The truth lies beneath the yoga mat

Emmanuel Carrère has for years belonged to the group of authors whose books are the subject of much speculation and promotion even before they are published. Carrère is regularly honored with literary awards and has for years been considered a candidate for the Prix Goncourt, the award for best French-language novel of the year. When his novel “Yoga” (now in German translation by Matthes & Seitz) was published two years ago, the French feuilleton discussed in detail the extent to which the author had dealt with the separation from his wife Hélène Devynck. The debate revolved around legal and literary issues.

Devynck and Carrère had agreed in their marriage pact that after the divorce he would no longer be allowed to write about his former wife. But that was exactly what Carrère had apparently done in a first version. But Devynck was also unhappy with the published version. She wrote for the online edition of France’s Vanity Fair, writing that Carrère had embellished things in his favor: ‘This story, presented as autobiographical, is fake, arranged to fit the author’s image and has nothing to do with, what my family and I went on. through with him. “

Carrère insists that his writing is not fictional, but aims at the utmost sincerity. He therefore rejects the term ‘novel’ for his book.

Carrère, on the other hand, insists that his writing is not fictional, but aims at the utmost sincerity. He therefore rejects the term ‘novel’ for his book. Critics then asked if the nomination of ‘Yoga’ for the Prix Goncourt was legal under these conditions. The prize is expressly reserved for fiction. As the narrator describes at the beginning of the first chapter, he is busy writing a “report,” “a cheerful, witty little book on yoga.” To do this, he travels to a ten-day Vipassana retreat two hours by car from Paris, where he sits as still as possible on his zafu, the traditional meditation pillow, and feels his breath. Yoga, which he largely equates with meditation and wants to be separated from the forms of fashionable, esoteric gymnastics prevalent among Western hippies and hipsters, he has been practicing for 20 years at this time. He describes it as a form and technique that can be learned, and which should make it possible, if not to escape the eternal pain that life brings with it, at least to face it a little more confidently.

To this end, Carrère develops a wide range of definitions of what meditation should be and combines them in an essayistic way with his knowledge of traditional ideas from Far Eastern thought, thoughts about Nietzsche and ideas from stories of Philip K. Dick or David Cronenberg films. His memories of “Tim und Struppi” episodes and his own biography are also included in the descriptions. This is done in an entertaining way and with a certain understatement, so that you like to get involved, even if the question from time to time arises where the activity should actually lead.

That, says Carrère in the text, did not last him long either; But as it is in line with his way of working, he agreed to follow the surprises of the writing process and trusted that the report would find the form that suited it. And in fact, it eventually unfolds through a series of intrusions and hurts when disasters invade the author’s close surroundings and change the tone and direction of the text in the process.

While the first part of the book above all describes the successful side of life, despite all the internal contradictions, obvious terror and madness follow in the second and third parts. The Islamist attack on the editorial office of Charlie Hebdo takes place in Paris, killing Carrère’s friend, economist and author Bernard Maris. Carrère leaves his yoga retreat to hold tributes in Paris. As if that were not enough, he has to cope with the separation from his wife. This loss constitutes the empty space in the middle of the report, which the contract does not allow him to write about – openly and explicitly. In addition, the woman with whom he had a passionate affair disappears from his life. The lover, who was probably one of the reasons for the separation, is literally being dragged to the other side of the earth. After a total breakdown with a death wish, the narrator is sent to a psychiatric ward, where his condition worsens. The diagnosis is bipolar disorder. He is subjected to electroconvulsive therapy, which even under full anesthesia is the darkest horror strip for him that can neither be remembered nor put into words. In the fourth and fifth part of his report, he describes the arduous journey back to an injured life in which yoga continues to play a role but has lost its significance.

Autofiction writing got a lot of attention in the book market with the life stories of Annie Ernaux, Édouard Louis or Karl Ove Knausgård and the new editions of books by Tove Ditlevsen. Truthfulness is considered an important criterion for successful literature. Whether texts are convincing and appealing depends not least on whether the author succeeds in succeeding instead of appearing as a narcissistic aversion. Houellebecq, on the other hand, has a rather laconic relationship to his own biography, with which Carrère is often compared.

Writing, according to Carrère, a constant ‘sentence construction’, also means that in the struggle for expression one must again and again take a stand on what can be said and what – about oneself and others – can be revealed. Exactly where things get personal in ‘Yoga’, the author lacks tact. When he writes about his family or his work with refugees, he repeatedly falls into awkward egocentricity. In light of the misery around him, he admits that he is ashamed of his luxury problems. Above all, this admission strengthens the reader’s sympathy for the narcissistic writer because of his painful experiences. It often seems that Carrère, above all, needs the suffering of others to exhibit his own. Despite the largely compelling form and deeply personal insight into contemporary illness and horror, the book’s insistence on genuine experience and sincerity is strangely bossy.

Emmanuel Carrere: Yoga. Translated from the French by Claudia Hamm. Matthes & Seitz, Berlin 2022, 341 pages, 25 euros

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