Works was Édouard Levé’s first book—of text, anyway—but by the time he arrived at literature he already had the aura of one who had alighted there out of some combination of happenstance and vagabond fascination, as though it were a medium he would flirt with briefly before moving back to photography, or forward to film or sculpture or, say, clothing design or applied animal husbandry. Structurally and generically, Works has little in common with the three texts that would follow: Journal (Newspaper, 2004), which takes the form of a single day’s paper, divided into the customary sections, international affairs through television listings, from which all identifying names and places have been removed; Autoportrait (2005), a fractal memoir of 1,500 first-person sentences, in no apparent order, describing details of mostly mundane import; and Suicide (2008), an exercise in affective memory occasioned by the recent suicide of the narrator’s friend, and whose manuscript was famously delivered to the French publisher P.O.L ten days before Levé hanged himself in his apartment in Paris. What unifies Levé’s books is a questing sort of ambivalence, an elegantly moody detachment from the way life goes about itself in the actual world. The results are all depressive and magnificent in their own way, and in their own way all reinforce a notion of the author as more of a melancholy dilettante, a homesick alien anthropologist, than a writer.
The momentum of Works, accordingly, is derived in large part from the scuffs and ricochets of an artist’s first sustained experiment with text as a vehicle for ideas. Published in French in 2002 and in Jan Steyn’s English translation earlier this year, the book is a catalogue-style assembly of 533 descriptions pertaining to, in the words of description no. 1, “works that the author has conceived but not brought into being.” These take a wide variety of shapes and sizes, though very few of them are literary in any practical sense; most are visual or tactile or experiential, paintings or photographs or installations or simply things, often constructed from other things—a winter coat made out of glowworms, for instance, or “the wings of a stuffed pheasant […] made from glued-together bees.” Levé’s appealingly agnostic definition of work extends from form to disposition, and the items herein are by turns serious and mischievous, pointed and vague, physically conceivable and irreducibly imaginary. Here is an arbitrary but more or less representative sample:
19. A butterfly is released into a room, hidden from sight. Every night, its flight, detected by laser beams, is transmitted to a mobile machine equipped with an hourglass. By morning, the imprint of the nocturnal flight is drawn in sand on the floor.
71. A film follows a woman in her daily life. The narration is flat, the action non-existent, the sound ambient. No questions are posed, no answers given, no commentary made. The film begins in the metro and ends in a movie theater. It is set in Paris.
335. A pair of pants is plaited using super-8 film, upon which, from up close, we can see a pair of lips repeating the phrase: “Pants made out of Lip Film.”
394. Mounted to a wall, mounting materials form large letters: “MOUNTING.”
As for quality, such as we might define it, some of the works inventoried boil down to garden-variety conceptualist idea-mongering, overt in their symbolic encapsulation of a distinctly Parisian brand of disenchantment, but just as many are utterly winning in their Roussellian pointlessness (“348. A political lobbying group aims to have zoo animals paid a monthly salary”). Perhaps the best are both at once, obscurely troubling and purely, gaily novel: “349. A metallic anthropomorphic robot runs endlessly on a treadmill, in a gym”; “333. A large chair is surrounded by several smaller tables.”
For all of the works here, though, words are all there is—a marriage of medium and message that, on balance, never looks quite inevitable. This is not the point of the exercise, surely, but neither does it turn out to be the handicap it might seem. (It bears pointing out that Levé’s photographic exploits—such as the 1999 series Homonymes, portraits of private citizens who share names with celebrities, or the 2002 series Pornographie, in which expressionless models in business-casual dress are suspended in x-rated poses—are governed by a similar apparent estrangement between form and agenda.) Levé’s ambivalence toward language, which arguably runs through all of his work, is cunningly productive here: the imposed flatness of these dimensionally complex pieces is what makes them radiate out from page to mind, what bestows on them the sense of potential that encourages us to engage with them. By this logic, to see them as imaginary artworks reduced to words is to look at them the wrong way around; rather, they are words shaped into blueprints, theoretically extensible into an infinity of further realizations.
Thus we may begin to suspect Levé of swaddling his conceptual visions in utilitarian language in order to pull off a classic French modernist feint: literally authorizing his readers, compelling us to take an active role in investing the text with meaning, form, reality. (This is a universal and infinitely controversial quality of all language, of course; only in the sense of doing it with quasi-political deliberateness is it French or modernist.) Most of the time he does pull it off, which makes Works abnormally slow-going for its 104 pages: for each instance where our imaginary production of the work is short-circuited by the textual medium, there are ten where it is energized, spurred almost involuntarily. Somehow, the ratio of short-circuited to spurred seldom breaks down along the expected lines—consider the equivalent but opposite difficulties of conjuring either of these two:
230. A black cone is painted on the surface of a promenade. The cone begins ten centimeters away from a wall that has an artificial eye encrusted into it and ends sixty-five meters further on. Its area corresponds to the visual field wherein the human eye can focus on objects. Closer than ten centimeters, everything is blurred, further than sixty-five meters, everything is clear-cut, without having to focus. Adaptation is impossible on one case, unnecessary in the other.
236. Artists who are also bikers are photographed in a group.
Generous is not the word that comes to mind, but nonetheless Levé registers as oddly scrupulous about stimulating creation on the reader’s part. There is never exactly the right amount of data in the description of a work to erect a mental scale model in living detail—faithfully, as it were—but sometimes there is not enough data, other times too much. Certain items leave fundamental questions open—when, where, how—while others contain an extra specification that corresponds to no available bigger picture, a relief map of an unexposed part of the iceberg. The sand comes from an hourglass, the treadmill is in a gym, the event takes place on a Sunday. Some descriptions are overly vague and overly precise at the same time:
331. An object is put on a pedestal in a dark room. A narrow orifice in the ceiling allows sunlight in once a year—at the exact hour when a woman’s life ended. The object was in the woman’s pocket when she died.
What, properly speaking, is the “work” here? In cases like the above, where no medium of presentation is indicated, the idea freely unanchored in space and time, the line seems almost impossibly thin between a piece of art and a figment of psyche, an uneasy dream, a thing in suspension between the imaginary world and the actual. The entirety of entry 295 reads: “A man in a dark cupboard, covered in red body hair, seen through a small crack in the door.”
Yet across this membrane the mind-meld is almost strenuously one-way. Barthes (of whom no one would take any special care to characterize Levé as a disciple) tells us that the author should disappear when the reader wields this much generative power, but Levé does not go so quietly: his presence lingers throughout Works, not in the pieces but around them, between them; it neither joins us in contemplating them nor leaves us fully free to construct them. Levé manifests as a kind of spectral attention, lurking in the patterns that emerge from the book in aggregate—in the fact, say, that the index contains seventy-three entries for “film/video” and only three for “family.” While we are aware of this attention as we play the author’s game, as we work to make sense of his directives, we cannot say just what it wants. We imagine Levé in the dark room set up to commemorate the death of the woman with the object in her pocket, chuckling to himself at a joke that is funny solely because we do not get it.
The more invested we become in his game, the harder it is to shake the feeling of the author observing us, incorporating us, describing us into existence within the pieces on display. This is an alchemy Levé practiced with exemplary spookiness throughout his entire career as a writer: to mask so subtly his self-effacement, his programmed absence from our experience of his work, that we realize only eventually that we are watching him watch us.
98. A forty-year-old man tries to reconstruct a story that he heard in a foreign language he poorly understands. He retains only snippets and tries to fill in the gaps with his imagination—something that turns out to be impossible given the richness of his postulates.
253. In a museum corridor, fictive shop fronts are set up, their windows covered in brown paper, as if they were being prepared for a grand opening. There is nothing to buy and nothing to see. In reality they are flat inside.
221. A house is put together with transparent materials, furniture, and objects. Only the visitors are opaque.
What vertigo to play the character of reader in a Levé book: to peek behind a patterned curtain and see the author staring impassively back, snapping candid after meticulously arranged candid. To turn around and find his ambivalent gaze, his cool alien curiosity, trained on you.
Also published this year in its first complete English edition, translated by Philip Howard, is Georges Perec’s 1978 memory exercise I Remember, inspired by Joe Brainard’s 1970 book of the same name. (It is nigh on the last of Perec’s works that will appear in English before his incipient Bolañofication sets in, beginning this winter with his never-published detective novel Portrait of a Man.) I Remember is a list of 479 brief recollections, in no apparent order, that together limn what we might call the author’s public experience of his adolescence: sporting milestones, celebrity gossip, bygone transit lines and street names, schoolboy rhymes. Like much of Perec’s later work, the project originated in a social setting, in this case as a parlor game in which each turn had to begin with “I remember” and go on to describe something that others present could remember too, and that had since ceased to exist. There are no rules besides those, and Perec is not especially rigorous in respecting them; his agenda, as explicitly as it ever is in his non-fiction, is to share himself with the reader. In turning the game into a book, Perec’s biographer and frequent translator David Bellos writes in an introduction, “his purpose was not to give a documentary history of the popular culture of his teenage years, but to give an honest and authentic map of his memory of those years.”
But memory is self in Perec’s oeuvre, on which point alone it should be evident how the formal resemblances between Works and I Remember pale away compared to their spiritual perpendicularities: one is an assemblage of purportedly original things that do not yet exist, the other a motley litany of things that once existed but never truly belonged to anyone; one is a series of ideas abandoned at the moment before they crystallize, the other a series of memory-points that exist to be shared and collectively reified. Perec had none of Levé’s impulse toward detachment; the questing in his work was driven by his interest, on some level a desperate one, in the way people could be objectively united in their subjective experiences of time and place, even if they shared neither. Whereas Levé was fascinated by people from a remove, Perec wrote in enormous part to remind himself that he was one of them.
As such, the objective matter of I Remember is never entirely separable from its subjective resonance, from the typically generous undertone of Perec’s personality. Here he tethers common memories to his own story; there he takes care to reveal more about his own emergent sensibilities than he does about the item supposedly under examination:
64. I remember how enjoyable it was, at boarding school, to be ill and go to the sick room.
191. I remember the surprise I felt when I learned that cowboy meant “cattle herder.”
411. I remember that there were two questions in the 1946 referendum and that my uncle explained that NO-YES wasn’t at all the same answer as YES-NO.
As in Works, there is even the occasional slip of the hand that points toward the presence of a curatorial consciousness:
157. I remember that Darryl Cowl’s real name is André Darrigaud.
158. And that reminds me of the cyclist André Darrigade.
For a modern Anglophone audience, most of the reference points will be unfamiliar and not particularly rewarding to reconstitute, though the English edition comes with a gleeful set of annotations by Bellos that is arguably more entertaining than the main text, plus eighteen blank pages on which the reader is urged to note his or her own “I remembers.” But as I Remember loses its generational relevance, the importance of Perec’s closeness to hand throughout the text only grows: the book’s interactivity, its social impetus, is not just what makes it pleasurable, but in a sense its primary reason for being. His own back-cover copy from the original French edition explains the stakes:
These “I remembers” are not memories, exactly, certainly not personal memories, but rather bits of the everyday: things that, in such and such a year, everyone of the same generation saw, lived, shared, and that then disappeared, were forgotten; they were not worth memorizing, did not deserve to become part of History nor to figure in the Memoirs of heads of state, mountaineers, living legends.
Nonetheless they have been known to return, some years later, intact and minuscule, by happenstance or because we called them up one evening among friends: something we learned at school, a champion, a singer or a rising starlet, a song on everyone’s lips, a hold-up or a catastrophe that made headlines in the daily papers, a best-seller, a scandal, a slogan, a habit, an expression, an article of clothing or a way of wearing it, a gesture, or something even slimmer, inessential, altogether banal, miraculously wrenched from its insignificance, recovered for an instant, giving off for a few seconds an impalpable little nostalgia.
This statement, which is sadly absent from the English edition, lays bare the extent to which I Remember is meant to be read not just as a book, cultural documentary or memory map or otherwise, but as 479 discrete turns in a game Perec is playing with the reader. To put a philosophical point on it, there is a faith underpinning Perec’s project that each “I remember,” insignificant as it may be in the present, can be as meaningful and real in the future as it was in the past—that it can come alive, if only momentarily, in a way that unifies the minds it encounters even as it may superficially estrange them. As ad hoc definitions of art go, we could do worse.
The inevitable question, then, is what Levé’s Works would look like if ascribed the same faith, the same will to interact across the paper threshold that separates the imaginary world and the actual. What, in short, might Levé’s game have been? And under what circumstances, and on whose terms, is it possible to win?
The intuitive first place to look is at those items in Works that turn out to blueprint real pieces by Levé, which are few but decisive: there is a plan for Pornographie—“Scenes from a pornographic magazine are reenacted and rephotographed using clothed models”—and for the earlier Homonymes—“Two contradictory signs of identity are thus found in juxtaposition: the unknown face and the famous name”—as well as a preliminary variation of the trip that would become his Amérique series: “In the United States a voyage is undertaken to photograph towns with names that are homonyms of towns in other countries.” (For those inevitably wondering, there is one index entry for “suicide” in Works, and it bears not even an oblique relation to Levé’s death.)
In 2014, however, it is difficult to ignore how many other people have been engaged in kindred projects all along, surveying the porous border between art and life with a similar mix of obsession and aloofness. That is, to read Works is very quickly to read beyond it, to locate traces of Levé scattered into the same river as not just Perec but also John Baldessari, On Kawara, Sophie Calle, Raymond Roussel, Italo Calvino, Kenneth Goldsmith, Christian Marclay, Annette Messager, Jacques Jouet, Genpei Akasegawa, Ben Lerner, Nicholas Felton, the meme-curators on Tumblr and the hyperspecialized artisans on Etsy and the architects of Twitter bots like the Hipster Bait algorithm, which automates nearly to the letter Levé’s item no. 249. It is to realize that the author had been watching everyone, progenitors and would-be protégés, stealing and donating, being both plagiarist and plagiarized, sometimes of and by himself. It is to view Levé’s spectral authorship as part of something much larger—something that, like each of Perec’s memories, may have no particular present, but has a past and, potentially, a future. Which is to say that Works, conceived in diametric opposition to I Remember, lends itself to consonant results: the outline of a communal cultural sensibility, a collectively experienced Möbius strip of art imitating life imitating art, a game won as soon as it is played.
Perec’s example suggests a second winning reading, so to speak, of Works. Take, as a case in point, the central anecdote in Life A User’s Manual—a work so sprawling and multifaceted it comes bundled with an index of its own stories—which revolves around a wealthy Englishman named Percival Bartlebooth, the executor of a singularly ambitious project to create and systematically uncreate some five hundred watercolor seascapes from around the world. Once he has completed a painting in some remote port, Bartlebooth ships it to Paris, where a craftsman mounts it and cuts it into a jigsaw puzzle. Upon returning from his travels, he puts the accumulated puzzles together in the order of their creation. After each is completed, its jigsaw seams are filled in with a special paper solution, its mounting is removed, and the reassembled canvas is shipped back to the place it was painted, where it is submerged, exactly twenty years after it was painted, in a second solution that washes away the paint. The watercolor paper, now blank except for the faint scars of the jigsaw, is finally returned to Bartlebooth.
It is uncanny, of course, how effortlessly this project in all its complexity and latent nihilism would blend in among Levé’s memento-mori invocations. But what if it were the other way around? What if, instead of reading Perec’s Bartlebooth narrative as an anticipatory escapee from Levé’s catalog, we read the works in Works as 533 themes, episodes, novelistic Cornell boxes in search of not an executor but a character to belong to? Could we read Works as a game won not by picturing one of its pieces, nor by realizing it concretely, but by conjuring a literary framework in which its incarnation in words is perfectly complete and self-sufficient? To return to item no. 331, what if the work is not the room, nor the object on a pedestal, nor the action of placing the object on a pedestal in the room, but simply the text that does not materialize anything more than itself? What if the work is the description?
This is not the only question implicit in Henri Lefebvre’s The Missing Pieces, also out this year in translation by David L. Sweet, but it is the most pertinently challenging. Henri Lefebvre—not the Henri Lefebvre you are thinking of—has assembled, in no apparent order, an extensive mosaic of books, paintings, compositions, manuscripts, collaborations, and the like, all of which share one quality: we have some notional trace of them, but each is, for one reason or another and presumably forever, unavailable for consultation. These pieces—Joyce’s Stephen Hero, Mussorgsky’s Khovantchina, Molière’s handwriting, and so on—are all lost to theft or censorship or lassitude or miscellaneous destruction or death; in theory, the stories behind their missingness could be, like Perec’s lacunae, little bits of fabrication whose romance and mystery gain only a minor additive frisson from their basis in fact.
The Missing Pieces is interesting, though not good—it is frustratingly selective, sometimes objectively inaccurate, and awkwardly variegated in syntax, tense, and curatorial attitude—and it might, at best, be considered grist for the ouroboric corpus of what Spanish pseudo-novelist Enrique Vila-Matas calls “the literature of the No.” But Lefebvre’s thrall to the muse of inexistence serves a worthy purpose here, for in it we can glimpse the empty spaces in both Levé’s hermetic echo chamber and Perec’s ceaseless search for wholeness: we see that the once-was and the never-been are unified by the manipulation of what is lost in both space and time, propelled by the search for something beyond the present—both in the sense whose opposite is past or future, and in the sense whose opposite is absence.
Lefebvre’s particular gift to us is the occasion to consider how little difference there is between those senses. We might wonder how many people since the beginning of time have made things that are now missing, and how many of those things were the same as things that we currently know to exist. We might wonder how many pieces, potentially worthy of remembering, potentially worthy of mourning, have been conceived but not brought into being. And we might wonder, when they cross over into being, what becomes of their absence—what that absence becomes, if not a new kind of potential.
Daniel Levin Becker is reviews editor of The Believer, the author of Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature (Harvard, 2012), the translator of Georges Perec’s La Boutique Obscure (Melville House, 2013), and the youngest member of the Oulipo. He lives in San Francisco.
Banner Image: Naomi Leibowitz, Several Photobooth Interiors, 2005. Courtesy of the artist.