It’s been a great year for reading! Or, at least, every year is a great year for reading, and I’ve never done as much as I’ve done this year. Strange as it seems, the year in which I’ve worked hardest is also the year I’ve read the most, by every metric. The majority of it was probably to offset the noise around me—but a not-insignificant minority was for inspiration, and for optimism.
But as I look back at my year of reading, I find some odd themes. For one, whenever I’ve been utterly bewitched by a writer, I have gone to the bookstore and bought as much of their oeuvre as possible (I know this because one, and only one, aspect of my expenses has been driven up). For another, when I think of what I’ve read—particularly nonfiction—it’s often not because of what the book is ostensibly for (insofar as books have singular purpose, which they do not), but because of something else entirely. So let’s take a gander:
1. EpistemologyI’ve spent much of this year daydreaming about how people seem to know things with such certainty. Every year is like this, obviously, but this one far more than others. Imagine my frustration at the knottiness of the answer. What is Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies about? For me, it was a demonstration of an idea that simply the act of constructing fictions about oneself (within an act of fiction) makes the fictive more real. So, of course, when Florida came out, I threw myself at it as if it were my last allowed love affair with a book—and found something very similar, because I went looking for it. Many other things satisfied the same itch. Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, Camille Bordas’s How to Behave in a Crowd were more like works of philosophy than fiction.
This was probably not altogether helped by the fact that I was simultaneously reading Seneca’s Consolations, Montaigne’s Essays, Plutarch’s Fall of the Roman Republic, and Lucretius’s The Way Things Are, and all manner of skeptical philosophers. I say this not to give myself a pat on the shoulder for being oh-so-academic: I quite literally went back to the source, so to speak, whenever things seemed even the tiniest bit off, both in real life and in literature, only to return far more confused. That, then, let me down a rabbit hole of “post-structuralist” literary theory. What that really means is: I’ve been hearing some names over and over for years now, and finally felt embarrassed enough to actually read them. And so I read Roland Barthes’s S/Z and The Pleasure of the Text, Jacques Derrida’s Writing & Difference, and although I likely understood the bare minimum, I understood enough to feel deeply suspicious that anything I subsequently read could have some actual import towards understanding the world or myself. Rachel Cusk’s Kudos, like the other two books in the Outline trilogy, then furthered the case for literature bearing no relation to reality. I wondered if I’d ever get away with a book fashioned out of a series of transcripts for every one-sided conversation I had with another person.
2. BafflementMy active search for all things baffling probably started after I read Antoine Volodine’s Minor Angels, Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp, and Marie NDiaye’s My Heart Hemmed In. I loved them all, and I spent enough time with NDiaye to be somewhat confident about what I was reading, but mostly they made me feel very inadequate, in the way that ‘intelligent’ books often do. Ahmed Bouanani’s The Hospital made me feel ill, and I’m pretty sure I skipped a doctor’s appointment because I was slightly afraid I’d land up in purgatory. Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet induced my first ever existential crisis (or, at least, what I think was an existential crisis), and then Clarice Lispector’s The Chandelier made it worse. Ali Smith’s Autumn and Winter didn’t really help me be less baffled—though inhabiting their fractured, Brexit-era semi-narratives certainly helped to distract me.
Notably, as reprieve from all this, I read Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind, and then sat and thought for a while; soon, I had finished Feel Free as well and was caught between the twin sentiments of annoyance at her seemingly-tepid politics and awe at her ability to make me doubt everything nonetheless. In other words—a reprieve it was not. Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel swooped in a bit dramatically; inasmuch as it helped me feel my ambivalence wasn’t necessarily a problem. Also, it made me feel warm and fuzzy by helping with a bit with my imposter syndrome.
