Since the publication of his 2000 true-crime book, The Adversary, Emmanuel Carrère has established himself as France’s premier nonfiction writer. Prior to The Adversary, a case study of the convicted murderer Jean-Claude Romand, who was found guilty of killing his wife, children, and parents in 1993, Carrère was best known as a novelist, publishing short allegorical works like The Mustache (1988) and Class Trip (1999), though he also worked throughout the ’80s and ’90s as a journalist. The Adversary began as a magazine assignment, and was modeled after Truman Capote’s genre-defining nonfiction novel In Cold Blood (1966), with one key difference: Carrère, unlike Capote, included himself as a character in his story.
Carrère made this decision under the conviction that “the presence of the observer invariably modifies the observed,” and that this presence should, therefore, be acknowledged in writing. Like the “New Journalists” before him, Carrère challenged the traditional journalistic tenet that the observer should remain invisible and impartial, but he went further than most in incorporating details from not only his personal life. but also the personal lives of those close to him. With every book he has published since—each harder to categorize than the previous, ranging from nonfiction novel to “biographical novel” to “memoir-novel”—the author has revealed more intimate details about himself and the various people in his life, including his love interests.
But in a 2016 interview, Carrère revealed he was blocked, unable to write—in part because he was troubled by having revealed these intimate details. “What’s difficult,” Carrère said, preferring to speak in impersonal terms, “is that when one writes about oneself, one is obligated to write about other people.” He recalled an interview he had read with Jacques Massu, a former French general accused of torture during the Algerian War. “In the interview, Massu said, of la gégène—torture with electric prods from a generator—‘Listen. Don’t exaggerate. The prods? I tried them on myself. It hurts, but not worse than that.’” Carrère commented: “What’s atrocious about torture is that someone else is afflicting you, and you don’t know when he will stop.”
Carrère condemned the “nonsense” and “moral ugliness” of Gen. Massu’s false equivalence, and then made a striking equivalence himself, once again reaching for an impersonal pronoun: “To write bad things about yourself … it’s like Massu using the generator on himself. You decide yourself when you’re going to stop. When you write about others,” on the other hand, “there’s a huge responsibility.” Finally, Carrère revealed what appeared to be blocking him from writing: “For my part, I have used the generator on people other than myself. And that bothers me.”
Carrère appeared to be unable to write because he found it increasingly difficult to justify the “torture” of revealing intimate details about other people, but also because he felt that writing solely about himself—using la gégène only on himself—was the literary equivalent of onanism. Despite a rich history of autobiographical writing in France that spans over five centuries, from Montaigne to Duc de Saint-Simon to Rousseau to Chateaubriand to Proust, Carrère seemed to have internalized a charge that had been leveled against his forebears: that writing about the self is self-indulgent.
Recently, this charge has been directed at the practitioners of “autofiction,” which emerged as perhaps the predominant genre of literary fiction in the 2010s. With tongue-in-cheek titles like Lives Other Than My Own (2009) and My Life as a Russian Novel (2007), Carrère appeared to be writing against the alleged solipsism of autobiographical writing by including a full index of characters from his life. But by 2016, the social ethos of his writing appeared to be having an antisocial effect, leaving him isolated, depressed, and unable to write. Without using la gégène, would he be able to write—to communicate with others—again?
In March 2020, Carrère divorced his second wife, the French journalist Hélène Devynck. As part of the divorce settlement, Devynck reportedly insisted that Carrère no longer write about her or their daughter without first obtaining her written consent—so that, in effect, she could decide when la gégène was switched on and off. Carrère agreed to this condition ahead of the publication of his long-awaited new novel in France later that year, Yoga. Released in translation in the United States last August, Yoga was an instant critical success when it was published in Carrère’s home country and made it onto the longlists for two major literary prizes, the Goncourt and the Medicis.
