by Emmanuel Carrère
Penguin Books Australia
Published 20 September 2022
Imprint: Jonathan Cape
Emmanuel Carrère says he writes to become a better person and has referred to his books as public acts of psychoanalysis. These books, mostly hybrids of personal essay, reportage and autofiction, if read chronologically, become a metanarrative of his quest to offer an unvarnished vision of a complex human, a modern-day naked Rousseau, inspired by the inward gaze of Montaigne. He has never shied away from mining his shameful defects for a kind of who-dares-wins literary glory, fuelled, his detractors will tell you, by more than a touch of machismo, and his fifteenth book Yoga continues down this erratic path of self-interrogation. Travelling off to a Vipassana retreat to write ‘an upbeat, subtle little book’ on yoga and meditation doesn’t lead to liberation, but to four months in a psych ward.
Yoga depicts Carrère’s third major depressive crisis. His first followed the success of his fifth novel, The Moustache (1986) from which he recovered by writing a biography of Phillip K Dick. His breakthrough work came in 1993 when he was drawn to the case of Jean-Claude Romand, who had pretended he was a doctor at the World Health Organisation for eighteen years, and on the cusp of having his fraud exposed, murdered his entire family. Carrère had no idea when he followed the journalistic throng to Romand’s little French village just how many years he’d spend trying to narrativize the murders in the style of Capote’s In Cold Blood. But how to do it? He didn’t want his intrusive ‘I’ to appear on the page, drawing attention to itself. Not yet, anyway. The author should be everywhere present but nowhere visible, Flaubert, one of his role models, had proclaimed. After seven years of bashing his head against Capote, he gave up and sought closure by writing a conversational letter to himself about all he’d been through.
This message to self about the Romand case, became The Adversary, (2000) a non-fiction book which launched Carrère’s use of himself as a character. The story, framed by his struggle to write the book, unexpectedly liberated his voice. ‘It’s the first time you hear my adult voice’, he told the Paris Review. But soon came a second bout of suicidal depression. Ten years of psychoanalysis hadn’t helped. Maybe writing would? He was now comfortable inserting himself into the story, and with My Life as a Russian Novel (2007), he set out to candidly recount, ‘without making anything up, everything that happened,’ as his life fell apart. A sprawling book, it is Carrère’s first attempt at giving himself the kind of ‘public psychoanalysis’ he’ll return to in Yoga.
Chronicling what life throws at him means his books often start with one subject and merge into another. Lives Other than My Own (2009) begins as an account of being on holiday in Sri Lanka when the 2004 tsunami hits, and morphs into a story about his sister-in-law dying of cancer. It is in Limonov (2011) that his driving non-fiction prose, coupled with the self-revelatory candour of someone always questioning their own motives, reaches a formal peak. The writing shape-shifts through essay, confession, anecdote, biography, reportage, and Soviet history of the 80s and 90s to tell the story of punk, thug, petty thief and Stalin-loving Russian poet Eduard Limonov, who first gained notoriety for a series of memoirs about his hand to mouth émigré life in New York in the 1970s. The French left conveniently ignored his fascist tendencies, until a documentary team filmed him with a Radovan Karadžić’s Serb militia firing a machine gun down at Sarajevo.
Carrère says he endlessly rereads Montaigne in order to keep his pen pointed inward. ‘I want to be seen,’ Montaigne wrote in his own essays, ‘in my simple, natural, everyday fashion, without striving or artifice: for it is my own self that I am painting. Here, drawn from life, you will read of my defects and native form.’ A book like Yoga might not have been possible without Montaigne’s influence. Deeply sceptical, Montaigne looked to Heraclitus to describe his own digressive style of thought that moves, ‘now gently, now violently, according as the water is angry or calm … our humours shift with the shifts in the weather.’ This ‘stream of consciousness’ descending from Montaigne through the inner life of Proust and Woolf and the late Javier Marías, comes to Carrère, so that the flow of his thought illuminates a self always asking; what can we really know for sure? While Carrère the journalist, a man of fact, tries to stabilise the objectivity of the world, Carrère the memoirist is, at every turn, destabilising the subjectivity of the one who perceives that world.
