The Address Book

IN 1983, ARTIST SOPHIE CALLE found an address book on a Paris street. Before returning it, she photocopied its contents, called the people listed, and asked to interview them about the book’s owner, whom she calls Pierre D. “I will try to discover who he is without ever meeting him,” she writes. Calle’s pursuit struck some—including Pierre—as a privacy invasion worthy of public retribution. He threatened to sue Libération, the French newspaper that ran the serialized interviews, and he backed off only when they published nude photos of Calle. She agreed not to publish The Address Book while Pierre was alive, and the project has always remained a curiosity among Calle fans—a striking absence in her oeuvre. Pierre died in 2005, and the book has now been published in its entirety for the first time in English.

Given the ease with which we can access the lives of strangers in 2012, Calle’s snooping might register as a quaint trespass from another era, an analog and ultimately harmless kind of proto-Facebooking. But her old-school sleuthing is daring, more so than it was in her earlier projects, such as Suite vénitienne, in which Calle followed strangers, and La Filature, for which she hired a detective to tail her. The Address Book’s adventure is riskier and more unpredictable. A few people she calls refuse to be interviewed (“I would feel like I am talking about a dead person,” one says), but most oblige. The interviewees reveal as much about their own lives as they do about Pierre’s.

One man says provocatively and mysteriously of the perpetually absent Pierre: “It is as a character that he failed.” And as the book progresses, Calle becomes the true main character: We start to wonder about her more than we do about Pierre. Fittingly, in 1992, Paul Auster fictionalized Calle and her work in his novel Leviathan. In The Address Book, we can see why—she is an intriguing protagonist, a seemingly heartbroken woman, struggling to find lost love.