In almost everything he has done, Levé demonstrates an obsessive interest in seeing eccentric notions through to creative fruition. In this sense, the content of Works is 533 variations on the theme of the eccentric notion of the book itself. It’s filled with descriptions of objects the idea of whose existence is entirely absurd. There is a recurring interest, for instance, in the building of houses from some absurdly shaky conceptual foundation, a preoccupation that reveals Levé’s mischievous commitment to the defamiliarizing of everyday environments and objects. “A house designed by a three-year-old is built,” he suggests in one of the “works” early on in the book. On the same page, he lays out an idea for another lavishly impractical dwelling, this one built without the use of measurement. “Each measure is intuitively estimated,” he stipulates. “The materials are contemporary and the banal style is that of mass-produced houses. At first blush, the house seems normal. Looking closer, one sees numerous errors. The partitions are poorly joined. The steps are poorly assembled. The flagstones are not parallel to the walls. These, along with the windows and the doors, are not set square. The roof is not watertight.” Toward the end of the book, we’re offered yet another house, this time one with its walls and furniture and fixtures made entirely out of marshmallow, so that it “deteriorates as visitors lean against its walls, sit on its couches, handle its objects, scratch its surfaces, or eat them.”
The overwhelming majority of the 533 ideas in Works never went further than adumbration and collection in this strangely interminable little book. A handful, though, are recognizable as descriptions of art projects that Levé, known in France for his photography, went on to pursue: photographing people with famous names so that “two contradictory signs of identity are thus found in juxtaposition: the unknown face and the famous name”; re-enacting pornographic scenes with fully clothed subjects; photographing American towns with more famous homonyms in other countries.
For a work of such rigorous formal experimentalism, Works can be surprisingly funny. I found myself laughing out loud, here and there, at Levé’s poker-faced batshittery—the brisk suggestion of “a leather jacket made from a mad cow,” for instance, or the outlining of a performance piece where Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death is read aloud in its entirety “by sucking in words rather than expiring them.” In a way that seems characteristically French, Levé takes a serious and meticulous approach to the praxis of tomfoolery. He’s an obvious heir in this sense to the Oulipo group of Francophone experimental writers, with their bold formal conceits and reckless restrictions. People like Raymond Queneau, whose majestically silly Exercises in Style narrates the same minute series of incidents (a mild confrontation on a bus, followed by a brief overheard conversation about a jacket needing a new button) in 99 different styles—official letter, book blurb, Pig Latin, spoonerisms, etc. Or Georges Perec, whose A Void is a 300-page mystery novel that contains not a single instance of the letter E.
There’s a similar calm obsessiveness to everything Levé does. Early in Works, for instance, he outlines the idea for a collection of photographs of “French municipalities with names that are simultaneously common and proper nouns.” These towns range alphabetically from Abondance (Abundance) to Y (There). There are 739 of them, and Levé names every single one, accounting for a nontrivial portion of the book’s length. A less thorough and stouthearted reader might have been tempted to skim this part; I rolled up my sleeves and ploughed through every damn one of them. I learned that there are a lot of towns in France whose names sound undeniably weird in English (Dead Woman, Water Damage, Piano Keys, Bastard, Damages, Bootlickers, etc.), but I’m not sure how much I otherwise gained from the experience.
The aggregate effect of reading Works is one of muted hysteria—a vague sense of being oppressed by the relentless accumulation of ideas. It seems redundant to point out that, though it is occasionally funny and provocative, this is an exasperating book to read. How could it be otherwise? It is, let me reiterate, a book consisting solely of descriptions of imaginary works of conceptual art. As with all of Levé’s work, his insistence on continuing doing the one specific thing he’s doing is an ongoing source of weird perplexity for the reader, a weird perplexity that is a key aspect of the experience of reading him. If you have the time (and the fortitude), the way to read Levé is probably in one sitting. But there’s also an interesting effect that obtains when you go away for a bit and come back to him, because your in-built expectation that a book will have some sort of narrative has been reinstated during your time away, and the rug is pulled out from underneath you all over again. “Oh right,” you’ll find yourself realizing, “we’re still doing this, aren’t we? Still summarizing the hell out of a bunch of imaginary art projects.”
Works clearly results from the same restless and rigorous creative imagination as Suicide and Autoportrait, but it has none of the emotional impact of those later prose works, none of the invigoration of witnessing a radical convergence of form and content. This is because Works is a spectacle of pure form, a playful pageant of invention in service of nothing much more than itself. It’s art made out of nonexistent art for art’s sake.
It is possible to see the book as a sort of key to Levé’s art as a whole, as an opaque overview of its peculiar fixations—the role of randomness in creativity, the degradation of meaning as it is passed along a chain of communication, the creation of new art from the violent rearrangement of existing works. But in its force of sheer accumulation, it also lends itself to being read as a mockery of Levé’s own restless pursuit of experimentation and novelty. What the book leaves you with is a renewed sense of how extraordinary Levé’s later achievement really was, in its channeling of this playfully obsessive formalism into work of real emotional vitality and power.
Works by Édouard Levé, translated by Jan Steyn. Dalkey Archive Press.