By Colin Herd.
Suicide, Édouard Levé, trans. Jan Steyn, Dalkey Archive 2011
“Isn’t it peculiar how this final act inverts your biography? I have never heard a single person, since your death, tell your life’s story starting from the beginning.”
The Parisian writer and artist Édouard Levé was born on New Years Day in Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1965 and studied business at the École Supérieure des Sciences Économiques et Commerciales, a prestigious French business school. In 1991 he took up abstract painting, which he later abandoned, burning almost all of his paintings and recasting himself as a conceptual photographer and writer. Homonymes (1999) is a series of face-on photographic portraits of “ordinary people” with the same names as famous people. There’s Henri Michaux, Andre Breton, Yves Klein. The images have a binding, clinical sort of “look again” quality. The viewer is confronted with their own assumptions about these strangers, as the initial reaction of ‘oh but it’s not the Henri Michaux’ dissipates and is replaced with an unsettling sense of duality and a lingering awareness of the contracted constructedness of what we take to be reality.
Angoisse (2000-2002) continued Levé’s interest in the names of things, and in the distortive gap between the assumptions names can engender and the reality to which they refer. Angoisse is a town in the Dordogne. But Angoisse is also the French for ‘Anguish’. Levé’s series of photographs depicts a normal-looking French town, its buildings, its landscapes, its road signs etc. Overhanging our interpretation of all these quiet scenes, though, is this word, this name. The images toy with the viewer, invite the viewer to perform an over-easy metaphorical interpretation, judging all the inhabitants of the town, all the inhabitants of France, all the inhabitants of Europe etc. to be in one way or another anguished, to see anguish as our permanent, essential or habitual state. For all the captivating drama of this reading of the photographs, their lasting impression seems much more to do with the way we interpret things, the way words and names cloud and colour our impressions and expectations. The destabilising effect of the photographs lies in the hypothesis and potential that impregnates the gap between the images of a sleepy French town and its name; like an empty film set they constantly beg the question, what could happen, what is going to happen?
In 2002, the esteemed publisher of contemporary fiction Editions P.O.L brought out Levé’s first work of written fiction, Oeuvres. Influenced by writers of the Oulipo and by the fictions of constraint by Perec and Roussel in particular, Oeuvres is an absurdly audacious first book, an imaginary bibliography of over 500 works by the author. In the same year, he found considerable success as a photographer with Pornographie (2002) a series depicting men and women fully clothed in business attire, recreating in high-gloss, meticulously poised tableaux the poses of porn film stills. Rugby (2003) did the same but with magazine sport supplement snaps of rugby games. Men clad in business suits huddling together in scrums, or leaping forward to evade a tackle, trailing his opponent in his wake. As well as being extremely funny (it’s the rat race gone literal) the photographs in Rugby convey a heightened kind of nightmarish testosterone-fuelled masculinity. The images have a worked-in pointlessness and aimlessness. The ball is missing.
2005’s Autoportrait (Editions P.O.L) is a novel made up of short first person descriptive sentences. The stark concision of Levé’s prose is bleak and constrained. There’s a sense throughout of somehow trying to sum up a life, and an acknowledgement of the absurdity of that ambition. But through its banal statements and deep-rooted dark humour, Autoportrait does offer up an image, a kind of 4-D, 5-D portrait of the narrator, built up through its collage of impressions, introspections and anecdotes:
“When I was young, I thought Life: A User’s Manual would teach me how to live and Suicide: A User’s Manual how to die. I don’t really listen to what people tell me. I forget things I don’t like. I look down dead-end streets. The end of a trip leaves me with a sad aftertaste the same as the end of a novel. I am not afraid of what comes at the end of life. I am slow to realize when someone mistreats me, it is always so surprising: evil is somehow unreal. When I sit with bare legs on vinyl, my skin doesn’t slide, it squeaks. I archive. I joke about death. I do not love myself. I do not hate myself. My rap sheet is clean.”
Again, much of the drama of these sentences is in the pauses between them, the links and triggers from one idea to the next.
On 5th October 2007, Levé submitted the manuscript of his latest novel Suicide to his publisher. Suicide is a short novel (144 pages) and it took only three days for his publisher to call and tell Levé of his enthusiasm about the book.
