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.