They Were Like Us & We Were Like Them

From "Dream Diary," Vaka Valo

Homo sum, humani
nihil a me alienum puto.

I am a man; nothing
human is alien to me.

Heauton Timorumenos

“I thought that writing this story could only be either a crime or a prayer.” Thus ends The Adversary (L’Adversaire, 2000), Emmanuel Carrère’s nonfiction account of a devastating crime which shocked France in 1993. For 18 years, Jean-Claude Romand had told his family and friends that he was a doctor at the World Health Organization in Geneva, when in fact he had failed out of medical school, his only income the money he made by swindling his relatives in an enormous Ponzi scheme.  But as the money ran out, rather than admit that his whole life was a lie, Romand killed his parents, his wife, and their two children, and attempted to kill his mistress and himself as well. Carrère was immediately drawn less to Roman’s crimes than to his self-fictionalizing. What did the man do all day? How could he prefer to kill everyone he loved rather than come clean about his deceit? How does that happen to a person? In order to get to know Romand, Carrère traveled to the town where Romand lived and interviewed his neighbors and friends. Here he tried to understand not only how a person could do such a thing, but what Romand’s life must have been like for those long 18 years.

The Adversary begins from the perspective of Luc Ladmiral, Romand’s best friend, who had a great deal in common with Jean-Claude—they went to the same medical school, married at the same time, lived in houses in the same neighborhood, had kids the same age—and who shared the same fears “of losing his loved ones but also of losing himself, of discovering that behind his social façade he was nothing.” The shared anxieties of these men are what attract Carrère to this story, because they are also the twin worries that animate his writing: the threat of losing oneself, and the fear of the very worst coming to pass. Luc allows Carrère a way in to Romand, as well as a means of charting the irreversible damage Romand inflicted on his community (where children will never unquestioningly trust their parents again), but Carrère soon abandons Luc’s point of view, realizing that he is going to have to assume responsibility for his own interest in Romand by orienting the narrative through his own perspective.

And so, in economical, well-wrought prose, Carrère tunnels into the sort of disturbing story most people would rather not try to understand. Instead of condemning Romand out of hand, Carrère writes Romand as a man pushed to the end of his resources, trying desperately—and failing—to be the man he wanted to be, and finally unwilling to leave his family with the burden of his failure. Carrère feels he understands Romand, and he writes as a way of handling the discomfort this understanding produces. Such ambiguous testimony is a major theme of Carrère’s work, and after The Adversary, each of his books will explore heinous acts of man and nature, emphasizing, through first-person narratives that blend autobiography and reportage, Carrère’s attempts at empathy.

It is worth noting that the pronunciation of Romand’s name in French is a homonym for the French word for novel: roman. The American title of Carrère’s next memoir, My Life as a Russian Novel (2007), explicitly emphasizes the conversion, or comparison, of life to fiction, in a way that the French title Un roman russe leaves implicit (the UK translation leaves it as A Russian Novel).
Throughout a career that includes screenplays, novels, novellas, and a wacky quasi-fictional biography of Philip K. Dick, Carrère has excelled at creating narratives that range freely between genres. The Adversary reads as part-psychological thriller, part-memoir, and, like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, it uses the methods of fiction to tell a true story–appropriately, for The Adversary is a work of nonfiction about a man who was the author of the fiction of his own life.

Carrère’s blend of genre and subject matter indicates the ethics of connection driving his work: the writer has an obligation to use the story to transcend the gap between one person and another, allowing the reader to perceive the links, not always readily apparent, between his life and the lives of others. In My Life as a Russian Novel, Carrère’s narrative moves between a Russian town on the brink of disaster and his own relationship troubles back home in Paris. In Lives Other Than My Own (2009), forthcoming in paperback in September, he brings together the 2005 tsunami in Southeast Asia and French consumer law. For Carrère, the 21st century écrivain engagé must use the self-referentiality of the postmodern récit in order to address violence and injustice, and to confront our everyday apathy in the face of other peoples’ misery.

