back

Maria, Myself and I


Date: July 9, 2000, Late Edition - Final Byline: By Julie Martin

Lead: DOUBLE GAME By Sophie Calle. With the participation of Paul Auster. Illustrated. 295 pp. New York: Violette Editions/D.A.P. $65.


In his 1992 novel, ''Leviathan,'' Paul Auster introduces Maria Turner, a New York artist ''whose work had nothing to do with creating objects commonly defined as art. . . . Ideas would take hold of her, she would work on projects, there would be concrete results that could be shown in galleries.'' One of Maria's projects, in which the artist looks up people whose names appear in an address book she found on the street, was the catalyst for the final descent of the hero of ''Leviathan'' into hopeless radical violence, isolation and death. Most of the projects Auster ascribes to Maria were actually carried out over a 12-year period by the French artist Sophie Calle. In the dedication Auster acknowledges his debt and thanks Calle ''for permission to mingle fact with fiction.''

Calle, intrigued by this appearance of her ''double,'' decides to use Auster's novel as the basis of a new game and to create her own ''particular mixture of reality and fiction.'' This game is played out on the pages of ''Double Game.''

The two are formidable and well-matched players: Auster is a poet, novelist and filmmaker, long involved with France. Early in his writing career he translated poems of Mallarme and other French poets and edited an important anthology of 20th-century French poetry. In the sparse, flat prose of his novels he flirts with many genres and offers the reader details from his own life. In his best-known work, ''New York Trilogy,'' a signature detective story, he introduces a Paul Auster -- if not himself, then a character so named. Calle is an internationally known French artist, whose installations of texts and photographs have been shown in galleries and museums worldwide. Part detective and part anthropologist, she injects herself into the lives of strangers and brings back reports determined by rules and rituals she herself has made up. Ultimately the life she documents is her own.

''Double Game'' -- the title already works on two levels -- begins with a facsimile copy of pages 60-67 of ''Leviathan,'' on which Calle's handwritten ''corrections'' in red set the record straight about where the fictional Maria differs from Sophie. Then Calle carries out two of Maria's projects that Auster invented. She eats food of only one color each day for a week and photographs her monochromatic meals so beautifully that they almost look appetizing. She lives days under the spell of one letter of the alphabet, which yields the photo on the cover of ''Double Game'': Sophie in a long blond wig wearing a blue camisole demurely sitting in bed with blue-and-white sheets covered with blue bees, a ''Big-Time Blond Bimbo'' on a ''B'' day.

The book moves on to eight projects that Sophie and Maria ''share.'' They represent a mini-retrospective of Calle's work, text and photos re-edited and reconfigured from earlier gallery and museum exhibitions to fit the pages of the book. ''Double Game'' ends with ''Gotham Handbook,'' for which Auster, not his novel, provides the rules of the game.

Calle asked Auster to ''invent a fictive character which I would attempt to resemble.'' He did not want this dangerous responsibility, since the character, once launched, would be completely independent of the author's pen or computer screen. Instead, he sent her a set of instructions: ''How to Improve Life in New York City.'' The instructions, she says, sound as if ''Paul got his idea . . . by reading the 12 steps of an Alcoholics Anonymous program.'' And they do seem like goody-goody acts worthy of the blond bimbo on the cover of the book. But Auster was more astute than that. Calle, who has been the consummate observer, rarely meets or talks to any of her subjects. Auster ordered her to establish contact with her ''subjects,'' to interact with strangers on the street, to smile at them, talk to them and offer them sandwiches and cigarettes. He further instructed her to take one spot in the city and make it nice for people, to invite them to enjoy it and to find out what they think of her ''improvements.''

But difficult as Auster's tasks were for her, Calle didn't hesitate. She practiced polite conversational phrases and listed more than 50 words that would come in handy when discussing the weather. She bought white bread, ham and processed cheese for the sandwiches she would give away and chose an open phone booth at the corner of Greenwich and Harrison streets as her ''spot.'' That is why in September 1994 local residents of TriBeCa on their way to market or breakfast came face to face with a phone kiosk made up like an apartment, with the Nynex logos replaced by ''Have a Nice Day'' and ''Enjoy.''

Each day they noticed a striking woman cleaning up the booth, stocking it with fresh flowers, cigarettes, snacks and fresh paper for comments, and then sitting on one of the folding chairs chained to the base of the booth while people used the phone. Calle documents the reaction of people to the ''improved'' telephone booth through photographs and transcripts of tapes from the voice-activated tape recorder she placed under the shelf. ''Gotham Handbook'' ends when unseen representatives of the telephone company throw all of Calle's improvements into an adjacent trash basket.

''Double Game'' is a wonderful artist's book. Calle's texts are riveting, and they are enriched and amplified by accompanying photos. The photographs also pull us into the game. In ''Suite Venitienne'' Calle photographs a man, identified only as Henri B, as he wanders aimlessly through the narrow streets of Venice. We catch glimpses of Henri B's back; and as his silhouette becomes familiar, we eagerly find and follow him from photo to photo.

We follow Calle when she works as a chambermaid in a Venice hotel. She noses around each room listing and photographing the physical evidence of the lives of the travelers. Mundane facts -- the position of the pillows on a double bed, an unused silk nightgown draped on a chair, postcards written but not sent -- create a frisson of refracted ideas, tart memories, shared reactions, expectations and surprise. Facts become the catalyst for fiction, conjecture, dreaming and finally for self-knowledge.

By all means untie the maroon satin ribbon holding ''Double Game'' closed and open the floodgate of Calle's images, ideas, stories, memories. The book Calle has created from her relationship with Maria and with Auster is rich and true and completely satisfying. But like a great French meal, it leaves us wanting more.

And there is a good chance we will get more. The ''Double Game'' of Sophie/Maria is over, caught between the pages of this delicious book, but the game between Calle and Auster is not. Calle still wants him ''as author of my actions,'' and has issued her challenge: ''If I fulfill this assignment, maybe he will offer me the novel that I have been asking for as a reward.'' Again we join Calle's game, and find ourselves waiting too.