Suicide: Tropes made original, even artistic

Edouard Levé killed himself just days after he finished writing Suicide. Yet his own unhappy story remains subordinate to this remarkable novel.

Angoisse de nuit, 2001. A photograph by Edouard Levé.
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It's a widely debated, though unexplained, fact that writers and artists are more likely to commit suicide than average. Such occurrences tend to fundamentally change the public perception of a writer, and this is perhaps suicide's most singular and fascinating aspect: it is the one act within all our powers that forces a reappraisal of a life.

Authorial suicides tend to send readers back into a writer's work for clues. In the case of the French writer and photographer Edouard Levé, these are not hard to find. A successful, up-and-coming author, he hanged himself on October 15, 2007, having delivered the manuscript for a short book titled Suicide to his publisher 10 days earlier. Published in France in 2008, an English-language edition has now been issued in Jan Steyn's fine translation.

Levé trained as an artist before publishing his first book with the influential French press Editions P.O.L in 2002. Given the circumstances of Suicide's publication, it is difficult not to look at it as a singular object, but it should be considered as part of a remarkably unified body of work. As Steyn's informative, perceptive afterword notes, Levé's three other works of literature are each as reticent and as bound by their conception as Suicide. Oeuvres, for example, is simply a collection of 533 sentences, each defining a potential work of literature. Likewise his immaculately arranged photographs, which share with the books a heavy interest in defamiliarisation and disembodiment. The images range from bizarre mock-ups - young individuals fully clothed in chic attire posing in sexual and rugby positions — to off-kilter documentary work: portraits of people who share names with celebrities such as Yves Klein, or photos of American backwaters called Berlin and Paris.

Suicide would be an odd and noteworthy work even if Levé had not killed himself. It is constructed almost entirely from short, lithe sentences written in the second person. Ostensibly these sentences are being spoken by an acquaintance looking back after 20 years on a friend who killed himself, and they both describe this suicidal man and narrate small but meaningful anecdotes from his life. On a most basic level it is clear that the narrative voice is attempting to do what any survivor would after a suicide - fill the vacuum of meaning - yet the success of Suicide is that it verges on allegory, allowing much broader interpretations.

Levé uses all the tropes that we have come to associate with suicide, but he animates them in original ways. The suicide's appearance and personality is detailed with uncommon sensitivity and scrupulousness, as are the feelings left behind in his friends and family. For example, a survivor's wish to understand why a loved one would take his life - and the impossibility of ever getting that answer - is evoked with characteristic elegance when "you" leaves a comic book open to a certain spread just as he commits the act. This final comment for his survivors is lost when, in the panic of discovering the body, "you's" wife knocks the comic down before recognising its significance. Later, "you's" father will pore over the book and construct an elaborate file of theories based on each spread.

The suicide itself is as effortlessly and succinctly narrated as any episode in the book, at once abrupt, affecting, and absurd. "You" and his wife are headed out to play tennis when "you" suddenly remember something and return indoors. As his wife waits for him to return, "you" put a rifle to his head and pull the trigger. How long had he contemplated death? Why did he choose to die in that moment? How premeditated was the act? We never know. The sentences that follow the rifle blast evoke sharp emotion despite their simplicity and insistence on surface detail: "She takes you in her arms and speaks to you. She sobs and falls against you. Her hands slide over the cold, damp basement floor. Her fingers scrape the ground. She stays for 15 minutes and feels your body go cold."

It is implied that the narrator was close to "you" at one time, and we know that they met when "you" was 17 (he dies at 25). Yet the exact nature of the relationship is left vague enough that one hardly wonders how the narrator comes about information that would seem to be difficult-to-obtain - after his death "you's" wife discovers a secret set of poetry he had written - and implausibly intimate: "At night, your wife's sleep lent lucidity to your solitude." So open-ended is Suicide that we might conceive of its narrator as less as a friend of "you" than as an aspect of "you's" consciousness.

Whoever the voice belongs to, it's quite clear that the suicide is what gives order to its diffuse recollections. In one instance the narrator pointedly remarks on just how diffuse Suicide is, saying, "to portray your life in order would be absurd ... My brain resurrects you through stochastic details, like picking marbles out of a bag." Yet these protestations are undercut by the fact that, again and again, the narrator admits that the suicide has now imposed a narrative: "your death gave it [life] this coherence"; "your suicide has become the foundational act."

As the book progresses it elaborates these notions of suicide as an act that can bring order from the absurd, as though it could be a metaphor for many other things. Levé has been described as a follower of Oulipo - a school of writing originated in France wherein formal constraints are used to produce fictions - and Suicide frequently feels like a book written under the constraint: "write a book about suicide." This is not to diminish the prose's emotional intensity, nor the pain that Levé must have known as a suicidal individual. It is to say that Levé's fiction is not a mere story but a small, finely wrought work of art.

This is chiefly achieved through a remarkably precise use of language that allows the book's submerged concerns to rise to the surface. This style reaches an apotheosis in the aforementioned poetry found by "you's" wife, which is appended to Suicide as a coda. Broken up into groups of three lines, each line of verse is a simple, personal definition of how something acts on "me". The lines interrelate meaningfully within each triad:

The millennium enfolds me
The century situates me
The decade decorates me

These short poems demonstrate precisely what makes Levé's style so powerful: as one reads the poems, their rules of construction become evident, and these simple, flexible principles fuse seamlessly with the words themselves to imply relationships and subtle meanings. Levé's choice to place the poetry at the end is another brilliant example of his ability to yoke structure to meaning. As the tide of gently accusing "you were's" is answered by a series of "me's," the suicide is finally offered the opportunity to define himself. Yet though Levé has allowed his suicide to speak, he still remains in a subordinate role: he now makes himself subject to all the things that made up the world around him.

As with Suicide's extremely limpid prose, these triads feel almost transparent in their simplicity, each meticulously milled down and polished. Much credit is due to translator Steyn for producing language that carries with it an intense, original feel while maintaining the original's minimalist understatement. With Steyn's translation one gets a clear sense of how well-formed and original was Levé's artistic vision, how his work makes a virtue of its limits, exploiting its boundaries within the less abstract stuff of style, story, and structure to produce remarkably subtle, rich effects. It lets us see that Levé wrote not novels but fictions, little books closer to art objects than literature.

Scott Esposito is the editor of the Quarterly Conversation, an online literary journal.