This week's Sunday Guardian column.
One of the most moving things Virginia Woolf wrote was the suicide note to her husband Leonard shortly before she took her life on March 28, 1941 by wading into the River Ouse. This is roughly a handwritten page in length, about the average for such messages. In the case of French painter, photographer and writer Édouard Levé, however, it’s the entirety of his last work that’s been viewed as a suicide note. Levé submitted the manuscript of this novella, bluntly titled Suicide, to his publisher in October 2007; just a week later, he hanged himself in his apartment in Paris.
Suicide is barely 130 pages long and ingeniously written, but, given the circumstances of its publication, it can make for unsettling reading. Levé – who was influenced by Georges Perec and the Oulipo movement – has a style that’s precise and fragmentary at the same time. It’s been called a form of literary cubism, and can be seen as a series of arcs that encircle the subject. Translator Jan Steyn has said of his works that “they are frequently compared to pointillist paintings, but perhaps it would be more useful to compare them to his own photographic series: a sequence of similar but discrete elements that add up to a whole greater than the sum of its parts”. (Interestingly enough, this technique is mirrored in the Dalkey Archive edition’s cover art.)
The novella takes the form of a second-person address by the narrator to a friend who committed suicide years ago: “You’ve put a bullet in your head with the rifle you had carefully prepared…You could be sleeping. You are twenty-five years old. You now know more about death than I do”. In statements that are true of the book’s architecture as well as its intent, the narrator says: “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”.
What follows is a literary autopsy, a series of highly compressed and seemingly arbitrary memories set down to make sense of the suicide of a character who – in the words of the bumper sticker – was diagonally parked in a parallel universe. “You did not leave a letter to those close to you, explaining your death,” we’re told, and the book itself, then, is a form of explanation. The novella also raises the question of how we look back on such a life. The untimely death becomes an organizing principle: “Only the living seem incoherent. Death closes the series of events that constitutes their lives. So we resign ourselves to finding a meaning for them”.
The suicide appears to have been the result of a long-standing depression. Medications were tried and then abandoned because of their after-effects. In words that remind one of Peter Kramer’s ruminations in Listening to Prozac, the narrator writes: “Was a little bit of fake happiness worth losing your free will? You decided to give up these chemical crutches, which either split you in two or made you stupid”.
Given the highly personal nature of such recollections, as the above example illustrates, one has to wonder whether the “you” being addressed is actually “I”, and if the narrator – who may or may not be a stand-in for the author – is the real subject of this work. Do we find, in these pages, the author’s own life and reflections flashing by? Given Levé’s actions shortly after submitting the manuscript, such musings are inevitable.
“Suicide is the night train, speeding your way to darkness,” wrote Martin Amis in his metaphorically titled novel. “You won't get there so quick, not by natural means. You buy your ticket and you climb on board. That ticket costs everything you have. But it's just a one-way.” Levé boarded that one-way train in 2007, following others such as Sylvia Plath, Yukio Mishima and Cesare Pavese, but left behind a series of jottings about his journey for the rest of us to ponder over.