The Mars Review of Books - Volume 1, Issue 3

Writing Life by Sean Thor Conroe

Mar 16, 2023 • ~bidbel

Yoga
by Emmanuel Carrère, translated by John Lambert
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 352 pp., $20.00

The Kingdom: A Novel
by Emmanuel Carrère, translated by John Lambert
Picador, 400 pp., $16.94

Lives Other Than My Own: A Memoir
by Emmanuel Carrère, translated by Linda Coverdale
Picador, 256 pp., $19.00

My Life as a Russian Novel: A Memoir
by Emmanuel Carrère, translated by Linda Coverdale
Metropolitan, 288 pp., $14.17

The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception
by Emmanuel Carrère, translated by Linda Coverdale
Picador, 208 pp., $12.29


I first heard of Emmanuel Carrère last summer, around the time of the release of his most recent book, Yoga (2022). I read a profile on him in which I learned he got a restraining order from his ex-wife to never write about her again. I got recommended him by Irish novelist Rob Doyle who, in his book Autobibliography (2021), explains that Carrère (b. 1957), after writing for almost two decades, in 2000, began publishing “a sequence of nonfiction novels, in which Carrère puts himself front and centre, incorporating his struggle to write each book as a narrative element within it . . . a gripping new mode of narration whereby the author declines to pretend he is an invisible witness and reveals the blood on his hands.”

***

Last January, I published a novel, Fuccboi, in which I took aspects of my life to investigate an archetype: “the fuccboi.” Whereas my book is a novel and Carrère’s are memoirs, there are clear lines connecting his work and my own. In each of Carrère’s post-2000 books, he takes on a subject of investigation, but in this way where, by splicing them in with memoiristic bits, he’s investigating himself. My narrator, who shares my name, in this novel with an image of my face on the cover, tells intimate, unflattering details about himself. We both write confessionally and vulnerably about intimacy and relationships.
Anytime one writes in this way, inviting the reader to conflate the narrator with the author, there are risks.

***

I finished Yoga around Thanksgiving of last year. Come December, I found myself alone and isolated, with the one-year anniversary of my novel’s publication fast approaching. Feeling pressure to send my second, in which I’d inevitably have to make sense of the various shitstorms caused by writing the first.

I set out to read Carrère’s books through, from the The Adversary (2000) through Yoga (2022), more or less in order, to see what damage he incurred in his life, writing how he wrote. Whether he even saw continuing to write as a worthwhile endeavor, having had to face the consequences of what he’d written. And if so, how.

The Adversary (2000)


In The Adversary, Carrère takes on as his subject Jean-Claude Romand, who, on January 9, 1993, murdered his wife, kids, dog, and parents before burning his house down with himself inside it. Only, he doesn’t die. He gets rescued. He goes on trial. Carrère reads about his case, writes Romand a letter, and asks if he can write a book about him. To understand why he did it.

Romand had spent all of his adult life pretending to be a doctor for the WHO, when in fact he’d been living off of funds from various family members and acquaintances, claiming he was “investing their money.” He keeps up this farce for as long as he can. Once it all comes crashing down, he panics and murders everyone.
***

Of all of Carrère’s books that I read, this one felt the most straightforward, measured, clinical. It’s the shortest. The radical aspect of the book is the way that Carrère empathizes with, or in any case genuinely tries to make sense of, a totally deplorable human. Carrère stays fairly restrained in the degree to which he sees himself in his subject. He gives us a funny anecdote about himself at age 14, feeling outcast from his friends, right around the age his friends started smoking, where he’d do this little scheme: He’d take one of his mom’s cigs out of the pack, put it in his pocket, show up to school, go up to the cool kids and go, “What the hell? Why is there a cig in my pocket?” Thinking this would make him “more interesting.” Introducing them into this little mystery. They’d just go, “‘Yeah, that’s weird,’” and ignore him. Disappointed, he’d smoke the cig. A Romand-like white lie. Only Romand couldn’t stop lying.

