Read Autoportrait Online

Authors: Edouard Levé

Autoportrait (6 page)

Life Upside Down
, directed by Alain Jessua,
The Devil, Probably
, by Robert Bresson, and
The Mother and the Whore
and
Une sale histoire
, by Jean Eustache, certain other movies have distracted or moved me, but I don’t give them the credit. I live with a feeling of permanent failure, although I don’t fail especially often at things I try to do. I do not use an umbrella. I take little pleasure in success, failure leaves me cold, but it infuriates me never to have tried, when I could have. I go to the movies not to learn, but for distraction. I don’t think movies are stupid, I just don’t expect much from them. I believe more in literature, even minor literature, than in movies, even great ones. I don’t have time to tell long stories. It takes me a while to realize that certain people bore me, such as people who are witty but tell stories slowly, with lots of useless details, at first I admire the precision of their memories, then I get tired, and finally I can’t stand to wait fifteen minutes to find out the upshot of a story that should have taken one minute to tell. I went to Bordeaux for the first time when I was twenty-five, I found when I went back at the age of thirty-eight that I remembered nothing: not a street, not a museum, not a café, not a river, nothing. There are periods when I remember everything, and others when my memory fails me, I don’t remember things I know perfectly well, I can’t think of the name of the place Vendôme or the title of a novel by Stendhal. I think the big toe is doomed to disappear. I feel uneasy in a tall chair, I need low seats in order to sit up straight without making an effort. I feel better sitting in a hard chair than in a soft chair. I do not keep my clothes in a wardrobe but on open shelves so I can take them in at one glance. Twice in my life I have been courted by gay men, they knew I wasn’t gay, I did not give them satisfaction. I have never been attracted to a man, which is a shame, the gay life appeals to me. As far as I know, I have no children. I got one woman pregnant, we decided that she would have an abortion, this was painful for her, as it was for me, she told me it was worse for her, meaning I would never understand. The first time I made love to a woman it was her first time too, but she seemed to be a natural. In contemporary art, I would tend to gravitate toward people who are nice, the trouble is that nice people are nice to everyone, they like everyone, which diminishes the value of their judgments. On the boulevard Saint-Michel I saw an unusually tall man, his head, which rose above the crowd, was not like a human face, he had a few tufts of hair, two holes instead of a nose, no ears or lips, some bits of tooth emerged from a gaping rictus, his face was askew, all the skin was burned, only his eyes had a normal shape, but the expression in them was frightened, as if the passing crowd were looking and making fun of him, this was twenty-five years ago, I remember it as if I had seen him just now. Certain knapsacks are too short and hurt my back, others, better designed, do it good. In the sheets of cheap hotels I have sometimes found body hairs belonging to previous guests. In cheap hotels, the zones of doubtful cleanliness I most distrust are the carpet, the sheets and the pillow cases, the toilet seat, and the TV remote. I sometimes sleep in hotels I don’t like, but there are no other hotels for miles around, I don’t know their addresses and it’s the middle of the night. One day, in an American motel, I saw the following price list: double room sixty dollars, single room fifty-five dollars, three hours thirty-eight dollars. I cannot remember attending a Mass that didn’t bore me. Until the age of twelve I thought I was gifted with the power to shape the future, but this power was a crushing burden, it manifested itself in the form of threats, I had to take just so many steps before I reached the end of the sidewalk or else my parents would die in a car accident, I had to close the door thinking of some favorable outcome, for example passing a test, or else I’d fail, I had to turn off the light not thinking about my mother getting raped, or that would happen too, one day I couldn’t stand having to close the door a hundred times before I could think of something good, or to spend fifteen minutes turning off the light the right way, I decided enough was enough, let everything fall apart, I didn’t want to spend my life saving other people, that night I went to bed sure the next day would bring the Apocalypse, nothing happened, I was relieved but a little bit disappointed to discover I had no power. When I do karate, it makes me euphoric to fight invisible enemies. I went out with a woman who sometimes would threaten to leave me as a way of making me say I loved her, all I had to do was get annoyed and say “I love you” and instantly she was all smiles. I would like to go to Japan before I die, but something tells me I won’t. I would be very moved if a friend told me he loved me, even if he told me more out of love than friendship. As a child I dreamed of being, not a fireman, but a veterinarian, the idea was not my own, I was imitating my cousin. I played house with a girl cousin, but there were variants, it could be doctor (formal inspection of genitals), or thug and bourgeoise (mini rape scene). When we played thug and bourgeoise, my cousin would walk past the swing set where I’d be sitting, outside our family’s house, I would call out to her in a menacing tone of voice, she wouldn’t answer but would act afraid, she would start to run away, I would catch her and drag her into the little pool house, I would bolt the door, I’d pull the curtains, she would try vaguely to get away, I would undress her and simulate the sexual act while she cried out in either horror or pleasure, I could never tell which it was supposed to be, I forget how it used to end. I am making an effort to specialize in me. If I am not the victim, the suspicions of other people make me laugh. To ease my backache after I’ve been driving a long way, I lie down on a hard floor, arms