97,196 Words: Essays 
by Emmanuel Carrère, translated by John Lambert.
Vintage, 304 pp., £9.99, December 2020, 978 1 78470 582 4
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In​ 1993, frustrated and unfulfilled, Emmanuel Carrère was waiting on two replies – one from Satan, the other from God. He was 35, with four novels behind him but not enough fame for his liking. On 9 January, a newspaper story offered hope: in a small town in the east of France, a man called Jean-Claude Romand had murdered his wife and children, and then his parents and their dog. Romand was modest, well-liked, wealthy and honest – or so it had seemed. Investigators soon learned that he had been living a lie, pretending to be a prestigious researcher at the World Health Organisation while embezzling money from friends and family. Finally, fearing exposure, he killed his whole family. Carrère sent a letter to Romand in prison: he wanted to understand, not judge, he said. It was two years before Romand replied, but the seeds of The Adversary (2000) were sown.

God was a different matter. A few years earlier, Carrère had converted to Catholicism with manic zeal. He went to Mass daily, filled 18 notebooks with spiritual reflections and saw the face of the Lord in the leaves of a tree. He took communion and confessed his sins. Then, in April 1993, he stumbled on another story, about a young boy who had lost all his senses; he was lifeless but still alive. At the thought of such futile suffering, Carrère’s faith folded. ‘I forsake you, Lord, please do not forsake me,’ he wrote on Easter Sunday. Unlike Romand, God never got back to him. That didn’t prevent Carrère imagining their correspondence in The Kingdom, his longest book, published in 2014.

In The Kingdom, Carrère admits to ‘obsessively thinking … that whatever happens to me, sooner or later, will come out in book form’. So far, with some exceptions, he has been generous, rarely writing for revenge, indeed frequently turning on himself. Since The Adversary, all of his books have been non-fiction accounts written in the first person. ‘Not out of narcissism,’ he insists (though there is plenty of that too), ‘but honesty.’ Whatever Carrère’s motives, his early prayers for success were answered. With Romand as his subject, he found a style and an audience. The Adversary was translated into 23 languages and made into a movie. ‘Today, we are the two most important writers in France,’ Michel Houellebecq told Carrère in late 2018. For Houellebecq, putting another writer on the same plane as himself was a rare display of modesty, but the fact of Carrère’s two decades of critical and commercial success cannot be denied.

The seven years between his decision to write about Romand and the book’s eventual publication were painful. During this period, Carrère published Class Trip (1995), his last novel to date, loosely inspired by the same case. He discarded several drafts of The Adversary, questioned his morbid fascination with Romand and for long intervals gave up on the story entirely. Things fell into place when he realised that he needed to write himself into the story. He later said that writing the first sentence of the new draft was like opening ‘a door to a territory I still stand in now’. The Adversary begins: ‘On the morning of Saturday, 9 January 1993, while Jean-Claude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was with mine in a parent-teacher meeting at the school attended by Gabriel, our eldest son.’

The four books that followed – My Life as a Russian Novel, Other Lives but Mine, Limonov and The Kingdom – all fit roughly the same pattern: Carrère takes a character or set of characters and through lengthy digressions and self-reflection finds something both personal and universal in their struggles. He likes to call his books ‘non-fiction novels’ and cites In Cold Blood as his inspiration. But Truman Capote, who used the term himself, always stressed the author’s absence: for him this was the genre’s defining challenge. Carrère, by contrast, is everywhere on the page, revelling in his role as storyteller. He’s a casual presence – deploying the idioms of spoken French – and an anxious one, endlessly interrupting and intervening, conceding imagined accusations, presaging doubts and apologising in advance: ‘I’ll be brief’; ‘I don’t want to’; ‘I’m not happy with that last paragraph’; ‘I’m sorry.’

Carrère is clearly worried about losing the reader’s attention. But he’s worried about many other things besides. He goes over his past mistakes and bad behaviour compulsively – the times he mistreated lovers, disobeyed his mother, acted like a control freak and/or a narcissist – but he also seems haunted by the ethical responsibilities incurred when writing about real people. ‘How far may writers go in exposing those close to them to public scrutiny, sacrificing them for the writer’s own pleasure?’ he asks in My Life as a Russian Novel.

