Sunday
Jan132013

Autoportrait

By Edouard Levé


 

Dalkey Archive
March 2012
978-1564787071

Reviewed by Colin Winnette


 

Elision is essential to reporting. In Autoportrait—Edouard Levé's story of a life as rendered through a list of scattered details, reflections, and accounts—it is the cause of an essentially communal loneliness.

For Levé, one's life exceeds one's capacity to express it. He writes, "To describe my life precisely would take longer than to live it." And, later, plainly, "I don't have time to tell long stories." Autoportrait presents memories as fragmented and divided, and selection is described as a condition of remembering. "I do not forget to forget," Levé jokes;  "My memory is structured like a disco ball." The book is similarly structured, presenting its contents as distinct reflections emanating from a shared source.

As a marketed object, Edouard Levé's Autoportrait occupies the space between fiction and memoir. It is categorized by its American publisher, Dalkey Archive Press, as a work of fiction, while Lorin Stein, the work's English translator, places it more in the tradition of Joe Brainard's I Remember. This is a suitable comparison; both books consist of seemingly autobiographical lists, and they move from detail to detail with similar caprice. But for Brainard the active "I" is an elemental and unchanging refrain, (nearly every sentence begins, "I remember..." ), while the "I" in Autoportrait is perpetually shifting focus, occupying new spaces, without the consistency of Brainard's formal anchor.

The personal history presented in Autoportrait is intentionally unmoored. As one reads and rereads Levé's work, one experiences a multiplicity of histories that overlap and interrupt one another. Reality is incongruous and the content of Levé's sentences is often little more than the narrator's attempt to clearly describe his personal reactions to the world around him—family, friends, strangers, places, cultural artifacts. "It's better for me not to read medical textbooks, especially passages describing the symptoms of some illness: no sooner do I find out one exists than I detect it in myself," writes Levé, "War seems so unreal to me I have trouble believing my father was in one. I have seen a man who expressed one thing with the left side of his face and something else with the right. I am not sure I love New York." But these details do not accumulate. They swarm. They are formally isolated from one another in a way that permits perpetual reorganization. Levé does not allow his readers to linger. While some associative threads are longer than others, they are always inevitably interrupted ("I am not sure I love New York"). Levé resists linearity, or strict causality, and the rewards of the book lie not in reading associatively. A supposed "self-portrait," the book does not achieve a fixed rendering of its narrator by its end, nor does it truly attempt to. At best, upon finishing the book, each reader will have developed an individualized "sense" of a person. Composed of our own experience of an intentionally limited and self-interrupting text, Levé highlights how we edit and retell the story just as much as it is told to us. Our subjectivity divides us in what is objectively a shared experience, the reading of a book: a familiar idea, newly embodied in Levé's text.

For Levé, no act of perception is without sacrifice, and to read Autoportrait is to experience this first-hand. Remembering is always accompanied by forgetting, no telling is without elision, and happiness is always weighted by grief:

The best conversations I had date from adolescence, with a friend at whose place we drank cocktails that we made by mixing up his mother's liquor at random, we would talk until sunrise in the salon of that big house where Mallarmé had once been a guest, in the course of those nights I delivered speeches on love, politics, God, and death of which I retain not one word, even though sometimes I came up with them doubled over in laughter, years later, this friend told his wife that he had left something in the house just as they were going to play tennis, he went down to the basement and put a bullet in his head with the gun he had carefully prepared.