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.
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.