A month after the book was first published, Devynck revealed the terms of her and Carrère’s divorce settlement in the French edition of Vanity Fair (Carrère had not insisted that the terms be reciprocal). She alleged that he had broken his agreement to not write about her. Though Carrère reportedly made cuts to the novel in accordance with the agreement, two sections near the end of the book remained contentious: a page and a half of text quoted directly from Lives Other Than My Own, in which he credited his life’s success to Devynck; and an addendum that,without referring to Devynck directly, stated that the 10 years that coincided with their marriage had been the “best of [his] life.” Unconvinced, Devynck claimed that Carrère had acted in bad faith and found a legal loophole to reveal the intimate lives of others, to regain control of la gégène. When the Goncourt and Medicis shortlists were announced the following month, Yoga was conspicuously absent, prompting murmurings in French critical circles about sabotage littéraire.
New Yorker staff writer Alexandra Schwartz remarked on Twitter that “all of Carrère’s writing about [Devynck] is enormously flattering. He loves her, thinks she’s beautiful, she puts up with him, etc. So her issue may not be with the way she’s depicted, but in being depicted by him at all.” Flattering or not, Devynck wrote in Vanity Fair that Carrère’s depiction of her had been a “sexual fantasy”—one in which she did “not recognize what [she] had experienced”—and alluded to sexual consent and the right to divorce in her objection to being depicted by him in writing: “Having said ‘yes’ in the past, could I no longer say ‘no’? Did I not have the right to separation, or would I be until death the fantasized object of my ex-husband?”
Devynck’s contention that, without the right to deny consent, she would remain “until death” Carrère’s “fantasized object,” betrayed a suspicion that any representation of her by him would be a misrepresentation. For Devynck, “the way she was depicted” and “being depicted at all” appeared to present the same problem. She was coming to understand what every “consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns,” as the late Janet Malcolm wrote in her classic The Journalist and the Murderer (1989): that the writer “never had the slightest intention of collaborating with [the subject] on his story … but always intended to write a story of his own.” In Malcolm’s words, “The characters of nonfiction, no less than those of fiction, derive from the writer’s most idiosyncratic desires and deepest anxieties” and “the ‘good’ characters … are no less a product of the writer’s unholy power over another person than are the ‘bad’ ones.”
The “bad” character in Malcolm’s study is the convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald, who granted the journalist Joe McGinniss exclusive access during the 1979 homicide trial that ultimately found MacDonald guilty of killing his pregnant wife and two daughters. After McGinniss published his best-selling 1983 book on the trial, Fatal Vision, MacDonald remarked that the “shattering impact” of the book wasn’t merely that it agreed with the court’s guilty verdict, but that, in his words, “people who have read it feel that they know me, that they have got inside my head.” For MacDonald, already condemned to three life sentences, what was at stake was the “essential integrity” of his character, his identity, which he felt McGinniss had misrepresented in his book—and which he feared the writer’s misrepresentation would overtake and outlive. As Malcolm noted, the journalist was in the eyes of the convicted murderer “guilty of a kind of soul murder.” This “soul murder,” or anxiety that readers have been given the false impression that they “know” a subject, that the writer has in effect shaped the subject’s identity, afflicts both the “bad” and the “good” characters of nonfiction—those, like MacDonald and Devynck, who are able to read what has been written about them.
Malcolm agreed with MacDonald that McGinniss had misrepresented him in Fatal Vision. By her account, MacDonald (the only one of the three M’s still surviving) is a rather dull person; she speculates that McGinniss characterized him as a “pathological narcissist” after reading Christopher Lasch’s bestselling book The Culture of Narcissism, published the year of the trial, under the misguided conviction that “a murderer shouldn’t sound like an accountant.” Malcolm writes: “In the MacDonald-McGinniss case we have an instance of a journalist who apparently found out too late … that the subject of his book was … not suitable for a work of nonfiction, not a member of the wonderful race of auto-fictionalizers,” which she defines as “a small group of people of a certain … self-fabulizing nature, who have already done the work on themselves that the novelist does on his imaginary characters.” According to Malcolm, works of creative nonfiction, especially New Journalism and the nonfiction novel, depend on these auto-fictionalizers “for their lives” to be “creative” and still be classified as “nonfiction”; she cites as examples Joseph Mitchell’s eccentric Joe Gould of Joe Gould’s Secret and Truman Capote’s convicted murderer Perry Smith of In Cold Blood, both published in 1965.
