For a long time, as I was reading Emmanuel Carrère’s Yoga, I found myself not getting something. This was because I was distracted by the issue of truth, which is another way of saying that I was distracted by gossip. The book tells the story of Carrère’s descent into a breakdown and his gradual recovery. But the publication of Yoga in France in 2020 had been accompanied by a flurry of argument between Carrère and his ex-wife, Hélène Devynck. While he was writing Yoga the couple had separated, and Devynck had subsequently made him sign a contract promising never to mention her in any of his texts without her explicit permission. Devynck outlined this deal in a French Vanity Fair article in which she defended the excisions she had demanded in Yoga, adding her observation that much of what remained in the book and that Carrère presented in it as fact was actually made up.
It was a highly bourgeois, literary version of breakup trash talk, but it also made it impossible to ignore a related network of arguments and propositions in Carrère’s writing, a way he has liked to talk about literature ever since his book The Adversary was published in the early 2000s: as a repudiation of fiction, a polemically selfless and absolute fidelity to truth. In Yoga he once again repeated this mantra:
Regarding literature, or at least the sort of literature I practice, I have one conviction: it is the place where you don’t lie…. What I write may be narcissistic and vain, but I’m not lying. I can quietly affirm, and will be able to quietly affirm on Judgment Day, that I write what crosses my mind, what I think, what I am.
Yoga, therefore, turned out to be a book that had a hole in it. This narrative that seemed to tell the story of his breakdown was missing a giant element of that story. And at the same time none of this gossip and recrimination was really any help in understanding what Yoga was trying to do.
But then, the question of Yoga’s true subject is difficult, just as any book’s subject may be at first obscure. After all, it can take a reader many rereadings to be sure of a book’s possible meanings, just as its writer may have also gone through a similar process of revision and rethinking. Mostly, of course, writers tend to conceal this confusion in the apparently finished work. But Yoga opens with a seductively open expression of compositional anxiety:
Seeing as I have to start somewhere in relating the story of these four years—during which I tried to write an upbeat, subtle little book on yoga, was confronted with things as downbeat and unsubtle as jihadist terrorism and the refugee crisis, was plunged so deep in melancholic depression that I was committed to the Sainte-Anne Psychiatric Hospital for four months, and, finally, during which I bade farewell to my editor of thirty-five years, who for the first time wouldn’t be there to read my next book—I choose to start with this morning in January 2015, when, as I finished packing, I wondered whether I should take my phone, which in any event I wouldn’t be able to keep with me where I was going, or leave it at home.
Yoga presents itself as a mess and never deviates from this image. Carrère offers up his book as a suite of apparently unrelated and unprocessed incidents. Any interpretation or even understanding, therefore, has to begin with an outline of the basic material.
Everything begins with Carrère in January 2015 setting off on a yoga retreat, where he is planning on writing his “upbeat, subtle little book on yoga.” He is vaguely happy and calm, personally and professionally. At last, he thinks, he is in a stable state. And for about a hundred pages this is roughly the book that you read—filled with meditations on meditation, martial arts, the practice of attention. But then this book is interrupted because Carrère is interrupted, brutally, on his retreat: a friend is killed in the Charlie Hebdo terrorist murders in Paris, and he is asked to speak at the funeral. Nevertheless, he still manages to write a draft of this yoga book, roughly represented by Yoga’s early pages, even if he finds that between the yogi on their zafus and
Bernard’s brains on the linoleum floors of Charlie Hebdo’s dingy newsroom…one experience is simply truer than the other. Everything that is real is true, by definition, nevertheless some perceptions of the real have a greater truth content than others, and they’re not necessarily the most optimistic.
Then, however, the descent begins. He has been having an affair with another woman, an affair that he believes he is conducting with immaculate propriety and emotional precision but that in fact precipitates a major crisis: a terrible depression, followed by an eventual diagnosis of bipolar disorder and, in particular, tachypsychia. “Tachypsychia is like tachycardia, only for mental activity. Your thoughts are erratic, disconnected, unrelenting. They’re all over the place. They swirl and scathe.” Finally Carrère is interned at the Sainte-Anne Psychiatric Hospital for four months.
