Serpent's Tail, £10.99, 256pp. £9.89 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

A Russian Novel, By Emmanuel Carrère, trans. Linda Coverdale

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific