Many readers expected Edouard Levé’s Suicide to be a death manifesto: something to explore and expose the art of self destruction. Those readers were disappointed. The novel circumvents details about Levé himself, and is instead dedicated to the process of living beyond death, narrated to and about a friend who passed more than twenty years earlier. That Levé would kill himself days after he produced the manuscript for Suicide would only seem fated after the fact. In effect, his work is less of a suicide note and more of a love letter. For the bloodlusty among us, Autoportrait, Levé’s 2005 French autobiography, forthcoming in English from Dalkey Archives Press, is still not the book they’ve been looking for.
Autoportrait is a delicate and desperate attempt to list a life; it is Levé’s justification for occupying the world as long as he has. Levé’s writing is terse to the point that some sentences read as though they can’t wait to be over already, but there’s a sweetness to his diction and a magic in his brevity. Each fragment is a spark among the ghosts of sentences past. The effect is similar to holding one’s breath in a pool of Polaroids. And it is, truly, breathtaking. Levé lulls the reader into a trance and then slaps him with a strange secret so human it breathes and beats. One such assertion: “Fifteen years old is the middle of my life, regardless of when I die.”
As a writer, my own life has become a sheer palimpsest of experience. Memories collect like layers of thin colored plastic. Perusing an old journal recently, I found an entry from age sixteen, when I visited a friend in Tucson: “We put on lots of mascara and drove around for hours. We didn’t end up going anywhere.” At the time I’d attribute this to teen angst, but it’s a sentiment still I feel often, and I consider it an awakening to the now familiar suspicion that there’s nowhere worth going once you look good enough to go out. Youth and restlessness, albeit more eloquently stated than my own experience, pervade Autoportrait as Levé skips words like stones in passages that recall an adolescence of recognizable romance and regret. And what’s more romantic than the throes of youth? Because, like Suicide, Autoportrait courts life. It is youthful and tender and lovely, even in its most lurid moments; it is playful, pensive, clever and honest. For a man for whom death was a constant, with Autoportrait Levé successfully expresses the triumph of his own survival, and perhaps ours, too.
I was lucky enough to sit down with Lorin Stein, the book’s translator, for a Q&A on the translation process. Below: the real difference between Americans and the French, our favorite part of the novel, and a slew of memoir recommendations.
Aiden Arata How did you come into contact with Levé’s work?
Lorin Stein I first discovered Levé because I knew the work of the publisher. I think probably I was sent a bunch of books from this publisher, a very famous experimental little press in Paris called P.O.L., and I read his book Autoportrait and loved it. And I translated a little bit of it for Harper’s and ended up translating the whole thing.
AA Did you ever meet him personally or get in touch with his other works?
LS I read his other works but I never met him. I don’t remember whether he was dead by the time I read Autoportrait or whether he died later, but I didn’t think that I would translate the book. I used to be a book editor, and I think I wondered whether someday we’d publish a book of his. But I also thought if I translated a little bit of it for Harper’s, another publisher would come and there might be something they could do. I was just kind of putting that there as a kind of sample because I thought people should know about him.
LS Well the first thing you notice about his work—at least the first thing you notice about Autoportrait—which just means Self Portrait, by the way—is that it is very reminiscent of a book called I Remember, by Joe Brainard, and in fact he mentions Joe Brainard in Self Portraitas a writer that matters to him—so it’s funny, from a sort of comp lit perspective, because you’re watching a French guy trying to write a kind of American text, with a lot of French baggage. Another writer he mentions who matters to him, who I think is very much there, is Warhol. And then on the other hand you’ve got a very French instinct for the epigram, for the aphorism. It’s a book made up essentially of sentences, one sentence at a time, so it’s kind of like crack for translators, because you don’t have to worry about consistency the way you usually do.
AA Levé is primarily known as a photographer so you can think of the structure as these flashes of self, rather than a more fluid piece. It’s interesting to see that kind of writing. So, if Autoportrait translates directly to Self Portrait, why did you call it Autoportrait?
LS I call it Self Portrait. I think Dalkey Archives sort of liked the way Autoportrait looks.
AA What sort of contextual materials did you use? Did you look at his artwork thinking about your translation, or was it more direct, just sentences?
LS I went back to Brainard. I read Brainard to remind myself what he sounded like. And I was reading Montaigne a little bit, who’s another writer who’s in the back of Levé’s mind a little bit, I think he mentions Montaigne. I was thinking back to a partial translation of Montaigne’s essays by a friend of mine, Wyatt Mason, and I remember some of the problems that he had. The difficulty of translating French sentences in general is that French sentences have more vector to them than English sentences. Our sentences, when they’re well written, tend to leave us in some confusion as to what’s about to happen. A French sentence doesn’t leave you in the same amount of confusion. You sort of know where things are. You know, and the fun is in the little surprises, not in the sort of cloudiness that English sentences naturally have. So the trick when you’re translating a French sentence of the kind that Levé sometimes writes, the longer sentences, is that it needs to unfold in a colloquial way, but we don’t have genders and things that organize the sentence. It’s sort of like a different kind of cell. I mean, their cells have a nucleus and all the … whatever parts go into a cell, I don’t know. And ours are these little amoebas that don’t … I don’t know.
