Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Life in Russian

My Life as a Russian Novel, a memoir by Emmanuel Carrère, recounts the author's attempt to film a documentary in the Russian village of Kotelnich, about nothing in particular. "The Hotel Vyatka [...] is one of those places familiar to travelers in Russia, where not only does nothing work (heating, television, elevator, all kaput), but you get the feeling that nothing has ever worked, not even on the first day." You get the feeling that the whole of Kotelnich is much the same.

Life is, as we all know, what happens while you're busy trying to make a documentary about something else entirely. Somehow, Carrère's book (and his film, apparently, too) managed to capture something of it.

She threw us out, but as we were putting on our coats, determined not to hang around any longer, she forgot about having thrown us out and wanted us to drink some more, talk, wanted to show me the curtains. She'd taken the curtains — with a design of red and green circles on a white background — from Sasha's and her daughter's apartment, curtains streaked with blood and brains. Galina had boiled them several times, so that most of the stains were gone, but not all, and she traces with a fingertip the outline of the brownish spots, more visible in the lamplight, and she draws the lamp closer so that I may see them. Look, Emmanuel, look, she says tenderly. It's the blood of my daughter and my grandson. Every time I draw the curtains, which protect my eyes from the moon and the streetlights outside, it's the blood of my daughter and grandson.

Life does happen in Kotelnich, but it's hard to nail it down. Fortunately for us, Carrère doesn't force his film in one direction or another; he keeps waiting for something to grab him by the throat, and if you wait long enough, it kind of makes itself.

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.

Reviews
The Washington Post
The Complete Review
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