Reviewed by Astoria Aviles
In one of many photographs taken during his three-month visit to the United States in 2002, esteemed French photographer and author Édouard Levé captures an abandoned home in Paris, Texas. The haze of the blue sky over cracked and sunburned white paneling with a boarded up window and crooked roof abide in direct contrast to the grand limestone architecture of Paris, France; and the overgrowth of dandelions surrounding the front certainly do not evoke the grandeur of the Parc du Champ de Mars. The home, titled Maison abandonnée a Paris, it would seem, has failed to live up to the expectations of a Parisian home. It is this disconnect of place and discordant existence that Levé sought to capture. The photograph is part of a series entitled Série Amérique, in which Levé visited American cities that shared a name with a city from a foreign country. In addition to Paris, Levé photographed in Berlin, Florence, Oxford, Canton, Rio, Amsterdam, and Rome, among others, all in the United States.
During his travels, Levé wrote the third of his literary works, Autoportrait, published by P.O.L. three years later. The work is composed entirely of declarations, rather like a series of snapshots. Levé’s passion for capturing the moment is unequivocally an earnest one. Appropriately titled Self-portrait, Levé lists fragments of thoughts, ideas, memories, personal opinions and confessions to build a collage of himself. Each sentence exists on its own, almost devoid of a clear narrative or context, yet somehow relating to the whole of Levé, the man behind the lens.
Such a fragmentary work, however, does not exist simply as a reflection of a passion for photographic spontaneity, but rather as an exhibition of a new kind of self-exegesis. Levé writes, “I dream of an objective prose, but there is no such thing” (55). Such decisiveness in Levé’s declarations engenders a level of objectivity, but his actuality lies in his uncanny ability to both engage and estrange a reader. The reader must learn to navigate through a constantly changing tide, and only after such adaptation can the reader begin to understand the meaning behind everything that has washed ashore. There are moments, however, where Levé is more explicit. In the midst of arbitrary fragments like “I would rather have someone tell me about an exhibition than see it with my own eyes. I do not lie” (55), or “I sleep in absolute darkness. I have dry skin” (98), Levé then interjects a series of statements that act as seismic reminders of the work as a whole:
I do not write memoirs. I do not write novels. I do not write short stories. I do not write plays. I do not write poems. I do not write mysteries. I do not write science fiction. I write fragments. I do not tell stories from things I’ve read or movies I’ve seen, I describe impressions, I make judgments. (96)
Autoportrait was published in France in 2005. Levé killed himself two years later, just ten days after submitting the manuscript for his fourth work, Suicide, to his editor. His works had been published only in France until April 2011, when Suicide was published in English in the United States. This year, Autoportrait appeared from Dalkey Archive Press in a translation by Lorin Stein. When asked about the translation process, Stein describes the act of translating as being “part of a conversation” with Levé. To translate any text is to enter intimately into the reformation and recreation of a work. However, given Levé’s unsystematic work, recreating a narrative and objective voice presents a daunting challenge. Stein says that capturing Levé called for the translator “to disappear.” Given such dynamism and sense of detachment in each translated statement, Stein has indeed achieved his vanishing act. To recreate such an ardent work, in its erratic and intrepid composition of such a man, Stein has demonstrated his loyalty to Levé’s voice.
When asked what contextual or informative materials he used in the process of translation, Stein mentions Joe Brainard, whose I Remember is similar in its deployment of declarative statements (most begin with “I remember”). Levé even directly mentions Brainard: “Joe Brainard is less affirmative than Walt Whitman” (28). While familiar with and evidently influenced by Brainard’s work, it is perhaps more pragmatic to consider Levé’s foremost passion for photography (take, for example, the Maison abandonnée a Paris). The discord between Paris, Texas, and Paris, France aside, there is an emptiness in the Maison abandonnée, something beyond the photograph. Levé’s picture is an argument for the striking disconnect between a home occupied in Paris, France, and a home abandoned in Paris, Texas. Yet, too, the photograph becomes reflexive of Levé’s work with the mundane or detached perspective. As he writes in the last pages of Autoportrait, “I prefer a ruin to a monument” (117).
From both his photography and his literary works, Levé’s voice contains a passive yet surprising tone, blunt and frank in its delivery but also refreshingly sincere. Levé is present in every moment of this self-portrait, but his presence is inherently an absence. Such a work cannot be read without simultaneously being reread, for each fragment is part of Levé as a cell is part of a body. In the middle of the work Levé writes, “I am always shocked when people give me directions and they actually get me where I’m going: words become road” (88). Now, perhaps, despite the sharp turns and surprising dead ends, English-language readers can now navigate Levé’s road in Autoportrait.