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Seven Questions for Translator Jan Steyn on Edouard Leve’s Suicide

For more interviews, follow this link.

Without a doubt, one of the best things I’ve read this year is a small book called Suicide. It was written by the contemporary French writer Edouard Levé, who, ten days after delivering the manuscript, in fact did commit suicide, but the book is not so much a suicide note or explanation as it is an exactingly wrought object.

It was only on a second reading that I was able to truly appreciate how precise the prose is, and how enigmatically this small book opens up to envelop you as a reader. If the suicide on the face of this book leads you to assume that only one interpretation of this book is impossible, everything in the book stands to refute it.

After reading Suicide, it’s clear to me that Levé was a major talent. Already, Dalkey will follow up Suicide with a second Levé book, Autoportrait, to be translated by Lorin Stein and published in early 2012, and I expect Levé’s final two books will not be long in following.

I interviewed Suicide’s translator, Jan Steyn, for more about this intriguing book and its author.

For more interviews, have a look here.

Scott Esposito: Could you give us some sense of Edouard Levé the writer and artist? Obviously the fact of him committing suicide 10 days after handing in this manuscript makes a great lede, but it shouldn’t overshadow his photographic/literary endeavors. As I understand them, there’s a remarkable unity there, and they’re all very interesting.

Jan Steyn: I was one of the few readers of Suicide who didn’t know about the author’s own decision to end his life before reading the book. Suicide is quite shocking even without this back story, not least because it is written in the second person, addressed to “you,” the friend who committed suicide.

Levé left us a small, distinguished, body of work: Oeuvres (2002), Journal (2004), Autoportrait (2005), Suicide (2008), and his photographs. I think you are right to point to the “unity” of these works. Levé did not start off as a writer and photographer. He attended a prestigious business school and then tried his hand at painting first. But I think all his subsequent work shares an aesthetic with, and are (sometimes quite explicitly) announced by, Oeuvres. That book consists of a numbered list of 533 projects, some of which Levé went on to undertake. It is as if he sat down and decided, “This is the kind of work I want to do,” and then made a meta-work out of this list and, in a recursive gesture, added the meta-work to the list.

None of his books, not even Suicide, delivers a straight-up narrative with a beginning, middle and end. They are frequently compared to pointillist paintings, but perhaps it would be more useful to compare them to his own photographic series: a sequence of similar but discrete elements that add up to a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Autoportrait consists of a long list of facts about the author recounted in no apparent order; the narrator of Suicide remembers his friend ‘at random’; the works in Oeuvres could be described in any sequence; the stories in Journal are only arranged by which section of the newspaper they would appear in. Each fact, memory, work or newspaper article is self-contained, but each also helps build a picture of the author, the dead friend, the artist or the newspaper (and hence the current state of the world).

SE: How did you discover Suicide?

JS: I first read Suicide in 2009. I had just finished my translation of Alix’s Journal and was casting about for my next project. The good folks at Dalkey suggested I take a look at some of the French books they were considering. Suicide was one of these. I read it in one sitting. I immediately knew this book merited translation and wanted to be the one to do it.

SE: Levé himself describes the structure of Suicide in the pages of the book; in your translation, he says that it is composed of “stochastic details, like picking marbles out of a bag.” While I see a lot of truth to that statement, I thought it was somewhat belied by the suicide itself, which has an uncanny power to impose a narrative on a life, and which I thought was imposing a kind of order on the book. Your thoughts?

JS: I would sooner say the suicide imposes a meaning than a narrative on life. Far from imposing an order on the book, it is the element that allows the book to be episodic while still having an undeniable coherence.

The narrator uses the marble metaphor to describe the way that he remembers his dead friend: not in a coherent narrative with a beginning, middle and end, but in fragments that come to him in no discernible order. This metaphor could certainly be extended to the composition of the book, Suicide, but only if we also extend what it would mean to “remember” someone. For much of what is recounted in Suicide, the narrator isn’t himself present as a witness and is inventing as much as he is remembering. Perhaps memory always entails an element of invention, but at times he recounts in detail entire episodes that he could only have had the scantest evidence for.

That said, there are two things about the ordering of Suicide that are obviously not “stochastic.” It begins with the scene of the suicide itself, and it ends with a poem, not by the narrator, but by the dead friend. Only after introducing the suicide itself can the narrator flit between the years before and the years after his friend’s death knowing that each episode is tied to this first one. And only at the very end, outside the stream of the narrator’s memory and invention, do we get the (in my opinion rather anticlimactic) poem that gives us the voice of the friend.

