TLS Review: A Russian Novel
December 08 10
I have a review in this week’s TLS of A Russian Novel by Emmanuel Carrère. The first thing I note is that the book is not, in fact, a novel; elsewhere it's being retitled My Life as a Russian Novel to make that clear.
A Russian Novel is in fact a memoir of a specific period starting with a trip the author made to Russia to report on the so-called last prisoner of WWII, a Hungarian soldier who had lived for over fifty years in a Russian mental institution, and ending, more or less, with the screening of the follow-up documentary he makes about the town where the institution is located. Although they take up a large part of the book, the soldier and the documentary are nevertheless both clearly secondary to something else.
Carrère uses the trip to Russia to think aloud about a terrible family secret: that his maternal grandfather, a Georgian immigrant to France, was a Nazi sympathiser and collaborator who disappeared after the war. He “analyses” this by recounting what he knows, but what he knows is frankly not much, and it isn’t long before we learn that the story of the grandfather is also, essentially, a tangent.
In fact, the book is about Carrère becoming the most awful person he can. Through every tactic from childish pouting to wanton cruelty, he sets out, seemingly against his own will and better judgement, to test and test again the love of his girlfriend, Sophie. He ties this back to this grandfather wherever possible, and to Russia, when he can, but, in the end, this is a confession more than anything, one in which the author admits to using anyone and everyone available to feel the endless needs of his ego.
While this sounds trying – and indeed is – the fact remains that watching Carrère delve without excuse (or any real attempt at self-justification) into the sordid depths of his self-indulgence is fascinating. There’s not much plot, and the events are repetitive, but many readers will be anxious to see just how far Carrère allows himself to go. It would be unfair for the reviewer to reveal just how far that is.