From Carrère’s bibliography, we can add to this list the Russian dissident writer Eduard Limonov, whose self-mythologizing autobiographical novels Carrère leaned on heavily in his biographical novel Limonov (2011), as well as Jean-Claude Romand, who for 18 years conned his family and friends into believing he was a humanitarian doctor before he murdered his wife, kids, and parents—and who was, if not a pathological narcissist, at least a pathological liar. But in the case of Hélène Devynck, had Carrère discovered too late—or failed to notice entirely, so besotted was he—that his subject was in fact rather ordinary, and so produced a “sexual fantasy”? Without an auto-fictionalizer like Limonov or Romand as his subject, was “France’s greatest writer of nonfiction” writing fiction—“autofiction”?
Halfway through Yoga, Carrère’s narrator—modeled and named after himself—admits, “I can’t say of this book what I’ve proudly said of several others: ‘It’s all true.’” He explains, “While writing it, I have to distort a little, transpose a little, erase a little,” and he alludes to the terms of his divorce settlement: “Especially erase, because while I can say whatever I want about myself, including less flattering truths, I can’t do the same with others.” According to Carrère, the terms of his divorce settlement require that he “lie by omission,” and he finds this requirement intolerable: “Regarding literature, or at least the sort of literature I practice, I have one conviction: It is the place where you don’t lie.”
But even without the constraints of his divorce settlement, Carrère acknowledges the limits of his ability to tell the whole truth. He suggests that there is an inevitable distortion of experience in the practice of writing (“I can never really experience … because right away I feel the need to put it into words”) and acknowledges his inability to “see things as they are, instead of pasting this vision over with the sort of nonstop, subjective, wordy, one-sided, narrow commentary that we produce all the time without even being aware of it.” This distrust of objectivity is characteristic of works of autofiction, which stake less of a claim to factual or journalistic truth than traditional works of autobiographical writing like memoir.
Nonetheless, Carrère also betrays a desire to transcend his individual subjectivity, if not achieve objectivity, with his admission, “I’d like to think something other than what I think, because what I think […] is vain, repetitive, and pathetically self-centered.” Throughout the novel, Carrère wrestles with his “despotic ego” in order to try and overcome his compulsive, self-centered narration and more directly access experience. His elected method to transcend his subjectivity is to practice meditation and, yes, yoga.
At the beginning of the novel, in January 2015, the narrator goes on a 10-day Vipassana retreat in rural France. There, he freely submits himself to the “Noble Silence,” unaware that the rules of the retreat will foreshadow the terms of his later divorce settlement: Participants are segregated by gender and forbidden from looking at or speaking to each other; they are also forbidden from reading or writing. Unable to refrain from taking mental notes for a new writing project—an “upbeat, subtle little book” on yoga tentatively titled Exhaling—Carrère compiles dozens of definitions of meditation, almost all of which are rejoinders to his own sense of self or identity: “Meditation is detaching from what you call yourself. Meditation is discovering that you’re something other than the thing that is relentlessly saying: Me! Me! Me! Meditation is discovering that you are something other than your ego.” And so on.
But Carrère can’t outrun his compulsive narration, which he identifies as the polar opposite of meditation—meditation “aims to help you stop telling stories”—and concedes that he tells stories “because it’s [his] way of knowing reality,” without which he is liable to lose not just his sense of self but also his sense of place in the world, his sanity. Furthermore, he concedes that writing without fabrication is “exactly the same as observing your breathing without modifying it”—a standard meditation practice—“which is to say: It’s impossible.” Yoga and meditation won’t allow him to negate his subjectivity and directly access experience.
