My Life as a Russian Novel: A Memoir, Emmanuel Carrère, tr. Linda Coverdale, Picador, 2011.
Oh, my goodness. Where to start and what to write about this always intriguing and sometimes infuriating book. It was marketed as a ‘non-fiction novel’, which I guess means that what takes place in the book is factual, but the narrative has elements we expect to find in a novel. Anyway, I liked it a lot and think it is probably among the top five books I have read this year.
Emmanuel Carrère is a French writer, journalist, and film-maker, and one of the shiniest stars in the French Literary Galaxy, apparently. I can see why. He takes risks and pushes the boundaries, and he does a nice line in self-deprecation, if not self-flagellation at times. Reading this book felt a lot like peering into the dark recesses of someone’s mind and seeing stuff that probably should be kept private. It would be easy to dismiss him as a narcissist with an Oedipus complex, but I think that would be too simple. It is clear that the self he presents in the book has abandonment issues and struggles with existential anxiety, but as the book is ‘fiction’, I think that Carrère has chosen to highlight that ‘self’ at the expense of his other more rational selves because it facilitates the narrative process.
The book shows us how family trauma is passed down through the generations, and how less than optimal parenting can affect a child’s ability to form healthy adult relationships. Here he is writing to his mother:
You were young, beautiful, and smiling at me, and I loved you the way I have never been able to love any woman since. None of them have measured up…
The entire book was written for his mother, in an attempt to help her address some deep-seated issues she had with her own father’s circumstances and behaviour, or at least that is what we are led to believe. I am not sure how the pornographic letter Carrère wrote to his lover and had published in Le Monde (circulation: 600,000), disguised as a short story, would really ‘help’ his mother. No, I think that was intended to punish his mother for her emotional distance and her focus on her career. I found the letter cringe-making and awkward and creepy, and strangely enough, the woman it was intended for never did read it.
The narrative is complex and complicated, and emotionally brutal. The reader is not spared at all, whether it be in being made privy to Carrère’s fantasies, his emotional meltdowns, or his confusion and rage. He just puts it all out there and to hell with the consequences. Here he is addressing his lover:
I can’t bear being this cruel, suspicious person battered by storms of panic and hatred, who runs amok because you wander away for a moment. I can’t stand being this sulking child who longs to be consoled, who plays at hatred to win love, threatens to leave to avoid being abandoned. I can’t tolerate being like that, and I resent you for making me like that. Deeply sorry for myself, I sob as you stroke my hair. I feel awful. I detest myself, and it feels good.
Clearly, the self Carrère presents in his narrative has transference issues and it is the painful working through of these feelings and emotions that form the bedrock of the book. Initially, he went to Kotelnich as a journalist, intending to cover a news story there. Kotelnich is a down-at-heel Russian town that became increasingly significant to Carrère as he became entangled in the lives of some of the people living there. The book, which evolved from the notebooks he kept at the time, is an intricate web of mirroring, parallels, and similarities: a White Russian grandfather who was disappeared as a German collaborator after World War II, and a found elderly Hungarian man who had been captured during the war and incarcerated in a psychiatric institute at Kotelnich for fifty-three years; a child who had spoken Russian and struggled to re-learn the language as an adult, and a man who had ‘lost’ his language and was unable to communicate with the world; a woman who ‘lost’ her father when he disappeared, and a boy who ‘lost’ his mother due to her grief, and then witnessing a friend lose his sanity after his wife and child are murdered; a man who was afraid of replicating his grandfather’s madness and desperate to find a way past the doom-laden age his grandfather was when he disappeared, and a cousin who was unable, or unwilling, to find a way through this dilemma.
Carrère writes beautifully, or at least Linda Coverdale’s translation is beautiful. The prose is spare and to-the-point, and there are lovely word pictures. Here he is writing about his grandmother:
Since there was no love lost among the mother and two siblings, they went their separate ways, and Nathalie de Pelken – who although she could not be a happy young woman should at least have been wealthy – arrived in Paris in 1925, alone in the world and without a sou. Her main trump card for survival was the five languages she knew: Russian, Italian, English, German, and French. As for her other assets, she had mostly studied watercolour painting. One can just imagine this poor but noble Russian girl of delicate health, with her perfectly oval face and her hair parted down the middle, in a boarding house for Katherine Mansfield heroines…
I found so many things to like in the book, even though it was uncomfortable to read. Carrère struggles with his depression, rage, and sadness, and I found the book emotionally overwhelming, often cruel, and bone-achingly sad, but also deeply self-aware and thought-provoking. It seems to me that Carrère is a man who refuses to go under and, ultimately, despite all his self-sabotage, he just keeps on striking out towards the other side.
I want to watch the film Retour a Kotelnitch and REALLY wish I understood French a LOT better than I do! Oh, to be multi-lingual like people in Europe, who often have five or six languages and think nothing of it.