Why This Book Should Win: "Autoportrait" by Edouard Levé [BTBA 2013]
As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.
Autoportrait by Edouard Levé, translated from the French by Lorin Stein and published by Dalkey Archive Press
This piece is by bookseller and BTBA judge, Stephen Sparks.
Among the stellar books included in this year’s BTBA longlist is a slim volume by Edouard Levé called Autoportrait (Dalkey Archive Press). It’s an uncategorizable book: not a memoir in any traditional sense, not a novel either. Like the best books, it resists the straightjacket of genre, existing outside the bounds of easy classification. I think it’s the most unusual and daring piece of writing in the bunch.
Autoportrait is a collection of allusively connected declarative sentences, ranging from the mundane to the subtly profound, all reflecting the narrator’s (let’s call him Levé) physical and mental life. Levé’s tone never rises above a flat monotone, which is unnerving and oddly comforting.
I can open a page at random to provide a sampling of the method of composition:
I am afraid of ending up a bum. I am afraid of having my computer and negatives stolen. I cannot tell what, in me, is innate. I do not have a head for business. I have stepped on a rake and had the handle hit me in the face. I have gone to four psychiatrists, one psychologist, one psychotherapist, and five psychoanalysts. I look for the simple things I no longer see. I do not go to confession. Legs slightly open excite me more than legs wide open. I have trouble forbidding. I am not mature. When I look at a strawberry, I think of a tongue, when I lick one, of a kiss. I can see how drops of water could be torture. A burn on my tongue has a taste. My memories, good or bad, are sad the way dead things are sad.
Page after page of this may strike one as tedious, or interesting only insofar as the reader finds Levé interesting. There are no shocking revelations, no scandalous admissions, no salacious gossip. Instead, Levé takes a more daring risk: he confronts the unexciting self head-on, scrutinizing himself so closely that the resultant text verges on irrelevancy to anyone but its author.
Yet he manages to avoid tedium—the book inevitably lulls at times, but never bores—and somehow even heightens the stakes with a fine balance of facts and feelings. Despite its proliferation of I’s, Autoportrait paradoxically manages to be as much a book about us, each reader, as Levé. It sucks us into the whirlpool of another mind and spits us back out in our own, where we confront our own flat feet, our habitual failure to fill up ice cube trays, our discomfort in bathrooms next to kitchens. And while it may ultimately be egotistical to call a book that acts as a mirror one of the most memorable I’ve read this year, I think Autoportrait is a remarkable and unforgettable exploration of all that’s singular and universal in the self.