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97,196 Words: Essays – Macho bravado makes it hard to take Carrère seriously

Book review: Much to admire in collection of essays and articles but boyish traits grate

97,196 Words: Essays
97,196 Words: Essays
Author: Emmanuel Carrère, translated by John Lambert
ISBN-13: 978-1911214465
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Guideline Price: £14.99

Because his egoist style is catching, a personal admission: for many years I have been avoiding the work of Emmanuel Carrère. The French novelist and non-fictioneer has been greatly admired by writers and critics whose judgments I trust, among them Rob Doyle, Geoff Dyer and the late Eileen Battersby. (In 2017, she called Carrère's novel The Kingdom "a lively, cunning, self-regarding frolic executed with subversive panache".) From a certain angle, he is the sort of author an aspiring essayist ought to seize on greedily: a novelist who, after a decade's appreciable success, abandoned fiction for the factual rigours and formal vexations of non-fiction. A writer who feels the need to reinvent his chosen genre to suit each new theme – French murderers, Russian fascists, natural disasters – yet is always himself on the page, confessional but without shame. He sounds too good to be true.

Of course I had read him, after a fashion: stray journalistic pieces on the likes of Emmanuel Macron or migrants in Calais. But when it came to more serious readerly commitment, Carrère seemed to me too full of himself, both too casual in style and too pompous in moral tone, especially when shrugging away conventional morality. In the end, somehow, too male. Like Dyer without the winning irony, or Michel Houellebecq with added humanity. I hoped a collection of his essays, many of them related to previous books or their subjects, would save him, or me.

Placing himself at or near the centre of the story has proved a liberating move for Carrère

97,196 Words collects 21 essays as well as newspapers articles published in the past three decades. It starts with murder and ends with Macron, in the meantime recounting various marginal lives and bruising personalities, hymning Carrère’s literary heroes or ambiguous affinities, and detailing his psychosexual character, adventures, pratfalls. His strongest writing is about the toughest material. In Three Crime Stories, from 1990, he recounts an adopted youth’s near-fatal attack on his birth mother; an apparently motiveless rural killing; and how a bureaucrat and abuse survivor shot her child and, once out of prison, had to live with the consequences. These short pieces veer between the matter-of-fact and the metaphysical, and only partly hint at the arduousness (for writer and reader) of Carrère’s first major non-fiction book, The Adversary. For six years he laboured to tell the story of Jean-Claude Romand, who had pretended for 18 years that he was a WHO doctor, and who finally, when the jig was up, killed his parents, his wife and two children in January 1993.

Carrère’s precise but flummoxed (why all this subterfuge and horror?) essay on Romand predates his book by four years. Stonewalled by the enigma of a murderer with no self-knowledge, he eventually had to throw away years of work and start again in a personal register – what were he, Carrère, and his family doing the day Romand committed his crimes? Placing himself at or near the centre of the story has proved a liberating move for Carrère. Some of his books could not exist without it, despite their focus on other people. Other Lives But Mine (2009) tells the story of the death from cancer of Carrère’s girlfriend’s sister, also how he and his girlfriend were caught up in the Sri Lanka tsunami of 2004. In Limonov (2011), he paints a morally complex picture of Emmanuel Limonov, anti-Putin fascist leader and former bohemian writer. In 97,196 Words we get preliminary journalistic versions of these stories, already full of arresting details: the way for instance that a couple he met in Sri Lanka, and who had just lost their daughter in the tsunami, still found the energy to be amused by Carrère’s kids.


Carrère thinks of his book-length portraits and narratives as “non-fiction novels”, borrowing a term from Truman Capote; and he tells us: “once a year at least I reread In Cold Blood.” Capote could not finish or publish that book until its murderous subjects were put to death, thus resolving his narrative. Carrère baulks at such authorial detachment. In an essay about Janet Malcolm, he also rejects her famous assertion that “every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible”. His essayistic style is instead an urgent sympathy, even when his subject is a creep such as Limonov.

There is, it has to be said, a sort of macho literary bravado in this performance of proximity to monsters. It affects too his essays on the writers he admires, which have a familiar adolescent flavour: Carrère is author of a biography of Philip K Dick, and here reprints an essay on H P Lovecraft. Each to their inhuman own, but Carrère is also not above writing a version of that venerable staple of men’s magazines, a profile of George Cockroft (aka Luke Reinhart), author of The Dice Man (1971). That novel’s dopey teenage premise – what if you lived your life at the whim of dice throws, morals be damned? – is of a piece with Carrère’s script, outlined here in an essay, for a film about a man who has become invisible. The possibilities.

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?

Brian Dillon's Essayism and In the Dark Room are published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. In Pieces, an essay collection, will be published in 2020.

Brian Dillon

Brian Dillon

Brian Dillon, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and critic. His books include Suppose a Sentence and Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives