Emmanuel Carrère’s Brilliant Narcissism

Emmanuel Carrère’s Brilliant Narcissism

Emmanuel Carrère’s Brilliant Narcissism

His latest “nonfiction novel,” Yoga, explores his favorite theme: himself. 


Emmanuel Carrère does not write happy books. The uncategorizable “nonfiction novels” for which Carrère has become best-known are about, respectively, a man who killed his family (The Adversary); Eastern European Schmerz (My Life as a Russian Novel); the intertwined tragedies of the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka and the death of his sister-in-law (Lives Other Than My Own); and the mysteries of the Christian faith (The Kingdom). Along the way, he’s written partially fictionalized biographies of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick (I Am Alive and You Are Dead) and a Russian avant-gardiste turned ultra-right-wing politician (Limonov), as well as countless reported essays (some collected in 97,196 Words) on politics, culture, and, often, crime.

Despite being one of France’s most famous writers (and screenwriters and directors), Emmanuel Carrère enjoys something of a cult status in the Anglosphere. To an English-language reader, his work and his voice most closely resemble those of Karl Ove Knausgaard, who has purportedly called Carrère “the most interesting writer working today.” The two writers mine, or bleed, a similar vein: They’re depressive European men who turn their anguished lives into material, brilliant narcissists who somehow make their petty insecurities captivating. Except that Carrère’s self-centered digressions unspool not during a child’s birthday party in an Ikea-infested apartment in Malmö, but in a tsunami-ravaged Sri Lanka, or on a rickety park bench in the former Soviet Union, where he’s shooting (or failing to shoot) a documentary. Carrère angsts about his parents, yes, but not because his dad was a puffy-faced alcoholic like Knausgaard senior; rather, it’s because his mother is the permanent secretary of the Académie Française and France’s preeminent historian of Russia.

Yoga, Carrère’s most recent book, was meant to be a less serious, more straightforward departure from his normal beat. “It struck me that it could be both a useful and a pleasant task to write a short, unpretentious book in a conversational tone, an upbeat, subtle little book” on yoga, which, along with meditation and tai chi, he has practiced for decades. (Could you imagine Knausgaard in a yoga class?)

Carrère was riding high when he checked into the vipassana silent meditation retreat—“commando training” for meditation—where the book begins. As his readers know well, Carrère has struggled with depression and writer’s block in the past, yet for the preceding decade he had been doing well, racking up a major success with The Kingdom, a book that consists of an intensively researched reconstruction of the early years of Christianity, and comfortably ensconced in the romantic relationship that he thinks will last the rest of his life. “For Freud, mental health is being able both to love and to work, and to my great surprise for almost ten years I’d been able to do both,” he writes. When given a pre-retreat questionnaire about potential medical problems and other issues, Carrère wrote that “my only real problem—and it certainly is one, albeit a privileged person’s problem—was my unwieldy, despotic ego, whose control I was hoping to limit.”

But, as Carrère reveals on the first page, his “upbeat, subtle little book on yoga” never got written (the very phrase comes back over and over again, as if taunting him). “Seeing as I have to start somewhere in relating the story of these four years,” he writes, during which he was “confronted with things as downbeat and unsubtle as jihadist terrorism and the refugee crisis, plunged so deep in melancholic depression that I was committed to Sainte-Anne Psychiatric Hospital for four months, and, finally, in which I bade farewell to my editor of thirty-five years, who for the first time wouldn’t be there to read my next book,” Carrère had to “work with the available material,” he writes, recalling a favorite Lenin quote—in both his compromised life and his compromised book. Which are, in the end, one and the same.

Carrère’s literary career hinges on The Adversary, published in 2000 and translated into English the following year, and known as France’s In Cold Blood. The book recounts the unthinkably horrible and almost fantastically interesting case of Jean-Claude Romand, a perpetual fraud who ended up murdering his wife and children in a frantic attempt to hide the fact that his claim to be a respected doctor at the WHO was built on a tissue of lies. Carrère tried to write the book in Capote’s impersonal, omniscient style, but didn’t get anywhere and eventually shelved it. Only upon writing a personal memo on the case’s impact on his life, and his difficulty in making sense of it, did he unlock the story’s real interest, and its real moral weight.

The key, he later said, was abandoning Capote’s fiction of absence and embracing his own subjectivity. “Up until that point, I had a vague hostility toward the first person,” he told The Paris Review. “But the moment I agreed to use it, something flipped inside me and opened up the path that I am still on to this day.” A moral clarity came from integrating his own thoughts and feelings into the story, rather than pretending to be an objective narrator: “Others are a black box, especially someone as enigmatic as Romand. I understood that the only way to approach it was to consent to go into the only black box I do have access to, which is me.”

What ultimately makes The Adversary so compelling is the unlikely yet uncanny twinning of Carrère and Romand, the disconcerting resemblance of the two black boxes. Romand was a man who spent his days living a lie, saying that he was going to work in Geneva or on business trips when he actually passed the time wandering through the woods, checking himself in and out of hotels, convincing others of the truth of the stories he told. The writer’s life of weaving fictions isn’t so different, especially in the lonely act of creation—and Carrère’s book is animated, or haunted, by the “painful sympathy” he feels for a murderer who painstakingly plotted the conceit of his life. A true crime book becomes a book about trying to make a life from nothing, and about the sometimes mortal risks of make-believe.