***

The most unsettling part, for me, was what Romand does, how he copes, in the aftermath of what he’s done. How we each cope after committing a violation against someone.

During a long and highly publicized trial, this woman Marie-France testifies. Before the murders, she had been having an affair with the principal of Romand’s child’s school, causing all the parents to turn on her and oust the principal. Romand had led a counter-movement to have the principal reinstated, to not shame these two for what they did in their private lives. This was uncharacteristic of him, drawing attention to himself, and had been part of what led to him being outed; one of the other parents had called the WHO, discovered he was not on any directories, and told Romand’s wife. At the trial, Marie-France testifies in support of him. It turns out she’s been seeing him, they’ve been writing letters, engaging in a romantic relationship. Once he’s imprisoned, they carry on together.

This rubs one reporter, Martine, as heinous. She finds Marie-France’s “sweetness-and-light act not only laughable but irresponsible, and frankly criminal . . . the only positive thing that could happen would be for him to truly realize what he had done and, instead of sniveling, to truly sink into the severe depression he’d spent his whole life scrambling to avoid.”

She doesn’t spare Carrère either: “He must be just thrilled that you’re writing a book on him! That’s what he’s dreamed about his whole life. So it was a good thing that he killed his parents—all his wishes have come true. People talk about him, he’s on TV, someone’s writing his biography . . . . Bravo!”

It’s as if, no matter how heinous a thing we’ve committed against another, there’s no possibility for actual repentance, actual reckoning, so long as we surround ourselves with affirming others. So long as we feel we are the subject of a story.

My Life as a Russian Novel (2007)


The one Carrère will later say “ruined his life.” Disappointingly—given the implications it has for me, as someone trying to write more restrained, less exhibitionistically—his best. The one, I feel, given how much it’s stuck with me, will most challenge me to change my life. Also: the one that made me feel most nauseous, disoriented, and shaken to my core, reading it.

Carrère’s subject of investigation, on the surface, is András Tomas, a Hungarian former World War II prisoner living in a rural Russian town, Kotelnich, who, after 30 years, finally gets released from the psychiatric ward he’s been held in. The book starts with Carrère headed out there with a film crew to shoot a movie about him. We soon learn that this investigation is a foil for a deeper one, tied to a family secret: Carrère’s Russian maternal grandfather, who expressed Axis sympathies during World War II, was one day abducted by the resistance, disappeared, and never heard from or seen again. Carrère goes to Russia to cover the town this Hungarian prisoner was found in, to make a movie on him; but really, he’s try- ing to figure out, and write about—gain closure on—what happened to his grandfather.

Here we start asking the question of this essay in earnest: What is okay, in writing, to share? Which stories are only our own? Is there, as the epigraph of Yoga seems to imply, redemption to be found in radical literary confession:

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.
—The Apocryphal Gospel of Saint Thomas

Carrère’s mom requests expressly that, “[w]hatever you do, leave my father out of it . . . it’s not your story to tell.” To which he responds, “[y]ou’re mistaken . . . . It’s my story, too. It has haunted your life, which means it has haunted mine and it will haunt and destroy my children. . . that’s what happens with secrets—they poison generations.”

This aspect, sharing genealogical details to understand how you got where you are, is one thing. What about sharing details about intimacy?

***

Throughout Carrère’s time going back and forth between Russia and France, he’s engaged in a toxic and intoxicating relationship with a young woman, Sophie. He’s fresh out of a divorce with his first wife, with whom he has two kids. He goes on to tell us, in detail, about his and Sophie’s sexual dynamic. How they make love, how they do phone sex. The book opens with Carrère relaying a threesome sex dream he has with Sophie and another woman. When he tells Sophie about it, he withholds the threesome part, knowing “how jealous she is,” despite only having known her “less than two weeks.” They’re both jealous and distrusting of each other. Their sex life is erotic in that way toxic relationships are. He’s possessive and controlling, looks down on her slightly, she’s submissive to him erotically, enjoys the sexual power she wields over him, but then, in other moments, to retain her autonomy, flouts him like a rebellious daughter. Both cheat on each other.

