The difference between the person who has considered suicide and the one who actually commits it is small. You could say the difference is conditional, accidental even. Committing an act of suicide is just the culmination of a journey, a journey of dangerous ideas that, once allowed into the mind, can never be fully shaken off. This does not mean that suicidal thoughts lead inevitably to suicide. The world’s population would be much smaller if that were the case. What it does mean is that a person who has considered suicide lives, thereafter, with a sort of seductive madness. To entertain suicide is to imagine that the most uncontrollable fact of life — other than birth — can be controlled, taken into one’s own hands, wrested from the chaos that dominates all life on Earth. We can’t escape death. But if we are to die, then why not make death ours — in the same way that we are called to make life ours — by choosing the place, the time, the manner in which we are to die, by determining how and by whom we will be found, what our final message will be, by determining how and in what manner those who love us will continue to love us, to think about us, long after we are dead.
Or so the line of thinking goes.
In Édouard Levé’s short novel Suicide, the suicide comes first.
One Saturday in the month of August, you leave your home wearing your tennis gear, accompanied by your wife. In the middle of the garden, you point out to her that you’ve forgotten your racket in the house. You go back to look for it, but instead of making your way to the cupboard in the entryway where you normally keep it, you head down into the basement. Your wife doesn’t notice this. She stays outside. The weather is fine. She’s making the most of the sun. A few moments later she hears a gunshot. She rushes into the house, cries out your name, notices that the door to the stairway leading down to the basement is open, goes down and finds you there. You’ve put a bullet in your head with the rifle you had carefully prepared. On the table, you left a comic book open to a double page spread. In the heat of the moment, your wife leans on the table; the book falls closed before she realizes that this was your final message.
Suicide is written mostly in the second person. Sometimes, though, the narrator refers to himself, and Suicide toggles back and forth between these two pronouns: the “I” of the narrator and “you,” the friend who committed suicide. This makes it feel like a letter, a letter from one childhood friend to another, regarding the latter’s suicide at the age of 25, twenty years ago. The separation between “I” and “you” often blurs. Each friend becomes a double, is defined by the other and, in turn, reflects the other. We learn that “you” died young. You studied economics; your childhood home was a chateau. You took photographs and read the dictionary. You were a virtuoso on the drums, playing solos in your basement for hours. You felt yourself ill adapted to the world, surprised that the world had produced a being who lives in it as a foreigner. You traveled to “taste the pleasures of being a stranger in a strange town.” You liked to be anonymous, a silent listener, a mobile voyeur. Eventually, you stopped traveling, preferring to be at home.
You were fascinated by the destitute and the morbidly old. Perhaps this is what you feared — to become the living dead, to commit suicide in slow motion. “You were a perfectionist,” the narrator writes.
You were such a perfectionist that you wanted to perfect perfecting. But how can one judge whether perfection has been attained? … Your taste for the perfect bordered on madness…
“What was difficult for you,” writes the narrator, “wasn’t beginning or continuing but finishing… sometimes, weary of perfecting perfections, you would abandon your work without destroying or finishing it…instead of finishing the works you undertook, you finished yourself.”
Perfectionism and the fear of finishing go hand in hand. Perfectionism is a form of possession. When something is finished it cannot be possessed, it no longer belongs to us. In the constant struggle to achieve the unachievable, whether in work or in life, the perfectionist is without definitions or limits. Suicide is the infinite preservation of this state of freedom. Thus, “your” suicide and your perfectionism go hand in hand as well. This is not to say that perfectionism is a death impulse; it is the opposite. Perfectionism is the attempt to keep death at bay, to keep everything unfinished. But a lifetime of disappointment, of accomplishing nothing, of suffocating under the burden of possessing yourself with the panicked grip of a drowning man, made your life feel, ironically, foreign. You thought that your perfectionism would allow you to control your life. Instead, life controlled you. In suicide, you could be free again.
Suicide was the last work of Édouard Levé. Ten days after he handed the manuscript to his editor, Levé hanged himself in his Paris apartment. Nearly everyone who knows Suicide knows this story. Levé’s own suicide has come to determine his work. Whether this was Levé’s intention is debated. Some read Suicide as a work of literature. Others read it as the author’s suicide note. There are, after all, similarities between Levé and his character, some say. Levé’s perfectionism, for instance, and the fact that he and his character were both born in winter. But Levé’s intention is, now, beside the point. Édouard Levé is dead and cannot speak for Suicide. Ultimately, Suicide must be read as a mystery, as mysterious as suicide itself. To whom does suicide belong? This may be Suicide’s ultimate question. Is it the suicide’s author or those left behind, who live out the rest of the suicide’s life by struggling to explain his end? Maybe this is what “you” wanted. You could have your friends and family live for you when life had ceased being yours, and become like a character in a book.
“Explain your suicide?” writes the narrator. “No one risked it.”
Did you know why you wanted to die? … Out of fatigue from living and disdain for leaving traces that would survive you? Or because the reasons that were pushing you to disappear seemed empty? Maybe you wanted to preserve the mystery of death, thinking that nothing could be explained.
“Are there good reasons for committing suicide?” Édouard Levé asked through his narrator. “Those who survived you asked themselves these questions; they will not find the answers.” • 9 June 2014