Thursday Fiction Corner: Edouard Levé's Works


“As a piece of writing, it challenges our notions of what literature is; each project is fictional, in that at the time of writing it had not yet happened and came from imagination. While some are absurd, many others would be easily realized, pushing them beyond fiction and into the realm of artistic actuality.” — Rosie Clarke

We are proud to be distributing Dalkey Archive Press, one of the leading publishers of avant-garde fiction and literature in translation! In today’s Thursday Fiction Corner post, Dalkey Archive intern Rosie Clarke takes a close look at Edouard Levé’s catalog of over five hundred proposed artistic projects: Works.

Edouard Levé — Works
Rosie Clarke

It is difficult to talk about Edouard Levé without speaking of his death. Unsurprisingly, this is the focus of most critical pieces that respond to his most famous book, Suicide, published in 2011. The inextricable relationship between this novel and Levé’s subsequent suicide, with many arguing that the narrative voice of the novel is the author’s own, makes the text all the more compelling. However, with the posthumous publication by Dalkey Archive Press of Works in July, we are exposed to a very different side of Levé – one not fixated on death, or depression, but rather on vibrant and almost obsessive creativity. Written when the author was a younger man, Works predates his other published novels, and offers enjoyable, entertaining insight into his patterns of thought.

The text is a collection of over 500 proposed artistic projects, ranging in length from a few lines to pages of detail. In addition to writing, Levé was a visual artist and photographer, and Works is a far-reaching amalgamation of his perspectives on art. As a piece of writing, it challenges our notions of what literature is; each project is fictional, in that at the time of writing it had not yet happened and came from imagination. While some are absurd, many others would be easily realized, pushing them beyond fiction and into the realm of artistic actuality. At times, Works seems to be poking fun at conceptual art, but with the knowledge and humour of someone involved in that scene. We are exposed to Levé as hyper-aware visionary, torn between an overwhelming need to create, and the consciousness of the art world’s trends, transience and self-imposed limitations.

Some of the projects read like somewhat obscure aphorisms: ‘#10. A film scene is shown backwards to actors so they can learn to act it in reverse. Once they succeed, they are filmed anew. The new scene, in turn projected backwards, becomes strange: reversing the inversion doesn’t get you back to where you started.’ Some are silly: ‘#15. A leather jacket made from a mad cow.’ Some are simply funny: ‘#24. A house designed by three year olds is built.’ As I worked through the text, I noted down projects that have since been realized, independently of Levé’s proposals: ‘#Modern Ruins. Color photographs show modern places and objects that have become dilapidated without ever being used’ is akin to Tate Britain’s recent exhibition, Ruin Lust; a collection of art inspired by and capturing humanity’s obsession with ruins. ‘#84. Photographs catalogue an inventory of destroyed works’ reminded me of another Tate Britain exhibition, Art Under Attack, which explored the history of physical attacks on art. Similarly, ‘#157. Small photographs are laminated and rolled up. The photographer ingests them, expels them after they pass through the digestive tract in the normal way, and then exhibits them’ was enacted by two students at Kingston University with fascinating results. What this means in the context of Works is not clearly defined, as there is no connection between what Levé proposed and what other artists imagined independently, but highlights his portentous engagement with art.

While there is much humor in Works, the darker side of Levé’s thinking is not absent from the projects he imagined. For example, ‘#202. A book shows the reality of animal life in all its rawness and cruelty. The photographs are selected among those censored from wildlife publications. Neither humanized nor aestheticized, the animals hunt, devour each other, torture other species, couple, suffer, and are killed by humans.’ Or ‘#492. Two photographs, one taken from the back, one from the front, show a man’s injuries. These injuries were photographed, as they occurred, over the course of several years: we see cuts, not scars. Digitally reintegrated, these photos show a falsely present map of the man’s suffering.’ Continuing Levé’s fascination with destruction of the body, a recurrent theme in Works, an example of our fascination with the creepy and uncanny is depicted in #474; ‘A ten year old child plays with a marionette is own size made out of soft, colorless candy, before partially eating it.’

Many of the projects are literary in nature, and explore Levé’s interest in subverting and challenging traditional kinds of literature. In #247, ‘The paragraphs of a novel are replaced by black rectangles whose surface area corresponds to the number of letters used in the paragraph (…) The narrative is reduced to a sequence of geometric paintings. ’Here, Levé explores a Blanchotian approach to literature and negative space, literally and visually replacing words with absence, offering the reader a Beckettian void that circumnavigates meaning. Nick Thurston applied this concept, probably unknowingly, to Reading the Removal of Literature, in which he erases the text of Blanchot’s The Space of Literature with black rectangles, leaving only his own annotations in the margins.

Later, in #286, ‘A text recorded on compact disc, using a new track for each sentence, is played at random. There are forty-eight thousand four hundred ways of selecting two sentences from the two hundred and twenty sentences that compose the text, ten million six hundred and forty-eight thousand ways of choosing three sentences, and two billion three hundred and forty two million ways of choosing four. There is practically no chance the text is read in the order it was written’. While this seems an impossible project, in fact each copy of Nanni Balestrini’s novel Tristano (Verso, 2014) is one of 109,027,350,432,000 possible variations of the same text. Digital technology has allowed Balestrani’s vision of shuffling each of the paragraphs comprising the novel into a unique variation. Playing with the relationship between literature and visual art, reminiscent of the Futurism’s visual poetry, in project #430 ‘A portrait of Fernando Pessoa is drawn using words from his The Book of Disquiet. The beginnings and ends of lines mark his outline. The size, thickness, and gap between characters are used to create impressions of light and shadow.’

The opening statements of Works frame the text as a whole. Levé informs us ‘A book describes works that the author has conceived but not brought into being (…) The world is drawn from memory. There are missing countries, altered borders.’ The final three projects, #531-533, return to these parameters but indicate that they are not to be taken seriously, and thus that perhaps this text is a work of play, toying with what we consider to be art, and asking the reader to focus less on manifestations of art and more on conception, imagination and thought. One penultimate project echoes books that would be written later in Levé’s life – the aforementioned Suicide and his autobiographical work Autoportrait – ‘#527. A book describes the life of its author in the present tense. It is factual recollection up until the moment of writing, then fiction up until the author’s death. Both of the book’s parts, separated, as they are by the weeks of its writing, have the cold style of an official statement. Later, the author can decide to live what he had foretold.’ Autoportrait has been called an autobiography without sentiment, and Suicide a personal exploration of what suicide means to the ‘suicidee’ and those around them, which was followed by the author’s own suicide.

Therefore, it is not a stretch of the imagination to consider #527 a premonition of Levé’s later work, and the way his life ended, the two perhaps inextricably linked. In that way, we come unavoidably to the death of the author, written into this book even by his younger self, and while unaware of what the future would hold certainly conscious of the relationship between literature, art and death.

To read an extract from Works, translated by Jan Steyn, accompanied by a collection of Levé’s photographs, visit The White Review.

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