This is the sort of unresolvable question Carrère favours. But he is adamant that, at the very least, authors of non-fiction novels can’t hide. He has delivered this sermon several times: if the foundation of non-fiction is factual accuracy, or at least an aspiration towards accuracy, how can a narrator – truthfully – conceal their own involvement? In an essay from 2006, ‘Capote, Romand and Me’, included in 97,196 Words, the first collection in English of his essays and journalism, Carrère suggests that the writer’s situation shares something of the paradox faced by scientists: ‘The presence of the observer invariably modifies the observed phenomenon.’ For Carrère, Capote is the chief culprit, and In Cold Blood the classic case: an investigation premised on a deception that turned it into a fiction. In the 1990s, Carrère returned to the book several times, hoping to emulate Capote’s methods. But the more he studied it, the more he started to see Capote’s vanishing act as an unforgivable sleight of hand. ‘The book … rests on a lie by omission that seems to me morally hideous,’ Carrère told the Paris Review in 2015:

The whole last part of the book is about the years the two criminals spent in prison, and during those years, the one main person in their lives was Capote. Nevertheless, he erased himself from the book. And he did so for a simple reason, which was that what he had to say was completely unsayable – he had developed a friendship with the two men. He spent his time telling them that he was going to get them the best lawyers, that he was working to get them a stay of execution, when in fact he was lighting candles in the church in the hopes that they would be hanged because he knew that was the only satisfactory ending to his book. It’s a level of moral discomfort almost without equal in literature, and I don’t think it is too psychologically far-fetched to say that the reason he never really wrote much else is related to the monstrous and justified guilt that his masterpiece inspired in him.

As Carrère notes in his essay, the title of Capote’s posthumously published novel – autobiographical, and still unfinished twenty years after he started it – is unsettling: Answered Prayers. The title is taken from a line attributed to Saint Teresa of Avila, which is also the book’s epigraph: ‘More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.’ Carrère, who often worries about ‘tempting the devil’, is more careful with his wishes. Yet his misgivings about In Cold Blood testify to his own sense of guilt. He knows that he too has gone looking for dead bodies.

In 1988, after publishing Hors d’atteinte?, his fourth novel, Carrère tried his hand as a court reporter (‘a tourist in a way’), searching for the story that would give him his spark. He had already published many pieces as a film critic, but 97,196 Words begins here, in January 1990, with his court dispatches. In the first four pieces, Carrère covers the case of a son who tried to kill his mother; the case of a mother who killed her son and then tried to kill herself; the case of a son who killed a farmer on a family holiday; and finally Romand, the compulsive liar who decided to kill his family rather than let them see the extent of his deception.

Carrère is less present in his journalism than in his books, where he rotates through every role available: confessor, priest, analyst, analysand, detective, lawyer and judge. But even in his shorter pieces, which tend to follow the same formula as the books, it’s not always clear who’s doing the judging, forgiving and analysing. Carrère’s work often has him absolving someone – or at least giving them a fair hearing – at the same time as asking forgiveness for his own transgressions. The third piece in 97,196 Words, for example, takes the form of a public letter (a Carrère trope) addressed to a murderer’s mother. ‘Perhaps, once you’ve read it to the end, you’ll think I would have done better to keep my compassion to myself, rather than splashing your sadness across the sheets of a newspaper,’ he writes. ‘I beg your forgiveness.’

This is one of the main tensions in Carrère’s work: can writing publicly be an act of confession or, by involving others, do you commit another act of violence for which you must confess all over again? So far, it has been a productive tension, though for a while he was at an impasse. ‘I’m a bit stuck but I’m waiting for something to happen,’ he said in 2018. ‘This doesn’t mean that what would be best is for someone around me to be killed, but that something out there solicits me and makes me think: there, that suits me, I’m the one for this.’ Recalling in The Kingdom that as a child he used to write and distribute cruel stories about a boy whom everyone bullied, he writes: ‘My talent for writing is at the origin of the first real harm I can remember doing to someone.’ In My Life as a Russian Novel, he says: ‘I wonder whether writing, for me, always comes down to killing someone.’

