Catalan Literature and Tapas!

Pla 2

On the evening of January 27, in the heart of downtown San Francisco, Two Voices invites you to enjoy free Catalan tapas and a conversation about Josep Pla, “the most celebrated Catalan writer of his generation,” between two renowned translators: Peter Bush and the Bay Area’s own Katherine Silver.

Alan Riding, of The New York Times, called Pla’s non-fiction work “a vibrant testimony to the power of words to transcend time”

Peter Bush won the Ramon Llull Award for his translation of Josep Pla’s masterpiece, The Gray Notebook (NYRB). Bush has translated dozens of books from Catalan, Spanish, and Portuguese, including work by Quim Monzo and Juan Carlos Onetti. His translation of Pla’s Bitter Life is forthcoming from Archipelago Books in April 2015.

In 2010, Two Lines’s Scott Esposito conducted an interview with Peter Bush on the release of his translation of Fernando de Rojas’s Celestina, available here.

Katherine Silver is an award-winning translator and director of the Banff International Literary Translation Centre. Her translation of Martín Adán’s The Cardboard House was a runner-up for the PEN Translation Award in 2013. She has brought into English some of the most important contemporary Spanish-language literature, including authors César Aira and Horacio Castellanos Moya, Martin Adán, Marcos Giralt Torrente, and many others.

In 2008, Two Voices interviewed Silver about Horacio Castellanos Moya, the audio of which can be found here.

  • B44 Catalan Bistro
  • 44 Belden Place, San Francisco
  • January 27, Doors at 5:00 pm, event at 5:30 pm
  • FREE (Tapas Included!)

Self-Portrait in Green is Making Waves!

Self-Portrait in Green has only been out since November, yet it’s making top-tier Flavorwire lists and receiving excellent raves by Shakespeare & Co, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and other media! The highly-esteemed author, Marie Ndiaye, was the winner of France’s most prestigious literature award, the Prix Goncourt, and a finalist for the 2013 Man Book International Prize.

Minneapolis Star-Tribune

Here is a small book that can be read in an evening. It’s a book that, once read, leaves you wondering what to think about it, but knowing at the least that you had a thought-provoking evening…. But the ensuing questions about what’s real and what’s metaphorical actually prove more intriguing than frustrating. Likely, this reaction is due to Ndiaye’s distinctive voice, gently rocking a reader through portraits that are hardly soothing.The result is a strange, strong series of stories.

Reading In Translation

Self-Portrait in Green is a book to be read on the move, in a bus, on a train, etc., where the reader’s own sense of direction and certainty is disrupted. This is because disorientation dominates NDiaye’s book; cases of misidentification, misappropriation, and misremembering abound. The result of this experimental literary technique could have been confusing, almost suffocating. Yet, NDiaye’s narrative unrolls effortlessly. This fluidity is due in part to the translator’s seasoned pen (ahem keyboard)…. Stump translates NDiaye’s weaving, ambiguous phrasing—so prevalent in French—into a clear English, though not one robbed of its strangeness. The book’s many temporal transitions in particular are seamless, the word choices notable. For a book filled to the brim with physical descriptions of the women in green, there is scant repetition; each portrait is vivid without relying on cliché.

Shakespeare & Co

What if you met your friend and didn’t recognise her, then saw her across the street and realised you’d been talking to a stranger? What happens when your sisters, your mother, your children act entirely unexpectedly? How do they become incarnations of the mysterious “women in green”? Man International Booker Prize nominee Marie NDiaye’s Self Portrait in Green is an affecting, novelistic memoir built from short stories that deal with close relations: how much can we ever know of those nearest to us, and can we know ourselves, and our own motives, any better?


This book skirts the line between a collection of short fiction, memoir, and novel, but I think it’s best understood as a set of scenes, variations on the theme of the “green lady”—an invention of NDiaye’s—that wades through feminine fear, power, and insecurity like no other book I’ve encountered.

Two Voices Salon with Sean Cotter on Blinding by Mircea Cartarescu [AUDIO]

blindingMausolems that resemble eyeballs, secret tunnels that become ears—and then vaginas—support groups and hard drinking for Mircea Cărtărescu’s translators, and just how Cărtărescu became such a famous author in Romania that calling him a “rock star” would be an insult . . .

All that and more can be heard in the audio player at the bottom of this webpage in our second Two Voices Salon, where the guest of honor is Sean Cotter, translator of Mircea Carterescu’s Blinding: The Left Wing (Archipelago Books, 2013). The first book in a 1,500-page trilogy, Blinding is an amazing ride through a dazzling, postmodern Romania, starting in Bucharest, somehow pivoting to New Orleans, and then back to Bucharest.

