Among the most obnoxious things one person can ask of another is to “tell me something true about yourself.” Such a banal and breezily intrusive request drastically misunderstands the nature of self-disclosure; it calls for a sort of intimacy on demand, a statement of biographical fact that is expected to reveal, by mysterious inference, the truth about a life. It’s also a question that is close to impossible to answer. What kind of person is capable of talking about themselves in the form of facts? If you’re looking for a way to ruin a perfectly good first date, do the following: lean forward in your chair and, gazing urgently across the dinner table into the eyes of the near-perfect stranger sitting opposite, ask them to tell you something true about themselves. (“Dessert menu? No thanks, just the bill, please.”)
Reading Autoportrait, I found myself thinking of it as a fiendishly appropriate response to just such a question, as the logical comeuppance of a request for personal truth. The book (one paragraph spanning 112 pages) consists of one declarative sentence after another, each of which reveals some new fact about its author, the late French writer and conceptual photographer Edouard Levé. Here’s a sample, selected more or less at random:
The higher the floor number, the better I feel. Sometimes I realize that what I’m in the middle of saying is boring, so I just stop talking. I used to think I worked better at night than in daytime until one day I bought black curtains. I use the shell of the first mussel to spoon out the rest. I can do without TV.
It might sound like a paradox, or a graceless provocation, to say that the book — which goes on like this (and on, and on) — is both conventionally unreadable and almost tyrannically compelling. But that is what it is. It’s “unreadable” in the way that any succession of sentences that refuses to cohere into a composite substance (a narrative, say, or an argument) is, by normal standards, unreadable. The vast majority of these statements do not acknowledge the presence of those on either side of them. You read from left to right, from top to bottom of each page, but Autoportrait doesn’t really reward this approach over any other. You could read it from last page to first and have a similar kind of experience with it. You could even read it from last sentence to first and still come out knowing as much about the author as you would from a conventionally oriented approach (whereas you wouldn’t get quite the same picture of, say, Nabokov or St. Augustine from a backwards reading of Speak, Memory or The Confessions as you would from a forwards one). It’s compelling not just because its formal technique is so radical, but because its thorough abdication of all narrative responsibility — the obligation for one’s statements to stand in some type of logically sequential relationship to each other — leads to a peculiar, and contradictory, expectancy in the reading experience.
It’s possible, in other words, that the book is compelling precisely because it’s unreadable in the conventional sense. (Even if being both French and deceased didn’t disqualify Levé from being shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it would still be unthinkable anyway.) This has a lot to do with the tension between a relentless control at the level of form and what seems to be randomness at the level of content, a tension which amounts to a sort of fastidious chaos. You know what type of sentence the next one is going to be (it’s going to be a first-person statement of some fact about the author), but you don’t have any idea what it might be likely to reveal. Writers rarely get away with such chilly denial of narrative pleasure while still managing to keep readers turning the page. It helps that Levé intermittently catches you off guard by being plain old funny: “My father walked in on me making love to a woman, when he knocked I said without thinking, ‘Come in,’ blushing, he quickly backed out and closed the door, when my girlfriend tried to slip away, he went up to her and said, ‘Come back whenever you like, mademoiselle.’”
This is a very short book, so it’s possible — and perhaps advisable — to read it in one sitting. I did take a few quick breaks in between bouts, though, as much to clear my head as anything else. And these time-outs have an interesting effect: when you come back to the book, your instinctual expectations for a piece of writing to build toward a narrative are briefly reinstated, and the strangeness of its not doing so is reinforced. Oh right, you think, he’s still at it, still just stating a succession of facts about himself (“I do not judge a country by the quality of its TV […] I have nothing to say about cisterns. I find winks unsettling.”) As obviously avant garde as Levé’s approach to the autobiographical project is, it’s rigorously grounded in experience. He is presenting himself on the page without recourse to exploration or extrapolation, without the intercession of intellect or imagination. The aggregate effect of this is to portray the mystery of subjectivity — the strange impenetrability of the experience of personhood — in a more direct and unmediated way than a more conventional narrative memoir could ever achieve. In this sense Autoportait is a work of extreme and uncompromising realism; it refuses to grant any credence to what Levé once described in an interview as the “fiction of identity.” It’s a sort of post-humanist version of self-exploration, as though Montaigne, in attempting to answer his famous question “What do I know?,” had run it through an algorithm instead of writing his Essais. At the risk of being glib, Levé’s literary self-portrait stands in a similar kind of relation to Montaigne’s as the music of, say, Autechre does to that of Bach.