This mental breakdown is the subject of the book’s third part. Following his release, he goes to stay in the Greek islands, at first on vacation, until he becomes involved in working with refugees caught in transit. (It is this fourth part that Devynck emphasized when accusing Carrère of fictional embellishment.) And then a final trauma occurs when his publisher and editor, Paul Otchakovsky-Laurens, who has published everything he ever wrote, dies suddenly. Yet at the end Carrère, pulverized but still alive, seems to reach a moment of peacefulness.
What links a yoga retreat, a friend’s murder, a breakdown, a refugee center, and a publisher’s death? And why is the issue of truth or fiction so important? How to judge such a book? Perhaps by first returning to the moment when Carrère changed his perspective in the late 1990s and abandoned fiction. Or by going back even further, to see what he was doing when he still trusted in one version of the novel.
Carrère began his writing career in the 1980s. His most celebrated book from that era is The Mustache, a hallucinogenic novel about a man who shaves off his mustache, but no one notices. Everything in this book is a kind of nihilistic fantasy, in which the protagonist gradually experiences a suicidal loss of reality. The mustache, or lack of mustache, becomes a cipher for a general impossibility of knowing the world: a sign of philosophical terror.
For about a decade fantasy and sci-fi were Carrère’s favored modes. As well as his fictions he also published two works of criticism, one of them an essay on uchronie, or speculative fiction, the other a biography of Philip K. Dick. They can be read in many ways as companions to each other, since they both depend on the axiom that the real is malleable:
At every instant millions of events happen or don’t happen; at every instant variables transform into givens, the virtual becomes actual, and it is in this way that at every instant the world presents a different state. Whatever he writes, at his small scale, a writer does in effect this kind of work: everything could happen, it’s down to him to decide whether something happens or not.
This is the principle behind the alternative histories in some of Dick’s novels, but it also leads to a darker intuition: that the real is just a screen, concealing a more arcane system visible only to the paranoid imagination. According to this intuition, people don’t exist. Everyone may be dead. Or as Carrère writes of Dick:
People had perfectly imitated the real so as not to frighten him, but he lived among the dead. One day, he thought, he would have to write a book about that: how someone discovers that in fact we are all dead.
The central task of literature, according to this thinking, is to pose the basic question of philosophical paranoia, the one sketched by Descartes in his terror that the external world is all an illusion projected by a super-powerful, malign demon.
At the same time, it was as if something was blocked or repetitive in Carrère’s writing. The release was a book that wasn’t a fiction about paranoia but reportage about a real-life loss of reality: an investigation into the case of the fantasist and murderer Jean-Claude Romand. Romand became notorious for the murder of his family in 1993, which led to the discovery that everything this bourgeois man had maintained about his life—for eighteen years he claimed to his family and friends that he was a doctor who worked at the World Health Organization—was in fact a lie. At first, since Romand’s lawyers refused Carrère access to their client, he used the material indirectly for a short novel, La Classe de neige. But then, in 1996, Romand made contact, and Carrère began to follow his trial. The book he finally wrote was not so much a simple investigation into Romand as a record of Carrère’s feelings about Romand’s story, whose details began to obsess him. In Romand he had found a kind of mutant double—a man who was a lurid exaggeration of an everyday bourgeois anxiety of status and ambition and disappointment, an anxiety that had become a form of psychosis.
In this way The Adversary marked a shift in Carrère’s writing. From then on he abandoned fiction to explore a new territory of nonfiction or autofiction: an apparent universe of true stories, but one where the subject was still madness or suffering or mania. His identity as a writer has become the writer who gave up on fiction to tell stories that are true. And truth, according to Carrère, can only be found in moments of horror: when the apparently stable human world is altered or broken or lost. We are always vulnerable to demons. Sometimes they take the form of a person’s psychotic fantasy. Sometimes they appear as outside disasters, as he described in Lives Other Than My Own (2012), with its catastrophe stories of tsunamis and terminal illness. And now, in Yoga, the demons emerge from inside: “that powerful, self-destructive streak I had presumptuously believed I was cured of, and that raged like never before, driving me forever from my enclosure.”