One of the shorter pieces in the collection is Carrère’s review of Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer (1989). He admires the way Malcolm exposes the games writers play to entrap their subjects. But he has one objection: his own innocence. ‘At the risk of transforming this review into a plea on my own behalf, I would like to say that’s not always how things are,’ Carrère writes. ‘For the past 15 years I’ve been writing non-fiction books that describe real events and real people … Some of them I’ve hurt, yes, but I maintain that I did not dupe any of them.’ All this hand-wringing might seem to make Carrère a writer in the French moralist tradition. But he remains mischievous, morally complex and, at times, trashy. Among the essays here are some of his columns for the Italian women’s magazine Flair, where he wrote as ‘special envoy to the male heart’ on topics such as middle-aged dating, the female orgasm, and the fact that he was running out of ideas for his column. There’s also an interview with Catherine Deneuve – he seems to think she should be interviewing him – and an entertaining profile of Macron, which is somehow sycophantic and mocking at the same time (his description of Macron’s handshake is a highlight).

Across​ this strange series of writings, we learn about all Carrère’s past partners: Muriel, his ‘knockout’ girlfriend from university ‘with curves like a Playboy model and a way of dressing that left nothing to the imagination’; Caroline, ‘who had loved me and whom I had loved’; Sophie, beautiful but, he says, uncultured; and his (now ex-) wife, the journalist Hélène Devynck, who seemed to command his respect. He tells us how he spends his weekdays, where he goes on holiday, and about his new-age views on medicine (cancer, apparently, can ‘start in your mind’). He has a way of bringing you into his world despite – and because of – how little you like him.

Yet despite Carrère’s appetite for self-revelation, the ‘I’ of his non-fiction is a character nonetheless, a creation. His agonising over In Cold Blood is at least a little contrived. He exposes himself partly out of a commitment to honesty – to show, contra Capote, at what points his mixed motives and self-delusions may inhibit his ability to tell the truth – and partly for therapeutic purposes. But Carrère is a performer, and self-deprecating honesty is part of his shtick. His concern isn’t so much with telling the truth – his lax fact-checking is a constant bugbear for reviewers – as it is with being believed.

An episode in 2002 marked the height of Carrère’s reality-TV-style literature. Still high with the success of The Adversary, he was fed up with describing reality: he wanted to dictate it. His literary powers had gone to his head and, in the guise of a romantic gesture to his then girlfriend Sophie, he staged a ‘literary performance’. He knew that on 20 July she would be catching a train from Paris to Île de Ré to meet him for a holiday, and so, two months in advance, he arranged for a pornographic love letter (ostensibly a short story) addressed to her to be published in Le Monde on that day. The letter was premised on Sophie being on the train, and was intended to be read not only by her but by hundreds of thousands of other readers. He gave Sophie orders (‘From this moment on, you will do everything I tell you to do. To the letter. Step by step’), culminating – he hoped – in her masturbating in the train toilets. But Carrère also wanted audience participation. The aim, he wrote, ‘is not only to make you – you – get wet with excitement but to make every other woman reading this get wet as well.’ Carrère ended the story with his email address, inviting feedback from anyone who wanted to share with him their experience of reading it.

None of this happened. Sophie missed the train because, it turned out, she was pregnant with another man’s child. More than hurt, Carrère felt humiliated: his ‘unprecedented’ plan was in ruins. But he found quick consolation. ‘There’s a stunning logic in this,’ he recalls himself thinking in My Life as a Russian Novel, ‘and also (I can’t help thinking ahead), the ideal ending for the book I will write.’ Carrère, in other words, saw no alternative: he turned Sophie into a book.