* * *

There is nothing mawkish or moralizing about Carrère’s attempts to create empathy.  If anything, Carrère shows himself time and again in these narratives to be more than averagely self-centered and apathetic. Not a Russian novel, but another hybrid memoir, My Life as a Russian Novel details Carrère’s obsession with Russia and his inability to love his girlfriend, while simultaneously investigating a dark family secret. The skeleton in the Carrère family closet is the story of Carrère’s grandfather, a Russian emigrant to France who was suspected of collaborating with the Germans during the Occupation. Carrère’s mother, Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, a prominent Russian scholar and permanent secretary to the Académie Française,  specifically asked Carrère not to write about his grandfather. But Carrère can’t help himself: shame is his subject. By writing My Life as a Russian Novel, Carrère hopes to throw off the legacy of his grandfather’s sins and “finally be able to speak truly in the first person.” To do this, Carrère is determined to re-learn Russian, which he spoke as a child and has since mostly forgotten.  Simply to be able to speak it again, Carrère thinks, will set him free from this family heritage, and free from his suspicion (shared by no one else in his family) that, as a child, he may accidentally have caused the death of his Russian nursemaid.

 My Life as a Russian Novel describes the experience of filming two documentaries in Russia: one about a Hungarian soldier who survived the Second World War, but lived for 53 years in a state of amnesia in a psychiatric hospital in Kotelnich, a small town in Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway, the second about Kotelnich itself (whose name literally means “hollow” or “depression”). Carrère spends a month in Moscow studying Russian to prepare. Yet the more he studies, the less he learns.  He is blocked: “something or someone inside me dreads and rejects this return to my mother’s language, and I know there’s a mystery here, one that this project...will bring to light. If I am in Kotelnich, if I decided to make this film in Kotelnich, it was to find the key to that mystery.” But ambiguity and indeterminacy prevail in Carrère’s narratives: he won’t find the key he’s looking for, or even the lock it corresponds to.

It doesn't help that his subjects are sometimes unwilling to be narrativized. Some of the inhabitants of Kotelnich are angry and resentful when Carrère shows up with his film crew, and someone—“wistful but not hostile”—suggests a title for the film: “Tut Zhit’ Nel’zya, Poka Zhivut: We Can’t Live Here, and Yet We Do.” When a young mother and her child are brutally murdered in Kotelnich, it is as shocking and violent as the events of The Adversary, but Carrère does not attempt to find in these tragedies any deep truths about the world, unless it is that humans are capable of extreme and meaningless violence, whether in desperate Kotelnich or in bourgeois Paris, where Carrère commits a subtle kind of psychological violence against his lower-caste girlfriend Sophie. Although Carrère’s personal troubles and the tragedy of Kotelnich may seem out of proportion to one another, their coexistence is no more inappropriate than any other pair of occurrences: the couple who fight in the Metro as they walk past the beggar on her knees; the legless veteran by the ATM; the unseen violence that takes place miles away as we sip our lattes. Carrère juxtaposes the Kotelnich crimes with his personal troubles, but neither is forced to elucidate the other, neither is made to serve as a comment on the other. Carrère draws no facile lessons; he doesn’t flatter himself that he understands what he’s seen anymore than we understand it. To make the crimes “mean” something would be to commit another kind of violence. It is a delicate balance Carrère pursues, between wanting to understand and respecting the limits of understanding.

Carrère doesn’t paint a flattering picture of himself in these memoirs, and in a way, this makes him a more trustworthy narrator. With the attentiveness of a post-mortem, he examines his relationships without worrying about how he will come off to the reader (and he comes off quite badly). He is condescending and unfaithful to his girlfriend, but even as he is distinctly non-committal, his jealousy torpedoes the relationship. He is snotty about Sophie’s lower social status—she works in publishing, not somewhere posh like Gallimard or Grasset, but (gasp!) at a textbook company, and while his friends are the wealthy movers and shakers of the Parisian intelligentsia, Sophie hangs out with people who “buy monthly Métro cards, order the daily lunch special, have to schedule their vacations far in advance and at their boss’s convenience.” When someone at one of his friends’ dinner parties mentions Saul Bellow, Sophie writes in her notebook, “in her slightly childish handwriting,” “Read Solbello.”

