Alexander Krasna

In Search of Edouard


ISSUE 20 | DIFFERENCE | SEP 2012

1.

“For a long time, I went to bed early.”

This is the rather slow start to Swann’s Way, a novel that bobs gently on the waters of memory. Our narrator floats along, staring at his rippling reflection and dreaming of the past, of a boyhood full of fairy tales and pastries.

If Proust tells his story with a lot of wistful sighing, we soon see why. When the strange parts that make up a life are laid in a story, even the smallest detail seems to mean something, to swell with beauty and purpose.

2.

“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.”

With a nod to Proust, Edouard Levé opens Autoportrait with a confession. But while the start of Swann’s Way seems to bloom with significance, Levé has little to offer, only more trivia, more facts:

I have spent three years and three months abroad. I prefer to look to my left. I have a friend who gets off on betrayal. The end of a trip leaves me with a sad aftertaste, the same as the end of a novel. I forget things I don’t like. I may have spoken, without knowing it, to someone who killed someone. I look down dead-end streets. I am not afraid of what comes at the end of life.

Autoportrait, published in 2005, is among the strangest memoirs ever written. It goes on like this for 117 pages, moving at a brisk gallop through its author’s psychic rubble. But as Levé prattles on about himself, we cannot be sure that we are really getting to know him. The book bears witness to an absurd, accidental life—a real life—and so there is no tidy sequence of events, nothing to mop up the sheer chaos of experience.

One might assume, in the absence of a story, that there is no end, no beginning. But the thing positively bursts with beginnings; every sentence reads like the prelude to a Proustian reverie, each little fact announcing itself like the first line of an epic that Levé can’t be bothered to write.

“I may have spoken, without knowing it, to someone who killed someone.” This shivers with foreboding, motioning to a realm of dark possibility. But before we are drawn into a story, we are rudely cut off by Levé’s inevitable randomness—“I look down dead-end streets.” And so we feel the brute force of difference, of a life that is always changing shape, always swinging back at us with renewed strangeness. Autoportrait is a book that mimics life in all its helpless confusion. Proust was kind enough to let dreams swarm around experience, to soften its blows. But Levé carries on, relentless.

3.

What to make of an autobiography—an autoportrait, pardon—that is so precise, and yet so blunt? Without a story, how can we digest what is being so rapidly crammed in? We never really know, because if meaning and metaphor ever make their way into Levé’s book, they do not linger. Take this short sequence:

Presents make me feel awkward, whether I am the giver or receiver, unless they are the right ones, which is rare. Love has given me great pleasure but takes up too much time. As the surgeon’s scalpel reveals my organs, love introduces other versions of myself, whose obscene novelty disgusts me. I am not ill. I go to the doctor no more than once a year.

So he doesn’t like most presents. Is love, which “takes up too much time,” one such present? But before we get an answer, he tells us that love is like a scalpel. In that case, what can we say about this little book, whose brusque staccato also seems to reveal his “other versions”? Does Autoportrait, then, give voice to a life blown apart by the power of love? Is that the trick smiling coyly behind Levé’s prose, behind its own “obscene novelty”? Is his a style that basks in the disorientations of difference because difference, for him, is the basis of love?

We look eagerly to Levé, waiting to be applauded for our fancy little theories. And to all of these zealous queries, Autoportrait responds with a glorious, resounding—“not really.”

Embarrassed, we see that Levé has already tired of love and has just told us, as if we’d asked, that he is not ill—and for future reference, he only sees the doctor once a year. Autoportrait is a book that, like life, seems to possess no immediate importance or value. Only through our forced interpretations can its sundry facts add up to anything at all.

But in Levé’s book—and again, in life—meaning does not simply plant itself in our path. Rather, it flares up in our peripheral vision like a billboard on the highway: meaning beckons to us with its glaring promises, only to be left behind, forgotten, as we accelerate through an empty expanse, flanked by other people, other speeding cars.

4.

“In Thailand, in a compartment on a train to Chiang Mai, I fell asleep sitting up, I woke to the sound of my own snoring, seeing the smiles of the friends who were with me, I was ashamed of the noises I could have made, but I will never know what they were.”

This little anecdote is brilliantly empty; but perhaps there is something glimmering at the bottom of it. Autoportrait, like any memoir, is an account of a life, a record of the self’s contact with the sprawling otherness of the world outside. Reality, sadly, seems to be composed entirely of foreign bodies; existence is a dizzying tour of oddities and horrors, which we vainly try to herd into explanatory narratives, convenient stories that force all of this to make a little bit of sense.

