The current French intellectual scene has produced few such prolific and prodigiously talented personalities as Emmanuel Carrère. He has directed a film, La Moustache (2005), based on his novel of the same name, with a Hitchcockian though oddly inconclusive plot about a man whose sanity is called into question when he shaves off his mustache and no one notices or even recalls that he ever had one. He has worked on the script for sixteen episodes of a TV series, Les Revenants (The Returned), about the dead reappearing among the living as if they had never gone away. He has written, under the title Je suis vivant et vous êtes morts (I Am Alive and You Are Dead), a biography of the American science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, whose explorations of bizarre and supernatural happenings obviously had a profound impact on Carrère.
Biography, and later autobiography, attracted Carrère after his screenwriting. His first biography, The Adversary, was devoted to an amiable man, Jean-Claude Romand, who ultimately murdered his entire household—wife, children, parents, and dog—and then converted to Christianity in prison. It seems clear that this criminal attracted Carrère’s attention not only because he was such a successful liar for most of his life but because he converted to a faith that Carrère himself had professed for almost three years.
It was his family that impelled Carrère into autobiography. His mother, though born in Paris, spoke Russian, and her background inspired him to write My Life as a Russian Novel, about her father, Georges Zourabichvili, who came from Tblisi and was also a professing Christian. Zourabichvili studied in Heidelberg, moved to France, and collaborated with the Nazis as an interpreter during the occupation. At the end of the war he was abducted and never seen again. Carrère’s familiarity with Russian served him well when he turned to a biography of a modern Russian poet, Eduard Limonov, who was one of the most obnoxious and immoral writers ever to have emerged from the Soviet Union.1 Limonov made a disreputable career in New York and Paris before returning to Putin’s Russia, where he at first opposed Putin and then became a supporter.
Carrère has now extended this bewilderingly wide-ranging output with a new book, The Kingdom, that in its garrulity and chaotic content echoes his earlier work. There are many allusions to Russian culture and repeated invocations of Philip K. Dick, who seems to be one of those American writers who touch on alternate realities, like Edgar Allan Poe, whom the French have adopted as one of their own. At one point Carrère recounts the entire plot of a story by Poe about incarcerated lunatics. His new book, like the earlier ones, defies categorization and blends autobiography with implausible speculation, this time about early Christianity, and about Saint Paul and Saint Luke in particular. The book is long and sprawling. Reading it is rather like listening to a cultivated but supremely self-absorbed acquaintance who cannot stop talking about himself. The translator, John Lambert, catches this tone perfectly.
Carrère’s family and spiritual development are such constant themes in his work that it is not surprising to find his early interest in writing fiction, both in the form of a novel and in television scripts, now combined in a fusion of autobiography, novel, and church history, all of which are held together by the author’s personal experiences and wide reading. He is evidently most comfortable with a hybrid genre that might best be called novelistic biography, such as his book on Dick, or novelistic memoir, such as the account of his maternal grandfather and now The Kingdom.
There can be no doubt that his family and background are fertile themes for such treatment. Recurrent allusions to Russia and Russian culture reflect the milieu in which his mother, Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, was raised. She spoke Russian from childhood and she has become, through her publications on Russian history and politics, one of the most eminent historians of Russia today. She is now, in her late eighties, a formidable presence in Paris as the third woman to be elected to the Académie Française and currently its august permanent secretary.
It was obviously not easy for Carrère to find his own voice and make his own career in the shadow of such a woman and such a family. So he has done what many good writers do and written about what he knows best—in his case his grandfather, his mother, and himself. In the new book the mother continues to be a powerful presence, even when she is not explicitly mentioned. I cannot imagine she would welcome what he says about her rise to prominence: “What she fears above all else is counting for nothing.” He says this because he believes that her impoverished childhood and the loss of her parents at a young age drove her to spend her entire life in pursuit of success, social status, and popular acclaim. “She succeeded,” says Carrère, “she got it all, she never said ‘That’s enough.’” To read these words about an eminence of the Académie Française from her voluble son is unnerving, even if he modulates what he says by mentioning his mother’s lifelong reading of Saint Augustine.
Carrère’s own successful career is comparable with his mother’s. It has brought him wealth, which he mentions with satisfaction, as well as considerable fame, and his readers will sense a debt to his mother’s energy and tenacity. The reference to Augustine opens up what The Kingdom is all about. This is a book that begins with the author’s three-year espousal of Christianity, followed by long years afterward of trying to understand how that could have happened—what it meant for him and what it implies for Christianity. It is this circuitous autobiographical route that leads Carrère to undertake an elaborate and often incoherent meditation on the letters of Paul as well as the account, which is normally ascribed to Luke, of the Acts of the Apostles.
From someone in the early twenty-first century with a Russian heritage and an obsession with Christianity, one might have hoped for a masterpiece such as Mikhail Bulgakov’s incomparable The Master and Margarita, but for all his creativity Carrère lacks the rare conjunction of rigid discipline and wild imagination with which Bulgakov was able to situate Jesus’s world in Soviet Moscow. Carrère’s book is an anguished, if sometimes repetitive, attempt to understand why Christianity appealed to him in the first place.
