Thursday, May 31, 2012

"Words Become Road:" Edouard Levé's "Autoportrait"


While the two works couldn't be more different in their themes, structures, and tones, my recent reading of Edouard Levé's Autoportrait reminded me, at least subconsciously, of Padgett Powell's The Interrogative Mood. However, the biggest difference lies in their presentations. Powell's work is a series of questions that cover a wealth of ideas, hypotheses, and philosophical discourses. Its subtitle is "A Novel?," a play on the interrogative formats, as well as its classification. Is it a novel, or more of a psychological exercise? Autoportrait, however, offers no such "disclaimer," and is a series of declarations and moments from Levé's life, past and present. I decided to read it after a friend of mine made a passing mention of his final book, Suicide. I did some online research on Levé's art, and was immediately curious, and having finished Autoportrait, I find myself even more curious, not just about his life and works, but about how to approach the written words. On the surface, I highly enjoyed the book, but it's the kind of piece that seems to resist a need to provide satisfaction or dissatisfaction, and also opens up thought-provoking, conflicting views.

Whenever I read a book, I tend to do a lot of underlining and notes for citations and compelling passages, but my copy of Autoportrait has maybe one or two underlines, and no notes; it's simply impossible to judge whether one sentence or sentence cluster is "more important" than the next. The work is meant to be taken as a whole, and while I will offer some select passages, the examples I choose are taken at random, and work as part of the aforementioned "conflicting views:" any assemblage of sentences work quite well for example's sake, but are no more or less indicative of the rest of the work. Levé is presenting virtually every aspect of his life, and only he would have been able to know what was more important to him, and what was more mundane. The main source of curiosity, at least for me, is the juxtaposition of the serious and the banal, with some ideas begging for further explanation which then lead into vastly different territories.

"I attended a school that employed several pedophiles, but I was not among their victims. One of my schoolmates, at age twelve, was followed by an old man into a stairwell, where he dragged him into a basement and had his way with him. The dog belonging to a friend of mine disfigured his best friend when my friend was fourteen. I have never missed a flight that then exploded in mid-air. I almost killed three passengers in my car by looking for a cassette in the glove compartment while I was going one-eighty on the highway from Paris to Reims (Levé 15)."

Again, with this review, much like the mixture of Levé's thoughts, forces me to be repetitive and contradictory. In addition to resisting a singular emotion, Autoportrait resists genre, but clearly has a hand in two designations. The bookstore I work in has the title classified as fiction, even though one wouldn't be faulted for placing it in the biography section. As much as I hate to sound like a tenth grader forcing a summary from the book's jacket, the synopsis mentions the work as "perfect fiction...made entirely of facts." But what this really boils down to is the occasional pointlessness of needing literary classifications. To put this even more vaguely, Autoportrait is a work of art in words, not immediately poetic, but a canvas of pages mirroring its subject (the author) and at times reflecting the reader. While we don't have the exact lives or memories that Levé possesses, there's a universality in the bulk of what he writes. I'm writing this in the evening after visiting Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art--perhaps this is a stretch or a subconscious influence, but could Autoportrait be a work of literary performance art? Why not? It manages to be so much already.

"My memory embellishes. I often apologize, always thinking I shouldn't, and that I shouldn't have to. Over one summer I got six tick bites, only four years later did I become convinced that I had contracted Lyme disease, after I read a list of the symptoms on a Web site. I have cheated on schoolwork, but not at games. I dine alone in a restaurant if I have no choice, which happens only on trips. To dine alone in a restaurant seems paradoxical to me: going out to a restaurant is festive, festivities are collective. To find out whether I was homosexual, I tried to masturbate while thinking of men, it didn't work. When I watch the hunting show Trés Chasse, I have the impression that the hunters feel no guilt after the orgasm of the shot. I thank people easily (Levé 90)."


Edouard Levé was a painter (according to Autoportrait, he burned the majority of his early works), and a photographer in addition to being a writer. This work came before Suicide, which was turned into the publisher ten days before he killed himself. His various art mediums could very well support my hypothesis of the work being a form of performance art, but I'm treading carefully, especially since I mentioned his final work. As much as I champion creative expression and integrity, I feel it would be too harsh to link Suicide in this category, since I haven't read it, and even though it was clearly his way of expressing what was going through his mind, I wouldn't want to call it a piece of performance art, since we don't know what drove him to that final act. Has this essay illuminated anything about the reading? If not, that's understandable, since I'm holding Autoportrait in such high regard, and because it's the kind of work that has no true happy medium. It's a form of expression that will appeal to a reader or turn him/her off. There are so many ideas and facts to process, and in the end, you'll likely feel that you know Levé more or feel even more distanced from his persona. And really, these dueling ideas strongly hint to this work being a success, since Autoportrait evokes such a diverse range of emotions in its diverse range of revelations. The reader is free to choose the classifications that he or she feel are appropriate. I'm glad I chose this as my introduction to his writings, since I knew so little going in, and now I have a cache of information about Levé that explores more than any biography could hope to do. Like any review I post, I hope my opinions, whether one agrees or disagrees, will make a given work more illuminated. With Autoportrait, there's simply no way for that to happen without reading it.

"I do not read Faulkner, because of the translation. 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. TV interests me more without the sound. Among friends I can laugh hard at certain unfunny TV programs that depress me when I'm alone. I never quite hear what people say who bore me. To me a simple 'No' is pleasantly brief and upsettingly harsh. The noise level when it's turned up too high in a restaurant ruins my meal. If I had to emigrate I would choose Italy or America, but I don't. When I'm in a foreign country, I dream of having a house in Provence, a project I forget when I get back. I rarely regret a decision and always regret not having made one (Levé 22)."

Work Cited:
Levé, Edouard. Autoportrait. Copyright 2005 by P.O.L. éditeur. Translation copyright 2012 by Lorin Stein.

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