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Authors: Edouard Levé

Autoportrait (2 page)

BOOK: Autoportrait

The Last House on the Left
. A friend told me about the “Red Man of the Tuileries,” I don’t remember what he did but the name still gives me shivers. The pediatrician my mother took me to humiliated generations of children, including me, with this riddle: “If Vincent leaves a donkey in one meadow and goes into another meadow, how many donkeys are there?” all said in a measured voice, and then he’d say, “There’s only one donkey—you” to any child, that is, every child, who didn’t answer “One.” I want to write sentences that begin “Ultimately.” I can understand “It’s the end,” “It’s the beginning of the end,” “It’s the beginning of the end of the beginning,” but once we get to “It’s the beginning of the end of the beginning of the end of the beginning,” all I hear is a bunch of words. I have sometimes annoyed an interlocutor by systematically repeating the last word he said. I never get tired of saying
La fifille à son pépère
(grandfather’s darling). One of my friends earns the admiration of some and the indifference of others by knowing the name and number of every département in France. My cousin Véronique is amazing. I sometimes think of the witty thing to say an hour later. At the table, I excused myself for splashing food on the spotless shirt of a friend by telling him: “You got in the way of my juice.” I take no pleasure in others’ misfortunes. I do not bow down before a metal idol. I am not horrified by my heritage. I do not till the earth. I do not expect to discover new marvels in classical music, but I’m sure of taking pleasure until I die in the ones I already know. I do not know whether one can improve on the music of Bach, but one can certainly improve on the music of several others who shall remain nameless. I admit to being wrong. I do not fight. I have never punched anyone. I have noticed that, on the keypads of Parisian front doors, the 1 wears out the fastest. I have sometimes turned my interlocutors against me by an excess of argumentation. I do not listen to jazz, I listen to Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Chet Baker, Billie Holiday. I sometimes feel like an impostor without knowing why, as if a shadow falls over me and I can’t make it go away. If I travel with someone, I see half as much of the country as if I traveled by myself. One of my friends likes to travel in certain Middle Eastern countries where there is nothing to see but airports, deserts, and roads. I have never regretted traveling by myself, but I have sometimes regretted traveling with someone else. I read the Bible out of order. I do not read Faulkner, because of the translation. I made a series of pictures based on things that came out of my body or grew on it: whiskers, hair, nails, semen, urine, shit, saliva, mucus, tears, sweat, pus, blood. TV interests me more without the sound. Among friends I can laugh hard at certain unfunny TV programs that depress me when I’m alone. I never quite hear what people say who bore me. To me a simple “No” is pleasantly brief and upsettingly harsh. The noise level when it’s turned up too high in a restaurant ruins my meal. If I had to emigrate I would choose Italy or America, but I don’t. When I’m in a foreign country, I dream of having a house in Provence, a project I forget when I get back. I rarely regret a decision and always regret not having made one. I think back on the pain of affairs that never took place. The highway bores me, there’s no life on the side of the road. On the highway the view is too far away for my imagination to bring it to life. I do not see what I lack. I have less desire to change things than to change my perception of them. I take pictures because I have no real desire to change things. I have no desire to change things because I am the youngest in my family. I like meeting new people when I travel: these brief and inconsequential encounters have the thrill of beginnings and the sadness of separations. I wanted to write a book entitled
In the Car,
made up of remarks recorded while driving. To take pictures at random goes against my nature, but since I like doing things that go against my nature, I have had to make up excuses to take pictures at random, for example, to spend three months in the United States traveling only to cities that share a name with a city in another country: Berlin, Florence, Oxford, Canton, Jericho, Stockholm, Rio, Delhi, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Mexico, Syracuse, Lima, Versailles, Calcutta, Baghdad. When I decide to take a picture of someone I see in the street, I have ten seconds to notice the person, decide to take the picture, and go ask, if I wait it’s too late. I wear glasses. In my mouth, time moves slowly for candy. I have deeper to dig in myself. I see art where others see things. Between the solitude of the womb and the solitude of the tomb I will have hung out with lots of people. While driving a car past some meadows these words came to me: a tractor chicken and an elephant tent. I wish treatises were article- not book-length. In the United States I came across a village called Seneca Falls, which I mistranslated
Les Chutes de Seneque
(Seneca’s Falls). I have seen an ad for a vegetarian vehicle. I would like to see movies accompanied by inappropriate music, a comedy with goth rock, a children’s movie with music from a funeral, a romance with a brass band, a political film with a musical-comedy sound track, a war movie with acid rock, porn with a choir. I make fewer and fewer excuses. After I lick an envelope I spit. I don’t want to die suddenly but to see death slowly coming. I do not think I will end up in hell. It takes five minutes for my nose to forget a smell, even a very bad one, this doesn’t go for what I perceive with my other senses. I have weapons in my brain. I have read this sentence by Kerouac: “The war must have been getting in my bones.” Although I have always translated
Deer Hunter
Chasseur de cerf
, I still hear the echo of the mistranslation
cher chasseur
(dear hunter). I remember what people tell me better than what I said. I expect to die at the age of eighty-five. To drive at night through rolling hills by moonlight in summertime can make me shudder with pleasure. I look more closely at old photographs than contemporary ones, they are smaller, and their details are more precise. If not for religion and sex, I could live like a monk. My last and first names mean nothing to me. If I look in the mirror for long enough, a moment comes when my face stops meaning anything. I can stand around in several dozen different ways. I have carried women in my arms, I have not been carried by them. I have not hugged a male friend tight. I have not walked hand in hand with a male friend. I have not worn a friend’s clothing. I have not seen the dead body of a friend. I have seen the dead bodies of my grandmother and my uncle. I have not kissed a boy. I used to have sex with women my own age, but as I got older they got younger. I do not buy used shoes. I had an idea for an Amish punk band. Only once was I the first occupant of an apartment. I got into a motorcycle accident that could have cost me my life, but I don’t have any bad memories of it. The present interests me more than the past, and less than the future. I have nothing to confess. I have trouble believing that France will go to war in my lifetime. I like to say thank you. I cannot perceive the delay in mirrors. I don’t like narrative movies any more than I like the novel. “I do not like the novel” doesn’t mean I do not like literature, “I don’t like narrative movies” doesn’t mean I don’t like movies. Art that unfolds over time gives me less pleasure than art that stops it. The second time I walk the same route, I pay less attention to the view and walk faster. I let the phone ring until the answering machine screens the call. I spend two hours talking to one friend, but it only takes five minutes to end my conversation with another. When I’m on the phone, I don’t make any effort with my face. If I put off a phone call where something is at stake, the wait becomes more difficult than the call. I am impatient when waiting for a phone call but not when I have to make one. I have more good memories than bad ones. When I’m sure I like an article of clothing I buy a few of the same one. I do not wish to shine. At sixteen I bought a varsity jacket, it was aquamarine with beige leather sleeves, I only wore it twice, I felt, wrongly, that everyone was looking at me. I have read
The Critique of Judgment
. I used to make the stretchers for the canvases I painted. I have let several friends copy from me in class. When I was thirteen, in the Galeries Lafayette, I stole several records, I put them under my arm, I strolled nonchalantly down the lingerie aisle where I slipped them into my bag, as I left the store someone grabbed my scarf from behind, I turned around, it was a fifty-year-old security guard, she took me into a fluorescent-lit office, she threatened to call the police, I made myself cry, I said my parents were unemployed and about to get a divorce, which was untrue, she let me go, she seemed embarrassed, almost guilty, since then I have stolen books once and once some paperclips, without really knowing why. I get excited by the idea of reading the biography of an author I love, then when I actually do it I lose steam. I have read only four biographies all the way through:
Raymond Roussel
, by François Caradec,
Blue Monk
, by Jacques Ponzio and François Postif,
La Vie douloureuse de Charles Baudelaire
, by François Porché, and
Kerouac: A Biography
, by Ann Charters. I spend a lot of time reading, but I do not consider myself a “big reader.” I reread. On my shelves I count as many books read as unfinished. Counting up the books I have read, I cheat by counting the ones I didn’t finish. I will never know how many books I have read. Raymond Roussel, Charles Baudelaire, Marcel Proust, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Antonio Tabucchi, André Breton, Olivier Cadiot, Jorge Luis Borges, Andy Warhol, Gertrude Stein, Ghérasim Luca, Georges Perec, Jacques Roubaud, Joe Brainard, Roberto Juarroz, Guy Debord, Fernando Pessoa, Jack Kerouac, La Rochefoucauld, Baltasar Gracian, Roland Barthes, Walt Whitman, Nathalie Quintane, the Bible, and Bret Easton Ellis all matter to me. I have read less of the Bible than of Marcel Proust. I prefer Nathalie Quintane to Baltasar Gracian. Guy Debord matters more to me than Roland Barthes. Roberto Juarroz makes me laugh more than Andy Warhol. Jack Kerouac makes me want to live more than Charles Baudelaire. La Rochefoucauld depresses me less than Bret Easton Ellis. Olivier Cadiot cheers me up more than André Breton. Joe Brainard is less affirmative than Walt Whitman. Raymond Roussel surprises me more than Baltasar Gracian, but Baltasar Gracian makes me more intelligent. Gertrude Stein writes texts more nonsensical than those of Jorge Luis Borges. I read Bret Easton Ellis more easily on the train than Raymond Roussel. I know Jacques Roubaud less well than Georges Perec. Ghérasim Luca is the most full of despair. I don’t see the connection between Alain Robbe-Grillet and Antonio Tabucchi. When I make lists of names, I dread the ones I forget. I read for half an hour before I turn out the light. I read more in the morning and evening than in the afternoon. I do not use glasses for reading. I read from thirty centimeters away. I start to really read after minute five. I read better without shoes or pants. Nights with a full moon I feel euphoric for no reason. I do not read at the beach. At the beach I start off bored, then I get used to it, then I hate to leave. At the beach girls arouse me less than in the library. I like museums, mainly because they tire me out. I make no predictions. I like, in order of preference, swimming in the sea, in a lake, in a creek, in a pool. I have swum in the canyon of Gardon, near Collias, flat smooth rocks line the stream that flows softly at a pleasant temperature, I climbed over three hundred meters to its source and came back without the slightest effort, as in a dream, the sun cast an orange sheen on the surface of the rocks, my eyes could see far into the distance and my words echoed. I don’t think about going to the movies. I have made love standing on the roof of the chateau de Tarascon during the opening of a show of André-Pierre Arnal. I have made love on the roof of the thirtieth floor of a building in Hong Kong. I have made love in the daytime in a public garden in Hong Kong. I have made love in the toilet of the Paris-Lyon TGV. I have made love in front of some friends at the end of a very drunken dinner. I have made love in a staircase on the avenue Georges-Mandel. I have made love to a girl at a party at six in the morning, five minutes after asking, without any preamble, if she wanted to. I have made love standing up, sitting down, lying down, on my knees, stretched out on one side or the other. I have made love to one person at a time, to two, to three, to more. I have smoked hashish and opium, I have done poppers, I have snorted cocaine. I find fresh air more intoxicating than drugs. I smoked my first joint at age fourteen in Segovia, a friend and I had bought some “chocolate” from a guard in the military police, I couldn’t stop laughing and I ate the leaves of an olive tree. I smoked several joints on the grounds of my Catholic grammar school, le collège Stanislas, at the age of fifteen. At seventeen in Paris I drove my parents’ car without a license to take the girl home who had just spent part of the night with me. The girl whom I loved the most left me. I wear black shirts. At