Our live audience agreed that Cotter was a hugely charming and erudite presence. As always, the conversation gets started off as we share what books in translation we’re currently reading. Then, after that, we turn to Cotter for an in-depth discussion of Blinding. Cotter is interviewed by Two Lines Press’s own Scott Esposito.

In addition to Cărtărescu’s Blinding, Cotter’s translations from the Romanian include Nichita Stănescu’s Wheel with a Single Spoke and Other Poems (recipient of the 2012 Best Translated Book Award for Poetry), Liliana Ursu’s Lightwall, and Nichita Danilov’s Secondhand Souls. His essays, articles, and translations have appeared in Conjunctions, Two Lines, and Translation Review. He is an associate professor of literature and literary translation at the University of Texas at Dallas, Center for Translation Studies.


0:20 The Council of Egypt by Leonardo Sciascia (translated by Adrienne Foulke)

1:40 Texas by Carmen Boullosa (translated by Samantha Schnee)

3:00 Report from the Besieged City by Zbigniew Herbert (translated by John Carpenter and Bogdana Carpenter)

3:45 Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano (translated by Mark Polizzotti)

4:40 Music & Literature Issue 5

5:40 Clarice Lispector, especially Água Viva (translated by Stefan Tobler)

6:10 Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai (translated by Ottilie Mulzet) and Three Light Years by Andrea Canobbio (translated by Anne Milano Appel)


7:10 Introductions

8:50 How the project to translate Blinding came about

10:15 Cărtărescu’s place on the Romanian writing scene and influences

13:30 Cotter’s interactions with Cărtărescu while translating Blinding, and how he dealt with problem words

17:50: Cărtărescu vis a vis Communism and the fall of the regime in 1989

20:55 What Blinding is about

26:10 Concepts of normality and abnormality in Blinding

27:54 What Cotter likes and didn’t like about Blinding

33:35 Why is the book titled Blinding, and was Cotter tempted to leave the title in the Romanian, as Orbitor?

36:20 The meeting of Cărtărescu’s various translators from around the world

41:35 Would Cotter translate Volume 2 of Blinding, and Cotter’s process while translating Volume 1.

46:05 The sounds of the Romanian original

46:55 Cărtărescu’s Romanian publisher, Humanitas

51:10 Cărtărescu’s publishers during the Communist era

52:45 How Cotter came to Romania

54:40 Translation problems Cotter dealt with while translating Blinding

1:05:10 Biblical language in Blinding and how Cotter dealt with it

1:09:00 Making Cărtărescu’s racial language appropriate for an American setting

February 17: Two Voices Salon with Karen Emmerich [EVENT]

emmerichOn February 17 it will be our honor to host the person who just might be the English-language’s pre-eminent Greek translator: Karen Emmerich.

We will undoubtedly talk about some of Karen’s dozen-plus full-length projects (and innumerable stories, articles, and poems), but the main topic that night will be her new title, The Scapegoat. Publishing on February 3 from Melville House Books, it is by the Greek author Sofia Nikolaidou, who has never before been translated into English.

The Scapegoat is a potent novel about journalism, how history is recorded, and the contemporary situation in Greece today. It is based on the real-life story of the famed reporter George Polk (who eventually had a prestigious journalism award named after him).

This Salon will take place at the Two Lines Press offices on Tuesday, February 17, starting at 6:00 pm. As always, we’ll begin the conversation with the latest and greatest in translation, then move on to the main event. Alcoholic beverages and snacks will be provided.

  • Tuesday, February 17
  • Two Lines Press offices
  • 582 Market St., Suite 700, San Francisco, CA 94104
  • 6:00 – 7:00 pm
  • Free food and drinks

Here is Melville House’s description of the book:

In 1948, the body of an American journalist is found floating in the bay off Thessaloniki. A Greek journalist is tried and convicted for the murder . . . but when he’s released twelve years later, he claims his confession was the result of torture.

Flash forward to modern day Greece, where a young, disaffected high school student is given an assignment for a school project: find the truth.

Based on the real story of famed CBS reporter George Polk—journalism’s prestigious Polk Awards were named after him—who was investigating embezzlement of U.S. aid by the right-wing Greek government, Nikolaidou’s novel is a sweeping saga that brings together the Greece of the post-war period with the current era, where the country finds itself facing turbulent political times once again.