crossed, legs slightly raised. In Thailand, in a compartment on a train to Chiang Mai, I fell asleep sitting up, I woke to the sound of my own snoring, seeing the smiles of the friends who were with me, I was ashamed of the noises I could have made, but I will never know what they were. I have spent several idle days on a beach in Thailand, in the sun, on a white sandy beach, the water was turquoise, I slept in a straw hut, I ate fish in the sun, I did nothing, I only soaked up that ecstasy like a blessing. In la Creuse, in Bost-Boussac, at the large isolated house where my grandmother lived, it was three o’clock on a hot, sunny August afternoon and a friend and I were looking out over the countryside, drowsy from a long lunch and the Bordeaux we’d had with it, a couple was coming down the road that led to the house, a black man in his fifties wearing a Haitian shirt, gray trousers, and a cowboy hat, followed by a timid woman, maybe sixty years old, who wore a black dress and big glasses, the man smiled all the way from the end of the road to the house, the woman struggled and panted to keep up, he took off his hat, he shook my hand saying: “Hello, I’m Monsieur Macabre, but I am very much alive,” and he burst out laughing, then went on: “Messieurs, what do you think of God?”: he was a Jehovah’s Witness. I used to think I knew very little about things to do with me. At a window with small window-panes, my eye sees the wooden frame more than the landscape. At a picture window, my eye sees nothing but landscape. In Corsica, a friend and I played an Oulipian game, N+7, which consists of replacing each noun in a text with the noun that comes seven places later in the dictionary, I chose an instruction manual for a washing machine, we started in the middle of the afternoon and near midnight, by the light of the moon, we were still helpless with laughter whenever we repeated the sentence: “Set head cold to star key to ensure mixing of chiropractor and Tahitian.” I have flat feet. My coccyx sticks out farther than I would like, if I sit too long in a certain position it hurts like a useless tail. Having flat f
eet annoys me for two reasons: I can’t wear shoes with arched soles, and if I walk barefoot and it’s burning hot, my whole foot suffers, not just the extremities that support it. One day I told my analyst: “I don’t take any pleasure in what I have,” and I wept. On the radio I heard a program where a very witty woman told some out-of-date anecdotes, and it was not until the interviewer named his interlocutor that I realized they were talking about Jean d’Ormesson. I saw a TV program where Frédéric Beigbeder invited some naked writers onto the set, but they were posed in such a way that you couldn’t see their dicks. I saw Charles Bukowski only once on TV, in that famous clip from
Apostrophes
where he walked off the set, drunk. I discovered the face of Ray Bradbury on a TV screen in a motel near Stockholm, New Jersey: he was wearing a blue shirt with a white collar, a brown tie and beige suspenders, but his legs were bare, he was wearing shorts and sneakers, his old white hair was combed over to hide his bald scalp, one of his eyes was stuck shut, and the other looked far away behind the corrective lens of his thick glasses, at first I was frightened by the old man’s appearance and his cavernous voice, I wondered whether I would go on TV if I were in his place, then I admired this American way of dealing with his decrepitude. When I am away and I’m writing in the evening in a hotel room, and it’s time to go out to dinner, I know that when I come back I won’t go back to work, but I always convince myself otherwise so I can eat without feeling guilty. I wonder why wallpaper tends, in general, to be ugly. I feel uneasy about wall-to-wall carpets, which gather dust and stains, especially in hotels where I imagine they contain all the miasmas of previous guests, without quite knowing what I mean by “miasmas.” I bought a pornographic magazine in a convenience store, at the register I was less embarrassed than I had thought I would be, the cashier, an Indian, picked it up and folded it in such a way that the other customers in line wouldn’t see what it was, he slid it into a brown paper bag, I could read nothing in his face, neither complicity nor reproach. When I drive a car for more than an hour several days in a row, my lower back aches, which doesn’t happen with a motorcycle. On a motorcycle I go faster than in a car, especially on the highway, to kill the boredom. On a motorcycle, on the highway, once the vibrations and fatigue and the unrolling asphalt have grown hypnotic, time no longer counts, and boredom, which exists only as a function of measurement, disappears. I find certain ethnicities more beautiful than others. I don’t write in the morning, my brain isn’t up to it yet, I don’t write in the afternoon, I’m too sad, I write from five o’clock on, I need to have been awake a long time, my body relaxed from a day’s fatigue. If it’s sunny out and I spend all day roaming the streets looking for subjects to photograph, then when night falls I come home harassed by a sweet fatigue, eyes aching from too much light, I go to bed exhausted, in the blackness the day’s images file past like a random diorama until sleep knocks me out, the next day I wake up with circles under my eyes, as if I’ve been punished by the organs I abused. When I read the descriptions in a guidebook, I compare them to the reality, I’m often disappointed since they are fulsome, otherwise they wouldn’t be there. Days when I play sports I feel guilt-free, even in domains that have nothing to do with the body. Although I have written mainly on the computer for the last few years, my right middle finger still has a callous where I hold my pen. Although I have published two books with him, my publisher continues to introduce me as an artist, if I were an accountant as well as a writer, I wonder whether he would introduce me as an accountant. In the jokes I heard at school that involved competitions between different nationalities, the Frenchman always had the slowest car, the gun that jammed, or the smelliest