One day, he gets an offer to write a story for Le Monde, the big French newspaper. After initially declining, he remembers that Sophie had once told him to write an erotic story for her. In a libidinal, fateful decision, he one-take rips a long erotic story, second-person, to her—essentially an 8,000-word sext. He comes up with this idea to plan a trip for her two months in advance, have the story come out on the day of the trip, and writes it in a way that references this: when and how to touch herself, at which train stop, commenting on how all of France is reading it simultaneously, thinking this will heighten the excitement of it. It’s a radical act of literary exhibitionism he, fully in the throes of their mutual sexual spell, hopes will be taken as a grand love gesture. Carrère includes the story, in its entirety, as a chapter in the book.

It couldn’t go more wrong.

Day of, he doesn’t hear from her, he starts panicking, is convinced she’s with another man, and—without spoiling too much—things come crashing down in a way that involves an abortion for a pregnancy she initially says is his but, after doing the math and realizing the only time he could have slept with her in the right time frame was when he was suffering from “a bout of herpes that forced [them] to make love with condoms,” Carrére realizes it can’t be his.

The couple’s descent, after the publication of the story, as one might expect, is epic and terrible.

The thing is, she’d told him about seeing another man (though not the man she ended up getting pregnant from) months before. He’d been too preoccupied with his literary scheme, his artistic tasks, to even register it.

During one of the many episodes when he’s calling her over and over, trying to get a hold of her, and he finally does, he tells her he loves her more than he’s ever loved anyone, that this is serious, she can’t ignore him like this. To which she asks “[w]hat’s serious? . . . That I didn’t do what you wanted, like some character in a novel?”

Carrère tells us all this, and doesn’t spare himself one bit. When he’s mad about his story plan going awry, he says he becomes “like a child throwing a tantrum because someone has broken his toy.” He admits that he falls blindly in love, that once he thinks he’s got a woman in his grasp, he presumes her unending fidelity like a little boy does his mom. And, in so doing, stops seeing her as an autonomous person.

***

Carrère is pretty clear about the effects of this type of libidinal, explicitly exhibitionist literary oversharing: It ruins his life. “If you write enough horrible things,” he quotes from the movie Bizarre, Bizarre, “horrible things start to happen.” Later, in Yoga, reflecting back on this book, he says “he overstepped a boundary” and compares the book to an act of torturing someone. “Never tempt the devil,” his mom says.

On the question of genealogical oversharing, Carrère is less clear. At the end of the book, his nephew commits suicide. He attributes this to the family secret, the “shadow of his grandfather” looming over them, and states that “the shadow won.” More, on both fronts, the intimate and the genealogical, Carrère chose to share both of these stories. Whether he regrets it later or not, there was a faith in something, at the time, driving him to do so. Of all the books of his I read, I was most rapt and locked in on this one, felt I gained the most self-insight. Not just for the exhibitionistic sexual parts, which are always fun to read, but because of how unsparing he is towards himself.

Lives Other Than My Own (2011)


Where one turns after writing something so vulnerable, so soul-baring, is, naturally, outward. Lives Other Than My Own, which I read before My Life as a Russian Novel (and which Carrère actually began writing before My Life as a Russian Novel, though he was only able to finish it after that book was published) opens with Carrère, his wife Helene, and their children in Sri Lanka for Christmas, 2004, when the now-infamous Indian Ocean tsunami hits. Their friend’s four-year-old and another child are killed. It seems like the book will be about the aftermath of this, before, in typical Carrère fashion, taking a turn (possibly when he returned to the book, after finishing the previous one). It jumps ahead to his sister-in-law, Juliette, a judge, not long after the Sri Lanka trip, dying of cancer. Carrère starts spending time with Etienne, another judge and career-long coworker of Juliette’s, telling us their story, the types of cases they faced, their unique working partnership, their styles as judges.

