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20 July 2022

The lying life of Emmanuel Carrère

In his new book, Yoga, the French literary star is fixated on truth – so why does he play fast and loose with it?

By Chris Power

Deep into this novel-ish memoir, or memoiristic novel, which was supposed to be an “upbeat, subtle little book on yoga”, Emmanuel Carrère pronounces that “you gain nothing by forgetting yourself”. It’s a line that would perfectly suit the kind of inspirational text he intended, but has completely failed, to write. Instead the words have a different resonance, following as they do descriptions of grief, mental illness, hospitalisation and a moving personal account of the migrant crisis. They have an extra significance for those who have read any of Carrère’s previous experiments in hybridity: The Adversary, My Life as a Russian Novel, Other Lives But Mine, Limonov, and The Kingdom – books that have made him one of the most notable authors in France today. One of the things we learn from these “non-fiction novels”, as Carrère prefers to call them, is that he is not a writer ever in danger of forgetting himself.

In the 1980s and 1990s Carrère mostly wrote novels. With The Adversary (2000), a riveting account of a quintuple murder and a life constructed of lies, he pivoted to non-fiction texts in which he is the main or at least a major character, a chatty, self-deprecating narcissist, explaining how the book we are reading came into existence. Hence the repeated notification, in this latest transmission from Planet Carrère, that it was going to be an “upbeat, subtle little book on yoga” before the world intruded and sent it in a different direction. Such are the risks when you write from life – although the extent to which Carrère’s work is true to life, particularly here, is a vexed question.

[See also: Geoff Dyer and the art of slacking off]

Nevertheless the book does begin with yoga, at a vipassana retreat in central France, where Carrère went in January 2015 to work on his meditation and yoga practice. Here we do get lots of upbeat and subtle stuff on what meditation is, how it feels and what it can do. Carrère is in a good place, free from the depression that had sometimes knocked him off course, satisfied with the success of his last “four big books that many people had liked”. His only real problem, he says, “and it certainly is one, albeit a privileged person’s problem – was my unwieldy, despotic ego whose control I was hoping to limit, and that’s just what meditation was for”. Carrère is always dragging himself over the coals like this. Elsewhere he calls himself “a narcissistic, unstable man, obsessed with being a great writer”.

Alongside these moments of exposure and self-flagellation are riffs on a vast array of subjects, from parenthood to Buddhism, the Algerian War to the workings of memory. Reading Carrère’s books can feel like an expansion of the boundaries of literature, and of your mind. In the case of Yoga this process is an ironic one, given that its central event is a major depressive episode that shrank the range and movement of Carrère’s hyperactive, roving intelligence almost to nothing. In a memorable phrase (in John Lambert’s translation, which effectively captures Carrère’s flowing, chatty style), he describes himself as having “drifted into a stagnant estuary of my life”.

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When two gunmen enter the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and execute 12 people, Carrère’s friend Bernard Maris is among the dead. Carrère leaves the yoga retreat, speaks at Maris’ funeral, receives a bipolar diagnosis (“It’s disturbing, at almost 60 years of age, to be diagnosed with an illness that you’ve suffered from your whole life without it ever being named”), is profiled by the New York Times, spends months in a psychiatric hospital, receives ECT and goes on a journalism assignment to Iraq. He travels to the Greek island of Patmos, where he has a house, and then to Leros, where a camp of “thousands of migrants from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia and above all Bashar al-Assad’s smouldering Syria” is growing by the day. Moving from laughter (the retreat is comedically awful) to despair, and arriving at redemption, Yoga conforms to a classic narrative pattern that is rarely seen in real life.

[See also: Ottessa Moshfegh and the tedium of depravity]

Carrère’s work is obsessed with truth, yet repeatedly demonstrates the ways in which writing, particularly autobiographical writing, so often fails to uphold it. Nowhere in his body of work is this more on show than in Yoga. Several months before the book’s 2020 publication in France came the announcement of his separation from his second wife, the journalist Hélène Devynck. Then, just after the book’s release, came the revelation that Carrère had agreed he would no longer write about Devynck without her consent. This resulted in chunks of the Yoga manuscript being deleted, pre-publication, at her insistence. She has also said the timeline the book presents is misleading: that Carrère spent not weeks but only a few days with the migrants on Leros, and his visit took place – inconveniently for an inspirational story of rebirth – before his hospitalisation, not after it.

