March 2011

Christopher Merkel

Unamerican

So Help Me I'll...

There should be dozens of clever ways to introduce a book with a title like Hervé Le Tellier's novel Enough About Love, first published in English translation by Adriana Hunter in the too appropriate month of February, but I'm not coming up with a single one. And that's not so much because I fall into the category of persons that Le Tellier tries to warn away from his book, almost challengingly, in his brief prologue: "Any man -- or woman -- who wants to hear nothing -- or no more -- about love should put this book down." If anything, I was already inured to the point of indifference when I started reading, which I suspect was the perspective from which the author expected most of his readers to come to his book. No, it's not love that stymies this introduction, but cleverness. Le Tellier's book is so awash in it from start to finish -- the last words on the final page are (OF COURSE THEY ARE!) the book's title -- that I can't bring myself to decorate it with any more. It's enough already. Really.

Enough About Love tells the story of a summer in the lives of Thomas, Anna, Louise and Yves and the several secondary characters with whom their lives are shared. Thomas is Anna's analyst and finds out during the session of theirs that opens the book that Anna has met a man, Yves. Thomas himself embarks on a romance with Louise. Both Anna and Louise, the psychiatrist and the lawyer, are married with children. Stan, the surgeon, and Romain, the linguist, Anna's and Louise's respective husbands, stew in the knowledge of their wives' affairs. It's unclear whether the wives or their husbands are more afraid of the potential dissolutions of their very comfortable and very stable partnerships. What unfolds is a delightful romantic comedy full of intelligent repartee and thoughtful insight into love after the loss of innocence. And it's all too charming. "Anna is about to turn forty. She looks ten years younger in these well-heeled circles where the norm is more like five. But the imminence of this expiration date and the witchery of the number itself send a chill through her, and to think she still feels she's in the comet's tail of her teens." The members of those well-heeled circles are eminently self-aware, and in his oh so intricate and nuanced descriptions of their inner workings, Le Tellier assembles what I can only describe as a masterwork of high culture twee.

Not that Enough About Love isn't brilliantly executed. It's the opposite. Like its characters, it has everything it needs. The structure of this novel is flawless. It's also remarkably original in its variation on an old theme. Inasmuch, and since the book reads quickly, I can wholeheartedly recommend reading it to anyone willing to stand its perfectly droll social climate so as to appreciate its formal success. But, really: Yves is an author, and reader be damned if the plan for his Abkhazian Dominoes doesn't bear a striking similarity to the calculated (mathematical, even) series of interactions depicted in the book you have in your hands! I'm a fawning devotee of French modernism and metafiction, but the book within the book thing has been done well too many times to justify itself only on the basis of successful execution.

And Le Tellier's execution is incorrigibly clever. Still, I wanted something more from his book than just to "get it." Conversely, Enough About Love may very well be for many readers an introduction to its particular structural mode, and for that I can't dismiss it out of hand. For most of us, however, I'll venture that we've read enough "good" writing not simply to celebrate something for having been written well. Then again, for all its erudite fluffiness, Enough About Love is still a nice bit of intellectual recreation. It's kind of delightful, actually. So it's also possible that Le Tellier pegged me in his disclaimer. Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs -- and it doesn't matter how finely they're woven, sometimes I just don't want to have to listen.

All that said, Enough About Love stuck with me, if only because of a short, anecdotal passage at the middle of the story. In it, Yves dispatches an obituary for another author, Hugues Léger, a former lover of Anna's.

The previous evening, Hugues killed himself, at home, with a bullet through the mouth. Anna is in Berlin for a few days, she probably does not yet know. Yves immediately wrote an obituary... and managed to arrange through a journalist friend for it to be published, even though a different article had already been approved for the page layout. In it he said this did not mean that Hugues's last book, Autolyze, which deals with suicide, should be seen as “a will waiting to be unsealed”; it was not “the cathartic book his friends would have liked to see him write, the book that would open up the creative field he still needed to open. But Autolyze, his most accomplished book, could exist in its own right without the dim reflected light of his death, which he need not have foretold.”

I don't know for sure if Hervé Le Tellier knew Edouard Levé, but I'm guessing that he probably did. I also think that in that passage Le Tellier must have been eulogizing Levé with reference to the latter's final novel, Suicide -- although I appreciated Yves's obituary and its insistence on the separation of suicide in literature from suicides in the literary world before I had the chance to read Levé's book.

As an artistic motif, suicide is vexed by an ever looming specter of interpretive complication. Arguably, it can be used to represent the extremes of either resignation or resolution, and despite the possibility that its consideration at the individual level may be as universal to humanity as a weakness for love (Thomas and Anna would allow for that, I think), the taboo surrounding its discussion in honest terms is effectively a moratorium on the discussion. Moreover, judgments of an artist's work on the subject seem too often to hinge on whether the work was consecrated by the act itself. Similarly, when an artist does commit suicide, his or her work (on that topic specifically, but also in general) seems too often judged retrospectively in the "dim" light of the artist's death at his or her own hand.

