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Authors: Edouard Levé

Autoportrait

also by Edouard Levé in English translation

Suicide

AUTOPORTRAIT

Edouard Levé

translated by Lorin Stein

When I was young, I thought
Life A User’s Manual
would teach me how to live and
Suicide A User’s Manual
how to die. I have spent three years and three months abroad. I prefer to look to my left. I have a friend who gets off on betrayal. The end of a trip leaves me with a sad aftertaste, the same as the end of a novel. I forget things I don’t like. I may have spoken, without knowing it, to someone who killed someone. I look down dead-end streets. I am not afraid of what comes at the end of life. I don’t really listen to what people are saying. I am surprised when someone gives me a nickname and we hardly know each other. I am slow to notice when someone mistreats me, it’s always so surprising: evil is somehow unreal. I archive. I spoke to Salvador Dalí when I was two. Competition does not drive me. To describe my life precisely would take longer than to live it. I wonder if I will turn reactionary with age. When I sit with bare legs on vinyl, my skin doesn’t slide, it squeaks. I have cheated on two women, I told them, one didn’t care, one did. I joke about death. I do not love myself. I do not hate myself. I do not forget to forget. I do not believe in the existence of Satan. My rap sheet is clean. I wish a season lasted a week. I would rather be bored alone than with someone else. I wander empty places and eat in deserted restaurants. When it comes to food, I prefer the savory to the sweet, the raw to the cooked, the hard to the soft, the cold to the hot, the aromatic to the odorless. I cannot sit still and write unless there is food in the refrigerator. I can easily go without drinking or smoking. In a foreign country, I hesitate to laugh when my interlocutor burps while we are talking. I notice gray hair on people too young to have it. It’s better for me not to read medical textbooks, especially passages describing the symptoms of some illness: no sooner do I find out one exists than I detect it in myself. War seems so unreal to me I have trouble believing my father was in one. I have seen a man who expressed one thing with the left side of his face and something else with the right. I am not sure I love New York. I do not say “A is better than B” but “I prefer A to B.” I never stop comparing. When I am coming back from a trip, the best part isn’t going through the airport or getting home, but the taxi ride in between: you’re still traveling, but not really. I sing badly, so I don’t sing. Because I am funny people think I’m happy. I want never to find an ear in a meadow. I am no fonder of words than of a hammer or a vise. I do not know the green boys. In the store windows of English-speaking countries, I read the word
sale
(dirty) in French. I cannot sleep beside someone who moves around, snores, breathes heavily, or steals the covers. I can sleep with my arms around someone who doesn’t move. I had an idea for a Dream Museum. I have a tendency, because it’s easier, to call people “friends” who aren’t, I can’t think of another word for people whom I know and like but with whom I have no special connection. On the train, facing backward, I don’t see things coming, only going. I am not saving for my retirement. I consider the best part of the sock to be the hole. I do not keep track of how much money is in my bank account. My bank account is rarely in the red.
Shoah
,
Numéro zéro
,
Mobutu King of Zaïre
,
E.R.
,
Titicut Follies
, and
La Conquete de Clichy
have affected me more than the best works of fiction. The ready-made films of Jean-Marc Chapoulie have made me laugh harder than the best comedies. I have attempted suicide once, I’ve been tempted four times to attempt it. The distant sound of a lawn mower in summer brings back happy childhood memories. I am bad at throwing. There was a compulsive collector in my family, at her death they found a shoebox labeled in painstaking calligraphy: “Little bits of string that have no use.” I do not believe the wisdom of the sages will be lost. I once tried to make a book-museum of vernacular writing, it reproduced handwritten messages from unknown people, classed by type: flyers about lost animals, justifications left on windshields for parking cops so as to avoid putting money in the meter, desperate appeals for witnesses, announcements of a change in management, office messages, home messages, messages to oneself. I have thought, listening to an old man tell me his life story, “This man is a museum of himself.” I have thought, listening to the son of an American black radical talk, “This man is a ready-made.” I have thought, seeing a man who had wasted away, “This man is a ghost of himself.” My parents went to the movies every Friday night until they got a TV. I like the straightforward sound of a paper bag but not of