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

Emmanuel Carrère’s strongest writing is about the toughest material. File photograph: Alex Cretey-Systermans/The New York Times

Emmanuel Carrère’s strongest writing is about the toughest material. File photograph: Alex Cretey-Systermans/The New York Times

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.

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