Told by key players in the story—the dashing journalist’s Greek widow; the mother and sisters of the convicted man; the brutal Thessaloniki Chief of Police; a U.S. Foreign Office investigator—it is the modern-day student who is most affecting of them all, as he questions truth, justice and sacrifice . . . and how the past is always with us.

$45,000 NEA Grant for Two Lines Press

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE—The Center for the Art of Translation is pleased to announce that it has been awarded a $45,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to support Two Lines Press. This award makes possible the publication of new books in translation and the biannual journal Two Lines, a flagship of international literature.

“We are incredibly gratified by this award—this is the most generous level of support the Center for the Art of Translation has ever received from the NEA, and it is a measure of how much progress Two Lines Press has made in the three short years since its launch,” says Center Executive Director Michael Holtmann. The grant will support publication in 2015-16 of three full-length translations as well as stories, poems, and essays from dozens of languages in Two Lines.

This award caps off a banner year for Two Lines Press, which hosted its first-ever author tour—Nordic Council Literature Prize-winner Naja Marie Aidt, the author of Baboon, attended events in six major U.S. cities—and received accolades from the Los Angeles Times, Kirkus Reviews, Tin House, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Flavorwire, among many others.

Two Lines Press grew out of the 20-year history of the widely acclaimed translation journal Two Lines. Two Lines Press authors have received the Prix Goncourt, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the Prix Femina, the Nordic Council Literature Prize, and the Georg Büchner Prize. Marie NDiaye’s All My Friends (translated by Jordan Stump) was a finalist for the 2014 French-American Foundation Translation Prize. Forthcoming titles include Richard Weiner’s The Game for Real (translated from the Czech by Benjamin Paloff) and Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Sleep of the Righteous & Other Stories (translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole).

The Center for the Art of Translation is a San Francisco-based non-profit that champions the art of translation by publishing the best world writing in Two Lines Press, engaging audiences through Two Voices literary events, and transforming student learning through the Poetry Inside Out education program..

Which French Prizes Sell Books?

The website Paris Match has a pretty cool graphic where you can see how the various major French book awards stack up, in terms of moving copies of books. At may be no surprise, the Prix Goncourt is by far the best-selling prize. Here’s a screen capture to give an idea:

Screen Shot 2014-11-18 at 10.23.21 AM

And we’re quite impressed to see that Two Lines Press’s own Marie NDiaye is the second-best-selling author on that list, tied with the always popular Michel Houellebecq.

Looking at the Prix Femina (which NDiaye also won, albeit a few years before those tracked by the graphic) you can see that the Goncourt is really where it’s at, so far as sales are concerned.

Screen Shot 2014-11-18 at 10.26.33 AM

It’s a fun little feature, and you don’t really need any French to enjoy it. Have fun!

AUDIO: Dark and Stormy: A Night of Contemporary Swedish Poetry with Malena Mörling and Robert Hass

sbmh-newest(These notes were compiled by Two Lines Press intern Zuha Khan.)

As a part of San Francisco’s Litquake Festival, Two Voices and Green Apple Books teamed up to bring internationally acclaimed poet and translator Malena Mörling and former United States poet laureate (and translator) Robert Hass to discuss Swedish poetry in translation. The event, which occurred on October 15th, focused on the recently published anthology of Swedish poetry from the 20th and 21st century, The Star by My Head (Milkweed Editions in partnership with The Poetry Foundation). The poems span the beginnings of Modernism to the present day and feature eight of Sweden’s most highly regarded poets, including Nobel Prize winner Tomas Tranströmer—all poems in this volume were translated by Mörling and her co-editor Jonas Ellerström. Mörling and Hass discussed the breathtaking poetry, the differences between the English and Swedish language, and the translation process, among other things.

00:00 Introductions

5:40 Robert shares how he knows Malena, and ruminates about the importance of translation

8:28 Discussing Swedish poetry’s intense, brooding inwardness

9:20 Malena discusses Swedish literature as a phenomenon

10:28 Discussion of Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelöf

11:29 Reading of a Gunnar Ekelöf poem & discussion of poem & translation process

15:07 Malena & Jonas’s translation collaboration process

16:20 Back to discussing Ekelöf (influenced by Surrealism & Sufiism)

