Ten days of silence and meditation. French author Emmanuel Carrère wanted to review this exercise in a notoriously strict retreat to gather experience for a “cheerful little book on yoga.” But after four days, he had to end his stay: A friend had been murdered in the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and Carrère was supposed to pay tribute to me. A few months later, Carrère was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which was so severe that Carrère was treated with electric shock as a last resort. After treatment, Carrère learned poetry by heart to practice his electric shocked memory and taught workshops for refugees in a camp on the Greek island of Leros.
This is how the contents of Emmanuel Carrère’s book “Yoga” can be summarized in a few sentences, which the Berlin publisher Matthes & Seitz has successfully sold in Germany for a few weeks. Which raises the question: in spite of or because of the seemingly raw mix of his themes?
Like a conversation at the kitchen table
The scandal surrounding the book in France certainly did not contribute to its success. Carrère is said to have reworked the text massively: he is said to have deleted passages in which the separation from his ex-wife Hélène Devynck was described as yet another existential crisis to abide by the contractual agreement with her never to write about her again. Although this argument brought “Yoga” further attention in France, it hardly played a role in the German reception, because Carrère and Devynck are hardly known as public figures in this country, unlike in France, where the couple often showed up at large cultural events. events.
Moreover, there are no deletions to be noticed in Carrère’s book. On the contrary, he manages to find a form of all the seemingly incoherent experiences and thoughts: a kind of splintering of splinters. The book is made up of countless short sections, where the autobiographical episodes alternate with other stories that Carrère inserts: from the synopsis of a horror story he read enthusiastically as a teenager, to a poetic anecdote about his late publisher. In addition, Carrère is constantly thinking about writing; about how even “indescribable” pain like electroshock therapy can be conveyed. The book is also a meditation on literature, a reflection on what supposedly trivial things, how much of everyday life must appear in a text in order for it to appear as something organic and alive.
Also notable is Carrère’s concern for an accessible style, which his longtime translator Claudia Hamm compares to the tone of an “intimate conversation at the kitchen table.” A tone that she strikes very convincingly in her translation. In his supposed “non-literary” style, Carrère also provides a striking definition of the genre of “autofiction”, which for several years has been a much-discussed part of contemporary literature with authors such as Karl Ove Knausgard, Annie Ernaux and Édouard Louis. Carrère writes that the books that interest him are not the ones that boast great, fictional stories. But those where the authors express “what goes through their heads”.
What sounds so simple, however, constitutes the book’s basic suspense. For in meditation, the mind that is constantly going through the head should be brought to a halt. But when his brain was attacked by the electric shocks, it was about the exact opposite: the thought process that has stalled needs to be stimulated again. Silence and movement are one of the pairs of contradictions that characterize Carrère’s book, in which innumerable contradictions are inscribed: silence and speech, cheerfulness and sadness, modesty and vanity.
Tame your strength with yoga
Carrère had made a collection of definitions for the book he was actually planning: “What is yoga?” This collection also contains a reference to the origin of the word yoga: It comes from Sanskrit and means a yoke in which two cattle are stretched. For Carrère, this is a picture of taming opposing forces: instead of going in two directions, the cattle now contract into one. Carrère manages to tame this in his book: With “Yoga” he put the forces and experiences that threatened to destroy him.
In this way, we readers become witnesses to the creation of a book and its author’s accompanying self-rescue in the face of the most serious life crises. The quiet power of Carrère’s book lies in this existential connection between life and authorship and is certainly also the reason for its success.
Emmanuel Carrere: Yoga. Translated from the French by Claudia Hamm. Matthes & Seitz, Berlin 2022. 341 pages, 25 euros.
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