Signalling Posterity: The Fiction Writer's Journalism

Edouard Levé, trans. Jan Steyn & Caite Dolan-Leach, Newspaper

Dalkey Archive Press, 160pp, £9.95, ISBN 9781564781956

reviewed by Dominic Jaeckle

I would like to make [literature] out of real objects. The lemon to be a lemon that the reader could cut or squeeze or taste - a real lemon like a newspaper in a collage is a real newspaper. [...] But things decay, reason argues. Real things become garbage. The piece of lemon you shellac to the canvas begins to develop a mold, the newspaper tells of incredibly ancient events in forgotten slang, the boy becomes a grandfather. Yes, but the garbage of the real still reaches out into the current world making its objects, in turn, visible - lemon calls to lemon, newspaper to newspaper, boy to boy. As things decay they bring their equivalents into being. Things do not connect; they correspond.

Jack Spicer, ‘Letter to Lorca’

On Dictaphone cassettes recorded a few moments before, I cannot listen to the content of the words, only the sound of my voice: I am less troubled by the doubling than by the disappearance of meaning.

Edouard Levé, from Autoportrait

‘In art’, Edouard Levé claims in his novel Suicide (2008), ‘to reduce is to perfect.’ This aphorism contains within it a typical example of the assertions that preponderate through his writings. In reading Levé, we are examining reduction – be it through a consideration of form, of celebrity, of the desires and expectations we individually bring to bear on a reading of any cultural artefact, we are acutely aware throughout our experience of Levé’s work that we are dealing with singular objects of attention that leak. Levé writes as though he were indicating something specific, as though he were pointing a finger and allocating blame. However, this reduction is itself always oxymoronic: although truncated and abridged into a singular symbol, the representative both denies and supports a sense of the relations it supposes. In talking about a given thing, he is exploring the general thing, the myriad ways in which we disappear through metonymy.

In Autoportrait (2005), Levé details the specifics of personality to convey a picture of the processes of self-identification itself, of the cumulative nature of personality; in Suicide, we have a rumination on refusal as a pivotal human impulse; in Works (2002), we have a catalogue of unmade artworks, their concept realised, their actualisation denied. These texts all beg to be read collaboratively; however in their constellation the reveal is not a figuration of Levé himself but rather a significant remark on the function of creative work. On what we will an author to become through our engagement, what we believe a cultural artefact to be or to achieve. Levé is the given thing becoming the general thing.

Levé’s slur is thus on the representative work – how the literary essentially aggregates a nostalgia metaphorically paralleled in a text’s own automatic call for posterity, the view that every text is a historical document and that its primary grievance is its need to be remembered. His is a writing that proves lacunary – obsessed with the ways in which actions and thoughts endeavour to plug the gap between the reality of the past and the fictive nature of a speculative future that somehow resists history by involving itself implicitly in historical process. The newspaper, to entertain his analogue, plays into his hands: it is printed every day, every day it defines the day, every day it alters. Culture, as it seems for Levé, is imbued with the characteristics of the newspaper both as an idyll and as predicament; what was a timely statement, if it is to extend beyond the direct requirements of its day, needs be elevated above time to become a comment, rather, on the very notions of pertinence and contemporaneity that characterise commentary and provide the limits to its relevance. The work here corresponds to the universal nature of its form – any writing hopes to be a comment on all writing. Levé’s writer is a journalist fixated upon the question of personality as an affective force. The questions that then persist throughout his corpus oscillate around a consideration of the ethics of journalism: how we can ever write or speak objectively? If every expression positions me as its natural referent, how can I represent another? How does my being here taint my ability to report home?

In Newspaper, newly translated into English by Jan Steyn and Caite Dolan-Leach, these excurses are central to its provocations. The novel, conceptually, is lampooned – reduced to a series of fragmentary passages that, either invented or directly reproduced, appear with the impartiality of newsprint and individually detail a moment of national or cultural crisis. 'A volcanic eruption has devasted a city' – 'Two hundred have died following a fire on a packed train' – 'The music of the cacerolazo, the local term for populist protests that make use of common kitchen items, resounds in several large cities' – 'a new survey strongly favors one of the presidential candidates, projecting him winning against the presidential incumbent in the second round of the general election.' The passages, static representations, flicker like a nervous index finger on the remote, clicking from one scene to another and another. Patterns emerge only to dissolve; lines of continuation are brief, established as swiftly as they are disregarded for the sake of another thread.

The book is structurally reminiscent of Lefebvre’s Missing Pieces (2014) or Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines (1906), and arguably echoic of their themes. Levé is here playing with the ready-made – with a view of the curatorial emphases that inform our view of the contemporary and a history of its appropriations. However, in Newspaper the structural formation of a newspaper-as-object insures that we are dealing with the social function of culture. The text is divided into 11 subsections, these fragments arranged by virtue of their focus: we have the 'international', the 'social', 'business', 'science and technology' through to the weather and the classifieds. Significant, however, is Levé’s concluding with the arts. The three final sections move from general treatments of art and culture to entertainment listings to a television broadcast schedule. The aforementioned crisis is operatively transformed by this point: no longer are we dealing with the ramifications of ecological disaster, economic fallout or ideological demonstration; now we have longer sections that, again lifted out of their original context, begin to relay something of a manifesto on new directions in authorship and form that balance between a relaying of art as event – a museum opens, a director dies, an actor marries – and the plausible transformation of art’s performative function. Millennial work makes us look backwards, Levé infers, and thus proposes a significant open question through his citations:

How do we begin to make sense of society’s recent behavioral changes, the simultaneous rise of incivility and legal claims, the spread of individual and digitized knowledge to the detriment of our traditional institutions of learning? Using his experience as a psychoanalyst, the author catalogues our contemporary ills. According to his diagnosis, society will eventually be transformed from being a culture based on the repression of desire, creating widespread neurosis, into a society founded on free expression, leading to more powerful perversions.

Lifted out of its original situation – the voice of the original author and their ultimate subject here proving displaced – Levé is arguably framing the social scene that will receive his work and is in turn detailing the nature of his formal intentions. He is presenting, throughout Newspaper, a theory of 'powerful perversion' that, rooted in a voyeurism, degrades original and authentic meaning through its emphasis on the constant process of reproduction as a metaphor for our inability to capture history. The newspaper is printed everyday, and yet every day the content shifts again. A newspaper situates the contemporary within retrospect. A newspaper is an argument. A newspaper grants context. A newspaper’s purposes feel only vaguely removed from those of the novel.

That Levé would conclude with television only pursues this idea even further. The specifics have disappeared entirely by now, and in their stead we are simply sold the sequence of forms that will follow and categorise the running order of the day. The 'talk show' is eclipsed by the 'game show', by the dramatic '(rerun)' and by the news. Levé’s television is entirely fogged. That the listings are literature – here apparent almost as an epilogue to the text – again supports the 'perversion' that Levé seems to entertain. Television is immediate – its listings are an archive of immediate perceptions only relevant to the specific moment of the viewer’s engagement. It seems perverse, Levé suggests, that we read backwards, that we ask anything more from literature other than it give us a set of coordinates with which to centre our attention. It points at something specific; it tells us where to look; it takes time and can be read, thereby, as a measure of time.

Again, we are dealing here with Levé’s aphoristic remark with which I began: 'to reduce is to perfect.’ Newspaper is a project dedicated to this maxim. At the core of its joke is the possibility of slippage and posterity. When reduced to nothing but the generic details of genre, can today’s newspaper mean anything tomorrow?