Yoga by Emmanuel Carrère (Translated from French by John Lambert) - review by Cal Flyn

Cal Flyn

Lunge, Twist, Pose



Jonathan Cape 320pp £16.99

Yoga, an exhilarating new work of autofiction by Emmanuel Carrère, opens in early 2015 as the French literary superstar prepares to participate in a ten-day silent retreat in rural France. This is far from Carrère’s first foray into the spiritual realm: for decades he has engaged in various forms of mystic navel-gazing and recently it seems to have been paying off.

If, as he suspects, he is an inherently melancholic and self-destructive individual, he has managed to suppress these instincts for a golden decade in which he has maintained a happy marriage and attained an unprecedented level of professional success. The book began life as an almost hubristic celebration of this breakthrough: ‘an upbeat, subtle little book about yoga’ that might serve as a chirpy guide to achieving happiness and clarity.

It was not meant to be. Within two days of arriving at the retreat, he is called away to attend the funeral of a friend killed in the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. The retreat’s staff caution him that leaving before the ten days are up might be ‘dangerous’, in the sense of being mentally destabilising. And so, in a way, it proves to be. Carrère is soon divorced and suicidal, interned in a psychiatric institution where he must slowly rebuild his life and his sanity.

Carrère’s style is relaxed and unpretentious – disarmingly so. At first, the text (ably translated by John Lambert) feels loose and freewheeling, even free-associative. These wandering musings, he explains, are not unlike ‘vritti’, the swirling images and inclinations that trouble the mind’s smooth surface during meditation. A nice idea, I thought, but maybe a loose organising principle for a book.

Yet, incrementally, these apparently haphazard asides and anecdotes coalesce and come into alignment. Nothing is incidental. No name is dropped without the character later taking on a role in the unfurling of the story. No object is grasped that does not form the crux of some later scene, as if the book were a tightly plotted thriller.

In combination with Carrère’s radical candour and intellectual precision, this brings the book to land somewhere between Sheila Heti’s philosophical novel How Should a Person Be? and Charlie Kaufman’s bewildering postmodern film Synecdoche, New York. By the closing pages, the book seems to be entirely orchestrated. I felt completely and utterly played – and ready to give a standing ovation.

In Yoga, not all is as it seems. Carrère warns us as much near the start: ‘I can’t say of this book what I’ve proudly said of many others: “it’s all true.”’ Although the narrative bears an uncanny likeness to the events of the author’s own life, there have been significant excisions and additions. A character we have come to know and love transpires to be a fiction. A spectacular (if self-serving) sex scene is admitted to occupy some grey area of reality. He does not explain, though a little online research offers an explanation.

The collapse of Carrère’s marriage, which appears to have occurred in tandem with his mental breakdown, is the great, unspoken presence in the book. It can be observed only indirectly, via the effects it has on the rest of his life. Given his excoriating candour in all other areas, the absence of any direct reference to it is so striking that, several times, I leafed back through the book looking for the section I had missed.

This narrative vacuum is not a result of authorial delicacy but of a legal contract between Carrère and his ex-wife, the journalist Hélène Devynck, who secured in the divorce an agreement that he would no longer include her in his work without consent. Even with the book in its present form, she resents the few allusions that remain. In Devynck’s view, the fictionalised elements are merely a sop to their agreement and done in such a way as to ‘transform a legal constraint into self-glorification’. She has fallen victim, she claims, to his ‘égo despotique’.

I believe her. But Carrère makes no pretence of being an honourable man. In fact, he takes great pains to underline the opposite: ‘I’m an eminently moral individual who distinguishes very clearly between good and evil and places nothing higher than goodness,’ he proclaims, ‘but alas, no, I’m not good.’ There’s something electrifying in this, the searing self-knowledge contained within. The book’s closing section, which unfolds in a Greek refugee camp where Carrère (or his avatar) is volunteering, offers an uncomfortable dissection of the motives of the apparently altruistic and the ambivalence of some of the recipients of his charity.

He is selfish, yes, and egotistical. He tells us this himself. He may not be a ‘likeable’ character. But likeability is overrated. An uncomfortable truth is that great books are sometimes produced at the expense of others. What I feel in response to Devynck’s protests is only immense relief that I have not been involved in any way, and gratitude that I am free to enjoy the results.

Are Carrère’s methods moral? Are they advisable? I’m sure they are not. Did I sigh, just a little, when he finds personal redemption in the arms of a much younger, more flexible woman? Of course. But is the book good? It’s wonderful. It is Carrère’s willingness to face his own flaws full in the face that makes his writing so striking, and – dare I say it – relatable. This realisation, in itself, deeply unsettled me. My passion for Yoga may say as much about me as it does the book.

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