underpants. In Spain twenty years ago, I was invited by a friend of a friend, my traveling companion, to spend an evening at the home of a seventy-year-old man, German by birth, our conversation was relaxed and funny, I felt happy, it was summer, I was on vacation, we were drinking good wine, platters of spicy food were served on a terrace overlooking the sea, the conversation took an unexpected turn as the man began to express more and more reactionary views in a charming tone of voice, he smiled as he looked into my eyes for approbation, the socialist-communist menace, the longhairs, the Jews, the unemployed, the homosexuals, he covered them all, he was trying to take me hostage with his hospitality, I was more perverse than he was, I smiled so that he would reveal himself, which he did beyond reason, when we left the table he took me to see his son’s bedroom, there was a Nazi flag thumbtacked to the wall, he admiringly singled out several books on the shelves, including
Mein Kampf
, I was astonished, looking back, that the friend of a friend, who knew what sort of man this was, a retired SS officer, had accepted his invitation. I do not tell jokes. There is no single word, there are only circumlocutions, to describe a situation in which I found myself: the woman I was seeing got pregnant by me, then she had an abortion, whereas I wasn’t pregnant, I was seeing a woman who was pregnant by me, then I didn’t have an abortion, but I was “someone seeing a woman who has aborted the child of his that she was carrying”: a word for her, a heavy formula for me. I accumulate beginnings. When I was thirteen, on a ski trip to Val-d’Isère, I went back to the chalet to get my sunglasses in the middle of the morning, I took off my snow boots, I went into the dormitory in my socks, not making any noise, there I surprised a forty-something counselor in the middle of masturbating a ten-year old boy who had to stay in bed because he’d broken his leg, the counselor snatched back his hand and smoothed down the sheet, and that night, while he made his rounds between the beds for lights-out, I called out across the dormitory: “I’m sure he hasn’t got any underpants on under his sweat suit,” right as he was passing me, I pulled down his pants, he was naked, he blushed and ran out without saying anything to me, for the rest of the trip he went to great lengths to make sure our paths never crossed and our eyes never met. I couldn’t say whether I’d prefer to have my left arm amputated or my right leg. When I read psychiatric manuals, I often find that I have one symptom of the illnesses they describe, sometimes more than one, sometimes every symptom. I do not write in order to give pleasure to those who read me, but I would not be displeased if that is what they felt. I can tear a piece of writing paper folded in two, in four, in eight, in sixteen, in thirty-two, in sixty-four, but no more. For reading, my favorite positions are, in order: lying down, sitting in an armchair, sitting on a sofa, sitting at a table, standing up. Often I think I know nothing about myself. I cannot bring myself to hate Jacques Chirac. I like to watch a plastic bag flying around between office buildings, especially when you can’t tell whether it’s going up or going down. When I ask for directions, I am afraid I won’t be able to remember what people tell me, I especially dread those useless directions that consist of people saying, “Then you’ll see a pizzeria, that’s not the place.” I am always shocked when people give me directions and they actually get me where I’m going: words become road. I like slow motion because it brings cinema close to photography. I get along well with old people. I have yet to meet an old man who still listens to rock, but then I haven’t met any old men who listened to rock when they were young. To feel pity makes me sad, but to be the object of someone else’s pity makes me sadder. I have missed two important meetings for the same reason, one with the Polish minister of culture, whom I was supposed to interview, the other with an American judge, whom I was supposed to photograph, I showed up late because I lost track of time. When I was eighteen, I showed up late to a history class, the teacher didn’t scold me directly, but he shared this verdict with the class: “Those who arrive late in youth arrive late all their lives.” On a trip, I fold my dirty laundry so it will take up less space. I could not be the same person in another body. I cannot bear to think about the death of someone I love, when the person dies I suffer two losses: the person is dead, and the unthinkable has occurred. I remember my dreams better when they are useful for my work. I love to recall my dreams, no matter what is in them. My dreams are structured so much like memories of things that happened in real life, sometimes I wonder whether they didn’t. If I sleep badly, I dream more, or else I remember my dreams better. I do not interpret dreams. My dreams are as strange to me as those of other people. It makes me laugh when people tell their dreams. On several different tables at my high school I read these sentences, written one above the other: “God is dead (Nietzsche). Nietzsche is dead (God).” I do not sleep under a comforter but under blankets, which I pull up if I get cold, a comforter rarely produces the right temperature. I have insulted just one person, the cultural councilor at the consulate where I did my military service. My memory embellishes. I often apologize, always thinking I shouldn’t, and that I shouldn’t have to. Over one summer I got six tick bites, only four years later did I become convinced that I had contracted Lyme disease, after I read a list of the symptoms on a Web site. I have cheated on schoolwork, but not at games. I dine alone in a restaurant if I have no choice, which happens only on trips. To dine alone in a restaurant seems paradoxical to me: going out to a restaurant is festive, festivities are collective. To find out whether I was homosexual, I tried to masturbate while thinking of men, it didn’t work. When I watch the hunting show

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