Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 14 May 2017


Birth befalls me
Life occupies me
Death completes me
– Édouard Levé,

‘The Death of the Author’ is a 1967 essay by the French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes. It has nothing to say about dead authors or even suicidal authors. So why bring it up? Barthes’ essay argues against traditional literary criticism's practice of incorporating the intentions and biographical context of an author in an interpretation of a text, and instead argues that writing and creator are unrelated. He has a point up to a point and I couldn’t help thinking of him when I read these lines addressed to a man who has recently killed himself:
The way in which you quit it rewrote the story of your life in a negative form. Those who knew you reread each of your acts in the light of your last. Henceforth, the shadow of this tall black tree hides the forest that was your life. When you are spoken of, it begins with recounting your death, before going back to explain it. Isn’t it peculiar how this final gesture inverts your biography?
Silvia Plath, Richard Brautigan, Hunter S. Thompson, David Foster Wallace, Ernest Hemingway, Anne Sexton: the list is not short and yet it’s impossible once you realise the author of the book you have in your hands has killed himself not to look for clues. In 2013, for example, an article appeared in The Telegraph talking about how the notes for Plath’s last poem ‘Sheep in Fog’ “show the poet's increasing fragility as she approached the date she took her own life.” The LitHub article The Suicide Note as Literary Genre is also worth a read. Why the fascination? Because life’s precious and people go to extraordinary lengths to stay alive—e.g. Aron Ralston, who amputated his own right forearm with a dull pocketknife in order to extricate himself from a dislodged boulder—and yet others for no good reason—no good reason we can see—give it all up. Some we can understand—Arthur Koestler committed suicide when he was seventy-seven on discovering he had terminal leukaemia—but it’s the young, those who have, as the cliché goes, so much to live for that bemuse and confuse us.
I’ve never seriously contemplated suicide. I’ve thought about it because I’m a writer and writers—well this writer—thinks about all sort of shit but just because I’ve thought about something doesn’t mean I’m going to do it or even write about it. As it happens one of my characters is a suicide. The protagonist in my novella Exit Interview has killed himself and the book has him sitting down with Saint Peter who conducts a pretty bog standard exit interview with him. It was never intended to be a treatise on the meaningfulness and the wonderfulness of life but, obviously, a few pertinent questions get asked and the nice thing about it being a work of fiction is that I can have my suicide answer these as best he can. That doesn’t happen in the real world and it certainly doesn’t happen in Édouard Levé’s novel.
The book opens with the following paragraph:
One Saturday in the month of August, you leave your home wearing your tennis gear, accompanied by your wife. In the middle of the garden you point out to her that you’ve forgotten your racket in the house. You go back to look for it, but instead of making your way toward the cupboard in the entryway where you normally keep it, you head down into the basement. Your wife doesn’t notice this. She stays outside. The weather is fine. She’s making the most of the sun. A few moments later she hears a gunshot. She rushes into the house, cries out your name, notices that the door to the stairway leading to the basement is open, goes down, and finds you there. You’ve put a bullet in your head with the rifle you had carefully prepared. On the table, you left a comic book open to a double-page spread. In the heat of the moment, your wife leans on the table; the book falls closed before she understands that this was your final message.
We never learn the name of the man who’s taken his own life nor do we ever learn who’s telling us his story. No one’s named in the book apart from, oddly, the narrator’s brother. We only know the suicide as “you” and it takes a while to get used to the narration in the second person especially since we know he’s a) talking to a dead man and b) describing things he cannot possibly have been be privy to. There’s less dialogue than in an Anita Brookner novel but it works. There’s no suicide note or at least what was to pass for one is lost and so the only words we have that offer any clue are the handful of short poems discovered after his friend’s death that the narrator sees fit to include after he’s finished his story; almost every line ends with the word “me”. And this is where we need to remember Barthes and not read into the poems but how can you not?
Why did he do it? Let’s just say for a minute he could answer that question: what would he be able to say that would make us go, “Yeah, I get that. I’d have done the same”? Do you remember the scene in Educating Rita where Trish, Rita’s Mahler-loving flatmate, attempts suicide and when asked why all she can offer up is a weak, “Darling, why not?” No doubt after hours and hours of therapy—and thousands upon thousands of words—we might get something that makes some sort of sense out of her actions and that’s what this book is really attempting to do. The narrator puts himself in his friend’s place and explains his friend to his friend albeit in absentia. The odd thing is who’s decided to do this investigation. We don’t learn a great deal about the narrator but this is a start:
I haven’t seen your wife since. I hardly knew her. I met her four or five times. When the two of you got married, you and I stopped seeing each other. I see her face again now. It has remained unchanged for twenty years. I’ve retained a fixed image of her from the last time I saw her. Memory, like photographs, freezes recollections.
