Meditations in an Emergency

Yoga by emmanuel carrÈre, TRANSLATED FROM FRENCH BY john lambert. new york: farrar, straus and giroux. 352 pages. $28.

The cover of Yoga

I REMEMBER seeing the cover of B. S. Johnson’s book Aren’t You Rather Young to Be Writing Your Memoirs? in a bookstore when I was eighteen. (Johnson was thirty-nine, had only a few months to live then, and his book is not in fact a memoir.) That title stayed with me for years and haunted me whenever I’d think of writing anything concerning my own life. The proper time to write a memoir was one’s sunset years, when one had retired from the hustle and bustle and could sit by the window in quiet contemplation. One’s task in the intervening decades was to write novels, which were generally understood to be transpositions of lived experience. You’d take your troubled relationship with your father, say, and assign it to an Icelandic fisherman conflicted about his desire to break with family tradition and become a tap dancer instead. You could spend a career thus repurposing bits of yourself within invented scenarios and then, when you did write your memoirs, they would serve as a handy skeleton key for avid readers of your fiction.

But by the time I spotted Johnson’s book I was already familiar with André Breton’s Nadja, in which he writes:

Someone suggested to an author I know, in connection with a work of his about to be published and whose heroine might be too easily recognized, that he change at least the color of her hair. As a blonde, apparently, she might have avoided betraying a brunette. I do not regard such a thing as childish, I regard it as monstrous. I insist on knowing the names, on being interested only in books left ajar, like doors; I will not go looking for keys.*

Why not just take down the papier-mâché scenery that obscured fiction’s relationship with the truth? After all, my own story was far too specific to be given over to hired actors. There had to be many others who felt the same way about theirs. But I bowed to current convention and spent a couple of decades working on an array of half-assed and foredoomed novels. (Of course, the trick to writing one’s own story is knowing just what that story is, and that knowledge can arrive sooner or later, depending on emotional weather. For some writers, fiction can be a way of figuring out that story.)

In the 1990s memoir became a thing, a bookstore category. Writers began producing them in their thirties—their twenties even. There were abuse memoirs and recovery memoirs and family memoirs and combinations of all of these. A few were sharp and clear and cathartic for both writer and reader, but most were not. They were therapeutic exercises, helpful to the author and perhaps those readers who identified with the specific problem at hand, but you couldn’t exactly call them literature. They employed words and sentences as a scaffold over which a sentiment could be draped, not as primary materials that generate meaning and come to embody it. That remains the case with a great many memoirs, but beginning somewhere around the turn of the millennium, the literary memoir, along with its fraternal twin autofiction, rose to new heights. The apotheosis was perhaps the phenomenon of Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose My Struggle series was a maximalist monument to pure overdrive. He managed to achieve momentum such that you’d read on and on, through thickets of minutiae that would be mind-numbing in other contexts, his books assembling a map that seemed to be the same size as the territory it charted. 

Emmanuel Carrère is also a propulsive writer who documents his own life in extraordinary and unsparing detail, but there the resemblance largely ends. His books have subjects, for the most part originating outside of him, that he winds himself around like a vine. Sometimes it’s as if he were reviving the New Journalism of distant memory, inserting himself into the story as the scrupulously frank hands-on reporter who occasionally competes with the nominal subject. He began primarily as a novelist (he was born in 1957), but since the waning years of the twentieth century everything he has written has spotlighted his self-doubts, his misgivings, his ambitions, and his love life.

David Shrigley, Meditation, 2021, acrylic on paper, 29 1/2 x 21 5/8". Courtesy the artist
David Shrigley, Meditation, 2021, acrylic on paper, 29 1/2 x 21 5/8″. Courtesy the artist

It’s hard to quote Carrère, since his gift is not for the making of phrases per se, but resides in his élan, his pacing, his ability to build momentum from the shape and movement of his thoughts. In his best work he is chatty and confiding, and the many apparently extraneous elements that crowd in—stray memories, literary citations, remembered conversations, full-blown flashbacks, not to mention his constant self-questioning—only assist his drive. That is because they all contribute to the suspense of watching Carrère find his story, hacking through the underbrush, machete in hand. He succeeds in conveying the illusion that his insights are occurring in real time, as we look on. That bit of legerdemain makes every nugget seem dewy fresh and the less worthy of them lightly forgivable. His books may be a succession of self-portraits captioned “Me having an insight,” but the insights have mostly been worth the price. 