After a long autobiographical introduction he says disarmingly, “I’ve become the person I was so afraid of becoming. A skeptic. An agnostic—not even enough of a believer to be an atheist.” But several hundred pages of reflection do not much help him. He ends his book by wondering whether he betrayed the young man he was and the God he believed in, or whether he remained faithful to them. “I don’t know” is his answer. This is a good example of Carrère’s method of exposition, in which speculation and introspection often collapse into personal confession.
Hence we discover that Carrère likes the apostle Luke because he is a writer as well as a doctor. He knows how to tell a story, and it is to Luke’s narrative that we often return after forays into the apostolic letters, both genuine and spurious. But Carrère’s control of this material is not as secure as it should be. He supposes that Luke, in a “magnificent prologue” to his gospel, took over from Plutarch the scheme of parallel lives, but Plutarch wrote, by anyone’s chronology, well after Luke, and Carrère thinks that Luke’s name in Latin was Lucanus, which was the name of a Neronian poet. The apostolic letter ascribed to James, the brother of Jesus, is, for Carrère, the work of Luke as a ghostwriter. But he is probably right, if not indisputably, that Luke was a Greek, not a Jew, although he was attracted to Judaism. Paul was certainly a Jew, whose advocacy of Jesus’s teachings did not keep him from interacting with other Jews and addressing their obligations as Jews. If Luke is the author of the Acts, as Carrère assumes together with most readers, he closely tracked Paul’s career.
Paul is arguably the most complex and controversial figure in early Christianity. Luke may be easier to understand, but he is certainly less profound. As Carrère is aware, Pier Paolo Pasolini took a very different view of Luke from Carrère in the screenplay for a movie he never made on the life of Paul.2 Pasolini transferred to the twentieth century the saint’s career in the eastern Mediterranean and his death in Rome. He converted all the places where Paul preached into modern cities, such as occupied Paris to represent Jerusalem (with the Christians transformed into resistance fighters) or Geneva as Antioch. Like Luis Buñuel in Simon of the Desert, Pasolini ends his story in New York, which he believed to be the Rome of the twentieth century. It is clear that Pasolini hated Luke because he introduced him into his script as an agent of Satan. Since Carrère not only likes Luke but sees himself as another Luke (“like me” he writes of him with reference to his use of metaphor), it is worth asking why the two screenwriters—Pasolini and Carrère—have such utterly divergent views of the same evangelist.
Of Luke’s account of the Annunciation Carrère claims that it “contains a stroke of creativity worthy of a novelist or screenwriter, as extraordinary as Paul’s entry on the scene in the Acts.” Not unreasonably he claims he is fully competent to make a judgment from this perspective. But so was Pasolini, who was no less creative than Carrère as a screenwriter, and if not as a novelist certainly as a poet and storyteller.
Carrère makes the odd suggestion that in order to introduce Jesus and then John the Baptist successively into his narrative Luke had the bright idea “in his bed, or in the baths, or walking on the Campus Martius” that Jesus and John were cousins. So he simply invented a family connection between the two. He made cousins of Mary and Elisabeth, John’s mother, and imagined Mary visiting the pregnant Elisabeth soon after the Annunciation.
That may look like smart plotting to Carrère, although few will want to follow him. Pasolini clearly had no such idea. He saw in Luke a writer who made a successful career out of Paul’s travels and preaching.
Therein lies the most conspicuous parallel between Luke and Carrère. Both exploit the lives of people they know for their own self-aggrandizement, and Pasolini obviously saw this immediately in Luke’s exploitation of Paul and the story of Jesus. For Pasolini, Luke was using Paul and the diffusion of Jesus’s teaching not only to spread the Christians’ good news but to advance his own reputation. It was but a small step for Pasolini to find Satan as the driving force in Luke’s work. Carrère admits that when he read the screenplay of Pasolini’s Saint Paul film he was stupefied to discover that Luke was cast in the role of “a double-dealing conniver who lives in the shadow of the hero and ultimately betrays him.” He believes that Pasolini saw Luke as a collaborator: “Because Luke is everyone’s friend, he is the enemy of the Son of Man.” One can almost hear Carrère protesting, because there is not the slightest reason to consider Luke “everyone’s friend.”
Luke was a writer and storyteller, and he undoubtedly had a good story to tell. Carrère can reasonably appreciate him as such. But what makes Luke so close to him is his ingenious collocation of the elements of a famous man’s career of which he had firsthand knowledge (as Carrère did with Romand, Limonov, and Zourabichvili) with the promotion of himself. This is where Carrère has excelled over many years in achieving a success as a writer and director that might reasonably be compared with the scholarly and social success of his extraordinary mother. But it is far from clear that his personal identification with Luke has enabled a more profound understanding of Luke, Paul, or early Christianity.
