Tag Archives: suicide

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?

French Writing Dead?

I’m very pleased to see this article in Prospect giving some more recognition to two recent French novels in translation that Ive been praising over here (more on those here and here), but the framing is very strange to me. The title is “French literature: elitist and pointless?” (and, granted, oftentimes a title is imposed ex post facto by an editor) and the article opens with the following observations:

It seems a long time since writing in French had a global audience. Fifty years ago the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and their disciples commanded the attention of the world: from the terrasses of the Boulevard Saint-Germain, their thoughts on Marxist revolution, the third world or the impossible ethics of simply existing were received everywhere as truths of universal significance. The next generation of French thinkers—led by Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault—were less immediately engaging or comprehensible, yet still, when they spoke the world listened, even if it did not easily understand the politics of deconstruction they espoused. But since the 1980s or thereabouts it has been a truism among Anglo-American commentators that the influence of French literature—along with the cultural power of the French intellectual—has been in decline.

I just don’t see this at all. For once thing, French literature has rated as having the most titles translated into English over the past few years and probably rates highly among translated literatures for at least a decade. That would certainly indicate evidence of a global audience.

As to the decline of the French intellectual, recall that (recently deceased) leading French philosopher Jean Baudrillard was the go-to intellectual post-9/11, not to mention being the philosophical underpinning of the Matrix franchise, which seems to have had some small influence in the Anglo world.

I don’t know that French lit is at the same point it might have been in the ’50s and ’60s, but this framing strikes me as totally off-base, more contrived to fit an article on new French books in translation than based on anything in the real world.

Zadie Smith on Leve, Etc

It looks like Harper’s has continually upped the space for space for Zadie Smith’s book column to the point that in May she covers just two books in four pages. That’s actually a fair amount of real estate for a “roundup,” so perhaps this new gig might not be a waste of her and our time.

However, that will only be if she manages to write some better criticism than what we see in her unilluminating and annoyingly hip thoughts on Suicide, which she seems to think is some kind of book of adolescent angst:

That mixture of thoughtfulness and self-regard, honest interrogation and mere posing—if I were fifteen, Autoportrait would be my bible. As an adult, I still find Levé hard to resist, perhaps because his adolescent aesthetic reminds us of the kind of writing that got us reading in the first place.

She both takes the book as some kind of suicide note and considers the book’s suicide victim as an obvious stand-in for Leve, two readings that are rather lazy and mundane. This is the way the whole review is. It’s not insightful at all, just kind of engagingly written and superficial.

Mysteriously enough, despite trashing Suicide as fatuous, adolescent, and cheaply philosophical, she then arrives at a positive verdict on the book:

Now, is all of this about you or Levé? Does the difference matter? It is as if Levé has found an existential way to depict a friendship: two souls intermingled in a pronoun. The sadness of this book is overwhelming. Yet at the same time it’s a cause for happiness, because it’s the final record of a writer who found, in the end, the correct vessel for his talents. In Suicide Levé’s fragments become wonderfully sharp, conjuring tragedy in a few sentences: “You kept a tape of the messages left on your answering machine by mistake. One of them went: ‘We’ve arrived fine. We’ve arrived fine. We’ve arrived fine.’ Uttered slowly by an old lady in despair.”

For her other book, Seven Years by Peter Stamm (cheers; two books in translation published by small presses), Smith delivers a fairly mundane plot summary and commits the unpardonable sin of parenthetically patting a translator on the head: “Stamm’s prose (beautifully translated by Michael Hofmann) is plain but not so simple . . .”

As with the review of the Leve, it takes on a chatty tone that strains for coolness:

A thin volume from Other Press ($15.95), it has a bewitching cover: a photograph of an antique bedstead with stylish contemporary sheets, set against a tasteful gray wall. I took one look at it and thought: God, I wish I lived like that. This bourgeois response proved thematically important, as we shall see. It gets under your skin, this novel. It welcomes you into a clean, modern space as appealing as that room—and then it really fucks with you, if you’ll excuse my Swiss-German.

Maybe one of Smith’s friends will tell her how this kind of writing sounds, since it seems that whoever edits her at Harper’s is willing to let it go.

Judging by Smith’s criticism that has been published previously elsewhere, she has much better work in her than this. I look forward to seeing it.

Suicide Review

As I mentioned earlier this week in my interview with the book’s translator, my review of Suicide by Edouard Leve has now been published at The National. Have a look.

Suicide would be an odd and noteworthy work even if Levé had not killed himself. It is constructed almost entirely from short, lithe sentences written in the second person. Ostensibly these sentences are being spoken by an acquaintance looking back after 20 years on a friend who killed himself, and they both describe this suicidal man and narrate small but meaningful anecdotes from his life. On a most basic level it is clear that the narrative voice is attempting to do what any survivor would after a suicide – fill the vacuum of meaning – yet the success of Suicide is that it verges on allegory, allowing much broader interpretations.

Levé uses all the tropes that we have come to associate with suicide, but he animates them in original ways. The suicide’s appearance and personality is detailed with uncommon sensitivity and scrupulousness, as are the feelings left behind in his friends and family. For example . . .

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.

On Édouard Levé

Some interesting thoughts on the author Édouard Levé. I’ve got a review of his Suicide coming up. It’s quite good.

It would be too simple (perhaps, boring even) to consider Levé’s own suicide as the subject of his writing, but it is too difficult to think of the two as mutually exclusive. Even if, to attempt to reconcile his death with his fiction, is viscous. It is not a question, as it might be with other authors, of unfairly reading him with preconceived notions about his life (and death). Readers of Suicide cannot ignore the question, or problem, of the author’s death. The pages of his book reflect his suicide, almost paradoxically; to see them individually is to find them suspended between to parallel, facing mirrors: an infinite series of receding images. Was the book a manifestation (an attempt at self-administered therapy, perhaps) of his would be suicide? Was his suicide the product of having sunk too deep into the subject of self-annihilation? Or, are they both symptoms of a much darker, troubled, something, within Édouard Levé? Perhaps, the more important question is, should the suicide of writer who wrote, “Ton suicide fut d’une beauté scandaleuse,” be treated as an aesthetic act? Their relationship is, almost, nuclear, as if to disentangle them would be like splitting an atom. Suicide, as a work of literature, is remade, enigmatically, by the death of the author: “Expliquer ton suicide? Personne ne s’y est risqué.”

THE SURRENDER

The Surrender is Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to be a woman.


LADY CHATTERLEY'S BROTHER

Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

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THE LATIN AMERICAN MIXTAPE

5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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