I’ve often thought it must be terrifying to spend time with the French writer Emmanuel Carrère. Of course I don’t know him personally, and what I do know has been gleaned only from his books (most of them autobiographical, if in complex ways) and the odd magazine profile. What I mean – and he’d probably appreciate this – is that he’s in the business of “serious noticing”, to borrow James Wood’s term both for what novelists actually do and the particular talent they have. With Carrère, I imagine an almost tyrannical, if carefully concealed, gaze trained on the minutiae of any encounter; I envisage him evaluating in “real time” what those around him say, do and think. These are the essential ingredients of his work. They might seem unremarkable – surely that’s what all writers do to some extent? – but in Carrère’s restless nonfictions, observation has a punishing intensity that most would struggle to withstand. There really is something of the French moraliste in him: he doesn’t just observe, he judges too.
Unsurprisingly, this attention to the lives of others hasn’t been without controversy. Carrère’s most recent book (which is yet to appear in English), Yoga (2020), discloses intimate details of his relationship with his ex-wife, Hélène Devynck, who shortly after its publication, denounced it as a breach of the contract they had signed stipulating that she must first consent to being described in any of her former husband’s subsequent literary works. In A Russian Novel (2007), he revealed deeply sensitive information regarding his maternal grandfather, who he speculated was executed by the French Resistance shortly after the Liberation for collaboration with the Nazi occupiers. Carrère admitted that this revelation caused his mother, Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, a distinguished historian of the Soviet Union and now permanent secretary of the Académie Française (to describe her son’s background as merely “privileged” would be an understatement), immense distress – as he knew it would. When not writing about himself, family or close friends, he has documented the lives of various infamous figures, including the French serial murderer Jean-Claude Romand, and the Russian vagabond-cum-politician, Eduard Limonov, whose dubious biography, embellished further by Carrère, smacks of the picaresque novel at its more outlandish.
As a (sometimes) journalist, documentary film-maker and literary writer, Carrère is acutely aware of what we might call the ethics of disclosure. Arguably, this issue is more fraught when he dons the latter guise. Whereas journalists claim the right to reveal for such lofty reasons as “the public interest” and “truth”, a novelist’s primary criterion remains aesthetic: will including this create the intended effect on the reader? By definition, literature both presupposes an irresponsibility and grants a discretion that journalists should, at least in theory, eschew. Indeed this is why literature, virtually since its inception, has been the subject of intense debate, and, from time to time, even hatred. The fear, which goes as far back as Plato’s philippics against poetry in The Republic, is that literature, fond as it is of fiction, can only be corrosive of truth.
In Carrère’s books, which we might call “novelistic nonfictions”, these allegiances – to “the record” on the one hand; to aesthetic “truth”, on the other – co-exist in fertile, if problematic, tension. In one sense, he appears to have his cake and eat it: he arrogates to himself the carte blanche of literary freedom, while his genre of choice nonetheless hints at a commitment to veracity. Yet Carrère’s goal, in the first place, is actually to dissolve the cleavage between these apparently conflicting ethics, which he’s happy to let cross-contaminate. For him, truth is not reducible to facts or “fact-checking” (despite what many a self-flattering journalist would have us believe), and it’s in literature that lying, insomuch as he understands it, is truly unacceptable: it’s the “space”, he writes in Yoga, “where you do not lie” (là où on ne ment pas).
Is Carrère merely bending our understanding of “truth” to fit his own selfish, and ultimately literary, purposes, or is he onto something? What does he mean by “truth”? In his books, and especially the more recent ones, which are often categorised as yet more avatars of a ubiquitous “autofiction”, truth is framed as something that emerges fleetingly, appearing like some rare and elusive animal, which quickly scuttles away. This is just how it is. Truth is not a matter of omniscience, but is instead what lurks in the shadow of our own hopelessly partial, and distinctly unobjective, presences. What we call the “first-person”, the very condition for observing, evaluating and judging – and, by extension, writing – imposes, at the outset, its own fatal limitation. To ignore this, for Carrère, is to lie. As he put it, rather bluntly, in a recent exchange with Daniel Mendelsohn, to whom he has been compared: “we establish what we have access to as writers by means of what we are: our ignorance, our prejudices”.
