by Emmanuel Carrère, translated by John Lambert.
Jonathan Cape, 320 pp., £16.99, June, 978 1 78733 321 5
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When he arrived​ at the meditation retreat, a little south of Paris, Emmanuel Carrère was warned that he would be working with powerful psychic energies. ‘If for some reason you decide to leave mid-session,’ he and the fifty other men present were told, ‘you’ll throw the others off, and above all you’ll put yourself in danger.’ A noble silence descended. Carrère remembered ‘a somewhat passé rule of etiquette’:

You shouldn’t start a letter with ‘I’. That’s a rule I’d do well to follow, in my life as well as in my work. Not an easy task. Beyond reach? It’s a big topic. Simone Weil said there are few people, ultimately, who know that others exist … Meditation … should make you aware of just that. If it doesn’t, if it remains something you share only with yourself, it’s useless: just another narcissistic plaything. Suddenly I’m afraid that, at least for me, that’s just what it is, just another narcissistic plaything.

The Yoga project began as an attempt to write ‘a short, unpretentious book in a conversational tone’ about yoga that ‘could sell like hot cakes’. But for Carrère, who isn’t unpretentious, the ‘I’ is a problem. Perhaps it’s not just him, he thinks (or hopes?), but a fundamental problem with narrative. ‘The question – and this isn’t the first time I’m asking it – is whether there’s an incompatibility, or even a contradiction, between the practice of meditation and my trade, which is to write.’ In an interview with the Paris Review in 2013, Carrère described the first person as ‘so imperialistic, so anxious and overpowering’. He wanted it – he was careful not to say ‘myself’ – to ‘recede and finally disappear’.

Many criticisms have been made of Carrère’s first person before this book, his fifteenth. There was his arrogance in publishing a pornographic letter to a girlfriend in Le Monde, then his over-identification with his subject in his 2011 book about the Russian dissident Eduard Limonov. He began The Adversary (2000), a piece of reportage about a man who pretended to be a doctor for years before going on a killing spree, with an ‘I’ that was jostling for attention: ‘On the Saturday morning of 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.’

Yoga, whose New Agey message wouldn’t have been out of place in the 1970s, is about the struggle to accept the fact that you can’t mute your ego, either in the interest of peace and love, or in the false hope of objectivity. Carrère decides to be two ‘I’s, to witness his own passing thoughts: ‘Whether I take notes or not won’t change a thing, because what deserves to be remembered will be remembered.’ Like being in love, yoga tends to produce banalities, however transformational it may seem to the person doing it. Carrère describes what it does to the body, the way concave stretches to convex, weight transfers from one leg to the other ‘as slowly as possible, like pouring honey’. He tries to remain detached when observing himself, his ‘I’, just as he tries to be open-minded when observing other people at the retreat. But he finds it tricky to be loyal to the group with whom he is sharing this noble silence:

Looking at these tree-hugging youths in their Peruvian beanies, I also wonder … Why are these thoughts so lacking in gravitas? Why do they fail the test of beauty so miserably? Why are these books with pink or sky-blue covers, which jump out at you like the incense in New Age bookshops, so ugly, and so stupid?

Attention prickles and disobeys and Carrère overlays his past onto the room. ‘Forty- five years on,’ he writes, ‘I can’t quite separate in my mind my Cinquième teacher M. Ribotton from his reincarnation just a few feet to my right.’ He remembers the soles of a student’s shoes touching M. Ribotton’s trousers and M. Ribotton having a meltdown at his son Maxime, who was in the class:

I expect that after this excruciating ordeal he’ll silently leave the school at the end of the class and that we’ll never see him again. I expect we’ll find out that he lay down and hasn’t got up, that he’s stopped speaking and eating. Some of us will visit him, bring him little gifts in an effort to keep him alive, but it won’t work. What Maxime Ribotton is going through is so ghastly that he’ll never survive. The whole class will attend his funeral.

‘What’s it like to be M. Ribotton?’ he wonders. ‘Perhaps that’s the most interesting thing in life, trying to figure out what it’s like to be someone else. That’s one of the reasons why people write books, another being to discover what it’s like to be yourself.’