Of course, that's not unjustifiably so, at least to the general extent that an artist's biography can be informative to suppositions on that artist's motivations. But to insist that a book on suicide that happens to be an author's last before his own suicide is for all intents his suicide note is almost insultingly reductive, and, ironically, does the author no justice in his death. Unfortunately, Levé's translator, Jan Steyn, argues the opposite in his afterword. I normally try to refrain from reading forewords and afterwords for books on which I'm going to be pushing my own opinion, for fear that they might end up coloring my perspectives. (Maybe I do myself a disservice there for missing out on biographical information that might simply be informative.) I did, however, read Steyn's -- Suicide is short and so is the afterword, and I felt like taking my time in the bathtub. That proved to be a boon. In fact, it was strangely encouraging how starkly my convictions on the topic of the book contrasted with how directly Steyn associated Suicide with Levé's suicide. It helped that I appeared to have the written support of Hervé Le Tellier.

From the afterword: "Although [Suicide] is a fictional work... its title and subject matter ensure that, despite reports that Levé did leave a suicide note [emphasis added], the present text is taken as a sort of literary explanation of his decision to die." The book is written in second person, a reflection on the suicide by a melancholic young man in his early twenties delivered by an all but estranged friend of his twenty years later. I have to defer to Steyn's knowledge of the author, but to say that, "we can find Levé in the artistic method and philosophy of Suicide's 'I' as much as we can in the taste for sparseness and stoicism of Suicide's 'you,'" seems like an unnecessary tautology. Saying so seems just as good as saying that, in the light of his suicide, Edouard Levé's book on the subject seems to have been written in the vein of his other artistic production. To be sure, that Suicide is the first of Levé's books to appear in English means that readers of his books in English will now inevitably interpret them through their knowledge of his final book and of his death. It is, of course, also true that Levé would have had the thought of his own suicide in mind while writing Suicide. But to reduce the meaning and power of Suicide to the death of a single person refuses it the right to, in Le Tellier's words, "exist in its own right," which stirs the fear that his entire oeuvre will be discussed only on those limited grounds.

But the book itself! Suicide is a beautifully compelling observation of the act that its title describes, an act that is more often observed and experienced than it is discussed. Levé fleshes out a character by means of a collection of snapshots taken by a speculative onlooker, a friend whose best is to be able to recall his friend in negative relief. Levé's "you" is long gone, a self-inflicted gun wound to the head, but Suicide recounts his life, a life that might otherwise not have warranted a novel if its subject hadn't made the decision to end it. In other words, suicide is the device by which Suicide is able to justify its description of an otherwise unremarkable life and permit its idiosyncrasies. "You used to smoke American cigarettes. Your bedroom was soaked in their sweet smell. Watching you smoke inspired the desire to do the same." "You used to tick the wrong boxes on administrative forms to fabricate a new identity for yourself under your own name."

Levé demonstrates the fascinating ability of suicide, the willful desire of an individual toward his own death, to imbue mundanity with philosophical mystique. In the words of his narrator, "When I hear of a suicide, I think of you again. Yet, when I hear that someone died of cancer, I don't think of my grandfather or grandmother, who also died of it. They share cancer with millions of others. You, however, own suicide." It's as a result of that same sentiment that we're able to give ourselves over to musing on the poetic and philosophical disposition of Levé's "you" where we might dismiss the same in the lively, flourishing characters of a book like, say, Enough About Love. Levé investigates suicide as an idea, an event that forces the people affected by it to contemplate the conflict between the romantic enticements and sombre realities of aborting potential. Suicide presents suicide as a means by which infinite possibilities are realized through a discreet end. To conflate that idea of suicide with the event of a particular suicide would seem to destroy the potential of the idea. "You were, and you will remain, made up of possibilities." Reading Suicide as Levé's unspoken personal testimony flies in the face of his apparent motivation for writing the book.

No? Granted, Levé writes of "you" that, "the way in which you quit it rewrote the story of your life in a negative form. Those who knew you reread each of your acts in the light of your last." And now we know Levé in English, so it's inevitable, for better or worse, that we succumb to a similar rereading. However, to resign Levé's work to the fact of his suicide would be to deny him and other writers on the subject their other accomplishments. Despite the circumstances of her death and her penchant for the ladies, should we base our judgments on the writing of Virginia Woolf only on that Between The Acts, her final novel, featured her only overtly suicidal and homosexual characters? Should we read 4:48 Psychosis, Sarah Kane's last play and a brilliant investigation of the suicidal psychotic mind, as her death note simply because she committed suicide shortly after its production? I have no doubt that Kane's Medea, unfinished before her death, would have been second to absolutely none. So granted, associations are inevitable, but Levé also writes: "Explain your suicide? No one risked it." So neither will I.

It's not, I think, supposed to make easy sense. Suicide doesn't make sense, especially for those of us with the facility to critique it, except when it does, and especially for those of us with the facility to understand it. That's the brilliance of Edouard Levé's Suicide -- and I'm ashamed of the pun but suppose it's an argument for why we call double entendres in French. C'mon, Le Tellier, back me up! The short and the quick are that the reality of Levé's suicide should not deny the accomplishment of Suicide as a work of fiction. The chicken/egg tail chasing just makes it all the more exciting. Levé left us in a messy argument, but, ultimately, there's no calling that fact itself into question: it's wrong to speak ill of the dead. Goddamn cleverness. Enough.