a plastic bag, which fidgets. I have heard but never seen fruit fall from the branch. Proper names fascinate me because I don’t know what they mean. I have a friend who, when he has people over for dinner, never sets out serving dishes but arranges the food on plates like a restaurant, so there’s no way to have seconds. I have lived for several years without insurance. I sometimes feel uneasier around a nice person than a mean one. My worst memories of traveling are funnier in the telling than my good ones. It disconcerts me that a child should address me as “monsieur.” A swingers’ club was the first place I ever saw people make love in front of me. I have not masturbated in front of a woman. I masturbate less to pictures than to memories. I have never regretted saying what I really thought. Love stories bore me. I never tell my own. I don’t talk much about women I go out with, but I like hearing my friends talk about the women they go out with. A woman came to meet me in a distant country after a month and a half apart, I hadn’t missed her, within seconds I realized I didn’t love her anymore. In India, I traveled in a train compartment with a Swiss man whom I didn’t know, we were crossing the plains of Kerala, I told him more about myself in several hours than I had told my best friends in several years, I knew I would never see him again, he was an ear without repercussions. I have sometimes been suspicious. Looking at old photos leads me to believe that the body evolves. I reproach others for what they reproach in me. I am not stingy, I admire money well spent. I like certain uniforms not as symbols, but for their functional sobriety. I will sometimes announce good news, concerning myself, to someone I like and be shocked to realize that he’s jealous. I would not like to have famous parents. I am not handsome. I am not ugly. From certain angles, tanned and wearing a black shirt, I can find myself handsome. I find myself ugly more often than handsome. The times I find myself handsome are not the times I’d like to be. I find myself uglier in profile than straight on. I like my eyes, my hands, my forehead, my ass, my arms, my skin, I do not like my thighs, my elbows, my chin, my ears, the curve at the back of my neck, my nostrils from below, I have no opinion about my dick. My face is asymmetrical. The left side of my face looks nothing like the right. I like my voice after a night out or when I have a cold. I don’t need anything. I am not looking to seduce a wearer of Birkenstocks. I do not like the big toe. I wish I had no nails. I wish I had no beard to shave. I have no interest in awards, I have no respect for distinctions, I don’t care what I’m paid. I am drawn to strange people. I feel sympathy for the unlucky. I do not like paternalism. I feel more at ease with the old than with the young. I can ask endless questions of people I think I will never see again. Some day I will wear black cowboy boots with a purple velvet suit. To me the smell of manure recalls a bygone era, whereas the smell of wet earth evokes no particular time. I can’t remember the name of a person I’ve just met. I’m not ashamed of my family, but I do not invite them to my openings. I have often been in love. I love myself less than I have been loved. I am surprised when someone loves me. I do not consider myself handsome just because a woman thinks so. My intelligence is uneven. My amorous states resemble each other, and those of other people, more than my works resemble each other, or those of other people. I find something pleasant in the pain of a fading love. I have never had a shared bank account. A friend once remarked that I seem glad when guests show up at my house but also when they leave. I begin more than I finish. I show up at people’s houses more easily than I leave. I do not know how to interrupt an interlocutor who bores me. I will gorge on an all-you-can-eat buffet to the point of nausea. I have good digestion. I love summer rain. Other people’s failures make me sadder than my own. I do not rejoice in my enemies’ failures. I have trouble understanding why people give stupid presents. Presents make me feel awkward, whether I am the giver or the receiver, unless they are the right ones, which is rare. Love has given me great pleasure but takes up too much time. As the surgeon’s scalpel reveals my organs, love introduces other versions of myself, whose obscene novelty disgusts me. I am not ill. I go to the doctor no more than once a year. I am nearsighted and slightly astigmatic. I have never kissed a lover in front of my parents. In Corsica some friends took me to a beginners’ class in underwater diving, a teacher led me down six meters in a few seconds, my left ear popped, back on the surface I had lost my sense of balance, since then whenever I’m in an airplane I feel a needle pricking my inner ear until, all at once, the air rushes out of my ear drum. I do not know