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“We Are Always Present in What We Write”: An Exchange between Emmanuel Carrère and Daniel Mendelsohn

By Raphaëlle Leyris
Translated By Émanuel Grenier-Benoit

They’ve read and admired one another for ages, but they’d never had an occasion to talk to each other. Emmanuel Carrère and Daniel Mendelsohn are among those writers who, over the past decade, have most profoundly impacted first-person nonfiction—literature itself, in short. The former did so with The Adversary, A Russian Novel, Lives Other Than My Own, Limonov, and The Kingdom; the latter with The Elusive Embrace, The Lost, and An Odyssey. Now that their new books have been published—Yoga by the Frenchman and Three Rings by the American—it seemed only natural to bring them together via video. Speaking in French, they exchanged views on writing, the art of digression, the duality of existence—and on narcissism and pedagogy. [Note: This conversation was originally published in French in Le Monde on August 28, 2020. It has been translated into English by Émanuel Grenier-Benoit.]

Raphaëlle Leyris (RL): As different as your two new books are, would it be possible for you to summarize them as being about the same thing: that is, the story of an existential crisis that doubles as a narrative crisis?

Emmanuel Carrère (EC): That seems fair. Clearly, Yoga retraces an existential crisis that took place over four years, starting in 2015. From the beginning, the narrative question was there: at the time, I’d intended to write a book about yoga. This existential crisis was then made even more difficult by the problems encountered during the writing of the book—which, even after expanding to accommodate a number of other elements, is still a book on yoga, in the end.

This is one of the first things I noticed in Daniel Mendelsohn’s Three Rings, where he discusses his “emotional crisis” [which took place after the publication of The Lost, a book about his search for information about relatives who were victims of the Holocaust], which became a narrative crisis once he had to write An Odyssey. That said, I, anyway, tend to think that a narrative crisis is a kind of progress!

Daniel Mendelsohn (DM): Emotional crises lead you to find the narrative means essential for telling the story you have in mind. I already grasped this when writing my first book, The Elusive Embrace [1999]. I wanted to say something about what it was like, back at the end of the 1990s, to be gay in New York, while at the same time being a man with a family and children. This state of being in-between, this crisis, was reflected in a narrative question: how to tell the story of a double life? I finally came upon this notion of a doubled narrative—of juxtaposing the personal story, my story, with analyses of various ancient texts that shed light on elements of my story. (Sappho, Ovid’s retelling of the story of Echo and Narcissus, and so forth.) It was in the intertwining of the two types of narration, the personal and the critical, in the gray area between, that I truly found the subject of the book.

EC: Even if the story you have to tell is something real and lived, you still discover it by means of the way you tell it. I agree with you all the more about this notion of juxtaposing two different things since (and this is one of the great lessons we learn from psychoanalysis, and from montages in film) when you’re faced with two different things that people say have nothing to do with each other, there’s a good chance that in fact they have everything to do with each other. That’s the starting point for the work.

DM: The link with psychoanalysis that you’re highlighting here is of great interest to me, both as a writer and as someone who’s spent the last thirty years on the couch! The idea that the form of a narrative leads to a kind of liberation . . .

RL: Three Rings explains how you, Daniel, relied on the principle of Homeric “ring composition” and its narrative loops to write An Odyssey. You, Emmanuel, often describe your way of writing by saying that you “beat around the bush.” Are you both basically talking about the same thing?

EC: There’s no doubt that we’re both very digressive authors. In the case of Yoga, I progress by associations that I hope are all connected to some kind of central focus—which is to say, my experience. I hope that—a little bit like in life—what seems to be going off in all directions acquires, a posteriori, a coherent shape, a sense that there is in fact a through line.

I was fascinated by what Daniel wrote on the difference between two opposing forms of narrative: on one side, the circular, digressive shape of Greek literature, which he refers to as a kind of “optimism,” and on the other, the rectilinearity of biblical storytelling, of Hebraic thought patterns, which seem to represent a kind of pessimism. I find this extremely stimulating. The idea that digressions start from the assumption that after the first sentence there will be another, and then another, and that eventually we will end up having told a story . . . That’s something new and enlightening for me. 

DM: The funny thing is that I’d read Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, which I write about in my new book, so many times when I was younger without really grasping the implications of that Greek-Hebrew dichotomy. But you know how it goes when you’re writing a book, Emmanuel: you look at something familiar and suddenly new possibilities open themselves up to you. This was the case for me with respect to those differences in the way that the Greeks and the Hebrews composed their tales—differences that express profound divergences in worldviews, ultimately. The soul and the spirit of a culture show through their literature, their way of telling their own story.