ten I cut my finger in a flour mill. At six I broke my nose getting hit by a car. At fifteen I skinned my hip and elbow by falling off a moped, I thought I would defy the street, riding with no hands, looking backward. I broke my thumb skiing, after flying ten meters and landing on my head, I got up and saw, as in a cartoon, circles of birthday candles turning in the air, and then I fainted. I have not made love to the wife of a friend. On the Internet I become telepathic. I do not love the sound of a family on the train. I am uneasy in rooms with small windows. I wonder how the obese make love. I feel good the moment I reach the top of a skyscraper. I could not live on a ground floor or in a basement. The higher the floor number, the better I feel. Sometimes I realize that what I’m in the middle of saying is boring, so I just stop talking. I used to think I worked better at night than in daytime until one day I bought black curtains. I use the shell of the first mussel to spoon out the rest. I can do without TV. I love saying
instead of
. I don’t know which disturbs me more, an actor who goes into politics, Ronald Reagan, or a politician who takes up acting, Bernard Tapie. I had an idea for a gallery-hanging that would begin four days after the opening, during which the people who came would have their pictures taken, and be the subject of the exhibition. When I’ve slept badly, my breathing is shallow. I believe the people who make the world are the ones who do not believe in reality, for example, for centuries, the Christians. Not wanting to change things doesn’t mean I am conservative, I like for things to change, just not having to be the one who does it. I can’t tell whether my fantasies match my capacities. I have spent two summers in a red van. Virtuosity annoys me, it confuses art with prowess. I have thought simultaneously: “I really should learn the trombone” and “there’s a dead ant.” If I get up early the day feels longer than if I get up late, even if I spend the same amount of time awake. Smoking takes too long. Drinking helps me sleep but keeps me from sleeping through the night. Drinking gives me a headache the morning after. I prefer movies with costumes from the future to ones with costumes from the past. My ideas are more my style than my words are. In a car I look at things through the windshield as if they were in a tracking shot. Maybe I’m writing this book so I won’t have to talk anymore. I’ve bought an apartment from a smiling crook. I do not explain. I do not excuse. I do not classify. I go fast. I do not name the people I talk about to someone who doesn’t know them, I use, despite the trouble of it, abstract descriptions like “that friend whose parachute got tangled up with another parachute the time he jumped.” In the morning I spend half an hour lying in the dark before the alarm goes off. I prefer going to bed to getting up, but I prefer living to dying. I do not respond to unpleasant remarks, but I do not forget them. Certain people wear me out in seconds because I can tell they are going to bore me. In Versailles, New York, I photographed a seventy-five-year-old man who wore black glasses, a cap, a stained white T-shirt under a Dickies-brand chambray shirt with the sleeves rolled up, beat up jeans, and black work boots, he was sad and handsome, I found out his name was Edward Lee, almost like mine. Driving once I thought I saw a road sign that said “Cheese Clinic,” I wondered whether they took care of cheese there or of people, using cheese. On the road I can be boxed in, or tailed, by the shadows of clouds. I watch the asphalt markings disappear under the hood of the car like strings of licorice. I find thin people make me feel young. Contemporary music generally seems aggressive to me, not because it’s contemporary but because it’s full of aggression. Certain non-aggressive music by Ligeti, Cage, Messiaen, Lutoslawski, Penderecki, Adams agrees with me. I like conversations you can interrupt without being rude: phone conversations, conversations with neighbors over the fence, conversations with the regulars at bistros, conversations with strangers. My grandmother was introduced to my grandfather because they both liked gusts of wind. One of my uncles answered an advertisement placed by a South African planter, seeking an orange-grower, as follows: “I know nothing about agriculture but am a quick study” and got the job. In South Africa one of my aunts had a servant named Coca-Cola and another named Shell. In the mornings one of my cousins and I used to play squirrels in a big bed, we’d hide under