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.

Baboon is Taking Over!


Published at the beginning of the month, Naja Marie Aidt’s Baboon is making waves all over the media—from the Los Angeles Review of Books and Music & Literature to top 10 lists on Flavorwire. We’re incredibly excited by this and thought we’d share some of the kind words!!

Los Angeles Review of Books

Naja Marie Aidt’s Baboon, published in 2006, is in some ways a national literary treasure, a collection all subsequent story collections have been forced to reckon with (Nors’s included). On its publication in Denmark it was met with unusual critical acclaim, and went on to win the 2006 Danish Critics Prize as well as the 2008 Nordic Council’s Literature Prize, Scandinavia’s highest literary honor whose laureates include Sjón and Per Petterson. Baboon’s belated appearance in English, beautifully and hauntingly rendered by the incomparable Denise Newman (translator of Inger Christensen’s short novels), is a major literary event.

Music & Literature

While Aidt’s work may not be well-known in English, it will hopefully be the case that Denise Newman’s beautiful translation will bring the author a wider audience. Undoubtedly one of the most intelligent writers of the contemporary literary world, Aidt is also clearly one of the most compassionate—and therefore one of the most important—voices in fiction. How she bears the weight of such empathic descriptions of her characters, who we feel for as though we had stumbled directly into their lives, is a credit to her brilliant insight into the human condition.

And featured in Jonathon Sturgeon’s Flavorwire list, “10 New Translated Books to Read Right Now“.

Aidt won the Nordic Council Literature Prize for Baboon, which comes to us from Two Lines Press. Called “desperate” and “frantic” and “painfully universal,” the stories promise something special. Honestly, I’d trust anything from Two Lines Press, which has quickly set itself at the vanguard of translated literature in America.

AUDIO: Two Voices Salon with Ottilie Mulzet Discussing Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai

Ottillie-MulzetOn October 9, 2014, it was our pleasure to host, via Skype, Ottilie Mulzet at the Two Lines Press offices in San Francisco. Mulzet is perhaps best-known as the translator of Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, winner of the 2013 Best Translated Book Award. In addition, Mulzet is the translator of AnimalInside, also by Krasznahorkai, as well as upcoming works by Krasznahorkai, a book-length memoir by the Hungarian poet Szilard Borbely, and other upcoming projects.

The Salon begins with a discussion of recent translation news: Patrick Modiano’s Nobel Prize in Literature (announced that very day), plus new works in translation. From there we start the conversation with Mulzet, who focuses on Seiobo There Below and her working relationship with Krasznahorkai and his Hungarian prose. The conversation also ranges among his literary influences, the reception of Seiobo in Hungary, Mulzet’s upcoming projects, and even Krasznahorkai’s collaborations with filmmaker Béla Tarr.

00:00 Introductions

00:50 Opening conversation

  • 1:10 Nobel Prize Award to Patrick Modiano
  • 5:00 A Thousand Forests in One Acorn, edited by Valerie Miles (Open Letter Books)
  • 7:15 The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim and a Life in Translation, edited by Esther Allen, Sean Cotter & Russell Scott Valentino (Open Letter Books)
  • 8:37 The Last Lover by Can Xue (translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen) (Yale University Press)
  • 9:10 I Remember by Georges Perec (translated by Philip Terry) (Godine)

10:10 Introductions to Ottilie Mulzet and Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai

11:15 How Mulzet came to translation Seiobo and how she discovered Krasznahorkai’s writing

17:20 Mulzet’s description of Seiobo

22:00 Mulzet discussing how Krasznahorkai’s Hungarian functions, and how she rendered it in English, with examples read directly from Seiobo

39:35 Mulzet’s level of interaction with Krasznahorkai when resolving the many ambiguities inherent in the Hungarian original of Seiobo

43:20 The reception of Seiobo in Hungary

46:13 Mulzet discusses Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens, her next Krasznahorkai translation, available from Seagull Books in 2015

51:30 Krasznahorkai’s ambition vis a vis Satantago

52:15: Krasznahorkai’s work with Béla Tarr

56:40 Literary influences on Krasznahorkai

59:05 The absence of gender in the Hungarian language

1:02:50 Mulzet’s upcoming translations: a book by the Hungarian poet Szilárd Borbély, another book by Krasznahorkai, and others

Reactions to Nobel Prize Winner Patrick Modiano

patrick modiano

The winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature was announced today. It wasn’t Murakami or Ngũgĩ—names that people had eagerly bet on—but a French author by the name of Patrick Modiano. The Prize citation noted that he was picked for his masterful execution of “the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation” (his novels often take place in the WWII era, Nazi-occupied France). Here are a collection of reactions to the announcement from various news outlets—some congratulatory and some disgruntled.

