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Emmanuel Carrère: “I need to be honest about myself. Otherwise, why write?

The celebrated French writer Emmanuel Carrère on why he is drawn to monsters, murderers, enigmas – and himself.

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One of the most persistent themes in the writings of Emmanuel Carrère is the elusive strangeness that lies never too far below the surface of everyday life. One of the best examples of this is L’Adversaire (published in English as The Adversary in 2001), which tells the true story of Jean-Claude Romand, an outwardly respectable doctor, living with his family near the Swiss border and working at the World Health Organisation. His wife and two children appeared to have died in a house fire, which Romand survived – although he had apparently tried to kill himself with an overdose of Nembutal. 

The police, however, discovered that the family had been shot and were all but dead before the fire; Romand’s two parents had also been shot dead, and that same afternoon Romand had tried to strangle his mistress, who reported him to the police. It then emerged that Romand did not work at the World Health Organisation, nor did he have any medical qualifications. His middle-class lifestyle was funded by dodgy investments and stealing from a retirement fund. He claimed he had cancer to attract sympathy and attention from friends and family. But all of Romand’s life was a lie. As the story unravelled in the courts in France through the mid-1990s, Romand suddenly found his true vocation: he became famous, and began to revel in the attention. 

This is when the writer Emmanuel Carrère began a correspondence and a kind of relationship with Romand, which eventually became a book. The model, by Carrère’s own admission, was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which tells of the murder of a family in Kansas in 1959, partly by getting up close to the murderers and recreating the story as a work of art rather than mere reportage. L’Adversaire may read like a novel but is based on real life. This is perhaps the most unsettling aspect of Carrère’s writing; he is a page-turner and a mainstream bestseller in France, but much of his work, which also includes film scripts and journalism, deals in uncanny and unresolved waking nightmares. 

For this reason, as I set off to meet Carrère in a café near the cemetery of Père Lachaise one gloomy Parisian afternoon, I was expecting to meet a brooding, melancholic figure. This is certainly what he looks like in his publicity photographs; he is fit and slim for a 62-year-old, but with a deeply lined face which seems to have been carved out of bad experiences. Instead, to my surprise, he is smiling, friendly, self-deprecating, and chatty to the point of garrulousness. He has just been on the phone talking to Juliette Binoche and is enthusiastic about a film they are making together. It turns out that the theme of the film, which is set in rural France, is not so far away from the book I am currently writing. He seems genuinely interested in my work and so we begin with Carrère plying me with questions rather than the other way around. 

This is of course a classic technique deployed by crafty writers who want to turn attention away from themselves. And Carrère is without doubt extremely crafty. Essentially, he writes non-fiction as if it were fiction – hardly a new genre in the English-speaking world, but something that marks quite a shift in French literature. He almost always places himself at the centre of his works, whether it is a novel about the history of Christianity (2014’s The Kingdom), or a private and semi-pornographic letter written to a girlfriend that was published in Le Monde, and thus immediately available to hundreds of thousands of readers. His admirers – some of whom claim him as France’s greatest living writer – describe his work as autofiction; his critics claim it is nothing more than sheer narcissism. 

Carrère’s latest book translated into English is 97,196 Words: Essays, a compendium of his journalism. As a journalist he is both prolific and eclectic; in the collection, he ranges over film stars, Russian neo-Nazis, Philip K Dick, and natural disasters. In one of the most gripping essays, he goes in search of Luke Rhinehart, the author of the cult book The Dice Man, and who turns out to be a modest if mysterious figure whose real name is George Cockcroft. 

Carrère’s voice in these pieces is always the same as in his books; ironic, intellectual, self-regarding and confessional. The first question, then, is does he see any real difference between his books and his journalism? “How can there be any difference?” Carrère says, “They are both forms of storytelling. The tactics can often be different but the aim is always the same, to get near to something which may be hard to understand but is also true, or a form of truth. Sometimes you can get it wrong by confusing the two forms, but when they come together, you have real literature. To get there, however, in both forms, you must have humility and honesty.” 

As an example of how he can get things wrong, he mentions an essay in the book called “How I completely botched my interview with Catherine Deneuve”. The problem was that Deneuve, whom he admired enormously, had requested he do the interview for Première magazine and Carrère had been flattered into taking the commission. Worse still, he now imagined that he could approach her as a writer, and rely on the free flow of conversation to make the article work as a portrait that would emerge from complicity and empathy. He laughs: “It was the basic error that journalists make of imagining that we – Catherine Deneuve and I – could  be friends.” 

An accomplished and steely interviewee, Deneuve saw through Carrère straight away. Since he didn’t ask a real question, he didn’t get a real answer. “It was awful,” he says now, “but it taught me a lot. She was  elegant enough to call me afterwards and say that she was sorry for me.” Carrère laughs again. 

Part of Carrère’s charm is that he is unafraid to find himself ridiculous – this is partly what he means by the writer’s humility. He also has the social ease of someone born into a rich and distinguished family. His father Louis Édouard Carrère is a successful businessman while his mother, Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, is a well-known historian of the Soviet Union and a member of the Académie Française. 

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Carrère grew up in the 16th arrondissement, the most upmarket part of Paris with only the slightest trace of bohemia. He describes himself as a timid and bookish child. He studied at Sciences Po, one of the most prestigious universities in France, and began his career as a journalist, freelancing in the most fashionable publications in Paris. He comments that the only rebellious thing he has ever done is to have changed arrondissement, from the haut bourgeois world of his parents to the more downmarket (but still hipsterish and gentrified) tenth arrondissement. 