Suicide was published in France in 2008. In many ways it picks up where Autoportrait left off. The style of its prose is very similar. Whereas Autoportrait is written in bald first person statements, Suicide is largely written in the second person, summarising the life and death of an anonymous ‘You’, a childhood friend of the narrator’s anonymous ‘I’ who committed suicide aged 25. The novel’s first paragraph detachedly details the circumstances of the suicide:
“One Saturday in the month of August, you leave your home wearing your tennis gear, accompanied by your wife. In the middle of the garden, you point out to her that you’ve forgotten your racket in the house. You go back to look for it, but instead of making your way to the cupboard in the entryway where you normally keep it, you head down into the basement. Your wife doesn’t notice this. She stays outside. The weather is fine. She’s making the most of the sun. A few moments later she hears a gunshot. She rushes into the house, cries out your name, notices that the door to the stairway leading down to the basement is open, goes down and finds you there. You’ve put a bullet in your head with the rifle you had carefully prepared. On the table, you left a comic book open to a double page spread. In the heat of the moment, your wife leans on the table; the book falls closed before she realizes that this was your final message.”
The uncertainty over the message, the lack of explanation or answer, is the impetus for the rest of the novel. The narrator draws the same sort of portrait of his friend as the narrator draws of himself in Autoportrait. Details come piecemeal, thought processes shift tangentially from one memory to another. It’s a love-story of sorts, the deep immersion in the story of the narrator’s friend is an expression of closeness and a willingness to understand. This is acknowledged in the narrative: “To love someone from the moment of their death: is that friendship?”
The prose of Suicide is marked by its detachment and coolness. These qualities also harbour its elegance and its emotional depth. The narrative is a consideration of suicide and its implications seen through the lens of the friend’s death, and it’s distinguished by how thorough and potent the study is, how insightful:
“Your life was a hypothesis. Those who die old are made of the past. Thinking of them, one thinks of what they have done. Thinking of you, one thinks of what you could have become.”
“When I hear of a suicide, I think of you again. Yet, when I hear that someone died from cancer, I don’t think of my Grandfather and Grandmother, who also died from it. They share cancer with millions of others. You, however, own suicide.”
“In art, to reduce is to perfect. Your disappearance bestowed a negative beauty on you.”
“Your suicide makes the lives of those who outlive you more intense.”
“The way in which you quit it rewrote the story of your life in a negative form. Those who knew you reread each of your acts in light of your last.”
The narrator states early on that the two hadn’t seen much of each other since his friend married, but as the novel progresses, the insight and sensitivity of the narrator into his friend’s mental state becomes more and more pronounced. So much so, that the roles of ‘You’ and ‘I’ seem to overlap. The suggestion gradually emerges that the narrator’s fascination with his friend’s fate and his deep and sympathetic fictionalisation of it speak as loudly about his own mental state as about his friend’s. The distancing effect of the fictional construct and second person narrative begins to bow. There are extremely moving passages about the taking of anti-depressants and their effects that suggest experience. Just as in Homonymes, where the viewer reads the portrait subjects in the shadow of their famous namesakes, and just as in Angoisse, you read the images of the town under the cloud of the word ‘anguish’, so, too, in Suicide, you begin to focus on the narrator, through the lens of his friend. Indeed, some knowledge of Levé’s own biographical details furthers this blurring of the distinction between author narrator and ‘subject’. Levé was born on New Year’s Day, whereas the ‘friend’ was born on Christmas Day. Levé studied business; the friend, we are told, studies economics. They both take photographs. They both write. The end of the novel is given over to a moving sequence of poems supposedly found by the friend’s wife in his desk after he died. The last lines read:
“Happiness precedes me
Sadness follows me
Death awaits me.”
It’s at this point that I feel I need to mention what I’ve resisted so far. Ten days after submitting the manuscript of Suicide to P.O.L in October of 2007, and after receiving confirmation it would be published, Levé hung himself at his home. It’s a fact that inevitably hangs over any reading of the novel, and it’s a fact that readers can choose to encounter or confront in different ways. There are those who see the novel as a kind of suicide note. I’ve purposefully steered away from this direct reading, feeling like Levé’s suicide and his Suicide are both more complex than a reading like along those lines gives them credit for. I’ve tried to avoid making Leve’s suicide the foundation for my encounter of the book, and see it instead arising from tendencies in his other projects. One of those tendencies is exactly the sort of framing and doubling and shadow-casting that his suicide throws onto the novel, and yet, all of that is there in the book itself too, worked into the fabric of its narrative. Like one of his fully clothed pornographic tableaux, Suicide impresses as much for what it holds back as it gives out, and it’s the tension between these two that throw the reader into an irresistible double-take/look-way tension.
Jan Steyn’s translation is excellent, and the afterword invaluable in the way it contextualises Levé’s novels in relation to his photographic series.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Colin Herd lives and writes in Edinburgh. He is co-editor of Anything Anymore Anywhere. Poems have appeared in Shampoo, Streetcake, Velvet Mafia, Gutter and Pop Serial, and reviews in the blog of Chroma journal. His chapbook, Like, is published by Knives Forks and Spoons Press and his poetry collection, too ok, by BlazeVOX.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, June 14th, 2011.