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Suicide by Edouard Levé


One Saturday in the month of August, you leave your home wearing your tennis gear, accompanied by your wife.  In the middle of the garden you point out to her that you’ve forgotten your racket in the house.  You go back to look for it, but instead of making your way toward the cupboard in the entryway where you normally keep it, you head down into the basement.  Your wife doesn’t notice this.  She stays outside.  The weather is fine.  She’s making the most of the sun.  A few moments later she hears a gunshot.

You aren’t being spoken to.  The use of the second-person is not an attempt to suggest the universal.  The narrator of Edouard Levé’s novel Suicide is trying to recreate the inner life of a friend who has been dead for over twenty years.  This short book’s force is in its specificity.  It evokes the experience of a certain person – what he thought, felt, and sensed – until he decided to take his own life.  The only works I can compare it to – the only works that describe psyches as exactly – are Georg Buchner’s novella Lenz and Robert Walser’s story “Kleist in Thun.” This kind of book is rare.

Though it is intently focused on one person, no one reading it is going to feel claustrophobic.  There are vivid glimpses of other minds as well.  In that first paragraph the wife – “making the most of the sun” – is as definite a presence as her husband.  All the other supporting characters are quickly but sharply drawn – his father, mother, siblings, friends, acquaintances.  And one of the many subtle things this novel elucidates is the way others perceive the suicide:

Isn’t it peculiar how this final gesture inverts your biography?  I’ve never heard a single person, since your death, tell your life’s story starting at the beginning.  Your suicide has become the foundational act, and those earlier acts that you had hoped to relieve of their burden of meaning by way of this gesture, the absurdity of which so attracted you, have ended up simply alienated instead.  Your final second changed your life in the eyes of others.

This is, however, a secondary thread for the narrator, who is with great care trying to capture his friend.  Most of the book is made up of his memories of him, as he recalls them naturally, at random, “like picking marbles out of a bag.” The stream-of-consciousness chronology causes no confusion: every scene is clearly set, a timeline of his friend’s life is sketched for us in the first few pages, and his friend’s life was short – he committed suicide at twenty-five.  The only thing that remains vague is how the narrator knows as much as he does.  Many sequences follow the friend in solitude, meticulously tracing the course of his thoughts.  Did this friend tell the narrator everything?  Is the narrator speculating?  Projecting?  But whether remembered or mostly imagined, a complicated personality emerges – an entire, active, conflicted consciousness.

This friend – who is never named, who is always only “you” – had a family and close friends, married at twenty-one, studied economics, didn’t have problems with money or his health, lived in a comfortable home.  His life seemed devoid of anything we would refer to as a tragedy.  It was, as the narrator remarks, “less sad than your suicide might suggest.” The narrator does not think he can find a reason for his friend’s decision.  And the novel never provides one.  But as the narrator recounts his friend’s travels, evenings out, runs, walks, we come to understand someone who lives with a ceaseless sense of detachment – an inability to feel at times his own presence, at others the presences of those around him.  He knows it’s illogical, solipsistic, but it’s no less hollowing.

During a solitary, three-day trip to a small city, the friend takes long walks, visits exhibits, watches passersby, nearly has an affair, and in the end feels he’s “passed through a zone of emptiness.” That he sees the paradox clearly doesn’t offer relief:

And when your wife asked you what you had done, you spent the entire night telling her, with innumerable details.  You had felt idle in this city through which you had paced only to kill time.  But the emptiness that you believed yourself to be confronted with was an illusion: you had filled those moments with sensations all the more powerful in that nothing and no one had distracted you from them.

One morning, returning home exhausted after a long run:

You moved toward a photograph of your wife on a bookshelf.  You looked at it with indifference, as if it were a portrait of a stranger put up in a photo booth.  While you were worrying about your lack of feeling, you heard steps on the parquet.  You turned around; it was your wife who was telling you about a dinner to which you had both been invited the following week, and which she supposed you would refuse to attend.  A refusal fell out of your mouth before you had thought about what you wanted to say.  Your wife showed astonishment at your abruptness, but all you could see was an abstract grimace.

Wandering a graveyard on an impulse one night, “you were not now afraid of ghosts: you had already been thinking about death so often, for such a long time, that they had become quite familiar to you…The apparition of a guard or a prowler would have disturbed you more than that of a specter.” Encountering a group of homeless men, “you did not take them for victims, but for authors of their own lives.  As scandalous as it seems, you used to think that some homeless people had chosen to live this way.  This was what disturbed you most: that you could, one day, choose to fall.” Looking in a mirror, “happy or carefree, you were someone.  Unhappy, you weren’t anyone any longer.”

These feelings would not necessarily lead to suicide.  The narrator will not even say it’s likely.  As our image of the friend becomes sharper, his last act remains obscure.  The innumerable smaller details scattered throughout the book as well might or might not be relevant to his decision to end his life.  Many of them are dryly funny: “You used to take the elevator to go down, but not to go up”; “You claimed to be smaller in the evening than in the morning because your weight had compressed your vertebrae”; “Your face used to seem tense, but I understood one afternoon seeing you asleep on a chaise lounge, nerves at rest, that the impression originated from the sharp and angular morphology of your features.”

It’s tempting to ask whether this book is about Levé himself, who committed suicide days after delivering the manuscript to his publisher.  But speculating about that is as superfluous as wondering whether Kafka’s fiction is really about his father.  To reduce this novel to a suicide note is to refuse to see all that it accomplishes as a novel.  What comes across as we read Suicide is not why anyone would kill himself, but what it would feel like to live as this other person, this friend.  The experience is so piercing that it’s apt that the protagonist is “you.”

Edouard Levé was a writer and photographer.  Suicide is his first novel to appear in English.