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Midlife Magic

By (August 1, 2010) No Comment

My Life as a Russian Novel: A Memoir

By Emmanuel Carrère, translated from French by Linda Coverdale
Metropolitan Books, 2010

The phrase “magical thinking” has reached a near-ubiquitous status thanks to Joan Didion’s memoir of her year of mourning after her husband’s death. How better to epitomize it than the moment in The Year of Magical Thinking when she refuses to part with her husband’s shoes because it would mean he could no longer wear them when he returns home. Victorian theorists used the phrase “associative thinking” to describe this belief that the mind can effect change in the physical world (mind over matter, if you will). Jungians describe magical thinking as synchronicity, the mind’s attempt to establish meaning to a series of seemingly random events. In his exciting memoir My Life as a Russian Novel, Emmanuel Carrère says that his unorthodox narration has been guided by “history and obscure workings of the unconscious through two generations.” Though the title seems to promise a book in the style of Russian novels, laden with difficult names and dense passages of existential philosophy, the story we find is a sleek blend of fantasy and fact, of bleak historical records invigorated by leaps of imagination. This memoir’s intrigue and wry self-observations will have you gliding through the stolid Russian bits, and perhaps even enjoying them.

Appropriately for a memoir with a French narrator engaged in magical thinking, My Life as a Russian Novel begins with Carrère’s recollection of an erotic dream. In his dream, Carrère participates in a ménage a trois with his new young girlfriend and the wife of a Peruvian political figure while on a train hurtling towards the Russian hinterland. Carrère wakes from the dream to find himself … indeed, on a train hurtling towards the Russian hinterland. Sadly, there’s no sign of his two sexual accomplices, only the sleeping cameraman accompanying him on this all-to-real journey to cover a story about the last WWII prisoner recently released from a Russian psychiatric hospital. (For those hoping for more sex after this titillating start, have no fear, there’s quite a story waiting for you in the middle of this book, also set on a train and involving masturbation and exhibitionism – the story appeared in a Sunday edition of Le Monde and caused quite a stir).

Carrère, a forty-three year old divorcee, is a successful writer and filmmaker situated in the upper middle class, and his wishful sex dream is the first alarm bell that he’s undergoing a conspicuous midlife crisis. It would be too easy (and doing this book an injustice) to reduce all Carrère’s problems to such a diagnosis, but the signs are surely present: a relationship with a young blonde a couple steps below his usual social milieu; a business trip to Amsterdam spent sulking because of a fight with the young blonde beauty and trying to find answers to undetermined questions in an isolation chamber; his attempt to recapture the Russian he learned at his mother and nanny’s knee; and his fixation with filming a documentary about an inconsequential post-Soviet town 500 miles east of Moscow. Carrère has a healthy sense of humor when it comes to his crisis, and you’ll feel free to laugh with him as he pouts and prances through portions of this memoir. But what lifts this book above others of its ilk is Carrère’s juxtaposition of his quest for an understanding of his French self against his quest for an understanding of his elusive Russian soul.

The French fantasizing that opens this novel is quickly balanced by the intriguing Russian side of Carrère’s story. In chapter two, Carrère’s raises the ghost of his Georgian grandfather, a man worthy of a biography of his own. While his grandmother’s ancestors drip Russian jewels and court titles, his grandfather’s life is shrouded in mystery. In spite of his acknowledged academic brilliance and a stint at a German University, Carrère’s grandfather Georges Zurabichvili found himself adrift after he emigrated from Soviet Georgia to France in the early twentieth century. Finally, with the advent of World War II, he was able to use his skills as a linguist and worked for the Germans as an interpreter. At the end of the war, he was taken away from his home in Bordeaux in the dead of night and never heard from again.

Because the whiff of collaboration hangs over her father’s head, Carrère’s mother refuses to speak about her father, and most of what Carrère has learned about him comes from letters and other scraps of writing saved by his uncle, who was a very young child when his father disappeared. In fact, it’s clear that Carrère is conflicted over revealing his grandfather’s story in this memoir because he knows that his mother wishes to keep the past at bay:

I tell my mother that I’m studying Russian again, that I’m mulling over some sort of project that would focus on my Russian roots. That’s nice, she says, but I can tell she’s worried.

It is this simmering conflict between secrets kept or revealed that haunts Carrère and spurs him to proclaim not only his erotic fantasies so publicly in the pages of Le Monde but his grandfather’s story.

