Beyond the Text

It’s been a little strange seeing the reception of Edouard Leve’s Suicide, which, as I’m sure everyone knows, was completed and delivered to the publisher 10 days before Leve’s own death from suicide. Reviews have basically fallen into two camps: those who, after noting the autobiographical angle, have more or less treated it like any other work of literature; and those who absolutely insist that it CANNOT BE READ without thinking of Leve’s final act on this planet.

This review would fall into the latter camp.

This is fiction, but it is fiction of a sort that raises some very serious questions about the possibility of cordoning off actual realities from imagined ones. Another way of putting this would be to say that you can’t help wondering what it must have been like — what it must have taken — for Levé to write these sentences knowing that his own cold body would soon be left behind for someone to find, and that this opening scene would be read by people aware that he was aware of this. It is dizzying and disturbing in a way that is quite unlike anything else I have ever read, and it hardly needs pointing out that this is not necessarily a good thing. We know that Levé was deeply influenced by Georges Perec, and I think it shows in strange ways; it is almost as though this book were written in response to a particularly unplayful version of an OULIPO imperative: “Write a fictional work about a suicide called Suicide and, upon completing it, commit suicide yourself.”

Is it too much to point out that no book ever “cordons off actual realities from imagined ones”? Or that with any author who has ever written, you can try to imagine what it must have been like for Author A to write about Subject B?

I suppose my beef with all of these reviewers who want to approach Suicide from this angle is that they don’t take it far enough. They all seem a little ashamed to even be reading the book in this way, so they’re careful to throw in things like “This is not to suggest that ‘you’ is a straightforward surrogate for the author, or that the book itself should be read as a suicide note.” But that’s no fun. If you’re going to go halfway in calling Suicide Leve’s suicide note, you might as will go all the way and read the book strictly in those terms. That would be much more interesting that this have-it-both-ways reading, which leads to things like this:

And that is, in a way, the most disquieting thing about Suicide — how artful and calculating it is, how it is never quite as sincere as you would want the writing of a person about to kill himself to be. It seems almost indecent to point out that Levé’s prose is occasionally affected, even contrived; it feels somehow wrong to point out that a sentence like, for instance, “your suicide was scandalously beautiful” is in fact scandalously crass. It feels wrong in the way that it would feel wrong to point out stylistic infelicities in a suicide note. But this is not a suicide note; this is a work of art, and — despite its occasional tonal flirtations with grandiloquence — it is a controlled and pitilessly uncompromising one, too.

So the book isn’t as sincere as you’d want from something written by someone about to kill himself, but that’s beside the point because we shouldn’t read the book as a suicide note, but if we did it would be a crass one?

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