In this regard, Carrère is, for lack of a better word, a postmodernist. That said, he’s a strangely hospitable one: a scrupulous clarifier, even a warm host, he has traits that thoroughly belie the image of gratuitous opacity that the very mention of this term usually conjures up. In the same exchange with Mendelsohn, he describes, revealingly, having recently “discovered a taste for pedagogy in [his] books”. Here, he doesn’t just mean that his works incorporate aspects of history, philosophy or theology, which he then relays to us, in elegant summary; he’s also, I think, touching on a duty he feels he has to guide readers through his récits (roughly “narratives” in English, but the term resists simple translation). Indeed, for all the digressive meta-interventions that punctuate his books, the intention seems to be reliably one of illumination, not deception, perhaps because he has earned our trust, at least in part, by what are surely honest means: admitting his fallibility, his precise lack of omniscience. In The Kingdom (2017), his eccentric epic on early Christianity (and much else), Carrère fleshes out this ethos, which he considers a more faithful sort of realism, when describing his approach to making documentary films:
It’s like shooting a documentary. Either you try to pretend that you’re seeing people “for real” – that is, as they are when you’re not there to film them – or you admit that by filming them you change the givens, and that what you’re filming is a new situation.
Unsurprisingly, the extent to which he has centred himself in his more recent literary works has been interpreted by some as evidence not of intellectual or aesthetic integrity but of self-absorption (in an otherwise highly favourable review in The Guardian, Tim Whitmarsh called Carrère’s The Kingdom a work of “relentless narcissism”). I can’t imagine him being terribly bothered by this. After all, he doesn’t seem especially concerned with how he comes across to readers in the first place. In Wyatt Mason’s 2017 profile of him in the New York Times magazine, he articulates a distinction between what it is to be good and what it is to be moral, claiming that he’s the latter but certainly not the former. “I am not very good. I am, however, very moral,” he writes, “which is to say I know where goodness is, and badness.” In general, he seems less interested in dispensing to others what purports to be wisdom than in scrutinising his own thoughts and actions, which he tends to find wanting. It’s here that his penchant for guilty avowal, which seems a salient, if slightly odd, aspect of his wider appeal, is given full voice.
If this is narcissism, perhaps we could do with more of it. The trouble, though, as he told Mason, is that “when one writes about oneself, one is obligated to write about others”. “The sincerity that you exhibit with yourself,” he goes on, “you have no right to inflict on anyone else.” Carrère invokes a typically provocative example to illustrate his point. In both his exchange with Mason and in greater detail in Yoga, he compares writing about others to torturing them. Stretching the metaphor further, he refers to an interview with Jacques Massu, a French general who was accused of committing war crimes in Algeria. Infamously, Massu admitted in this interview that he’d used la gégène, a military apparatus made of electrodes connected to a generator, on himself, and that it wasn’t so bad after all. Carrère is horrified by the general’s “reasoning”; he points out, following others, that the horror of torture exceeds the physical violence with which it’s typically assumed to be synonymous. Indeed, in and of itself, the sense of powerlessness torturers instil in their victims is integral to the terror the act arouses. Writing about writing about others in Yoga (and, in a typical move on Carrère’s part, reflecting on his interview with Mason), he underscores the latent obscenity of such projects, which, of course, include some of his own works:
Sometimes I’m told that I must be very brave to portray myself, as I do in some of my books, in a way that’s hardly flattering. That’s not true, as I told Wyatt Mason. It’s not bravery, and if it is, it’s “bravery” of the kind General Massu displayed when applying la gégène to himself. Like him, I can stop whenever I wish, I can say or not say what I like: it’s me who decides, ultimately. But in writing about others, you slip, or you can slip, into what is real torture, because you have absolute power as the writer; the one you’re writing about is at your mercy.
Carrère, lapsed “moral” Catholic that he is, tends to have a guilty conscience. Yet on he goes: Yoga has joined the ranks of these previous works, at least in terms of this particular transgression.
This raises the question: does it matter whether we do something racked by guilt, if the outcome is the same? To invoke another inappropriate, if surely apt, military analogy: does apologising for “collateral damage” either before or after the fact mitigate our culpability for what we’re about to do, or for what we might have done? Guilt – “a virtual god-term in our moral vocabulary”, in the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’s words – is often thought of as a partner of justice, its mere presence an internal punishment for the guilty, whom it can burden to the point of making life unliveable. But it can also, paradoxically, convince the guilty of their fundamental morality: the very fact of experiencing intense guilt comforts because only those we deem “human” are assumed to feel it. The more guilty I am, the less is my psychopathy – or so the logic would go. It’s now virtually a truism that the horrors of human history have largely been the work of “ordinary men” with guilty consciences, not sadists or psychopaths. These exist too, of course, but they’re a small minority, mercifully.