Emmanuel Carrère

The opportunity to film the story of Andras Toma, a Hungarian left to languish as a patient in a Soviet psychiatric hospital and proclaimed to be the last World War II prisoner sparks Carrère’s re-imagination of his Russian roots. While covering this story, Carrère struggles then finds solace in using his rusty Russian during the interviews. He also becomes fascinated with the town and people of Kotelnich, especially a local FSB (former KGB) agent and his French-speaking girlfriend, Anya. Magical thinking begins to direct his actions; Carrère becomes convinced that Kotelnich is a place where people who have vanished will reappear:

I’ve come to realize that I found the story of Andras Toma so moving because it embodies that dream [that Carrère’s grandfather will return]. He, too, vanished in the autumn of 1944; he, too, went over to the side of the Germans. But fifty-six years later, Andras Toma returned. He returned from a place called Kotelnich. I went there, and I sense that some day, I will have to go back. Because Kotelnich, for me, is where you can be found when you disappeared.

And so, much to the detriment of his fledgling romance with the young blonde beauty, Carrère begins his obsession with Kotelnich.

Foreigners who write about life in post-Soviet Russia risk falling into clichés. From the seedy bars filled with warm-hearted, ursine men who slam down vodkas while proclaiming eternal friendship to the poverty-stricken babushka carrying plastic sacks and warning you against taking unseemly photos of drunks passed out on benches – Westerners have had their fill of these type of Russian travelogues. Describing his first trip to Kotelnich, Carrère does invoke some of these stereotypes:

The Hotel Vyatka, in any case, is one of those places familiar to travelers in Russia, where not only does nothing work (heating, television, elevator, all kaput), but you get the feeling that nothing has ever worked, not even on the first day.

Thankfully, Carrère gets funding to film a documentary about Kotelnich and, upon his return, he fine tunes his observations and gives us a unique and memorable scene:

As we attack the tough, stringy meat bought from the churlish butcher, Lyudmila points out that there are no knives in this town, either in the restaurant or in our kitchen drawers – only tin forks and spoons. She thinks it’s to avoid tempting the devil, more specifically the drunks, and I delightedly propose a new title for our film: Gorod Bez Nozhey, The Town without Knives.

Here Carrère is not just a tourist but a writer with an eye for what is truly Russian. And it is here, without the distraction of mother and mistress, that he looks inward and asks the magical question:

So why come to Russia, why return to Kotelnich, if not because it’s where the Hungarian soldier washed up, which lets me draw closer, in a roundabout way, to my grandfather’s fate?

Carrère, impatient with the lack of story he is finding in what they are filming in Kotelnich, spends his spare time with his new friend Sasha the FSB agent and his French-speaking girlfriend Anya. He also studies copies of his grandfather’s letters that he’s brought with him and finds that, as in the case of the Hungarian POW who had never learned Russian, his grandfather had developed a language of his own, “to chew over his obsessions, his bitterness, his megalomania, and his self-hatred.” Carrère’s fear of inherited madness becomes an obsession of his own, and it drives him to wreck his relationship with his beautiful girlfriend.

When he finally does bid adieu to his lover and takes us on one last trip to Kotelnich, not to chase the ghost of a grandfather who was never there, but to bid farewell to one of his friends who has been murdered with an ax. It’s a weirdly Dostoevskian twist, but to Carrère’s credit he keeps his wits and renders the scene in clear, poignant writing:

…[The] curtains [were] streaked with blood and brains. Galina had boiled them several times, so that most of the stains were gone, but not all, and she traces with a fingertip the outline of the brownish spots, more visible in the lamplight, and she draws the lamp closer so that I may see them. Look, Emmanuel, look, she says tenderly.

When Carrère returns to France and sits down to edit his Kotelnich film, he finally finds the story the film had been missing, and saves the story of his Russian self for this memoir.

How far back into that past do we need to dig to find answers to the puzzling bits of ourselves? A seemingly innocuous opportunity to film a story set in Russia focuses Carrère’s attention on his own links to that vast secretive land. His imagination takes flight and what may have started as a man in search of a fulfilling relationship to take him into his golden years turns into a much more substantive quest to set buried secrets free. While Carrère hopes to “find” his grandfather in Kotelnich, what he finds instead is that while such secrets may brought to light, they can’t necessarily be solved. It’s through magical thinking – and memoir writing – that Carrère releases himself from his Russian obsession. This done, he can return to living life as a French novel.

Karen Vanuska’s short fiction has appeared in UC Irvine’s Faultline Journal of Art and Literature. She also reviews book for the Half Moon Bay Review and The Quarterly Conversation. Her literary blog can be found at http://karenvanuska.livejournal.com/.