Portrait of a Man

Long-time followers of this blog might know that I sometimes read some obscure or odd books. Books like Ray Garton’s Scissors Scarlett Thomas’ The End of Mr. Y and Our Tragic Universe, at least one of which I thought I reviewed on here, but I don’t seem to have done so. Spoiler: They’re both worth reading. Someday I’ll get around to re-reading them and reviewing them.

Anyway, I came across a book called The Address Book, written by Sophie Calle, published by Siglio. It’s slim, rather attractively bound hardcover with an elastic closure — it’s designed to look like the titular address book. There’s no description on the cover or anything like that. Actually the only words are the title and author on the front, publisher on the back, and all three on the spine. The pages are heavy stock, thicker than A4 printer paper or normal book pages, but not so thick as, say, card stock. There are some photographs scattered throughout the book, most in black and white but a few in color.

The content of the book is more perplexing that its lush housing, however. The volume is the first publication and translation of the entire manuscript, which was originally serialized in the French newspaper Libération in 1983. The story contained is in fact nonfiction, though last names were not given, and in fact, probably changed (only first names and last initials were used). Calle came across an address book belonging to one Pierre D., who in actuality was French documentary maker Pierre Baudry. More on that in a bit.

Upon finding the address book, Calle photocopied the entire thing before anonymously mailing it to Baudry. Then she struck upon the idea that created this book; she would get to know this man without ever meeting him, by interviewing the people in his address book. She would call them and attempt to set up a meeting; she would not tell them to whom the address book belonged until she met them in person. Many of the people she called did in fact meet with her and tell her their impressions and recollections of the mysterious, eccentric Pierre D. Others refused, and noted that they thought her actions were wrong. One even began to insist, violently, that she reveal the name of the book’s owner, so that he could warn him as to what she was doing. Calle promptly hung up.

The work is a fascinating piece that shows quite a number of facets of the same man. Some accounts seem to fit, but others are contradictory. Though this is not a process I would recommend anyone attempt, it is certainly a fascinating character study. Carl Jung put forth the idea that people have various personas, in essence, masks which they put on to present themselves in different situations. You might act one way with a lover, another way with your parents, and a completely different way when doing something such as, say, giving a speech. All of these “people” are you; you are not a fundamentally different person. But you are wearing a mask, as it were, that presents you to others as you wish to be perceived in a given situation.

What fascinates me most about Calle, however, is not that she undertook this curious and unusual quest, but that she doesn’t seem to have any inkling of how her actions can be wrong. The following excerpt is the phone call I mentioned earlier, with the man who threatened to warn Pierre:

Louis S.
Noon – 1:00 p.m.

I call him in Boulogne-sur-Mer. I introduce myself and ask him if he would be willing to talk to me about the man whose address book I found. He reacts violently: “I’ll have no part in this! It’s an outrage! Tell me his name! Tell me his name right now! I want to warn him!” He yells. I hang up.

Why did that man refuse to understand me, to listen to me? I can’t take his refusal. I should have explained to him that I don’t want to hurt Pierre. Suddenly, I am afraid of what I am doing. Pangs of conscience. But I must continue. I will beg his friends to talk to me.

(From The Address Book, by Sophie Calle; Siglio Press, Los Angeles; 2012. Translated by Pauline Baggio)

This is pretty much the extent to which Calle acknowledges that she is doing something which can at best be described as sketchy. It’s a troubling thought that this woman, who is apparently quite intelligent and, if the translation is anything to go by, an excellent writer, can’t seem to grasp just how wrong her actions are. When all is said and done, Calle’s book tells the story of how she spent a month essentially stalking Pierre D. without ever even seeing him in person. She visited his apartment building while he was out of town, though thankfully did not enter his flat. She visited the town where his father was vacationing, though did not speak to him or enter the house. Perhaps laws are more relaxed in France, but I’m fairly certain that in the U.S. she would have been in pretty big trouble.

That said, Baudry did discover this invasion into his life — how could he not, when it was published in a public newspaper? He was rightfully furious and threatened to press charges against her. Calle said Baudry discovered a nude photograph of her and threatened to demand the newspaper publish it, as retaliation. According to an article in the Huffington Post from December 2012, when the book was published, Calle agreed she would not publish the material until after Baudry’s death, a promise which she kept.

As an aside, for those of you who, like typoattack, do not hold the Huffington Post in high regard, the article there sourced an article from galleristny.com, from August 2012, which contains the same information.

When it comes down to it, I would recommend this book based on its merits as a character study and because of the unusual nature of its composition. However, my recommendation does not endorse Calle’s actions; while I found the project fascinating, I can’t condone essentially stalking someone for the sake of a story. Be that as it may, The Address Book is a fascinating and quick read, well worth the time for the psychological and philosophical implications alone.


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