Reading this over this past Christmas, having finished Yoga and The Adversary but before I’d read My Life as a Russian Novel, posted alone in my freezing apartment, during an ice storm, fully nocturnal, trying to reckon with everything I’d written, wondering if I’d ever write again, I found myself thrown by the turn this book took. I couldn’t understand why we were hearing so much about not only Juliette but this man Etienne. Perhaps looking for affirmation that Carrère was a literary brother in arms, baring his soul for the world to see—that he, like the protagonist “Sheila” says in Sheila Heti’s novel How Should a Person Be? (2012), was one of those who are “fated to go through life with [his] clothes off . . . destined to expose every part of [himself] . . . so the rest can be exempted by fate”—I started getting impatient that we weren’t hearing more about him. As a reader, I felt disappointed by this book’s lack of narcissism.

Upon finishing My Life as a Russian Novel, it made more sense. Why he was so intent on turning his authorial eye onto a Life Other Than His Own.

***

Near the end, we return to the question of Yoga’s epigraph. Whether bringing forth what’s within you will save you.

After Juliette dies, one of her daughters feels guilty she didn’t kiss her mama goodbye. On the night she died, she’d been scared to see her in her chemo’d state. Her father, Patrice, “assured her calmly that . . . the important thing was that she was there, and her mama had seen her.” Carrère continues, “I thought it was a good thing that she was able to voice her self-reproach: once expressed, that guilt was less likely to poison her life later on without her even recognizing why.” Maintaining his “psychoanalytic faith in the healthy powers of speech (as opposed to the ravages of silence),” Carrère “commend[s] Patrice . . . for letting his entire attitude show his girls that things should be said.”

A little girl articulating her grief to her father is of course not the same as a reckless act of literary exhibitionism. But they’re connected. Both have to do with poisonous qualities of repression, the healing qualities of letting speech flow forth.

***

Carrère moves more cautiously with how he shares this manuscript. “This time, I resolved to let those my book concerned read it before publication. . . . Submitting My Life as a Russian Novel . . . for the approval of my mother and Sophie, my ex, would have been like heaving it into a bonfire, a luxury I could not afford. . . . I don’t regret that, it saved my life, but I wouldn’t do it again.” In Yoga, he’ll tell us he crossed a boundary, committed an outright wrong. That was ten years after its publication, for a profile he did in 2017. It’s interesting that here, around when he wrote it, he feels it saved his life.

His editor, Paul, isn’t happy about his plan to check with everyone, worrying that “once everyone is done changing things his book will be ruined.” But it works. He gets their approval. His book doesn’t get ruined.

Something magical happens when Carrère checks with Patrice, Juliette’s husband. Patrice starts “quibbling, correcting, clarifying nuances” about Juliette’s political stance, “and I felt to my amazement that I was hearing him pursue, through my book, the trusting and passionate discussion he and Juliette had carried on throughout their thirteen years together.” As if the book itself, if for a brief moment, brought her back to life.

The Kingdom (2017)


Come The Kingdom, Carrère turns his investigative eye even further back. To the Bible.

Having ruined more and more of his relationships with each successive book—he tells us in Yoga that even Lives Other Than My Own remains a failure in his mind, despite his having gotten permission from those he told “intimate details about,” because “it gave [him] the illusion, shared by many readers, that [he] was a good man”—Carrére is now just going through the Acts, looking at the lives of the apostles who, in the 30 years after Jesus, carried out his word. Trying to make sense of his life through these men who gave their lives to an idea. Finding ways to heal.

Luke, he tells us, was a doctor. At one point, Paul gets sick. He mentions this in his letters, thanking the Galatians for not showing disdain or disgust at his ravaged body. Complaining of this “thorn in the flesh” he suffers from:

Thousands of pages have been written on this “thorn in the flesh.” During Paul’s fits the mysterious sickness made his body so repulsive and caused him such suffering that he prayed to God to cure him. What could it be? Paul’s description makes you think of a skin disease, one of those conditions that make you scratch until you bleed—eczema, psoriasis—but also of what Dostoevsky says about his attacks of epilepsy, or Virginia Woolf about her dives into depression. I think of that simple, poignant entry in her diary: ‘Today, the horror returned.’ We’ll never know what illness Paul had, but reading him it’s clear that it was horribly painful, even shameful. Something that always came back, even after long periods of remission when he could believe he was cured. Something that tied him in knots, body and soul.