The first time I saw you, you were in your bedroom. You were seventeen years old.
As the suicide is twenty-five when he dies this means our narrator has barely seen his friend over the last five—and presumably critical—years and only knew him for the three before that. He doesn’t seem especially qualified to start out on a task like this but who are we to deny him? When I learned that my first girlfriend had died I immediately sat down and wrote a poem for her even though we hadn’t spoken in over twenty years. You can’t help how you feel.
If you were still alive, would we be friends? I was more attached to other boys. But time has seen me drift apart from them without my even noticing. All that would be needed to renew the bond would be a telephone call, but none of us are willing to risk the disillusionment of a reunion. […] But you, who used to be so far-off, distant, mysterious, now seem quite close to me. When I am in doubt, I solicit your advice. Your responses satisfy me better than those the others could give me. You accompany me faithfully wherever I may be. It is they who have disappeared. You are the present.
You are a book that speaks to me whenever I need it. Your death has written your life.
Some of the things the narrator tells “you” are things the man would’ve been well aware of—they’re there for us in just the same way detectives in cop shows spell things out just a little too thoroughly—and mostly he dwells on the time his friend was alive but at the start of the book he does share some details concerning how people reacted to his death, like the young man’s father:
Your wife only remembered later that before falling from the table, the comic book you had left there was open. Your father bought dozens of copies, which he gave to everyone. He came to know the text and the images of this book by heart; this was not at all like him, but he ended up identifying with the comic. He is looking for the page, and on the page for the sentence, that you had chosen. He keeps a record of his reflections in a file, which is always on his desk and on which is written “Suicide Hypotheses.” If you open the cupboard to the left of his desk, you’ll find ten identical folders filled with handwritten pages bearing the same label. He cites the captions of the comic book as if they were prophecies.
I can see me doing that. Edwin Shneidman, “a father of contemporary suicidology”, wrote, “Suicide notes are cryptic maps of ill-advised journeys.” Where does the suicide think he’s going? Journeys feature quite a bit in Suicide. How many of them are accurate or even took place who can tell? At one point the narrator describes in detail his friend wandering round Bordeaux and then the next day…
You went back out, and set off at random into the town. But your steps spontaneously led you to the same locations that you had strolled through the day before. You paid less attention to what you were looking at; the places no longer had the attraction of novelty. You then decided to walk taking the first street on the right, the second street on the left, the first street on the right and so on, without deviating from this method, so as to not let yourself be guided by the appeal of whatever turned up. You passed the day in this way, looking on your map from time to time at where chance was leading you.
He stops to eat and then…
Rather than resuming your random walk, you returned by the shortest route to the city centre. When you got close to your hotel, it was still too early for dinner. You decided to take the same route as the day before, to verify if what you had seen was now anchored in your memory. You didn’t look at the map, you didn’t hesitate once over changes in direction.
Did any of this happen? Unlikely. Our narrator’s trying to imagine the kind of man his onetime friend was becoming:
When you travelled, it was to taste the pleasures of being a stranger in a strange town. You were a spectator and not an actor: mobile voyeur, silent listener, accidental tourist.
Is this how suicides feel, out of place? I found an article online with one of the usual ponderous titles that academics see fit to give their works but this one included the wonderful expression “thwarted belongingness;” I suspect its author was a frustrated poet. But it’s a good expression especially for the kind of person we find described within these pages. He doesn’t belong. Others are a struggle. We learn this right at the start when our narrator is granted access to his friend’s bedroom; no one was allowed in his room up until then.
A ruin is an accidental aesthetic object. If it becomes beautiful, this was certainly not the intention. A ruin is not constructed or maintained. The tendency of a ruin is to crumble down into a heap. The most beautiful parts remain standing despite their wear and tear. The memory of you is what stays up, your body what subsides. Your ghost remains upright in my memory, while your skeleton is decomposing in the earth.
The man we see described in this book is not the man he once was. He was never that man. The man we see described is part-ideal and part-enigma. His friend’s filled in the blanks imaginatively. He’s begun the task of mythologizing him. Sylvia Plath is now a myth according to The Herald several dozen other online sources and yet I found this sentence on the ironically short-lived site The Myth of Sylvia Plath interesting:
[H]er tabloid-worthy life and tragic end can not and should not define her: a deeper look into her work and those who read and study it show a constantly morphing poet who defies categorization.
