Works by Edouard Levé (trans. Jan Steyn). Dalkey Archive Press. $13.95., 208 pp.
1. A book describes works that the author has conceived but not brought into being.
It seems apt that the first sentence of Edouard Levé’s first book should be a seemingly straightforward description of that book. A compendium of unrealized works, expanding on the Borgesian idea that to write long books is foolish, better to pretend that the works already exist and offer a commentary. And yet the line is anything but straightforward: upon further inspection, the book described resembles the thing we hold in our hands, a catalog of 533 imagined art projects, implying that the very first project described in this book of unrealized works has in fact been realized. Making the very first sentence a contradiction in terms, if not a lie. One might also view this sentence as a statement of purpose, a performative utterance that brings Works into being. But the sentence also cannily implies that the book as conceived does not quite exist, or that Works is some substandard variation on the idea, leaving the original conception untouched. Isn’t this a condition of any creative work we undertake, that the end result both fulfills and fails the initial conception? To execute an idea is also, in a sense, to kill it—to besmirch it with actuality. These 533 potential art projects are suspended in the perfection of the imaginary—well, except those that Levé did realize, like the photography book of U.S. towns that are homonyms of other cities around the world (Berlin, Paris, Rome, etc.). The works also exist in the sense that they are described here, they attain a certain reality as objects of contemplation. The deceptively simple opening sentence in fact articulates central questions about the nature of fiction and the kind of reality it claims.
98. Alone in front of a camera, someone tells an “untellable” tale, which ends up being told, but with such difficulty it remains incomprehensible . . .
Levé’s projects often invite us into discomfort, into awkward gaping at the failures of art. This work features a number of speakers—a confused adolescent trying to recount a dream, an old man recalling a shameful event which he describes “through a long and obscure circumlocution which he alone understands.” Another man tells a story with too many characters that soon becomes impossible to follow. It is like the worst episode of This American Life ever. It puts us in mind of one of the remarkable things about Levé’s career: that he seems to have rejected conventional narrative right from the beginning. There was no realist teething phase as with the American avant-gardists David Markson, Padgett Powell, and David Shields. This innate confidence could be attributed to the strong tradition of French experimental writing, particularly the Oulipo group. The notion of potential literature is obviously in play here, with the paradoxical liberations offered by its strict forms. The specters of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Raymond Roussel also haunt Levé’s intricately imagined performances, stupefying films, and impossible architecture. In Works he is obsessed with those moments at which conventional art-responses break down: the catalog includes a number of projects where masterpieces are turned into bad copies, videos played without sound, books attributed to the wrong authors. It is a systematic undermining of “aura” as Walter Benjamin put it memorably in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” his ode to democratization and lament for art’s failed transcendence.
84. Photographs catalog an inventory of destroyed works. Once its destruction is complete, what’s left of a piece is rubble and ashes. Damages are classified by type: fire, flood, submersion, earthquake, shock, fall, collapse, bombardment, assault, vandalism, poor conservation . . .
In the summer of 2010 I was asked by an artist friend to contribute to his exhibit at the Great Rivers Biennial at the Contemporary Art Museum of St. Louis. Over the years the artist had collected a number of photographs depicting wrecked trucks, collapsed bridges, and decayed barns: Midwestern ruins. For the exhibit I wrote a short prose piece called “In the Archives of Folly.” It was about a team of archivists trying to catalog just such a collection: It was hard to avoid feeling that our own efforts were bound to end in futility and waste. My piece was distributed in loose leaf to the visitors to the opening that night, an occasion defined by accidents: bad weather, sudden revelations from friends. A tornado later touched down in the area: as the sirens went off we were gathered underneath what looked to be an enormous plate glass window. In retrospect, this now sounds like one of Levé’s more acidic experiments. During a tornado, a large group of young Midwestern hipsters gather under an enormous plate glass museum window. After the storm passed, I made my way home and saw several sodden copies of my prose poem in the gutters on the street outside, with a totally inappropriate sense of loss and injustice—how could there have been a more fitting end for those words about folly and ruin? Art is always on the verge of being a waste of time, and part of the fun of contemplating Levé’s projects is the way that they flirt with frivolity and pointlessness. The soap bubbles that are blown into a room that is a hundred degrees below zero, for example (#89): “Keeping the shape that the cold surprised them in, they are exhibited in a refrigerated aquarium.” The soap bubble, perfect representative of the ephemeral and whimsical, frozen into a museum object, seems emblematic of what Levé is up to here.