His next work, The Kingdom (2014) continues his mosaic style of confession; a witty, scholarly, complex work of manic concentration. It’s a rare writer who can get away with the self-indulgence of writing a commentary on his old diaries, but Carrère pulls it off, attempting to understand his embarrassing religious conversion of the early 90s, and using it as a segue into a narrative recreation of the lives of the early Christians, Paul and Luke, comparing their cultic visions to the fantastic literature of Phillip K. Dick.
His once-banished ‘I’ has owned a lot of experience since it stepped out in The Adversary, but up to this point his voice, or presence as a character, has mostly gravitated around another subject under observation – Romand, the tsunami, death of his sister-in-law, Limonov, the early Christians. As a result we don’t look at him directly, but see his consciousness reflected, through other surfaces. As he told the Paris Review,
For the moment, that way of being present in the book but not its subject suits me. I feel more and more liberated. But I do have a vague idea … that my goal in life and in my work is to be able to access the first person, to be able to say ‘I,’ in a way that rings true. And now I’m starting to realize that it shouldn’t take up so much room, that that ‘I,’ … should recede and finally disappear.
‘If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.’
Following this biblical epigraph, Yoga opens with a half page sentence aggressively foreshadowing all that’s to come: Charlie Hebdo, jihadist terrorism, catatonic depression, four months in a psych ward, the death of his editor after a 35-year collaboration. It’s early January 2015, and Carrère lugs his backpack through the wet dawn to the Gare de Bercy to catch a train to the French countryside where he’ll join around fifty other meditators on a ten-day Vipassana retreat. He is trying not to feel smug. ‘I never stop winning… I’m rich, gifted, praised, deserving, and conscious that I deserve’, he told us at the end of The Kingdom. He now tells us that The Kingdom was such a major success that he’s been on all the important TV shows, endlessly talked about, ‘in the limelight, round the clock.’ An article on him in New York magazineran for eight pages, he doesn’t mind telling us. As hubristic as it all sounds, it’s not a fanciful claim. Michel Houellebecq has written that he weeps when he reads his work, and Karl Ove Knausgaard has called him ‘the most exciting living writer’.
On the meditation retreat’s intake form he notes his two previous bouts with major depression, but also his ten years of happiness. Why is he so happy, he wonders? Not because of twenty years of psychoanalysis. He can only put it down to love, meditation, yoga, and tai chi. His only real problem, ‘albeit a privileged person’s problem, is my unwieldy, despotic ego whose control I was hoping to limit’. He wants meditation to quieten the incessant inner ramblings of a ‘vain, repetitive and pathetically self-centred …. Narcissistic, unstable man’, but there’s a big problem with him observing his mental ephemera without judgment. His passion is narration, and his desire is not passively to turn away from thoughts, but to emulate his ‘patron saint’ Montaigne by following the drama of thought until it peters out. This is the core conflict at the heart of the first and longest of Yoga’s five sections; thousands of years of meditative philosophy collides with five hundred years of a digressive literary tradition.
Sitting in full lotus on his yoga retreat cushion, concentrating on his nasal hairs, and listening to a recording of Vipassana teacher S. N. Goenka say, ‘Don’t work with ideas, or beliefs, only with your breath,’ Carrère is determined not to let his thoughts dissipate but to grasp and interrogate them, rehearsing in his mind how he’ll later write about what’s happening. Brief, elliptical fragments plot the course of this persistent mind, the sexual fantasies, doubts and fears, the anger at being such a fool in life, tears at the sadness of it all. The form of the writing embodies the distracted mind, with pages of digression, exposing all that he sees, as not good or bad, but a human experience, as if through exposure and acceptance, he’ll transcend the turbulent show of self and reach inner peace. And if the reader doesn’t like what in lesser hands might just sound solipsistic, bad luck, ‘because you’ll have to put up with the fact that authors relate these kinds of things and don’t delete them when they’re rereading what they’ve written, as would only be reasonable, because they’re precious, and because one reason to write is also to save them.’
