Life is Puzzling

Édouard Levé wrote Autoportrait in 2005. It was followed by his book Suicide in 2007, and then by death at his own hand so shortly after. The English edition appeared in 2012, seamlessly translated by Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, if you can say about a book of apparent fragments that it is seamless.

I read the book’s first sentence as the plan. It’s a plan or a scheme for elucidating, through close, willing reading—or maybe deciphering or illuminating—the self-portrait of Édouard Levé. In “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man,” from Reflections, Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writing (Schocken Books, 1986), Walter Benjamin wrote, “mental being communicates itself in, not through a language, which means: it is not outwardly identical with linguistic being” and “language therefore communicates the particular linguistic being of things, but their mental being only insofar as this is directly included in their linguistic being, insofar as it is capable of being communicated.”

Édouard Levé was a photographer, a visual artist and a writer; Autoportrait is a work of language and is the form in which he chose to give us a means for recognizing him. Not that he wanted that easily achieved. It was to be a test of our sincerity, this apprehension of a picture of the man. The first line of his book sets it up: “When I was young, I thought Life A Users Manual would teach me how to live and Suicide A User’s Manual how to die.” In his directing readers to Georges Perec’s novel (published by Hachette in 1978) he’s telling us, consider a puzzle, a jigsaw puzzle. Perec’s “Preamble” explains the subtleties and the highly complex nature of the hand-cut wooden jigsaw puzzle. “The perceived object,” he wrote, “is not a sum of elements to be distinguished from each other and analysed discretely, but a pattern, that is to say a form, a structure.” And then seeming to be clarifying it for himself additionally, “the pattern determines the parts: knowledge of the pattern and of its laws, of the set and its structure, could not possibly be derived from discrete knowledge of the elements that comprise it,” and further, “the only thing that counts is the ability to link this piece to other pieces,” and “the pieces are readable, take on a sense, only when assembled; in isolation, a puzzle piece means nothing—just an impossible question, an opaque challenge.”

Assembled, Autoportrait is a bound collection of fragments, not sentence fragments—each sentence, statement, declaration is complete in itself; the ideas may be elliptical but the sentences are complete. Levé has directed us to Perec, and Perec begins his book with the “Preamble” on the jigsaw puzzle. We’ve all known rainy days at a cottage or invalid days sick at home, when a box containing a jigsaw puzzle is put on the table in front of us, emptied, and there we see shapes of a more or less uniform size in a scatter. The challenge is to make visual coherence from the random pieces which, by design, offer no clues on their own. This is Levé’s book. There is no narrative line, no chapters, not even paragraphs to indicate a shift or the pause of an indrawn breath. Inflections, if they are there, remain mute. Levé didn’t write this as a scatter, intention drove it and there is an underlying sense that the book was driven. Odd—we know the ending—we begin at the end if we’re reading the book after 2007 because we know of his suicide, but he didn’t when he wrote it, so while he’s driving the book we know something so deeply personal to him that he didn’t know then. Still, the book is in his hands.

“Mind is shapely,” Allen Ginsberg said, borrowing the idea from his friend Jack Kerouac, so we attempt to make order, to find a pattern that reads as Levé’s self-portrait and in the doing, in reading and remembering, in the resonances of recurring subjects, objects, desires, assessments, in his repeated examples of his own particularity and discernments, in his identifying or naming physical attributes, we can draw a portrait of the man Édouard Levé who died when he was forty-two.

What do we have? Could we pick him out on the street, or at a cocktail party? No, but at a small diner party I would know him from this book. Attention needs to be paid. He says, “My memory is structured like a disco ball.” I picture the splinters of light thrown out by the mirrored tiles and the way it fractures surfaces, tickling and moving and then associatively, of mirrors and fragments and of a kaleidoscope where the pieces fall into place to make a momentary pattern of some symmetry.

A conversation can veer off and something is said and received by the listener who could respond, vis-à-vis what? In Autoportrait not the preceding or following sentence, at least not apparently so but scanning up and back and keeping it in mind, there is sense or reason or form.

We construct a life. What’s given at the outset, assuming good health if we’re lucky, is just the bones of potential. Good parents build a child and make the frame for the potential broad and solid but after that we construct the life. We are manufactured from circumstances and consequences and by plan—the well-wrought earned career; or a life beautifully lived and beauty-filled; or one of altruism and good deeds, effort expended on behalf of others; or fakery, flim-flam, flash and folly with echoes of applause; or misdirection, good intentions, sunny optimism and the rug pulled out from under; or day to day and decent, no prize, and over. However it goes we play some hand in it, we make the life and live it.

“I have thought,” Levé wrote, “listening to an old man tell me his life story, ‘This man is a museum of himself.’ I have thought, listening to the son of an American black radical talk, ‘This man is a ready-made.’ I have thought, seeing a man who had wasted away, ‘This man is a ghost of himself.’”

