Saturday 15 August 2020


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Autoportrait by Édouard Levé   {Reviewed by THOMAS}
“I am inexhaustible on the subject of myself,” states Édouard Levé in a book that is nothing less than an attempt to exhaust everything that he can think of to say about himself, no matter how banal or embarrassing, with relentless objectivity. In one long string of seemingly random declarative statements without style or development or form (other than the form of the list, if a list can be said to be a form), the details accumulate with very fine grain, but the effect is disconcerting: the author comes no closer to exhausting his observations, and the idea that there is such a thing as a 'person' beyond the details seems more and more implausible. The list is not so much an accumulation as an obliteration: facts obscure that which they purport to represent. “I dream of an objective prose, but there is no such thing.” Levé’s style is deliberately and perfectly and admirably flat throughout (all perfect things should be admired (whatever that means)), like that of a police report. “I try to write prose that will be changed neither by translation nor by the passage of time.” The constructions often feel aphoristic but eschew the pretension of aphorisms to refer to anything other than the particulars of which they are constructed. There is no lens formed by these sentences to ‘see through’, no insight, no intimation of personality other than the jumbled bundling of details and tendencies assembled under the author’s name, no ‘self’ that expresses itself through these details or is approachable through these details, because we are none of us persons other than what we for convenience or comfort (or, rather, out of frustration and fear) bundle conceptually, mostly haphazardly, and treat as an entity or ‘person’. The more fact is compounded (or, rather, facts are compounded), the stronger the intimation that any attempt to exhaust the description of a person will never be approach we usually think of as a person. “If I look in mirrors for long enough, a moment comes when my face stops meaning anything.” As well as demonstrating the impossibility of the task which it attempts, description also cancels itself by implying for each positive statement a complementary negative statement. Each statement of the self-description of Édouard Levé functions to include those of us among his readers who are similar and to exclude those who are dissimilar. We find each statement either in accord or in disagreement with a statement we could similarly (or dissimilarly) make about ourselves. The reader is charted in the text as much as the author. The reader is continually comparing themselves to the author, finding accord or otherwise, exercising the kind of judgement concealed beneath all social interaction but typically hidden by content and mutuality. In Autoportrait, the author’s self-obsession is matched by our fascination with him, with the kinds of details that may or may not come to light in social interchange. Because the author is not aware of us and is not reciprocally interested in us, or feigning reciprocal interest in us, as would be the case in ‘real life’ social interaction, we feel no shame in our fascination, our fascination is dispassionate, clinical. He is likewise unaffected by our interest or otherwise in him. But as well as bundling together an open set of details that we may conveniently think of as facts (“Everything I write is true, but so what?”) about Édouard Levé (or ‘Édouard Levé’), the text also conjures an inverse Édouard Levé (or ‘Édouard Levé’) who is the opposite to him in every way, the person who nullifies him (in the way that all statements call into being their simple or compound opposites, their nullifiers). Levé’s obsession with identity, facsimile and the corrosive effects of representation reappear throughout the book, and towards the end he mentions the suicide of a friend from adolescence, which would form the basis for Levé’s final book, Suicide (after which Levé himself committed suicide). Édouard Levé was born on the same day as me, but on the other side of the planet. In Autoportrait he writes, “As a child I was convinced that I had a double on this earth, he and I were born on the same day, he had the same body, the same feelings I did, but not the same parents or the same background, for he lived on the other side of the planet, I knew that there was very little chance that I would meet him, but still I believed that this miracle would occur.” We never met and I am not that person. 

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