Blaming her (for turning him into a monster)
I bought this book in Paris because I wanted to get acquainted with this celebrated author, because I hoped to learn more about Russia, and because I wanted to improve and update my French. I did learn a lot of obscene vocabulary in French and I feel I became very well acquainted with Emmanuel Carrère’s personality and obsessions, but I learned very little that was new to me about Russia. So I’m satisfied, though the experience was quite disagreeable.
The book is Carrère’s account of two ridiculous and self-inflicted fiascos during his midlife crisis: The filming of a wandering, pointless documentary on a town in Russia he didn’t even like, and was mostly too drunk to observe carefully, and a passionate love affair, or more accurately, attempt to totally control a younger, sexually attractive woman he respected so little that he misread — for lack of attention — all her cues.
The documentary on Kotelnitch, a remote and backward town 707 km. northeast of Moscow, was a pretext to recover the Russian he had heard as an infant and thus (in his mind) cling more tightly to his mother (the distinguished sovietologist and member of the French academy Hélène Carrère d’Encausse); his urgency was due to the fact that he was approaching the age (46) of the disappearance and presumed death of her father (who was not Russian but Georgian). He and his TV crew did eventually produce the video (“Return to Kotelnitch,” 2003), by piecing together disconnected scenes gathered more or less randomly over several visits (he had no script), which is less about Russia than about his emotional struggle to learn the language and make sense of his life.
The misadventure with the young woman he calls Sophie (I hope for her sake that that’s a pseudonym) involves a pornographic (his term) “nouvelle” in Le Monde that he demands she read on the train to visit him, and which is designed to drive her and any other female reader to semi-public masturbation. But, for complicated (and quite understandable) reasons, she misses that train, driving him and his control compulsion absolutely nuts. The nouvelle is included here, and you will see why it caused a great scandal in France, but Sophie never read it. His violent reaction is extreme and despicable and he blames her for turning him into a monster: « J’ai mal, je me déteste, je jouis de me détester…» and a little later, «…je repousse la femme qui fait de moi cet homme horrible.»
He is said to be an exceptionally good writer, and from the evidence of this book that is true in one sense: He is very very good at describing sex, as well as other emotions, at least his own. However he is barely observant about the feelings of other people, including the various Russians he deals with in Kotelnitch. Besides vivid expression, there are two other things I expect from a good writer. One is coherent structure, leading to some conclusion other than “well, that episode is over, now I go on with my life” — which is how this book ends. The other thing I hope for is more important: that the author feel some concern for something larger than himself. Maybe he does, but you wouldn’t know it from his roman russe.