All this coincided with the fact that my patience, as with many others nowadays, was at an all-time low this year. I’ve been tired of liberal narratives for quite some time, and narratives set at maximum moral outrage that insist that this age of Trump is, for the first time in human history apparently, some unique assault on truth. So imagine my surprise when—having rolled my eyes through the first story—I found myself admiring the high-wire circus tricks on display in Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It, and simultaneously irritated with the far more radical and experimental My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. The stories in Charles Johnson’s Night Hawks felt taut and sparse like Sittenfeld’s, but with fewer surprises, a lot more Buddhism than I could fathom, and fewer bourgeois settings. I liked them. The prose in Christine Schutt’s Pure Hollywood stories was lyrical and very bourgeois, but less searching than it seemed to think it was. Anyway, my collision course with all things bizarre all came crashing down when I read César Aira’s The Literary Conference. It was more ludicrous than anything I had ever read. So naturally, I bought all the translated books by Aira, apparently one of the most baffling of all living writers. By about book 8, I began to understand his ways, and felt grateful for his unapologetically-leftist bent. Then, for every subsequent book, I started to take notes on details that I found baffling, to see if the writer ever returned to them. I avoided Karl Ove Knausgaard all year, on purpose. The day before I wrote this, I devoured Amparo Dávila’s collection The Houseguest in one sitting. Once, my flat-mate knocked on my door, and what he probably saw was me: bug-eyed, and furiously turning pages which screamed sometimes like newborn children, crushed mice, like bats, like strangled cats.
3. TraditionOne of the other things I did most this year was think about what kind of writer I wanted to be. Having read some avant-garde horror novels (above), I read a little Gothic literature. I re-read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and finding in it new things to love, turned to Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. The latter weaseled its way into a story I wrote which almost scared me to death—and then made me wonder how awful I must be to have written something like that. Still, by the time I had to read Mohammad Hanif’s Red Birds for review, I had read enough stuff to wonder why in the world South Asian writers kept writing such hackneyed stories when so many other possibilities existed, and unleashed a bit of a tirade on some very famous South Asian writers for the Chicago Review. I went back to Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, which I hadn’t liked at all the first time, and forced myself to pick out some things I did like. Somewhere in the middle, I read Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us with some amount of glee, because it felt nothing like the reflexively Orientalist prose I’d gone off about. That made me very happy.
4. HistoryIt doesn’t feel right at all to talk about the books that had a major impact on my year without mentioning some of the amazing nonfiction, most of which satisfied historical curiosities whether they were meant to be historical or not. Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland and Meghan O’Gieblyn’s Interior States were expert antidotes for my irritation with tired Trump-era (ugh, even that term) tropes, and expanded my understanding of this very strange country in all sorts of empathic ways (and with O’Gieblyn, some unsettling ways, too). Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock was fascinating—though I knew in her case she had a small, not-insignificant luxury. After all, how far back one can construct one’s own family tree seems to be at least one measure of freedom. I read one very expansive history of the U.S. in Jill Lepore’s These Truths, and one over a far shorter period of time in Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies. One is enormous, the other skinny—but both are a little unsatisfying. I suppose These Truths should have satisfied my itch for epistemology too; but as it turns out that—for this American history dilettante—meeting the standards of one Howard Zinn is nigh-impossible.
So: on to kinds of history. I read Henry Gee’s Across the Bridge—about the evolution of vertebrates—and talked about it at work (my laboratory) daily. It proved infectious. Ursula Heise’s Imagining Extinction was magnificent. I didn’t want it to end. Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World was fascinating—who knew there was so much to know about the global matsutake mushroom trade!— and on a craft-level, a lesson for academics: see, you don’t have to be boring at all! Ann Blair’s Too Much to Know was utterly convincing in the way things one is already convinced about can be made even more convincing simply by becoming encyclopedic. Andreas Malm’s The Progress of This Storm and Deborah Coen’s Climate in Motion had equal and opposite effects: the first made me progressively more enraged and confused, the second made me progressively calmer and clearer. Essentially, environmental historians still haven’t quite figured out precisely how pessimistic they ought to be about climate change; but I suppose, in the Trump era, we should be happy they’re writing at all.
5. CryingI don’t prepare to cry when I read (who does?) But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the books that made me stop in my tracks and sob. Most times it had very little to do with the book and everything to do with my day or week. But sometimes it was most definitely about the book.
There is one particular moment in my editor Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State where the reader, just like the protagonist Daphne, has to process what has just occurred and cry. Anybody who has read it will probably know which moment this is (I’m not exactly being subtle), but that cry was one of the best cries I’ve ever had all year. Other similar stop-and-cry impulses happened during R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries and Porochista Khakpour’s Sick—both cries were probably more about me than the people I was reading about, but both were beautiful and cathartic and only one happened in public. Again—sometime in the middle of the year—I went to a philosopher to figure out all this crying business. The fact that I chose Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy for this task is pretty stupid when I think about it, because it didn’t make me cry at all, and I had thought it could teach me something about verisimilitude, but it did not. Anyway, that is what I did. Regardless, I read a whole lot after that to make myself cry, but nothing worked. Or at least, nothing worked as well as one particular book did; Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. I have one theory that explains why: I realized that the number of books I had read was directly proportional to how lonely I was. So take that, Barthes! Books may not resemble life, but the act of reading does.