The first of his self-portraits was The Adversary (2000), also his first foray into literary journalism (unless you count an early critical study of Werner Herzog and a somewhat dodgy biography of Philip K. Dick). The adversarial subject, Jean-Claude Romand, pretended to have an important job with the World Health Organization, but in fact had dropped out of medical school and spent his days in his car, funding his family’s lifestyle by pretending to invest sums entrusted to him by relatives. When eventually his game caught up with him, his solution was to murder his wife, children, and parents and make a perhaps half-hearted attempt at killing himself. 

Carrère makes it clear from the start that he will not be engaging in reportorial invisibility: “On the Saturday morning of January 9, 1993, while Jean-Claude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was with mine in a parent-teacher meeting at the school attended by Gabriel, our eldest son.” He may be declaring his moral distinction from Romand, but more significantly he is looking for him in the mirror. Shortly before the trial started, he succeeded in making contact with the killer and engaged in a dialogue with him. What Carrère found was a smoothly impenetrable psychopathic personality, a chameleon, whose friends were undone by the actions of a man who had been known above all for his kindness. Carrère’s attempt at getting under Romand’s skin, perhaps to experience some sort of sympathetic identification, has failed, and that failure becomes the point of the book.

His next, My Life as a Russian Novel (2007), is the first of Carrère’s books to be primarily about himself. He is in Russia to film a documentary about a Hungarian conscripted into the Wehrmacht, who was captured by the Russians in 1944 and spent the past fifty-three years in a remote psychiatric hospital, and has just been freed and repatriated. The complex making-of story, rife with frustrations, is interwoven with that of Carrère’s grandfather, a French laborer of Georgian origin who collaborated with the Germans during the war, and who after the Liberation was seized by partisans and never seen again. Giving this tale additional bite is the fact that Carrère was explicitly ordered never to talk about it by his formidable mother, Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, a Russian-history scholar who is among other things the Perpetual Secretary of the Académie Française, and something of a celebrity in France. The mother/son friction is chilly and correct. 

As if this weren’t enough, Carrère lays on a third tale, that of his attempted seduction of his girlfriend, with whom relations have become strained, through the elaborate means of an erotic story published in Le Monde, in which she is depicted as reading it—previously unaware of its existence—on the train in which she is supposed to be riding to meet him. Everything depends on timing and mirroring, but of course she misses the train and fails to read the story, and nevertheless has to hear about it endlessly from friends and the media. Their relations do not improve. And you the reader are left to wonder how this writer of ostensibly unlimited self-awareness could be so lacking in it as to broadcast such a juvenile enterprise to the entire French-speaking world. But he also trumpets his humiliating failure. You then wonder if he is purely and simply an exhibitionist. It will not have escaped the reader that Carrère enjoys enormous cultural power in France, and leads a life of assured material comfort, and simply takes those things for granted. (It comes as no surprise to learn that he recently shilled for Macron.) 

His next book, Lives Other Than My Own (2009), is faithful to its title. It is a first-person account, although by design he plays only a sometimes awkward supporting role. The first of its two parts describes how in 2004 he and his future second wife were on vacation in Sri Lanka when a tsunami hit, destroying their hotel but sparing their bungalow. Amid the devastating loss of life they become close to a French couple who have lost their daughter to the disaster. The second part concerns his future wife’s sister, a judge, who is dying of cancer, leaving a young family. Both accounts are remarkable, absorbing portraits, told with respectful restraint, that employ the objective means of journalism in the service of intimate subjectivity. It is fascinating to watch Carrère construct a character, turning around and around the person, sometimes inhabiting them, sometimes facing them in the room, sometimes narrating their lives from an authorial distance. It’s fascinating, too, to read in Ian Parker’s recent New Yorker profile that Carrère’s current partner describes him as “a little bit autistic” (in the crude popular-usage sense) and that Carrère has applied the same term to himself. “Empathy, it’s not really developed,” she says. In this Carrère resembles Walker Evans, whose portraits are so effective because they seem unusually hard-won, his subjects having to put up a fight to assert themselves in his eye.

