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“Autoportrait.” By Edouard Levé. Translated by Lorin Stein. A review in kind.

October 14, 2012

Cover of the Dalkey Archive edition.

Autoportrait. By Edouard Levé. Translated by Lorin Stein. Dalkey Archive Press: Champaign, London, Dublin, 2012. A review by imitation. 

For a conventional review at BookForum, click here. For an extract from the book, published in The Paris Review, click here, where you will also find some of Levé’s photographs.

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I used to think Wild Cherry hailed from Scotland. Why? Wild Cherry hailed from Steubenville, Ohio. Peanut butter and crackers delight me. Fourteen years ago I underwent a surgical procedure called retro-peritoneal lymph-node dissection. I’ve been costive ever since. It concerns me daily. I spend hours worrying about it. I once rented a PT Cruiser; I hated it; you might as well drive around in a hat-box. Usually I need to have things pointed out to me. Occasionally I think of myself as everyone’s kid brother; that’s the role I play. My job requires that I consult WorldCat Identities daily; I looked myself up on it once. On the title page of The World as Will and Representation (Dover edition, volume two), I copied out the following sentences: “How man deals with man is seen, for example, in Negro slavery, the ultimate object of which is sugar and coffee,” and “Death is for the species what sleep is for the individual.” I like to think the species, such as it is, will wake up refreshed after I die; my chronic insomnia will then have meant something. Convivial drunkards sadden me. Sometimes I withhold information from persons who ought to know it. One night, driving from Columbia, SC, to Augusta, GA, I got my 1975 Honda Civic up to 105 mph, west of the Aiken County line. It was 3 AM. I enjoyed that. I’m not easily hurt; on the other hand, I want people to like me more than I probably should. Lately I noticed that my eyebrows are unruly; that doesn’t augur well. I never read books people lend me unsolicited; likewise, I never heed advice. Vladimir Putin makes me feel safe. Like Robert Trivers, I lie to myself; nevertheless, things usually work out; that fact seems salient. Bob Dylan didn’t throw it all away. He gave it all away. To Jimi Hendrix and Richard Manuel, for example. Only once have I dated a woman whose taste in music I fully shared. I find it distasteful that ordinary Americans now call gunmen “shooters” and criminals “perps.” The Oxford English Dictionary dates the term “autoportrait” to 1825: “In addition to this general collection, there is an equally numerous one of the auto-portraits of painters” (Edinburgh Magazine). I have gardened at night (under compulsion). I have failed to report a crime. When I was in high-school, I placed first in a state-wide competition in percussion. Money means nothing to me, but I love to have it; eventually this will get me in trouble. I moved into a duplex in 1984. In the crawl space under the house I discovered a dog, chained to a stanchion. I called the Humane Society; they took the dog away and put it down; it was too sick to live. I have a theory about parties: no one should ever bring a guitar to one. I have never been embittered. I always lose umbrellas. I find it heartening that philosophers concern themselves with “the paradox of future individuals.” Poems of the Past and Present (1902) is cautiously optimistic; in Late Lyrics and Earlier (1922), Thomas Hardy set the matter right. On or about November 14, 1865, Charles Woodbury met Ralph Waldo Emerson. Woodbury took notes. So did Emerson, but not about Woodbury: I checked. I don’t cultivate the talents I have. I let them stand just as they are. I love my friends without condition; I deserve no credit for this; it comes too easy. I wonder: did advertisers invent “plaque”? I know they invented “body odor”; I saw the ads (while collating serial and trade editions of Edith Wharton’s Old New York). I have tried to find in myself evidence that I fear death, but none is forthcoming; this strikes me as unduly cavalier. On October 6, 2009, I had a dream. A woman dressed in black approached me. “Don’t you know that you are all blood, nothing but blood?” she said. “The corpuscles of your blood give off auras.” A table manifested itself; on the table lay a map; on the map lay a straight-razor; I used it to cut the map, while uttering the word “borderline.” I awoke in fear; I was afraid all day. I have never lived in a battleground state or a swing state. The one thing I covet, to the point of sinning, is the ability to write well. I cannot look in deep. I played “moon frisbee” on Pawleys Island once. I squander my best thoughts while in the shower; a body of research now backs me up on that. I was thirteen when Joe Cocker covered “You Are So Beautiful.” At the time, I thought it ridiculous. I can’t get enough of it now. I prefer it to the Billy Preston original. I am on several bandwagons. I am not a volume eater. When I tell Americans that I’ve lived in Japan for nine years, an observation often follows: by now I must be fluent in