Three days into Carrère’s stay at the Vipassana retreat, the “Noble Silence” is interrupted when a staff member pulls him aside and whispers news from the outside world: Two gunmen have stormed the Paris offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and murdered 12 people, including Carrère’s friend and fellow writer Bernard Maris. The gunmen have identified themselves as members of Al Qaeda, which since 2013 has called for the deaths of Charlie Hebdo editors for publishing depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. Carrère is disquieted to think that while he was “busy focusing on [his] nostrils” at the Vipassana retreat, Maris’s “brains [were blown] on the linoleum floors of Charlie Hebdo’s dingy newsroom.” He finds it unthinkable that he should rejoin the “Noble Silence” and not add his voice to the growing calls of support for freedom of expression that resound throughout Europe.
He leaves the retreat to eulogize his friend at his funeral, and in the wake of the tragedy, Carrère begins to question whether meditation’s “wisdom [isn’t] a little too wise”—whether it doesn’t represent a retreat from the interpersonal conflicts of the outside world. Disillusioned, he abandons his “upbeat, subtle little book” on yoga and falls into a deep depression. Unable to write, he is committed to a psychiatric hospital by his sister—his wife out of the picture, at least in this retelling. (Carrère has since revealed that his sister agreed to act as a fictional stand-in for Devynck.) There, he undergoes ketamine therapy, which only leads him to request euthanasia. Finally, his doctors decide for him that he should undergo electroshock therapy, rebranded as electroconvulsive therapy—or preferably just ECT.
After four months of induced epileptic seizures, Carrère’s mind is “reset,” and he concedes that electroshock therapy may have saved his life. But a few years later, in 2018 and 2019, Carrère reports that he still experiences serious side effects from the seizures, most notably memory loss, which renders his mind a “field of ruins.” Carrère writes in an attempt to recover his past and sense of self and place in the world. This, too, is characteristic of works of autofiction, the author-narrators of which have, ever since In Search of Lost Time, often contended with the fallibility of memory and sought to recover an elusive “essential integrity” of character.
Inevitably, Carrère writes about the people with whom his past is intertwined, including his ex-wife-to-be. By the time of their divorce in 2020, Carrère has enough material for a book, and Devynck’s concern that he can’t represent her accurately seems more justified than ever: He admits that his memory is fallible, that writing without fabrication is impossible. But Carrère admits this in the book itself—it is perhaps Yoga’s central theme—and Devynck’s insistence that he remove all mention of her and their daughter betrays a suspicion that the reader will be unable to recognize that they are seeing the world through the eyes of an unreliable narrator. When Carrère decides to include, despite Devynck’s protests, a passage about her from a book he published a decade earlier, he responds to the ensuing controversy with the quip, “One can forbid me from writing things, but not from having written them.” With this barb, was he expressing regret for having surrendered control of la gégène? Four years after undergoing electroshock therapy, his mind still a “field of ruins,” had he forgotten that being written about is equivalent to being tortured with electric prods?
Around the time Carrère underwent electroshock therapy in France, Linda Boström Knausgård was subjected to the same treatment in Sweden. Boström Knausgård, a Swedish poet and novelist, was married at the time to the Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgård, who had written about their marriage in intimate detail in his six-volume autobiographical novel My Struggle and subsequent Seasons Quartet. In 2019, after Boström and Knausgård separated, Boström published an autobiographical novel of her own, October Child, set in the psychiatric institution where she underwent electroshock therapy on and off for four years while Knausgård was becoming a household name in Scandinavia. Like Carrère, Boström reports years after the treatment that she still suffers severe memory loss and that she writes in an attempt to recover her past and sense of self. In addition to being an account of her experience undergoing electroshock therapy—which she describes as a form of abuse—October Child, written in a letter-like address to Knausgård, is also a response to her ex-husband’s depiction of her in writing.