18:03 Discussion of Swedish poet ‪Edith Södergran‬

21:17 ‪Edith Södergran‬’s “I Saw A Tree” reading & discussion

24:20 ‪Edith Södergran‬’s “Decision” reading & discussion about translating her

30:30 Swedish poet Karl Werner Aspenström discussion

32:08 Aspenström’s “You & I & The World” reading & discussion

34:55 Aspenström’s “You Have To Practice Reality” reading &discussion about the loss of transcendence in 20th century poetry

37:43 Aspenström’s “After Having Played Mozart All Day” reading & discussion

38:55 Poet Tomas Tranströmer’s life story, the effects his stroke had on his writing & music

44:23 Tomas Tranströmer’s “Secrets on the Way,” and discussion about realizing one’s presence in the fabric of time and life

47:07 Tomas Tranströmer’s “Tracks” reading & discussion

48:38 Hass’s story about translating Tranströmer in the 1980s and the disparities/challenges between American translators working on Swedish poetry

50:10 Malena discussing the challenges of translating poems

52:25 Q&A Since most contemporary Swedish poets are bilingual in Swedish and English, do they do their own translations?

53:42: Q&A Do you write poetry? Did you write poetry before translating? Does your poetry match the voice of the poetry you translate?

54:18: Q&A Do you have a favorite poem from the collection?

55:42 Q&A How did you select the authors from a whole century of Swedish poetry?

58:20 Q&A How do you teach poetry? [to Malena]

59:44 Q&A Do you write poetry in Swedish or English? [to Malena]

1:01:01 Q&A Do you have a metaphor for the English language?

1:04:12 Closing with a reading of poems: written by Kristina Lugn and Marie Lundquist

AUDIO: Deconstructing Edouard Levé: Jan Steyn and Lorin Stein in Conversation with Scott Esposito

leve3We were very pleased to convene Edouard Levé’s two English-language translators for a night of investigation in his four strange books. Translator and critic Jan Steyn was joined by editor and translator Lorin Stein, in conversation with Two Lines Press’s Scott Esposito.

The conversation was conducted in The Lab, in San Francisco’s Mission District, and it covered a wide range of topics: Levé’s beginnings as a graphic artist, his literary influences—ranging from Montaigne to Andy Warhol and the Oulipo—his tragic death, and, of course, his four books.

The evening’s moderator was Two Lines Press’s Scott Esposito. And our two guests were Jan Steyn and Lorin Stein.

Jan Steyn is a South African translator from French and Afrikaans to English. He is the holder of a Comparative Literature degree from Emory University, and his translations include Suicide and Works by Edouard Levé, Alix’s Journal by Alix Cleo Roubaud, and Orphans by Hadrien Laroche (translated with Caite Dolan-Leach).

Lorin Stein is the editor of The Paris Review. Before taking the helm at the magazine, Stein worked as an editor at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, where he edited Natasha Wimmer’s translations of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and 2666. He is also the translator of Edouard Levé’s Autoportrait.

00:00 Introductions

1:56 Levé’s beginnings as a writer and influences

9:00 Levé’s fragmentary aesthetic

14:30 Why has Levé caught on so much?

19:35 Why is the “you” in Suicide?

22:00 How Levé’s books and art all fit together into a single text

25:50 The sense in which Levé’s books are “complete” or “incomplete”

27:26 Discussion of Levé’s Newspaper

34:00 Maintaining the mystery of Levé’s prose during the translation

40:00 Are any of the works in Works are impossible to create?

46:10 The origins of and reasons behind Autoportrait

49:30 The sense of completeness or incompleteness in Levé’s books

54:20 Levé and the Oulipo

59:00 The units of meaning in Levé’s books

1:01:15 Levé’s suicide

1:05:00 Most and least compelling things about Levé

December 2: Two Voices Salon with Sean Cotter [EVENT]

Sean_CotterWe are very pleased to announce that our second Two Voices Salon will be with Sean Cotter, translator of Mircea Cartarescu’s amazing novel Blinding.

It will be held on Tuesday, December 2, in the Two Lines Press offices at 582 Market St, Suite 700, San Francisco, CA 94104. The Salon will start at 6:00 pm and will include snacks and alcoholic beverages. This event is free.

If you are planning to attend, please come prepared to interact with the group. And, if possible, have in mind a recent translation that has interested you, that you might feel comfortable saying a few words about.

Blinding was released in 2013 by Archipelago Books and soon went on to become one of that year’s most talked-about novels-in-translation: it was a runner-up for the Best Translated Book Award and was acclaimed by places like Bookforum (“Nothing can prepare you for the scope and ambition of Blinding“), the Los Angeles Review of Books (“Blinding creates an entire world from dreams, memories, visions, and chimeras”) and even myself at the Kenyon Review (“I first read Blinding months ago, and there are images that I can still recall with complete crispness, indeed that I believe I will be able to recall years from now.”)

