April 8, 2011

The suicide author: David Foster Wallace & Édouard Levé


“I wish I could still subscribe to the Death of the Author theories I glommed onto so readily in college,” writes Ryan Chapman at his blog Chapman/Chapman, but the author’s “biography…can’t be avoided.” Chapman continues:

Case in point: When I finish David Foster Wallace‘s The Pale King, I will be moved to deep sadness for all the obvious reasons extrinsic to the novel-reading experience.

Indeed, for author’s like Wallace, the biographical legacy looms over his work. It’s impossible to divorce yourself as a reader from the sad fact of his suicide. And so we read parallel texts simultaneously: the novel Wallace tried to write and the literary remains of a troubled man. The author may be dead both literarily and critically, but his presence haunts the text, altering everything we read.

Another example, and a piece of writing that has been haunting me lately, is “When I Look at a Strawberry, I Think of a Tongue” by Édouard Levé in the most recent Paris Review. Levé, a photographer and painter as well as writer, finished his final work, Suicide, six days before taking his own life. The piece at The Paris Review, an excerpt from his book Autoportrait, is a rambling litany of observations, sexual confessions, biographical facts, and lyric prose. It is very beautiful, mournful, French, and, in the aggressive disconnect between its sentences, deeply revelatory about the the fragmentary nature of the suicidal mind. Or, at least, I can’t help but read it in this fashion — the drama of the author’s death prevents me from reading it any other way:

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. I do not love the sound of a family on the train. I am uneasy in rooms with small windows. Sometimes I realize that what I’m in the middle of saying is boring, so I just stop talking. Art that unfolds over time gives me less pleasure than art that stops it. Even if it is an odd sort of present, I thank my father and mother for having given me life.