cover image My Life as a Russian Novel: A Memoir

My Life as a Russian Novel: A Memoir

Emmanuel Carrère, trans by Linda Coverdale, Metropolitan, $25 (288p) ISBN 978-0-8050-8755-0

In this compelling, intensely interior-driven narrative, French author Carrère (The Adversary) uses as a point of departure the return of a Hungarian mental patient imprisoned in a Russian hospital since the end of WWII to unlock the author’s own guilt-ridden, transgressive past. Carrère admits he is chronically attracted to tales of madness, due largely to deeply suppressed feelings of shame surrounding the family relationship to Carrère’s grandfather, a brilliant but gloomy Russian-speaking Georgian émigré to France who gravitated toward the German occupiers during WWII out of frustration and disgruntlement. He worked as an "interpreter" for the Nazis in Bordeaux, then vanished at the time of Liberation. Denial of his grandfather’s deeds had gnawed at him all his life, and by venturing to Kotelnich, Russia, with a film crew, ostensibly to produce a documentary of the plight of this long-lost Hungarian mental patient, Carrère plunged back into his mother’s first language, Russian, hoping somehow to gain insight into his grandfather. Hand-in-hand in this torturous Russian saga is Carrère’s romantic crisis with fiancée Sophie, a young woman in love with the author but so cowed by his moods and self-absorption that she took another lover and lied outrageously about it, compounding Carrère’s emotional paranoia. Despite a puerile erotic "short story" to Sophie that appears midway, Carrère’s solipsistic work proves absorbing, while his rendering of the hard-worn Russian inhabitants of Kotelnich are frankly moving. (Aug.)