“Regarding literature,” Carrère writes, “or at least the sort of literature I practise, I have one conviction: 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 to it. What I write may be narcissistic and vain, but I’m not lying.” In part it’s Carrère’s insistence on his honesty that makes you suspect he’s injecting truth with performance-enhancing fiction, and in Yoga, with portions of his life ruled off limits by court order, he confesses to it: “I can’t say of this book what I’ve proudly said of several others: ‘It’s all true.’ While writing it, I have to distort a little, transpose a little, erase a little.”

But what is the truth quotient of Carrère’s other books? In Limonov (2011), a study of the Russian writer and latter-day fascist Eduard Limonov, Carrère says Limonov never lies – a ludicrous opinion that it’s hard to believe Carrère holds. The journalist Masha Gessen claimed that “generally speaking, dates and figures in the book are more likely to be wrong than right”, and that Carrère, who frequently mentions his facility with Russian, “manages to misuse just about every Russian term he includes in the book”. In The Kingdom, even his translator, John Lambert, weighs in, explaining in a note that one of the challenges of translating Carrère is “finding the right balance between his personal use of his many sources and the text of the sources themselves”. So much for accuracy, what about honesty? Carrère recently told a journalist from the Times that 5 per cent of Yoga isn’t true, but if Devynck’s assertions are correct the real amount is likely to be far higher.

The questions thrown up by Carrère’s addictive, genre-melding body of work are relevant in literature’s present moment, which heavily favours the first-person singular. More and more biographies and history books contain fragments of the writer’s life. Novelists are increasingly required to demonstrate a biographical link to their work, and rarely say they simply made something up. Reviewers are likely to tell you about themselves before getting to the book in question.

Most notably, we’re in a bull market for the personal essay, where it seems to be demanded that essayists share confessional life experiences extraordinarily (or suspiciously) well suited to the stringent demands of narrative. The critic Lauren Oyler noted in a review of Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, by the New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino: “What seems self-evident to me is that public writing is always at least a little bit self-interested, demanding, controlling and delusional.” And what seems self-evident to me is that the more snugly the elements of a personal essay cohere, particularly where some large-scale event or cultural shift meets its mirror in the essayist’s life, the greater the likelihood the essayist is, to some degree, bullshitting us.

[See also: The best books for summer 2022]

The traits Oyler identifies work as a description of Carrère’s work, too, but its hybrid quality means it also makes sense to consider it in relation to autofiction. Reviewing one of the novel-ish memoirs, or memoiristic novels, in Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle series, the Canadian novelist Sheila Heti reminisced about asking Knausgård how he was able to remember so clearly a particular detail from his childhood. “I made it up,” he told her. Heti’s question itself suggests a suspicious level of credulity, especially from someone who uses her own life as the raw material for books like How Should a Person Be?. When she asked it, surely she already knew – just like Knausgård or Rachel Cusk, Sigrid Nunez or VS Naipaul all know or knew – that transmuting real life into narrative is one of the slipperiest of all literary manoeuvres, and in order to do it you have to lose bits of truth along the way and plug some gaps with fiction.

Readers tend to accept these compromises on two grounds: if the writer acknowledges them within the text, or if the fictional material is grafted so seamlessly on to the facts we can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. In Yoga Carrère lands somewhere between these two positions. He confesses to making certain things up, and those fictionalised elements – a friendship with an American academic; a chance meeting with an old lover; his mental recovery while befriending refugees on Leros – are mostly convincing, and at times deeply affecting. His insistence that he is telling the truth can get irritating, but his failure to do so is not a fatal flaw. Instead it adds an interesting dimension to his project – though I might feel very differently about that if I were his subject, or his ex-wife, and not just his reader.

As for where Carrère goes next, he has been covering the Bataclan terror attack trial for the magazine L’Obs and will publish his articles as a book. Beyond that, his injunction-inspired resort to pure imagination for parts of Yoga apparently have him planning a return to the world of fiction. Some will say he never entirely left.

Emmanuel Carrère
Jonathan Cape, 320pp, £16.99

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This article appears in the 20 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Broken Party