Like Carrère’s ex-wife Devynck, Boström has said in interviews that her ex-husband’s depiction of her reflected “only what he wanted to see.” While she has conceded that, “objectively,” the My Struggle books are “very good”—and insisted that her intention in writing October Child was not to settle scores—Boström has also wondered aloud whether Knausgård is “one of [those] male writers [who] can’t really write about women.” In a 2019 interview with Vanity Fair, Boström concluded that she was less disappointed in her ex-husband than in the general reading public, which she, like Devynck, suspected was unable to “take [a book] for what it [is], which is one person’s interpretation.” Echoing the convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald, Boström said that she didn’t want her ex-husband’s readers “to think [that] they know me.” Boström didn’t fear the torture of being written about so much as “soul murder,” which she aimed to resist by offering her own countervailing narrative.
In a 2018, interview with The Guardian, the year before October Child was released, Knausgård alluded to having read Boström’s manuscript, including her depiction of him: “Recently I had someone writing about me, and I just couldn’t accept it,” he said. “I couldn’t accept that version [of me], but it’s true for that person. It was very hard to realize that that was a possible way of looking at me. I learned much more about myself reading that than from writing.” Knausgård continued, “The shocking thing is to discover [that] from other people’s [perspectives] … I’m ruthless or neglectful or not empathetic”—a “bad” character—whereas he had “always thought” that he “was good.”
Carrère, for his part, has said that he has never been under any such illusion: “I am not a good man, unfortunately,” he confessed in 2016, though he suggested this didn’t preclude him from writing “good”—that is, morally defensible—literature: “I am, however, very moral. Which is to say I know where goodness is, and badness … I do not believe that literature gives you the right to immorality.” Where, then, is the goodness in the bad man’s writing?
As Carrère’s compatriot Michel Houellebecq argues in his essay, “Emmanuel Carrère and the Problem of Goodness,” published in his recently translated collection Interventions 2020, the question of goodness in Carrère’s writing isn’t so much a question of the writer’s goodness, but rather the position from which the writer addresses the “question of the human community, of the possibility of a human community.” According to Houellebecq, who is often mischaracterized as a nihilist for his consistent portrayal of “bad” characters, what is “good” or morally defensible in Carrère’s writing is that it does not abandon the possibility of human community—or at least, the possibility of human connection—between “good” and “bad” characters, including those who write and those who are written about.
Janet Malcolm famously begins The Journalist and the Murderer with the provocation: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” Malcolm emphasizes this “betrayal” at the outset and argues that the “catastrophe suffered by the subject is no simple matter of an unflattering likeness or a misrepresentation,” but a matter of “deception” practiced on the subject by the writer who “never had the slightest intention of collaborating.”
Later on, however, Malcolm appears to open up the possibility of collaboration—or at least, connection—between writer and subject, and even suggests that such a connection is necessary for the production of good creative nonfiction: “A crucial element of the transformation from life to literature that the masters of the nonfiction genre achieve,” she writes, “is the writer’s identification with and affection for the subject, without which the transformation cannot take place.” Is it perhaps this identification with the subject, rather than an insistence on their inaccessibility, that offers hope of transcendence of the writer’s “pathetically self-centered” subjectivity? If we accept Carrère’s assertion that literature doesn’t give the writer the right to immorality, then is it perhaps this identification with the subject that opens up the possibility of human connection and makes a work morally defensible?
