It’s rare that I can remember where I was and what I was doing when I first encountered a particular book. The circumstances of reading are usually not very notable; you’re sitting in a chair, you’re lying in bed, you’re leaning in a corner of the new releases section—so what’s to remember, really, in terms of contextual specifics? One of a very few exceptions, for me, is the French writer Édouard Levé, my first exposure to whom I clearly recall as a distinct and self-enclosed experience. I was in bed and unable to sleep, until at some point I stopped trying and reached over to my nightstand for my Kindle and began browsing for something new to read. One of the things Amazon’s mysterious recommendation algorithm had seen fit to suggest was a book called Suicide by a French writer I’d never heard of. My morbid insomniac interest was piqued by the promotional blurb’s mention of the fact that, in October 2007, the author had killed himself 10 days after submitting the book to his publisher; I started reading, figuring that even if the book weren’t to my taste, a little French experimental fiction might be just the thing to finally send me off to sleep.
But that’s not what happened. What happened was that I became quickly consumed by the book’s impassive style, with its second-person declarative narration that somehow managed to be both tonally distant and uncomfortably intimate. In the opening lines of the book, the protagonist—a deceased childhood friend of the narrator, to whom he only ever refers as “you”—leaves his house with his wife to play tennis, but points out to her that he’s forgotten his racket. “You go back to the house to look for it,” Levé writes, “but instead of making your way toward the cupboard in the entryway where you normally keep it, you head down into the basement. Your wife doesn’t notice this. She stays outside. The weather is fine. She’s making the most of the sun. A few moments later she hears a gunshot. She rushes into the house, cries out your name, notices that the door to the stairway leading to the basement is open, goes down, and finds you there. You’ve put a bullet in your head with the rifle you had carefully prepared.”
I was as transfixed by the book’s self-possessed commitment to its formal conceit as I was by its blank and pitiless gaze on the reality of pain. (“What became of her? Has she resigned herself to your death? Does she think of you when she makes love? Did she remarry? In killing yourself, did you also kill her?”) In a mood of grim exhilaration, I kept reading until the thing was finished, by which point the sun was up and the day to come was essentially a write-off; in the mild dissociation of sleeplessness, I had lost any clear sense of whether the “you” referred to an unnamed fictional character, to the author who had killed himself days after finishing the book, or to myself. It always feels a little grandiose to talk about an “encounter” with a work of art, but that’s what this felt like. It felt like something had happened to me, or been done to me.
Suicide was the last thing that Levé wrote, but the first of his books to be published in English translation, in 2011. If at first you read it as an obliquely autobiographical exploration of the author’s decision to end his own life, what was most powerful about the book, finally, was how eerily controlled and impersonal a work of art it was, how forcefully it resisted that kind of interpretation, and how much more moving it was for it.
That strange combination of formal distance and emotional immediacy was also one of the most remarkable aspects of Autoportrait, the prose work that preceded Suicide, but whose English-language publication came later, translated in 2012 by Paris Review editor Lorin Stein. To describe that book in basic terms is to risk making it sound outright unreadable. It’s a single paragraph, 112 pages long, consisting of a continuous sequence of short declarative sentences, each of which states some or other fact about its author, a relentlessly present “I” to the enigmatic absence of Suicide’s “you.”
It’s grueling and madly propulsive at the same time; you kind of want him to stop just saying things about himself, but you also can’t stop reading these things that he just keeps saying. “My uncle’s friend taught me to laugh at things I saw on TV that were not, on the face of it, funny, for example Bobby Ewing’s hairstyle on Dallas,” he writes. “I have not signed a manifesto. If I turn around while looking in the mirror, there comes a moment when I no longer see myself. Raymond Poulidor is one of the least sexy names I know. I like salad mainly for the crunch and the vinaigrette.” It goes on like this, in this arbitrarily funny and boring and horrifying way. The more it goes on, the more facts he asserts about himself, the more the referent—the autobiographical subject, Levé himself—is displaced, defined into obscurity.
And this is the signature of Levé’s pulverized non-narratives, this unflappable insistence on going on like this. He’s never afraid, in other words, of being boring in the service of some larger way of being interesting. (“Most of the interesting art of our time is boring,” as Susan Sontag pointed out in a journal entry.) And nowhere in his work is this more apparent than in Works, the first of his books to have been published in France and the latest to be translated into English—this time again by Jan Steyn, who also translated Suicide for Dalkey Archive.
Works is one of the most nakedly formalistic pieces of writing I’ve ever come across. The book as a whole is usefully encapsulated in its opening sentence, which is the first of 533 descriptions of ideas for artistic projects: “1. A book describes works that the author has conceived but not brought into being.” This is precisely what the book is, except for the obvious distinction that this particular oddball project has been brought into being, as evidenced by the fact that you are now reading it, or are at any rate about to try to read it. For the most part, it’s a catalogue of unrealized creativity, which in the very extensiveness of its cataloging becomes a monstrous paradox of realized creativity.