He is frank about the embarrassment she induces in him: “I depend so cruelly on how others see me that I seem to see her losing value right before my eyes.” The reader, however, who more probably identifies with Sophie’s social position than with Carrère’s (people who take the subway! Quel horreur!), is not likely to have much sympathy for him.  But Carrère isn’t after our sympathy. He’s attempting to exorcise the shame about his grandfather that Sophie somehow activates within him, and exorcisms can get a bit messy. Thinking of Sophie’s inferior social background, Carrère imagines his down-at-heel refugee grandfather taking the Métro:

[H]e is intelligent, cultured, he has studied philosophy in German universities, he reads difficult books, speaks five languages fluently, but . . . [i]n French society, he is no one . . . He belongs to that mass you see in the Métro: poor, gray, dead-eyed, with shoulders bowed beneath a life they never chose, insignificant, negligible human cattle laboring beneath the yoke.

In this scene, Carrère sees his mother sitting beside his grandfather on the Métro, “poorly dressed, wearing shabby shoes with worn-out soles, the stuff of miserabilist fiction, and I imagine his humiliation at not being able to buy her new ones.” Carrère attempts to avoid pathos (his resistance to it is visible in that reference to miserabilist fiction) but can’t quite keep it from creeping in: his mother’s and grandfather’s shame have become his own, and have been so amplified by the distortions of memory and imagination that they cannot be represented with the same sang-froid as the more straightforward events of his relationship with Sophie. Allying his girlfriend with his grandfather is eccentric, but Carrère works by association in order to avoid writing solely about himself; in a straight-up memoir, the sentimentality which he usually succeeds in keeping at bay might be more difficult to hold off.

Carrère’s need to control the story (for that is what, in a way, these associations are) rears its head in what some will find the triumphant apogee of My Life As A Russian Novel and some will judge to be its embarrassing nadir.  On who knows what misguided inspiration, Carrère writes a sexually explicit short story that he is convinced will save his relationship. (The story was reprinted last year in Granta’s Sex issue.) He arranges to have it published in Le Monde on a day when he has reserved a ticket for Sophie to take the train to La Rochelle to meet him for a vacation on the Île de Ré: the whole plan hinges on Sophie reading this article on this train. Addressing the reader in the second person, the erotic story attempts to arouse its projected reader (Sophie) and all the other people reading the paper on the 2:45 Paris-La Rochelle train to the point where she, and they, must go to the bathroom to masturbate. Carrère has got it in his head that not only will Sophie be impressed and even moved by this performance, but that French holidaymakers too will be made horny enough to masturbate on the TGV. His plan backfires: his girlfriend neither takes the train nor reads the paper. In her place, Carrère himself takes the 2:45, just to see if anyone is reading the story. Alas, the lavatories are disappointingly unoccupied, and he spends the evening with two journalists from Le Monde. His parents and half of France are appalled. The other half send him admiring emails.

What can explain this nutty plan but Carrère’s faith in the power of narrative? In willing an orgy on the train to La Rochelle, Carrère hopes to enforce the opposite of the suffering he records in The Adversary and in Kotelnich. His plan fails, but his belief remains unshaken. Important in the sexy story is Carrère’s use of the second person; directed at once at the person with whom he is intimate and at a host of strangers, it is an attempt to instill intimacy between writer and reader, writer and stranger.

* * *

In Lives Other Than My Own (2009), Carrère perfects his method of linking apparently unrelated people and concepts to provide a chilling blend of testimony and empathy. Lives Other Than My Own begins with a theme familiar from My Life as a Russian Novel: Carrère’s fear that he is unable to love his partner. He has by now been in a long-term relationship with the woman he met at the end of the previous memoir, Hélène, but here, their story seems to have run its course, and they appear resolved to split up. Then tragedy hits: while they are on vacation in Sri Lanka, a tsunami devastates Southeast Asia, and on their return to Paris, Hélène’s sister, Juliette, dies of cancer. By the end of the book, Carrère and Hélène have produced a daughter and live in domestic bliss,  resolved to love each other as well as they can for the rest of their lives.

A recognizably Carrèreian strategy is for the narrator to imagine himself into other people’s positions, activating for himself and for the reader a disruptive empathy. At one point in My Life as a Russian Novel, he imagines the fate of a man who got off the Trans-Siberian where he wasn’t supposed to and was never heard from again. In The Adversary, he opens with a parallelism that is now one of his most recognizable moves: “The morning of Saturday January 9th, 1993, while Jean-Clude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was attending a parent-teacher conference at my elder son Gabriel’s school. He was five years old, the same age as Antoine Romand. We went to lunch with my parents afterward, just as Romand went to lunch with his, who he killed after the meal.” Carrère’s prose is measured, functional; the most remarkable thing about it is where it’s willing to go.