247. The paragraphs of a novel are replaced by black rectangles whose surface area corresponds to the number of letters used in the paragraph. Spaces and line breaks are not counted. The top of each rectangle is aligned with where the corresponding paragraph started. The narrative is reduced to a sequence of geometric paintings.
Conceptual works adhere to their own inner directives rather than the assumed preferences of the implied reader or viewer, and the widespread conviction that they are boring and pretentious is no doubt a response to this. Such projects often have an altered sense of duration (to take just one famous example, Erik Satie’s piece Vexations, in which a minute-long theme is replayed on a keyboard 840 times, lasting almost a full 24 hours), making the possibility of full consumption or mastery difficult, if not impossible. “In order to play the theme 840 times in succession,” Satie wrote on his score, “it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities.” Thus some of Levé’s choices here can seem painfully tedious and arbitrary: 739 French towns “with names that are simultaneously common and proper nouns” reproduced in full over the span of five pages. Such passages will strain even the most patient reader, but as Mark O’Connell points out in his excellent piece for Slate, something is happening in these lulls: “This is the signature of Levé’s pulverized non-narratives, this unflappable insistence on going on like this . . . He’s never afraid, in other words, of being boring in the service of some larger way of being interesting.” Just as Satie’s piece ultimately seems to have been composed for a listener who may not be human, Levé’s dry, bureaucratic prose does not pander to us, but seems to report to something beyond us. Amid so much contemporary fiction that seeks to compensate for language’s abstractness with sensual immediacy and intimate, emotive diction, Levé embraces the drab and reportorial, finding a neutral beauty in bland surfaces. His work takes on the quality of an erasure, deriving much of its power from its subtractions. As Wayne Booth notes in The Rhetoric of Fiction, one of the novel’s “most obviously artificial devices . . . is going beneath the surface of the action to obtain a reliable view of a character’s mind and heart,” and this is one trick that Levé rarely attempts, although arguably he moves in this direction in later books. The characters, such as they are, remain generic, observed from without—one project posits a transparent building where “only the visitors are opaque”—and even the narrator seems little more than a docent, fully focused on the task at hand. Without the conventional narrative tools of desire, conflict, and rising tension, the book’s forward motion at times feels merely arbitrary, the numbered sections ticking up. Yet considering that Levé generates interest solely from his powers of invention and juxtaposition, it is impressive that Works entertains as consistently as it does. At times it achieves an almost mesmeric effect. The kind of art that Levé describes, and to some extent creates in Works, speaks to our hidden suspicions that our lives never go anywhere—that they are “serious immobilities”—while the storylines we consume and graft onto our experiences are consoling illusions at best. With its numbered paragraphs spaced apart at regular intervals like blocks on the page, Works has already taken one step toward becoming the purely motionless work of concrete poetry to which it seems to aspire.
113. The silhouette of a dog is cut out of a pornographic picture.
I showed this book to a friend of mine, who runs a gallery and writes regularly for high-art glossies. “I think someone has done that,” she said, opening the book at random. “I think someone has cut a dog out of a pornographic picture.”
378. The paintings in a museum of fine arts are temporarily taken down and replaced by monochrome paintings of identical dimensions. The color of each monochrome is chosen by a computer that analyses all the brushstrokes of the original painting and comes up with its average color. With rare exceptions, such as paintings of the sky, or night scenes, the dominant color is brown.