The New Yorker

So it is—and Ladbrokes, the venerable British gambling establishment, is giving odds on forty-six writers. At the top of the list right this minute is Ngugi wa Thiong’o, with Haruki Murakami a tight second. (Update: In the end, the winner was Patrick Modiano, a long shot.) — Philip Gourevitch

BBC News

Patrick Modiano has been a national literary treasure in France for decades. But up until now, he has also been one of the country’s best-kept secrets. Only a handful of his 25-odd novels have been translated into English. — Henri Astier

The Literary Saloon

They’ve announced that Patrick Modiano is the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature.

Modiano has long been mentioned as a contender—and some betting interest did put his odds up in contender-territory at 10/1 (as I mentioned yesterday, I figured it was likely he was among the five finalists)—but this still comes as a bit of a surprise/shock/disappointment to me. — M.A.Orthofer

New York Times

In choosing Mr. Modiano, the academy seems to be shrugging off criticism that the literature prize has often been too Eurocentric and tipped toward lesser-known writers who focus on political themes. The Nobel committee has drawn criticism in the past for shunning authors whose works are widely read in favor of more obscure writers. The selection of Ms. Munro last year was celebrated by many in the literary community as a sign that the academy was embracing more mainstream and popular authors. — Alexandra Alter & Dan Bilefsky

The Atlantic

A master of fiction about memory and loss, fewer than half his works have been translated into English . . . . The British betting firm Ladbrokes had Modiano as the joint-fourth favorite for the award last night. — Noah Gordon

The Millions

In the type of surprise move many Nobel watchers have become accustomed to, the committee has awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature to French novelist Patrick Modiano, a writer with a deep body of work, but one who was not among the “favorites” discussed in the flurry of pre-announcement speculation . . .

While Modiano’s novels have been published in English translations over the years, including by major publishers like Knopf, only a handful of his 25 or so books are currently in print in the U.S. These include Honeymoon and Catherine Certitude, a children’s book, illustrated by Sempe. Yale will be releasing a new edition next year that collects three Modiano novellas under the title Suspended Sentences.

Washington Post

Missing Person [a Modiano novel] is published in the United States by a small indie press owned by David R. Godine. This morning, Godine missed the Nobel announcement because he was in Dublin, N.H., staking his dahlias in the garden. Reached by phone, he exclaimed, “This means we’ll be ahead this year!”

Modiano is the second French Nobel winner that Godine publishes. Years ago, he went to the Frankfurt Book Festival and asked, “Who are the great writers who have never been published in English?” He signed Modiano and J. M. G. Le Clézio, who won the Nobel in 2008.” — Ron Charles

11/5: Deconstructing Edouard Levé [EVENT]

leveJoin us for a night of experimentation and conversation as we celebrate the work of French writer and artist Edouard Levé.

Written with a “strange combination of formal distance and emotional immediacy” (Slate), and filled with whimsy, dark humor, relentless experimentation, and crystalline prose, Levé’s books have become celebrated for their elegance, poetic beauty, and inventive ideas. Himself inspired by great writers from the experimental French literary collective the Oulipo, Levé has gone on to energize a new generation of writers and artists around the world. His writing has been fêted in publications ranging from The Paris Review to the Los Angeles Times, and he has quickly become a fixture of innovative writing programs and underground literary scenes across the United States.

To delve into this remarkably original, diverse body of writing, we bring together two men with an intimate knowledge of Levé’s books—his two English-language translators, Jan Steyn and Lorin Stein. They’ll be in conversation with Two Lines Press’s Scott Esposito, a certified Levé-ian and co-author of The End of Oulipo?

works-leveLevé’s book Autoportrait consists of a single, 100-page paragraph of observations about himself. In the words of Slate columnist Mark O’Connell “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.”

His Works consists of 533 numbered ideas for artworks imagined by the author but never realized. The Guardian called it “a delight to read, so full of surprises, so many unexpected moments of laughter, reverie and delight.”

