Sunday, May 9, 2010

Édouard Levé

I can't help wondering how Édouard Levé spent his last days. At the age of 42, he was a writer and artist who, from a distance, seems to have been working regularly. His fourth literary work, Suicide, had just been completed and submitted to his editor (the reputable Paul Otchakosky-Laurens). He had published books of his photography and conceptual art. Then, on the 15th of October 2007, at the age of 42, he hung himself at his apartment. Editions P.O.L. published his final work in France the next year, in 2008.

Suicide is, at least formally, an unusual, experimental novel. Levé's style resembles his photography (as seen above, on the cover of the Folio edition), disciplined, sterilised, piercingly monotone and, almost cynically, unsentimental. The tone is resigned, downcast. This technique, however, is effective and, impressively, he brings to life a character, who was already dead on the first page.

The subject is an anonymous, twenty-five year old man who has, suddenly, wilfully, killed himself. He is on the way to play tennis with his wife but turns back at the last minute, he has forgotten something; he shoots himself. (A scenario, which had appeared at the end of
Levé's earlier work Autoportrait). The novel opens with a description of that day and, thereafter, unfolds as a something of a character portrait, composed of fragments of memory, without any obvious pattern in their telling. These memories are framed by the voice of an older, also anonymous, friend. The narrator (je) addresses himself to the dead (tu), a technique that, often, succeeds in unsettling the reader: as if it were addressed to us, after our death.

The reader learns little about the narrator, who remains, more or less, a discorporate voice. Instead, we discover more about his dead friend than we might have expected, from a second-person narrator.
The young man was a serious, sensitive and uncertain person, to whom the world seemed disturbing, even frightening: "Tu n'aimais pas voyager. Tu es peu allé à l'etranger. Tu passais ton temps dans ta chambre." He lives, as though, engaged in an ongoing aesthetic, existential resistance. He is displaced, on the outside of a society, of which he is, almost indiscernibly, in defiance: "Tu croyais qu'en vieillissant tu serais moins malheureux, parce que tu aurais, alors, des raisons d'être triste. Jeune encore, ton dsarroi était inconsolable parce que tu le jugeais infondé." The narrator describes his life anecdotally, recalling, portentously, his wife, his tastes, his antisocial habits, not to mention a dinner party with a psychoanalyst and his mother. The characterisation becomes progressively more inward, more psychologically intimate, and, also, more assertive:
"Tu ne craignais pas la mort. Tu l'as devancée, mais sans vraiment la désirer: comment désirer ce que l'on connait pas? Tu n’as pas nié la vie, mais affirmé ton goût pour l’inconnu en pariant que si, de l’autre côté, quelque chose existait, ce serait mieux qu’ici."
The narrator refers to real moments of companionship between the two men, but, more frequently, to details of his friend's life that are impossibly personal, complicating the narrator and the subject. The voices become, seemingly, two halves: the outspoken, the timid and the curious, in opposition to the silent, the fearful, suicidal - the brave? But, two halves of what? An impulse, a mind, a soul? Levé leaves the relationship unarticulated and vague: "Si tu vivais encore, tu serais peut-être devenu un étranger. Mort, tu es aussi vivant que vif." A sort of narrative schizophrenia appears: the narrator, at one moment, speaking for himself, then, the next, speaking on behalf of the dead. (The book ends with a long poem, composed as series of tercets, a sort of unorthodox epilogue, which is closest Levé comes to a union of the two halves, to a voice without a character). The thoughts of the two men become increasingly indistinct and, in the end, the narrator seems to have the answers to his own questions: "Des regrets? [...] Cet égoisme de ton suicide te déplaisait. Mais dans la balance, l'accalmie de ta mort l'emporta sur l'agitation douloureuse de ta vie."

It would be too simple (perhaps, boring even) to consider Levé's own suicide as the subject of his writing, but it is too difficult to think of the two as mutually exclusive.
Even if, to attempt to reconcile his death with his fiction, is viscous. It is not a question, as it might be with other authors, of unfairly reading him with preconceived notions about his life (and death). Readers of Suicide cannot ignore the question, or problem, of the author's death. The pages of his book reflect his suicide, almost paradoxically; to see them individually is to find them suspended between to parallel, facing mirrors: an infinite series of receding images. Was the book a manifestation (an attempt at self-administered therapy, perhaps) of his would be suicide? Was his suicide the product of having sunk too deep into the subject of self-annihilation? Or, are they both symptoms of a much darker, troubled, something, within Édouard Levé? Perhaps, the more important question is, should the suicide of writer who wrote, "Ton suicide fut d'une beauté scandaleuse," be treated as an aesthetic act? Their relationship is, almost, nuclear, as if to disentangle them would be like splitting an atom. Suicide, as a work of literature, is remade, enigmatically, by the death of the author: "Expliquer ton suicide? Personne ne s'y est risqué."