Sean Cotter’s translation of the book is nothing less than amazing. Cotter previously won the Best Translated Book Award for his work on Nichita Stănescu’s poetry collection, Wheel with a Single Spoke: and Other Poems, and he has been widely praised for Blinding. Writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Bogdan Suceavă, himself a Romanian author with knowledge of Cartarescu’s Romanian prose and poetry, said that

Reading Cotter’s Blinding feels like reading a work originally conceived in English. Many passages of the book are written like a poem, with meter and rhythm, and Cotter matches the quality the Romanian original has.

blindingIndeed, Blinding includes some of the most complex, ornate, and obscure words, sentences, and paragraphs that you will read in a work of fiction. In this Salon, we’ll talk to Cotter about the amazing work he did in bringing this book to an English-language audience.

We will also talk about the bizarre, personal, and spiritual voyage that Cartarescu takes us on in Blinding—itself only the first book of a 1500-page trilogy that took him a decade to write, and was finally completed in 2007. The book encompasses various eras, religions, continents, political systems . . . it is a true postmodern blending of virtually everything under the sun, and it all seems to somehow come back to Cartarescu’s Bucharest, and his country’s experience of Communism after the Second World War.

We look forward to seeing you on December 2! For an idea of what to expect, have a listen to our first Salon, in which we spoke with Ottilie Mulzet, translator of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below.

Connecting the Dots: Levé and Perec

This post comes to us from Two Lines Press Associate Editor Marthine Satris. We’ll be hosting an all-Levé event at The Lab next week, Wednesday, November 5, starting at 7:00 pm. (RSVP and invite friends on Facebook right here.)

Next week, Two Lines Press’s Scott Esposito will host a conversation between Edouard Levé’s translators Lorin Stein and Jan Steyn, under the auspices of our Two Voices event program. Here, I delve into one of Levé’s fascinating works—Autoportrait (translated by Lorin Stein)—one of the three books translated from this writer who has become a cult hit in the years following his 2007 suicide.

When I read Levé’s Autoportrait, I had a sense that his self-scrutiny was a project composed in response to the contemporary fascination with memoir and true stories. Then, Scott pointed out that the opening sentence of Levé’s book, “When I was young, I thought Life A User’s Manual would teach me how to live…,” referred to the Oulipan Georges Perec’s most famous novel. This made me think about the influence that the Oulipo had on him, particularly its charge to write within constraint.


Perec’s take on the memoir, his 1978 book I Remember, like Levé’s, thwarts common expectations of what memoir is supposed to do for us. In both of these challenging, often fascinating approaches to the genre, the common self-help version of memoir, read so we can be inspired, invigorated or just thankful we didn’t have to live that life, never appears. The banal takes center stage, with artful form as the stage itself.

Georges Perec’s I Remember was published in France in 1978, but only published in English this year, by David R Godine. As a writer, Perec set up the rules of literary games and wove his work amongst those constraints, most famously in his lipogrammatic novel, in English titled A Void, written (and translated!) without the letter E.

His I Remember, translated by David Bellos and Philip Terry, lists 479 sentences, each beginning “I remember . . .,” but what he remembers is limited by the rules of his game to common knowledge. In his memories there are no personal insights, no traumas of childhood, though he does offer matter of fact reports of what he ate, games he played, and nursery rhymes recited. Perec points us outward, to the media landscape and cultural contexts of his youth. Although one wouldn’t think a list could conjure sentiment, Perec creates a sense of nostalgia for post-war France, the lost landscape of his childhood and youth, effortlessly erased in just a few years.

The importance of the mundane is on display in his memories, as is the infiltration of mediated representations of the world into our conception of that world. A Parisian, he “remembers” the murder of Sharon Tate and the war between Pakistan and India, not because he experienced them, but because he learned of them second-hand. I Remember reminds us that reports of war and commercials, such as those for “Dop Shampoo” (number 63), come at us in the same stream of information.

Instead of following the common trope of the memoir—the self-creating individual—Perec’s memoir shows him being created by and among the hum of the world. The monotonous opening to 479 different memories, and one unfinished entry, flattens them all to the same level of importance. For Perec, as for many conceptual and avant-garde writers and artists, accumulation and repetition rather than genius create art.

