Édouard Levé was born on January 1, 1965 in Neuilly-sur-Seine. A writer, photographer, and visual artist, Levé was the author of four books of writing — Oeuvres, Journal, Autoportrait, and Suicide — and three books of photographs.
"A work of genius . . . gracefully translated by Lorin Stein."
Consider broadly the painted portrait: A torso and face in oils on canvas. A grayish greeny black mixture of nothing-space for background. This is the classical portrait, the Rembrandt or Van Eyck, the Gilbert Stuart. The face floats without context in order to capture the portrayed person without bias.
Now consider broadly the photographic portrait: A whole body, perhaps. Perhaps nude, perhaps in context of daily environment, as Diane Arbus’ carnival photographs. Perhaps in studio, as Richard Avedon. Perhaps elaborately staged, as Annie Liebowvitz. Perhaps Cindy Sherman’s brief beautiful fictions.
Lastly consider the written portrait: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Portrait of a Lady, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. A life captured between covers, or as quickly as in a sentence, between initial capitalization and full stop. Consider character sketch as portraiture. Consider “the man in the hat” portraiture. Consider description, portraiture.
I am simplifying things here, of course. Writing “broadly.” But doing it in the interest of giving you an idea of Édouard Levé’s Autoportrait, a beautiful and (at least to me) new kind of portrait (translated from the French by Paris Review editor Lorin Stein). I read it first on the flight back from AWP, and following so many conversations about writing and its purpose/manner/role/etcetera, it was refreshing to just sit and read an excellent book without having to talk about or defend it.
And yet, here I am.
Whereas the narrator of Levé’s brilliant Suicide told the story of a friend’s death (again, I speak “broadly”) here we get the story of a life, told in just over a hundred first-person pages of declarative sentences, strung together in vague overlap.
Levé begins with broad strokes. Life and death:
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 knowing it, to someone who killed someone. I look down dead-end streets. I am not afraid of what comes at the end of life.
What you first notice is how quickly Levé moves. His portrait is not linear, but is in motion with its audience. That’s the first difference between what occurs in Autoportrait versus a Gilbert Stuart or Cindy Sherman. In still portraiture, a snapshot provides the glimpse from which a life can be read (Sherman being the master of this).
As a photographer as well as writer, Levé uses his declarative sentences as a kind of series of photographic instances, one after another, without a strict narrative string. Some fifty pages later:
I see no point in holding on to my old toothbrushes. My favorite months are September and April, September for the resumption of social activity, April for the arrival of spring and the progressive denudification of women. I am not an expert in anything. I have subjects of conversation besides myself. I form very few hard and fast judgments about politics, the economy, and international affairs. I do not like bananas.
The result of this movement is an interactive portrait, drawn as much by the reader as the writer. Levé’s form demands the reader seek a common link between all these declarations and, beside their source, that commonality is that each declaration arrives in terms of some outside influence. Never does the declaration contain a subject and verb without an object, some necessary action-reaction. Even the simple “I am thin” (toward the end of the book) relies on the reader’s judgment of “thin.”
Later, when Levé’s physicality if further defined, it’s done according to a system of measurement we can only understand in relation to our own height. And that this slight description comes between calculations regarding age and preference is no accident, Levé already has us considering personal dualisms, further engaging with him:
I prefer the name to the taste of Darjeeling. I notice the length of a journey less if I already know the way. I have lived through 14,370 days. I have lived through 384,875 hours. I have lived through 20,640,000 minutes. I am one meter and eighty-six centimeters tall. My eye is not sated with seeing, nor is my ear with hearing. Déjà vu gives me more pleasure than a great wine.
Do I prefer Darjeeling’s name or taste? How do I notice the length of journeys? How long is 14,730 days? Am I taller than Levé?
A film might use narrative to carry the audience forward, as might most novels (even those “portrait” novels listed above). But Autoportrait forces the reader into movement with it. The closest we come to traditional narrative emerges as repetitive themes on those aspects of his life our narrator does not fully understand: that he may have a child somewhere he’s never met, that “today” may be the best day of his life, that he will die someday, and then what? These are unknowns nearly all readers can identify with, and their repetition requires our reconsideration. Our own consideration, not Levé’s, drives the novel to its inevitable, reassuring-yet-uncertain end:
I don’t know why I write. I prefer a ruin to a monument. I am calm during reunions. I have nothing against New Year’s Eve. Fifteen years old is the middle of my life, regardless of when I die. I believe there is an afterlife, but not an afterdeath. 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.
In Autoportrait, Levé gives us a Rembrandt missing head and torso, a Diane Arbus circus tent missing a freak, the portrait of an artist co-written by a moo-cow. If I were still at AWP, the Hilton bar with a drink in hand, I might say it was a mirror in the center of an elaborate background, uncovering glimpses of our selves within the portrait of another.
For now I’ll just say it was a damn good book, unlike any other I’ve read.
Read an excerpt of Autoportrait and view some of Levé’s photographs on The Paris Review’s website: http://www.theparisreview.org/letters-essays/6078/when-i-look-at-a-strawberry-i-think-of-a-tongue-Édouard-leve