EC: I really love the way you relate the “aporia” [Greek for “dead end”] that you found yourself in after you’d finished The Lost and began writing An Odyssey—how at first you described what happened with your father in chronological order (the Homer course he took with you, the Odyssey cruise you went on, then his illness and death), only to discover that the manuscript of the new book wasn’t working; and how you talked about it with your editorial mentor. You tried to justify the chronological approach by telling him that that’s exactly how it all happened—at which point he told you that people don’t give a damn about the way things really happened, that we have to be ready to cheat a bit with chronology in order to serve the truth of experience, of sensation. I feel very close to this sort of authorial semi-autobiography that you’re writing here, a book about the way in which the book was born. Like me, you’re one of those writers whose books incorporate their own commentaries. We’re quite loquacious about our processes, our ways of doing things. Not out of pedantry or narcissism, but because, for us, the existential question is both transformed and resolved by narrative.

“It seemed as if this tic of Greek grammar had been invented by the Greeks to excavate something about my life.”

RL: You talk of narcissism, Emmanuel. It’s a reproach both of you have heard about your books.

DM: As a literary critic, I’m aware of the extent to which the narrative “I” in writing has been made ever more complex. I’ve really just had it with the way that all discussions of memoirs or autofiction end up being reduced to a question of “narcissism.” For me, to include some part of yourself in your book is to address a great question about narration overall. All stories, all writing, is “narration”: the question is the degree to which the narrator is visible. How can you narrate something without being present in some form? Obviously it’s impossible. You, Emmanuel, like me, have decided to put that question of the “writing self” front and center: we highlight our writing, our writing selves, in our books. Who are you? Why do you depict yourself as you do? There are writers who prefer to conceal rather than acknowledge their presence in the narration. But the fact is that the writer is always there—even, I might add, in ostensibly scholarly or academic, ostensibly “objective” writing.

EC: To recognize that is, paradoxically, a form of humility (even though there’s some degree of narcissism, obviously). It’s about saying that we’re not in a position to loom over everything—to be in the place of God. We establish what we have access to as writers by means of what we are: our ignorance, our prejudices. I think it’s important to admit that what I tell you is only what passes through me.

RL: Yoga examines the duality of existence, which is central to Chinese thought. Daniel, this made me think of the lengthy explication that you devote in The Elusive Embrace to the Greek locution men . . . de. Can you explain what it is about?

DM: It’s an element of Greek grammar: almost all sentences in classical Greek are characterized by a kind of “balance” that is marked by two so-called “particles”: untranslatable monosyllables whose presence nonetheless flavors your sense of the sentence. In the first clause you get the particle men, which always indicates that you’re in the first part of a two-part structure or thought; in the second part of the phrase you get the other particle, de. What’s interesting is that, while we teach students to translate these as “on the one hand . . . on the other hand,” this balance can also signify juxtaposition and repetition, as well as opposition. That, to my mind, tells you something about the way the Greeks saw the world. For me, when I was writing about my double life as a gay man and an aspiring father, it seemed as if this tic of Greek grammar had been invented by the Greeks to excavate something about my life, to express my dual identity.

EC: It could be a Chinese locution, too! I’m not as knowledgeable as Daniel—I’m neither a Hellenist nor a Hebraist nor a Sinologist—but that was something I wanted to talk about in Yoga: this great law of alternation of which the Chinese, who put it at the core of their thought, are the specialists. It’s about the way that all phenomena of life proceed in pairs, how they complete themselves and follow each other—like day and night, inside and outside, fullness and emptiness . . . As I was trying to write a book on yoga, I found myself calmly evoking this notion. And then I got caught up in a psychic maelstrom that led to a diagnosis of bipolarity, which, I would tell myself, was a pathological version of this great law of alternation.

RL: Apart from the genre of nonfiction and the place that you occupy in your texts, do you see your books as having any other points in common?

DM: I would say that Emmanuel’s books and mine are arguments in favor of complexity. Narrative complexity, obviously, since both our modes of storytelling are woven, digressive, complex. But there’s also a complexity of subjects, of a way of seeing things in general—which seems incredibly important at the moment we find ourselves in.

EC: Obviously I agree. The works that I like most are those that hold together the greatest number of varied and disparate aspects of experience. I myself aim for that. In The Kingdom [2009: about the early days of Christianity, particularly Paul and Luke], there’s a description of a pornographic video for which I was heavily criticized, on the grounds that it had nothing to do with the Church Fathers at the beginning of the Christian era. I don’t deny that provocation may have played a part in that; but the fact is that, in real life, there are people who simultaneously study the Church Fathers and watch porn!