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.
My reading took me to many different places this year, but it began and ended in France.
Luc Sante’s The Other Paris. The more our major cities shift from places of community and society towards havens for whimsy and capital, the more I want to live in Sante’s cities. He’s a historian of anarchy and disorder, a writer whose prose shines when it’s exploring the dirtiest of places. The Paris that explodes with life on these pages is neither chic nor intellectual — it’s scrappy, ornery, and dangerous, but it’s also a place of intimacy and wild possibility. That’s also a fine description of his writing.
Gayl Jones’s Corregidora. The story of Ursa Corregidora, a hard-living Kentucky blues singer, went directly into my central nervous system. Jones is a conjurer, and her techniques include stream-of-consciousness, collective memory, and some of the best dialogue I’ve read in ages. The themes of this book — how sexual, racial, and historical trauma are passed down in ways we keep reliving — have only gotten more relevant since it was published in 1975.
Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. There are so few “extreme adventure” books written by women and people of color that I always devour any I can find. Shepherd was devoted to climbing the Cairngorms, a mountain range in Scotland, but the point of this short, bracing novel is not the summit — it’s the climb at different times of the year and of life. Shepherd strikes a wonderful balance between the scientific details (Arctic-era plants) and the spiritual, sensual joys of spending one’s life engaged with the natural world.
Michael S. Harper’s Nightmare Begins Responsibility. Harper was a beloved teacher, poet, and friend who passed away this year. I reread his work with great sadness at his passing and wonder at his existence:
you are your last breath;
you are your first scream:
you are; you are.
(From “Primal Therapy”)
Carmen Boullosa’s Texas: The Great Theft. They say history is written by the conquerors, but Boullosa has other ideas. Texas reconsiders the U.S. annexation of Texas through the eyes of the conquered — a sprawling cast that includes Mexican elites, peasants of all nationalities, drunks, Austrian immigrants, and runaway slaves. The story is told as a series of impressions, the way gossip passes through a small town. The result is something bizarre, comedic, fantastical, and unsettling — kind of how history feels when you’re forced to live through it.
Robert Walser’s Looking at Pictures. Walser is such a singular writer that I picked up this book with trepidation — how would he write about art, a subject about which he knew little? Of course he wrote about art the way he wrote about everything — turning it inside out in that lovely, broken mind of his, giving alternative histories to paintings and telling heartbreaking stories about their creators that feel more real than the truth. I read this book in one setting, and my feelings went from frustration to relaxation to grief to buoyancy to, finally, jubilation.
Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World. Herrera wrote a very short book — it’s only 107 pages — and he makes it clear from the first sentence that he’s not going to waste a minute of your time. World starts out as a hell-raising thriller — a young Mexican woman is crossing the U.S. border to look for her brother, carrying a message from the criminal underworld. That would be more than enough to keep my attention, especially since Herrera always picks the best details and his writing never slows down. But the story is so much more than that. More than halfway through, it shifts, almost imperceptibly, into a dark, surprising allegory about the border, immigration, and what it means to live as an immigrant. The result is something as ancient as it is contemporary.
Eliot Weinberger’s The Ghosts of Birds. Over the course of several books, Weinberger has been writing a “serial essay” on the largest themes imaginable — the facts of our lives, as told by many civilizations over the centuries of our existence. I am not sure what to tell you about Weinberger’s work except that his erudition is astonishing, his prose is like a midsummer plunge into a brisk lake, and his literary essays are a deeply spiritual experience for the reader.
Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays. I may never finish this book from cover to cover, but I love to return to it again and again. Montaigne’s writing was both personal and expansive — an example of how you can use your unique sensibility to make any subject immediate to another mind. It’s also comforting, in these dark political times, to observe a precise thinker in a previous century wrestle with topics like the fall of empire and the vanity of men. Some things never change.
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.
When the novelist is suspected of autobiography, what is left for memoir?
