Following the steps of Suicide, which last year was longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award, Levé’s Autoportrait (2005; tr. from the French by Lorin Stein, 2012) was recently named a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award. When I reviewed Suicide (here), I began with a quote from a piece by Levé that The Paris Review published, “When I look at a Strawberry, I Think of a Tongue” (it’s available in its entirety here at The Paris Review website). That relatively lengthy piece, a string of random, disconnected declarative sentences about the author, turned out to be an excerpt from the much longer Autoportrait.
How does a single-paragraph book of disjunctive sentences (some as ridiculous and unrevealing as “I have never attended a nudist funeral”) not only get published but also garner such praise? Remarkably, it works and is, despite its exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) self-centeredness, fascinating in its up-front manner.
Levé is a unique artist, first a painter and then, most successfully, a photographer, before writing a handful of books. From what I’ve seen, much of his work is directed at himself and at revealing aspects of himself that most would find self-centered at best, and uncomfortable, distasteful, and offensive at worst. For example, his first non-photography book was Oeuvres (2002), which apparently (I haven’t read it) is a list of 500 unwritten books by Levé. In Autoportrait he tells us about some of his work, including this one: “I made a series of pictures based on things that came out of my body or grew on it: whiskers, hair, nails, semen, urine, shit, saliva, mucus, tears, sweat, pus, blood.” And in 2007, he delivered the manuscript of a book entitled Suicide to his editor. Ten days later he took his own life.
While such details do expand a reading of Autoportrait, I know from experience that they are not necessary. When I first opened up my copy of the Spring 2011 Paris Review, I knew nothing about Levé’s life or work. From some of the photographs published by the piece, I realized he was a photographer, or, at least, that he had taken some pictures. But the text still pulled me in. I was meaning to simply skim the issue to see what was in store, but somehow these disconnected sentences managed to pull me in. Perhaps I was compelled to read onward (and more quickly) as I was searching for some kind of tie, but that was not all. They’re hypnotic, mysteriously revealing. It was only at the end that I found out more about Levé, and I reread the entire piece again before moving on to the issue’s other pieces.
I found it easy to read some of this material again in the longer form of Autoportrait, and again I was struck not only with curiosity but emotionally. It’s an autoportrait in words. Indeed, it feels like a pointillist portrait, each sentence a seemingly random point that, when you step back, joins with the other sentences to give us a complete picture, which is not to suggest it’s a clear picture. It’s distorted; in fact, it’s probably only because we force connections that we’re finally able to come up with what we might think is a portrait of the artist.
Here is a long quote from the very beginning of the book. It should give a sense of what we’re dealing with here in terms of style, but you can see how quickly we begin the work of connecting these disconnected sentences:
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 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 know it, to someone who killed someone. I look down dead-end streets. I am not afraid of what comes at the end of life. I don’t really listen to what people are saying. I am surprised when someone gives me a nickname and we hardly know each other. I am slow to notice when someone mistreats me, it’s always so surprising: evil is somehow unreal. I archive. I spoke to Salvador Dalí when I was two. Competition does not drive me. To describe my life precisely would take longer than to live it.
It really does continue in this way for 100 pages. I won’t lie and say that I was always completely engaged, but I am surprised at how engaged I actually was, at how readily I began to construct the artist, making assumptions about him, until I came up with a portrait of a man who is deliberately unmoored (“I am not saving for retirement.” “I have lived for several years without insurance.” “I have never shared a bank account.”) and tinged with melancholy which, because it directs his work, feels sublime (“I do not love myself. I do not hate myself.” “Because I am funny people think I’m happy.” “I wander empty places and eat in deserted restaurants.” “The best day of my life may already be behind me.”).
Since this is a pointillist portrait, the pieces do not connect in themselves. We readers supply the connections, read into the text, finish the unfinished bridge. It’s what’s not said that builds the picture best.
Besides building a portrait of himself, Levé is connecting with us on some fundamentally human traits we either ignore (or repress) or take for granted. Some of my favorite passages were somewhat lengthy lists (rare cases of a series of related sentences) that are obvious — we know this about him without begin said — but that are common human experiences. Here’s an example that, to me, actually says a lot about Levé’s existence in this world, an existence that is more expansive than his body and inner thoughts:
I have seen earth, mountains, and sea. I have seen lakes, rivers, creeks, brooks, torrents, waterfalls. I have seen volcanoes. I have seen estuaries, coasts, islands, continents. I have seen caves, canyons, fairy hats. I have seen deserts, beaches, dunes. I have seen the sun and the moon. I have seen stars, comets, an eclipse. I have seen the Milky Way. I am no longer ten years old.
We relate and, because of this, fall under the illusion that we know him. It’s not a bad illusion.
When reading Autoportrait I was reminded of another Best Translated Book Award nominee (one that was not shortlisted but that I, personally — and I think our relationship to either books is deeply personal), Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book One (my review here). My Struggle is also a self-centered, relentlessly detailed portrait of the artist. Each book is personal and there are plenty of times the author lays bare something most of us would keep covered up. There are obvious differences as well; My Struggle digs and keeps digging into one moment, thoroughly examining each aspect as if an attempt to make a hyper-realistic image. Autoportrait skims the surface, speeds past insights, and allows the reader to do a lot more of the work. I prefer My Struggle, but each book is a unique achievement.