When he was working on The Adversary, Carrère wrote to Romand in jail. He was having trouble with the sense that Romand had a ‘lack of access to yourself, this void that has never stopped growing in place of the person in you who must say “I”’. ‘Clearly,’ he wrote, ‘I am not the one who will say “I” on your behalf.’ In the published book, he used the ‘I’ to invite the reader to disappear into Romand’s head while keeping Romand at arm’s length with its interrogations. Here, though Carrère doesn’t imagine being Ribotton père or fils, there is a sense that he may share something shameful with them. Like the Ribottons, the Carrère character under observation is a fool to be mocked. He acts ‘prudently’, ‘discreetly’ or ‘proudly’; he is at the mercy of psychic and societal forces. He is ‘a negative sort of person’ who thinks that ‘Dostoevsky’s truth content is greater than that of the Dalai Lama.’ He has ‘an amused, complicit little smile’ when he asks for one of the better bedrooms at the retreat, and he is mindful of his self-absorption, talking of ‘my unwieldy, despotic ego’ or, in the third person, ‘his fearful, narcissistic little ego’ or, generalising, ‘the knot of obsession, megalomania and the noble desire to do a good job that constitutes a writer’s ego’.

His ex-wife claims that in Yoga Carrère violated a clause in their divorce settlement, which stipulated that he had to get her consent if he wanted to make her a character in his books. He showed her the manuscript and deleted some passages, as she requested, but he kept others without telling her, including a long quote about her repeated from an older book. What’s left is fragmented: their break-up is not explained; the order of events is scrambled; she is cut out of episodes at which she was present.

With its short chapters and sudden transitions announced by headings like the cards in a silent film, Yoga draws attention to the artificiality of memoir, of imposing form on the narrative. The transitions carry psychological revelations. At the end of one chapter Carrère writes that he would be surprised if the retreat staff carried out spot checks for contraband technology. But then again, he thinks, perhaps he’s wrong, and anxiously calls the next chapter ‘North Korea?’ He also suffers from mood swings. We leave him ‘weeping, weeping, weeping endlessly’ before encountering him the next day, right as rain: ‘This morning at four thirty, it’s a pleasure to settle back in on my zafu.’

Yoga, he feels, gives him ‘the sort of fluidity, ease and calm’ he wants in his writing, as well as a ‘strategic depth’. The cumulative impression is of a hopeful falling into place. He is making an attempt at happiness through writing, an alternative to what he elsewhere calls ‘a kind of facile pessimism that passes for lucidity’. He quotes Glenn Gould’s maxim that ‘the purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.’ This remark is tempered by one of Freud’s definitions of mental health: the subject is ‘no longer prey to neurotic misery, but just to common unhappiness’. Carrère is interested in calmness: a ‘little woman’ returning from a tai chi class can defeat her muggers by doing ‘cloud hands’; he admires a teacher who ‘moved like a jellyfish or a sea anemone’.

But then the external world reasserts itself when a man with an umbrella pulls him out of his room to tell him: ‘Serious things have happened in our country.’ The Charlie Hebdo killings have claimed the economist Bernard Maris, the boyfriend of a friend of Carrère’s who ‘works for a magazine dedicated to wellness, personal development and disseminating a positive vision of life’. Carrère is asked to leave the retreat to say a few words at the funeral. (‘Ideally it should have been Michel Houellebecq,’ but Houellebecq is in hiding because his novel about Islamist fundamentalism, Submission, has just been published.) The taxi driver who takes Carrère to the station is upset. ‘Four days earlier he’d had no idea who they were, or what Charlie Hebdo was for that matter. But now it’s as if, retroactively, he’d been reading the magazine all his life.’ Carrère tells him about yoga, ‘and I could well imagine him talking about Patanjali’ – the ancient Indian sage – ‘with as much fervour as when he talked about Charb or Tignous, cartoonists who were also killed in the attack.’ People are suggestible, he’s saying, while demonstrating that his readers are too. When I learned that Bernard, who was ‘a good talker but knew how to be silent, and his silences had a way of putting you at ease’, had died, less than three pages after being introduced to him, I was also upset.

