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Biography & Memoirs

Happiness, Sadness, Death

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by Hugo Wilcken

There are books that can never escape the circumstances of their creation. Suicide is one of them. French artist and author Edouard Levé submitted the manuscript of his novel on October 5th, 2007; three days later his editor at Editions P.O.L. called to tell him that he was utterly captivated by it, and they arranged to meet on the 18th to discuss publication. The meeting was not to be. On the 15th, at the age of 42, Levé hanged himself in his Parisian apartment.

Cover featuring an untitled photograph from Edouard Levé's series "Rugby" (2003). (Image provided by the publisher, Gallimard/Folio.)

Edouard Levé was born on New Year’s Day, 1965. A business school graduate, he soon discovered that he had an artistic vocation and started painting in 1991. A few years later, after a lengthy trip to India, he destroyed most of his work and reinvented himself as a conceptual photographer. At the same time he began to write, under the influence of Raymond Roussel and other practitioners of “constrained writing” techniques. His first publication, Oeuvres (2002), is an imaginary catalogue raisonné, self-defined in its first entry: “1. A book describes the works the author has thought of, but never produced.” There follows a list of a further 532 conceptual projects. Later, Levé brought some of these to fruition. One was Amérique (2006), photographs of small American towns named after great world cities (Berlin, Delhi, Rio, etc.). These seemingly banal portrayals of the American heartland unsettle with their desolate streetscapes, tombstones and war memorials, empty skies. Portraits of residents are all composed with exactly the same mortuary-like poses and expressionless faces. Pornographie (2002), another project drawn from Oeuvres, is a photographic series of men and women wearing office-worker clothing but posed in stereotypical porn positions. In Rugby (2003), the blandly clothed participants are photographed in scrums or reaching out to catch an absent ball. Again and again, Levé’s photography plays the trick of reducing subjects to absurd archetypes, captured within a glacial geometric diorama.

Levé’s penultimate publication, Autoportrait (2005), is a disorientatingly “cubist” autobiography, consisting of 1,500 self-descriptive sentences, organised as non sequiturs. A long sentence on the second-last page describes a boyhood friend who, years later, “told his wife that he’d forgotten something in the house just as they were going out to play tennis; he went down to the cellar and shot himself in the head with a gun he’d carefully prepared.” Suicide begins with this same scenario. On hearing the gunshot, the wife runs back inside and discovers the body. The suicide has “left a comic book on the table, open on a double page. In the emotion of the moment, your wife leans on the table; the book topples over and closes on itself, before she could understand your last message.” (Levé’s body was also found by his wife, but he was more careful with his own last message.) The rest of the book reads something like Salinger’s Seymour: An Introduction written with the distance and economy of Camus’s L’Etranger – radiating the same clinical intensity as Levé’s photography. Addressing the unnamed suicide in the second person, the author recounts various episodes from his short life, not necessarily in chronological order (“I remember you haphazardly. My brain resurrects you by random detail, as one digs out balls from a bag.”).

Suicide seems to be a memoir, but after 20 or 30 pages, the reader begins to doubt. There are unlikely moments (the night where the protagonist talks for eight hours straight about Marx and Freud); even more suspicious is the way the author gets inside the suicide’s head, and recounts scenes he couldn’t possibly know about, especially as he doesn’t even claim to have been a close friend (“If you’d lived, you might have become a stranger to me. In death, you are alive, vivid.”). Eventually, it becomes clear that the protagonist is a fiction, a sort of double. Levé – whose only photographic self-portrait is of himself as twins – has split himself in two. There’s the suicidal “tu”, plus the shadowy, observing “je”, of which we learn almost nothing, although the very fact of the book tells us that he’s obsessed with his friend’s suicide. The doubling effect – the fact that, in Rimbaud’s words, “je est un autre” – crops up often in the book. Looking in the mirror while shaving, “you thought you saw a stranger… the absurdity of the situation made you think that you were someone else.” The protagonist walks over to look at a photograph of his wife. At that very moment he hears footsteps, and turns around to see his wife in the flesh. “It was certainly her, you recognised her, but did you know her? She was abstract, like the objects in the background.”

In a Sebald-like sequence, the protagonist spends a few days alone wandering around Bordeaux. His first port of call is a museum, which he has the impression of having visited “dozens of times in other towns”. It contains a 200-year-old panorama of the city stretched out along the banks of the Garonne. Later, walking by the actual Garonne, he realises that he “preferred the old town of the panorama, or even the future town that [his] mind constructed, to the real thing.” His random wandering takes a conceptual turn, when he decides that he’ll follow a pattern of taking a first left then a second right. Eventually he ends up at an art exhibition of austere architecture photography – not unlike, one imagines, Levé’s own Amérique or Angoisse series (Levé had a show in Bordeaux in 2006). Later, he muses that “seeing an island from a boat might be better than actually visiting it.”

Enigmatic suicide is a familiar literary theme. It’s one that Levé sets up only to knock down, since his protagonist is such an obvious case (introspective, evasive, passive in relationships, a perfectionist, dislikes social situations, has bipolar episodes). The enigma lies elsewhere. The fact of Levé’s own suicide irredeemably colours our understanding of his book. Even if Levé hadn’t perceived his suicide as an aesthetic, conceptual act, he must have realised that others would. It is, in any case, what the “je” of his novel thinks: “Your suicide was of a scandalous beauty,” he writes.

Suicide is not a fictionalised account of Levé’s death; in some respects it is a negative image of it. “You didn’t leave any letters for loved ones to explain your death,” he writes, although Levé himself reportedly did. Levé’s art and life nonetheless converge, fuse, and end brutally together. Ironically, Suicide represents a new departure for Levé: his previous books could be considered conceptual conceits, whereas Suicide is something else, a purely literary work. At the end of his life, Levé had by no means exhausted his art. In his last photographic project, Fictions, he abandons the play on established visual codes to portray mysterious, anguished scenes of ceremony, illustrations of a narrative we are never given.

Near the end of this slim work, the protagonist buys an elegant pair of black leather shoes in a second-hand shop. A few days later, at a political meeting, a middle-aged woman’s face collapses at the sight of them. “She was on the verge of tears, her lips trembled. She recognised the shoes you were wearing. She’d given them to her nephew, and her mother had sold them after his suicide.” The faux-memoir concludes with the words: “You didn’t like the selfishness of your suicide. But, on balance, death’s reprieve won out over the painful agitation of life.” There is a puzzling coda, a collection of tercets supposedly discovered in a drawer by the protagonist’s wife after his death. The last of which is as follows:

Happiness precedes me

Sadness follows me

Death awaits me

Edouard Levé: Suicide
Gallimard (Collection Folio), Paris 2009.
ISBN-13: 9782070398621
Softcover, 128 pages, EUR 4.50

Suicide has been translated into Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. A German translation is forthcoming with Matthes & Seitz (Berlin). English language rights have been bought by Dalkey Archive Press. All passages above translated by Hugo Wilcken.

Hugo Wilcken is a Paris-based, Australian-born writer and translator. His most recent (2009) novel, Colony, is published by Harper Collins.

 (c) 2010 The Berlin Review of Books.

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