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Edouard Levé: Suicide

The first time I heard about Edouard Levé was when a piece of his was published in the Spring 2011 issue of The Paris Review.  It was called “When I look at a Strawberry, I Think of a Tongue.”  Here is how the strange — and strangely compelling — piece begins:

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. I don’t really listen to what people tell me. I forget things I don’t like. I look down dead-end streets. The end of a trip leaves me with a sad aftertaste the same as the end of a novel. I am not afraid of what comes at the end of life. I am slow to realize when someone mistreats me, it is always so surprising: evil is somehow unreal. When I sit with bare legs on vinyl, my skin doesn’t slide, it squeaks. I archive. I joke about death. I do not love myself. I do not hate myself. My rap sheet is clean.

The piece continues from there, a random sampling of statements with no apparent relationship to one another other than to build up our sense of who this person is.  It’s short, and you can read the whole thing on The Paris Review website (click here). I wasn’t sure what to expect when opening up Suicide (2008; tr. from the French by Jan Steyn, 2011), which was recently placed on the Best Translated Book Award longlist.

Review copy courtesy of Dalkey Archive.

In brief, what I got was more of the same style, a kind of random sampling of details to give a sense of someone’s life.  Only in Suicide, the subject is not the narrator.  Rather, the narrator is listing details about a friend (whom he addresses directly throughout) who committed suicide some twenty years before, when they were each in their mid-twenties.  The narrator describes his style best: “My brain resurrects you through stochastic details, like picking marbles out of a bag.”  And we can expect, amidst the narrative that contemplates suicide, a great deal of random marbles that, somehow, add up to — I’ll say it again — a strangely compelling piece.

Suicide begins by setting up the act:

One Saturday in the month of August, you leave your home wearing your tennis gear, accompanied by your wife.  In the middle of the garden you point out to her that you’ve forgotten your racket in the house.  You go back to look for it, but instead of making your way toward the cupboard in the entryway where you normally keep it, you head down into the basement.  Your wife doesn’t notice this.  She says outside.  The weather is fine.  She’s making the most of the sun.  A few moments later she hears a gunshot. 

Because there was no apparent tragedy that drove his friend to suicide — he was, we assume, happily married and still had a lot of life ahead of him — the narrator forces himself to consider the invisible motives.  Depression seems to have played a large part: “You used to believe that with age you would become less unhappy, because you then would have reasons to be sad.  When you were still young, your suffering was inconsolable because you believed it to be unfounded.”

While it is all interesting, I was particularly drawn into the narrator’s relationship with his friend, which has become much more meaningful after the suicide.  In life, he and this man were friends, but they were not particularly close.  There were each closer to others, but the narrator doesn’t feel that way now:

Your silence has become a form of eloquence.  But they, who can still speak, remain silent.  I no longer think of them, those with whom I was formerly so close.  But you, who used to be so far-off, distant, mysterious, now seem quite close to me.  When I am in doubt, I solicit your advice.

It’s this “belief in your eternity” — a “lunacy” born because the friend’s “disappearance is so unacceptable” — that is so striking to me.  The narrator is perhaps a lot like Levé who, in his piece in The Paris Review, says, “I believe there is an afterlife, but not an afterdeath.”  This friend remains alive, somehow more alive, today, though two decades ago he took his own life.

The book’s structure — that grabbing a marble out of a bag — is effective but also, for me, was a bit hard to sink into.  At times it felt like a collection of aphorisms rather than a series of statements about a life, now gone though somehow more present.  That said, the book is growing on me more and more, particularly after rereading “When I Look at a Strawberry, . . .”  Levé ends that piece on a tragic note:

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.

As sad and tragic as that ending note was when Levé wrote it in 2002, it and especially the very book Suicide are drastically transformed when we learn that Levé himself took his life in 2007 at the age of 42.  In fact, he killed himself just one week after delivering the transcript of Suicide to his editor.  I left this detail out until now because I wanted to attempt to look at the book as its own world and not as a kind of suicide note — which is impossible to do, because I knew the back-story before I started the book.  Furthermore, it’s hard not to suspect that this is just what Levé wanted.

So since I finished the book, I’ve been trying to understand why it was interesting to me.  In other words, would I have accepted it and its random structure had I not been looking at it as a kind of personal reflection on Levé’s own impending suicide?  I’m still not sure.  That said, it is an interesting and emotional book in which the confines of life seem to crack at the seams, allowing someone to become something more in death, which could be what Levé was after when he put the final punctuation on this book with his own death: “Dead, you are as alive as you are vivid.”  And (sadly? I’m not sure) that is the most interesting thing about this book.

6 thoughts on “Edouard Levé: Suicide

  1. Lee Monks says:

    Now then, this is an interesting one. I think you handle well the problems inherent in reviewing a work under such circumstances. I have this on order and I am wary of the surrounding aspects for a few reasons. Does the work stand alone and can it be considered outside its peculiar, potent backdrop? I don’t think it can. But does that even matter? If Leve followed through long-planned actions entirely intended to accompany the book and its reception, can we say this is an incredible gesture to art or an attempt at rescuing something from hopelessness?

  2. Trevor says:

    Great final question, Lee. Seems a bit of both to me, which is exactly what makes this book so fascinating, when it might not otherwise be. I can’t think of another book that is quite as connected to something external.

  3. Hi Mookse,
    Wow! Quite a good review, especially under these circumstances. It does make me rather less willing than more to look into the book, but that may change with further information. Do these stochastic marbles have anything to offer aside from their source in a double-tragedy? Does Leve really have anything interesting to say about life, or only about death?

    I am now in the middle of DFW’s Infinite Jest and I feel very much the same sense of uneasiness about whether the text is possibly made more (and sometimes less) poignant by the fact of the author’s suicide.

    I will look into the Paris Review piece, though. Thanks for the lead. All the best,
    Regards

  4. Lee Monks says:

    Kavin: I think Infinite Jest is immeasurably more poignant for DFW’s suicide. How might it be less so, would you say? I think the nature of the book – doing battle with addiction, meaninglessness, interpretation of information, the potential for self-destructiveness and so on – in light of DFW’s death make it a ferociously hopeful and heartbreaking rallying call. That gargantuan work is all the more powerful for its author’s unsuccessful battle with medication and depression. It’s a relentless trumpet-blare of defiant generosity over 1000+ pages.

  5. Lee Monks says:

    Trevor: it is fascinating and Autoportrait adds to the intrigue, I think. It’s poignant and fascinating to me.

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