In the section I’ve just finished slowly rereading over, “Paul,” Carrère goes through the aspects of Paul’s teachings that distinguish him from those who came before. “Prayer,” for example, meant something new to Paul. Unlike Greek or Roman prayer, which was a specific invocation to a specific god, for a specific purpose—to the god of wheat rust, when your wheat got damaged, say—or a “simple recitation . . . an exchange in which the heart could unburden itself . . . to a conversation partner or confidante” as it was in Judaism at the time, Paul demanded more. “He demanded incessant prayer.”

In the 19th century Russian memoir The Way of the Pilgrim which Carrère cites, a poor muzhik one day reads that command spoken by Paul—to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17)—is “thunderstruck,” and immediately embarks on a long journey, asking everyone he meets what this means. As Paul explains it, “He could do it all the time, anywhere, in a crowd of people. . . . While walking, while sorting seeds.” He exhorts his followers to ‘pray like you breathe’: “‘Do you stop breathing when you work? When you talk? When you sleep? No. So why not pray like you breathe? . . . Even your sleep can become prayer.’”

This idea has stuck with me. This idea, to me, means: Prayer is reading. It’s writing. It’s reading and writing without stopping. It’s going to the bodega and back, pausing to piss and shit, sure. But even then. Staying in the space of the work, having faith in the work. It’s what I’ve done to try to write this essay; it’s what I feel I must continue to do if I’m to continue writing.

***

Carrère explains how Paul’s message differs from Homer’s.

Odysseus gets washed up on the nymph Calypso’s island. She’s forever young, they make nonstop love, and she promises him eternal life—“he’ll never get sick, never die”—and “life is a walled garden.” He forgets his bigger task: that he must return home to his wife. Calypso exhorts him to stay. It’s tempting, he says, but he’s gotta leave. He leaves.

This, Carrère says, is the paragon of ancient wisdom: renouncing the illusory higher realm for the earthly. “The life of a man is better than that of a god, for the simple reason that it’s real. Authentic suffering is better than deceptive bliss.”

But there are those born ill, who cannot commit to this heroic life in the first place, who aren’t “brave like Achilles” or “able to seduce women and win over men” to get out of any predicament like Odysseus. Who don’t have a wife to return to, who don’t belong to the “happy family of men who like life on earth,” “who belong to the other family, the family of worriers, the melancholic, who believe that real life is taking place elsewhere.” It’s to these men that Paul offers something different. He offers a different type of eternal life, via a path where “it’s better to be small than big, poor than rich, sick than healthy.” Deliverance through a different type of tearing yourself away from life. It’s a treacherous path, and “whether he’s dedicating his entire life to something that simply does not exist, and is turning his back on what really does exist: the warmth of human bodies, the bittersweet taste of life, the marvelous imperfection of the real,” remains unknown until he has embarked on it.

This idea, that certain people are born with illnesses they can’t, no matter what they do, shake, stems back to Lives Other Than My Own, when Carrére is trying to make sense of his then–sister-in-law Juliette’s cancer: “I don’t believe this is the explanation for cancer,” Carrére writes, but he does “believe that certain people have been damaged at their core almost from the beginning and cannot, despite their courage and best efforts, really live.” Carrère is stunned by people who claim we are free and that happiness is a moral choice. For these people, “sadness is in bad taste, depression is a sign of laziness, melancholy is a sin. Yes it’s a sin, even a mortal sin, but some people are born sinners, born damned, and all their courage and best efforts will not set them free.” It’s a type of radical empathy that has to do with, as in the case of the Galatians, not turning away with disgust from the cosmically scarred, the clinically depressed, those who, despite their best efforts, are unable to dig themselves out of the holes they find themselves in.

