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Claude Lévi-Strauss: Poet in the Laboratory, by Patrick Wilcken, Bloomsbury RRP£30, 375 pages

This fine biography traces Lévi-Strauss’s intellectual development, from his early fieldwork in Brazil to his role in fostering the structuralist movement in post-war Paris.

Wilcken draws on an impressive range of research, including interviews with Lévi-Strauss himself. Fittingly, for a man who spent his life analysing structural polarities and oppositions in culture, the French anthropologist emerges as a contradictory figure: a writer who mixed materialist science with an artistic sensibility; a thinker whose intensely personal work dealt in impersonal abstractions; a public intellectual whose abstruse ideas struck a populist chord.

Reading Lévi-Strauss, Wilcken writes, can be “like skidding along polished glass”, but he gains purchase on the more elusive theories: his exposition of the monumental Mythologiques project, which sought to uncover the basic structures that underpin tribal myths, is marvellously clear. A readable, perceptive and authoritative study.

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