The question of the writer's life, and how far he or she should be allowed to make use of it in their work, has always been a fraught one. This memoir by French writer Emmanuel Carrère pushes candour to quite pitiless extremes. Some of the people who probably flinched, or worse, on reading A Russian Novel include the inhabitants of Kotelnich, a small Russian town near Kirov, the author's uncle and mother (Hélène Carrère d'Encausse, who as permanent secretary of the Académie Française did object to her son's approach to washing dirty laundry) and Sophie, who provides what might be described, but only with industrial quantities of bitter irony, as the book's romantic interest.
We start with Carrère travelling to Kotelnich to make a documentary film about a Hungarian prisoner-of-war who somehow spent 50 years after the end of the war living in a psychiatric hospital there, with no clear idea of his own identity. Carrère leaps at the job, in part because he thinks it might bring him closer to his grandfather, a Georgian immigrant to France executed during the war for collaboration with the Germans.
The other strand of the book concerns Carrère's home life with Sophie, a younger woman ill at ease in the world of his urbane media friends. Their relationship is turbulent – erotically extravagant and emotionally vicious. Things come to a disastrous head when Carrère writes an erotic short story for Le Monde, to be printed on the day when Sophie will be travelling by train to meet him for a summer holiday. It is a story addressed to her, on that train, on that day, and which ends with the ecstatic vision of various Le Monde readers on heat, eyeing each other up in the buffet car.
I can't say what goes wrong, except that it is far from joyous. Carrère turns into a monster of jealousy. "I follow you from room to room, hounding you with insults." "I can't stand being this sulking child who longs to be consoled, who plays at hatred to win love."
Lucid and compelling as this car-crash writing is, you can't help wondering if the world is, after all, a better place because of it. This worry is disagreeably banished when tragedy draws Carrère back to Kilotnich, and the resonance of the book's title grows and grows as the mood darkens and darkens. Was he exploiting the poor people of the town by filming their dead-end existences? "You didn't just come here looking for our unhappiness," says a main character, Sasha. "You brought your own along. And that I like." This book is very much at the crossroads of writing-as-therapy and the sort of fact-fiction blurring that fans of WG Sebald and Geoff Dyer will appreciate. It clearly needed to be written. I won't say the same about reading it, but I'm glad that I did.