Unraveling tale of his grandfather leads to author’s self-discovery
You would think that a story that takes place in France and Russia, one that includes love affairs, betrayals, dream sequences, Russian secret police, a mysterious disappearance, and an erotic short story would be a fictional potboiler.
Not so this time.
French writer and film director Emmanuel Carrère’s “My Life as a Russian Novel’’ is a captivating memoir that reads like a literary erotic-suspense novel. It recounts, for the most part, two years of Carrère’s life spent traveling back and forth from his new lover, Sophie, in Paris to Russia. There, he’s filming documentaries, trying to find out more about his mysterious grandfather, and, between a couple of very brief affairs, longing for Sophie, with whom he’s terribly mismatched.
Russian on his mother’s side, Carrère has no particular affinity for the nation. As a child, he learned Russian from his nana, his nurse-governess, and considers it a beautiful language. As an adult, he has forgotten his “beautiful Russian,’’ as his mother called it. So, he tries to relearn the language in preparation for his trips. This love of the language is a leitmotif that runs throughout the book, and often takes the form of haunting Russian lullabies.
Don’t let the lullabies fool you: This is no wimpy biography. Memoirs often meander; some are filled with half-baked or overdone tell-all anguish, guilt, and soul-searching that are hard to digest. But this memoir blends its confessional ingredients and somewhat cloying childhood memories with action, suspense, and exotic detail to construct a tale that is often sensual and always intriguing.
It begins with Carrère’s erotic dream on a train to Kotelnich, Russia. Carrère has temporarily left Sophie, a jealous sort, in France. He’s traveling with a film crew, to do a documentary (under the watchful eyes of a Russian security officer) on the last living prisoner from World War II, a Hungarian who spent a few years in a POW camp and 53 years in a psychiatric hospital in Kotelnich. Carrère sees parallels between that prisoner and his own grandfather. Thus, this trip to Russia inspires Carrère to return to Kotelnich with only a few fuzzy ideas about doing a documentary on Russian life and a need to discover more about his Russian grandfather, Georges Zurabichvili.
Soon that need becomes an obsession. Georges, a Georgian émigré, who studied in Germany, was intelligent but lacked confidence and wisdom and was a failure most of his life. He was a great admirer of Hitler and Mussolini. Even before World War II, he saw the dictatorships of Germany, Spain, and Italy as models for the rebirth of Europe. So, during the war, Georges worked in France as an interpreter for the Germans. But in 1944, after the liberation of France, strangers, possibly the French resistance, took him away. His body was never found, nor was he officially declared dead.
As obsessed as Carrère is with his grandfather’s fate, his obsession with Sophie dwarfs it, and Carrère admits he is an obsessive compulsive. His time in Russia is filled with images of and yearning for Sophie. Soon, Carrère writes her an erotic letter, told in the second person and published as a short story in the French newspaper Le Monde. He has timed the story’s publication so that she will read it on the day she is supposed to be on the train to meet him. (The short story, Chapter 3 of this memoir, actually appeared in the July 20, 2002 issue of Le Monde.) A love letter of sorts, its publication does not work out quite the way Carrère intends it to.
Eventually, Carrère’s interest in exploring his grandfather’s life and death, gives way to self-discovery, as, I suppose, any good memoirist’s must. But the story’s resolution might have been more powerful had Carrère refrained from tacking on a happy ending of an epilogue. Still this story, read as a novel or a memoir, packs some juice.
Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.