This is just the kind of heavy riffing at which Carrère excels. In his more protracted self-examinations, he manages to be both probing and purblind, rigorous and undisciplined, serious and kooky. And it’s in these tortuous, centripetal musings, and the Dostoevskian cul-de-sacs into which they lead him, that we see Carrère at his strongest, decrying his failure to live according to what he understands to be his principles. In The Kingdom in particular, he brilliantly articulates the challenge of actually leading a Christian life (“believing as soon as you’re slightly happy that in fact you’re doing terribly, that things are very bad: I don’t see the point”; “I want to believe it, but I’m afraid I’ll stop believing it. I wonder if wanting so much to believe isn’t the proof I no longer do.”). This makes for compulsive, not to mention informative, reading; we are reminded, for instance, of just how radical and, for some, monstrously counter-intuitive, Christian ethics are. Essentially: “take joy in being unhappy, prefer being small to being big, poor to rich, sick to healthy … Don’t love yourselves. It is human to want one’s own good: don’t.’
As readers of the more recent Yoga quickly learn, Carrère’s struggles aren’t solely spiritual or intellectual. In fact, he’s cruelly intimate with the mind in extremis, which at one point has him committed to a Parisian psychiatric institution, where he receives a diagnosis of bipolar II disorder and is administered electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). In this light, his longing for spiritual succour, whether Christian, as in The Kingdom, or Buddhist and Hindu, as in Yoga, hardly needs parsing. His specific interest in meditation, moreover, is in keeping with the almost maniacal attention paid to interiority – pathological or otherwise – across his works.
At the same time, a core scepticism and vigilant self-awareness immunise him against anything like an uncritical embrace of these practices. Indeed, he has clearly chastened a tendency to evangelism on display in The Kingdom. He derides “New Age” blandishments and the vacuous optimism that goes with them, suggesting this makes a mockery of what should be earnest spiritual engagement. Much of his distaste, tellingly, is of an aesthetic order. He can’t abide the kind of stuff he knows Yoga’s subject matter alone potentially condemns him to thematic proximity with: the tracts, with their “pink or sky-blue covers”, on “the power of the present moment” and “the expansion of consciousness”, banished from more august company in the philosophy section of the bookstore to “mind, body and spirit”. Why, he asks, “do the thoughts of these self-declared spiritual masters”, whom he’s heard hold forth so lucidly on matters of the mind, come to seem, when committed to paper, so ugly, so silly even?
Carrère is no Michel Houellebecq (his distaste for cynicism is itself noteworthy). Thus, rather than launching into a sneering screed on hippy vacuity – Houellebecq’s territory, of course – Carrère does something more original: he turns his suspicion back on himself, questioning, as anybody who claims to follow Buddhist ethics should, his own rush to judgement. Observing a bunch of tree-huggers in faux Peruvian garb, he muses:
It’s a familiar ‘New Age’ practice, hugging trees. It’s to communicate with Gaia, the planet, by caressing her. I ask myself if it would have occurred to these people to do such a thing if they hadn’t been told it was sign of sensitivity, of connection with nature, of letting go. What do I know? In any case, I spare myself these concerns with irony. A classic ruse, on which I’ve long been reliant. A negative thought arises, one which you should resist, but in which I, on the contrary, take refuge, and which becomes yet another, even more negative, thought, which is all the more negative, because so convincing.
Perhaps the joke is on him, the inept meditator and ego-ridden psyche, unable to maintain his concentration. Nevertheless, the distance that Carrère establishes between himself and the stereotypical Buddhist-inclined European is crucial to how the book succeeds. On this front, Yoga betrays a bitter irony. What was originally conceived as “un petit livre subtil et souriant sur le yoga” (“a pleasant and subtle little guide to yog”’), which would happily take its place among the more well-written fare in mind, body and spirit, instead became a testament to years of psychic pain, and it’s precisely because of this that the book feels so original, and Carrère knows it. In typical fashion, he documents this realisation in the text, periodically invoking the initial proposal – for a “personal development” bestseller – whose ruins are yet scattered through the narrative in the form of his own vicissitudes. For all the pain and suffering he went through, and against which meditation proved powerless, one gets the sense that his masochistic side, at least in retrospect, has salvaged something from the sheer undeniable reality of his pain. After all, “authentic suffering”, as he put it in The Kingdom, “is better than deceptive bliss”.
As with his approach to narration, and condescension notwithstanding, I’m inclined to take his account of mindfulness seriously precisely because he’s not peddling the snake oil of “self-help”. The practice is not some immaterial stress ball and success is far from inevitable. On a deeper level, his contempt for such banalities is likely rooted in personal grievance; if you truly suffer, “mainstream” mindfulness and yoga, for lack of a better term, can seem insults in themselves, because they spuriously inflate just how easily one might be delivered from suffering, while at the same time deflating these practices’ spiritual richness. For all this candour – his recognition that neither yoga nor meditation succeeded in granting him the “state of wonder and serenity” (this quotation, which he uses as a motif across the book, is from the pianist Glenn Gould) he was after – his elaboration of mindfulness is truly illuminating. Moreover, it dovetails snugly with his primary interest: writing. How he frames the relationship between meditation and his craft is at the heart of Yoga. On the one hand, he understands their goals to be essentially the same: both seek to sharpen our powers of awareness and observation; and both hope to reveal, in turn, fundamental aspects of ourselves and others. Indeed, there seems to be an obvious congruence between what unfolds in Carrère’s writing and a paradox disclosed to many meditators: that we have access only to ourselves, and that when we attend to this self closely, we realise just how constructed, and therefore insubstantial, (some might say fictional) it is:
Meditation seeks to arouse in you a kind of witness that observes the tornado that is your thoughts without being swept away by it. You’re nothing but chaos and confusion, a marmalade of memories and fears and ghosts and vain hopes. Yet something or somebody calmer within you manages to keep watch.