The novelty of Yoga, therefore, is that now the suffering has become Carrère’s own. It’s true that he had always put himself inside the stories he told, but there was a deliberate contrast between the bourgeois writer and the extremes he was describing. In Yoga this contrast has collapsed.
The most moving moments in Yoga are those when Carrère describes the depths of his depression during his stay in the psychiatric hospital. The depression leads only to hallucination and death:
The doctors murmur softly to the right of my bed, I don’t understand what they’re saying but they must be reciting verses from the Tibetan Book of the Dead to accompany me to the Bardo. There’s a light above me. I have to go there. I have to go there. I mustn’t miss the exit.
In the hospital there’s a Raoul Dufy poster, one of his multicolored beach scenes with women and children, and this is what Carrère sees each time he comes around from another brutal session of electroconvulsive therapy:
It’s strange, I think as I write this, that my stretcher was always turned in such a way that when I opened my eyes I always, always, saw that beach and those women in hoop dresses watching their children in sailor suits. It’s strange, but that’s how it is. I remember each reawakening as a moment of unbearable distress. What made it unbearable was that it was impossible to consider as a moment that could be put into perspective and would be followed by better moments. It wasn’t a moment: there would be no more moments, there had never been any.
It’s so irrevocable and absolute, this statement of horror, just as there is something equally precise and almost seductive in his descriptions of the social comedy in the ward:
My companions in the ward were an elegant woman with stylish hair who confessed with melancholic pride that this was her seventeenth long-term stay, and an obese film critic whom I’d known in a previous life, lost sight of for thirty years and who was having a good little depression—well, a good big one: you don’t end up at Sainte-Anne otherwise. He used to write for a magazine that was a direct rival to mine, and we had a good time talking about the people we knew and our past quarrels.
All Carrère’s writing reads as a series of excursions on a single axiom: Humans live on an edge, a border beyond which life can be emptied of all meaning. The only true stories are those of devastating loss. And the long chapter in which he describes his own suffering, “The Story of My Madness,” represents one of his most poignant investigations into this experience of loss.
But his ongoing obsession with the sensational and the lurid, with tales of suffering and unreality, can also destabilize the entire project, because the account of his madness is enclosed within that longer chain of stories: a friend’s murder, a friend’s death, the endurance of refugees as they wait for their futures to be processed on a Greek island. Each singular narrative begins to dissolve into the others, all told in Carrère’s fluently rueful and complicit and never inelegant sentences. The immediate justification for these multiple stories is that he happened on them in the course of his breakdown. For after all, his ideal literature is free-form and casual and improvised: a refusal of editing. “The writers who wrote what goes through their heads are the ones I prefer. Montaigne, our patron saint, does just that,” he writes in Yoga. In Lives Other Than My Own he described his “taste for and even obsession with chronology. Ellipsis does not agree with me.”
At a local level, this commitment to linearity, to a bricolage using any element he encounters, can provoke moments of bored exasperation, like these sentences about a restaurant he goes to with his lover:
One night we were hungry, and the receptionist told us about the only place still open in the neighbourhood. It belonged to the Entrecôte group of restaurants, which have the merit of closing very late and at which they only serve steaks with fries and a sauce that’s the house’s well-kept secret.
But there’s also a problem larger than a simple dissipation of narrative energy.
