Embarrassing Beliefs

The Kingdom by Emmanuel Carrère

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Emmanuel Carrère

Carrére states that ‘things of the soul, the things involving God embarrass me’ but, there maybe other things that should embarrass him more.

This is an extraordinary book. Carrère subtitles it ‘a novel’ but its form has been described as biographical non-fiction written in the first person.  Essentially it is a history of early Christianity.  Three of the first century characters are named Jesus, Paul and Luke. The narrative is interwoven with Carrère’s 21st century first person voice – it is as if he is in conversation with the disciples.   It’s compelling and unsettling.

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The Damascene Conversion: Tibor Kraus

The Kingdom gives an account of the Damascene Conversion. It has a long section on Luke, who seems to be Carrère’s favourite chronicler. The Gospel of Luke tells a familiar story but Carrère’s apparent intimacy with the narrator is achieved through comparison of available sources/translations and especially a close investigation into style. Carrère gets really excited because at two points in his gospel Luke changes from the third person to the second person. So what was an account of Paul’s travels talking about ‘him’ or ‘them’ becomes ‘we’. Luke is there with Paul apparently. Carrère enjoys speculating about that.

Secondly Carrère is interested in what has been omitted as well as in what has been recorded. In all four gospels there is only one half sentence that suggests that Paul was imprisoned in Jerusalem for two years. Here Carrère uses his knowledge to imagine what Luke did with those 24 months.

Extracts of reviews printed on the blurb are apostolic in their reverence for The Kingdom. Julian Barnes , who clearly read the novel, published in 2014, in its original French, calls Carrère ‘the most important writer in Europe’.  I had never heard of him until the book editor at the Irish Examiner sent me a copy to review.  Since I completed my review of The Kingdom I have looked at others, see works cited below.  All the ones I have read are by men.

They notice, as I did, Carrère’s narcissism but not so much his misogyny.  The choices of  subject matter, characters, sources, attitudes and style are all overtly male.  Although there are strong women in Carrère’s personal life they are under-represented, indeed absent, from The Kingdom.

What embarrasses Carrère is that for three years, from 1990, he was ‘touched by grace’. During that period he became a fervent believer, filling notebooks with daily thoughts stimulated by reading the Gospel of John. He attended mass every day, took communion and made confessions.

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Bookending his devout episode Carrère, a French intellectual and urbane Parisian, is more at home with works of philosophy, psychology and literature such as Nietzsche, I Ching, Kafka and Homer. But, in order to write The Kingdom, Carrére had to research Christian exegesis, as he had previously done in the early 1990s, for his own spiritual purposes.

Working over recent years on The Kingdom has, says Carrère, been like writing an early Philip K Dick novel. In the story a child is born to a virgin. The boy’s father is an invisible god. After being killed by rational unbelievers the prophet is resurrected and promises eternal life to those who believe in him.

Members of his sect spread the word throughout the world and establish one of the great, and most resilient, religions. For Carrère, who currently presents himself as sceptical and agnostic, this sounds like science fiction. Maybe that’s why he calls The Kingdom a novel?

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Carrère in his study: New York Times Magazine

Carrère is open about himself, his thoughts and his behaviour. It is shocking to read his self-deprecatory account. He is selfish, self-indulgent, self-revelatory, self-loathing and self-aggrandising. It’s all about him in a way that I find deeply repellent but at the same time I also feel that I may know him better than any other human being, other than myself. He holds nothing back, stating that he ‘loves himself to the point of hatred’.

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Pièta Rondanini: Michelangelo 1552

I cannot condemn him though as I think this level of honesty should be applauded, unless, of course it is all an enormous confidence trick.  Maybe, that’s what he means when he calls The Kingdom a novel? Perhaps this soul-baring, breast-beating Emmanuel Carrère is a self-created fictional character and if I were to visit the author in his apartment in Rue des Petits-Hôtels I would find someone completely different.

Interestingly the narrator has two amazing and loyal friends. He mentions others but it’s these I covet. His godmother, Jacqueline, both loving and challenging, is a constant figure in his life.   She, it is, who when he reaches the slough of despond in his early 30s, guides him into Catholicism. She provides an extensive reading list, and, as necessary, reassurance. She warns him of the perils he will face in his pilgrim’s progress.