Yoga attempts to go beyond merely stating this truth, and tries, admirably, to perform it – to demonstrate someone realising it in practice.
Again, though, Carrère knows such victories are only ever be Pyrrhic. Whatever his experience or indeed expertise, he’s no guru – never mind bodhisattva – and doesn’t wish to to be read as one. “My version of the ‘personal development book’,” he writes, is going to remind readers of “something these kinds of books rarely do: that all those masters in martial arts and adepts in zen, yoga and meditation, these great and luminous things that I have pursued all my life, are not necessarily the calm, peaceful sages that we assume them to be, but can be pathetically neurotic people just like myself.” Neither is he a kind of ascetic (far from it, in fact, as anyone familiar with his works will know). What’s more, he admits to having never had, even after decades, anything like a transcendent experience through the practice, whose wonders he could then evangelise: “I often experience a certain peace, and can relate to others more tranquilly, but there’s never anything that extraordinary – no transformation, no cessation of thought, no feeling of emptiness, no enlightenment, or even premonition of enlightenment.” As with writing, meditation, for Carrère, is as likely to reveal your limitations as it is to bestow insight.
Boldest still, he confesses to a latent cynicism by hinting at an ulterior motive for going on silent retreat in the first place. As he suspects the reader has already inferred, he’s on retreat to gather material for a book, a book that will become Yoga. Here, the ethics of meditation and writing, such as they are, must surely part ways:
The question, which I’ve posed myself again and again, is whether there is an incompatibility between the practice of meditation and my craft, which is writing. For the next ten days, am I going to attend to my thoughts as they flow, without identifying with them, or am I going to, on the contrary, try to fix them? Exactly what you’re meant not to do while meditating. Am I going to constantly take mental notes? During these ten days, will the meditator observe the writer, or will the writer observe the meditator?
Later, he truly tightens the screws on himself:
On harder days, I feel like an imposter. I write to be a better person, that’s true, I write because I like writing, I write for the love of work well done, I write because it’s the way I get to know reality. But I also write to be celebrated and admired, which is hardly the best way to become a better person. My work is my ego’s keep. That said, I don’t think you should be too hard on yourself. You shouldn’t concern yourself too much with the purity of your intentions.
“I don’t think you should be too hard on yourself. You shouldn’t concern yourself too much with the purity of your intentions.” Insofar as a significant portion of Carrère’s recent œuvre is a protracted contradiction of these statements, their utterance is damning, and self-consciously so. Indeed, he knows full well that what will strike the reader as most egregious is his lazy appeal to the Buddhist proscription on judgement, here invoked as a means of avoiding the kind of self-reckoning which, in other contexts, he pursues unflinchingly.
This is classic Carrère, confessing, as it were, to bad faith in good faith; insinuating that he’s a fraud, which itself might be read as a kind of honesty, negatively expressed. The apparent indeterminacy brings to mind other autofictionalists like Ben Lerner, but Carrère is surely on the Karl Ove Knausgaard wing of this particular genre, at least in matters of sensibility. What I mean by this is that he is not a writer whose works could be described as playful or light in the way Lerner’s albeit serious fictions are. Moreover, while loathe to jettison autofiction’s governing logic – “when I’m being told a story, I like to know who’s telling it” – he nevertheless rebels against many of its dictates. One in particular, surely a hangover from postmodernism, is a reluctance to tackle big, heavy ideas like religion or morality, at least in the absence of some ironic or self-referential frame. He deploys one, of course, in both The Kingdom and Yoga, but what is produced rarely degrades into facile mockery, despite all the easy targets: passion, love, fervour, sentimentality etc.
From what he has provided us of his biography, Carrère is clearly tempted by the shores of certainty, conviction and belief. As readers, we can only rejoice that he’s so far failed to get there, and given us all the reasons why.
Luke Warde recently completed a doctorate in French at the University of Cambridge. His essays, reviews and criticism have appeared in The Irish Times, The Stinging Fly and Eurozine (www.eurozine.com). He is books editor of Totally Dublin. He is currently a research fellow in French at Trinity College Dublin.