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Édouard Levé Two Ways
On the French writer and photographer and his influence
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The first part of today’s post is about Édouard Levé, whom I’ve learned from, as I have from Spalding Gray in the previous post. I’m writing about techniques partly to honor the artists who devised them and partly to show how you can steal them. Even if you think you aren’t a writer, you may want to try writing a piece as a list to see what will happen.
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In 2011, Paris Review published “When I Look at a Strawberry, I Think of a Tongue” by the French writer Édouard Levé. I could see how the tiny seeds on a strawberry did look like taste buds. Levé was known as a photographer before writing four, slim books. In 2007 at age forty-two, he killed himself after turning in his last book, Suicide. The piece in Paris Review, translated by Lorin Stein, was an excerpt from Levé’s third book, Autoportrait (2005). I didn’t exactly like it, the way you don’t exactly like falling in love, because everything about you has to change.
Autoportrait is a single paragraph built from seemingly random sentences by an unnamed narrator who is willing to say anything. It’s a list. Most sentences begin with I. Near the start of the book, the narrator says, “I don’t really listen to what people tell me. I forget things I don’t like. I look down dead-end streets. The end of a trip leaves me with a sad aftertaste the same as the end of a novel. I am not afraid of what comes at the end of life. I am slow to realize when someone mistreats me, it is always so surprising: evil is somehow unreal.” What has assembled these sentences? Variations on endings?
The narrator talks about sex, food, relationships, books he’s read, places he’s traveled to, experiences he’s collected like stamps in an album. Often he will summarize his temperament, as if he’s just noticing it. Like evil. The sentences are beautiful, each a tiny story creating intimacy with the illusion of candor. The book isn’t really about a person named Levé. For memoir to work, the actual person has to disappear into the book’s form. Form is so dominant with Levé, he gives you narrative without a plot.
Narrative without plot! Where have you been all my life? We leave places, but does anyone arrive? We bond and betray, bond and betray again. We find things that have been lost. Then we lose something else. Most plots are teleological, implying—like the creation of the world by God and social Darwinism—that the end of a story is imminent in its origin and according to a guiding plan. If the narrative voice, itself, becomes a bread crumb trail, not much has to happen for the reader to follow it.
Levé’s photography and books are all formal experiments. He’s often grouped with Georges Perec and other artists of the Oulipo movement, who liked imposing restraints on their work. (Perec wrote a novel using only words without the letter e.) Formal experiments, including some of Levé’s, can be cold and silly. His first book Oeuvres (2002) consists of 533 conceptual artworks he never produced. In Pornograhie, he photographed people performing graphic sex acts in office clothes. in other series, he photographed ordinary people and ordinary places with famous names, and he photographed a number of towns all called Anguish.
Unlike in these works, emotion does break through the brilliantly detailed Suicide, written entirely in the second person plural. Autoportrait, too, builds to something generous and vulnerable. It doesn’t matter what Levé’s narrator talks about. As soon as he touches something, you want to touch that thing in yourself: “From certain angles, tanned and wearing a black shirt, I can find myself handsome. I find myself ugly more often than handsome. I like my voice after a night out or when I have a cold. I am unacquainted with hunger. I was never in the army. I have never pulled a knife on anyone. I have never used a machine gun. I have fired a revolver. I have fired a rifle. I have shot an arrow. I have netted butterflies. I have observed rabbits. I have eaten pheasants. I recognize the scent of a tiger. I have touched the dry head of a tortoise and an elephant’s hard skin. I have caught sight of a herd of wild boar in a forest in Normandy. I ride. I do not explain. I do not excuse. I do not classify. I go fast. I am drawn to the brevity of English, shorter than French. I do not name the people I talk about to someone who doesn’t know them, I use, despite the trouble of it, abstract descriptions like “that friend whose parachute got tangled up with another parachute the time he jumped.”
Most days Richard and I write to a prompt, then read aloud what we’ve written. After Richard read the Levé piece, he suggested we try writing a listy thing ourselves. Lorin Stein and Jan Steyn had the same idea in 2014 when, after a discussion of Levé in San Francisco, they invited the audience to create “Levé-ian artworks and texts.”
