Issue 206, Fall 2013
The French, who are notoriously divided on literary matters, all seem to agree: there are few great writers in France today, and Emmanuel Carrère is one of them. Carrère writes nonfiction, or what he calls “nonfiction novels.” His books combine journalistic reporting with first-person confession. “He transforms the world into literature,” summarized one felled critic. He also shocks. In My Life as a Russian Novel (2007), he defied his mother’s request not to write about her father, a White Russian émigré who served as a translator for the German army during World War II. The French press delighted in the supposed rift it caused with his mother, a preeminent historian of twentieth-century Russia who happens to be the presiding secretary-general of the Académie française. In the same book, Carrère recounts the true story of how he surprised a girlfriend by publishing a pornographic letter to her in Le Monde. Though this marked the height of his take-no-prisoners exhibitionism, frankness about his worst self is a constant in his work.
Born in 1957, Carrère grew up comfortably in Paris, the son of an insurance executive. He attended the Institut d’études politiques de Paris (the renowned Sciences Po), and, after serving in the military in Indonesia, became a film critic for Télérama and Positif. He continues to work as a journalist, both in print and in television. (In addition to writing TV and movie screenplays, he has directed two films, including a documentary.) But Carrère’s narrator is not the neutral “I” of American New Journalism. He is unapologetically—or sometimes apologetically—present. For example, in his 2009 best seller, Lives Other Than My Own, Carrère tells the true story of his vacation in Sri Lanka during the 2004 tsunami. He then writes about the death, by cancer, of his girlfriend’s sister, who was a small-claims judge. Eventually, he goes on to explain French and European credit law, her field of expertise, in fifty pages that are, unlikely as it may seem, gripping. President Nicolas Sarkozy said the book “transforms the way you look at the world.” (A tricky endorsement for the left-leaning Carrère.)
Carrère began his literary career writing fiction and looks upon his first, experimental novels with dismayed amusement. His first major critical success came in 1986, with The Mustache, a novella about a man who shaves his mustache only to find that no one notices, not even his wife. John Updike wrote that the book was, “to risk a rather devalued word, stunning.” Carrère followed up with Hors d’atteinte? (1988), about an addicted gambler, and Class Trip (1995), about a killing by a pedophile. He also wrote a biography of the sci-fi master Philip K. Dick.
But the book that made him famous was The Adversary, published in 2000. It is justifiably considered the French In Cold Blood. The true story of a serial killer who murdered his family after pretending to be a doctor for eighteen years, The Adversary became a best seller and was translated into twenty-three languages. From that moment on, Carrère switched from fiction to his brand of first-person reporting. His most recent book, Limonov, won him the prestigious Prix Renaudot in 2011. Limonov will be published in English this fall.
The interview took place in Carrère’s large, comfortable apartment in Paris’s 10th arrondissement. Slightly tan, Carrère looks like a French journalist, which means he can carry off a scarf and a vaguely fatigue-like jacket with panache. Despite his bohemian-bourgeois credentials, he has the courteous manners of his more conservative background. Listening to him is reminiscent of reading his books: there’s the intensity, which may strike the listener as somehow Russian, and the self-deprecating humor that can accompany the most embarrassing admission.
Carrère lives with his wife, Hélène Devynck, a former journalist, and their daughter. He has two grown sons from a previous marriage. He often writes at his house on the Greek isle of Patmos, where, he points out, Saint John wrote the Book of Revelation. He is currently at work on a collection of his long-form journalism, due out in France in January.
I read that your editor made you entirely rewrite your first novel, L’amie du jaguar. Is that true?
Yes, absolutely. I was extremely proud of the fact that I wrote it as a single three-hundred-page paragraph. I thought it was impossibly chic, an example of great literary radicalness. Instead of stopping me in my tracks by telling me that it wasn’t working at all, she just said that it was a little too long and overwrought and that I should try to make a few cuts, which I could put in brackets. I tried, but of course, it didn’t work, so I completely rewrote the book, which, I’m sure, is what she hoped I’d do. I think the book was promising enough to warrant a little tact, but really, it’s one of those typical first novels that are of interest only to their authors.
You have said that the book is very autobiographical, which is something writers often deny completely.
Yes, it was. It took place in Surabaya, in Indonesia, where I did my military service. It’s about a tortured young man who is in love and doing whatever drugs he can lay his hands on.
It’s funny that the person who wrote this book, which is not realist at all, is the same person who wrote the nonfiction works that made him famous.
It is both autobiographical and not at all realist, but I don’t find that combination to be so strange. There’s a book I really like called W, or the Memory of Childhood, by Georges Perec, which is made up of two completely different parts. On the one hand, he reconstitutes a novel he wrote as a child set on an island, Jules Verne–style, about a fascist society that is completely dominated by sports. On the other hand, he records his very fragmented memories of his life with his parents, from whom he was separated at the age of four when they were deported to the camps. And the way he uses these two stories—it’s as if he is trying to harness something he isn’t able to say. I have often used that method, combining things that don’t obviously go together and making the bet that, by doing that, I am going to access something that is in the realm of the unsayable. It’s something that works in psychoanalysis and I think in literature, too.
My publisher, P.O.L., recently reprinted L’amie du jaguar. I tried to read it, and I just couldn’t do it. When I wrote the book, I was crazy about Nabokov and, under his influence, I thought, Why make it simple when you can make it complicated?
Your second novel, Bravoure, was inspired by a famous piece of literary history.
What is true is that in the summer of 1816, Lord Byron, with his doctor, who was called Polidori, and the Shelleys—Percy and Mary—gathered in a house on Lake Geneva. This little group spent the summer together, going on walks, boating, and things like that but also reading fantastic fiction, which was just starting to be fashionable. They were quite obsessed with it, so they made a bet to see who could write the best horror story. Polidori’s story, which was called “The Vampyre,” is the first vampire story in Western literature, outside of folktales. As for Mary Shelley, she had a nightmare, which produced Frankenstein, a book I adore. I love its naïveté, its tragic power. And I love the idea that this eternal story was invented by a girl of eighteen. And it is an eternal book. As long as we read books, we will read that.
In the novel, you mention a writing exercise. Have you done it yourself ?
It’s a piece of advice given by the German Romantic Ludwig Börne. “For three successive days, force yourself to write, without denaturalizing or hypocrisy, everything that crosses your mind. Write what you think of yourself, your wives, Goethe, the Turkish war, the Last Judgment, your superiors, and you will be stupefied to see how many new thoughts have poured forth. That is what constitutes the art of becoming an original writer in three days.”
I continue to find this excellent advice. Today still, when I’m not working on anything, I’ll take a notebook, and for a few hours a day I’ll just write whatever comes, about my life, my wife, the elections, trying not to censor myself. That’s the real problem obviously—“without denaturalizing or hypocrisy.” Without being afraid of what is shameful or what you consider uninteresting, not worthy of being written. It’s the same principle behind psychoanalysis. It’s just as hard to do and just as worth it, in my opinion. Everything you think is worth writing. Not necessarily worth keeping, but worth writing. And fundamentally, that’s what a large part of literature attempts to do—reproduce the flow of thought. Well at least the literature I love the most—Montaigne, Sterne, Diderot . . .
Why is the book called Bravoure, which is sort of a cross between courage and chutzpah?
Out of pretension, I’m afraid. There is an expression in French—“morceau de bravoure.” It’s a novel that seeks to be virtuosic, to say, Look what I can do.