This is not quite true however. Against his mother’s wishes, in 2008 he published a book called Un Roman Russe (published in English in 2010 as My Life as a Russian Novel), part of which revealed the family secret that his grandfather, an emigrant to Paris from Georgia, may have been killed at the end of the Second World War as a suspected Nazi collaborator. This, and the weird and gimmicky pornographic letter published in Le Monde, horrified Carrère’s mother.  

I put it to him that, for all his fastidiousness as a writer – his prose is always rigorous and disciplined – he doesn’t seem to be able to restrain himself from self- disclosure, or revealing other people’s secrets and inner lives. “This is always difficult,” he responds. “I need to be honest about myself. Otherwise, why write? But at the same time I know that I am also a character in my work. The same applies to other people – my mother, my girlfriends, other people I have known.

Everyone is complex, and reality is complex. That is why I never make big political or philosophical statements. I might comment on politics or the world, but I have no conclusions, because the world is so packed with variables, just like the people who live in it.”

This partly explains why in 2011 Carrère wrote Limonov. The book tells the picaresque story of Eduard Limonov, leader of the banned National Bolshevik Party in Russia (usually abbreviated to the Orwellian Natsbol) and its successor the Other Russia. Natsbol was either nationalist or fascist, depending on your point of view. Its flag directly copied the Nazi flag’s white circle on a red background, but with a hammer and sickle replacing the swastika.

Limonov has expressed support for Vladimir Putin but also been imprisoned in Russia for insurrectionary and terrorist activities. Before he became a political figure Limonov was a poet. He emigrated to the United States on a false Israeli passport, where he was a down and out who slept with both men and women and was involved in robberies and brawls. Carrère describes Limonov’s life in the US as a cross between De Niro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, and Henry Miller at his most priapic. Disillusioned, Limonov left for Paris in the 1980s (when Carrère first knew him), and embraced punk rock and radical politics. He returned to Russia in 1991 and founded a magazine called Limonka. Named after a Russian slang term for a hand grenade, it was accused of advocating mass terror. Limonov was also ferociously pro-Serb during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Notoriously, during the siege of Sarajevo, when in the company of Radovan Karadzic, he fired a machine gun into the streets. A clip can be found on YouTube, with Karadzic explaining to Limonov that everything they can see is Serbian territory.

***

Limonov is, for my money, Carrère’s finest book: a contemporary political parable of our recent history in both the East and West with a central character who might have been dreamt up by Louis-Ferdinand Céline or Dostoevsky. Although, it won the Prix Renaudot (a literary award principally for fiction, which in 1932 was awarded to Céline), it was criticised for its loose use of facts. More seriously, Carrère, the archetype of a soft bourgeois Parisian intellectual, was accused of being enthralled by the macho hard man Limonov. There is some truth to this and Carrère does not deny it. But he also says that his fascination with Limonov, or at least his story, was precisely because it was so perverse and extreme; or as he puts it, during his Paris years, Limonov was a “sexy, sly, funny guy… everyone’s favourite barbarian”.

Limonov’s story is obviously a gift to any writer. Meeting the monster was, however, not quite so simple. In person he turns out to be both frightening and charismatic. Carrère travels to Moscow and finds that Limonov is treated as a star, “a cross between Michel Houellebecq… and Lou Reed”. At one point, Carrère is also flattered that Limonov remembers him from Paris. At another, he finds his subject in a rare “dry-humoured” and poetic mood, dreaming of an old age at the outer edges of the Central Asian provinces of Samarkand or Tashkent, high on hashish, a “cast-off… a wreck… a king”.

It seems an awful long way from hanging out with Eduard Limonov to spending a week in the company of Emmanuel Macron. But this is what Carrère does in the final essay in his collection, as he follows the French president from Athens to a tour of the French Caribbean in 2017. The first thing that Carrère notices on the hurricane-ravaged island of Saint-Martin is that Macron does not perspire. As his aides wilt in the heat, eventually “exhausted, haggard and reeking” by the late evening, Macron is still “fresh as a daisy”, a tireless “cyborg, a seducing machine”.

This is a typically ambiguous piece of writing. Carrère seems to have no political axe to grind but is simply intrigued by the impenetrable personality of the president. Carrère tells me the politician Macron most resembles is Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, president of France from 1974 to 1981: “They are both intellectuals with a sense of destiny,” he says, “they both believe that they can somehow change France and save it. But they have no connection to ordinary people, to real life.” 

Carrère attempts to find out Macron’s weaknesses. Macron dismisses the rumour that he is gay with “good humour”. He quotes whole chunks of poetry to Francophile Greek intellectuals. He looks people directly in the eye, almost hypnotising them and making them feel, at least for a moment, that they are the most important person in the world and what they have to say really matters to him. 

Watching Macron and his wife Brigitte together, Carrère is convinced that their relationship is solid and authentic: “Their eyes seek each other out, find each other, often they hold hands. It’s remarkable, moving even… you can’t fake this sort of thing”, he writes. If there is a flaw in Macron, Carrère concludes, it is that for all that he is clever and impressive, and also good company, he is also endlessly elusive. 

Of course, the same might be said of Emmanuel Carrère, both in the indiscretions of his writing and his discreet real life. I catch a glimpse of this latter side of him as I go to pay the bill. He says he will wait another 15 minutes: he has to make another phone call and then meet somebody else. But as I turn around to say goodbye, Carrère has already gone. In 30 seconds he has disappeared from view, and I am left feeling that it was almost as if he had never been there.

Andrew Hussey’s books include “Paris: the Secret History” (Bloomsbury)

This article appears in the 14 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power without purpose