“As I get older, what’s most important to me, as a writer, is to please myself.”

RL: Despite this complexity, one of the characteristics of what you both write is clarity.

EC: Unlike Daniel, I have never taught, but in practice I’ve discovered a taste for pedagogy in my books—a literary quality that seems utterly subordinate.

It started with Lives Other Than My Own, and the forty pages I wrote about indebtedness so people could grasp the role played by the two judges, who were specialists in these extremely technical, creepy, concrete matters. I spent months soaking up the subject, and those forty pages were, at the time, the most difficult, but they gave me the most satisfaction afterward. I made the same pedagogical effort in Limonov, in order to explain the end of the Soviet empire, and in The Kingdom, which I actually think is a pretty reliable book about the early days of Christianity and the way the gospels were written.

DM: I have great confidence in the reader’s curiosity and intelligence. I believe that if you properly explain something, the audience will accept it and understand that this or that subject has its place in your book.

EC: To me it seems important that the author make a place for the reader, that he have this generosity. The books that are most precious to me, and here I include Daniel’s, are those that give you the impression that someone is talking to you, that there’s a voice speaking in your ear. There are great books that never produce this effect.

RL: Emmanuel, you explore in Yoga the “principle of déperdition [loss]” dear to François Truffaut [1932–84]. Could you explain it to Daniel?

EC: François Truffaut said basically that, at the start of any film project, there’s something you want, a desire you have: and that all the work of directing consists of ensuring that there’s the least amount of loss relative to that original desire you had— that a film is really good if that loss amounts to, let’s say, 20 percent, but that by 50 percent it gets to be a problem, etc. I admire Truffaut, but I belong to the opposing camp; for me, the greater the difference between what I end up with and the book I had in mind when I began, the better. OK, so in the case of Yoga what I’d imagined at first was a sunny little book about yoga; what brought about the déperdition in this case wasn’t something terribly happy . . . I don’t want to overdo it, but at the end of the day this book recounts years of hell, which people who have gone through serious depression will recognize. I tried to give an account of that, and to me it seems absolutely necessary that the book that narrates that experience be part of the same book as the essay on yoga. Because an essay about yoga that talked about it only from the point of view of the Dalai Lama would be a lie.

DM: Yes: make it the way you want it. As I get older, what’s most important to me, as a writer, is to please myself. I think less and less about what the critics will think—even about what I, as a critic, think—about what “works” . . . Three Rings is a text that I had wanted to write for a long time. (It actually contains material that I’d once considered including in An Odyssey, but which clearly needed a book of its own, eventually.) It interweaves lots of kinds of texts and subjects. I’m happy that I did it exactly the way I meant to do it.

RL: Daniel, in the preface to the 2018 reissue of the French translation of The Elusive Embrace, you wrote, “Each of our books helps us to grow a little.” Do you share that assessment, Emmanuel?

EC: Is it that they help us grow, or that they’re a witness to the fact that we grow? Obviously the kind of books that Daniel and I write allow for this phenomenon. Our books accompany our lives, they give form to our experiences. There are so many reasons I can thank Heaven for the chance to write books—because it leaves me free with my time, because I have the rare opportunity to live comfortably, to get paid to do something I’d be ready to pay to do . . . But above all, it’s a way of keeping up with everything in your life. Finding a way to give form to the worst wretchedness that befalls you will neither console nor save you . . . But look, you have given it form. It’s an opportunity, as well as an immense effort; and it’s what the practice of literature permits.

DM: It’s about time, to some extent. The person who writes the new book can’t be the same person who wrote the last one. In that sense, each book is a prototype. You, the writer, are a moving target; you are never the same “you” from book to book. That’s why each book has to be different from the previous one.

EC: So for each book, you have to invent new rules, which you discover as things progress, and which you then break . . . It’s very exciting.

DM: And it’s in that sense, I think, that we can say that we grow.


Daniel Mendelsohn, an internationally bestselling memoirist, critic, translator and essayist, is the author of ten books, most recently Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate (University of Virginia Press, 2020). A professor of humanities at Bard College, he is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, where he is the Editor-at-Large. 

Emmanuel Carrère, a French author, screenwriter, and filmmaker who has been preeminent in the “autofiction” movement, is the author of over a dozen books, most recently Yoga (2020). His prizes include the Prix Fémina, the Prix Renaudot, and the Premio Hemingway.

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"Hiding in Plain Sight": Carlos Fonseca and Megan McDowell on Translating Natural History

Published Nov 2, 2020   Copyright 2020 Raphaëlle Leyris

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