And his final book, Suicide—handed into his publisher just 8 days before Levé took his own life—is a look at the titular phenomenon unlike any other.

In this interactive and wide-ranging evening of all things Levé we will immerse ourselves in the artistry and ideas behind his books—and we will also invite the audience to participate in creating some Levé-ian artworks and texts of our own. No prior knowledge of Levé of experimental prose necessary!

It all takes place at The Lab, one of the Bay Area’s top venues for innovative literary events. Have a drink, dive in to Levé’s remarkably addictive prose, and interact with some of the most ardent and knowledgeable Levé-ians in the United States!

  • The Lab
  • 2948 16th St, San Francisco, CA 94103
  • 7:00 pm
  • FREE
  • Cash bar, and copies of Levé’s books available for sale

Jan Steyn is a South African translator from French and Afrikaans to English. He is currently studying Comparative Literature at Emory University. His translations include Suicide and Works by Edouard Levé, and Alix’s Journal by Alix Cleo Roubaud.

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.

The Thing That’s Missing from Comp Lit

Zuha Khan is TLP’s Fall Intern! She is a recent college graduate with a B.A. in Comparative Literature and has high hopes to join the publishing world. Zuha’s major sparked her curiosity about translated works and led her to Two Lines.

TP_Cover_largeSince I’m an interested newcomer to the field of translation in publishing, Two Lines Press’s Scott Esposito recommended that I read through The Three Percent Problem. This is an e-book that Chad Post of Open Letter Books put together a couple of years ago based on his huge amounts of personal involvement with (seemingly) virtually every aspect of literary translation. It covers everything from translation statistics (with commentary on various countries) to the lives of translators and how all of it is affected by the globalization of English.

The more I read, the more I vigorously agreed with what was being discussed. As a Comp Lit undergrad, I came to a lot of unfortunate realizations about what little interest there is in translations.

In particular I had noticed the following things:

  • Hardly any English majors knew what Comparative Literature was or its importance
  • The head of the Comp Lit department pushed me toward European languages because of their similarities to English
  • The fact that many schools don’t even have a Comp Lit department, and in others (like mine) the department is miniscule (my graduating class was less than 10 students)
  • Even within my Comp Lit department, the art of translation was almost never discussed

Every realization I had made aligned with what I was reading in The Three Percent Problem. There was a twisted sense of comfort in that. After the first chapter, a few lines kept ringing in my head:

[English’s indifference to translation] is also a roadblock to global discourse that affects writers in every language and . . . imposes itself as the sole mode of globalization. . . . The real issue is not the English language—but the cultural forces within the language that are resistant to translation . . .

Post’s point about “cultural forces within the language that are resistant to translation” completely aligns with my experience, and, personally, I find it really peeving! Typically, my professors would only mention a book’s country of origin. For four years, we never delved into the specifics of language and what the translation process might have been like.

In my final Comp Lit course, that all changed. My professor had us read Amos Kenan’s The Road to Ein Harod in English, and on the day of discussion she brought a professor friend from UC Berkeley with a background in Hebrew and Israeli literature. She had the original Hebrew text of the novel, and we discussed specific words that were lost in translation and changed whole meanings of certain scenes. We examined the work as a translation of the novel and not simply as a text.

raod-ein-harodIt was unfortunate that it took so long to reach this level of discussion about translation in a field that is all about translated books. After the Kenan talk, I wondered how much had been overlooked in my other classes. In The Road to Ein Harod, the Hebrew word for “soil” is translated as “land,” and this makes a harrowing moment near the end of the novel even more meaningful and gripping. Later, I looked through all the course books I’d collected, so many of them translations, and realized how much depth there is to that field. Also, I became aware of just how deeply the “cultural forces” resist the dialogues that translation attempts to bring to English. It ignited a deep curiosity.

With that in mind, if literature is the collective consciousness of the time and place it was written, how does one have successful global discourses? Kenan’s novel about a futuristic, dystopic, Israeli military police state reflected his thoughts about the country he lived in at the time. When I read it, I felt like I received a deeper understanding of Israel that might have been impossible otherwise. As a part of the discourse we participate in when we read books like Kenan’s I think it’s important to always be aware of where these books came from, and what was required to bring them to us in English.