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A Review of Edouard Levé‘s “Autoportrait”

By Jan Steyn

Self-portraiture occupied the French photographer and novelist Edouard Levé throughout his career, but his third novel, Autoportrait, remains his most thorough and sustained attempt in that direction. Levé was the author of only four works of fiction – Oeuvres (2002), Journal (2004), Autoportrait (2005) and Suicide (2008) – each highly experimental, each marked by a distinctive removed style. While Oeuvres describes a set of art projects that the author has conceived of but not yet given material form, and Journal is made up of a series of newspaper stories written without proper names, with Autoportrait Levé takes a turn to the personal. It is a collection of statements about the author, written in the first person, presented in no discernable order. Despite this apparently random sequence of sentences, Autoportrait comes across as an exceptionally tight work, with no word out of place and no phrase dispensable. It is a novel without subordinating structures; banal facts and incidental tastes belong to the portrait as much as life-changing events: all are equal under the heading of personality. This has the effect of intensifying the reader’s experience, not allowing her to skip or drift, but drawing her in and riveting her to the details.

Levé wrote Autoportrait in the USA where he was working on a photographic series called Amérique (one of the projects announced in his first prose work, Oeuvres). Rumor has it that Levé was convinced he would die before leaving America and consequently wrote in great haste, in a mood of impending doom. While it is impossible to know the exact state of mind of the author during its composition, there is clearly something urgent and breathless about Autoportrait. Completely lacking in paragraph breaks and mostly lacking in topical consistency between consecutive sentences, the book gives its reader no logical places to stop. And at a slim 117 pages, why stop at all?

The sentences are discrete units, yet their flow is irresistible, and Lorin Stein is to be commended for preserving that flow in his translation. In this respect, the following passage is characteristic of the work as a whole: 

I have insulted just one person, the cultural councilor at the consulate where I did my military service. My memory embellishes. I often apologize, always thinking I shouldn’t, and that I shouldn’t have to. Over one summer I got six tick bites, only four years later did I become convinced that I had contracted Lyme disease, after I had read a list of the symptoms on a Web site.

There are possible relations between these sentences. The insult might be an embellishment. The confession about embellishing might be an apology. The narrator’s tick of always apologizing might have just as spectral an existence as his supposed Lyme disease. But then again these sentences are self-sufficient and need not be related at all. The only way to get a better idea of how they fit together is to keep reading, and reading, until the end, and then perhaps to read the book again.

On the cover of the English-language edition of Autoportrait we find a self-portrait by Levé drawn with white dots on black background. Levé’s literary self-portrait is similarly atomized. Each sentence is like a dot, not revealing much by itself, while the assembly gives us a nuanced picture of the man. But our mental construction of the literary picture in fact runs in the opposite direction to our construction of the cover image. When we look at the cover we spontaneously see a face; only later do we consider the dots individually, removed from the ensemble. When we read Autoportrait, we first experience the sentence-dots and the whole is only constructed later, steadily, incrementally. The image conveyed by this Frenchman writing in American motels is of someone who is gifted, curious and intellectually playful, but also profoundly isolated, anxious, depressed, morbid, and ultimately suicidal.

The book begins with, “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.” It ends with, “Only once can I say ‘I’m dying’ without telling a lie. The best day of my life may already be behind me.” In between, Levé compulsively returns to a handful of topics: things that are left incomplete (“I begin more than I finish”) and things that are irrevocably terminated (“One of my male friends has died”); travel (“I like to travel in order to stop in another place”) and the foreign (“I find certain ethnicities more beautiful than others”); revenge and forgiveness (“I am slow to notice when someone mistreats me, it’s always so surprising: evil is somehow unreal”); psychoanalysis and psychotherapy (“One day I told my analyst, ‘I don’t take any pleasure in what I have,’ and I wept”); mirrors and projections (“If I look in a mirror long enough, there comes a point when my face stops meaning anything”). Thematically, and also narratively, Autoportrait is a precursor to Levé’s final work, Suicide. Even more so than with Leve’s other works, these two are intended to be read together.

While Autoportrait is written in the first person, Suicide is a second-person novel. Like its predecessor, Suicide is based in fact. The addressee of Suicide, a friend of the author who committed suicide some fifteen years before the book was written, is introduced near the end of Autoportrait

My best conversations, which hark back to my adolescence, were conducted with a friend with whom I drank cocktails that we invented by randomly mixing his mother’s liquor supplies, we would talk until the sun came up in the living room of that old house which Mallarmé once frequented, in the run of those nights I made speeches about love, politics, God, and death of which I would not take back a single word [dont je ne retire aucun mot], even if I sometimes came up with them rolling on the floor, years later, this friend told his wife that he had forgotten something in the house as they were about to leave to play a game of tennis, he went into the basement and put a bullet in his head [s’est tiré une balle dans la tête] with the rifle he had carefully prepared. (My translation)

This long sentence slides from one memory to another: from the most beautiful conversations of the narrator’s youth to the suicide of his interlocutor. The first memory is one where he was physically present, drunk and rolling on the ground. For the second memory, he could not have been present; it must have been recounted to him, possibly by his friend’s wife, possibly by someone else. The first memory is of a conversation, requiring (at least) two partners; the second memory is of an ending to the possibility of any conversation. The finality of this act by his friend who  “s’est tiré une balle dans la tête,” is transported backward to the conversation, of which the narrator would not “retire aucun mot.” Like guns that cannot be unfired, the narrator’s opinions on love, politics, God and death must stand; one cannot converse with the dead.

Or can one? Suicide opens with a fuller description of the suicide, this time written in the second person. Between Autoportrait and Suicide, the narrator has restarted the conversation. Already there is confusion between the narrator and the friend. In Suicide the two characters overlap significantly. Many of the opinions and characteristics attributed to the narrator in Autoportrait are transferred wholesale to the addressee of Suicide. There are many self-portraits in Levé’s work and the more they are contemplated together the more bewildering and affecting this figure becomes.

Autoportrait is a delight the first time around and only gets better upon rereading or being read alongside Levé’s other works.

Published Sep 4, 2012   Copyright 2012 Jan Steyn

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