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.’
The most striking thing about the 20 essays here is that they all emanate more or less from the same desire of wanting to know what it feels like to be someone else. There are delicious profiles of Emmanuel Macron and Catherine Deneuve that have a ventriloquistic quality, in that what Carrère’s subjects say is often far less interesting than what he divines about their omissions. There are also dispatches from the field — Davos, a refugee camp at Calais, French criminal courts, the aftermath of a tsunami in Sri Lanka — that bring ordinary people’s lives into focus. Taken together, they suggest a writer who is the very opposite of a narcissist.
At a time when “creative non-fiction” seems to have become a synonym for memoir, it is a joy to be reminded of all the wonderful things that it can do when it looks beyond individual ego. While Carrère is hardly averse to writing about himself, he is equally happy to let other people and subjects take the spotlight. There are wonderful explorations of what it was like to live in Calais in the “jungle” years, or what happens behind the scenes at Davos. There’s even an excellent piece on why Janet Malcolm was wrong in her famous remark that all journalists whose work involves interviewing other people know at some level that what they are doing is morally indefensible. All this is delivered in Carrère’s spare and supple prose.
Here, in roughly the order of their original publication, are 20 essays (totaling 97,196 words) that reveal both the depth and the breadth of his achievement. Not that all of them are masterpieces. Carrère has done what so many self-anthologists do (I plead guilty to the same misdemeanor): He’s indulged himself by rescuing from obscurity certain stories that did not really demand rescue. (An embarrassing failed interview with Catherine Deneuve; an aborted proposal for a screenplay about a boy who can, at will, become invisible; a tribute to H. P. Lovecraft; a sardonic take on the World Economic Forum in Davos — all of these provide clues to untangling his psyche, but perhaps are more important to the history of his psychoanalysis than to the history of his art.) The abundant majority of the pieces in this book, however, are riveting, not least those that he later developed into full-scale books. In such cases, it’s clearly not a matter of recycling old material but of responding to an urgent need in him to know more, understand more, feel more. And we are gripped by the same pressure: No matter how often he returns to his story, we are carried along with him.
There is a great deal to admire in 97,196 Words, including the Sri Lanka piece, Carrère’s meditations on Jean-Claude Romand and a vivid, affecting essay about the ruined life of a young addict named Julie – all the more impressive for having been written at some remove, via photographs by Darcy Padilla. But a strain of boyish fantasy, mixed with middle-aged bathos, makes it too frequently hard to take Carrère seriously. (In this, he resembles Houellebecq, one of his most prominent admirers.) In a sequence of columns about his love life, written for an Italian magazine, Carrère comes off as an antique battle-of-the-sexes type; as is frequently the case, a hapless, can’t-help-it act is part of the deal. The lowest point: he publishes in Le Monde an erotic letter to a girlfriend, hoping she will read it on a train ride and arrive in a state of Carrère-oriented sexual delirium. What could go wrong?
A superb collection of essays by Emmanuel Carrère, one of the best storytellers around. He’s French. He has written novels, memoirs, screenplays and murder stories. He’s probably most famous for his book The Adversary, a clinical study of Jean-Claude Romand, a multiple murderer of the utmost strangeness. I’ll come to that in a minute... If you’re interested in Carrère, this book of essays is a good place to start. It’s the best book I’ve read for ages.