Is there anyone else who sounds like Levé? In Autoportrait, his follow-up to Works, in which he perfects the modular, accumulative method on display here, Levé writes that “I do not write in order to give pleasure to those who read me, but I would not be displeased if that was what they felt.” Elsewhere he adds that “to Joyce, who writes about banal things in extraordinary language, I prefer Raymond Roussel, who writes unrealistic things in everyday words.” The prose here as in his other two books appears workmanlike, numb, almost self-enclosed. At times Levé can sound a bit like Michel Houellebecq—especially the more reflexive Houllebecq of The Map and the Territory. That novel’s conceptual painter hero, Jed Martin, would feel right at home playing the board game Artopoly, described in Works (players receive five tokens for getting a good review). Levé also shares with Houellebecq his clinical tone, emotional distance, and interest in a certain brand of sexuality: there are ten entries for “pornography” in the Index that concludes Works. But his closest analogue may be the millennial American Tao Lin, who approaches his material with the same deadpan tone, similarly open to the banality and ugliness of public language, to boredom, and whose authorial self is a slippery and elusive construct. Levé is more of a formalist than Lin, but both are rigorously controlled writers, and the stringent blandness or “monochrome” nature of their writing, particularly in Lin’s recent Taipei, urges readers to supply their own emotion. In Lin’s autobiographical narrative, outwardly much more linear and conventional, everyday life becomes a series of performance pieces, from a trip to Whole Foods to a panel discussion on the hipster to a drugged live-tweeting of X-Men. These discrete episodes do not build an overall character arc in the expected sense but indicate the texture of existence among a particular generation or subculture, with the dominant emotional tenor being this monochrome quality. At any point it seems possible that the layers of studied nonchalance will be peeled back to reveal a gaping void. There’s a similar dynamic in the work of Sheila Heti: the bad painting contest that opens her “novel from life” How Should a Person Be? evokes the disruptive pleasures of failed art and her characters’ sense of themselves as flawed art objects. Levé’s refractive self-portraiture and his obsession with form seem more and more relevant as 21st-century writers cope with the relentless shape-shifting demands of technology and the formal postures the author must adopt in a culture where constant performance seems to be the default state.
449. The letterboxes inside an apartment building bear the names of famous dead writers and artists.
One of the fascinating elements of Works is how in its own sneaky way it pays tribute to Levé’s predecessors in French literature. One of Levé’s projects evokes Rabelais by building a circular wall in which “latex sex toys in the shape of female genitalia are used as bricks.” Another project has four readers describing their memories of the atelier of the painter Frenhofer in Balzac’s Unknown Masterpiece; an artist then sketches the ateliers, “dutifully complying with each reader’s amendments, in the style of an identikit.” The four flats are then constructed and photographed, “the result showing four real versions of this fictive place.” Elsewhere in Works there is an architect called Raymond Roussel; a contemporary series of photographs devoted to places where Charles Baudelaire lived; an exhibit called Aleph gestures clearly to Borges. Still, Levé does not bow down to these masters with reverence, instead his approach to them is cheeky and almost impish: in one passage he attributes false books to Roussel, Artaud, and Michaux. Interesting how in Work #449 (quoted above) never mentions what will happen with those letterboxes bearing the dead artists’ names. Will the public be invited to send them letters at their new addresses? If so, who will open them? Are the letterboxes installed at an existing apartment complex—will ordinary people now be receiving letters addressed to Baudelaire and Rimbaud? The idea is a rich, ambiguous gesture. It at once reduces the artists to the stature of everyday people—tenants, no less, passing through the world just as temporarily as anyone—and functions as a tribute, a means of giving them their due space.
520. A novel is shot with a revolver, resulting in a bullet hole piercing its core. The missing words are found in another copy. A short story called “The Hole” is written, using only these words.