They’re right. Her death shouldn’t define her and there will be a few lucky individuals who’ll encounter her poetry and not know anything about her but once they do it’ll be hard not to reassess what they’ve read; the need to look at it again with different eyes will be hard.
Which brings me to Édouard Levé. In the Afterword Jan Steyn, the book’s English translator, writes:
Édouard Levé committed suicide on October 15, 2007. Ten days earlier he had given a manuscript to his editor; it was a novel entitled Suicide, the same you hold in your hands.
Suicide’s reception in France has been deeply influenced by the circumstances of the author’s death. Although it is a fictional work, written in the second person about a friend of the narrator’s who had committed suicide twenty years earlier, its title and subject matter ensure that, despite reports that Levé did leave a suicide note, the present text is taken as a sort of literary explanation of his decision to die.
Levé was forty-two when he died and every line of Suicide makes us wonder why.
Your suicide has become the foundational act…Your final second changed your life in the eyes of others. You are like the actor who, at the end of the play, with a final word, reveals that he is a different character than the one he appeared to be playing.
I was lucky. I’d forgotten all about Levé’s suicide by the time I got round to reading the book. I never thought for a second that the author of the book I was reading might be dead due to anything other than misfortune or natural causes. Now I see it all in a very different light but rather than looking for a reason—which may or may not be there—I was struck by his awareness of how others would react to his death:
Your mother cried for you when she learned of your death. She cried for you every day until your burial. She cried for you alone, in her husband’s arms, in the arms of your brother and your sister, in the arms of her mother and your wife. She cried for you during the ceremony, following your coffin to the cemetery, and during your inhumation. When friends, many of them, came to present their condolences, she cried for you. With every hand that she shook, with every kiss she received, she again saw fragments of your past, of the days she believed you to be happy. Faced with your death, scenarios of what you could have lived or experienced with these people, gave them a feeling of immense loss: you had, by your suicide, saddened your past and abolished your future. Your mother cried for you in the days following your funeral, and she cried for you again, alone, whenever she thought of you. Years later, there are many, like her, whose tears flow whenever they think of you.
One of the things they say to potential suicides is, “Think of others.” That might be a spouse or a parent or a sibling or even work or classmates. Well, clearly, even if Suicide is not Levé’s actual suicide note it does show that he was aware of the potential—dare I say inevitable?—consequences of his actions. Another thing people say—although they don’t usually get to say it to the person they’d most like to—is that suicide is a selfish act. It is on one level but the real question is: Is selfishness necessarily a bad thing? That’s one I’ve struggled with my whole life. Here’s what the narrator thinks his friend’s thoughts might have been on the matter:
This selfishness of your suicide displeased you. But, all things considered, the lull of death won out over life’s painful commotion.
No one would suggest for a moment that suicide is an ideal solution to life’s problems. It’s a desperate measure. Here are twenty-seven thoughts culled from Reddit on a very divisive subject.
As far as books go Suicide doesn’t sound like it’d be much fun to read and it was never going to win Comedic Novel of the Year 2008 but it’s not all doom and gloom. It focuses mostly on a life lived and what it’s like to be different. And the extrapolated/imaginary “you” we get to know is most definitely different and interesting and puzzling. In The Rules of Attraction Bret Easton Ellis wrote: “What does that mean know me, know me, nobody ever knows anybody else, ever! You will never know me.” This is why we don’t get why most people kill themselves. Because we’re not in their heads. Because we could never be in their heads. There are no answers in Suicide. The real questions we should be asking are, perhaps, a little clearer though.
The Afterword is particularly helpful if you’ve not read anything else by Levé (which most of us won’t have although Autoportrait and Works have since been translated) because it helps us understand the kind of man he was and how all his prose works are interlinked—Autoportrait, for example, includes the opening scene of Suicide—and probably could/should be read as a single text. Not that I expect it would make things much clearer. To illustrate: Levé was also a photographer and might even be better known for that than for his writing. He produced a series called Pornography in which his models position themselves in the kinds of poses you’d expect from a work called Pornography with one exception—they’re all fully clothed. He did a similar thing with the series Rugby (a photo from which was used for the Folio edition of Suicide). Another series called Homonyms consists of neutral frontal portraits of “ordinary” people who happen to share a name with someone famous. Expectation thwarted seems to be a thing with Levé. Amérique, published in 2006, comprised of images of arbitrary parts of obscure American towns named after grander world cities like Florence, Berlin, Amsterdam or Paris.
For the record Levé didn’t shoot himself in a basement. He hung himself in his Paris apartment after receiving confirmation that Suicide was going to be published.

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