IIn a way, writing a book is easy. You just keep putting one interesting sentence after another and then thread them all together along a more or less fine narrative line. Only, it’s not easy – in fact, it’s notoriously difficult, daunting, strenuous work that can often leave you in a state of utter nervous exhaustion, reaching for the bottle or the pills. Since his creative breakthrough with The adversary, published in 2000, French writer Emmanuel Carrère did something doubly amazing: he pioneered a unique and captivating new way to tell a true story, and he made it easy. Or at least he does to come down easy for the reader. His fiendishly personal “non-fiction novels,” which encompass subjects such as dissenting Russian literature or the history of early Christianity, unfold in a state of perpetual climax, locked to a point of fascination from page one to the last.
Like his new book Yoga begins, Carrère is “in a good way”, enjoying what has been a streak of 10 years of fame, marital bliss, and good fortune, which he finds remarkable considering the misery of his inner life before. Carrère, as anyone who has read his books knows, is a great pornographer of his own torments, a champion of suffering who writes in a tone of exhibitionist angst even though his life – rich, Parisian, glamorous – seems ostensibly attractive. “When it comes to neurotic misery, I am second to none,” he tells us, characteristically. Basking in the sunny highlands of his late 50s, he decides to write “an upbeat and subtle little book about yoga” but lets us know from the first page that neither life nor the book would turn out like this. .
In January 2015, Carrère flew away for a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat in the Morvan in France. There he describes the practice of meditation in a way that wouldn’t seem erratic in the kind of self-help book he flirts with in this first section (until he issues a few deliberately jarring notes: “I’ve never jerked off thinking about a woman I don’t know”). As he recalls his decades-long commitment to yoga and tai-chi practices in the oldest dojo in Paris, we learn that a lover Carrère met during a previous retreat in Geneva with whom he had regular, secret meetings in a hotel room. These thoughts are interrupted when, four days into his stay in the spiritual equivalent of North Korea, his retreat is interrupted by grave news from the outside world.
The book’s purpose of being a modest guide to yoga crumbles – or rather, mushrooms into a much larger narrative of the end of Carrère’s “self-filled” decade. The Islamist attack against the offices of Charlie Hebdo precipitates an attack of depression and mental disorders. His marriage falls apart (off screen – Carrère’s ex-wife legally prevented him from writing about her after their divorce) and eventually Carrère’s sister has him committed to a mental hospital. He was administered ketamine and electric shocks, and a few months later, this Gallic Indiana Jones flew to Iraq in search of a Koran inscribed with the blood of Saddam Hussein. His attempt to regain his peace of mind eventually leads him to the Greek island of Leros, where he teaches creative writing to young men fresh off the boat amid Europe’s bleeding refugee crisis.
That’s the main thing, from a content point of view. But what makes it a Carrère book – and what makes me so eagerly await – is the way it is told, a characteristic mixture of extreme exhibitionism and digressive interest. His skill in constructing a narrative from disparate materials is exceptional, with all sorts of ideas, anecdotes and conjectures stacked like hoops around the long, slender “I”. One minute you’re watching him in a drunken rave-up of a Chopin Polonaise with an American, the next he’s recounting a sci-fi story he read as a teenager – the beat never falters. It’s endlessly interesting.
Carrère’s books are free self-referential. Meditation, jihad in France and refugees are all secondary to the writer’s real subjects of being Emmanuel Carrère and the writing and reception of his previous books (he even quotes one at length). It’s not so much self-karaoke as self-cannibalism, with Carrère’s past work continually offering him a path forward. It does what Philip Roth did with his “Nathan Zuckerman” sequence – autobiographical novels that explored the consequences of autobiographical novels – but Carrère updated the software and (most importantly) removed the fictional screen. It makes sense that a writer so shamelessly involved would find a way to write about meditation. The practice of bringing your attention to the apparatus of thought and perception is not unlike the texture of Carrère’s books, which tell of an extremely self-aware awareness.
It is useless to accuse Carrère of vanity and narcissism when he is so outspoken about these writing vices, and yet he admits them so emphatically that even self-criticism comes to seem like an aspect of it. narcissism. Carrère’s compatriot Jean-Paul Sartre’s definition of the condition is as good as any – a way of trying to see yourself as you think you are in what you do – and despite all his protestations of “intolerable moral suffering”, it is difficult not to see even the anxieties of Carrère also contained in such an attempt. When he ends up in the madhouse, you feel like he can’t believe his luck.
The book’s ending on a hopeful – and, it seemed to me, misleading – note left me suspended in the ambivalence that his books usually induce. Carrère’s work appears to me today as the product of a diabolical bargain in which he sacrifices everything, including his soul, to become a great writer – but even that, his notoriety as one who sacrificed everything for literature , is written in the fine print, a sub-paragraph in its devilish conceit. All this is not necessarily to denigrate what he does. In a way, its slightly sinister program testifies to the resilience of the writer, of writing – a protective existential envelope where even fiery pain can be made comfortable, can be material.
Rob Doyle’s most revsent book is Autobibliography (Swift Press)