Only a French writer would describe grocery shopping with his lover as one of the most intensely erotic experiences of his life:
Here we are buying vegetables together, each of us busy (I'm selecting fruit, she's picking out lettuces), and when I look up, when our eyes meet, I realize that she's been watching me; we smile and she tells me it's as if I were entering her right there in front of everybody.
Emmanuel Carrère's My Life as a Russian Novel is actually a French memoir, and it's full of these grocery-store moments that feel as though you're reading the book before translation. The first line of the book is such a moment, another erotic encounter with his lover, this time in a dream: "The train is humming along, it's nighttime, Sophie and I are making love in the berth and it really is her."
The immediacy, the French-ness, of Carrère's writing does not redeem the book's flaws, but it does make it interesting.
My Life as a Russian Novel is largely about language. For Parisian author and filmmaker Carrère, relearning the Russian he spoke as a child is the key to understanding his connection to his maternal grandfather, a Georgian immigrant who wrote love letters in Russian. He disappeared when Carrère's mother was 15, and the circumstances of his probable death remain a tense family secret.
Determined to "find" his dead grandfather, Carrère embarks on a film project in a bleak Siberian town called Kotelnich, where a missing Hungarian soldier was found in a psychiatric hospital decades after World War II ended. He's obsessed with the story, with learning Russian, with Kotelnich—and with Sophie, his girlfriend in Paris. Set in both cities, this memoir contains two oscillating narratives spanning two years: Carrère's search for his grandfather's ghost and his increasingly destructive relationship with Sophie.
These stories are a pretense. The "Novel" part of the book's title is secondary to the "My Life" part, and Sophie and the grandfather are merely plots around which Carrère molds his personal exploration of himself as an artist and a man. It may be unfair to criticize a memoir for this, but here it feels dishonest, as though Carrère drew his readers in with the promise of an interesting story and instead presented the diary he secretly hoped somebody would read, an unrelenting interior monologue of creative torment and punishing self-criticism. His attempts at Dostoyevskian anguish come off as whiny and grandiose, and the only real similarity to the Russian novels he emulates is the ax murder of a peripheral character by a Russian thug.
"I resolve that, yes, I will tell one last story of imprisonment, which will be the story of my liberation," he declares, referring to the Hungarian soldier. He draws lazy parallels from that story to the story of his grandfather and overidentifies with him, making dramatic and unexplained declarations that he fears his grandfather's fate will be his own. He refers often to the book he feels driven to write about this man he never knew. He wants to write it for his mother "to set her free and not only myself," despite his earlier pronouncement that "shattering the defenses" of his mother's silence on the matter would kill her.
If this is the book he meant to write, his mother is both alive and disappointed. My Life as a Russian Novel has little to do with her, or her father, and everything to do with her son and his narcissistic delusions. He is at his most insufferable when writing about Sophie, whom he loves. But he really loves "having people envy me because I'm the one she loves."
Reflecting on a fight they had about their class differences—she rides the Métro and must ask for time off (quelle horreur!); he is a member of the Parisian literati—he writes that he feels as molded by "psychological hardship" as she does by social hardship, and that while some may think his burden imaginary, "it weighs on my life just as heavily." To his credit, Carrère doesn't ask for sympathy.
But while he shows some insight into his selfishness, he doesn't apologize for it. "Although she doesn't openly reproach me, she clearly thinks that a man who was truly in love with her would never leave her stranded like this," he writes as he trips off to Kotelnich right after Sophie has a serious operation. As the book goes on, the relationship deteriorates into total dysfunction: They both cheat; he says terrible things to her, throws her out of their apartment, and then mopes around because he misses sleeping with her. "To no longer be seen by you is ugliness, death," he moans. "I loved it that you found me handsome, and with you I was handsome."
Nestled in the middle of the book is what he calls a "love letter" to Sophie, an erotic story that was published in Le Monde. He arranges for its publication on the day she is meeting him for a vacation elsewhere in France, and the story is addressed to her as she reads on the train. A perfect example of Carrère's gross sense of entitlement, in it he proposes that she do everything he tells her to do, step by step, and encourages other readers to play along. "Become conscious of the fact that you are naked under your clothes," he begins. At first, the story has the same captivating immediacy of the book's first line—another incident of dreamy sex on a train—but it quickly devolves into a laughably unlikely scenario in which the train's (young, attractive) female passengers, who are also presumed to be reading the story in real time, are sneaking off to masturbate in the lavatories and exchanging knowing smiles as they pass in the bar car. As a fantasy, this is okay, just like writing a memoir as a pretext for self-analysis is okay. But Carrère truly believes he can manipulate his fantasy into reality, and unsurprisingly, the story is a resounding failure.
Reading Carrère's book, I felt the way Sophie might have felt after reading his story in Le Monde—slightly titillated, more skeptical, and a bit insulted by his assumption that I would not only do what he asked, but that I would be grateful he asked me to.