Yoga puts the problem of the “black box” right at its center. Meditation focuses Carrère’s attention, and ours on that unseeable yet all important thing, “the magma we call an identity.” It also foregrounds an ethical wrinkle that Carrère has tried to straighten out in other books. “If I’m here, it’s to write a book,” he admits upon arrival at the retreat center. He asks, as he has before, “whether there’s an incompatibility, or even a contradiction, between the practice of meditation and my trade, which is to write.”

What are the stakes of treating all of life as grist for the mill? It’s a question with concrete stakes for Carrère, who has been accused by his ex-wife, Hélène Devynck, of writing about her in Yoga without her permission, in violation of a contract they signed when they divorced in 2020. (He did show her the manuscript at one stage, and deleted some passages at her request, but decided to retain others.) “What I try to do in life is become a better person…. And I try to become a better person because it’ll make me a better writer. What comes first? What’s my real goal? On good days, I tell myself that the two are like horses harnessed together.” The Sanskrit word yoga means “yoke” or “bind.” And the real preoccupation of Carrère’s latest book, which if not his best is at least his most strikingly self-reflective, is the binding together of his story with those of others, his writerly and his personal life, his narcissism and his humanity.

The satisfied tranquility of Yoga’s first long section—the vestigial remains of the airy essay on mindfulness and martial arts Carrère initially wanted to write, flavored with a bit of the genteel Orientalism typical of well-meaning European enthusiasts—is interrupted by tragedy in the form of the Charlie Hebdo attack, in which a friend of Carrère’s was killed. Michel Houllebecq couldn’t give the eulogy (he was under police protection at the time), so Carrère does, and, brooding on the murdered man’s happy relationship, considers his own brief moments of connubial joy. Then a much greater interruption comes in the form of a major depression, diagnosed in the mental hospital where Carrère spends a wretched four months as bipolarity. “No matter what you think, say, or do,” Carrère writes, “you can’t trust yourself because there are two of you in the same person, and those two are enemies.” This fundamental duality requires from Carrère an intimate kind of pharmaceutically assisted yoga, and produces the book’s most bracing pages.

Later on, out of the hospital but still not recovered, Carrère goes to the Greek island of Leros, where, with an American college professor, he tries to teach creative writing to a group of Afghan refugees. Far away, on an island where he is surrounded by young men whose suffering is more concretely obvious than his own, Carrère feels something like contentment, though he’s a bit embarrassed, too. “What do you do when you’re suddenly face to face with a young guy who’s totally destitute, I mean who has literally nothing, who’s just made an unimaginable journey under unimaginable conditions?” he asks. “You buy him a Coke, a sandwich, give him twenty euros, pat him on the back and tell him he’s brave and that he’ll be fine.” In the final portion of the book—whose staccato sections feel almost like notes—he reflects on losing two of the most important people in his life: his longtime French publisher, who died prematurely, and, ever so briefly, his ex-wife (Devynck, who goes unnamed). Yoga, it seems, has as much to do with unyoking as yoking, with working with what you have.

It is also, as Carrère puts it in one of his definitions of meditation, about “seeing things as they are.” Candor, or something like it, is one of Carrère’s professed literary values, and, as in autofiction and memoir, what makes even the banal passages of his books interesting. “Regarding literature, or at least the sort of literature I practice, I have one conviction,” Carrère writes. “It is the place where you don’t lie. This is the absolute imperative, everything else is incidental, and I think I’ve always held on to it. What I write may be narcissistic and vain, but I’m not lying.” You want to believe him, even though, of course, you can’t.

But in Yoga he had to “distort a little, transpose a little, erase a little. Especially erase,” Carrère writes, obliquely alluding to his agreement with Devynck. She apparently asked him to remove quite a lot—and alleges that Carrère violated the terms of their agreement by including, toward the end, a long quotation from Lives Other Than My Own about the importance of his relationship with her. Devynck also claims that Carrère spent only a few days on Leros, before his breakdown and not, as he has it in the book, for a few sunbaked months after. Carrère, for one, has said that while he can be prevented from writing, he can’t be prevented from having written, and moreover that he should never have made the pact in the first place.

The fracas over Yoga would feel petty if it weren’t so appropriate for a book that looks narcissism squarely in the face. Carrère often writes about the challenges, and the rewards, of “trying to figure out what it’s like to be someone else.” It’s something that he’s struggled to do in the past, as when, as recounted in My Life as a Russian Novel, Carrère infamously published a tone-deaf pornographic letter to his then-partner in Le Monde for all the world to read, or exposed his grandfather’s collaboration with the Nazi occupiers of France, despite his mother’s wish that he not do so until after her death. Meditation, Carrère suggests after Simone Weil, should make you aware that other people actually exist. (The same could be said of literature.) “If it doesn’t, if it remains something you share only with yourself, it’s useless: just another narcissistic plaything.” Being asked by another to modulated his self regard—to actually change his life, and his style, to respect the life of another—might have been the greatest yogic challenge of all. Carrère has suggested that his next book will be fiction.

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