Jacqueline has a lovely flat in Rue Vaneau, full of beautiful things, like a sanctuary for the soul. If she were still alive I would like to go there. She is ‘well versed in Oriental wisdom and yoga’ and thus is able to provide spiritual leadership in a number of ways. She is a mystic who steps in when therapy and analysis fail Carrère. At the point just before he finds his faith, he remembers, ‘just being me became literally unbearable’.

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The other thoroughly desirable companion is Jacqueline’s other godson, Hervé. He is a one-on-one friend with whom Carrère has, for 25 years, spent a fortnight at the end of every summer. They sojourn in Valais, Switzerland and walk and sit for hours in silence. Beyond these trips he and Hervé rarely meet. But Hervé, whose own notebooks juxtapose the words of Christ ‘with those of Lao-tze and the Bhagavad Gita’, is ‘the least fanatic of human beings’. He sounds really great.

There is one episode in The Kingdom which I found especially distressing. Carrère and his first wife, Anne, need a nanny for their two small boys. I am not sure what Anne’s work might have been but Emmanuel was in the habit of going to the office everyday to write screenplays or fiction. The new nanny, whose sole advantage is that she might have been employed previously by Philip K. Dick, is left alone on her very first day. Both parents exit the apartment leaving a baby in a bassinet.

What ensues is shocking and I would say that if it had been part of my experience of parenting I would have been too embarrassed to make my negligence public. For Carrère, however, the embarrassment comes not from his behaviour in the rational world but in his short-lived relationship with the Lord.

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N.B. If you are interested in reading about Emmanuel Carrère I urge you to start with two articles in the Guardian.  Robert McCrum writes that Carrère is the ‘most important French writer that you’ve never heard of’. Tim Whitmarsh is entrusted with the same paper’s review of The Kingdom.  There is also a brilliant piece by Wyatt Mason for the New York Times Magazine.

Works cited

Carrère, E. The Kingdom: A Novel. Trans. John Lambert. Allen Lane. 2017. Print.

Mason, W. ‘How Emmanuel Carrère Reinvented Nonfiction’. New York Times Magazine. 2 Mar 2017. Web. 3 Mar 2017.

McCrum, Robert. ‘The Most Important French Writer You’ve Never Heard Of’. Guardian. 21 Sept 2014. Web. 3 Mar 2017.

Whitmarsh, T. ‘Review Emmanuel Carrère The Kingdom: the man who invented Jesus’. Guardian. 24 Feb 2017. Web. 3 Mar 2017.

A version of this review first appeared on April 15th 2017 in the Irish Examiner on pages 33 and 34 of the Weekend Section.  

The Novel of the Century by David Bellos

As a Professor of French Literature and a specialist in the nineteenth century, David Bellos is well placed to write about Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, Les Misérables.

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Cover illustration: Jillian Tamki

He states that many educated readers have never read it because they have heard of it primarily from film and musical adaptations and regard it with snobbish disdain. This is true, to some extent, of me. I have not read it although it was my grandfather’s favourite novel and one of the few books in his house. It’s strange though as I have read Zola, Stendhal and Balzac so I am not sure why I neglected Hugo’s masterpiece. Maybe the title put me off. Resolution for 2017: read Les Misérables.

Bellos, himself, first read it for the strangest of reasons. Embarking on a camping holiday in the Alps, and looking around for a long read, in a light volume, he chanced upon Les Misérables on a shelf. Its many words were printed on ‘Bible paper’ so it would be easy to carry. The trip was aborted by weather and illness so Bellos booked himself into a cheap hotel and lay in bed reading, until he had finished. A similar thing happened to me when I was on a school trip in Italy, aged 18; I read War and Peace.

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David Bellos: newyorkcity.eventful.com

 

The Novel of the Century, at fewer than 300 pages is, in itself, an undertaking, as Bellos is not only providing a host of details surrounding the penning of the novel but also hoping to show how nineteenth century social politics and societal mores affected Hugo’s ideas. At the same time, parallels are drawn, particularly in attitudes regarding the poor, to post-millennial morals. At times the comparisons feel rather forced but Bellos does encourage the reader to think whether or not plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Hugo, apparently, did not describe the gruesome incidents in his novel although Bellos insists that adaptations often choose to amend this with sensational depictions, such as the working life of a prostitute or the cruelty of a punishment.  Bellos sees it as his job, not only to provide a full account of what would have happened, or did happen, in the lower echelons of French society during the post-Napoleonic era but also to show how other artists have developed Hugo’s scaffolding to dramatic effect.