Works was published in France in 2002 by P.O.L Editeur, the same house that brought out the Oulipan Georges Perec’s works. The marvelous first line of Autoportrait states: “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.” Levé’s last work, Suicide, was published by P.O.L in 2008; the author took his life ten days after delivering the manuscript. A six-year literary career, then, brief and propulsive as a bullet. As an inaugural literary gesture, Works both entertains a profusion of formal possibilities and subjects them to a series of John Cagean aleatory processes—so we see a “labyrinth painted in skimmed milk on a museum façade . . . destroyed by bad weather,” for example. (The comic genius of that “skimmed” milk! The milky labyrinth was already partly diluted at the moment of its creation.) Staging his protean pageant of forms in the rarefied, slightly pretentious space of the museum, Levé is able to write a new kind of existential novel, or as David Shields would say, an anti-novel,which evokes the uneasy first-person narratives of the past century while also moving clearly beyond them. One could imply from Levé’s 533 works that its narrator experienced life from a painful distance, as a series of absurd and excruciating performances, much like the character played by Denis Levant in Leos Carax’s brilliant film Holy Motors, who spends his days constantly revamping himself in order to enact stranger and stranger scenarios that play out in the real world. When told by another character that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Levant’s character responds, “But what if there’s no more beholder?” Life itself becomes a series of demanding formal maneuvers played out to uncertain purpose. It is a supposition that is tempting to make but one that I am determined to avoid. Because, despite everything, Levé is anything but a doomy nihilist. He is diligent about collecting the fragments of the forms he explodes, and repurposes that shattered material with humility and laughter.
530. A Philip K. Dick story is written in reverse. The last sentence is the first, the second to last is the second, and so on, right up to the first sentence, which is the last.
There is the tendency to read the works of suicidal writers backwards—their last act becomes their defining statement, with the earlier work reduced to veiled prophecy. Thus even the most joyously ludic moments of Infinite Jest, for example, pale in the extended shadow of the biography. Levé’s oeuvre has been published in reverse order in English, encouraging this misreading. But there may also be something redemptive about reading this way, working back from the harrowing Suicide through Autoportrait—probably Levé’s best-realized book—and ending with Works, in which Levé’s fecund powers of invention are on full display. Indeed it is tempting to plot out the 533 works as a series of rooms in an enormous museum, much like Perec’s famous apartment building, something you might stroll through as the urge struck. You pass from the room where fully clothed actors are striking postures from pornographic films, check out the blindfolded painter working a canvas, tour the exhibit of works salvaged from artists’ garbage bins, and then stop to admire the “letters in chromed metal, twenty centimeters tall, [that] spell out their own tautology: LETTERS IN CHROMED METAL.” And then proceed to the “panorama of panoramas,” a collection of photographs of all the rest areas and tourist sites that panoramic photos were taken from. Just amble through this place, creating your own narrative from its many rooms, because despite all of its formal acrobatics and allusions to the art world, Works has the feeling of a book that is drawn straight from life, from direct observation. And it refreshes our sense of the potential, that part of the real that has not yet been completely exhausted. Many of the book’s pleasures come from the way it talks about the banal and unsung parts of experience, like those humble rest stops, and at its best it does what conceptual art can do: gets us to really look closely at things again. In this sense Levé’s work shows how the conceptual and narrative modes overlap, how they are always replenishing each other. So let’s say this museum exists. After you spend some time making your own path through the exhibits, from the odd to the profound to the perplexing, you come to a room that would contain a well-thumbed exhibit copy of this book, Works, in a display case: maybe flip through it backwards, just to be contrary, until you hit that first sentence about a book that describes works conceived of but not realized by the author—and then, unencumbered, glad to be free of all these forms, but subtly transfigured by them, head out into the accidents of the night. The doors are left open, so that the transition from the interior of the museum to the world outside is barely noticeable.
Eric Lundgren lives in St. Louis. His first novel, The Facades, was named a finalist for the 2014 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.
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