Sunday, February 12, 2012

In the end, after all: Suicide by Edouard Levé

                "Suicide calculated in advance, I thought, no spontaneous act of desperation"

The secret of this calculation and the auratic horror of the act sets narrative in motion, in the mind and on the page.
One Saturday in the month of August, you leave your home wearing your tennis gear, accompanied by your wife. In the middle of the garden you point out to her that you've forgotten your racket in the house. You go back to look for it, but instead of making your way toward the cupboard in the entryway where you normally keep it, you head down into the basement.
Eduoard Levé's Suicide begins with a description of the subject's act, unforgettable for its nonchalance, and continues with evidence of what may or may not be its calculation: the subject's taste for the unknown, for taking the elevator up but never down, for dead authors still in print, for reading a dictionary like a novel, for collecting unusual names.
During the week you sometimes thought it was Sunday. You didn't like to travel. You rarely went abroad. You would spend your time in your bedroom. It seemed useless to you to travel for miles in order to stay in a place less comfortable than your own. To think up imaginary holidays was enough for you. [trans. Jan Steyn]
Such apparently random facts occurring to the narrator begin to cohere into a story, and, in the end, after 118 pages, a book.  

In the end. Such is the necessity for coherence: death is like the dark backing a mirror needs. Levé's narrator is well aware of this and immanent reflections act as a fixative to memory and anecdote: "Your death has written your life"; "Only the living seem incoherent. Death closes the series of events that constitute their lives"; "If you had wanted to announce your suicide, which is to say renounce it, you would have chosen a gentler method"; since the suicide, he says, he has never heard someone tell the story of your life from the beginning: "Your suicide has become the foundational act".

Edouard Levé began as painter, became a conceptual photographer and then a writer inspired by the constrained writing of the OuLiPo, and Suicide's solemn insouciance does resemble an object in a white walled gallery. Only through the occasional window – an episode in which the friend explores Bordeaux, an anecdote about him climbing the wall of a graveyard – does the narrative warm to its genre. Otherwise the novel relies on the gravity of suicide to draw the reader through weightless disclosure. This is less a failing than the very challenge set by Suicide: what, after all, gives meaning to a life?

After all. The glory of storytelling – its remove, its freedom, its all-appeasing "And then ..."  – still seeks to ground itself in its absence, and what in other novels can be enjoyed as lighthearted metafictional discourse here becomes a conspicuous anxiety about its status. What, after all, gives meaning to a narrative? Levé's suicide ten days after submitting Suicide to his publisher offers an answer.

The epigram with which I began is the epigram to Thomas Bernhard's novel The Loser (Der Untergeher, literally the undergoer) and refers to the suicide of Wertheimer, a failed pianist who, after hearing of the natural death of Glenn Gould, his friend, his piano hero and the one who dubbed him a loser, hangs himself, thereby prompting the narrator, their mutual friend who had renounced his own piano career in face of Gould's virtuosity, to abandon his work About Glenn Gould to write instead about Wertheimer: "I only had two people in my life who gave it any meaning: Glenn and Wertheimer. Now Glenn and Wertheimer are dead and I have to come to terms with this fact." We are reading that coming to terms.

There is doubling here as in Suicide: where "you" is also the narrator, and the narrator is also Levé, the unnamed narrator of The Loser is also Glenn Gould, Wertheimer and Thomas Bernhard. The three deaths involved are necessarily literary; fathomed from a distance: the one who writes fails to go under. Yet this failure is where Bernhard and Levé begin. Their works, very similar, very different, demonstrate the multiplicity of solutions bestowed by failure. In announcing their failure, both writers renounce it. Yes, it is very true that Bernhard's literary virtuosity is enough to drive living writers to give up, but he too chose voluntary death.


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