The French writer and filmmaker Emmanuel Carrère is a divisive figure. Lauded by the European literati (Julian Barnes is not alone in considering him ‘the most impressive writer in Europe’), Carrère’s excavation of his family life has drawn criticism on grounds of exploitation, insensitivity and invasion of privacy. His ex-wife, Hélène Devynck, publicly accused him of breaching an agreement by including her in his latest ‘non-fiction novel’ Yoga, and also contended that much of his portrayal was wildly delusional. He’s probably not an ideal husband. But fortunately for readers not related to him, he is an immensely engaging, lively and exciting writer.
His new novel began life as an ‘upbeat, subtle little book on yoga’, and the first section details his brief stay in a meditative retreat in rural France, with intriguing diversions into his personal philosophy regarding the rewards of deep meditation and temporary withdrawal from a tech-reliant society. This period of indulgent reflection is however cut short with the news that Bernard Maris, his friend and columnist for French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo, has, along with 11 others, been murdered in an Al Qaeda terrorist attack on the magazine office in Paris.
Carrère is a very funny writer who constantly seeks and finds joy
This event waylays the book in various ways. Carrère immediately leaves the retreat and, as shock sets in, begins to question the value of writing about ‘meditators busy focussing on their nostrils’ in light of the stark horrors of life outside a cosseted compound. Thus begins a very different, harrowing pathway for Carrère and his book, as mental health problems overwhelm him, his marriage crumbles, and he is thrown into grief by the death of an old friend.
It’s an unusual reading experience, to soak in 100 pages investigating beneficial methods of inhaling and exhaling, only be to violently pulled up by a ‘real life’ incident which puts everything you’ve just read into mocking perspective. But this is what Carrère excels at. He takes his reader on the same snaking, unpredictable journey he experiences himself, without the impression of contrivance or gimmickry. His prose is economical and forensic, yet it never feels clinical. Instead it is increasIngly hypnotic; lyrical, hypnotic and elegant. There is no doubt that a great intellect is at work, keen to explore the depths of his own troubled mind.
If this all sounds like a hifalutin misery memoir or a very dry kind of naval-gazing, rest assured; unlike that other well known chronicler of the self Karl Ove Knausgård, with whom he is often compared, Carrère is also a very funny writer who constantly seeks and finds joy. He enjoys regaling us with amusing tales of his fellow retreaters, one of his favourites being the guy who tells him he was able to spend his entire meditation time thinking about just one thing, without a single distraction. What did you think of, asks an impressed Carrère. The answer; “boobs”.