Edouard Levé’s fourth book is written in the second person, addressed to a friend of the narrator’s who committed suicide fifteen years earlier. Better known as a photographer in his native France, Levé is not interested in exposition; he is interested in quiddity. So Suicide, the first of his books to be published in English, does not explain how a specific person in a specific set of circumstances could arrive at a desire for death. It seeks only to illumine the particulars of that desire. With a precision that can be frightening, Levé describes a man who is wholly alienated from the consolations of the outside world, beholden only to the tiniest shifts in his perception and sensations: “Your wife showed astonishment at your abruptness, but all you could see was an abstract grimace. It really was her, you recognized her, but you wondered if you knew her. She was abstract like the other objects in the depths from which her silhouette appeared.” “Your veins and your arteries seemed too narrow. Your flesh was loud. It didn’t produce music, but a sickening pulsation, and you waited for the abatement of this rhythm.”
The fact that Levé hanged himself ten days after giving his publisher the manuscript of Suicide necessarily raises the emotional stakes of our reading experience. But it’s unfortunate that the label “suicide note” has been so firmly affixed to the book that it threatens to overshadow sensitivity to Levé’s rhetorical technique. Writing for Frieze, Hugo Wilcken claimed that “it is impossible to judge [Suicide] as a novel, given the author’s own suicide.” To consider Suicide as one sick man’s cry of anguish is to read the book from the exact categorical distance that Levé sought to breach in his work.
In Journal (2004), Levé rewrote newspaper articles without including any proper names or dates. As he put it in an interview with Particule, the project aims to highlight the indifference that can result “if one lets one’s self be invaded by the daily onslaught of information.” Levé is hardly the only contemporary writer who seeks to rescue spontaneous engagement with one’s surroundings from the rush and emotional sterility of most daily communication. But while writers like Michel Houellebecq and Gary Shteyngart express contemporary disconnectedness through characters and plots that embody alienation and competition, Levé is concerned only with the way it feels to be bombarded by discrete facts. Houellebecq and Shteyngart write page-turners. Journal is punishing—a litany of gruesome crimes, minute analyses of sales figures, weather reports, and job listings. This relentlessness is also sometimes very funny, revealing the absurdity of culture industry clichés. The section titled “Culture” treats us to such items as:
The author who wrote, ‘There is no love in death,’ the monocle-toting mainstay of the capital’s salons, kept a journal his whole life. Now that the delay he had set for its publication has passed, his editor is publishing these one thousand pages, and predicts that they will constitute the best of his work. These are notebooks full of bitterness and despair, laden with melancholic aphorisms, trenchant judgments on literature, and incisive commentary on his contemporaries. One hundred pages of notes and a very detailed index make this edition a precious work for lovers of literary history.
I was reminded of this passage while reading French reviews of Suicide. Jacques Morice, writing for Télérama, claimed that Levé’s suicide gave his work “a quality of madness without precedent in the history of literature. As if Levé managed to meld life, writing, and art in an aesthetic gesture that is absolute yet calm.” L’Express was equally rhapsodic: “If one is shocked by this experience of the extreme—what artistic project could justify such an act?—Suicide remains nonetheless an ultimate literary act, whose urgency and morbid beauty render so many other books vain and useless.” None of these reviews mention the book’s final twenty pages, a collection of tercets discovered in the suicide’s desk after his death. The poems are a sophomoric catalog of small facts of the self, most of them related to gradations of basic comfort: “Day dazzles me/ Evening soothes me/ Night envelops me.” “Red irritates me/ Black moves me/ White calms me.” Given Levé’s stylistic sophistication elsewhere, I would like to believe that this jejuneness was deliberate. But given how close Levé was at the time of this writing to taking his own life, it’s possible that the poems are simply an expression of his oppressive self-absorption. Deliberately or not, the tercets belie the myth of the noble, tortured genius who understood the world too well to live in it; the suicide is simply someone who can’t escape his own mind.