While I Remember’s checking-off approach to the past might not seem poetic or profound, the building up over time of layered, repeating actions or words does create meaning. It’s not the kind of meaning that comes from being extraordinary or an inspiration, there’s no wilderness trek or heroic survival to inspire the reader. Rather, Perec charts his childhood, and his retention of tidbits from that time gives weight to everyone’s banal, meaningless acts and memories, saying that we are who we’ve become because of these elements that mean nothing on their own, but together are a pattern that shows how I exist in the world.

Perec’s I Remember is an act of repetition itself, built on an idea and form first used by American artist Joe Brainard’s book of the same title. And the repetition doesn’t end there: many writers since Perec have been inspired to write their own version of I Remember. Levé’s presentation of the structured banal is a spinoff, rather than another iteration. When the content is factual—and both Levé and Perec’s books of the self have been described as lists of facts—the way those facts are presented becomes the focus instead.


Levé’s version of a memoir is not as constricted in form and topic as Perec’s, yet the sentences (the book has no paragraph breaks) do make use of repetition (with variation) to engage the reader. Sometimes a few sentences list a string of dislikes, or a number of personal characteristics. In between these clumps, long strings of sentences connect, often through association, but sometimes they abruptly shift topic. There’s no regular length, and some sentences take up an entire page describing remembered scenes. Most of his sentences, as is appropriate in a self-portrait in words, begin with “I,” though not all.

There is no rigidity in either the book’s form or in Levé’s presentation of himself. Levé’s self-portrait has a soothing, fascinating rhythm, partly on account of his intermingling of very matter-of-fact, Perec-ian statements like, “I know the names of five or six current presidents or prime ministers of other countries,” with intimate, confessional moments, told in a tone that seems just as brooding and just as matter of fact. If Perec turned the reader outwards, toward only observable facts, Levé brings us in. One reads on, eager to find out what the author will reveal next.

Written in French in 2005, Autoportrait seems in some ways of our current confessional moment, rather than against it or apart. The personal essay dominates forms of expression now, at least in American print media, and like the writers of The New York Times’ “Modern Love” column or Lena Dunham’s Hannah on Girls, Levé turns himself inside out for us. Less estranging than Perec’s lists, which camouflage the writer in his surroundings, Levé nonetheless refuses to come to any conclusions about his life. He doesn’t organize it for us, or pare it down to a narrative that shows how everything led him to his current, fated moment. His raw emotion lacks all self-pity, which fascinates the reader even more—it’s like we, author and reader, are both studying the puzzle that is Levé. The Levé who writes, “Often I think I know nothing about myself,” yet fearlessly, shamelessly expose his fears, weaknesses, and limitations. Like Perec, Levé includes both the mundane details of life and the more “important” ones, but instead of wars and commercials, Levé balances confession and observation—and yet the confessions do not differ in tone from the observations, as in this moving, matter-of-fact, funny confrontation with his suicidal tendencies, and his musing social awkwardness:

In my periods of depression, I visualize a funeral after I kill myself, there are lots of friends there, lots of sadness and beauty, the event is so moving that it makes me want to live through it, so it makes me want to live. I don’t know how to leave naturally.

It’s anti-narrative, as is Perec’s version of memoir. But while Perec reminds you of things you might have forgotten, or informs you of the daily life of a France you never knew, Levé shows you elements of humanity you’ve been trying to avoid. Instead of revealing shared communal memories of a time and place, Levé seems to access shared fears. I felt a great deal of empathy toward Levé, reading Autoportrait. I wasn’t expecting to. I thought I’d get bored reading this stranger’s look inwards. Yet I wasn’t. I felt like I’d been trusted with his tremulous life, and recognized a common human experience in how he wrote it down.

Levé and Perec’s lists are extreme memoir in two ways: they present the information about their life in a form that draws attention to the random assortment of elements that make up a life, instead of seamlessly threading a life together so that we forget someone has artistically constructed a story for us to read, as a typical memoir might. Relatedly, instead of giving us only those moments of decision and importance, they give equal weight to the light and heavy elements of life. Levé writes that he prefers Raymond Roussel, “who writes unrealistic things in everyday words,” to Joyce, “who writes about banal things in extraordinary language.” Levé uses his ordinary words to tell us of the banal (and in some ways, even the moving emotions and experiences become banal in his distanced tone, yet never unimportant), in an experiment that seems to bring us closer to his body and mind than the form we take for realism ever could. And in those boring moments as well as the resonant emotions, I think we find unexpected communality.