Autoportrait

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On Reading and Re-Reading Autoportrait

When our own Mark O’Connell reviewed Edouard Levé’s Autoportrait, he wrote that the book compels you to keep reading because “the more Levé says, the more facts he sets down, the more you realize he hasn’t said.” But what if at the end, you’re meant to reread the book, too? Over at Words Without Borders, Jan Steyn says “the only way to get a better idea of how [these sentences] fit together is to keep reading, and reading, until the end, and then perhaps to read the book again.”

Everything I Write is True, But So What?: Edouard Levé’s Autoportrait

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.

Edouard Levé’s ‘Suicide’ and Edouard Levé’s Suicide

It would be an interesting experiment to sit someone down in a chair and present them with a copy of Edouard Levé’s Suicide from which front and back covers, promotional blurb, author bio, translator’s afterword and other such paratextual trimmings had all been removed. Such a reader, blinkered against the novel’s context, might well find it a strange and unnerving and hypnotic read, but it would, in an important sense, be a very different experience to the one that awaits every other person who picks up Levé’s final work. Ten days after he submitted the manuscript of Suicide to his editor at the age of 42, the author killed himself. And this fact, which is presented to us on the back cover (and also, naturally enough, in everything that has since been written about the book), isn’t something we can choose not to take with us into the fiction. In an even more extreme way than David Foster Wallace’s unfinished The Pale King (to take another recent example of a work of fiction published in the shadow of its author’s suicide), Suicide denies us any chance of separating text from context. Perhaps the most compelling thing about this deeply compelling novel is the distinct possibility that Levé himself wanted actively to foreclose any such possibility of separation. To write a book about a suicide, to call it Suicide, and to then take your own life before its publication is, whatever else it is, a way of exerting an overpowering influence over how that work is received.

During his life, Levé was best known in his native France as an artist and conceptual photographer. The reality of Suicide, which is his fourth prose work and his first to be translated into English, is that it functions almost as though it were one panel in a diptych, the second panel being Levé’s actual death. Reading the novel, the eye is continually drawn back to that second panel; it isn’t that the first makes no sense without it — it does, or at least it would if there were some way of viewing it separately — but rather that its presence utterly changes the way we see the first. The novel’s subject, only ever referred to as “you,” is the narrator’s childhood friend who committed suicide at the age of 25, and the narrator addresses this oddly totalizing pressure that suicide exerts on a life retrospectively considered. “Isn’t it peculiar,” he remarks, “how this final gesture inverts your biography? I’ve never heard a single person, since your death, tell your life’s story starting at the beginning.”

In certain respects, the book presents itself as an attempt by this narrator to work his way past the blank exterior of facts into his friend’s inner world, into the circumstances around his taking his own life. If it could somehow be cut free of the wider context that envelops it — if we could somehow erase or bracket the knowledge that its author was almost certainly planning his own suicide as he wrote it — the opening passage of the book would still make for deeply disquieting, even painful reading:
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 toward 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 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.
It’s a shocker of an opening gambit, not just for the calamity it lays out before us, but also for the pitiless and affectless clarity of the style in which it does so. There then swiftly follows a passage that is close to unbearable in its intimacy, in the access it allows us to both a scene of imagined grief and the imminent real grief it eerily foreshadows. “Your wife screams,” Levé writes. “No one is there to hear her, aside from you. The two of you are alone in the house. In tears, she throws herself on you and beats your chest out of love and rage. She takes you in her arms and speaks to you. She sobs and falls against you. Her hands slide over the cold, damp basement floor. He fingers scrape the ground. She stays for fifteen minutes and feels your body go cold.” I don’t know whether Levé left behind a wife, and I think I would prefer to continue not knowing.

This is fiction, but it is fiction of a sort that raises some very serious questions about the possibility of cordoning off actual realities from imagined ones. Another way of putting this would be to say that you can’t help wondering what it must have been like — what it must have taken — for Levé to write these sentences knowing that his own cold body would soon be left behind for someone to find, and that this opening scene would be read by people aware that he was aware of this. It is dizzying and disturbing in a way that is quite unlike anything else I have ever read, and it hardly needs pointing out that this is not necessarily a good thing. We know that Levé was deeply influenced by Georges Perec, and I think it shows in strange ways; it is almost as though this book were written in response to a particularly unplayful version of an OULIPO imperative: “Write a fictional work about a suicide called Suicide and, upon completing it, commit suicide yourself.”

After effecting this initial devastation on his subject, this anonymous “you,” Levé then sets about a faltering process of reconstruction. The portrait is radically unchronological, the narrative less fractured than pulverized. The narrator alights on one memory of “you,” briefly expands upon it, and then moves on to another, usually unconnected to the last (and then another, and then another). At one point, he offers a fleeting defense of this fugitive approach: “To portray your life in order would be absurd: I remember you at random. My brain resurrects you through stochastic details, like picking marbles out of a bag.” To the extent that a portrait does emerge, it is a hauntingly incomplete one, providing only isolated coordinates along the trajectory of a life toward its own end. Levé’s style — controlled and yet erratic, arbitrary and yet precise — seems to reflect art’s confrontation of the randomness and fragility of memory and the self’s nebulousness as it is experienced.

