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It is difficult to like Emanuel Carrère, yet impossible not to fall in love with him a bit too. Thanks to books such as Limonov (his account of a post-Soviet Russian hoodlum) and The Adversary (rather like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood transplanted to the French-Swiss border), Carrère is regarded as a superstar writer and documentary maker in France. 97,196 Words is a collection of his “higher journalism” – essays published in L’Obs (previously known as Le Nouvel Observateur), Paris Match and, above all, XX1, a sort of French hybrid of the New Yorker and Vanity Fair. The pieces cover everything from true crime and reportage to celebrity interviews and sex columns. Carrère’s author pic shows him looking roguish, brown and smoky as a nut and clever as paint. Think Janet Malcolm, but with more shagging.
Carrère is most Malcolm-like in his 1996 articles on “the Romand Case”, which became the basis for The Adversary. Dr Jean-Claude Romand, a handsome adviser to the World Health Organisation, killed his family and then tried to kill himself in 1993. In 1975 Romand, then a promising second year medical student at Lyon, flunked his exams. Instead of breaking the bad news to his parents, he simply carried on as if nothing had happened. In time he pretended to graduate, and subsequently announced he had landed a job at the WHO, even moving his family closer to Geneva. In reality, he was spending his days in his car. Only when friends started getting suspicious after 18 long years did his life start to unravel.
Carrère raises the question that seems so obvious but doesn’t get asked often enough: if someone is prepared to go to all that trouble to pretend to be something he is not, wouldn’t it simply be easier to actually become that thing? It is this bafflement that underpins the best of Carrère’s work here. There’s a lovely piece on his much regretted failure to conduct a half-decent interview with Catherine Deneuve in 2008. He is so determined not to play the role of hack journalist but rather to be “simple” and “natural” that he ends up getting in his own way, blurting out banalities to the amusement (or indifference) of an unreadable Deneuve.
While Carrère is happy for us to see him at his least heroic, he’s not shy about showing us what he describes as his “amiable pornographer” side either. Reprinted here are nine columns he wrote in 2003-2004 for an Italian magazine, all about “the relations between men and women”. The result is part philosophising – “What … is sexier than a sexy Kierkegaard specialist?” he asks rhetorically, as if it is a question that we have all pondered at one time or another – and part pure smut. The sexy Kierkegaard specialist turns out to be the love of his life (I think that’s right – Carrère is tactfully vague on identities apart from his own) but also an object of sexual fascination.
It’s this same woman, at least I think it is, who is the star of Carrère’s final column, an explosive piece about female orgasms. Oddly, the subject turns out to be too explicit for “Fiona”, the editor of the magazine. The column is cancelled, which, according to Carrère, is exactly what he was angling for, since he had grown bored with the whole enterprise.
At a time when “creative non-fiction” seems to have become a synonym for memoir, it is a joy to be reminded of all the wonderful things that it can do when it looks beyond individual ego. While Carrère is hardly averse to writing about himself, he is equally happy to let other people and subjects take the spotlight.
There are wonderful explorations of what it was like to live in Calais in the “jungle” years, or what happens behind the scenes at Davos. There’s even an excellent piece on why Janet Malcolm was wrong in her famous remark that all journalists whose work involves interviewing other people know at some level that what they are doing is morally indefensible. All this is delivered in Carrère’s spare and supple prose.
• 97,196 Words is published by Jonathan Cape (RRP £18.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15.
Source: The Guardian
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