Suicide’s central stylistic choice—the second person—also begs the critical consideration afforded to novels. The book is structurally similar to Autoportrait (2005)—a collection of Levé’s thoughts about himself—in that Levé describes his friend’s life and personality according to the nonlinear flow of his memory. But while the deliberate solipsism of Autoportrait can sometimes feel confining or, at worst, cute (“I don’t like bananas”; “I have other topics of conversation besides myself”), Suicide is complicated by the narrator’s relationship with his friend, a pained inquiry into the universal longing for connection. As the narrator’s revelations about his friend’s inner life become increasingly complex, the reader comes to see “tu” as a stand-in for the narrator’s own self, an externalized form that allows him empathic clarity about the most disturbed parts of his own being. Even though this dead friend seems largely a product of Levé’s imagination, he considers him his closest ally:
If you were still alive, would we be friends? I was more attached to other boys. But time has seen me drift apart from them without my even noticing. All that would be needed to renew the bond would be a telephone call, but none of us is willing to risk the disillusionment of a reunion. . . . I no longer think of them, with whom I was formerly so close. But you, who used to be so far-off, distant, mysterious, now seem quite close to me. When I am in doubt, I solicit your advice. Your responses satisfy me better than those the others could give me. You accompany me faithfully wherever I may be. It is they who have disappeared. You are the present. You are a book that speaks to me whenever I need it.
Like seeing one’s own life reflected in a book, intimacy for Levé requires a willful suspension of disbelief. It is an illusion we believe in out of necessity rather than any authentic propinquity between inner worlds.
The difficulties of communication are at the heart of Levé’s photography, which often portrays human interaction as role-playing. His series Rugby shows men locked in traditional rugby plays while wearing stilted street clothes—pleated pants and button-up shirts. Levé took the photos indoors, all against the same blue backdrop. There is no ball. These well-known plays, divorced from their usual social and economic stakes, are sometimes funny because they are so futilely emphatic—a skinny man nearly falls into the camera as he cradles an invisible ball, pushing past the clean-cut men gathered at his feet. Other photos reveal a poignant and pitiful desperation for worth. Six men crowd together, their arms raised to the sky or cupped outward, tense with hope.
Pornography follows a similar formula. Clothed men and women arranged against a neutral backdrop enact scenes from porn magazines. Here, the trophy we are denied is the orgasm. By taking archetypal images out of context, Levé turns what is normally a spectacle into an empty choreography, inducing a disorientation that can feel a lot like despair. Alain Robbe-Grillet called Levé’s photography “mortification of the moment.”
One photo in Pornography shows a man lying prone as two women, on their knees, bring their faces toward his crotch. In a porn magazine (or a Houellebecq novel), this would be two women giving a joint blowjob. But Levé has not only deprived us of the sight of either genitalia or movement; he has also centered his lens on the top of the man’s head. When I first looked at this photo, I felt a brief, thin surge of arousal—until I realized that I was staring at a magnified scalp. The man’s bald head shines under the glare of a bright light. Veins bulge out of his pinkish skin. There is nothing sexy about this image, no pleasure being given or received. My brief arousal was a habitual response to a cliché arrangement of bodies. This makes me sad, wishing I could clear out my mental storehouse of erotic imagery and approach sex anew. But this is a futile and short-lived wish. Sanity depends upon categorization and memorization, the brain’s illusion of coherence.
Given the extremity of Levé’s final refusal, it’s not surprising that the strongest feeling uniting his work is the desire to avoid participation in any ordered social system. Both “je” of Autoportrait and “tu” of Suicide love the liberating anonymity that travel affords:
You were a spectator and not an actor. . . . [Y]ou used to transgress society’s rules unknowingly, and no one would hold you accountable for it. You would mistakenly enter private residences, go to concerts to which you had not been invited, eat at community banquets where you could only guess the community’s identity when they started giving speeches…. Far from your home, you used to taste the pleasure of being mad without being alienated, of being an imbecile without renouncing your intelligence, of being an imposter without culpability.
