The memoir feels a little bit more forced, in some respects. Carrère is ostensibly tracing his roots, wanting to know his Georgian grandfather and discover his mysterious end. To this end, Carrère does little beyond poking through some old letters his uncle kept, and while he harps on his grandfather's circumstances, his stance is not investigative. Merely, he's working out how to come to terms with his family's past and its dark secret. Frankly, the details concerning his grandfather bored me. The facts were spilled out quite dryly. Carrère is right to call that story "a tragedy, yes, but an ordinary tragedy," by which I think he means, all families have them, and this story is not any more special but for being his.
But there are two particularly fascinating aspects of this book. One is Carrère's reflections on his relationship to the Russian language, which he spoke as a child — his comfort level, how his fluency depends on mood and circumstance, that language is clearly more than academic and the problem of immersion is more than linguistic.
The other is his dissection of his relationship with the woman he loves and who for the most part is in Paris, while he is not. I previously read his erotic open letter to Sophie as a standalone piece, as originally intended, and found it, well, pretty erotic. In the fuller context of his domestic drama, however, it becomes a little uncomfortable, and you see that his intent was perhaps misguided.
They say Carrère is best known for The Adversary, which I have not read. But I did read Class Trip, which I don't remember, and The Mustache, which I loved, along with its movie adaptation. You don't need to be familiar with Carrère's other work to be swept up in this memoir. The story is in the telling.
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