For  Carrère the interruption is disturbing. His attention is shot. He loses himself to neurotic misery. He is Iraq; he is the purges in the Soviet Union. He sees it in yoga terms: the vritti, the waves on the surface of his consciousness, are roiling – ‘vritti, but vritti on overdrive, a vritti storm, vritti on cocaine’. He is diagnosed as having bipolar disorder, a ‘deranged, parodic, gruesome version of the great law of alternation whose harmony I so sincerely praised some fifty pages back’. In the Sainte-Anne Psychiatric Hospital, he finds his moral suffering growing from ‘significant’ to ‘intense’ to ‘intolerable’. The secure unit is designed to protect the nurses ‘from some Hannibal the Cannibal of whom I never caught a glimpse’. He undergoes ECT. Unfortunately, someone has told him about the copy of Quran written by a famous calligrapher in Saddam Hussein’s blood, commissioned to thank Allah for saving the president’s son from an assassination attempt and stored in the Mother of All Battles Mosque, which is ‘remarkable for this architectural singularity: its minarets are in the shape of Kalashnikovs.’ Of course, Carrère dreams of going to Iraq and getting killed by a car bomb. Thanks to medical treatment, and ketamine, his condition improves. He’s discharged.

Can solipsism be put to humanitarian use? Carrère goes to work in a refugee camp on a Greek island, to find out ‘how to become the ideal volunteer and drown your sorrows in altruism’. On Leros he seeks moments of connection, and finds them on the back of a scooter, just as he had in Paris. The journalist who profiled him while he was suffering (‘eight pages of the New York Times Magazine’) wrote that he wished he had rested his head against Carrère as they rode to a Rembrandt exhibition. The gesture finds an echo when, holding on to an Afghan teenager called Atiq who likes motorbikes, Carrère cranes ‘over his shoulder to tell him that I drive so slowly that I’m a legend in my family, and that when they were little my sons declared that we should have a party on the historic day when I finally passed a car’.

Though it might seem ‘an obscenity’ to be a neurotic among refugees, support networks are asymmetric relationships. A person may not be able to give care to someone in the same miserable situation – no one spoke in the people smugglers’ convoy: ‘That’s how it is: when you’re in the same boat with everyone else and should really be helping and reassuring one another, and when most of the time you’ve got nothing else to do, you don’t talk.’ Carrère listens to what they’ve been through – ‘It’s both moving and cruel to see how Atiq, at just seventeen, refuses to delude himself, how he knows that life is a machine for separating people’ – and wonders if he should tell them things about himself in return. The refugees say no thanks.

The lack of balance is hard on the Westerner’s ego. ‘What do you do when you’re suddenly face to face with a young guy who’s totally destitute, I mean who has literally nothing, who’s just made an unimaginable journey under unimaginable conditions? You buy him a Coke, a sandwich, give him twenty euros, pat him on the back and tell him he’s brave and that he’ll be fine.’ One refugee wants to become an accountant in Bavaria, another a computer programmer in Belgium. Carrère teaches them tai chi (‘As if you pour honey inside your leg’).

Carrère loves his host, Erica, a brusque American creative writing teacher with a ‘noble’ face and a ‘lumberjack’s body’, but he’s constantly worrying about their ‘becoming a couple’. At night, they dance and discuss different types of personality, yin and yang, ‘people who swim parallel to the beach and those who swim perpendicular to it, out to sea … those who, when they’re in someone else’s kitchen, figure out for themselves where things go and put them away without asking, and those who stand around and ask: “Is there something I can do?”’ But he can’t help his own tastes, which require a visit to ‘the fanciest – actually, the only fancy-hotel on Leros’. When Erica leaves him on the island he admires her luggage: ‘unlike everyone else these days, she travels with a bag slung over her shoulder rather than a wheeled suitcase. Such suitcases are practical, OK, but they lack romance. In my view they’re one of the least sexy accessories in the world.’

Erica is a twin whose sister played the piano fast and moved slowly: ‘The slowness took her away, drew her in like an abyss.’ Is Carrère’s slow book attempting a similar trick? He is learning to type on His editor, who always wanted to read him ‘immediately’, has died. A writer who in the past always placed himself at the centre of the most intense scenarios – sometimes to the point of trashiness, sometimes to the point of nightmare – is decompressing, spreading out, taking his lithium, exhaling from cow pose to cat pose. We are left with the ‘I’ of self-care, and the image of the author watching his new girlfriend move into a handstand, which as an ending may not lack romance in the way a wheelie suitcase does, but is nonetheless unchic.

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