But on that train in Thailand, Levé realizes that his own sleeping body, much like the world tumbling around him, is a mystery, is an other. Woken by one’s own snoring—what a wonderfully crooked metaphor for existence, for the limits of self-knowledge. He will never know what escaped his body, what he did to make his friends smile. And as we piece together this ramshackle self-portrait, we wonder if there is also something murmuring beneath this book, something dribbling out from Levé, a sound he cannot quite hear.

So we look again for order in the mayhem. We wonder if there is an unconscious will that propels his narrative, sculpting his nonsense into something we can grasp. We rush to point out the links between sentences, the thought process that flashes beneath the surface. Like when he says he finds “something pleasant in the pain of fading love,” and then goes on to say that he has never had a shared bank account, and then says that he likes when guests show up at his house but also when they leave. Solitude, relationships, the failure to slip out from beneath one’s gray little life—these things are all huddled together, perched on his shoulder, whispering in his ear.

There are times, though, when the message between the lines is less subtle. There are times when it is alarming and sadly poignant; times when it is painfully clear:

In my periods of depression, I visualize the funeral after I kill myself, there are lots of friends there, lots of sadness and beauty, the event is so moving that it makes me want to live through it, so it makes me want to live.

And then:

I don’t know how to leave naturally.

5.

There is a short author biography at the back of Autoportrait. By then, of course, we think we can’t possibly need one. But at the end of that little blurb, we learn the only thing that Levé hasn’t already told us, the one detail that couldn’t have made it into his book:

EDOUARD LEVÉ was born on January 1, 1965, in Neuilly-sur-Seine. A writer, photographer, and visual artist, Levé was the author of four books of prose—Œuvres, Journal, Autoportrait, and Suicide—and three books of photographs. He took his own life in 2007.

6.

It is frankly impossible to explain human pain. We can only circle it, try to apprehend and approximate it with the frail poetry that language affords us. Ultimately, we can only look on in awed horror at its dreadful ubiquity and its dreadful intimacy; how it strikes each of us again and again; and how each time it manages to be hideously different.

Suicide, not Autoportrait, was Levé’s last book. He delivered the manuscript to his editor ten days before his death. The book tells the story of a real suicide, that of an old friend. The memory of it is recorded in Autoportrait, and in Levé’s cavalier style, it is followed by a perhaps unrelated thought: “I have memories of comets with powdery tails.”

There is a closely guarded emptiness at the heart of this small memoir. We assume that people are made up of parts that fit snugly together—a family, an education, a morality that all cohere into something we can understand. But Levé is truly, inconsolably different—from us, but also from himself. There is little to hold together his floating sentences, his own jagged parts.

With his stark pointillism, Levé might dismiss the notion of a personal narrative. In life, he may have found it silly or untrue, and perhaps it is. It is also vital. If Autoportrait reveals anything—and it might not—it is that Levé saw himself as a strained and jumbled human story, a life shoved in a blender or trickling through a sieve. But perhaps despair like his is too complete, even for metaphor. It has no analogue in this world, as it is precisely this world that proved too much to bear.

There is an Osip Mandelstam poem, “Bring Me to the Brink,” that inches toward this feeling. It perhaps comes close to Levé in his pain, a pain too heavy for the feeble arms of words; but words are all we have. Mandelstam’s ending:

No, I am not that man, not that sadness
With its precise ice, its exquisite rue.
The pain that sings in me does not sing, and is true.

O whirlwind, O real wind
In which the avalanche is happening.
All my soul is bells, which will not ring.

7.

In a gesture of belated grace, we might let Levé, not Mandelstam, have the last word. For all of the book’s experimental aplomb, Autoportrait’s end is shockingly—conventionally—final. It is mournful and raw; it is, quite simply, an ending.

Fifteen years old is the middle of my life, regardless of when I die. I believe there is an afterlife, but not an afterdeath. I do not ask “do you love me.” Only once can I say “I’m dying” without telling a lie. The best day of my life may already be behind me.
Translation of Swann’s Way from French by Lydia Davis. Translation of Autoportrait from French by Lorin Stein. Translation of “Bring Me To The Brink” from Russian by Christian Wiman.