Love or hate Emmanuel Carrère’s hard-hitting tangents, they’re back in ‘Yoga’
By Emmanuel Carrere
Translated from the French by John Lambert
335 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $28.
“Yoga” by Emmanuel Carrère was released as a novel in France. Its US publisher’s website lists it under “Bios & Memoirs”. The Library of Congress calls it the autobiography. On Amazon, “Yoga” is ranked as both “Medical Fiction,” where it is currently the #248 bestseller, and “Author Biographies,” where it sits at #340. If you’re new to Carrère and confused by this taxonomic chaos, the best advice is to dive in without worrying about where a bewildered librarian will classify the book.
Carrère is more popular in France, where he has published numerous bestsellers, than in America, where he could probably spend a weekend prowling a bookstore unrecognized. When “Yoga” was released in French, in 2020, it sold out quickly and received nominations for literary awards. It also caused a scandal.
The scandal was stoked, curiously, by the question of gender. Following the book’s release, Carrère’s ex-wife, Hélène Devynck, revealed that the author had signed an unusual contract during the couple’s divorce proceedings. The document required Carrère to obtain Devynck’s consent for any appearances she might make in her future publications. A battle over “Yoga” ensued, with Devynck claiming Carrère refused to fully honor the contract. She also condemned him for tampering with elements of history. It is absurd to accuse someone of tampering with fiction, but in the case of Carrère – whose fiction is sometimes presented as non-fiction and often contains punitive intimate details and real names taken from his life – it is possible to understand Devynck’s objections.
“Yoga”, which is translated by John Lambert, begins with Carrère announcing his intention to write “an optimistic and subtle little book” designed to “sell like hotcakes”. This hypothetical book would cover tai chi, Vipassana meditation, the difference between yin and yang, and other topics Carrère finds relevant to her yoga practice. He even chooses a title in advance (“Exhaling”) and composes a copy for the back cover. But before he can complete this sunny masterpiece, a terrible sequence of events unfolds.
First, a murder. In the middle of a 10-day meditation retreat, Carrère learns that a friend of his was killed in the 2015 terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine.. Next, a psychological breakdown. This stems from an event to which Carrère refers obliquely: “I do not give myself the right, nor do I feel the urge, to give the details of a crisis which is not the subject of this account. . Presumably, the crisis is related to the marriage and the omission to the contract. He ends up spending four months in a psychiatric hospital, where he is diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Carrère’s first instinct is to resist. “I protested, insisting that bipolar disorder is one of those notions that suddenly come into vogue and are pinned on everything and everything – much like gluten intolerance, which so many people found out they were in pain as soon as people started talking about it.” After researching the condition, he quickly changes his mind and decides “the shoe suits him” (Carrère once wrote in an essay that he’s not afraid of clichés, which is correct. )
Having accepted the bipolar label, he begins to review his life through clinical glasses. Old memories become “episodes”; the moment he rented a fancy apartment and bought a new Bluetooth speaker now feels like manic spiraling rather than garden variety bliss.
Like Joan Didion before him, Carrère cites his own psychiatric evaluation, which characterizes him as having a “sad expression” and “significant moral suffering”. At the hospital, he asks for euthanasia. Instead, doctors treated him with ketamine and electroconvulsive therapy, with mixed results. He accepts a magazine assignment that requires traveling to Baghdad because he believes it will increase his chances of being wiped out in a car bombing.
There’s a lot more plot, but that’s not important. The bottom line is that Carrère’s life gets very bad and then slightly better. “Yoga” is a jumble of messy and powerful tangents – not his best book, but a fascinating amplification of all the qualities that make some readers love Carrère and others find him intolerable.
As the contract with Devynck indicates, Carrère’s work revolves around a practice of extreme candor, even deranged. In “Yoga”, he writes of meditating while drunk, kneading and squeezing a lover’s breasts, and not visiting his parents often enough. He describes his method of sitting on a cushion, which involves grabbing and spreading his buttocks before landing to distribute the pelvic muscles in a specific way. He calls himself pretentious, lame, narcissistic, unstable and many other cruel adjectives. Does Carrère have total or minimal control over his torrential revelations? And if they’re fascinating, like most of them, does that matter?
Then there’s his self-obsession – still pronounced and in “Yoga” unhindered. And his conversational prose style, which can give the treacherous illusion that you, the reader, could also become a famous novelist if you just typed 100% of your internal monologue and hit spell check. Or his habit of issuing serene and particular generalizations, such as: “Indians like lists.”
It’s both intentionally and unintentionally funny. It is often difficult to tell the difference. “You can meditate for two hours on your nostrils without getting bored,” he writes. “This session is off to a good start: my nostrils are my best friends.” Or, about psychoanalysis: “I spent almost 20 years on sofas without any noticeable results.”
Either you are charmed and delighted by this tone of thought, or you are repelled; it’s hard to imagine a reader who occupies the middle ground. I would gladly read a hundred pages of Carrère peering into the “huge caverns” of his nostrils, lingering on the path the air stings and tingles against their walls — but I understand why anyone else wouldn’t. not a single paragraph. It is the opposite of an acquired taste. If you don’t like Carrère now, you never will. “Yoga” is an effective way to find out.