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Sub Clara Nuda Lucerna painted by Victor Hgo

He is also at pains to match characters and incidents in Hugo’s own life to those portrayed in the novel. Hugo, a serial philanderer – and one who narrowly avoided a court case concerning, Léonie Biard, one of his married lovers – ignores sexual matters in Les Misérables, perhaps, suggests Bellos, because it was a bit too close to his own affairs.

Whilst supplying background, he attacks what he regards as speculation by other researchers and consistently signposts anything that he thinks is impossible to prove but might be worth considering. Bellos is aiming for clarity: almost as if he can feel disparaging scholars peering, at his manuscript, over his shoulder.

At times he does seem patronising, surveying all from his ivory tower in Princeton, as he explains, “’Revolution’ means a turn of 360 degrees – in car engines, for example”. Hugo’s characters live through a revolution, as did Hugo. He had already finished his first draft of Les Misérables when in February 1848 revolution broke out in Paris.

anim_008.jpgBellos identifies the causes as “general desperation of the poor, and a particular political mess”. There had been much republican unrest about the reign of Louis-Phillipe. Having been a peer of the realm under the king, Hugo became, in June, an elected representative of the people. In November Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte was elected as prince-president and the Second Republic was established.

It had been an anxious and fearful time for Hugo but the experience of the riots and the barricades would, eventually, enter the second draft of his epic. Meanwhile he was totally involved as the chief elected politician in Paris. Bellos writes that Hugo believed that if “the plight of the poor could be made less dire, then all that was frightening or bad in the socialist project would vanish”. He was torn between his liberal feelings and his support for order.

But repressive elements were in the ascendant to such an extent that it became a crime to offend the president. Hugo named Louis-Napoléon “le petit” as opposed to his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte “le grand”. Before long both his sons were in jail and Hugo, with the help of his lover, Juliette Drouet, fled to exile in Belgium. It was not until, in Guernsey, twelve years later, in 1860, that work recommenced on Les Misérables.

One of Hugo’s morals is, as Polonius says in Hamlet, “neither a borrower nor a lender be”. He thought that debt, any debt, was the first symptom of criminality. Characters in the novel who fall into debt, whether they are good or bad, come to a nasty end.

Another important message is about religion. Hugo was not a practising Catholic and he manages, through omission of events such as weddings, to keep churches out of the novel. There is a saintly man, who is a priest, but this is evidenced in daily acts of generosity and forgiveness.   Many of Hugo’s friends in Guernsey were vehemently anti-Catholic but Hugo would not agree to rail against religion. Bellos thinks that, for Hugo, “materialism and atheism exacerbate the opposition between the rich and the poor”. Christian faith suggests equality.

A third issue that Hugo addresses is that of women in society. In some notes to himself, he wrote: “as long as women are legal minors, as long as the problem of women remains unsolved, the convent is only a secondary crime. Marriage with God is not a bad deal”. In an early draft of a preface, Hugo wrote, that “the infinite exists … That selfhood of the infinite is God”. He had a teleological view of history: believing in “the future of man on earth, that is to say his improvement in human terms”. Unfortunately, for Hugo, and perhaps for Bellos who is attempting to show how Les Misérables is a novel of the twenty-first century, as well as the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, most people no longer share this belief.

As the title suggests The Novel of the Century is a labour of love. It is drawn from a prodigious amount of research and is a work of vast ambition. Bellos has so much material that he struggles to interweave it into a coherent unit. Structurally the five parts, broken internally into chapters, are interleaved with interludes. The purpose of these sections seems to be to give further information that just would not fit in anywhere else. The book is dedicated to Bellos’s students; they may wonder why he, who is probably constantly narrowing the focus of their theses, has allowed himself so much leeway.

Works cited

Bellos, A.  The Novel of the Century. Penguin Random House. 2017.

An earlier version of this review appeared in the Irish Examiner, page 33 and 34 of the Weekend section on 11 Feb 2017.