Emmanuel Carrère (Paris, 63 years old), author of stark confessional books and stories about real characters who live on the edge of humanity, won the Princess of Asturias Award for Literature this Wednesday. In his latest book, Yoga, Carrère narrates his fall into the hell of depression and, with it, he closes a cycle of autobiographical books that has occupied him for almost two decades. Although he is one of the most influential writers of the 21st century, the author of The adversary (published by Anagrama like the rest of his work in Spanish) has never obtained the Goncourt, the most prestigious award in French letters.
“I’m fed up with autobiographical writing right now,” Carrère confessed last February in an interview in his Parisian apartment with Babelia, the literary supplement of EL PAÍS. “I’m not going to start doing another autobiographical book,” he added, “I don’t feel like doing it, which doesn’t mean that I won’t do another one in a few years.” The author had begun to find some peace after a time of psychic turmoil. During one morning he spoke of his depression, of his old and new projects, of the contract with his ex-wife, the journalist Hélène Devynck, which forced him to expunge Yoga of fragments where she appeared, and of the controversy he had with her, due to interposed articles, once the book was published.
Carrère is not a difficult writer to read: his smooth prose, an almost journalistic style, the colloquial tone of the friend who confidently recounts his life in a low voice, a devilish rhythm that catches the reader on the first page and does not let go until the last. But he is not a simple author. His is a borderline and risky literature, from which no one comes out unscathed. To the limit of intimacy and modesty, of the damage that others can suffer when they become literary subjects or of the transformation of despicable characters into protagonists of novels that are already classics, such as The adversary, the chronicle published in 2000 about Jean-Claude Romand, the false doctor who for almost two decades led a double life and ended up killing his closest relatives.
Experiences to the limit
Carrère grew up in a Parisian bourgeois and intellectual family. His mother is the historian Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, a great specialist in Russia, a leading Sovietologist during the Cold War and currently the perpetual secretary of the French Academy, that is, its director for life. Emmanuel Carrère, infected since he was a teenager by the virus of books and fictions, began his literary career with fantastic stories, influenced by his beloved Philip K. Dick, to whom he would dedicate a biographical essay in the 1990s. He combined them with movie reviews in the magazine Positif and interviews and reports. The combination of both worlds – imaginative literature and journalism that documents reality – are the hallmarks of his style.
The adversary marked a turning point in his work and life, which have never ceased to be confused. Until then his books were fictions like Mustache, where a man shaved his mustache, but no one around him noticed, which triggered an existential incident. With The adversary it inaugurated a stage of documentary books – reports, actually – in the first person. The story of Romand consecrated Carrère as a master of non-fiction and would lead the author, in the style of Montaigne, one of his models, to become himself the subject of his reports.
The experience was not pleasant neither for him nor for his family. On A russian novel He recounted a year of his life without a shield or restraint when it came to exposing his own miseries, the most intimate moments with his partner at the time and an episode from his illustrious mother’s family that she would have preferred to keep secret. On Of other people’s lives, which could be read as a sequel to A russian novel, recounted his reconciliation with life, his redemption with his partner and wife for more than a decade, Hélène Devynck. And it meant a change of literary focus: the subject was no longer him and his neuras and illnesses, but other people, modest and heroic. Yoga, marked by separation from Devynck and relapse into depression, closes the circle.
Meanwhile, Carrère published acclaimed books such as Limonov, a fictionalized biography of the Soviet dissident and Russian nationalist leader, and The kingdom, where he mixed an autobiographical account of his conversion to Catholicism in the 1990s and his relationship with religion with an account of the early years of Christianity. And he never abandoned his love for cinema: from the melancholic documentary Return to Kotelnich, whose elaboration is one of the plots of A russian novel, to Ouistreham Pier, based on the report by her friend Florence Aubenas about cleaning women on the English Channel coast, which, after being postponed due to the pandemic, should hit the screens this year.