And in Autoportrait, Levé writes, “In a foreign country, everything is more or less unreal, which can make me want to live there, on the condition that I’d change countries again once that one was no longer ‘foreign.’”
Much of Levé’s photography questions our hierarchy of reality, the unexamined assumption that only socially explicable behavior is real. His series Quotidien, which depicts models reenacting scenes from newspaper articles, is every bit as perplexing as his Fictions, which shows bodies arranged according to the whims of his imagination. And Levé’s non-expository, nonlinear writing (like that of his predecessors Georges Perec and Raymond Roussel) denies the reader the self-forgetful pleasure of the traditional novel: that of entering another world, elaborate yet comprehensible. Levé is deeply averse to such collective sense-making, which he sees as an anxious denial of the essential absurdity of our lives.
So it’s understandable that Zadie Smith, writing for Harper’s, claimed that “the adolescent aesthetic is at the core of Levé’s art.” One could easily cherry-pick Levé’s work to present him as an unhappy teenager showing off his precociousness: “A ruin that dies: is this not deliverance, is it not the death of death?” “To say, ‘I don’t like novels,’ doesn’t mean that I don’t like literature.” But Smith’s characterization is unfair to the formal grace of Levé’s oeuvre as a whole. One of his first photographic projects was a series called Angoisse, in which he took photographs of landmarks in a French town called Anguish. Like his Homonymes project, in which he photographed ordinary people with the same names as celebrities, Angoisse presents what Levé called “referents without history,” forcing us to see the tyranny of our association with a particular word. But the real power of Angoisse is emotive: these photos are anguishing. “Bar d’Angoisse” shows an empty bar in the middle of the day. Sunlight from a window we can’t see whitewashes the far edge of a pool table, but the room’s interior—crowded with liquor bottles and barstools—recedes into darkness. In “Angoisse de nuit,” the word “Anguish” forms the centerpiece of a quintessential evening in a small town. Such photographs make it clear that Levé was not a cynical artist. Nor was his work purely conceptual. Levé made things for the fundamental reason people have always made things: to give form to his inner life, so that it might be communicated to others.
His rebellion against socialization was also too nuanced and self-aware to be primarily adolescent. In Suicide, he astutely summarizes the problem with eschewing communal rules: “You underestimated the value of passivity, which is not the art of pleasing but of placing one’s self.” Sanity requires that we accept the meanings society assigns to objects, words, careers, relationships. This semantic passivity is the only way to form lasting connections and lend momentum to one’s days: to have a place in the world. Levé understood this necessity. For reasons no one will ever fully understand, he was simply not capable of submitting to it.
The word “constraints” comes up frequently in Levé’s interviews. “My photography practice [is] based on constraints.” “I don’t improvise; I prepare.” He would choose an image from the media or his imagination, draw photos of the way he wanted to portray it, then give his models minute instructions governing their positions and facial expressions. In part because of this formulaic rigor, Levé’s photographs are more consistently successful than his sentences. His best writing is also syntactically and tonally restrained, capturing a complex emotional reality in a few words: “I talk to my things when they’re sad.”
Asked by an interviewer, “How does art serve you?,” Levé answered, “It lets me love life while preparing to die.” The most vital, connected aspect of Levé’s life was also that which was most regimented. While his work effectively portrays our collective habits and structures as confining, his biography tells us that we must submit to such limits. Perhaps there is truth to Levé’s idea that closeness with others is really just communing with one’s own emotions. Maybe we only pretend to inhabit the ordered world outside our heads. But the conviction that everything that sustains us is illusory is another kind of fictive coherence—at least as vain and much more devastating.
That Levé was hampered by his idealization of authenticity does not negate the importance of his commitment to unveiling cultural formulas for intimacy and success. He helps us see clearly what we’re up against, which is a kind of relief. There is as much solace as there is sadness in accepting the inadequacies of human interaction, the inevitable smallness of our worlds. In Autoportrait, Levé writes, “One of my relatives was a hoarder. When she died, they found a shoebox on which was written, in careful calligraphy, ‘Small bits of string that can no longer be used for anything.’”