Four days into the retreat, he’s woken in the middle of the night. Two French Muslim terrorists have murdered twelve people at the Paris offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. One of the dead is a friend of his. He must return to Paris at once. He’ll have to give a eulogy at the funeral. It should be given by Houellebecq, but it was Houellebecq’s face on the cover of Charlie Hebdo that day, spruiking his new speculative novel about a French mass conversion to Islam, and he’s now in police protection. Everything starts going downhill for Carrère, and playing out in the background, is the real story, never told. His ten-year marriage is falling apart, but ‘I do not give myself the right, nor do I feel the urge, to give the details of a crisis, that is not the subject of this story.’
With ‘erratic, disconnected, unrelenting’ thoughts spiralling out of control, he visits a psychiatrist. He’s told he has tachypsychia, a neurological distortion that speeds everything up in his head. At almost sixty, he’s also diagnosed with bipolar disorder. His book on yoga tentatively called Exhaling might be dead, but in a burst of confidence he now thinks Yoga for Bipolars will stitch the project back together. Images of a new life stream forth, but it is short lived, and when he becomes depressed and catatonic, his sister makes him an appointment at the Sainte-Anne Psychiatric Hospital. They admit him straight away and he stays for four months,
Many more things happen in this ‘novel’ (‘because in France you can call just about anything a novel’) – he leaves the psychiatric hospital and like Odysseus returning from war, steers his shattered life back to his home on a Greek island, seeking redemption by teaching creative writing to refugees. He tells us that memory loss is a major side effect of the shock therapy. ‘I’m writing these pages three years after the fact, and my memory is still a field of ruins.’ This plays out in uneven, elliptical fragmentation as the book progresses. In the last sections of Yoga, the narrative increasingly falls apart. In short, subtitled sections our narrator is restless and erratic. He invests more time following tangents – in a way I found frustrating – stringing together what could be standalone, mini-essays, and then feeling around in the dark between them for the sentimental glue which might connect them. He forces tenuous connections, not necessarily because they’re there, but to convince himself that somehow all this means something. I was not convinced that five seconds of Argentine pianist Martha Argerich, playing Chopin’s the Heroic Polonaise, warranted so many pages of analysis.
To read Carrère’s non-fiction collection 97,196 Words (2019) is to see how muscular he can be in short form, to encounter his gripping, conversational tone. There are so many asides slung together here, though, that reading Yoga feels like meeting a manic stranger in a bar, one who intrigues you with his eccentric candour until the point at which you realise his monologue could run on all night. Near the end of Yoga Carrère admits he is desperate to find a happy ending, to ‘create a space for joy’, which is fair enough after all he has been through, and when Yoga’s end comes, even Carrère, still jittery with ECT aftershocks, can’t hide that he doesn’t quite believe in it. But perhaps what appears as a devolution toward patchiness is also the messiness of autofiction’s privileging of the fragment over the illusion of the whole?
For all its intense determination and psychic unravelling, Yoga is not entirely satisfying. Carrère falters in his desire to weave the mini narratives of personal odyssey into a structurally satisfying work. He testifies to the messiness of a broken moment in life, its horrors and joys, its hidden motivations, its shame and shamelessness, paraded for masochistic glory, even if sometimes it’s only a pose. Frankenstein’s main desire was for his creator, and the world, to love and accept him as he is, in all his strapped together, mangled glory. I came wanting to love this sewn up monster of a book. To plug myself back into the sublime complex patterns of experience I’d felt hovering above his other works, especially Limonov. But here, the narcissism driving the narrative is so extreme, as if Carrère were doing the karaoke version of a style he’s performed better elsewhere. I put down the book feeling slightly embarrassed that I’d seen the master falter.