SE: I’ve read Levé described as a follower of Oulipo, and certainly the influence comes out in Suicide. Do you know what (if any) was his relationship to the group?

JS: I am regrettably ignorant of Levé’s biography outside of what is publicly available. The Oulipoian influence on him is clear from the work itself though. He starts of Autoportrait with a reference to Perec, who of course also wrote a novel in the second person. Each of Levé’s works, both literary and photographic, exercises the formal limitations Oulipo is known for. But I’m afraid I don’t know if he attended meetings or had friends in the Oulipo.

SE: Can you tell us anything about Levé’s death? I’ve read that he had contemplated suicide for at least a year before writing Suicide, and that he had even constructed a mock-up of himself being hanged (his eventual mode of suicide) in order to photograph it. [Note: in addition to being an author, Levé was an equally successful and innovative photographer.]

JS: I’ve read the same things you have, and I don’t know any more. In a way, I’m not sure that I want to know more either. I completely understand why the reception of the book has been determined by the author’s suicide, which does cast quite a different light on it. But my fear is that it distracts from the book. I agonized over whether I should even mention Levé’s suicide in my foreword. Eventually I decided to mention it, but to go with an afterword: a gesture that was completely wasted since the blurb on the back (not by me) asserts that the book must be read as a kind of suicide note.

SE: I’d like to get a sense of the translation challenges involved in this book. This will be hard to describe to someone who hasn’t read the book, but the feeling of precision to Levé’s language is intense–I’ve read that he was a perfectionist, but that doesn’t begin to describe the sheer sense of precision that comes across in your translation. As I read, I felt that this sensation reaches a high point in the poetry at the end of the book, where the lines can be as short as 3 or 4 words yet communicate much subtlety and meaning through their arrangement and word choice.What was your experience translating it?

JS: You are right that Levé’s language is usually clinically precise. But there are exceptions, passages that have a slightly out-of-control romantic feel. I am thinking of the passage where the narrator recalls “you” riding on horseback through a thunderstorm. My guiding principle throughout was to avoid the temptation to “improve” Levé’s prose or to try to make it more consistent. A translator is not an editor.

The poem was especially tricky, partly because, as the old saw goes, poetry is that which is untranslatable, but also because of the form of this particular poem. In my translation, nearly every line ends with the word “me,” which is not the case in the French. What I hoped to retain was the incantatory rhythm of repetition and near-repetition. That and the precision of meaning.

SE: One final question: Obviously the facts surrounding this book are going to color the way people look at it, but as I read it for myself I was struck by how easy it was to let go of all that. It didn’t feel like a suicide note, or an expression of depression, or anything like that so much as an enigma. I would say that it wasn’t a book about suicide so much as an art object with suicide as its theme. What is your impression of what this book is “about,” or, rather, what kind of a reading of this book would you give?

JS: I like the idea that Suicide is an “enigma,” and I certainly prefer that to anything as reductive as the idea that Suicide is a straightforward suicide note. And, like you, I prefer thinking of it as a work, to thinking of it as an explanation. It is a question, not an answer.

Yet Levé’s work, especially Autoportrait, actively thematizes the relation between the artwork and the life (and death) of the author. So it is not surprising that people look to the details of Levé’s life, and death, for an explanation. This need to find an explanation is not something external to the work but rather produced by the work itself. I think of it more as a case of art spilling out into life than of life contaminating the purity of the artwork. In as far as Suicide is a good enigma, it should leave its readers puzzled, the way the wife, mother, father and friends of the ‘you’ character are left puzzled.

If Suicide is an enigma, it is not because it is in any way murky or obscure in its treatment of its topic. Quite the contrary. It gets its force as an enigma from the clarity of its prose and its unblinking narrator.

But you are asking me to interpret the book, or to give you a reading, which I suppose I could do, but not as a translator. My role as translator is the opposite one. I do not pair down or exclude possible meanings. I try to keep all the possible “solutions,” even those which would ultimately prove false solutions, alive within the English text. I am the guardian of the enigma. The sphinx, not the hero.

For more interviews, have a look here.

For more interviews, follow this link.

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[…] Read an interview with Jan Steyn (2009) about his translation of Edouard Levé’s novel, Suicide, which was published by Dalkey Archive Press. It is his second translation (both of them were written when he was a student at AUP, first in the Department of Comparative Literature and English, then in the  MA in Cultural Translation). […]

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