Autoportrait by Edouard Levé (trans. Lorin Stein). Dalkey Archive Press, 120pp, $12.95.
It is inevitable that we spend the majority of our time thinking about ourselves, but what kinds of thoughts do we think? Our tendency, I would argue, is for the repetitive and the haphazard; we reflect on those aspects of ourselves that come to mind most commonly—the foods we like to eat, what we think of the daily commute, how we would prefer to make love—and we reflect on those things that occasion forces us to—the trials and strong experiences that we cannot help but break apart within the crucible of our minds. This way of considering self is not limited to our real lives. In the realm of the imagination, that of great works of literature, the protagonists’ thoughts tend to stick to a few worn paths, leaving entire modes of experience that are never described. We know what Leopold Bloom thinks when on the toilet, but what of those many parts of life that he never visits in his one Dublin day? Of those things, which make up the great majority of Bloom’s life, Ulysses is silent.
Autoportrait by Edouard Levé is notable for attempting to say all the things about a person that are not usually said. The book is simply a series of declarative sentences that lasts for 117 pages. The sentences are all ostensibly about Levé himself; they lack any discernable order and they are contained within one book-length paragraph. They seem to include every genre of thing that could be said about a person, ranging from the factual (“I have never filed a complaint with the police.”) to the oddly pointless (“I do not foresee making love with an animal.”) to the philosophical (“I wonder whether the landscape is shaped by the road, or the road by the landscape.”) to the bizarre (“On the Internet I become telepathic.”) to the psychoanalytic (“Whether it’s because I was tired of looking at them, or for lack of space, I felt a great relief when I burned my paintings.”) to the comic and confessional: “On the street I checked my watch while I was holding a can of Coke in my left hand, I poured part of it down my pants, by chance nobody saw, I have told no one.” Throughout, Levé touches on more topics than we are conditioned to expect from a single book: childhood, politics, sex, art, death, depression, fears, hopes, reading, walking, nature, sartorial preferences, Spanish cafes, scruples about talking too much, rubber boots, the effect of a cane on one’s appearance, and the fear that one’s vocabulary is shrinking are just a small number of the topics included. In fact, the book’s exceptionally mercurial demeanor means that with nearly every sentence Autoportrait shifts to a new facet of life.
To structure a book without structure is, of course, to invite accusations of bad faith. But the totality of Levé’s oeuvre convinces that his use of chaos is not out of laziness or obstinacy but is rather an expression of some deeper logic. Levé was both a writer and a photographer, and all of his written and photographic books are made in the way that Autoportrait is made: without form, in rigorous adherence to conceits that Levé attempts to exhaust. Thus his previously translated work, Suicide, a book about a man’s suicide, is written in what he calls a “stochastic” order, “like picking marbles out of a bag.” Narrated by a friend of the suicide, the book seems to simply exhaust all that the narrator knows of his deceased chum. Autoportrait similarly exhausts all that Levé can say about himself, or, at least, all that he can say for the purposes of this self-portrait.
As with Suicide, the prose in Autoportrait is so clean and generally immaculate that when Levé does misplace a word, it jars. (As Jan Steyn did with Suicide, here translator Loren Stein has done Levé a true service; one wonders which homophone for Steyn/Stein will bring Levé’s third book into English.) The book gives the pleasure of aphorism, not so much for the content (though often that is the case as well) as for the rigid way the sentences snap together, leaving behind a sensation of inevitability. Stein is to be given great credit for economical phrasings that are pulled satisfyingly taut by the weight of their last word. Levé’s musings have an odd power to inspire self-examination; sentences like “I remember what people tell me better than what I said” are powerful invitations to consider one’s own practices. Throughout, the book conveys a pleasing air of levity and whimsicality, perhaps simply for the forthrightness of the prose, no matter whether it discusses trivial traits or life-and-death questions.
As good as the sentences are individually, how do they fit together? Pointillism is a word frequently associated with Levé’s prose (a characterization encouraged by the two covers of his English-language translations, both taken from Levé’s illustrations of himself). It’s not a bad word to use with his work. Each sentence feels like its own little dab of semantics, independent of the surrounding sentences though also related in some murky way that should be grasped if we could get far enough away from the text. This sense solid overall construction is abetted by the titles of Levé’s four prose works, which are each single, solid words that imply some object of study that they amount to: “self-portrait,” “suicide,” “works,” and “newspaper.” At very rare times the text even seems to indicate something about itself: “I am making an effort to specialize in me,” Levé tells us out of nowhere on page 81. At other times the text agglutinates quite magnificently, as in this stretch:
I will never know how many books I have read. Raymond Roussel, Charles Baudelaire, Marcel Proust, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Antonio Tabucchi, André Breton, Oliver Cadiot, Jorge Luis Borges, Andy Warhol, Gertrude Stein, Ghérasim Luca, Georges Perec, Jacques Roubaud, Joe Brainard, Roberto Juarroz, Guy Debord, Fernando Pessoa, Jack Kerouac, La Rouchefoucauld, Baltasar Gracian, Roland Barthes, Walt Whitman, Nathalie Quintane, the Bible, and Bret Easton Ellis all matter to me. I have read less of the Bible than of Marcel Proust. I prefer Nathalie Quintane to Baltasar. Guy Debord matters more to me than Roland Barthes. Roberto Juarroz makes me laugh more than Andy Warhol. Jack Keuroac makes me want to live more than Charles Baudelaire. La Rochefoucauld depresses me less than Bret Easton Ellis. Olivier Cadiot cheers me up more than André Breton. Joe Brainard is less affirmative than Walt Whitman. Raymond Roussel surprises me more than Baltasar Gracian, but Baltasar Gracian makes me more intelligent. Gertrude Stein writes texts more nonsensical than those of Jorge Luis Borges. I read Bret Easton Ellis more easily on the train than Raymond Roussel. I know Jacques Roubaud less well than Georges Perec. Ghérasim Luca is the most full of despair. I don’t see the connection between Alain Robbe-Grillet and Antonio Tabucchi. When I make lists of names, I dread the ones I forget.
I like how these sentences glow with the heat of thought, as though Levé wrote them all down in a fit. They stand out as a little tangle of thought, a sudden desire to pin down something that remains at arm’s length. Although this list tells us surprisingly little that we can grab on to as fact, what it most connotes is a sensation that Levé has both barely begun to exhaust a subject and said all that he wants to say about it. It is a sensation felt throughout Autoportrait. Levé’s portrait ultimately points us not to him as a person so much as the limits of what a portrait can express, and why we have generally chosen paint ourselves into certain cherished forms.
By breaking out of these forms and remaining silent on his choice to do so, Levé forces us to take on the role of ethnologist. This is where Autoportrait most strongly resembles graphic art. All points of entry to the text are equally valid; the text feels that it is happening all at the same time, instead of passing through time as the book is read from front to back. It doesn’t recruit a reader’s intellect in the sense of most challenging literature—which requires readers to fill out subtleties of plot, social interaction, and occasionally grammar—it asks the reader to say what is beneath the slick surface of each sentence.
Such a form will likely make many readers uncomfortable, as it entirely ignores those requirements asked of long works of prose. Its apparent simplicity also invites the accusation that anyone could make a similar book. To these remarks I have only one good response: the book proved far more engrossing than most books I have read this year, and it has given rise to far more thought and discussion. As a writer and an artist Levé constantly upended expectations with the simplest of gestures, as he has done here. Autoportrait is another small gem from a writer of great talent and originality.
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation.
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