As I began my experiment, I felt free and blank. What were things I loved? My list turned into a piece called “When People Fall, I Laugh.” When people fall I do actually laugh. The other day a friend told me her top teeth were cantilevering out, like an awning. I laughed. It wasn’t funny to her, but she said it funny.
The freedom you can take from Levé is freedom from argument, proof, and resolution. Under his influence, I began dropping conjunctions other than and. And makes things fatter and juicier. And is for a writer who has no stories about enlightenment, recovery, or conversion. Me: “I used to be, and I’m still doing it.” You don’t find out from reading Suicide why Levé hanged himself. He didn’t think it was his job to tell you. He thought his job was to write sentence A so it would lead you begging for sentence B. The brains of homo sapiens will make a narrative out of anything arranged in a series. If you find meaning in it, mazel tov.
When People Fall, I Laugh (after Édouard Levé)
At a certain stage of life I divided my belongings into “things I could not part with” and “things that were part of me.” The first group included a granite table designed by a man I loved. The second group included my father’s ashes.
In the period before cell phones, I liked checking messages from pay phones. The sweet-and-sour tang of the booths became associated with hope. In subways, I push back against the thighs of men who encroach on my space. On the street, if someone compliments me, I say, “Thank-you.” Growing up, I did not know what was expected of me by my parents. As I get older Marilyn Monroe becomes more and more beautiful.
When I meet someone, I feel I know them. As I get to know them, the stranger they become, but by then I am used to them. I wear new clothes over and over until they are no longer new. A friend suggested I wear a different shade of lipstick. I did not want to think she was looking at my mouth. I asked Richard why some people are more interested in monkeys than other people are, and he said, “Some people, when they look in the eyes of a monkey, they see their relatives.”
When I was four, in a clothing store, I picked out an expensive dress embroidered with strawberries. The saleswoman asked my mother why she was letting me make the choice. My mother remembered the story because she told the woman I was the kind of kid who knew her own mind. I remember the story because my mother stuck up for me.
I like being a guest in the homes of other people. When I offer my apartment to friends, it’s because I have no choice. When a young woman quickly established she was teaching at a prestigious university and working on her third book, I disliked her. When she said her son was mentally disabled and that her husband had recently lost a third of his body weight, I felt guilty. When she said, “I never wanted children,” I thought we should be friends.
In skiing, falling is flying. My mother used to say, “A Leopard never changes its spots.” I wondered why a leopard would want to change its spots. I hunted for the chocolate she hid behind books. Leopards don’t have spots when they are born; spots develop later on for camouflage. On the coldest day of the year I said, “Hello,” to a homeless man swaddled in a dirt-caked blanket in front of the Victoria’s Secret on Broadway. He looked up under a mop of dark curls and said, “Another place, another time.”
I discovered I had been unfriended by a writer on Facebook when his name appeared among people I might like to know. There was his picture in a little box, with his dark eyes and a jaunty wool cap pulled low on his forehead, as if where he lived it was permanent winter. When I met him I was in love and loved everyone. He didn’t have a boyfriend, and I hadn’t had one in a long time. When I realized he had unfriended me, it reminded me of times I had found myself alone on a set of swings, a stretch of beach, a park bench, a party.
When I was a child, puppets scared me. Puppets are closer in size to children than to adults. By the time I was old enough to express my fear of puppets, I had grown interested in puppets as abstractions. Siblings can fall into a kind of love that does not change. It also cannot be used, like furniture in a museum you are not allowed to sit on.
