Tuesday
Jun142011

Suicide

By Edouard Levé
(translated by Jan Steyn)



Dalkey Archive Press
April 2011
144 pages
978-1564786289

 

Reviewed by Kathryn Houghton


 

Suicide, originally published in France in 2008, was Edouard Levé's final work; ten days after delivering the manuscript to his publisher, he ended his life. This timing, this juxtaposition, has ensured that few will read it without the fact of Levé's own suicide tangling itself in this story, which focuses on the suicide of the narrator's friend twenty years prior.

However, readers lose something if they read Suicide merely as a study of Levé himself, looking for some sort of understanding of his final act. Like the father in the book who keeps folders of suicide hypotheses to try to understand his son's death, the reader will be left searching forever. Levé himself addresses this toward the end of the book when, through the narrator's ruminations, he writes, "Did you know why you wanted to die? […] Are there good reasons for committing suicide? Those who survived you asked themselves these question; they will not find answers."

But while Suicide is in every way concerned with the act of taking one's own life, with its many ramifications for those who continue on in life, it should be noted that the book critiques the act of suicide more than it glorifies it. Though Levé did go on to follow in his character's footsteps, that echo only provides an extra layer for the reader to explore; the story of these characters would shine even without it.

Suicide has a first person narrator, but most of the book is addressed to an unnamed second person, with the first person pronoun disappearing for pages at a time. In a way, Levé has made his narrator secondary to the you, going so far as to even introduce the you first. Levé begins by letting the narrator repeat the facts and rumors of the death presented on the first page, as well as his personal meditations on it:

Finally there's the basement where your body lies. It is intact. From what I've been told, your skull hasn't exploded. You're like a young tennis player resting on the lawn after a match. You could be sleeping. You are twenty-five years old. You now know more about death than I do.

But the narrative soon becomes murkier as the narrator begins to delve into his friend's head, recounting thoughts and details that he can't possibly have access to:

You did not hesitate. You prepared the shotgun. You put in a shell. You fired into your mouth. You knew that suicide by shotgun could fail when aiming for the temple, the forehead, or the heart, because the recoil throws the gun off its target.

It becomes difficult to draw a line between the two characters, to distinguish which of his friend's thoughts and actions the narrator is recounting faithfully and which he is projecting onto the second person. This results in a dense and robust narrative where Levé can add to the reader's understanding of both characters with a single austere sentence.

Almost as much as the narrator and the you, Suicide seeks to characterize suicide, to explore what it means beyond its simple definition. The narrator argues that it redefines a life by becoming "the foundational act," and observes that "this final gesture inverts your biography," causing people to always tell the story of someone who committed suicide by starting with the fact of his death rather than with any fact about his life. But rather than break away from this symptom of suicide, the narrator reinforces it: The book opens with a scene of the you's death, jumps back to tell of his life, then circles to his death once again, showing how suicide contaminates even the memory of life.

In the end, however, Suicide is far more interested in exploration than it is didacticism. It pushes the reader away from superficial judgment of what is right and what is wrong. The book closes not with some deep understanding from the narrative, not with an overarching generalization on what it all means, but rather with a series of tercet verses that resonate back through the narrative. They are attributed to the you of Suicide, but they seem as if they could be the narrator's creation, or perhaps Levé's. It creates a merger of sorts, one that finally pulls the reader in alongside all the other consciousnesses with the final tercet, reminding us of our inevitable similarity, whether accomplished through suicide or not:

Happiness precedes me
Sadness follows me
Death awaits me