was, as Wilcken rightly comments, more than the Mato Grosso, ‘his true culture shock’.

Here, amid an expatriate French community far larger than in São Paulo, he became embedded in an avant-garde milieu of surrealists—Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, André Masson, Roberto Matta, not to speak of Breton himself—that took anthropology along with psychoanalysis as keys to the unconscious springs of existence. He had painted as a boy; in Brazil, he had started to write a play in the spirit of Corneille; in France, to compose a novel in the style of Conrad. In New York, he gave up such ambitions, but learnt how to invest the sensibility behind them (now inflected by this setting: ‘the surrealists enriched and refined my aesthetic tastes’) in forms that would be discursive rather than creative.