A Man Revealed, Piece by Piece, Through His Personal Contacts: ‘The Address Book’

Never before published in its entirety in English, Sophie Calle’s enigmatic The Address Book is an elegant volume with a Parisian personality. Designed to emulate the actual address book it is named for, the book is deep red with gold lettering, a black spine, and an elastic cord to keep the pages together, concealing its contents.The pages of Calle’s version are unnumbered, and like a normal address book, have varying amounts of information printed on them.

Calle, an artist, found the original address book in the streets of Paris and returned it anonymously to the owner, Pierre — after making copies of all the pages. So much for the good samaritan. Hello, voyeur. Calle decided to learn about the owner not by speaking with him directly, but by meeting him through the lens of his address book contacts. Calle gains insight through the reactions of the people she contacts at random, and their hesitation (or lack thereof) when speaking about Pierre.

As an artist rather than a journalist, Calle documents her journey starkly, without embellishment, though subtle phrasing gives insight to her thought processes. She asks different questions of each contact, as she constructs Pierre’s back story for herself and her readership.

The work was originally published as a 28-part serial in the French newspaper Libération during one month in 1983: in each segment Calle reports on what she discovered most recently about the address book’s owner. When Pierre learned about this incredible invasion of privacy he threatened to sue and demanded reciprocal invasion of Calle’s privacy: the publication of a nude photo of the artist herself.

It’s impossible to know by reading the book as no note is made, however, as part of the arrangement that followed, Calle agreed to not republish her work until after Pierre’s death. It has now been 30 years and though the book has been referred to in other publications, this is the first printing in full as a stand-alone object. Paul Auster’s Leviathan has a character who considers going on much the same quest, but doesn’t execute her plan; the character is based on Calle herself.

During her investigations, Calle must question her motives and the chosen technique of examining a life by parsing little histories, short stories, and the interactions with people listed in the address book. Some of the accounts clash, as naturally acquaintanceship can take many forms, but gradually Calle builds her own understanding of this man. She treats him as a mystery, a puzzle to piece together and then examine under a microscope.

Some encounters are only a few lines, while others occupy a few pages. When Calle telephoned some listed contacts they refused to talk to her and were not interested in knowing who the owner of the address book was, or ranted that she should not be so cavalier with her art project. Others invited her over to their homes for drinks and conversation, with little hesitation. Calle’s journey is at first random; later the individual she speaks with often leads her to connect with related acquaintances.

Calle learns bits and pieces about Pierre: about his occupation and work style, his travel habits, his personality and foibles, his tendencies in relationships. It’s surprising how much Pierre’s friends and former coworkers are willing to tell a stranger who discovered his existence in an object found in the street.

When frustrated, Calle takes risks, visiting Pierre’s neighbourhood and calling close family members. The wonderful anecdotes about Pierre’s personality and interactions with different kinds of people, plus their perceptions of him, are fascinating. Calle’s accompanying photographs are almost entirely black and white and low quality; she has never claimed to be a photographer, and these images were produced for a newspaper in the ‘80s. The images are largely unexplained, but often look like a bit of the apartment where Calle is sitting and speaking with one of Pierre’s contacts. A dusty corner here, a peeling ceiling there, a doorway framing an unknown room. Occasionally, she includes an image of a statue or scene that for her relates to her most recent learnings about Pierre.

Like much of Calle’s other artwork, The Address Book examines concepts of intimacy, individuality, personality, and privacy.

RATING 7 / 10