What becomes apparent as this fragmentary portrait gradually takes shape is that it may be a kind of estranged and dislocated self-portrait, that the “you” may really be a displaced “I,” or perhaps a complex compoud of self and other. Certainly, the narrator couldn’t possibly know much of what he tells us about “you.” The phenomena of dissociation are central, in fact, to many of the experiences Levé relates. At one point, “you” is put on a disastrous course of medication for his depression, which results in uncanny and distressing intervals of complete self-alienation: “You tapped your fingers on your head; it sounded hollow like a dead man’s skull. Suddenly, you no longer had a brain. Or rather, it was another person’s brain. You sat like this for two hours, asking yourself if you were yourself […] You recognized your physiognomy, but it seemed to belong to someone else. Fatigue disassociated you from yourself.” To externalize and scrutinize oneself in this manner — to act out a kind of performative self-displacement, even self-erasure — is to engage in a very particular form of narcissism. And Suicide is a highly narcissistic piece of writing; in a sense, it couldn’t be otherwise, in the way that a suicide note — and a suicide itself — is unavoidably self-focused.

This is not to suggest that “you” is a straightforward surrogate for the author, or that the book itself should be read as a suicide note; if Edouard Levé had wanted to write a prose self-portrait, he would have done so — and did in fact previously do so, giving it the typically utilitarian title Autoportrait. (It was originally published in 2005 and is due in translation from Dalkey Archive in March of next year). There is nothing so simple going on here as self-expression. The jacket copy insists that Suicide “cannot be read as simply another novel” — which is, I think, accurate enough — but it then also describes it as “in a sense, the author’s own oblique, public suicide note, ” which is a considerably bolder and riskier claim. It can certainly be read that way, and, as I’ve been saying, it’s often nearly impossible to avoid doing so, but whether that’s what it actually is is another question entirely. Levé’s intentions are weirdly obscure, even for a work of experimental fiction (which this book more or less is); there is a constant temptation when reading to stop and ask yourself why he wrote this thing when he wrote it. But it seems to me that this isn’t just a futile question, it’s also the wrong sort of question (why does anyone write anything, after all? What, while we’re at it, is the purpose of art?). And it’s connected to another, perhaps even more futile pursuit: the pursuit of the meaning of a suicide. When “you” is found dead by his wife at the very beginning of the novel, a possible explanation for his suicide is alluded to, but it is a lost explanation, an aborted approach to meaning. “On the table,” we are told, “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 understands that this was your final message.” The deceased’s father later buys dozens of copies of this comic book and distributes it to everyone who knew “you” in the hope that someone, somehow, might be able to extract some meaning from this text, which — like Levé’s novel itself — is at once provocatively overcharged with significance and endlessly obscure:
He is looking for the page, and on the page for the sentence, that you had chosen. He keeps a record of his reflections in a file, which is always on his desk and on which is written “Suicide Hypotheses.” If you open the cupboard to the left of his desk, you’ll find ten identical folders filled with handwritten pages bearing the same label. He cites the captions of the comic book as if they were prophecies.
This is both profoundly sad and bleakly playful, as though Levé were at once acknowledging the essential inscrutability of a person’s decision to end his or her life and shrewdly alluding to the way in which his novel, which he must have intended to be published posthumously, would be picked apart and ruthlessly scrutinized for potential explanations of what he was about to do. It’s almost funny, in fact — but only almost.

And that is, in a way, the most disquieting thing about Suicide — how artful and calculating it is, how it is never quite as sincere as you would want the writing of a person about to kill himself to be. It seems almost indecent to point out that Levé’s prose is occasionally affected, even contrived; it feels somehow wrong to point out that a sentence like, for instance, “your suicide was scandalously beautiful” is in fact scandalously crass. It feels wrong in the way that it would feel wrong to point out stylistic infelicities in a suicide note. But this is not a suicide note; this is a work of art, and — despite its occasional tonal flirtations with grandiloquence — it is a controlled and pitilessly uncompromising one, too. Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment in the novel, a passage in which the narrator inquires into what has become of “your” widow, is also perhaps its most cruelly clinical:
What became of her? Has she resigned herself to your death? Does she think of you when she makes love? Did she remarry? In killing yourself, did you also kill her? Did she name a son in your memory? If she has a daughter, does she speak to her of you? What does she do on your birthday? And on the anniversary of your death? Does she put flowers on your grave? Where are the photographs she took of you? Did she keep your clothes? Do they still smell of you? Does she wear your cologne?
To devise such a series of questions about a bereaved wife in a work of fiction is to combine empathy with something suspiciously close to cruelty, but to ask these questions while planning to take your own life is something else again. To be absolutely truthful, I don’t know what it is; and I’m not sure, either, that I would want to know.

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