If Carrère thinks he is a modern Luke, he thinks of Paul as an ancient version of Nikolai Gogol’s fraudulent inspector in The Government Inspector whom the people he is inspecting assiduously court until, to universal consternation, the real inspector arrives. This surprising parallel occurs as an explanation of Paul’s troubled relations with the apostles in Jerusalem after his conversion on the road to Damascus. Paul had made a quick change from aggressive persecutor of Christ’s followers to become one of their number. The risen Christ famously spoke to him in the encounter outside Damascus, and on the strength of this single disembodied contact with the founder of the faith that he suddenly adopted, he counted himself an apostle. But the apostles in Jerusalem were confounded, and after a retreat into Arabia for three years of solitude Paul met with their leaders in Jerusalem to allay their concerns about his conversion and the preaching in which he was then engaged.
Carrère views all these events through a Soviet lens and describes James, Peter, and John in Jerusalem, whom Paul considered the pillars of the church, as a troika representing the Party, and, he writes, “You don’t break with the Party.” These were the ones who dispatched emissaries to Galatia to play the role of the real inspector general, and Carrère believes that this must have been very distressing for Paul, who “didn’t just fear the work of enemies, imposters, and forgers…. He was afraid of himself.”
Perhaps he was. We shall never know, but if he was, he confronted the crisis adroitly and eloquently, as we can readily see from his Letter to the Galatians. It is in this discussion of Paul that Carrère summons Philip K. Dick, Edgar Allan Poe, and Stalin for a breathtaking comparison of unhinged personalities who try to prove they are what they say they are rather than what they appear to be. We read reassuringly, “Paul of Tarsus was neither Philip K. Dick nor Stalin, even if he did share some of the traits of these two remarkable men.” But this does not stop Carrère from imagining that Paul must have had a nightmare that he might once again become Saul, his original self before Damascus:
What if this person who was different from Paul but who would have Paul’s face, Paul’s voice, Paul’s art of persuasion, one day visited Paul’s disciples with the intention of stealing them away from Christ?
I doubt that Paul ever had such a nightmare, but the Russian comparison perhaps made it irresistible for Carrère. What it reflects above all, as he admits by way of a quotation from a friend, is his own anxiety that he might himself change again. Perhaps after being a skeptic, a Christian, and then again a skeptic he might return to the embrace of the Church. The Party would win out in the end. This is precisely where the autobiographical narrative is unhelpful, even misleading, in an exposition of the career and views of Paul. It is one thing to for Carrère to see himself as a non-Satanic Luke, but it is quite another for him to take on the complex character of Paul.
The strictly autobiographical parts of The Kingdom, without reference to Carrère’s religious convictions or to Luke and Paul, are ultimately the least successful and rarely cohere with the work as a whole. A brief expression of admiration for Rogier van der Weyden’s marvelous picture of Luke drawing the Virgin (now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts) is the inexplicable prelude to a lengthy passage on Carrère’s pleasure in watching pornography on the Internet. This topic engages him for nearly four pages with a detailed description of a girl in the throes of masturbation. Why we have this, apart from the candid acknowledgment that Carrère likes watching it, I cannot imagine. His “erotic reveries,” which we are gratuitously told he shares with his wife, then lead us back, for no obvious reason, to Luke and the Virgin.
Another irrelevant item is Carrère’s admission that he has never been able to read Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian to the end. That is a pity, because he might have learned something from it about style and structure, neither of which seems to hold much interest for him. Besides, Yourcenar deserved some consideration from the son of the third woman ever to be elected into the Académie Française. Yourcenar was the first.
Near the end of his book Carrère tells us in another autobiographical excursus that he is writing his words on the island of Patmos in the eastern Aegean. That is unquestionably an enchanting island, and anyone who has been there can easily understand his satisfaction in having a house there for vacations. But in a book that is largely about Christianity one might have expected some reflections on the Revelation of Saint John, perhaps the most famous of all works to be associated with the island. Paradoxically, the remarks about writing on Patmos lead to a few paragraphs on Odysseus at Ithaca—the bed he shared with Penelope, his dog Argos, the swineherd Eumaeus, and the maid Eurycleia, who recognizes him after his long absence. This is very affecting but has nothing to do with what comes before or after.
These oddly self-indulgent insertions, which have only autobiography to link them to anything that has preceded, perhaps serve to expand the already expanded genre of novelized autobiography, although in this case the narrative is overtaken by its lengthy and inconclusive ruminations on the early history of Christianity. The Kingdom is often interesting and engaging to read, because its author is never short of opinions or experiences that he is eager to impart. Since he has a broad acquaintance with European and Russian culture, he always has something to say. But his biographies of bizarre figures such as Romand or Limonov and his screenplays, for which he is indebted to Philip K. Dick, have made it difficult for him to write about someone like himself, who has neither a criminal record nor hallucinations. His spiritual journey to and from Christianity deserves better.
Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia, translated by John Lambert (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014); see Masha Gessen’s review in these pages, May 21, 2015. ↩
Pier Paolo Pasolini, St. Paul: A Screenplay, translated and introduced by Elizabeth A. Castelli, with a foreword by Alain Badiou (Verso, 2014). ↩