In a sense, writing a book is easy. You just keep putting one interesting sentence after another, then thread them all together along a more or less fine narrative line. Only, it isn’t easy – in fact, it’s famously difficult, a daunting and arduous labour that can frequently 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, the French writer Emmanuel Carrère has done something doubly amazing: he’s pioneered a unique and captivating new way of telling a true story, and he’s made it look easy. Or at least, he makes it go down easy for the reader. His fiendishly personal “nonfiction novels”, which encompass subjects such as dissident Russian literature or the story of early Christianity, unfold in a condition of perpetual climax, locked to a point of fascination from first page to last.
As his new book Yoga begins, Carrère is “in a good way”, enjoying what has been a 10-year run of glory, marital happiness and all-round good fortune, which he finds remarkable considering how miserable his inner life had previously been. Carrère, as anyone who’s read his books will know, is a great pornographer of his own torments, a champion sufferer who writes from a pitch of exhibitionistic anguish even though his life – rich, Parisian, glamorous – looks conspicuously appealing. “As far as neurotic misery goes, I’m second to none”, he tells us, characteristically. Basking in the sunny uplands of his late fifties, he decides to write “an upbeat, subtle little book on yoga” but lets us know on the very first page that neither life nor the book would play out like that.
In January 2015, Carrère takes himself off on a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat in France’s Morvan region. There, he describes the practice of meditation in a way that would not seem erratic in the kind of self-help book he flirts with in this early section (until he sounds a few deliberately discordant notes: “I’ve never wanked off thinking about a woman I don’t know”). As he recalls his decades-long engagement with the practices of yoga and tai chi in Paris’s oldest dojo, we learn of a lover Carrère met at a previous retreat in Geneva with whom he has enjoyed regular, secret, hotel-room trysts. These reflections are cut short when, four days into his stay at the spiritual equivalent of North Korea, his retreat is interrupted by grave news from the outside world.
The book’s aim of being a modest guide to yoga collapses – or rather, mushrooms into a far broader account of the end of Carrère’s decade of being “full of myself”. The Islamist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo precipitates a crisis of depression and mental derangement. His marriage collapses (offscreen – Carrère’s ex-wife legally blocked him from writing about her after their divorce) and eventually Carrère’s sister has him committed to a psychiatric hospital. He is administered ketamine and electroconvulsive therapy, and a few months later this Gallic Indiana Jones is flying to Iraq on a quest to locate a Qur’an inscribed with the blood of Saddam Hussein. His attempt to recover his peace of mind finally leads him to the Greek island of Leros, where he teaches creative writing to young men fresh off the boat amid Europe’s haemorrhaging refugee crisis.
That’s the bones of it, content-wise. But what makes it a Carrère book – and what makes me look forward to them so keenly – is his way of telling it, the trademark blend of extreme exhibitionism and digressive interest. His skill in constructing a narrative from disparate materials is exceptional, with all manner of insights, anecdotes and conjectures stacked up like hoops around the long slender “I”. One minute you’re observing him in a drunken rave-up to a Chopin polonaise with an American woman, the next he’s retelling a science-fiction story he read as a teenager – the beat never falters. It is relentlessly interesting.
Carrère’s books are wantonly self-referential. Meditation, jihad in France and refugees are all secondary to the writer’s true subjects of being Emmanuel Carrère and the writing and reception of his previous books (he even quotes one of them at length). It’s not so much self-karaoke as self-cannibalism, with Carrère’s past work continually offering him a way forward. He’s doing what Philip Roth did with his “Nathan Zuckerman” sequence – autobiographical novels that explored the consequences of autobiographical novels – but Carrère has updated the software and (mostly) dispensed with the fictive screen. It makes sense that a writer so unapologetically self-involved would find his way to writing about meditation. The practice of turning your attention to the apparatus of thought and perception is not unlike the texture of Carrère’s books, which narrativise a consciousness that is acutely self-aware.
There is little point in accusing Carrère of vanity and narcissism when he is so upfront about these writerly vices, and yet he confesses to them so energetically that even the self-criticism comes to seem an aspect of that 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 for all his protestations of “intolerable moral suffering”, it’s hard not to see even Carrère’s agonies as likewise contained in such an attempt. When he winds up in the madhouse, you sense he can’t believe his luck.
The book’s ending on a rote – and, it seemed to me, delusive – note of hopefulness left me suspended in the ambivalence his books typically induce. Carrère’s body of work now strikes me as the product of a devil’s bargain wherein he keeps offering up everything, including his soul, to become a great writer – but even this, his becoming known as one who sacrificed it all for literature, is written into the fine print, a subclause in his diabolical vanity. All of which is not necessarily to denigrate what he’s doing. In a sense, his faintly sinister agenda is a testament to the resilience of the writer, of writing – a protective existential casing wherein even ardent pain can be rendered comfortable, can be material.
Rob Doyle’s most recent book is Autobibliography (Swift Press)