It would be an interesting experiment to sit someone down in a chair and present them with a copy of Edouard Levé’s Suicide from which front and back covers, promotional blurb, author bio, translator’s afterword and other such paratextual trimmings had all been removed. Such a reader, blinkered against the novel’s context, might well find it a strange and unnerving and hypnotic read, but it would, in an important sense, be a very different experience to the one that awaits every other person who picks up Levé’s final work. Ten days after he submitted the manuscript of Suicide to his editor at the age of 42, the author killed himself. And this fact, which is presented to us on the back cover (and also, naturally enough, in everything that has since been written about the book), isn’t something we can choose not to take with us into the fiction. In an even more extreme way than David Foster Wallace’s unfinished The Pale King (to take another recent example of a work of fiction published in the shadow of its author’s suicide), Suicide denies us any chance of separating text from context. Perhaps the most compelling thing about this deeply compelling novel is the distinct possibility that Levé himself wanted actively to foreclose any such possibility of separation. To write a book about a suicide, to call it Suicide, and to then take your own life before its publication is, whatever else it is, a way of exerting an overpowering influence over how that work is received.
During his life, Levé was best known in his native France as an artist and conceptual photographer. The reality of Suicide, which is his fourth prose work and his first to be translated into English, is that it functions almost as though it were one panel in a diptych, the second panel being Levé’s actual death. Reading the novel, the eye is continually drawn back to that second panel; it isn’t that the first makes no sense without it — it does, or at least it would if there were some way of viewing it separately — but rather that its presence utterly changes the way we see the first. The novel’s subject, only ever referred to as “you,” is the narrator’s childhood friend who committed suicide at the age of 25, and the narrator addresses this oddly totalizing pressure that suicide exerts on a life retrospectively considered. “Isn’t it peculiar,” he remarks, “how this final gesture inverts your biography? I’ve never heard a single person, since your death, tell your life’s story starting at the beginning.”
In certain respects, the book presents itself as an attempt by this narrator to work his way past the blank exterior of facts into his friend’s inner world, into the circumstances around his taking his own life. If it could somehow be cut free of the wider context that envelops it — if we could somehow erase or bracket the knowledge that its author was almost certainly planning his own suicide as he wrote it — the opening passage of the book would still make for deeply disquieting, even painful reading:
One Saturday in the month of August, you leave your home wearing your tennis gear, accompanied by your wife. In the middle of the garden you point out to her that you’ve forgotten your racket in the house. You go back to look for it, 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.
It’s a shocker of an opening gambit, not just for the calamity it lays out before us, but also for the pitiless and affectless clarity of the style in which it does so. There then swiftly follows a passage that is close to unbearable in its intimacy, in the access it allows us to both a scene of imagined grief and the imminent real grief it eerily foreshadows. “Your wife screams,” Levé writes. “No one is there to hear her, aside from you. The two of you are alone in the house. In tears, she throws herself on you and beats your chest out of love and rage. She takes you in her arms and speaks to you. She sobs and falls against you. Her hands slide over the cold, damp basement floor. He fingers scrape the ground. She stays for fifteen minutes and feels your body go cold.” I don’t know whether Levé left behind a wife, and I think I would prefer to continue not knowing.
This is fiction, but it is fiction of a sort that raises some very serious questions about the possibility of cordoning off actual realities from imagined ones. Another way of putting this would be to say that you can’t help wondering what it must have been like — what it must have taken — for Levé to write these sentences knowing that his own cold body would soon be left behind for someone to find, and that this opening scene would be read by people aware that he was aware of this. It is dizzying and disturbing in a way that is quite unlike anything else I have ever read, and it hardly needs pointing out that this is not necessarily a good thing. We know that Levé was deeply influenced by Georges Perec, and I think it shows in strange ways; it is almost as though this book were written in response to a particularly unplayful version of an OULIPO imperative: “Write a fictional work about a suicide called Suicide and, upon completing it, commit suicide yourself.”
After effecting this initial devastation on his subject, this anonymous “you,” Levé then sets about a faltering process of reconstruction. The portrait is radically unchronological, the narrative less fractured than pulverized. The narrator alights on one memory of “you,” briefly expands upon it, and then moves on to another, usually unconnected to the last (and then another, and then another). At one point, he offers a fleeting defense of this fugitive approach: “To portray your life in order would be absurd: I remember you at random. My brain resurrects you through stochastic details, like picking marbles out of a bag.” To the extent that a portrait does emerge, it is a hauntingly incomplete one, providing only isolated coordinates along the trajectory of a life toward its own end. Levé’s style — controlled and yet erratic, arbitrary and yet precise — seems to reflect art’s confrontation of the randomness and fragility of memory and the self’s nebulousness as it is experienced.