Levé was many things but a writer, foremost. He declares the necessity of language throughout the book. It figures everywhere. “I can do without music, art, architecture, dance, theatre, movies, I have trouble,” he says, “doing without photography, I cannot do without literature.” He tells us whom he reads and why. The assembly runs over a page, the names interrupted with brief explanations as to type or ranking. It becomes a bibliographic biography which, if studied, describes the namer in some detail: “To Joyce, who writes about banal things in extraordinary language, I prefer Raymond Roussel who writes unrealistic things in everyday words.”

“Maybe I’m writing this book so I won’t have to talk anymore.” He’s writing the book because he is a writer to whom writing is essential, and because he is a writer and also a photographer he knows that something as elusive as light and, more than light, words, can be fixed and the traces read.

I’m looking for patterns so I can read the life and I note his frequent use of lists. There were the lists of writers but others as well. Lists and also repetitions which I took to be significant because their appearance imprinted themselves as I searched. There was an unusual but interesting list of American artists he admired; a list of antidepressant drugs taken with no good effect; a list of psychiatric services he had engaged; his physical attributes—eyes, hands, forehead, ass, skin, etc.; trees he recognized and could name; those he could name but not recognize; religions of the world; natural geographic forms such as streams, rivers, caves, deserts canyons and so on, like a school kid preforming a recitation by rote. He mentions Levi’s jeans, especially 501s, more than once. His own name reoccurred and I wondered why, and was it Adamic in bringing him into, and confirming, his being. “My surname is ridiculous but I am fond of it.” “My last and first names mean nothing to me.” “I don’t like the one they imposed on me, and yet I cannot imagine bearing a name besides my own,” and other instances as well. And many insertions of suicide, and dying. I mean insertions but I could just as easily have written intrusions because each time (with the foreknowledge we have) they jarred me. From the book’s opening sentence where he paired Perec’s Life A User’s Manual with the non-existent Suicide A User’s Manual to his indicating a preference for going to bed over waking, but hastening to add a preference for living over dying, to commenting that he will die before his faculties fail him, to the clever but chilling “When I am happy I’m afraid of dying, when I’m unhappy I’m afraid of not dying,” to his mentioning that when he was thirteen his father gave him a .22 rifle which immediately called up Hemingway’s having received as a gift from his mother the revolver with which Hemingway’s father killed himself (not to imply that Levé’s relationship with his father was troubled), to his statement early in the book, as though letting us know from the start of our relationship to him, “I have attempted suicide once, I’ve been tempted four times to attempt it,” making it casual with wordplay. If loneliness is a cause of death, here is poignancy, abjection and despair conjuring a painful vulnerability that is childlike in its speaker’s powerlessness. It comes at the book’s close, as do the three declarations which follow it: “I talk to my things when they are sad.” “I don’t know why I write.” “Only once can I say ‘I’m dying without telling a lie.’” “The best day of my life may already be behind me.” Equivalent in impact to his passing mention of having received a rifle as a gift is his saying, “I shave with an electric razor, it’s quicker and less painful than a blade.” No one writes while asleep. Levé was a canny, highly adept writer who missed nothing and let us know just that: “Virtuosity annoys me, it confuses art with prowess.” Nothing in this book was anything short of deliberate as was the mention of his shaving apparatus.

He tells us that because he is funny, people think he is happy and he’s there telling us he’s not happy. He is, however, funny, sometimes. He would have understood and appreciated, I’m certain, Michael Ondaatje’s hilarious, Elimination Dance (Brick Books, 1978), for me the consistently funniest piece of writing I’ve read. The rules go like this: among the many disclaiming stages a dancer on the floor must pass in order to remain standing is to have “woken to find wet footprints of a peacock across their kitchen floor” or be one of the improbable “men who have never touched a whippet.” Levé matches this with the flat declaration, “I do not foresee making love with an animal” and “I have never petted a panther”—funny on their own, drastically funny in context. Fancy footwork, by far more inventive than virtuosic—the language is there. “The dog belonging to a friend of mine disfigured his best friend when my friend was fourteen.” “The smoke of a blond cigarette coughed out by a woman sitting near me on a lawn in summer has left me enchanted,” this one reading like a haiku description of a painting by Alex Katz.

To avoid facility artists draw left-handed. Levé’s is a self-portrait by deflection and deferral. It appears in flashes. I want to ask him—am I getting any of it right?

At the end of his “Preamble” Perec wrote about the ultimate truth of jigsaw puzzles: “despite appearances puzzling is not a solitary game: every move the puzzler makes, the puzzle maker has made before.” If we as readers are puzzled in trying to find Levé’s self-portrait, this has been his intention—that we double his life in deciphering it as he has presented it.