Emmanuel Carrère Writes His Way Through a Breakdown

Emmanuel Carrère Writes His Way Through a Breakdown

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I asked Carrère why he didn’t tell the truth in the airport scene. He thought for a moment, said, “Because . . .,” then paused again. “I thought it would have spoiled it a little.” What he liked about the story of the Gemini woman was that, this final scene aside, he had been describing something real that sounded fictional: an extended sexual relationship that remained essentially anonymous, with communication of one kind and not the other.

He wanted “homogeneity,” he said. That is: to avoid disrupting a narrative of real events that had a novelistic, or filmic, texture, he had added fiction. This is the kind of thing that happens all the time in works of autofiction.

Carrère went on, “Because of all this thing with Hélène, it had a very strange status, all of it. So it’s a bit confusing. Not just for the reader but for me, too.”

The jury of the prestigious Prix Goncourt has a clear preference for fiction, and Devynck’s article accused Carrère of trying to boost his chance of winning the prize by including fictional elements. Carrère denies this, and he described to me how he had resisted a suggestion from his publisher to call “Yoga” a novel: “They said, ‘It’s not a big effort, and it would make things very different.’ ” In September, 2020, “Yoga” did make it onto the Prix Goncourt’s initial longlist. After Devynck’s article appeared, later that month, the book was not on the final shortlist.

Bourgeois-Tacquet, speaking at home one morning when Carrère was out, observed that he had never experienced heartache or profound grief. Now that his extremes of mood have been smoothed out by medication, he’s left with an equanimity about everyday things, which she described as an almost prelapsarian state. “I have something very important to tell you,” she said. “And I keep saying it to my friends, and to his friends. Emmanuel is the happiest person I know. I’m not joking! I have never met anyone who is like this. He’s always happy. I don’t mean heureux—I mean content. He’s O.K. Everywhere is fine. I’m never happy. Everything is a problem for me. For him, everything is O.K. He doesn’t care. It’s raining, it’s O.K. It’s sunny, it’s O.K. He’s sick, he’s happy to be sick. I’m sick and I want to kill everyone.”

He was aware of a deficit in natural empathy, she added, “so he compensates—in everyday life, he’s very attentive, more than other men I’ve been with.” It was lovely to live with him. But, after a moment’s hesitation, she went on to describe the gift that Carrère had given her on her thirty-fifth birthday, and the arguments that had followed. This was before they moved in together.

His birthday present, he had explained in a letter, was an idea for a movie that she could write and direct. The letter had sketched out a film treatment. “I had never asked him to give me an idea,” she said. “I don’t need an idea. And that’s not a present. He really thought it was generous.” She added that his proposed screenplay—about a sexual relationship conducted remotely—was an elaboration on one she’d already mentioned to him, months earlier.

A few hours after visiting with Bourgeois-Tacquet, I met Carrère at Le Napoléon, a café within view of his old apartment above the grocery. His former home with Devynck—with whom he is still on poor terms—is around the corner.

We sat at a table on a busy sidewalk. Carrère, who hadn’t had a drink in a few years, ordered an orange juice, and described how, not long after the events related in “Yoga,” he had “the most simple, the most obvious, and the most promising idea for a book I ever had—I thought that it was impossible not to make a great book with such an idea.” He laughed. The idea was to talk to people around him.

He would start conversations with those living and working within about a thousand feet of where we were sitting: “I know nothing about them. And I am not that interested. And I think it’s bad not to be interested. I think, even, it’s wrong.” He mentioned a waiter, then working at Le Napoléon, with whom he sometimes briefly chatted about books: “I see him every day. I like him, I think he likes me. But I know nothing of him.” Carrère’s feeling at the time, he said, was that “you don’t have to choose either to make a good piece of art or to improve the quality of your relationships with other people. The idea was to work on both.” His provisional title was “Proximité.” When Carrère wrote a memo about the project, for himself and for Samuelson, he recalled the diner scene in “Groundhog Day” in which Bill Murray astonishes Andie MacDowell by giving her intimate biographies of those around them. (“This is Bill. . . . He likes the town, he paints toy soldiers, and he’s gay.”) That was the dream of “Proximité,” he wrote: to generate that astonishment. He added, “But, yes, of course I’ll talk about myself.”

He interviewed a hundred people: the waiter; barbers serving West African-born customers; the owners of a fancy bakery with customers like Carrère; homeless people. He wrote hundreds of thousands of words.

He put it all aside to finish “Yoga.” Later, in 2020, he “opened the file and reread the whole thing,” he said. “It was bad. Really bad. Really uninteresting. I closed the file.” He might open it again in a couple of years.

Carrère gave me a little tour of the neighborhood. The stores were closing for the day, and the bars were starting to fill. In Passage Brady, an arcade that’s a little like the one where he now lives, Indian restaurants were waiting for customers. As we walked past one of them, a young waiter made eye contact with Carrère, and the two men said hello. But there was a misalignment: although they’d spoken, occasionally, at a different restaurant, the waiter clearly didn’t remember him, and was greeting him only as a customer. There was a moment of awkwardness, from which the men smilingly extracted themselves.

As we walked on, Carrère said that, for the sake of the article I was writing, it would have been nice if I’d heard people yelling out, at every corner, “Hey, Emmanuel!” He went on, “There are people who know everybody. I would like to be that person, and I’m not.”

Early this year, the Russian theatre and film director Kirill Serebrennikov—who spent some two years under house arrest on charges of embezzlement that are widely thought to have been trumped up, for political reasons—began filming an English-language adaptation of Carrère’s study of Eduard Limonov, who died in 2020. Carrère had agreed to take a small acting role in the movie, 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 start on February 24th. François Samuelson would join him.

In a video interview published on February 23rd, Hélène Carrère d’Encausse was asked if Russia would invade Ukraine. She has met Vladimir Putin a number of times, and the French political establishment has long paid attention to her views, which have largely shown support for, or acceptance of, 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 think we can’t go.” Carrère said that he was probably right.

But then he felt bad; he’d let the film down. 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 cancelled, 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’d decided to stay, he answered, “I’m a journalist.” Her reply was not facetious: “O.K., I didn’t know.” He later mentioned to her that, after the years of abstaining, he’d had a few drinks.

When I called Carrère in Moscow, he’d been there ten days. The Limonov film, he said, was being moved to Bulgaria. He had learned how to use Telegram, the encrypted-communication app. He had spent the week largely with middle-class people of his generation. They were either preparing to leave or imagining a new life under conditions that were bound to fascinate Carrère—they would be cut off from the rest of the world. When we spoke, he was writing a piece about Moscow for L’Obs; when it was done, he’d fly home, via Istanbul.

The article, published a few days later, began with a sketch of a woman whom 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 do boating, you know, my friends and I have a small boat, which is moored fifty kilometres 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 year off, leave next summer. Maybe, instead, I’ll go with my daughter to the Arctic Ocean. Maybe we’ll live by the Arctic Ocean. Maybe we’ll learn to live differently. Maybe it will be good.” ♦

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