In the course of discussing Edouard Levé’s final work, Suicide, it’s probably impossible to forego mentioning the author’s own suicide: On October 15, 2007, 10 days after submitting the manuscript to his editor, Levé killed himself. That Suicide was followed by suicide might be said to lend the slim, spare novel, which reflects on and reimagines the suicide of an unnamed friend of Levé 20 years earlier, an almost unbearable poignancy. The “you” of the work—ostensibly the long-dead, long-gone friend—becomes, uncannily, “I,” becomes Levé himself. Other details shift too: It’s the reader who’s now left behind, to wonder and ponder, to consider the implacable reasoning of a man on the verge of self-appointed, self-inflicted extinction.
But Suicide is not a suicide note. (Anyway, as Jan Steyn, who has translated the novel from its original French, observes in his afterword, Levé is said to have left behind an actual note.) To treat it as one is to miss much of the point of a work that is, at once, love letter, conceptual portrait, philosophical investigation, and case study in philology. Levé was, first and foremost, a conceptual artist, and the concept that most thoroughly preoccupied him was difference, the Derridean insight that meaning is never identical with itself. In much of his work, Levé exploited our innocent belief in our own understanding, our easy acceptance of signification. In Amérique (2006), for example, Levé collected photographs of small American towns named after world capitals, each picture in the series building on the frisson of dissonance.
But perhaps the Levé work most akin to Suicide is Autoportrait (2005; the English translation is forthcoming from Dalkey Archive Press). In Autoportrait, Levé offers up, with no paragraph breaks, observations about himself interspersed with his opinions. Suicide also works as a form of portrait, presenting a series of memories, the narrator’s recollections of his friend frequently serving as occasions for imaginative flights, attempts at interpretation, moments of reflection, a mode of biography. But in rather typical Levéian fashion, Suicide (and Levé’s suicide) becomes an after-the-fact gloss on the earlier work, which begins with an intimation of the author’s death by his own hand, both fulfilling its presentiment and demanding that we complete Levé’s self-portrait, re-read and re-view it in light of deferred information. (We might go further with the conceit: In 2002, Levé published Œuvres, a catalogue of 533 works that did not yet exist; he went on to realize some of the described projects. Leve’s suicide thus becomes a realization of the end he imagines for himself in his earlier writing.)
And yet it strikes me as misguided to treat Suicide as mere intellectual exercise. To do so is to acknowledge Levé’s (considerable and formidable) intellectual accomplishment at the risk of slighting the work’s aesthetic and emotion. (Of course, the novel’s true merit lies in its refusal to separate the philosophic from the imaginative, the linguistic from the affective.) The details of the suicide are presented simply:
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. Your wife doesn’t notice this. She stays outside. The weather is fine. She’s making the most of the sun. A few moments later she hears a gunshot. She rushes into the house, cries out your name, notices that the door to the stairway leading to the basement is open, goes down, and finds you there. You’ve put a bullet in your head with the rifle you had carefully prepared. On the table, you left a comic book open to a double-page spread. In the heat of the moment, your wife leans on the table; the book falls closed before she understands that this was your final message.
These details are excruciating, all the more so for their relentless clarity, their plainness. They speak to us much as the announcement of Septimus Warren Smith’s suicide speaks to Clarissa Dalloway at the party she has spent all day preparing in Mrs. Dalloway. “Death was defiance,” Mrs. Dalloway thinks. “Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death.” The narrator of Suicide envisions self-inflicted death in this way; his friend’s suicide speaks directly to him, invites him to make sense of the act and the life that preceded it, to know his friend in death as he could never know him in life. “Only the living seem incoherent,” the narrator remarks. “Death closes the series of events that constitutes their lives.” But—and Clarissa Dalloway understands this much too—death is also an accusation. To understand suicide, to accept it, is to stand accused: of surviving, perhaps, of compromising, of deferring meaning. “But, all things considered,” Suicide concludes, “the lull of death won out over life’s painful commotion.” The terrifying thing about the novel is that, as it ends, it’s no longer about one man’s demise, no longer about his friend’s attempt to grapple with it; its “I” and its “you” suddenly comprehend us.
Edouard Levé’s Suicide was released on April 14 by Dalkey Archive Press. To purchase it, click here.