Emmanuel Carrère

Unflinching view of a fall from grace

If Carrère can be so honest, there is hope for lesser sinners


This article is taken from the June 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

This memoir by Emmanuel Carrère, a French master of literary nonfiction, is ostensibly about depression. Five years ago Carrère was desperate enough to have himself committed to an institution and undergo electric shocks. His book tells of his ordeal and shaky recovery, using his lifelong practice of yoga and meditation as a leitmotif (hence the understated title).

Yoga is not solely, or even mainly, about mental illness or stretching exercises, however. The underlying theme emerges in gradual touches. Those familiar with Carrère’s work first note something odd: he is alone. Carrère usually portrays himself, often unflatteringly, as a social butterfly with an eye for the ladies. He has told us about his failed first marriage, sexual wanderings and his discovery of true love in his mid-forties. He has not spared us intimate digressions. In a biography of Saint Paul, he slipped in a passage about watching online porn with his beloved second wife, Hélène.

Yoga, Emmanuel Carrère (Jonathan Cape, £16.99)

In Yoga there is no sign of Hélène. Nor is the reason for her absence explained. From a writer given to oversharing, such silence is striking. A third of the way through the book, Carrère hints at what is going on. 

After writing about a woman friend who, like him, found love somewhat late in life, his tone turns self-reflective: “Such an encounter is the best thing that can happen to someone. Many people have to go through life without experiencing anything like it and those who do experience it … are the only truly happy people in the world. When life gives you such a blessing, you have to seize it and hold it tight. And if you’re unfortunate or stupid enough to miss out on it, life after such an error is bound to be bitter and unpleasant.”

Yoga is the story of a fall from grace by someone who feels he has let himself and others down. Carrère is merciless: he is determined not to allow anyone to beat him with a stick he has not provided. He starts by deriding his initial plan to write “a cheerful little book about yoga”. He “thought eagerly” about the millions of yoga enthusiasts that would be interested. “This book could sell like hot cakes,” he adds wryly.

The fieldwork involves a retreat in rural France. There he catches himself looking down on a smug fellow participant, who reminds him of a pathetic teacher from his schoolboy days. Meditation, Carrère knows, is about rising above such thoughts. He ends up admitting that his irritation was itself smugness and crying in shame at the memory of the humiliation his 14-year-old self inflicted on the teacher. Even in this breast-beating, he feels he is falling short and quotes a Buddhist sutra: “A man who judges himself superior, inferior, or even equal to another does not understand reality.”

Complacency, whether in the form of self-abasement or conceit, is difficult to shake off, and Carrère sees that he was due for a comeuppance. In his 50s, he felt secure. He was famous and happily married. “I know full well that all love is endangered,” he writes. “But from then on I imagined this danger as coming from outside, and no longer from within me.”

His descent starts when he is pulled from the retreat after the attack on Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, in which a journalist friend of his was killed. The massacre inspires reflections on the vulnerability of love. The partner of his dead friend was the above-mentioned woman who belatedly found Mr Right. Tragic death, Carrère observes, is not the only thing that can end a relationship. Then comes the shocking admission that by then he had been having an affair for years. 

Although specific about developments between the sheets, he is evasive about the wider context. We are told only that the lovers met at a yoga session and continued to see each other regularly, without asking questions about their respective lives. He claims, improbably, not to have known even the other woman’s name, only that she too was married.

Hélène, with Carrère at the Venice Film Festival

Carrère traces his downfall to his last conversation with her. She told him that she and her family were moving to a faraway country. He put a brave face on the news: this does not change much, he told his lover. Their assignations would be less frequent, but they would still see each other in exotic places. Looking back, Carrère sees that assuring the other woman that their love was forever was hubris: “I challenged the gods.”

He takes a hard look at himself not just as a man but as a writer. This is where he is both at his least revealing and most profound. An ancient strand in Western philosophy regards truth as an empty word. Carrère disagrees. He subscribes to the Eastern idea that if you try very hard, you can see things for what they are. The ability to perceive and convey reality is central to his art. The kind of literature he practises, he writes, is “the place where you don’t lie”. Take factual accuracy away, or introduce the suspicion that he could be less than honest, and little of his work remains.

This poses a problem, however. He feels he cannot tell the whole story because he’s not the only one involved. “I can say whatever I want about myself, including less flattering truths, I can’t do the same with others.” The only way of being honest in his account is to explain why it cannot be fully candid.

To illustrate the point, he quotes a remark by a retired general defending the use of torture not just on the usual grounds of purported efficacy, but also by saying that he had administered electric shocks on himself and it was not all that painful. Of course, Carrère counters, the man who applies electrodes to his own skin can remove them. Being at the mercy of someone else makes all the difference.

Carrère has come to realise that the same moral precept applies to autobiography. In a previous book, he graphically laid bare a failed relationship, causing distress, and he is set on not repeating the mistake.

Hence the ellipsis at the centre of the book: Carrère tells us that he must skip over the events that precipitated his depression. He fast-forwards to early 2016, when he has hit rock bottom. He languishes in a small apartment, “lonely as a rat, without a woman or impotent when by chance I bring one home, with my neck covered in dandruff, my cock blistered with herpes, unable to write”. 

An interview with an American journalist helps him realise that he needs help. Throughout the story of his ECT therapy and convalescence on a Greek island — where he helps young asylum seekers in the aftermath of the European migrant crisis — he reveals a lot about himself but remains cagey about other people’s lives. 

A fault confessed is half redressed, as the French say

Towards the end of the book, Carrère admits that he has made up details about the affair. He does not expand, of course, but the admission appears to confirm the suspicion that the illicit couple’s pledge to remain complete strangers, as in Last Tango in Paris, was fiction.

The breach of the reader’s trust is venial: a fault confessed is half redressed, as the French say. It is all the more forgivable as Carrère aims the harshest of spotlights on himself. He recalls how, in a book published in 2009, he described the transformation Hélène had brought to his life. Before meeting her, for all his achievements something crucial had been missing: no one had rested in the certainty of his love, and thus he had never rested in anyone else’s. Now that Hélène was close to him, the prelapsarian Carrère wrote, he was able to say his life had been a success.

Reading those words more than a decade later, he comments in Yoga:

Not only did I believe what I wrote there with all my heart, but I continued to believe it confidently for ten years, which were the best in my life. I knew that a love like that is rare and that if you let it go by you’ll be doomed to regret it … Where so many others failed, I thought I would succeed. I didn’t.

Despite Carrère’s unwillingness to spill all the beans, it is possible for readers to connect the dots and guess at events that could have led to his breakdown. At some point after his aborted retreat, his wife somehow learnt about the other woman; it is all too easy to imagine the pain Hélène felt at finding out that despite all his public protestations, she was not enough for her husband.

Carrère’s determination to draw a veil over the heartbreak is probably also a matter of self-respect. Describing his divorce would have suggested shared responsibility for a cross he is determined to bear alone. Some writers use their public platform to even private scores. Carrère did not want to be one of them. Of course, all this is conjecture. We cannot know for sure what triggered the fall, or the underlying motivation for keeping it a secret. That is the point.

Why should we be interested in such an exercise in self-flagellation? The answer is not voyeurism. Carrère is as prone to oversharing as ever, and some purple patches in Yoga read like entries for the Bad Sex Awards. Even so, the most remarkable thing about this remarkable book is that it invites readers to make peace with themselves. If Carrère is able to be so honest about his own emotions, there is hope for lesser mortals and lesser sinners. 

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