DECEMBER 14, 2019
WHY IS IT so difficult for people to tell the truth? I’m not just talking about pathological liars or bull-spouting politicians, pundits, and partisans who cynically spin stories to further their own opportunistic ambitions. On a subtler level, in conversations with friends, colleagues, and lovers, we justify and rationalize, exaggerate, dismiss facts, and generally create a version of reality as we want it to be, not as it is. And what’s really interesting is that we aren’t even aware we’re lying — we believe we’re being honest. French author Emmanuel Carrère writes about many things, but he’s perhaps most interested in the lies people tell themselves and call truth.
After achieving success with his early novels, The Mustache (1986) and Class Trip (1995), Hitchcockian stories where a small misunderstanding initiates a descent into madness, Carrère turned to something more genre-bending: novel-like studies of bizarre human subjects with himself as a central character in the narrative. With The Adversary (2000), My Life as a Russian Novel (2007), and Limonov (2011), Carrère established himself as one of France’s most famous nonfiction writers, though he’s also a celebrated filmmaker and screenwriter. Selected from his contributions to Le Monde, XXI, and other publications, 97,196 Words is Carrère’s first collection of essays to be published in English, in a smooth translation by John Lambert. Many of the pieces go behind the scenes of his books, as it were, and read like sketches for what would later become paintings. Yes, the title is terrible, but the essays are delightful, plunging into the mysterious minds of people who tell honest lies.
He begins back in the ’90s, with several true crimes stories that bring to mind In Cold Blood — Carrère credits Truman Capote’s pioneering book as a major influence — but it soon becomes clear that the case of Dr. Jean-Claude Romand is not your usual murder. Romand had lied about his professional life for 18 years and didn’t want his family to find out the truth, so over the course of a weekend in 1993 he murdered his two children, his wife, his parents, and his dog. Carrère wonders how those around Romand could have been so blind, but what fascinates him most is that Romand actually doesn’t know why he lied in the first place. And Carrère is equally, if not more obsessed with Eduard Limonov, the provocative Russian writer who was the darling of the Paris literary world but chucked it all to become a desperado, siding with Serbian troops in Sarajevo, forming an opposition party in Moscow, and getting thrown into jail for arms-trafficking and an attempted coup in Kazakhstan. Limonov’s biography shows that we can become whatever we want, so long as we believe the lies we tell ourselves. But what are we beneath the lies? Are we anything at all? These questions propel Carrère from one peculiar subject to another.
Unlike Capote, who tells us everything about his subjects but nothing of his own involvement in their lives, Carrère is always in the scene, his faults and ignorance on full display. This is true not only of his major writing on the Romand case and Limonov, but of all his nonfiction pieces: his interviews with Catherine Deneuve and Emmanuel Macron, his reporting on the Davos Summit and Calais Jungle, and even his columns on sex for an Italian magazine (which were canceled after his piece on female squirting disgusted the editor).
One of the most revealing pieces is Carrère’s review of Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer. In it, Carrère praises Malcolm’s claim that “the relationship between an author of nonfiction and her subject is by nature dishonest,” because by “declaring such honesty impossible, she demonstrates it herself.” What’s dishonest, he thinks, is putting yourself in the role of an impartial witness, “not knowing that in telling the story you yourself become a character in the story, as much to blame as all the others.”
Another revealing bit comes in the essay “Resemblance,” when he quotes Marguerite Yourcenar’s explanation of how to write a historical novel: “Keep one’s own shadow out of the picture; leave the mirror clean of the mist of one’s own breath.” Yet it’s impossible for Carrère to do this, because he believes “that shadows — and the tricks by which you try to remove them — will always be visible, and in that case it’s much better to accept them and work them into the narrative.” So he makes himself the protagonist in his novel The Kingdom (2014) — his return to fiction after 20 years — painting himself as Saint Luke when retelling the story of the early Christians. In doing so, he creates a work of historical fiction that rings so much truer than, say, Jay Parini’s version of the same story, The Damascus Road.
While Carrère’s subjects may seem as eclectic as they are eccentric, the common thread he’s pulling is revealed in the essay “In Search of the Dice Man” — which I hoped would be about Andrew Dice Clay, but is actually about the author George Cockcroft, who wrote a book under the assumed name of Luke Rhinehart, a supposed psychoanalyst, suggesting that every choice in life should be made by tossing a die, allowing people to do things they never thought they’d be capable of doing and to become what they never thought they’d be. In this disturbing piece, Carrère writes, “All of us are prisoners of our personality, terribly confined by our own small way of thinking and acting. We’d like to know what it’s like to be someone else, at least I would, and to a large extent I became a writer to imagine just that.”
This, he writes, is what inspired him “to tell the story of Jean-Claude Romand, who spent eighteen years pretending to be someone other than himself, and that of Eduard Limonov, who lived ten lives at least.” And so, by the end of the collection, we are forced to ask: What underlying lie is driving Carrère’s obsession? What lies drive us?