On the other hand, Limonov (2011), a portrait of Eduard Limonov, the late Russian author who was at various times a communist and a fascist, a soldier of fortune and an enemy of Putin—and also at one point a Times Square hustler—is little more than an extended magazine piece, transcribing Limonov’s tall tales with little analysis. It perhaps follows that his next book would be about the Gospels. The Kingdom (2014) recounts Carrère’s period of intense belief, when he attended Mass and read scripture every day, until to his distress he lost his faith. But those years of rereading the New Testament have now paid off, allowing him to recount the primal Christian story in strictly human terms, fleshed out in the retelling but thoroughly grounded in the source. In his hands Paul and Luke become rounded, credible characters with opposite personality types, who operate within the sparse, shadowy world of the nascent religion that did not yet have a name. Throughout Carrère wrestles with faith and his newfound lack of it, as if he were hoping that writing the book would revive it, but that doesn’t happen. Instead we are given a panoramic view of what faith might look like. Nonbelievers can examine it and maybe even touch and taste it, but it will always remain fundamentally unknowable.

His latest, Yoga (published in France in 2020), also concerns faith, of a less narratively anchored sort—faith in meditation and breath control, in samsara and nirvana. That is at first what the premise seems to be, as he enrolls in a ten-day yoga intensive in the French countryside. The initiates pledge not to communicate with one another or the outside world during that time, and to refrain from reading and writing. Carrère is, however, planning to write “an upbeat, subtle little book on yoga,” and takes notes throughout. The first third of this book might be a version of that one, although it is neither especially upbeat nor subtle. Carrère’s efforts to put across to readers his many years of yoga, meditation, and tai chi entail a great deal of repetition and a great many vague attempts to describe indescribable states. Despite his weaving in various memories and digressions and stabs at humor, this results in considerable longueurs. He seems to turn in circles, trying less to discover something than to convince himself, as well as us. It is that rare thing in Carrère’s work: it is boring.

But then one night he is summoned to the ashram’s front desk. A telephone call: a friend—a sort of friend-by-marriage he doesn’t know all that well—has been killed in the Charlie Hebdo shooting (of 2015) and he needs to go back to Paris at once to prepare the eulogy. “I felt huge relief to learn that it was Bernard who’d died in a terrorist attack and not someone closer, not one of my children.” That at least gets us out of chapter 1, but chapter 2 doesn’t seem all that consequential. The minute the funeral is over, after a couple of random yoga anecdotes, we are on to chapter 3. He begins by evoking the intense lovemaking in which he engaged with a woman he claims to know nothing about, in a hotel room in an unnamed provincial city. She gave him a terra-cotta Gemini and will walk through this book like a silent ghost in a hallway. But then, all of a sudden, Carrère falls into a deep depression (his depression has come up in previous books), is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and checks in to Sainte-Anne Hospital, where he undergoes shock therapy. 

His account is harrowing—his solitude, his memory losses and hallucinations, the malevolent sway of an innocuous poster for a Raoul Dufy show in a recovery room. He gives no clue as to how he got there, though. In French reviews this was referred to as a “narrative ellipse.” The fact of the matter is that Hélène Devynck, Carrère’s ex-wife, who appears in some fashion in his four previous books, had him sign a contract stipulating that she no longer appear as a character in his books; he had broken the contract in the initial draft. It’s impossible not to sympathize with Devynck. Would you want to be married to a famous writer with no boundaries, a massive ego, and a tendency to view others as specimens? 

But the omission of Carrère’s account of how he fell into his catastrophic breakdown opens not an ellipse but a giant hole in the book. You’re left to think the funeral had something to do with it, or the Gemini woman, maybe even the yoga. But Carrère has enough best-seller chops to remember that he has to supply a redemptive arc. Accordingly, after his release, he goes to the Greek island of Leros, where there is a large reception center for migrants, and he settles down for a few months to teach English to four boys from Afghanistan and Pakistan. At this point in my reading I spread-eagled the book facedown on my nightstand and had to make an effort of will to pick it up again weeks later. The chapter is generic treacle, as if it had been plucked from the fundraising site of an NGO. Devynck, in her rebuttal piece on the French Vanity Fair website, says that Carrère spent only a few days on Leros, partly in her company, and before his breakdown. She alleges that he stirred fictional elements into the book so that it would qualify for a Prix Goncourt, awarded only to novels. He didn’t win, but in any event the book fails as both fiction and nonfiction. 


*Ironically, or not, Nadja has been shown, in Marguerite Bonnet’s exhaustive notes to the Pleiade edition, to be a thoroughly dishonest account of an episode in Breton’s life—dishonest not because he fudged facts, but because he romantically whitewashed his callous sexual exploitation of a mentally and emotionally precarious young woman. 

Lucy Sante’s most recent book is Nineteen Reservoirs (The Experiment, 2022).