This post is courtesy of BTBA judge, Scott Esposito. Scott Esposito blogs at Conversational Reading and you can find his tweets here.
Works – Edouard Levé, Translated byJan Steyn
Dalkeyy Archive Press
You really have to be impressed with the fact that Edouard Levé has had three books translated into English, and all three of them have hit the Best Translated Book Award longlist. Very few writers have had that honor.
I think what this points us toward is the fact that, despite some similarities among his books, each time Levé is doing something new and different. This, to me, is what book awards should be all about: awarding authors who show an incredible range, are willing to continually take risks, resist falling into patterns, and overall produce amazing results from original ideas.
Levé did all of these things consistently throughout his too-brief career, and if he were here now I’m sure he would still be doing just that. Works was his first book, and maybe his best. It’s simply just a bunch of descriptions of possible artworks that someone might make. Of course, a lot of people could come up with an idea like that for a book, but how many people could turn that idea into a brilliantly executed book that tears apart our notions of art while offering some of the most precise, beautiful writing of the year? And who other than Jan Steyn could bring it into such equally precise and beautiful English?
Maybe out of all the titles on the longlist, Works would permit the most rereadings, would still sound the freshest no matter how many times you read it and no matter how long from now you picked it back up. It has broad, fascinating notions about what art is or could be, and it’s loads and loads of fun. Levé was always subversive and comical, even if you couldn’t always tell exactly when he was being deadpan and when he wasn’t.
A book offering all this obviously deserves an award. There’s no other way to look at it.
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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