It’s as if Carrère in Yoga is trying to argue for a total universality of suffering, a mystical experience of horror. His empathy is garishly absolute: “Tears stream down my cheeks, tears that will never cease, tears that will flow as long as human misery exists.” This is why there are many other versions of suffering in Yoga. The problem is that these versions lose their specificity; they are warped by their proximity to Carrère’s true subject, which is himself. The flow is really a composition that vampirically sorts wildly disparate accounts of terror and harm into neat patterns and motifs: everything becomes a flattened element in his sequence of human misery. Like this short section, titled “I continue not to die,” which suddenly interrupts his time in the hospital:
My friend Ruth Zylberman sent me these two short letters, from an eight-year-old boy to his grandmother during the 1936 purges in the Soviet Union. The first:
Dear Babushka, I’m not dead yet. You’re the only one I have in the world and I’m the only one you have. If I don’t die, when I’m grown up and you’re very, very old, I’ll work and take care of you. Your grandson, Gavrik.
And the second:
Dear Babushka, I didn’t die this time either. It’s not the time I told you about in my last letter. I continue not to die.
These letters are extraordinary; they’re harrowing records of catastrophic harm, but as I read them I was also perturbed not just by their presence in the book but by that last sentence, “I continue not to die.” It is an echo of a passage in which Carrère describes another period of depression a decade earlier, when he also thought of committing suicide. He went to see an analyst, who said to him that yes, sometimes suicide was indeed the right solution for a person: “Then he added, ‘Or you can live.’” The Russian child’s “I continue not to die” is a neat reversal of the analyst’s “Or you can live.” Both sentences represent the basic motor of Yoga, this manual for survival. But the neatness of the echo was, for me, a problem. This improvised collage, it suddenly seemed, was too often structured with the methods of bad fiction.
Just after I read Yoga I was reading a novel by another European writer whose work I admire: Enrique Vila-Matas’s Montevideo. Early in it there’s a moment when Vila-Matas, or his narrator, mentions his ongoing boredom with the debates about autofiction, about truth and lies. Autofiction doesn’t exist, he argues, since everything is autofiction, “even the Bible is autofiction, since it begins with someone creating something,” just as nonfiction doesn’t exist either, since “every narrative version of a real history is always a form of fiction.” The moment the world is given an order by words, he writes, that world’s nature is modified.
Vila-Matas is a great artist of the self and the self’s nonexistence, and perhaps what I mean is that I started to miss some of that artfulness as I was reading Yoga. Late in the book, in a little chapter describing his love for his publisher, Carrère explains how their relationship began: “The first novel I wrote I sent to him, and to him alone, without knowing him, because P.O.L. published Georges Perec.” I paused here, because I found this admission perplexing. For there is great suffering in Perec’s work also, of course—the suffering of bereavement, of loss, of the Holocaust. But this suffering is always percolated through a dense network of form. It was Perec who wrote the truly great book with a hole in it: W, or The Memory of Childhood. W contains two separate texts, which run in alternating chapters: a fable about a society dedicated to sport called W, and an autobiography of Perec’s childhood. But the best summary of this novel is the one Perec himself offered:
In this book there are two texts which simply alternate; you might almost believe they had nothing in common, but they are in fact inextricably bound up with each other, as though neither could exist on its own, as though it was only their coming together, the distant light they cast on each other, that could make apparent what is never quite said in one, never quite said in the other, but said only in their fragile overlapping.
It looks like there are two elements, the story of W and the story of Perec’s childhood, but these two in fact conceal a third element, the unspeakable losses of the Shoah, unrecoverable except through the shimmer of the two parts’ interaction.
Perec’s novel is a beautiful example of the literary uses of montage and the truth it produces—the way apparently unrelated elements combine to form a deeper meaning. This was what I couldn’t help remembering as I read Carrère describing a central principle of Yoga:
It’s both a rule for me and one of the most reliable teachings of psychoanalysis that when you say two things have nothing in common there are strong chances that on the contrary they have everything in common.
I think Carrère wants Yoga to work like this, to produce new meanings and forms out of its collage of different elements—to find a hidden unity underneath the wildly various surface. But maybe, in the end, it found that unity so fluently that I was left with a surprising desire. I didn’t want more truth, whatever that might be. I wanted more intricate arts of fiction.