In August last year, Carrère’s sixth ‘non-fiction novel’, Yoga, was published in France. Five months earlier, Carrère and Devynck had announced their divorce after eight years together. Yoga deals with the past decade – and yet Devynck barely features. In an article for Vanity Fair, she revealed the reason: the terms of their divorce bar Carrère from writing about her without her consent. Large sections of Yoga were apparently retracted after legal threats, but Devynck makes several appearances anyway, including in a sexual fantasy featuring ‘undesirable revelations about my private life’. She has also objected to other fantasies in the book. These range from Carrère’s claim that he spent two months working with refugees in Leros – in reality, she says, it was a few days – to the chronology of events. ‘I could multiply the examples,’ she wrote in Vanity Fair. ‘The list would be tedious.’ Carrère has placed the controversy in a familiar frame. ‘In writing about others you get close, or you can get close, to torture,’ he explains in Yoga, ‘because the writer has all the power and the person he is writing about is at his mercy.’ But his quandary is now as much legal as ethical. According to Devynck, he is guilty on both fronts. Carrère has told the New York Times he is considering a return to fiction.

If​ Carrère and Houellebecq really do dominate France’s literary landscape, the common ground all but ends there. They read each other and flatter each other. (Carrère’s obsequious review of Submission, published in Le Monde, is notably absent from 97,196 Words.) But beyond that, almost everything about the two of them – personal background, politics, style – is different. Houellebecq was born in La Réunion, an overseas département of France off the coast of East Africa, with an absent father and ‘an old slut of a mother’. Carrère is a self-confessed ‘bobo’, Paris through and through – his mother is the permanent secretary of the Académie Française. Houellebecq didn’t attend a conventional university; Carrère went to Sciences Po. Houellebecq hates Macron; Carrère can’t help but be impressed by him. Both men were born in the late 1950s, but at times they appear to inhabit different worlds. The dark and scandalous monde Houllebecquien – always edging toward a materialist and multicultural abyss – has no counterpart in Carrère’s creations. Carrère’s style is solipsistic, tending towards the moral limits of the self rather than society. He could almost be a character from a Houellebecq novel: an end-of-history man, depressive, misogynistic, lofty and lewd, always worrying about the reason for living, and wondering when he’ll get another shag.

Carrère says his work as a filmmaker and journalist allows him to escape his myopia. He has directed three movies, and continues to publish essays and reportage. ‘It’s a lifeline, a way of going outside,’ he said in 2019. ‘You can get lost as a writer, just left to yourself.’ The French title of a more extensive collection of his essays, published in 2016, gets at this feeling: Il est avantageux d’avoir où aller. But Carrère’s myopia isn’t easy to escape. At times he pushes his ideal of abstract human sameness to the point of parody. Eduard Limonov, for example, might be ‘a hideous fascist leading a militia of skinheads’ but, like Carrère, he also admires ‘the Musketeers and the Count of Monte Cristo’, and started wearing glasses when he was eight years old. (‘He suffered for it more than I did,’ Carrère concedes, magnanimously.) ‘I prefer what I have in common with other people to what sets me apart from them,’ he writes at the end of Other Lives but Mine. But along the way, politics and society disappear. ‘All our misery is rooted in self-esteem,’ he declares; wealth is no more than ‘favourable winds to the navigator: he can do without them, but he prefers it when they’re there.’

His next project might be his most political. He has adapted Florence Aubenas’s bestselling Le Quai de Ouistreham (The Night Cleaner) – in which Aubenas goes undercover, taking on a series of cleaning jobs to investigate the conditions of underpaid workers in the wake of the recession – for the big screen. Carrère is often said to blur the boundary between fact and fiction but it’s more accurate to say that he is drawn to describing how blurry and unconvincing this boundary is. Real life is filled with fictions – dreams, deceptions, projections, exaggerations – and these fictions are real, even when they’re false. Some coincidences are so uncanny that they might as well have been invented. (In The Adversary he plays on Romand/roman.) This liminal space, where ‘reality’ and ‘the facts’ don’t always match up, is Carrère’s obsession, and he chooses for his characters people like himself: writers, directors, saints, impostors, undercover journalists – martyrs for the truth, and masters of disguise.

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