AA I think at one point Levé says that he prefers English because of its curtness, to say that it’s such an obfuscated way of speaking is interesting.
LS Actually when he says it—I forget exactly how he puts it, but it’s an artificially curt sentence. It’s lacking a word or something in French. “I am drawn to the brevity of English, shorter than French.” I mean I tried to preserve the slight artificiality in that sentence. He does love English. One thing that he’s doing is, he repeats words, which is something that American English does. English English doesn’t. We use the same word in a sentence and through repetition the word will mean something slightly different. For instance I always think of this Merle Haggard song called “It’s Not Love But It’s Not Bad,” and the refrain is, “it’s not love not like ours was, it’s not love, but it keeps love from driving me mad.” And each time he says the word love, he means the word under a certain slightly different aspect. And we’re used to that. It’s the way we talk, the way we think, the way we write. French doesn’t do that. In French you tend not to repeat words, so Levé writes in what sounds, I think, to a French reader, like a Frenchman writing in an English style. Of course it’s still French, it doesn’t come with a guidebook for how it should sound in English. That flatness, that anticlimax—a lot of his sentences have an anticlimax, that’s him doing the American thing.
AA That’s the American writing? The series of these blank statements?
LS Well there are the blanks but then there’s that kind of flatness, like flatness of ending. There’s this part where he describes having his camera stolen, and it kind of ends with the surprise that although he was calling “Stop, thief,” it never occurred to him that someone had actually stolen from him. And the sentence ends with a little punch line. That seems less specifically American than others.
AA I’m thinking specifically of the part where he describes his friend’s death, his friend’s suicide, which an entire book is written about, and immediately afterwards, “I have memories of comets with powdery tails.”
LS Yep, yep.
AA That’s my favorite part.
LS That’s my favorite part!
AA That and the part where he says, “Fifteen will always be the middle of my life no matter when I die,” or he says it much more eloquently than that. Perhaps you just translated it better than that.
LS No I think that’s actually what he says, and I was gonna say that, the way he says, “Fifteen will always be the middle of my life … ” I think in the French one they say something like that too, but there’s something very inelegant about it, and I think it’s an achieved effect, that inelegance. I love that line too, again. It does seem like in some ways the heart of the book.
AA I just have to ask, because I love it so much, about “powdery.” Again that sentence is so powerful. And so “powdery” as opposed to “powdered” or is that like a French word? Did you have to choose that?
LS The French word is poudreux, “powdery,” I don’t think it was “powdered.” It was one of those times when the original gives you an incredibly beautiful English word. “I have memories of comets with powdery tails … ” I think that might have been the first sentence that I thought, “Oh, I can translate this,” that moment.
AA I’ve done some work with Ugly Duckling and with Argos, and I’ve noticed that a lot of presses and writers see translation as more of a collaboration, taking work from a foreign language and really having a version of it. Do you agree with that school or do you stay closer to what you’ve been given? How much of you do you think is in this book?
LS Well, I hope none, but I’m sure there’s some. And look at Levé saying that he wants to write in a prose that translates perfectly, that’s one of the things he says. That’s a book that pretty clearly calls for the translator to disappear. I can imagine that there are other writers, other projects that would lend themselves to playfulness in interpretation, and I don’t have a particular, strong ideological feeling about it, but in all the translations that I’ve worked on either as an editor or as a translator, I have some pretty old-fashioned ideas about practical sense. That it would be good for the thing to be itself, in some way faithful. That’s not true with poetry, actually. That’s the exception. I think it’s a lot of fun when a poet comes up with a new version. That seems almost necessary.
LS Translation is a funny craft because the best you can do is to not fuck it up too badly. You never try to do better than the original. But you never can do as well as the original. So you always know how the original sounds, and you’re sort of shooting for that and you never hit it. When you’re looking at verse, if you really love the poems, then you fail so badly that What’s the goddamn point? The only thing that you would ask of a poet who was doing a version is that the poet rise to the challenge of trying to recreate something like the beauty of the original. Sometimes I read translated poems and I ask myself why the translator did it because you don’t get any points—Vivian Gordon, a memoirist, likes to say, “You don’t get any points for living.” You don’t get any points for reading a really good poem. And unless you have a really strong kind of something to take up with the original, leave it in its language.