Japanese. Is that inference made on logical or on moral grounds? I think the word “callow” ought to mean something else; “thicket,” by contrast, means exactly what it should. “Another amp of eppy”: millions of Americans have now heard that phrase. Sometimes I meet people, men and women alike, with whom I find conversation impossible; I never fault myself, despite the fact that I’m a bad listener. I used to scoff at Jameson’s; now I drink it. “Arms akimbo”: what does that mean, when people do it, or do it on screen, or do it as if doing it on screen? I once coined a phrase: “crimped-hair music.” After applying it to an album a friend liked, I felt guilty. I’ve held a Dobro in my hand many times. I never learned to play one. I never so much as tried. British actors amaze me. How do they do American accents? I have never been cruel to be kind, but I have been cruel. I have a set of rituals I follow before going to bed. Even the prospect of sleeping in a room with someone else can make me apprehensive. I have never “tried” to forgive anyone; I do not understand what that means. I have had cancer. I have gout. Surely I’m not the only man with a crush on Alex Wagner; on Ana Marie Cox, too, for that matter (among our talking heads). My father likes to use the phrase “close personal friend”; it amuses him. The novelist David Mitchell gave me a mixtape in the spring of 1999. The first song on it was John Lennon’s #9 DreamAlso on the tape: “Judy and the Dream of Horses.” I’d never heard Belle & Sebastian before. Other people’s dogs irritate me to the point of distraction. I tolerate benzodiazepines. A friend once observed that I trembled while embracing her. People complain about tomatoes, but most vegetables sold in American supermarkets are bad. Good manners: the knack of never making anyone feel conspicuous. I haven’t dreamt about tornadoes in twenty-five years. I used to dream about them regularly: tornadoes and atom bombs. I think I’m undervalued as a teacher, but that’s sheer nonsense: I never meet students halfway. Michelle Goldberg’s haircut suits her; so does her book on Christian dominionism. Sometimes I mistake compliments for flattery; I consider this evidence of vanity. Cop-talk interests me: “the individual,” “the vehicle,” etc. In college I learned to love asparagus. After years of confusion, it dawned on me that eating asparagus imparts a distinct odor to urine. I thought, and think still, that “Asparagus Piss” would be a fine title for a book of poetry. Other good titles: “Good Sleeping Weather,” “Glorious Ruin,” “Message Number,” “Fat Deposition,” “April Galleons,” “Patient Room,” “Big Fiscal Phonies,” “Battle-pieces and Aspects of the War,” “Deep Grocery,” “Armies of the Night,” “Blunted Affect,” “Pride and Prejudice.” I have no memory of ever believing in God. I had a friend in high-school who, for about a year, saved every container of deodorant he used. He favored Mennen Speed Stick. Another friend once likened toilets to throats; I will never forget that. I think I would acquit myself well in combat. I overestimate my abilities as a cook. I like living alone. I also like sharing apartments with other people. Rock and roll means more to me than books. I hate mayonnaise. I prefer Kyoto to Boston, Boston to Chicago, and Chicago to Atlanta, but not Kyoto to Chicago. I, too, opposed the Iraq War. Some people worry about privacy on the Internet; I worry about anonymity. I got Jack Nicklaus’s autograph and then lost the paper it was written on. I remember listening to the Go-Gos’ first Lp with my friend Mike. Belinda Carlisle seemed interesting at the time. I once had lunch with Mort Sahl. Two other people were at the table. I let them do the talking. I never want to live in a city without a subway system. I bought a copy of All Things Must Pass forty-two years after George Harrison released it. The horns on the title cut are perfect; so is the tempo. Phil Spector produced that record. Now, on camera, Spector looks like a character in a film by David Lynch; he has fulfilled his name. When I was a child, I sometimes took baths instead of showers; I discovered that if I drained the tub and lay motionless my body settled into a disposition I could in no other way attain. I can see why some people mistake “Give me the beat boys” for “Give me the Beach Boys” in Dobie Gray’s 1973 hit, “Drift Away.” I have a hard time remembering jokes. My father loves flashlights, always has. I ordered alligator only once, in Hilton Head, SC. I thought it was overcooked, but how would I know? I never saw anything in Virginia Woolf. I probably underpaid my federal income taxes while in graduate school. The expression “plunging neckline” has always troubled me; in this context, the word “plunging” seems tactless. I once surprised a friend by being able to name, without hesitation, Abraham Lincoln’s first running mate. The bicycle is a kind of ideal; that one thing, at least, humanity has perfected. I no longer have a favorite Beatle. I can count the number of times I’ve vomited (since becoming an adult) on the fingers of one hand. Once, on a date, I forgot the given name of the woman I was