Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Guttersnipe Bookshelf: Édouard Levé, Autoportrait

Édouard Levé, Autoportrait
translated by Lorin Stein
originally published in French in 2005
Dalkey Archive, 2012

In the noble and under-utilized lineage of Sei Shonagon and Joe Brainard, here is Édouard Levé’s Autoportrait.  Each sentence is a fresh start, “I” is the touchstone, but the point is not so much to trumpet the self as to endlessly give it away.  Like Joe Brainard’s “I Remember”, Autoportrait is an act of generosity, an intimate act.  Here is the self, its memories, habits and preferences, endlessly raveling and unraveling, appearing suddenly and disappearing to make way for whatever is next.

Autoportrait is 117 pages of unbroken text.  It may be daunting to not see a paragraph break, a place to take a breath, but this book is utterly and helplessly readable -- the only trouble is when you try to stop.  

On page 9 Levé writes, “In India, I traveled in a train compartment with a Swiss man whom I didn’t know, we were crossing the plains of Kerala, I told him more about myself in several hours than I had told my best friends in several years, I knew I would never see him again, he was an ear without repercussions.”  Reading Autoportrait is just like that -- I felt I was that man on the train, intimate from the start, hearing Leve’s memories, preferences, anguishes and tics in a rush.  (He mentioned never having had gay sex so frequently I wanted to tell him, “Come here, sweetheart, let’s tic that box already.”)

When I reached the end I wished there was more, so immediately I read it again.  After reading it twice -- because Levé writes he would be glad to live his life a second time but not a third -- I wished that this could become an established and recognized form: “the autoportrait” in honor of Leve.  It seems to me that the autoportrait is in some ways superior to the memoir, because it is closer to life than the story of it.  The autoportrait presents the “I” as it actually is -- an unstable, flickering, changeable multitudinous semblance, instead of one big unified project.  Think of how much better we would understand people and eras if we could sprinkle across time people like Sei Shonagon, Joe Brainard, Edouard Levé, and if autoportraits could be written, instead of the inherently misleading memoir: Chapter One, My Highly Promising Childhood.  

Inevitably, I had to try writing an autoportrait of my own and, sure enough, once the process got underway it seemed to turn to turn up much that was fresh and alive, as well as truths seldom glimpsed in the “official” version of me and who I’d like to think I am.  (* If anyone else has tried this, or knows others who have, I would like very much to read the result -- please contact me!)  

This book is unnervingly poignant because it appears to include both Levé’s suicide and how it might have been averted.  I am certain that reality was not so simple but reading this I could not help but wish that I could hurry back in time to 2007, to the final ten days between when Leve delivered his final manuscript (“Suicide”) and when he ended his life.  “Excuse me, sir, here is your ticket to India, it’s business class but you must leave tonight.”  

As that is not possible, we are left with this brilliant and fascinating small book, crammed with digressions, illuminations, and possibilities.  May it be read and emulated.

No comments: