Book Reviews

Published on August 24th, 2022 | by Conor Hultman


Book Review by Conor Hultman: “Autoportrait” by Jesse Ball

by Jesse Ball
Catapult ($20)
Available now at Square Books

In 2005, the French writer and photographer Édouard Levé published a book called Autoportrait. Lorin Stein translated it into English in 2012. It is an experimental autobiography made up of statements about the author and short summaries of experiences without explanation. These are laid down in an unbroken monograph without line breaks. Subjects frequently change abruptly in a non sequitur fashion, several times per page.

An example chosen at random: “I do not use an umbrella. I take little pleasure in success, failure leaves me cold, but it infuriates me never to have tried, when I could have. I go to the movies not to learn, but for distraction.” In the generic ideal of an autobiography, either the author themself or some aspect of their life is the attractive element, and that element is laid out in a rote structure with artificial acts, doling out anecdotes and reaching a climax falsely allusive of movies, and just as uninteresting. Levé’s experiment was to throw up the facts of his life as they came in a deliberately unstructured short text. The result is entrancing, it is a book you can’t help but read all at once, and it makes you think you are more intimately acquainted with the author than, upon reflection, you discover yourself to be.

There is no reason why experiments, like in the sciences, shouldn’t be repeated in writing to ensure the reliability of their methods. Jesse Ball, an experimental American writer, has repeated Levé’s experiment for his own life, with great success, in a new book with the same name.

Ball’s Autoportrait keeps the same structure of declarative sentences and short experiences mixed together with seeming randomness. A proof: “Right now I sleep five or six hours at night and an hour in the middle of the day. The middle of the day is my enemy. If I kill myself, it will be then. I do not become melancholy at night. For years I ate everything, even insects, rotting fish, horse, but now I am a vegetarian.”

It is harder maybe to judge success in writing than in science, ostensibly that is the job of a book review, but I can say that Ball’s version successfully reproduces the effect that Levé’s version had, in an authentic variation. I read Ball’s Autoportrait in just as much absorption, was just as delighted in its frank and blunt mundanity that breaks into the sublimity of lived experience, and thought I knew the author just as deeply, more deeply than I would have felt in a traditional autobiography, and on reflection I came to the same awe-full/some conclusion: I know nothing about this person, it was a skilled illusion, the same could be said for all of literature, it follows that I can know no one.

It would be exciting if this experiment became a genre itself. The form is pleasant to read and allows for pockets of depth and outgrowths that would be sheared in more commercial books. The outcome of these experiments are deceptive in their simplicity; even though Ball’s style, like Levé’s, is uniformly blank and forward, and the present book was claimed to have been “written on a day in December of 2017,” try the experiment for yourself, and you will appreciate the understated power in Ball’s writing. Still, I would read your book, and many more besides, if they read like this.

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