Marcel Proust said so much in his book that by the time accounts of the man himself were published, most delightfully by his maid, Céleste Albaret, they were concerned largely with what he had already written, and how. In his nine short novels and three miscellaneous prose texts, the Belgian Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s unnamed, first-person narrator sits in a bathroom, escapes to Venice, visits Japan and China, and fails to write a book in Berlin, but time is short, and little is confessed outside the bounds of the odd, spare narratives. English-speaking admirers of Toussaint’s jaunty, limpid prose might thus warm to the news of Edward Gauvin’s translation of 11 short essays by Toussaint on style, influence, and where he wrote his books.
Recently released as Urgency and Patience: Essays by Dalkey Archive Press, one of the most cosmopolitan publishers of fiction in America, the essays were first collected in 2012 by the venerable Éditions de Minuit. As in his elliptical fictions, Toussaint’s recollections of the writer’s life tend to insinuate rather than disclose. We learn of his offices, of his first day of writing, and of how he met his publisher, Jérôme Lindon, and his hero, Samuel Beckett. It is a memoir only in the sense that the Essais are. Indeed, particularly in L’Urgence et la Patience, the prose is pure anti-Ciceronian. The signature long sentences — irregular, disjoint, apparently spontaneous — capture thought in action; quick, steely aphorisms underline the point. If Toussaint is often held up against Alain Robbe-Grillet, then Michel de Montaigne, Pierre Charron, and François La Mothe Le Vayer are not far behind.
While the French of Toussaint’s L’Urgence et la Patience fairly glitters and flies, the English of Gauvin’s translation tends to normalize, even clot. To some extent the disappointment flows from Toussaint’s fastidious attention to sound. Toussaint relates in the eponymous “Urgency and Patience” (essay three) that he once went so far as to excise a description of a commode from The Truth About Marie because it added nothing to the “charming sonorities” of the word (“le bahut”) itself. Toussaint insists that readers “hear the word, not see the object”; translation has chiefly objects to give.
On the other hand, it would not have been difficult to reproduce Toussaint’s striking syntax in English, but like those meddlesome editors of the great Senecan stylists of the 16th century, Gauvin cannot leave Toussaint’s brilliant execution of the loose style alone. In the “Urgency” half of “Urgency and Patience,” the fast, fleeting, almost Damascene flood of sudden illumination–
Ici—au cœur même de l’urgence—, tout vient aisément, tout se libère et se lâche, la vision réelle ne nous est plus d’aucune utilité, mais l’œil interne se dilate et un monde fictif et merveilleux nous apparaît mentalement, nos perceptions sont à l’affût, les sens sont aiguisés, la sensibilité exacerbée, et le basculement s’opère, c’est un jaillissement, tout vient, les phrases naissent, coulent, se bousculent, et tout est juste, tout s’emboîte, se combine et s’assemble dans ces ténèbres intimes, qui sont l’intérieur même de notre esprit.
—is straitened into the neat, clipped clauses and even sentences of Gauvin:
Here, at the very heart of urgency, everything comes easily, floats free and lets go; actual sight is of no more use to us, but the inner eye widens, and a fictive, fabulous world appears in our minds. Our senses are alert, our perceptions heightened, our sensitivity intensified; a tipping takes place, a gushing, and out it all comes, sentences are born, flow, fall over each other, and everything is right, everything works out, everything gathers and fits together in this intimate darkness that is the inside of our very minds.
Apparently there was too much falling over of sentences for this translator. The deadening is hardly unique. Ironically, in “Patience,” when Toussaint sets the stage slowly, “At the table, a bit embarrassed,” his translator now wants it all at once, “A bit embarrassed at the table.” A perfect example of the période coupée, “Tout importe, la condition physique, l’alimentation, les lectures” (essay three), becomes more conventionally, “Everything matters: physical fitness, diet, reading.” Toussaint tells us in “The Ravanastron” that it is the form of a sentence, not its meaning, that concerns him, but the translator seems not to notice.
Gauvin’s ear for English idiom is likewise imperfect. What should plainly be “how the devil” (“comment diable,” essay six) is given, bizarrely, as “sweet Christ.” Subjects and objects come and go, as when “that I can attest” (“que je peux certifier,” essay 10) becomes “can attest,” and “which allowed one to picture the furniture” (“qui permettait de se représentait le meuble,” essay three) becomes “which allowed readers to picture it,” though not the “it” that concludes the sentence — one antecedent the word, the other its referent. In general, it is difficult to avoid the impression that the translator’s English isn’t quite up to Toussaint’s French.