This line of reasoning would appear to run counter to Carrère’s notion that writing about other people is tantamount to torturing them. It would also appear to run afoul of Devynck’s legal effort to reserve the right to not be written about, with its implicit moral claim against writers representing lives and identities other than their own for fear of misrepresentation. But, more than a fear of misrepresentation, might this line of argument betray, as Malcolm suggests, a fear of betrayal—a suspicion that a writer will approach a subject in bad faith, not be willing to collaborate? What if an attempt at representation is necessary in order to achieve the human connection that makes a work valuable and, following Houellebecq, moral—regardless of whether it results in misrepresentation? Does the prohibition of a subject’s representation amount to an abandonment of the possibility of human connection—of human community altogether? In the end, is the aggrieved subject’s best recourse to try and “correct” any perceived misrepresentation by providing an account of her own, as Boström has done in October Child and Devynck has in the pages of Vanity Fair—regardless of whether this back-and-forth resembles a tit-for-tat extension of the battle of the sexes, or a sadomasochistic ritual involving two consenting parties and a pair of electric prods?
In Yoga, Carrère reveals that around the time he came across the interview with Gen. Massu, he read another newspaper story which “marked [him] for life”: A 4-year-old boy had been taken to hospital by his parents for a routine operation, but the anesthesiologist made a mistake, and the boy was rendered permanently “deaf, dumb, blind, and paralyzed”—not comatose, but “walled-up” inside his own consciousness. When the boy awoke from the operation, he found himself in total darkness, a noiseless vacuum. He could not communicate with anyone, and no one could communicate with him. Carrère remarks that “nothing”—not even the interview with Massu—“has ever upset [him] as much” as the newspaper article about that boy, and that the story “awakens in [him] … something that lies at the root of [his] own experience.” Carrère concludes that despite his attempts to connect with others through writing—to transcend his individual subjectivity and allow subject and reader to transcend theirs in a kind of Holy Trinity or community of believers—he sees his books moving toward “the absolute horror, the unspeakable terror of a 4-year-old boy who regains consciousness in eternal darkness.”
Carrère laments, “No one can imagine [what was] going on in [the boy’s] mind, how he [made] sense of [what was] happening to him.” And yet Carrère proceeds to do exactly that: He imagines the boy worrying at first, but reassuring himself that his parents will come and turn on the lights soon; realizing that he can’t feel his limbs or hear himself speak, and that he has no way of communicating with his parents; concluding that he is completely alone, and, finally, “silently screaming.” Carrère allows himself the license to try and imagine what was going on in the boy’s mind by identifying with him and attempting to achieve an impossible connection.
Though the boy is a “black box,” an opaque, closed-off entity, as Carrère describes another one of his subjects, the convicted murderer Jean-Claude Romand, Carrère approaches the subject by consenting “to go into the only black box [he does] have access to, which is [himself]”—the void of his own experience and identity. Though Carrère maintains that he doesn’t think “you can put yourself in other people’s positions”—ventriloquize—and nor should you, he offers, once again reaching for an impersonal pronoun, that as an alternative “you can … occupy your own [position], as fully as possible, and say that you are trying to imagine what it’s like to be someone else,” without pretending to be that person. The difference may be subtle, but for Carrère it presents the only remaining option which doesn’t altogether abandon the possibility of human connection.
Carrère’s cautionary tale evinces a fear of a reality in which writers, subjects, and readers can’t communicate with each other, where they are rendered deaf, dumb, blind, and paralyzed—“walled-up” inside their own consciousness. In such a world, writers are limited to writing about themselves, without depicting any of the other people in their lives, even if they are the mothers or fathers of their children, or indeed their children.
Autofiction has often been derided as both overly concerned with a writer’s individual experience—“navel-gazing”—and inconsiderate to those other than the writer whose lives it depicts. But these criticisms betray a fundamental misunderstanding of what draws writers and readers alike to autofiction. The best—most redemptive—autofiction since Proust included more than 400 characters in his rhizomatic lifework has concerned itself with the ways in which individual lives and identities are connected to the lives and identities of others, and sought to represent this interconnectedness to readers who also sense the terror of being “walled-up” inside their own consciousness. Writers may not be deaf, dumb, blind, or paralyzed, but they may be condemned to their beds in cork-lined, windowless rooms, perfectly able to listen, think, see, move—perhaps even form human connections—while faced with the impossible demand to only observe their breathing without modifying it.