the covers, he would say “A touino touine, touine, touine, touine, a touino touine, touinoldin,” and cluck his tongue. In la Creuse one of my cousins and I used to play farmer and little lamb, the lamb would roll around in his underpants in a trough made out of a mud puddle, the farmer would watch him and play around vaguely with a stick, mostly he was the lamb, I was the farmer. In Corsica I used to play “girlwatcher.” In Normandy I used to play with Action Men. I have changed at least one tire. I have had a white R5, a gray Fiat Uno, a gray BMW 316, a gray Volkswagen Polo Movie, a red Volkswagen Transporter. When I ride a motorcycle I wear a thick black leather Vanson jacket, even in summer. In Paris I ride a bike. I do not fall down in roller skates. I have a double chin. I do not wear black socks with shorts. I do not wear a wool sweater if my neck is damp. I will sign up for a paragliding course. I forget to watch TV. I do not have a favorite tree, a favorite singer, a favorite friend, a favorite pair of pants, a favorite dessert. I wear the clothes of a manual laborer. If I lean off a balcony with the desire to kill myself, vertigo saves me. I like watching anything shot on Super 8, even though this is in such predictable good taste. I have no inclinations toward pedophilia. Urine does not excite me, neither do dogs. I breathe well with my mouth open. If it didn’t make me look stupid I would keep my mouth open a lot of the time. Aviation does not interest me. My brother thought his turtle had run away, it dried up under a radiator. I have trouble remembering any truly happy moments. I would like to have myself hypnotized by my wife, but I’m not married. Contradicting myself brings two kinds of pleasure: betraying myself and having a new opinion. I do things better for pleasure and without trying. When I urinate in a public toilet I breathe through my mouth, not my nose, even though it’s closer than my nostrils to the source of the smell. At a public urinal the presence of a neighbor delays my micturition. Into the sitting room of my parents’ country house walked my godmother, her three children, and the girlfriend of one of her sons, whose beauty so overwhelmed me that I forgot to say hello to my godmother, and when she pointed out the omission, I walked over and shook her hand instead of giving her a kiss. I love the crackle of a parquet floor. I have flat feet. The cold of floorboards travels through my bare feet up to my shins, which get goose bumps. I can take seafood or leave it. Everything interests me a priori, but not a posteriori. I do not think the dead are malevolent, since they are old people squared, and the old are less malevolent than the non-old. Virtuosity also bores me when it comes to roads: the highway is perfect and perfectly boring. If, driving fast, I don’t use windshield wipers, the size of the raindrops shrinks by evaporation. I could found an imprint for perversely themed guidebooks on the following subjects: McMansions, dangerous traffic lights, so-called museums, places where there’s nothing much to see, places where an archbishop may have slept. Driving alone over a bridge mounted with sky-blue rails I cried out with pointless joy and shouted nonsensical words. Listening to cheerful music is like spending time with people not like me. I have never attended a nudist funeral. I accept progress. I desire an object less if it was bought on sale. I am wary of shortcuts, which call the normal route into question. A hand that greets me by crushing my hand bodes no better than a hand that is soft or moist. When I laugh I use fewer facial muscles than when I don’t, to rest my face I have to laugh. In a car, perfume makes me sick. When I am hungry I feel thin. I liked Jimmy Carter. I wonder whether I admire faith or just people who have it. On the highway if several cars are speeding, I follow them to divide up the risk of getting stopped. I have left a woman because she scolded me for not having picked up groceries. In a foreign country the words missing from my pocket dictionary acquire an aura that doesn’t fade when I learn their ostensible meanings. I am more excited by a woman’s face than by her breasts than by her pussy than by her ass than by her legs. Obesity fascinates me because it effaces sex and age. I stand up straighter when I walk with a knapsack than when I don’t. My torso is too long for me to be comfortable in a car. I am afraid of doing worse by trying to do better. The dry look is an inexhaustible source of amusement, even when I’m

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