with. I could only remember her surname. I have visited Four Sumter, the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Gettysburg, Harpers Ferry, Fredericksburg, Antietam, Appomattox Court House, and Ford’s Theatre. Nothing is easier than waiting. In 1984 I shot pool with an ex-convict named Hub. That was at the Crow Bar in Columbia, SC. Hub was drunk. He kept saying, “Don’t worry about the weather, Hub’s got his shit together.” Hub’s brother, drunker than Hub, wanted to fight me. I became a vegetarian on July 6, 2008. I met Butterfly McQueen in 1979; seeing her made me understand what the word “petite” really signifies. When I asked for an autograph, she gave me instead a slip of paper with a poem on it: “Just being nice / Is the only price / One has to pay / To keep rich.” I’ve wondered how a “nom de plume” differs from a “nom de guerre.” I’ve had to cut through baling wire to enter my own domicile (at the time, I carried tools for the purpose in my backpack). I first heard the phrase “Beats a sharp stick in the eye” in 1983; a year or two later I first encountered “Beats a poke up the nose with a burnt stick” and decided it was better. I have placed calls to 911 in two languages. In the 1970s my family lived in a house with a fireplace. In front of the hearth my mother placed a white, plush rug. She referred to it by a name I do not know how to spell, other than phonetically: “flow cotty.” It was a “flow cotty” rug. “My Sweet Lord” is straight up Emerson: “Vishnu, Vishnu”—the whole bit. I understand, but cannot explain, how “amplitude modulation” and “frequency modulation” radio waves work. Like Edouard Levé, I have been locked in a cellar. The only sitting president I ever saw was Ronald Reagan. The only sitting vice president I ever saw was Spiro Agnew. When I was a Cub Scout, our “den” visited the state capitol in Atlanta. Governor Jimmy Carter posed for a picture with us. Four years later, when he won the presidency, my father had new prints made from the negative; I have one still. The jocular rapport with which some men speak of “single malt” bothers me. When I was about five I found a gun on an upturned galvanized bucket in a neighbor’s carport. He’d just returned from the war in Vietnam, so I thought the gun was real; I was afraid to touch it. My friends and I gathered round the bucket. The gun turned out to be a cap pistol. That is one of my first memories, possibly my very first. Twenty-six years later, in 1994, a South Carolina court convicted one of the boys I was with that day of child molestation. I own every kind of iPod ever made. I have disarmed a person; the weapon in question was a hatchet. I believed, when I was a child, that certain thoughts were tangible; they felt, in my brain, the way a grain of sand feels when rolled between the tips of the thumb and index finger. I hate the expression “approving of”; as in, “He was approving of me.” I cannot write poetry, but occasionally I do. “Beauty spots” are aptly named. Forty-nine years old and still I laugh at farts. I can no longer distinguish between the experience of reading The Scarlet Letter and the experience of remembering it. I never attended a prom. Maybe that’s why I dislike Bob Seger. Hearing him sing the phrase “way up firm and high” fills me with derision. Charismatic people intimidate me; they must come to me; I never go to them. Noam Chomsky speaks beautifully. No one sounds more reasonable than Noam Chomsky. Peter Singer is an exception to that rule. I distrust the poet John Clare. “Down in the depths of my iniquity” by Fulke Greville rings perfectly true to me. I don’t believe in “inner demons.” That’s a bad metaphor. If you must deal in the supernatural, recur to Romans, chapter seven (mutatis mutandis). I like riding buses in Kyoto. They’re sprightly, especially the north/south line along Kawaramachi Street. There’s no end to apology. “In Tenebris” (I-III) first bore the title “De Profundis” (I-III); I only found that out last spring. Hardy always tinkered with his poems. The description of Neil Armstrong’s house in Of a Fire on the Moon is one of the best things in American literature. I have had a “bad feeling.” I have “stepped out onto the tarmac.” At 3 AM on December 8, 1980, a friend who had a paper route phoned me to say John Lennon was dead. As it happened, my parents were then vacationing in New York City. The phrase “beta-testing” has overstepped its limits. I do not think responsibilities begin in dreams; I know no better when they begin than when they end. I never smoked a cigarette until I was forty-seven. Chris Hayes is very good at what he does, but I’ve noticed that he uses the word “sound” where he ought to use “audio” or “audio clip.” I’ve reconciled myself to e-books. Sometimes I come to the party late; only recently did I discover how good Tea For the Tillerman is. I do stupid things. I once walked into a screen door. I know the difference between fear and terror. I’ve spent the night on a grating. I could go on. We all could. I’d rather read Autoportrait than meet its author, Edouard Levé, who killed himself.

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