I don't know when, or if, Suicide might appear in English but the start of the book is available for free, in French, from the P.O.L website, as is some information about upcoming translations in other languages. Below, I have written my own translation of the first two paragraphs.
"On a Saturday in August, you leave your home, dressed in tennis gear and accompanied by your wife. Halfway across the garden, you remark to her that you have left your racket in the house. You return to get it, but instead of heading towards the cupboard near the front door, you go down to the cellar. Your wife doesn’t notice anything, she stayed outside, it’s warm, and she’s enjoying the sunshine. A few moments later, she hears a gunshot. She rushes inside, she shouts your name and, noticing that the door to stairs that lead to the cellar is open, she goes down stairs and finds you there. You’ve shot yourself in the head with the gun that you had carefully prepared. On the table you’ve left a comic book open to a double page. Overcome, your wife leans against the table; the book tumbles, reclosing on itself before she can understand that this was your last message.

I never went inside that house. Yet, I knew the garden, the ground floor and the cellar. I have replayed the scene hundreds of times, always in the same setting, which I imagined the first time they gave me an account of your suicide. That house was on a street; it had a roof and a rear façade. But none of that exists. There is the garden, where you walk out in the sunshine for a final time and where your wife waits for you. There is the façade toward which she runs when she hears the gun shot. There is the entrance, where the tennis racket sits, the door to the cellar and the stairs. Finally, there is the cellar where your body lies. It is intact. Your skull didn’t explode like they told me. You are like a young tennis player, resting after a match on court. It could be said that you are sleeping. You are twenty-five. You know more than me now about death."
There is a good profile, in English, of Édouard Levé at the Berlin Review of Books, which provides some more biographically information, as well a slew of media available online in French from, to name a few, Le Magazine Littéraire, Télérama, and Le Figaro.

And, finally, here is a video of the writer, reading a passage from his first work of prose, Oeuvres.


  1. Hi there,

    While I was reading your interesting piece I was wondering whether you'd seen my review of Suicide! You might be interested to know that I have another piece on Levé coming out in Frieze magazine in a couple of months' time. For that I interviewed Levé's gallerist, who had a lot of interesting things to say about Levé.

  2. Hugo,

    I did indeed read your review of Suicide, which I enjoyed. If you look closely, at the bottom of my post, there is a link to your article. I am very interested in your upcoming piece, which I will look out for.

    E Levé fascinates me. Actually, I spoke recently with his publisher about the man, not because I intend to write more about him (at this point) but to satisfy my own curiosity.
    Incidentally, do you know of any other material in English on Levé? I've read what I could find in the net in French...

  3. As far as I know, my review - and now your blog post - are the only substantial pieces about Levé in English. There is also an Artforum article from a few years back, but I think it's translated from the French.

    My Frieze piece will largely be about his photography, but there is a lot of biographical detail his gallerist told me about that I didn't use. As you're interested, I'll précis it here:

    Levé came from an haut bourgeois background, his parents (who were “limite chiant”) had very high expectations of him. He went to the prestigious Catholic Collège Stanislas in Paris. A pedophile scandal took place while he was there (you can read about it if you google it). Levé himself was not a victim, but one of his best friends was, and that friend later committed suicide. (I assume that he is in some way the model for the protagonist of “Suicide”.) This marked him for life. He had the feeling that human nature was violent and that those in authority always abused their power. One of his last projects (in the last year of his life) was to go to Argentina to collect the testimonies of those who had suffered under military rule. But once in Argentina, for one reason or another he felt he couldn’t continue and he returned to France in a very fragile state.

    Levé was an extraordinarily meticulous artist, to the point of mania. He did elaborate sketches for all his photographs and carefully controlled every stage of the process right up to framing and hanging. He was an eccentric, and could be difficult and demanding to work with. In the last weeks of Levé’s life, his gallerist fell out with him over his presentation at FIAC – the Paris art fair. Levé committed suicide on the opening day of FIAC – which his gallerist didn’t feel was coincidental. After his death, it became clear that Levé had been planning his suicide for some time. He had been talking about it for over a year to his girlfriend, and had previously made at least one suicide attempt. When he didn’t show up for a rendezvous at the cinema, Levé’s girlfriend was instantly sure that he’d killed himself and went home. For his final photographic series “Fictions”, he’d made a lifesize model of himself being hanged, but the model had broken and he never photographed the scene. I asked his gallerist whether he considered Levé’s death an artistic act. He wouldn’t quite say so, he preferred to say that it was a narcissistic act, and that Levé’s art also had this narcissistic side.

    If you want to know more, I strongly recommend Levé's own "Autoportrait", which is every bit as interesting as "Suicide".

  4. Hugo,

    Amazing. Thanks for taking the time to post that. I did get a copy of Autoportrait after reading Suicide, but have done little more than flick through it. I'm looking forward to reading it, as well as your next article, in the near future.

    Thanks again,


  5. Hi, I find your post and your comments with Hugo interesting. Thanks for putting this together. I'm putting together some of my thoughts on him too.