In 2002, the French photographer Édouard Levé travelled to the United States to collect material for his photography series Amérique. Limiting his project in chance-procedural fashion, Levé gathered images from American towns and cities that shared their names with other places around the world. For instance, Amérique features photographs taken in Paris, Texas, and Berlin, Pennsylvania, and so on. Levé’s subjects are highways and buildings, people standing outside their homes or inside places of business, and the occasional spot of roadkill—in short, scenes from the classic American roadtrip as seen through the lens of a hypnotized Continental existentialist. Amérique maps the constellation of beauty, dilapidation, and chaos to be found in the national backroads. Its rich Kodachrome color and casual preparation uncover a raw mixture of humor and melancholy that’s rare among Levé’s body of chilly and often hermetic work. The subjects in Amérique are never candid, nor do they exactly pose. They look as though Levé encouraged them to stand however they wanted, and that somehow by trying to look the most themselves, Levé was able to capture something true both about his subjects and the nature of their representation. The effect is somewhere between August Sander and Harmony Korine.
What makes Amérique more interesting still is Levé’s development from a conceptual to an almost classical aesthetic. Levé’s real dynamism is partially concealed in his mannered, somewhat gimmicky early collections, like Rugby (models in civilian clothing posed in positions from rugby photos) or Pornographie (the same, this time from pornographic photos). The organic approach to Amérique comes almost as a shock; compositionally, these photos are as subtle as they are radical. Levé’s distinction between landscape and portraiture is willfully ambiguous, almost naïve: the muted smile of a Stockholm mechanic is as much its own landscape as the desolate Amsterdam roadside is a kind of inscrutable face. The syntax of the artistic photograph has come slightly unglued here; the open road seems to have hypnotized the camera-eye. Which Paris was that again?
Autoportrait, the brief, uncompromising memoir that Levé composed during that same trip, is a variation on this aesthetic in prose. The book is composed entirely of brisk declarative sentences about the author in the first person, often without any discernible narrative coherence. Representative segments can be found virtually at random: “I am against stucco. I do not like exposed stone any better than exposed beams. In company, I am less guilty when I transgress. I have not predicted that Mick Jagger will die of prostate cancer. I have a weakness for negative formulations, counter-formulations, reformulations, and deformations. When I expect to achieve nothing, ideas come.” These confessions, seemingly thrown off at random, nevertheless provide a glimpse into the architecture of the memoir itself. Such strands as the one above are scattered throughout Autoportrait, but, as with the allusions elsewhere to personal alienation and trauma that underscore Levé’s shell-shocked tone, one grasps at them at one’s own peril. From the outset, the book silently dissuades a search for any clé, any resolution to the prevailing mystery. Instead, these fragments and asides, compiled as they are, have an inescapable quality of music slowly building on itself, growing with an urgency that transcends rationality, sustained but never cathartic. Levé’s ambivalence to the memoir as a construct prevails throughout Autoportrait, its own kind of deformation, wherein the act of explaining a life becomes interchangeable with describing an image—whatever details can be discerned, in any order you like. Levé’s own portrait, too, is rendered a landscape.
Amérique was Édouard Levé’s final collection of photos. In 2007, the year after its publication, he took his own life at 42. His last prose work, the short novel Suicide, was completed 10 days before his death, and expands on an anecdote in Autoportrait about a childhood friend. “To survive an ordeal,” Levé says elsewhere, “I break it up into sections.” One might glean that those sections were his projects—his photos and his books—and that the ordeal was life itself.
In his essay “The Empty Plenum,” David Foster Wallace unpacks David Markson’s novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress by invoking Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus as the novel’s conceptual germ, and while I have no way of knowing whether Levé read any Wallace, Markson, or Wittgenstein (in the book he maligns reading in translation) I couldn’t shake Wallace’s explanation while reading Autoportrait: “[According to the Tractatus] the world is everything that is the case; the world is nothing but a huge mass of data, of logically discrete facts that have no intrinsic connection to one another…Any one [fact] can either be the case, or not be the case, and everything else remain the same.” Wallace contends that the tragedy of Markson’s heroine, Kate, is the futility of trying to restore continuity to facts that refuse to hang together—the novel’s own mirror of the Tractatus’s inhospitable world.
Autoportrait and Wittgenstein’s Mistress have much in common. Both are experimental, fragmentary meditations on lives lived relentlessly in the face of depression. For Kate, the last woman on Earth, meaning is crumbling all around. For Édouard, it’s the ability to find meaning for himself that’s crumbling. Autoportrait aspires to a kind of annihilation of the self. Ripped from their emotional and chronological continuum, the atomic facts of Levé’s life leave no system, no root by which we can return to the source. Autoportrait’s singular achievement is the melancholy which haunts its pages like a phantom but eludes comprehension.
Édouard Levé’s Autoportrait was released on February 7 by Dalkey Archive Press. To purchase it, click here.