What becomes apparent as this fragmentary portrait gradually takes shape is that it may be a kind of estranged and dislocated self-portrait, that the “you” may really be a displaced “I,” or perhaps a complex compoud of self and other. Certainly, the narrator couldn’t possibly know much of what he tells us about “you.” The phenomena of dissociation are central, in fact, to many of the experiences Levé relates. At one point, “you” is put on a disastrous course of medication for his depression, which results in uncanny and distressing intervals of complete self-alienation: “You tapped your fingers on your head; it sounded hollow like a dead man’s skull. Suddenly, you no longer had a brain. Or rather, it was another person’s brain. You sat like this for two hours, asking yourself if you were yourself […] You recognized your physiognomy, but it seemed to belong to someone else. Fatigue disassociated you from yourself.” To externalize and scrutinize oneself in this manner — to act out a kind of performative self-displacement, even self-erasure — is to engage in a very particular form of narcissism. And Suicide is a highly narcissistic piece of writing; in a sense, it couldn’t be otherwise, in the way that a suicide note — and a suicide itself — is unavoidably self-focused.
This is not to suggest that “you” is a straightforward surrogate for the author, or that the book itself should be read as a suicide note; if Edouard Levé had wanted to write a prose self-portrait, he would have done so — and did in fact previously do so, giving it the typically utilitarian title Autoportrait. (It was originally published in 2005 and is due in translation from Dalkey Archive in March of next year). There is nothing so simple going on here as self-expression. The jacket copy insists that Suicide “cannot be read as simply another novel” — which is, I think, accurate enough — but it then also describes it as “in a sense, the author’s own oblique, public suicide note, ” which is a considerably bolder and riskier claim. It can certainly be read that way, and, as I’ve been saying, it’s often nearly impossible to avoid doing so, but whether that’s what it actually is is another question entirely. Levé’s intentions are weirdly obscure, even for a work of experimental fiction (which this book more or less is); there is a constant temptation when reading to stop and ask yourself why he wrote this thing when he wrote it. But it seems to me that this isn’t just a futile question, it’s also the wrong sort of question (why does anyone write anything, after all? What, while we’re at it, is the purpose of art?). And it’s connected to another, perhaps even more futile pursuit: the pursuit of the meaning of a suicide. When “you” is found dead by his wife at the very beginning of the novel, a possible explanation for his suicide is alluded to, but it is a lost explanation, an aborted approach to meaning. “On the table,” we are told, “you left a comic book open to a double-page spread. In the heat of the moment, your wife leans on the table; the book falls closed before she understands that this was your final message.” The deceased’s father later buys dozens of copies of this comic book and distributes it to everyone who knew “you” in the hope that someone, somehow, might be able to extract some meaning from this text, which — like Levé’s novel itself — is at once provocatively overcharged with significance and endlessly obscure:
He is looking for the page, and on the page for the sentence, that you had chosen. He keeps a record of his reflections in a file, which is always on his desk and on which is written “Suicide Hypotheses.” If you open the cupboard to the left of his desk, you’ll find ten identical folders filled with handwritten pages bearing the same label. He cites the captions of the comic book as if they were prophecies.
This is both profoundly sad and bleakly playful, as though Levé were at once acknowledging the essential inscrutability of a person’s decision to end his or her life and shrewdly alluding to the way in which his novel, which he must have intended to be published posthumously, would be picked apart and ruthlessly scrutinized for potential explanations of what he was about to do. It’s almost funny, in fact — but only almost.
And that is, in a way, the most disquieting thing about Suicide — how artful and calculating it is, how it is never quite as sincere as you would want the writing of a person about to kill himself to be. It seems almost indecent to point out that Levé’s prose is occasionally affected, even contrived; it feels somehow wrong to point out that a sentence like, for instance, “your suicide was scandalously beautiful” is in fact scandalously crass. It feels wrong in the way that it would feel wrong to point out stylistic infelicities in a suicide note. But this is not a suicide note; this is a work of art, and — despite its occasional tonal flirtations with grandiloquence — it is a controlled and pitilessly uncompromising one, too. Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment in the novel, a passage in which the narrator inquires into what has become of “your” widow, is also perhaps its most cruelly clinical:
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? Did she name a son in your memory? If she has a daughter, does she speak to her of you? What does she do on your birthday? And on the anniversary of your death? Does she put flowers on your grave? Where are the photographs she took of you? Did she keep your clothes? Do they still smell of you? Does she wear your cologne?
To devise such a series of questions about a bereaved wife in a work of fiction is to combine empathy with something suspiciously close to cruelty, but to ask these questions while planning to take your own life is something else again. To be absolutely truthful, I don’t know what it is; and I’m not sure, either, that I would want to know.