Toussaint is an author from whom to pick and choose, and it is the third part of Running Away, with its inimitable evocation of unspoiled Elba, that forms an ideal companion to the essays in Urgency and Patience. Unlike his oddly unmentioned master Thomas Bernhard, whose typical scenarios recur repeatedly in Toussaint’s novels — the academic who cannot finish his book, middle-aged men taking refuge in houses and routines, or again escaping family in restorative Mediterranean locales — Toussaint’s essays suggest a markedly more sensuous tone than his often austere fictions. Whereas Bernhard’s forays into autobiography get no sunnier than recollections of bureaucratic prize-giving ceremonies and a five-volume memoir of incontinence, Nazism, and chronic intractable tuberculosis, Toussaint plants radishes, enjoys hotels, reads Proust, and extols the virtues of armchairs and private libraries. Toussaint has fun. He rarely seems far from the Tuscan archipelago, reading Proust in Barcaggio, Corsica, making up a hotel in Venice, thinking of one in Portoferraio, writing on his MacBook Pro in a large room, in Erbalunga, Prunete, Cervione, Corte. Wandering in Italy near the end of his life, Friedrich Nietzsche once urged, lapsing into French, “Il faut méditerraniser la musique,” and while there are warm northern interiors and dark comfortable apartments in Toussaint’s reminiscence, it is the suggestion of the Mediterranean that lingers here, fertile in dry soil yet, the orchards of Médéa, deep blue Corsican rosemary, hills of fragrant maquis, far from Brussels and Berlin.
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.
In her new biography, How To Live: Or, A Life of Montaigne In One Question and Twenty Attempts At An Answer, Sarah Bakewell tiptoes around a pair of potentially devastating land mines. The first was the temptation, implied by the book’s subtitle, to produce a glorified self-help manual. The second would have been to repeat the contention, voiced by Bakewell herself in the Paris Review, that bloggers today “are keeping alive a tradition created more than four centuries ago” by Montaigne.
Happily, Bakewell avoided both missteps in producing a biography that brings to life not only its subject but the times he lived in, a luridly colorful century of famine, plague, exploration, civil war, religious upheaval and artistic ferment. It’s a ripping story, splashed with bloody horrors and punctuated by moments of serene beauty. Along the way, Bakewell makes a convincing case that Montaigne and his contemporary Shakespeare were the first truly modern artists because of their joint discovery of “self-divided consciousness.” Both captured “that distinctive modern sense of being unsure where you belong, who you are, and what you are expected to do.”
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was born in 1533, the son of a prosperous landowner and winemaker who served as mayor of nearby Bordeaux. A late bloomer, Montaigne published the first volume of his Essays in 1580 and spent the rest of his life adding to it. His breakthrough, radical for the late Renaissance, was not only to make himself the subject of his writings, but to dissect the dual nature of the self. “We are, I know not how, double within ourselves,” as he put it. “This great world is the mirror in which we must look at ourselves to recognize ourselves at the proper angle.”
Bakewell, who works part-time cataloging rare books at the National Trust in London, agrees with the ancient Greeks and Romans – and Montaigne – that philosophy should be a practical art for living well. Yet it would be reductive and simplistic to say the book is merely a list of tidy answers to the question posed in the book’s title – don’t worry about death; read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted; question everything; wake from the sleep of habit; see the world; regret nothing, and so forth. Montaigne’s greatest gift, as Bakewell sees it, was “being able to slip out from behind his eyes so as to gaze back upon himself.” For Leonard Woolf, what made Montaigne modern was his “intense awareness of and passionate interest in the individuality of himself and of all other human beings.”
In a recent conversation with The Millions, the esteemed essayist and teacher Carl H. Klaus noted that what sets Montaigne apart is his “consciousness of consciousness” and his “overriding concern with echoing the flow of his thought.” In that conversation Klaus also dismissed Bakewell’s notion that bloggers have something profound in common with Montaigne. But no writer can be faulted for trying to create buzz around her book. The truth is, How To Live doesn’t need such specious hype. Its research is so thorough, its arrangement is so clever and its writing is so brisk that it’s sure to bring fresh readers to one of the most durable and beloved achievements in world literature.