Autoportrait is at its most provocative when it hints at the more conventional work of “life writing” it might have been in the hands of a less formally wayward author. He gives us brief accounts of two incidents that must have had a profound impact on his development, and out of which many memoirists would spin entire books much longer than this one. Out of nowhere (everything is out of nowhere in this book) he tells us about what he used to get up to as a child while playing house with a female cousin:
There were variants, it could be doctor (formal inspection of genitals), or thug and bourgeoisie (mini rape scene). When we played thug and bourgeoisie, my cousin would walk past the swing set where I’d be sitting, outside our family’s house, I would call out to her in a menacing tone of voice, she wouldn’t answer but would act afraid, she would start to run away, I would catch her and drag her into the little pool house, I would bolt the door, I’d pull the curtains, she would try vaguely to get away, I would undress her and simulate the sexual act while she cried out in either horror or pleasure, I could never tell which it was supposed to be, I forget how it used to end.
That’s it– two profoundly shocking and revelatory sentences near the end of the book, and then we’re back to the stochastic sequence of announcements, of plain assertions of things that happen to be the case (“To ease my backache after I’ve been driving a long way, I lie down on a hard floor, arms crossed, legs slightly raised”). Some pages later, Levé tells us about the time he witnessed a 10-year-old boy being masturbated by a counselor on a school skiing trip. Because he doesn’t do elaboration, you have to go pottering around de hors-texte, in the Derridean nothing, to find that the Parisian Catholic school he attended, Collège Stanislas (alma mater of one Jacques Lacan), was at the centre of a national paedophile scandal while he was a student there. You won’t get this information from Levé, and you certainly won’t get his feelings on the matter, at least not in any straightforward way. What you do get, right after this powerful revelation, is the following: “When I read psychiatric manuals, I often find that I have one symptom of the illnesses they describe, sometimes more than one, sometimes every symptom. I do not write in order to give pleasure to those who read me, but I would not be displeased if that is what they felt.” (In the margin beside this last one, I facetiously jotted “Thanks, appreciate it”, imagining Levé nodding and muttering a dry “de rien” before proceeding briskly to his next assertion.)
This is an obsessive work, a text that seems to present itself as a machine for the generation of truth. One of its more striking aspects, though, is the way in which its apparent designs on the absolute — its gestures toward the idea of saying everything there is to be said with certainty about oneself — underscore its hopeless incompletion. The more Levé says, the more facts he sets down, the more you realize he hasn’t said. So alright, he finds silence on the phone embarrassing. And he has an easier time picking out American states on a map than African countries. And he shaves with an electric razor rather than a blade because of his sensitive skin. Fair enough, you think, all well and good. But does he use a Mac or a PC? Has he ever been in a fist fight? For whom, if anyone, did he vote in the French municipal elections in 2001? Does he brush his teeth in the shower to save time? (And would he have been inclined to agree, had he not committed suicide before it was published, that Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood, which consists entirely of questions directed at the reader, might make an interesting companion piece to Autoportrait?)
What remains, after 112 pages of statements, is an unnerving bewilderment, a haunting sense of having been spoken to at length by an absence. We have had any number of facts revealed to us, but we are left with nothing in the way of truth; we know nothing much about the person who has told us so many things about himself. As Levé himself puts it in the sole sentence that takes the form of a question, “Everything I write is true, but so what?”
I don’t think this is intended as a rhetorical question, or a slow Gallic shrug. It’s the philosophical core of the project itself, the source of the book’s torrent of assertions, and the question that lingers after that torrent has ceased. If we take Levé at his word (and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t), every sentence in this book is true, but what does all this truth add up to? Like Suicide, the extraordinary book Levé completed just days before he took his own life in 2007 (and which I wrote about here last year), Autoportrait is an oblique and stylized attempt to address a void of meaning. It is what a self-portrait looks like when there is nothing like a self there to portray; it’s an autobiography written by the cold, dead hand of the post-Barthesian author. Levé’s obsessively inward gaze finally yields only the haunting outline of his own absence. But he captures that absence, and the gaze itself, with a chilling precision.