Sep 022011

Last Spring there was a raging debate in the US over the notion of «memoir», of what a memoir could/should be, how it should be written, etc. The debate is still on, and when this week a blog post announced the publication of the English translation of Emmanuel Carrère’s book, Lives other than my own, I wondered if it would bring a new perspective to the discussion. In France memoirs do not constitute a genre of its own, with a separate spot on the shelves of bookstores. Usually found within «Literature», it is a genre that is rarely singled out (in the same way, political memoirs will be found with books on current events & politics, and so forth). This Fall, a traditionally very busy season in French publishing, there are a number of memoirs, or books that would be seen as such in the US, coming out . But again they are rarely labelled that way, maybe because authors and publishers prefer to entertain the blur between fiction and non-fiction and promote the idea that in the end it is all literature. Books appears under the same often austere jackets (some of the most prestigious «maisons» – publishing houses – established their image through pictureless covers, the colors or paper texture being their trademark, almost a sign of nobility…Think the creamy off-white of Gallimard, the yellow of Grasset, or in Carrère’s case the textured white covers of P.O.L)

Before leaving Paris, I had a conversation with a friend, – editor and writer herself – with whom we always marvelled at the American mastery of this «thing» called Creative non-fiction. And we came to discuss Carrère’s book, finding that it certainly stands closest to the American notion of memoir. Because the book is a memoir built in a diptych. In the first part the author remembers the day of and days after the 2004 Tsunami in Tangalle, Sri Lanka, where he was vacationing with his girlfriend and their repective sons, and how they took a role in another family’s tragedy, a young couple losing a child to the Big Wave. Equally overshadowed by death the second part retraces the life and death of his sister-in-law, a young judge, mother of three, who dies when the the cancer that has plagued her since youth recurs. In order to better understand Juliette’s professional and personal life, Carrere leads his own investigation, and as a result paints a fascinating portray of the quotidian of this magistrate, her battles, her challenges and successes. Closer to US creative non-fiction and memoirs  – a mix of personal experience with a more general view of the context – that part of the book was for me the most successful.

In memoirs, the authority of the narrator is often discussed, how credible he/she is, how she deals with erratic memories, how he expresses – or better, shows – emotions, what can render the story if not universal – I do not like the notion – at least relevant for most. Carrere is not gentle with his readers: he assumes his position of voyeur – if he is touched, even grieved at some point, it is always over dramas he witnesses without being directly emotionally involved. And in the distance he exhibits, there is discomfort, source of anger, frustration for the reader. But somehow he kept me under a spell: the writing? certainly. The story? true for part 2. The enigma that this unclassifiable work represent? yes, up to the last line.

Very curious now to see what will be the reactions in  the US creative non-fiction community…


* photo: moss on a wall of the Château de Chambord