When I consider that most of humanity will drown in floods within the next 40 years, I file this away with wild, apocalyptic predictions, even though the ice caps are melting and the likelihood of a deluge is great. I answered an ad on Craig’s List for free tea and spices and arrived at a stately brownstone on 10th Street. The man who had placed the ad said he was in the tea business and was giving away what he didn’t need. He was small and recovering from a cold, and he sat at the end of a large table arrayed with teapots and books related to tea. I took a box of black tea mixed with lavender and a box of chai tea threaded with orange peel and spices. He offered me a new, enamel kettle I accepted for a friend. I was happy on the floor, rummaging in his boxes. He said, “I hope you are dangerous.” I wanted to give him something and said, “Yes.” I wondered if I would run into a man who had broken my heart. He lived nearby, and I imagined he would see me with the loot and say, “This is the reason I had to let go of you.”
I say things I don’t mean. I may mean them in the moment or tell myself I mean them in order not to appear a liar to myself. When, at fourteen, the psychoanalyst I was in treatment with took me into his bed, I wonder how he knew I wouldn’t tell my parents.
I used to imagine I would die of cancer, but as I get closer to death I think less about how it will happen. I laugh when people fall, even if they hurt themselves. Even if I am the one falling. I dreamed my father flew in through a window while my mother was out shopping. He said, “I can't wait,” and we flew out the window together. Below us, Broadway swirled like a river. A friend said, “Can you imagine sleeping with the husband of a woman who was like a mother to you?” I said, “Yes, I can imagine doing that.”
I prefer eating on the street to eating at home. I consider the time it takes to shop, prepare a meal, serve it, eat it, and clean up a kind of death. I once ate three hash brownies by accident and went for a walk. When the air cracked open and I could not feel the pavement, I wondered if I was having a stroke. I used to visit the apartment of a friend and look at the leftovers in her refrigerator. They were moldy, but I was jealous of the restaurants she went to. After the man who made the granite table died, I had sex with a doctor two times and two times I cried.
I have drawn blood in fights. When I used to look at my dog, I would see all the other animals that exist. I think shame is something animals feel, but animals do not feel guilt. I don’t laugh at satire. I laugh at slapstick and farce. One day a man approached me in the Guggenheim Museum. He smiled and asked how I was. He looked like someone I might like to know with his warm, brown eyes and tweed coat, but since I couldn’t place him I thought I had forgotten my life. As I walked down the ramp, I remembered the man’s name and that we had worked together at the Village Voice. Finally I remembered we’d had sex one night with an awkward finish. When I walked out onto Fifth Avenue, I didn’t know whether I was relieved to have left him standing on the ramp or sorry I had missed the chance to pretend nothing had happened.
Storm clouds over the desert are extra black, making up for the fact that it hardly ever rains. One day Richard and I were running from lightning, and a white streak came down and split my life into two parts. In my apartment, when I used to wait for the buzzer to ring, I would dance around to Jimmy Cliff singing, “The Harder They Come, The Harder They Fall.” A friend had a cancerous lump removed from a breast. She was dark-haired and pretty. As she unhooked her bra, she stood before me with her chin up. A divot of flesh was missing from her left breast, and I knew I would not forget the moment. She said she felt disfigured. I said she was beautiful. She didn’t have a boyfriend and neither did I. When my mother was in her 90s and close to death, she leaned against the door of her bedroom and said, “I wouldn’t have had children if anyone had asked me, which they didn’t.” The remark makes me miss her much the way I missed her when she was alive.
I find religions obscene. I think becoming a man is chasing history backwards. I love money as a possession as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life. John Maynard Keynes called this “a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.”
I like the rag-tag look of homemade signs at political demonstrations. I like the way alcohol makes you want to fuck away your life. I eat whipped cream even though I have high cholesterol. I don’t think artificial intelligence is any more intelligent than the other kind of intelligence. I have trouble sleeping. I once rode the horse of a mounted policeman in Central Park. I think the act of looking is erotic. A friend said, “There are stories that are mine to tell and stories that are not mine to tell.” I do not make this distinction. Richard said, “The problem with origin myths is they contain a story about the ending of things, too. People read into evolution a narrative that justifies human domination.” I said, “My life will go dark if you die.” He said, “No, it won’t,” and I could see what he meant.
My dog Sasha, drawn by Gardner Leaver, the man who designed the granite table.