the names of flowers. I recognize the chestnut tree, the lime tree, the poplar, the willow, the weeping willow, the oak, the chestnut, the pine, the fir, the beech, the sycamore, the hazelnut, the apple, the cherry, the lilac, the plum, the pear, the fig, the cedar, the sequoia, the baobab, the palm tree, the coconut, the live oak, the maple, the olive. I can name, but do not recognize, the ash, the aspen, the spindle tree, the strawberry tree, the bougainvillea, the catalpa. I have kept guppies, Sumatran brill, neons, a fish striped yellow and black and shaped like a snake, and other aquarium fish whose names I have forgotten. I had a female hamster called Pirouette because she loved her turquoise plastic wheel and ran so fast in it that it would spin her all the way round. A woman friend whose English isn’t good heard
C’est quelque chose
for “Set in your shoes” in the song “Let’s Groove.” At times I have run down dark paths. An uncle would play Scorlipochon One Two Three Four Five Six Seven Eight Nine Ten with me, I had to say Scorlipochon one two three four five six seven eight nine ten while he was tickling me. One of my uncles had a taste for scandal and pranks, he’d shoplift just for fun, he would buy
Hara-Kiri
magazine and let me read it, he would pretend to be retarded at the beach, he would pounce yelling and drooling on a sunbathing woman, he’d ask questions using nonexistent words of the farmer’s wife who lived down the road, he would call strangers on the phone and pretend they had a snake waiting to be picked up at Orly Airport, he went to the casino until he was definitively and cheerfully banned, he tried to win back the leases of nightclubs that his father had won at poker and he ended up getting drunk when the mafioso landlords plied him with champagne. I wonder how I would behave under torture. At a museum I look at people with the eyes of an artist, in the street with my own. I know four names for God. A friend told me that to yawn four times was the equivalent of fifteen minutes’ sleep, I’ve often tried this without noting any benefits. I have known climates that went from twenty-five below to over forty-five degrees Celsius. I have met Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Amish, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists. I have seen earth, mountains, and sea. I have seen lakes, rivers, creeks, brooks, torrents, waterfalls. I have seen volcanoes. I have seen estuaries, coasts, islands, continents. I have seen caves, canyons, fairy hats. I have seen deserts, beaches, dunes. I have seen the sun and the moon. I have seen stars, comets, an eclipse. I have seen the Milky Way. I am no longer ten years old. I have never believed that you could see a dahu. I wonder if there are blasphemers of Satan, and if to blaspheme against him is a sin, from his point of view but also from God’s. Monsters interest me. When I see the words “code PIN OK” on French bank machines, I read it as “code Pinoquet.” Solitude helps me be consistent. A friend of my parents was fifty before she learned that there is no such thing as elbow grease. I did not know how to answer when a grown-up asked, “Is that lie really true?” I forced myself to smile when a grown-up said, “Go see if I’m over there.” My father is funny. My mother loves me without smothering me. I discovered “dirty pictures” in a little blue pamphlet which described certain sins and which a priest had given me before my first confession to help me remember the ones I might have committed. I attended a school that employed several pedophiles, but I was not among their victims. One of my schoolmates, at age twelve, was followed by an old man into a stairwell, where he dragged him into a basement to have his way with him. The dog belonging to a friend of mine disfigured his best friend when my friend was fourteen. I have never missed a flight that then exploded in mid-air. I almost killed three passengers in my car by looking for a cassette in the glove compartment while I was going one-eighty on the highway from Paris to Reims. My father walked in on me making love to a woman, when he knocked I said without thinking, “Come in,” blushing, he quickly backed out and closed the door, when my girlfriend tried to slip away, he went up to her and said, “Come back whenever you like, mademoiselle.” Like most people, I have no idea where the city I live in got its name. One of my uncles died of AIDS soon after the art gallery in which he’d invested all his money went out of business. One of my uncles met the love of his life while driving his red convertible slowly through the streets of Paris, the man in question, a Hungarian immigrant, was in despair, wandering aimlessly and about to kill himself, my uncle pulled up next to him and asked where he was headed, they never parted until death came between them. My uncle’s friend taught me to laugh at things I saw on TV that were not, on the face of it, funny, for example Bobby Ewing’s hairstyle on
