“I have read less of the Bible than of Marcel Proust.”
When I Look at a Strawberry, I think of a Tongue – Édouard Levé, Paris Review No. 196
This is not a review. Édouard Levé was not a writer. The piece of writing in question is not a book; it is a pure expression of self. I do not know the history of this piece but I hope that it was written in one sitting without pauses because it reads as though the writer has committed to putting down in words an impression of himself built up over many many days or months or weeks. Reading When I Look at a Strawberry is like watching a man’s heart beating, possibly its last beats, possibly its first. “I have never pulled a knife on anyone. I have never used a machine gun. I have fired a revolver… I have netted butterflies… I recognise the scent of a tiger.”
It is like unfurling a blue print of his soul that is drawn in the same architecture of consciousness from which we were drawn – here walls, there doors, there windows – but yet it is unique, edifying, terrifying because it represents a mental traction, a clarity of self that is entirely alien – like a pair of vast doors – inviting, daunting, unrelenting: “I have made love in the daytime in a public garden in Hong Kong. I have made love in the toilet of the Paris-Lyon TGV. I have made love in front of some friends at the end of a very drunken dinner.”
And just like a vast pair of doors, opening and shutting to provide us with intense glimpses of the enormity of the world beyond, the height of the ceilings of a duomo, the inky black of the pulpit beyond, so Levé opens and shuts the doors of his mind in this manner, opens and shuts the doors of his camera – real and metaphorical as he was a photographer by profession – providing glimpses of people, glimpses of time, glimpses of self – himself and ourselves – through those barely opened doors.
His words screech and roar with all the mechanical greatness of a racing car, the same grip of the subject, the same intense sense of destiny, of direction yet it is listless and desperately honest in places. But none of Levé’s words are the words of a desperate man. None of them are repellent or needy. He eyes himself with the same calm and objective eye as the camera lense. “Not wanting to change things does not mean not wanting things to change, just not having to do it.”
Each sentence is a shot. A glimpse. An opening and shutting of the doors, another lap of the race track, a photograph of the subject. And all the time he builds from his soaring and extraordinary opening: “When I was young, I thought Life: A User’s Manual would teach me how to live and Suicide: A User’s Manual would teach me how to die”: towards the ruinous conclusion, noted quietly in a footnote to the piece as published in the Paris Review which says: “he took his own life, in 2007, at the age of forty-two.”
Or as he says it himself in his beautiful but melancholy conclusion: “Only once can I say “I’m dying” without telling a lie. The best day of my life may already be behind me.”