And yet when Lives Other Than My Own begins, Carrère is almost creepily apathetic to the sufferings of others. The tsunami occurs within the first few pages of the book, killing the 4-year-old daughter of a French couple he and Hélène had befriended. Hélène pitches in immediately, calling the couple’s insurance company, arranging for the repatriation of the little girl’s body. Carrère feels distant and superfluous, and also jealous—not only does Hélène know how to make herself useful, but she is paying no attention to him. When, back in Paris, they learn that Juliette’s cancer has returned, Carrère is similarly unfazed, similarly self-centered: “I was sorry about her plight, of course, but from afar. That particular life on its way out had nothing to do with my life.” He worries instead that Juliette’s illness is distracting Hélène from him. As he did in My Life as a Russian Novel, Carrère includes these moments in order to earn the reader’s confidence—at least we know he isn’t sugarcoating his interest in these people and their stories. If Carrère begins to take interest in lives other than his own, he tells his son, it is not an indication of “generosity,” but rather “a survival strategy.”

Being in such close proximity to other people’s heartbreak forces Carrère to draw mortified comparisons between himself and others: “Only yesterday they were like us and we were like them.” The only real difference between them and us is force of accident. As he and Hélène lie in bed at night, he thinks of Delphine and Jérome lying nearby and imagines what they must be feeling:

Has he taken her in his arms, or is that impossible for them as well? It’s the first night. The night of the day their daughter died. This morning she was alive, she woke up, she came to play in their bed, she called them Mama and Papa, she was laughing, she was warm, she was the loveliest and warmest and sweetest thing on earth, and now she’s dead. She will always be dead.

Carrère moves, in this passage, from the unconquerable divide that exists between two people, (or between two couples), through an imaginative activation of sorrow, to the inexorable finality of the new reality. In so doing, he lays bare the impulse behind all storytelling: how must it feel to live a life other than my own? These passages are sensationalist, no doubt, and more than a little sentimental. But just as these moments record awakenings for those caught in them, so are they awakenings for Carrère himself, and perhaps for the reader as well. Projecting himself into other peoples’ pain, Carrère attempts to anchor himself more firmly in the reality of his own life.

Occasionally, though, Carrère is confronted with readers who are reluctant to follow his dark obsessions. In Lives Other Than My Own, someone tells him he found The Adversary “a hard book to read.” “In my circle,” Carrère writes, with a touch of condescension, “people have no problem with a dark book or a perverse subject; many even find special merit in such things, proof of the author’s audacity. Less sophisticated readers . . . are perturbed and perplexed. They don’t consider it wrong to write such things, but they still wonder why anyone would.”

And why would they want to read such books? This opens up familiar questions about the purpose of storytelling, and while Carrère does not exactly provide us with a new answer, he does make a good case for the power of stories. As the people Carrère meets attempt to cope with their personal tragedies, they exteriorize their narratives, therapeutically turning them into story-objects, at once part of and outside of themselves. “Literature . . . solves no problems and saves no souls,” Derek Attridge admits in his study The Singularity of Literature, but “it is effective. ” Attridge evokes a truth that Aristotle noticed two millennia ago: the stories we tell excite our most private fears and worries, then purge us of them, leaving us more equipped for civic and private life. Carrère’s work, in its worried glance at the lives not only of tragic figures but of people like ourselves, accomplishes no less.

Toward the end of Lives Other Than My Own, we meet a judge called Etienne Rigal, who worked alongside Juliette. Carrère is inspired to write about Etienne because he is the “photographic positive” of Jean-Claude Romand: a man who has built a legal career on fighting corporations who are suing the credit-card holders they have driven into debt. “Juliette and I, we were great judges,” Etienne tells Juliette’s family on the day of her death. Etienne is the ethical heart of Carrère’s work to date.  “The dictum ‘I am a man and nothing human is alien to me’ strikes me as the last word in wisdom,” Carrère writes, “and what I love in Etienne is that he takes it literally. In my opinion, that’s what gives him the right to be a judge.” Etienne’s own theory of what it means to be a judge is “to help safeguard the bonds of society, so that people can continue to live together.” Through Etienne, Carrère defends the act of having written about, and empathized with, Jean-Claude Romand.