Dallas
. I have not signed a manifesto. If I turn around while looking in the mirror, there comes a moment when I no longer see myself. Raymond Poulidor is one of the least sexy names I know. I like salad mainly for the crunch and the vinaigrette. I do not like to hear people quote bons mots, especially those of Sacha Guitry. I delight in the wrapping paper before acceding to the object. Visiting churches bores me, I wonder whether, apart from a few specialists, anybody enjoys it very much. I do not know the names of the stars. I often plan to learn long texts by heart in order to boost my memory. I see fantastical beings in the clouds. I have never seen a geyser, an atoll, an undersea trench. I have never done time in prison. I like dim lights. I have never filed a complaint with the police. I have never been burgled. When I was twelve, I took the metro with three classmates, a stranger my age bent my arm behind my back, another about fifteen years old kicked me in the face, I fell down, when I got up he was about to give me another kick, so I pretended to be in more pain than I was, grabbing my face with both hands and screaming as if he’d smashed it in, the attackers got scared and ran away, at which point my three “friends,” who’d been standing there three meters away, ran up to me, I noticed the face of one had gone white with cowardice. My parents do not ask me enough questions. I once went into a prison where I was taking pictures of the inmates, in Rome, New York, a guard stopped me, he took me to the assistant warden, my film was confiscated, it also included photos of Jehovah’s Witnesses taken in Paris, New York. I have sold works to collectors from France, Austria, Spain, Germany, Italy, America, and possibly other countries. If over time a woman I’m seeing starts to use the expressions I do, I may begin to pity her. I wish there were regions where every day was the same day of the week, I could decide to go spend five Mondays in one city and eight Saturdays in another. I wish there was a city where everyone was named Jean or Jeanne, it would be called Jeanville. Names draw me to places, but bodies draw me to people. I forget that certain names of objects refer to actions, for example “watch.” I wonder whether anyone besides old people like riot police. I fetishize handwriting. When I choose postcards from a place, I am tempted to vary the pictures, rather than picking several with the best picture, which is absurd, since they’re all going to different addressees. When I write several postcards on the same day, I force myself not to describe the same events, as if the addressees might one day realize that I had written the same postcard several times over. I have taken a ride through the ravines of the Golden Triangle on the back of a blind elephant who found his way by feeling around with his feet. My brother builds. I mistakenly studied difficult subjects that were no use to me when I might have studied the arts for pleasure, which would have smoothed my path. I am happy to be happy, I am sad to be sad, but I can also be happy to be sad and sad to be happy. Lack of sleep bothers me less on a sunny day than when it rains. I find someone beautiful regardless of the moment, but I don’t always find myself handsome, therefore I am not. I sometimes talk to my dick, addressing it by its first name. I appreciate the mowed-hay smell of Levi’s 501s. I do not tell stories because I forget the people’s names, I report the events out of order and do not set up the punch line. On trips I surprise myself, for example I decide at a moment I did not expect that the trip is over. With a Dictaphone I write easily while thinking of something else. I have written several love letters but no breakup letters, I saved that job for my voice. I would rather paint chewing gum up close than Versailles from far away. I touch white for luck. I do not have a weekend place because I don’t like to open and then close a whole lot of shutters over the course of two days. I would pay someone to air out, heat, and clean a country house before I came to stay, so I could have the feeling that someone lived there. Although I am self-employed, I observe the weekend. My surname is ridiculous, but I am fond of it, I even teach it to people who don’t know it. I pack my luggage by making a list of all the things I will take, and since I always take the same things I keep the list in a file on my computer. I reuse grocery bags as trash bags. I separate my recycling, more or less. Drinking puts me to sleep. In Hong Kong I knew someone who went out three nights a week, no more, no less. I believe that democracy is spreading in the world. The modern man I sing. I feel better lying down than standing up and better standing than seated. I admire the person who thought up the title

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