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the Complete Review
the complete review - autobiographical



Edouard Levé

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To purchase Autoportrait

Title: Autoportrait
Author: Edouard Levé
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2005 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 117 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Autoportrait - US
Autoportrait - UK
Autoportrait - Canada
Autoportrait - Canada (French)
Autoportrait - India
Autoportrait - France
Autorretrato - España
  • French title: Autoportrait
  • Translated by Lorin Stein

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Our Assessment:

A- : fascinating variation on the self-portrait

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Autoportrait is more self-portrait than memoir, a litany of self-centered observations, claims, and memories presented in no particular order that feels both random and comprehensive.
       On the first page already he announces: "I archive", but it's only fairly late in the book that Levé explains -- in a rare succession of sentences that are connected -- what is behind his method:

I do not write memoirs. I do not write novels. I do not write short stories. I do not write plays. I do not write poems. I do not write mysteries. I do not write science fiction. I write fragments. I do not tell stories from things I've read or movies I've seen, I describe impressions, I make judgments.
       Autoportrait is an archive of such fragments, a single paragraph of short sentence after short sentence offering impressions and judgments, tallies and memories. Yes, the presentation is practically pointillist -- and, yes, that cover really suggests what you're getting (except perhaps that the text is more than just black and white) -- with few of the sentences even going on at any length, and fewer observations or memories presented in more than a single sentence. "Art that unfolds over time gives me less pleasure than art that stops it" he writes -- and Autoportrait, an art-work made up of moments, forsakes any semblance of chronology ("chronology bores me", Levé admits).
       There is a mechanical feel to much of this, Levé's tone generally neutral -- unemotional, non-judgmental -- as he lists his facts or gives his opinions. A summary impression may be of an 'autoportrait' on autopilot -- yet it is nothing of the sort. The mono-tone of the monologue is carefully shaded, the mix of observations a constantly changing one (the list quoted above is not representative).
       Only very rarely does Levé go beyond mere recording of fact or opinion; his probing remains on the surface, and he avoids prodding for insight. Rarely does he try to explain in greater depth, or follow-up any initial observation; when he does, it is almost jarring:
I sometimes feel like an impostor without knowing why, as if a shadow falls over me and I can't make it go away.
       There are the occasional odd notes -- observations rather out of left field, such as: "I have never attended a nudist funeral" or: "I would be curious to see a Shakespeare play performed by figure skaters" -- but most are more mundane, or at least more obvious bits of self-reflection.
       Levé reveals -- or at least enumerates -- many personal details, about his life and loves and art. One characteristic that reveals itself is a sense of impermanence: Levé is not a settled man, in family or career. He is not tied to routine or necessity; in part, clearly, he is still 'looking for himself' -- and Autoportrait is an exercise in trying to define and position himself. A portrait of the man does emerge, yet it is also not a final or full one: Levé remains, in many ways, indeterminate. (His suicide two year after publication of this book also suggests the failure of the exercise.)
       There is great craft to Autoportrait, too: it's not easy to pull off presenting a narrative in this form, but Levé's text is a fluid, absorbing -- and often beautiful -- read. A fascinating piece of work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 February 2012

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Autoportrait: Reviews: Other books by Edouard Levé under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Édouard Levé was born in 1965 and committed suicide in 2007.

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© 2012-2013 the complete review

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