Emmanuel Carrère writes his way through a breakdown
I asked Carrère why he wasn’t telling the truth at the airport scene. He thought for a moment, said, “Because.” . .”, then paused again. “I thought that would have ruined it a bit.” What he loved about the Gemini woman story was that, that last scene aside, he described something real rang fictitious: an extended sexual relationship that remained essentially anonymous, with communication of one guy and not the other.
He wanted “consistency”, he said. That is to say: to avoid disturbing a narrative of real events that had a romantic, or cinematic texture, he had added fiction. It’s the kind of thing that happens all the time in autofiction works.
Carrère continues: “Because of all this thing with Hélène, it had a very strange status, everything of this one. So it’s a bit confusing. Not just for the reader but for me too.
The jury for the prestigious Goncourt Prize has a clear preference for fiction, and Devynck’s article accuses Carrère of trying to increase his chances of winning the prize by including elements of fiction. Carrère denies this, and he described to me how he had resisted his publisher’s suggestion to call a novel “Yoga”: very different.’ In September 2020, “Yoga” was on the first long list of the Prix Goncourt. After Devynck’s article appeared later that month, the book did not make the final shortlist.
Bourgeois-Tacquet, speaking at home one morning when Carrère was out, observed that he had never experienced grief or deep grief. Now that his mood extremes have been ameliorated by medication, he finds himself with a serenity about everyday things, which she described as an almost prelapse-like state. “I have something very important to tell you,” she said. “And I keep telling my friends and his friends. Emmanuel is the happiest person I know. I am not joking! I have never met anyone who is like that. He is always happy. I do not want to say happy-I mean contents. He’s fine everywhere he goes. I am never happy. Everything is a problem for me. For him, everything is fine. He does not care. It’s raining, it’s ok It’s sunny, it’s ok He’s sick, he’s happy to be sick. I’m sick and I want to kill everyone.
He was aware of a natural empathy deficit, she added, “so he makes up for it – in everyday life he’s very attentive, more so than other men I’ve been with.” It was nice living with him. But, after a moment’s hesitation, she goes on to describe the gift Carrère gave her on the occasion of her thirty-fifth birthday, and the disputes that followed. That was before they moved in together.
Her birthday present, he explained in a letter, was an idea for a movie she could write and direct. The letter had sketched out a cinematic treatment. “I never asked him to give me an idea,” she said. “I don’t need an idea. And it’s not a gift. He really thought that was generous. She added that her proposed script – about having sex at a distance – was an elaboration of a script she had already mentioned to him, months earlier.
A few hours after visiting Bourgeois-Tacquet, I met Carrère at Napoleon, a cafe within sight of his old apartment above the grocery store. His former home with Devynck – with whom he is still on bad terms – is around the corner.
We sat at a table on a busy sidewalk. Carrère, who hadn’t had a drink for a few years, ordered an orange juice and recounted how, shortly after the events recounted in “Yoga”, he had “the simplest, most obvious and most promising”. for a book I already I thought it was impossible not to make a great book with such an idea. He’s laughing. The idea was to talk to the people around him.
He struck up conversations with those who lived and worked within a thousand feet of where we were sitting: “I don’t know anything about them. And I’m not that interested. And I think it’s wrong not to be interested. I even think it’s wrong. He recalls a waiter, then working at Napoleon, with whom he sometimes discussed books briefly: “I see him every day. I love him, I think he loves me. But I don’t know anything about him. Carrère’s feeling at the time, he says, was that “you don’t have to choose between making a good work of art or improving the quality of your relationships with others. The idea was to work on both. Its working title was “Proximity”. When Carrère wrote a note about the project, for him and for Samuelson, he recalled the dinner scene in “Groundhog Day” in which Bill Murray amazes Andie MacDowell by giving her intimate biographies of those around them. (“It’s Bill. . . . He loves the city, he paints toy soldiers and he’s gay.”) That was the dream of “Proximity,” he writes: to elicit that astonishment. He added: “But, yes, of course I will talk about myself.”
He interviewed a hundred people: the waiter; barbers serving customers born in West Africa; the owners of a fancy bakery with customers like Carrère; the homeless. He wrote hundreds of thousands of words.
He put everything aside to finish “Yoga”. Later, in 2020, he “opened the file and read the whole thing over,” he said. “It was wrong. Really bad. Really uninteresting. I closed the file. He might open it again in a few years.
Carrère took me on a little tour of the neighborhood. Shops were closing for the day and bars were starting to fill up. In Passage Brady, an arcade that somewhat resembles the one where he now lives, Indian restaurants awaited customers. As we passed one of them, a young waiter met Carrère’s eyes, and the two men greeted each other. But there was a discrepancy: although they had spoken, occasionally, in another restaurant, the waiter clearly didn’t remember him and only greeted him as a customer. There was a moment of unease, from which the men extricated themselves smiling.
As we progressed, Carrère said that, for the article I was writing, it would have been nice if I heard people shouting, at every street corner: “Hey, Emmanuel! He continued, “There are people who know everyone. I wish I was that person, and I’m not.
Earlier this year, Russian theater and film director Kirill Serebrennikov – who spent around two years under house arrest on charges of embezzlement widely seen as trumped up, for political reasons – began filming of an English-language adaptation of Carrère’s study of Eduard Limonov, who died in 2020. Carrère had agreed to a small acting role in the film, which would star Ben Whishaw. And, because Carrère’s personal calendar seems to synchronize with catastrophic world events, his brief trip to Moscow was scheduled to begin on February 24. François Samuelson would join him.
In a video interview published on February 23, Hélène Carrère d’Encausse was asked about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. She met Vladimir Putin several times, and the French political establishment has long paid attention to her opinions, which have largely supported or accepted Putin’s policy decisions, including the annexation of Crimea. No, she told her interviewer: Putin was “not an idiot”. Early the next morning, Putin invaded Ukraine. Emmanuel Carrère was at home waiting for a taxi to the airport when Samuelson called to say, “I don’t think we can go. Carrère said he was probably right.
But then he felt bad; he would drop the film. The next day he flew to Moscow alone. He shot his scene. By now, Ukrainian forces were fighting to retain control of Kharkiv, where Limonov had spent much of his youth. When Carrère’s return flight was canceled, the film company found him a flight to Dubai. He headed to the airport in a taxi, then asked the driver to turn around. When Bourgeois-Tacquet asked him why he had decided to stay, he replied: “I am a journalist. His answer was not facetious: “OK, I didn’t know.” He later told her that after years of sobriety, he had had a few drinks.
When I called Carrère in Moscow, he had been there for ten days. Limonov’s film, he said, was transferred to Bulgaria. He had learned to use Telegram, the encrypted communication application. He had spent the week mostly with middle-class people of his generation. Either they are getting ready to leave, or they are imagining a new life in conditions that are sure to fascinate Carrère: they will be cut off from the rest of the world. When we spoke, he was writing an article on Moscow for The Obs; when that was done, he would return home, via Istanbul.
The article, published a few days later, began with a sketch of a woman he called Irina. “The only thing that reassures me is that our country is very big,” she told Carrère. “There are places to hide. Magadan, Baikal, Altai. . . . I go boating, you know, my friends and I have a small boat, which is moored fifty kilometers from Moscow. My dream was a long trip to Africa, by rivers and by sea. We had prepared everything, I was going to take a sabbatical year, leave next summer. Maybe I’ll go with my daughter to the Arctic Ocean instead. Perhaps we will live on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. Maybe we will learn to live differently. It might be good. » ♦