AA I feel like so much of what’s been written about for the last couple decades is that language is a sad facsimile of true experience, and you’re taking that into translation, and that’s one step further away from what we’re really supposed to be getting out of it.
LS There’s another way of thinking about it in which it’s part of a conversation, part of a game. In that sense a translation is in relationship to the original poem the same way that the poem is in relationship to the experience, and it’s not as though you’re getting one step less real, it’s as though you’re coming with a new set of desires and angles, if that makes sense.
AA It’s like cooking. You want to bring out the best flavor of the ingredient so you put it with other ingredients. Baking you make something completely new. I like that. Did you find while translating the work that any parts of it would get into your life, under your skin? It seems difficult to translate a self portrait, an autobiography, because you have to be someone else for that time.
LS My friends made fun of me, they thought in some ways he and I are very much alike.
AA Do you think that’s true?
LS In some ways, not in others. I spent a long time working on it, not usually full-time, so it kind of fit into life in a natural way. There were parts of if that would be in my head a lot. The longer I spent with the book the better I liked it. And the deeper I thought it was and the more articulated it seemed to me, the more parts it had, the more I noticed the way he develops themes throughout the book. It’s not to say that you couldn’t take one of the sex passages in the beginning and swap it for one at the end but the fact that there would be recurring motifs, I noticed that a lot. And it seemed more and more to me that it was an interesting utterance because here was a guy who was able to talk about suicide being a pretty continual fact of his life: wanting to kill himself, not having killed himself, having drugs prescribed, being in a loony bin. Later I found out, I didn’t know this when I was working on the book, but I found out that he wrote the book during a prolonged crisis where he became irrationally convinced that he was going to die in America. He was crossing America when he wrote it. I didn’t know that at the time, but I got the feeling as I worked on it that it was a way of letting the people who loved you off the hook, and letting yourself off the hook, and saying, “I may not be able to live out my life the way you’re living out your life, but I have lived a life, and my life is as much a life as any.” And that is a very odd project, and beautiful, and it reminds me a little bit of another memoir that I love, a real memoir, called Pack My Bag by a guy named Henry Green. Also around the same age, he became irrationally convinced that he was going to die. He thought he was going to be drafted and killed in World War II. He wasn’t. But instead of writing a novel, he said, “Because I don’t have very much time left I just want to set down some facts of my early life.” And there’s something humble about both of them in the face of death; they both seem to want to forgive everybody and be forgiven, and I think it’s so different from other reasons to write about yourself.
AA It’s nearly impossible to consider the book without thinking of Levé’s suicide, especially because Suicide was published in America before Autoportrait even though it was written afterwards. Do you think the backwards introduction of those texts to English speaking readers will change anything or should it have been the other way around?
LS That’s sort of a publishing question. I think certainly most of the time I was working on Self Portrait I knew he’d killed himself and I knew some stuff about the circumstances of his suicide, so if it would have been better for me to have encountered the book before I knew about his suicide, I never had that chance. It didn’t bother me especially. Suicide is very much in the book that he wrote, you know. Suicide the book, I was very impressed with the translation. I thought the translation was really, really striking, but the French book I found disappointing. I guess it’s hard not to go to a book like that with a lot of demands that are probably extra-literary. You know, you want this thing explained to you and instead what you get is a very romantic, very interesting but very romantic love letter to a dead friend. My favorite part is there’s a moment, a passage where the friend spends time in Bordeaux, and it’s something that’s very granular, it’s like something from a diary, and you don’t quite know how Levé has access to that.
AA Suicide has so many moments like that. Like, did he ask him, is he making it up? And you don’t know. It’s probably difficult not to look at those suicide parts in Autoportrait and pull them out as someone who’s read the original text or Suicide. Everything’s been mixed up, and I find that difficult as a reader. I was wondering, as a translator, did you look to Suicidetranslator] Jan Steyn as a sort of precedent? Did you think about making the books fluid or was this an independent project?
LS I think I’d already done the translation by the time I saw Jan Steyn’s. That might not be true. If I hadn’t finished it, it was very much underway. I remember thinking that he’d solved some problems very well and that I wasn’t going to do it that way but that it worked very well for Suicide. I forget what the things were, but there are specific things that come up in translations. In his introduction he translates a last sentence, the last sentence of Self Portrait, and I like his better.
AA I would have thought he’d sort of set the precedent because the books do flow pretty well together. You can read the entirety of Suicide, and there’s still the question of, why this one friend? There’s this one friend who’s so precious in your life? And then you get that one moment in Autoportrait where he’s saying, “I had this one friend, and these were the best conversations of my life,” and in two sentences he justifies this entire book and he kind of justifies this entire life, and that’s so … I don’t know.
LS Yes … yes.