Suicide by Edouard Levé

Suicide (French Literature Series) BY Edouard Levé. Dalkey Archive Press. Paperback, 104 pages. $12.
The cover of Suicide (French Literature Series)

Suicide by Edouard Levé tells two intertwined stories. In one, a young man has killed himself and a friend meditates on the dead man’s life. In the other, a young author has killed himself, but not before writing a novel in which a young man has killed himself and a friend meditates on the dead man’s life. Part of what makes the experience of reading Suicide so singular is that the young author in question is Edouard Levé himself: Ten days after handing in his manuscript, Levé hanged himself, at age forty-two. It is all but impossible when reading, then, not to be constantly aware that Levé was about to kill himself when he was writing and did kill himself soon after he stopped—facts proclaimed both in the novel’s publicity materials and in the translator’s afterword, not to mention by the media frenzy around the book in France.

Suicide, which has been translated into English by Jan Steyn, probably could have functioned successfully as a work of literature without the reader’s knowing about Leve’s fate. The narrator’s associative ruminations on his unnamed friend’s life are filled with haunting, strangely hopeful observations that accumulate into a moving treatise on the territory of life, literature, and death. “Only the living seem incoherent,” he speculates at one point. “Death closes the series of events that constitute their lives. So we resign ourselves to finding a meaning for them.” Meanwhile, the sustained second-person address—“One Saturday in the month of August, you leave your home wearing your tennis gear, accompanied by your wife”—places the reader uncomfortably, provocatively, in the shoes of someone who is about to end his life. The reference to the opening of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which also employs the second person and also blurs the line between reader and character to thought-provoking effect, is hard to miss. The possibility that the narrator, in addressing his unnamed friend (with whom the reader has become identified), is in fact addressing himself, and so is drafting a kind of suicide note, adds another fascinating, dizzying layer to the text. The many blanks surrounding the precise nature of the relationship between the narrator and his former friend further, interestingly, accentuate these effects.

But this is a novel that does not function on its merits alone, and the floor falls out from under us entirely when we recall how Levé—who shared numerous autobiographical points in common with the suicide in the novel—chose to end his days. Suicide is both fiction and final, nonfictional statement, both novel and memoir. It is we, as readers and participants, who stand at the center of these two mirrors hung opposite each other and find the author infinitely, diminishingly multiplied. Though we’ll probably never know whether Levé—who in addition to being a writer was a successful photographer with an interest in conceptual art—killed himself to bring his grim metafiction full circle, it is all but impossible not to read his haunting Suicide in this troubling light.