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.
As with years past, we’re going to spend the next four weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.
Click here for all past and future posts in this series.
Suicide by Edouard Levé, translated by Jan Steyn
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press
Why This Book Should Win: The crazy intense backstory. The fact that Dalkey—one of the leading publishers of literature in translation—has yet to win a BTBA award.
Today’s post is written by Tom McCartan, who writes, works, and, lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He recently edited the collection Kurt Vonnegut: The Last Interview and Other Conversations for Melville House Publishing. His fiction has been published in Unsaid, the upcoming issue of which contains both Tom McCartan and Edouard Leve.
Despite my best efforts, it has proven somewhat impossible to discuss Edouard Levé’s Suicide without discussing Eduard Levé’s suicide. Let’s get it out of the way. Levé delivered Suicide to his editor ten days before taking his own life. This fact, as macabre as it is, is the house in which the novel lives and every review or blurb about Suicide from now to eternity will mention it. This is kind of a shame because Levé’s prose is good enough on its own. However, those inclined towards the postmodern are probably salivating over the idea, for it would be hard for a book to be more self-aware than Suicide. Some have even suggested that Suicide was Levé’s suicide note. I really hope that wasn’t the case, it would ruin the delicacy. Regardless, we’ll never know.
The novel does not have a plot, but rather its narrator (who could or could not be Levé) addresses a friend (wait, maybe the friend is Levé) who committed suicide twenty years ago. The result is homage in pointillist prose to a troubled soul explored in minute detail. It is a glimpse into the psychology of suicide. The narrator recounts the instances of his friend’s life in which he felt disassociated and addresses them back to his friend as if to absolve him of his suicide, although the narrator never claims to understand his friend’s pathos fully. We are only given the images and are left to wonder at reasons.
Suicide reads like a photo album. This is no surprise, considering that Levé was as much an accomplished photographer as he was anything else. The prose is clipped, almost terse; while each line can be seen to represent a single idea in just the same way a photo in an album represents one moment in time. These ideas, like collections of photos in an album, create events and distinct sections in a book where there are no chapters. Praise must be given to translator Jan Steyn who deftly maintained the integrity of each line/photograph while keeping the entire piece cohesive.
Suicide is at times beautiful, immensely sad at others, and in more moments than one might want to admit there is the potential in the text to be deeply relatable. I will not sit here and say, however, that Levé uses suicide as some sort of literary device for to teach us truth and/or beauty, because that is not what he does. Suicide is about suicide. Given that, however, there are still so many instances where a line, again like a favorite photograph in an album, so concisely articulates one of our more complex emotions or frames the nature of contemporary relationships.
Levé has written several books and put out a number of collections of photographs. The only other piece I’ve read, though, is “When I Look at a Strawberry, I Think of a Tongue” that was in the Paris Review last summer. I loved it.
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