Honesty Isn’t Good Enough (But It’s Good For Something)

by Alexandra Molotkow


After I read this Paris Review interview with Emmanuel Carrère, I went out and bought his book My Life as a Russian Novel.

The book is hard to summarize, it’s a mashup of subject matter, but it begins with a reporting expedition to Kotelnich, a small Russian town, where a 75-year-old Hungarian man, a former prisoner of war, has been kept in an asylum since 1944. No one around him spoke Hungarian, and the man had never learned Russian, so “he stayed there, like a lost piece of luggage or a kind of Kaspar Hauser.”

Carrère gets to know the town of Kotelnich — “certainly one of the most sinister places that exists on the planet” — and its inhabitants, and decides to make a documentary. He returns with a camera crew, but the film isn’t coming together. “And then something horrible happened, and the most horrible thing about it was that it ended up saving the film”: a woman name Anya, their closest confidant in town, is brutally murdered along, with her infant child. They film the wake.

Kotelnich is about half of the story; the other half is Carrère’s personal history, past and present. He has been thinking about his maternal grandfather, a possible Nazi collaborator who also disappeared at the end of the World War II; he’s involved in a passionate love affair with a woman. At one point, Le Monde commissions him to write a short story on the theme of travel, so he writes a pornographic letter, a series of instructions for his girlfriend who’ll be reading the paper on a train the day it’s published.

I found the book very difficult. Not because of its volume of content or its structure, but because the project seemed so objectionable. It struck me as a betrayal: of his mother, who never wanted him to write about her father; of his girlfriend, who is humiliated; and, arguably, of Anya, whose friendship, and terrible death, becomes fodder. It’s not that Carrère is exceptionally treacherous for a writer, or as a person, but he’s exceptionally aware of his treachery; it’s one of the book’s themes.

My Life as a Russian Novel was written in a state of total disarray, as if it were the last thing I was going to write. There’s a consequence-be-damned aspect to it that explains the book’s lack of discretion. I consider it an essential rule not to write things that would cause real people to suffer, and I completely transgressed it. I wrote things that made the woman I loved suffer and things that made my mother suffer, because she didn’t want me to write about her father. I did something I morally disapprove of, but honestly, I don’t regret doing it. At that moment in my life, it was vital that I do it, that I dare to transgress in that way. Still, I wouldn’t ever like to do anything like that again.

“Frankness about his worst self is a constant in his work,” writes interviewer Susannah Hunnewell, which gets exhausting, because frankness is not a resolution.

But the most frustrating thing about My Life as a Russian Novel is the fact that it totally works. Rereading the interview, I’m reminded of why I often find moral critique — which is so often the default response to a work of anything, especially online — so dull and beside the point, even though I do it too. We can agree to “love the art and condemn the artist,” that’s simple enough, but then more often than not they’re inseparable, especially in Carrère’s case. Moral matters are interesting, not only as practical concerns but as ideas. So many books and albums and movies are interesting because they’re somehow offensive, or because we’re both attracted and repelled by the minds they came from. And you could argue that’s a side effect of honesty, since every mind is both attractive and repulsive!

Why is “I” such a relief to use compared to the third person?
Because the third person was no one but appeared to give what was written the status of truth. And I didn’t think you could know the truth about [murderer Jean-Claude Romand, subject of Carrère’s book The Adversary]. On the other hand, I could tell the truth about myself in relation to Romand. You can be less than lucid, you can lie to yourself, you can be toyed with by your unconscious. Nonetheless, you have access to yourself. Others are a black box, especially someone as enigmatic as Romand. I understood that the only way to approach it was to consent to go into the only black box I do have access to, which is me.
A little girl once said something in front of me that I just loved. She had misbehaved and her mother was scolding her, saying, But put yourself in other people’s position! And the little girl answered, But if I put myself in their position, where do they go? I have often thought of that since I started writing these kinds of “nonfiction” books, the rules and moral imperatives of which I was starting to become acquainted with. I don’t think you can put yourself in other people’s positions. Nor should you. All you can do is occupy your own, as fully as possible, and say that you are trying to imagine what it’s like to be someone else, but say it’s you who’s imagining it, and that’s all.

The most interesting and maybe applicable part of this interview is how Carrère considers the feedback loop between life and material. If your work is your life, you end up applying the same logic to your life as your work, and it becomes very difficult not to be manipulative or to exploit. Carrère’s thinking on this is so compelling, but he isn’t necessarily thinking toward an answer — he’s chewing on the question, and that process is itself material. And it works for him. Emphasis mine:

[In Cold Blood], which is a masterpiece, rests on a lie by omission that seems to me morally hideous. The whole last part of the book is about the years the two criminals spent in prison, and during those years, the one main person in their lives was Capote. Nevertheless, he erased himself from the book. And he did so for a simple reason, which was that what he had to say was completely unsayable — he had developed a friendship with the two men. He spent his time telling them that he was going to get them the best lawyers, that he was working to get them a stay of execution, when in fact he was lighting candles in the church in the hopes that they would be hanged because he knew that was the only satisfactory ending to his book. It’s a level of moral discomfort almost without equal in literature, and I don’t think it is too psychologically farfetched to say that the reason he never really wrote much else is related to the monstrous and justified guilt that his masterpiece inspired in him. But maybe my saying that shows my overscrupulousness. I don’t behave especially well, but I am a very moral person.
Like what you read? Give The Hairpin a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.