Edouard Levé’s Suicide, a slim, declarative, idea-driven novel, is daring and raw, and packed full of rewards for any reader willing to take a wide step outside of the American mainstream.
Originally published in France in 2008, Edouard Levé’s Suicide is a nonlinear, almost plotless meditation on living and dying, and the torment of time. The novel, which was the Levé’s first book be translated into English, begins (perhaps not surprisingly) with a suicide. The narrator’s friend, an unnamed “you” addressed throughout the story, leaves the house with his wife to play tennis, but tells her he has forgotten something, goes back inside, and shoots himself in the head. The novel spends the next hundred or so pages exploring the life of the “you” through little scenes of everyday life, mixed with meditations on the psyche of the friend. Levé abruptly shifts back and forth between the two sections through declarative statements and unpolished transitions into scene in a way that can be jarring at first, but quickly settles into a readable rhythm. After a scene of the narrator and the friend drinking, Levé whooshes out of the stage of action, and writes, “You kept your day planners from previous years. You would reread them when you doubted your existence.” There is no palpable reason for the transitions or the order, but as Levé states, “To portray your life in order would be absurd: I remember you at random. My brain resurrects you through stochastic details, like picking marbles out of a bag.”
The friend believed that, “A dictionary resembles the world more than a novel does, because the world is not a coherent sequence of actions but a constellation of things perceived.” In this declaration, we find the core of the friend’s unhappiness: an inability to live with time. He loved literature so much because, “You suffered real life in its continuous stream, but you controlled the flow of fictional life by reading at your own rhythm.” For him, “the past would be forever improving, the future would draw you forward, but the present would weigh you down.” There are hints throughout the book that if only the joy of the future, of potential, could be wrangled in the present, happiness would be within reach. We learn that the friend “would like to receive, along with invitations, the menus of the dinners to which you had been invited, in order to delight in advance over the dishes you would consume. To future pleasures would have been added a sequence of present desires.” But on anti-depressants the friend finds the eternal present, the living-in-the-moment that has proved so elusive, and finds it terrible: “Your memory of recent events became thin. You didn’t retain the stories just told you. In the middle of anecdote, you asked yourself how it had begun…One week after having started to take the new anti-depressant, you had become a ghost.”
What redeems this novel is that the great majority of the book does not wallow in depression and despair—it shows one person trying to find a way to live and another attempting to reconcile his friend’s suicide with the quietly charming man he knew. And the meditations on friendship and memory are some of the most beautiful portions of the book:
A ruin is an accidental aesthetic object. If it becomes beautiful, this was certainly not the intention. A ruin is not constructed or maintained. The tendency of a ruin is to crumble down into a heap. The most beautiful parts remain standing despite their wear and tear. The memory of you is what stays up, your body what subsides. Your ghost remains upright in memory, while your skeleton is decomposing in the earth.
It is worth mentioning that Levé took his own life ten days after turning in the manuscript of Suicide. I bring it up here and not earlier, because, as David Lipsky wrote about David Foster Wallace, “Suicide is such a powerful end, it reaches back and scrambles the beginning.” I do not want to scramble the beginning, because Suicide, like an entrancing ruin, stands on its own quite beautifully. Yet the jacket copy of the novel brings the death of the author to forefront. The first two sentences tell the reader how to interpret the content: “Levé delivered the manuscript for his final book, Suicide, just a few days before he took his own life. Suicide is not, then, simply another novel—it is, in a sense, the author’s own oblique, public suicide note.” It’s not the first sentence I have a problem with so much as the second. Reading the novel as a suicide note is just as limiting as reading a David Foster Wallace piece with suicidal overtones—say, “The Depressed Person” or “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”—as merely a reflection of the author’s inner anguish; it is so much more.
But in a book this fearless and original, there are bound to be weaknesses. Like many French authors, Levé indulges in the occasional philosophic-sounding statement that exists more for its initial beauty than its content: “Distinction, which is the opposite of discretion, was too visible a version of elegance.” Sentences like these are like lyrics to foreign pop songs: They sound pretty, but what the hell do they mean? When Levé recounts a dream where the friend swims around with all his former lovers, making love to one after another, he succumbs to another classic French tendency wherein the author assumes that promiscuity, womanizing, and sexual fantasy are inherently substantive.
Thankfully, these faults are far, far outweighed by the intense originality and emotional force of the book. And the book’s translator, Jan Steyn, artfully maintained the integrity of the text. With a passage like this, “One night, in a large town in Provence, you walked for three hours at night,” a lesser translator would be tempted to smooth over the inelegant repetition of “night.” Steyn understands the importance of night to the story—this was when the friend felt that time was moving less, felt less obligated to be happy and less like he wanted to die—and leaves the deliberate choppiness intact.
Late in the novel, the narrator says, “If each event consisted of its beginning, its becoming real, and its completion, you would prefer the beginning…In their beginnings, events preserve the potential that they lose in their completion.” But he goes on to say, “It’s strange that while loving beginnings, you terminated yourself: suicide is an end. Did you consider it a beginning?” While one can cannot know if Levé was relating his own feelings towards suicide in this passage, with another Levé translation slated for release next year, for American readers, Levé’s suicide is just the beginning.