Yoga (2022)


In Yoga, Carrère tells us about a complete meltdown he has, resulting in a four-month psychiatric hospital stay, caused in part by his guilt and shame about everything he’s written, how it has derailed his life and relationships. He returns to the question he really seems to be asking in all of his books, possibly the core question of all literature: how to be OK being alone.

When, either by choice or circumstance, you must be.

It’s always, for him, been through unsparingly honest writing. Writing has always been “the place where you don’t lie.” Only, this time, he holds back. He tells us that his meltdown was caused by a breakup with a woman he refers to only as “the Gemini woman,” but then leaves it at that. Since,

while I can say whatever I want about myself, including less flattering truths, I can’t do the same for others. I do not give myself the right, nor do I feel the urge, to give details of a crisis that is not the subject of this story. And so I shall lie by omission, and pass directly to the psychological—and even psychiatric—consequences that this crisis had on me, and on me alone.

He proceeds to tell us about what happens right after his meltdown. He goes out to Leros, Greece, to work with a group of young boys, Iraqi refugees. To help them recover, and to try to recover himself.

He’s not trying to engage in some epic exhibitionistic art act, nor fall into a new toxic relationship to avoid the depression he’s in—not scrambling to avoid anything. He’s just praying constantly, trying to love others selflessly, accepting things as they are. And this ends up being what meditation means.

Meditation is not telling yourself stories. Meditation is letting go, not expecting anything. . . . Meditation is pissing and shitting when you piss and shit, nothing more. Meditation is not adding anything. That’s it. I’ve read and reread this list of definitions, and I can let them stand like that.
***

When I was writing my book, I felt like my life was over. Like I’m already dead, nothing matters. The only way forward is to write, soul bared, trusting that someone who needed it could be helped by it. Things can’t get any worse.

This was an oversight. Things can always get worse.

At the time, I wasn’t alone in this. My editor believed there was value to writing how I was writing, and I believed him. And my partner at the time, my favorite writer, also believed this. She wrote like this too, about her clinical depression, her early traumas, her time spent in psych wards. We met each other through each other’s writing, and recognized this in each other. Ever since both my partner and my editor died, suddenly, in the same week, in freak-accident ways, a month before my novel got sold, I’ve sometimes felt like writing what I wrote set some cosmic vortex into motion—that I “tempted the devil.” Then I feel equally disgusted at myself for my narcissism, to think I could cause things to happen like that.

All I can do, when I feel like this, is look at what I’ve written, consider its effects, and adjust my investigation for the next one. And keep those who are gone alive by remembering their essences, continuing to live by them. Like “Mira,” in Sheila Heti’s novel Pure Colour (2022), thinks after her dad dies: “It was the dead who needed our love, the dead who she wanted to be most loyal to, the dead who needed us most. The living could take care of themselves, going to the grocery store in all that sunshine. It was the dead who needed to be held on to, so they would not slip away.”

And that’s how Carrère ends Yoga. By keeping alive his late editor Paul’s literary vision:

Paul saw a book as something organic, to be taken or left, and not to be put through an editing mill. He was convinced that what we take to be flaws when they’re under our noses often turn out with hindsight to be what makes a book unique and inimitable.
Writing his book as Paul would want him to, letting it take the turns it takes, letting it be what it is.

***

When Carrère witnesses the tragedies he witnessed in Lives Other Than My Own—the two things that “frighten [him] most: the death of a child for her parents and the death of a young woman for her husband and children”—he simply decides that writing them is his task: “Life made me witness to those to misfortunes, one right after the other, and assigned me—at least that’s how I understood it—to tell that story.”

Sometimes writing means committing to an idea, not knowing if you’re ruining your life by doing so, whether you’re turning your back on “the warmth of human bodies,” but that you’ve got to commit to in order to find out. Means trusting there are those out there who understand, even if they’re gone, and being loyal to them. Means leaving the walled garden, living by constant prayer, and writing what you’ve gotta write, even if that means not writing.


by Sean Thor Conroe