A French novelist’s memoir-cum-fiction brims with ideas and incidents, says Josh Lacey

Emmanuel Carrère is one of those writers who must exasperate his publishers: rather than churning out more or less the same book again and again, satisfying readers who want to come back regularly for something similar, he hurls himself in one direction, then another, following whims, exploring the boundaries of his own interests. He’s the author of The Moustache, a wonderfully surreal little novel; The Adversary and Class Trip, both of which have been turned into successful movies; and a kooky biography of Philip K Dick.

His latest book, D’autres vies que la mienne, has been getting rave reviews and will be published here by Serpent’s Tail next year; for now, we monoglots will have to be satisfied with A Russian Novel, a description of two years (2000-02) in Carrère’s life that brims with ideas and incidents, mingling a failed love affair, a series of journeys to a dismal town in Russia and an investigation into his grandfather’s life and death, crammed together into a book that reads like memoir, but is published as fiction. (Although the US title may express Carrère’s intentions more accurately – My Life as a Russian Novel – Serpent’s Tail has chosen to stick with a translation of the original, more playful title, Un roman russe.)

Carrère begins by telling us that he’s had enough of himself; he wants to be different. He’s bright and handsome, wealthy and sophisticated, the product of a privileged background, surrounded by interesting friends and delicious lovers, and, most importantly, is able to choose his own destiny – if he wants, he can spend the afternoon in bed, or devote a couple of years to writing a novel – but he’s also confined to his own bleak prison, his imagination. “I don’t spend much time in the outside world (real life); mostly I’m in my own inner world, of which I am tired, and where I feel trapped. I dream of breaking out of my prison, but can’t manage to do it. Why not? Because the idea frightens me, and – harder to admit – I actually love my prison.”

He quickly finds what seems like a good way to escape his own introspection: making a documentary. He gets a commission to go to Kotelnich, a small and miserable place in the wilderness 500 miles north-east of Moscow. Carrère becomes intrigued by Kotelnich and returns several times, accompanied by a film crew, determined to make his own movie, although never quite understanding why he wants to or what the film should actually be about. The main fascination seems to be the residents’ utter lack of choice and opportunity. As one of them tells a cameraman: “You, you live. Us, here, we survive.” Another ducks away from the camera and yells at Carrère: “We live like dogs while you, you live in Paradise. You’re real bastards to come and film us.”

Alongside the story of Retour à Kotelnitch – Carrère’s film, which was eventually released in 2003 – this is also a book about three women: his girlfriend, Sophie; his mother, Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, a well-known French academic; and Anya, a stranger whom he meets only a few times in Russia and who later suffers an appalling fate. Different parts of the book are addressed to each of them. For his mother, he unearths the shameful truth about her father, a collaborator who was “disappeared” at the end of the second world war, and whose secret has been suppressed or ignored by the family ever since. Anya works on the film that Carrère makes in her home town and eventually, unwittingly, becomes its star. The glamorous Sophie provides the larger structure of the book. At the beginning of the narrative, she and Carrère have known one another for a fortnight. They move in together and negotiate the complexities of their unequal relationship: Sophie is young and sexy, but culturally and economically insignificant; Carrère is famous and successful, but unable to be happy, crippled by his own petulance and self-absorption.

Their affair reaches its apogee in a piece of writing, an 8,000-word article which was originally published in Le Monde, and recently reprinted in Granta’s Sex issue. It’s a set of instructions, dictated by a writer to his girlfriend, telling her precisely when and how to pleasure herself. “While continuing to hold the paper in your left hand, you will place your right hand on your left hip. Your forearm, which I assume is bare, should be resting on your belly, over your navel.”

Read in isolation, it’s embarrassingly awful, a nasty fantasy of power and control, but here, in the context of the characters and events surrounding its publication, the essay itself is perfectly and hilariously redeemed. All Carrère’s machinations snap back at him. His fantasies fail spectacularly, his mother is appalled and, best of all, his girlfriend doesn’t even read it.

The book ends in a bittersweet rush of events – a death, a birth, a new love affair – and a final, lyrical, beautifully written address to his mother, which left me unsure whether Carrère had ended up back where he started, isolated and lonely, having lost or alienated all the people who could have comforted him, or was embarking on a new and more optimistic path.

Muddled, disjointed and uncomfortable as it may be, A Russian Novel is also gripping and fascinating, an intimate portrait of a complicated man’s inner life and his struggles to find some kind of happiness and fulfilment. Perhaps it’s best summed up by a title suggested by one of Kotelnich’s residents for the film that Carrère is making there: Tout jyt’ nielzia, paka jyvout; We can’t live here, and yet we do.

Josh Lacey’s Three Diamonds and a Donkey is published by Scholastic.

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