Emmanuel Carrère is addictive. He’s a damned good writer. He is also someone difficult to love. If he is genuinely like he presents himself in his book (titled a novel, but feigning to be real at all costs), I couldn’t bear to be in the same room with him. Awfully egocentric to the point of absolute insensitivity to others, immature, moody, pretentious and snob. But at the same time, ready to acknowledge that he’s all this and a lot more. I translate for you his manifesto on the back cover:
Madness and horror have obsessed my life. The books I wrote don’t tell about anything else.
After “The Adversary”, I had enough. I wanted to escape that.
I thought I’d escape it by loving a woman and carrying out an investigation.
The investigation was about my grandfather on my mother’s side, who after a tragic life, has disappeared during the autumn of 1944 and was quite probably shot for collaboration [with the Nazis]. This is my mother’s secret, the ghost that haunts our family.
To exorcise this ghost, I took my chances. They drove me towards a small town lost in a Russian province where I staid for a long time, on my guard, waiting for something to happen. And something did happen: a horrible crime.
Madness and horror had caught up with me.
They also caught up with me, at the same time, in my love life. I wrote for the woman I loved an erotic short story that was expected to break into real life, and reality actually evaded all my plans. Reality brought us both into a nightmare that looked like the worst of my books and that devastated our lives and our love.
That’s what this book is about: the stories we create to control reality and the terrible way reality gets back at us.
You nearly have it all. It might highlight the situation to know that his mother (born in France from Russian immigrants before WWII) is now a prominent member of the French intelligentsia, one of the very few women to sit in the French Academy (like a national council for Arts and Culture). To divulge (in a “true” novel) that her father was shot as a traitor is the equivalent of dropping a bomb at Thanksgiving dinner when your father is working for the White House, perhaps. To write an erotic short story about your girlfriend for the summer supplement of the most respected newspaper in France is the equivalent of publishing an essay in the NYT about your venereal disease. Your friends will think you’re a naughty boy, but a gutsy one, they will scoff and pretend that it’s cool and look the other way. A lot of people who don’t know you will just laugh at you. And a lot of others who don’t think well of you will take that golden opportunity to thrash you in public and to shame the newspaper for ever having allowed that. All this happened in real life (I did buy the newspaper that year and read the erotic short story, which I found cheeky and gutsy, but also a bit snob).
But it’s even worse when during the interval between the short story being written and the publication deadline, you discover that she cheated on you and that you spend the whole summer breaking up in the most messy and gut-wrenching way. No matter if you comes out like a mean bastard in the first place.
I read this book in 48 hours straight. There was no way I could interrupt it with another story. Like any other addiction, I’m not totally comfortable with it and I can’t quite pinpoint why I find it so good, but I know something for sure: I’ll read Carrère again.
PS. This book was published before “Other lives than my own” which I loved as well. I have no clue if foreign publishers plan to translate him anytime soon, because he’s terribly French.