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August 24, 2011

Lily Ye: One of your main insights in Lives Other Than My Own seems to be that talking about others can be a way to talk about oneself, and talking about oneself can be a way of talking about others.

Emmanuel Carrère: I often think of a comment by the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who said “the shortest way to oneself’s truth is through other people.” Which is true, but also in reverse: “the shortest way to other people is through oneself.”

LY: You write that this is a book for others (especially Juliette’s daughters), but has it had an effect on you as well? How do you think this narrative will affect readers who do not personally know the people you are writing about?

EC: I would not write books if I did not expect or at least hope that they would have an effect on myself (not only making myself a better writer, but a better person). I’d like for my books to be read not only by devoted and informed readers, but also, let’s say, by the kind of people who read only one or two books in a year. I try to deal with complex issues in the simplest and clearest way, and, as you know, being simple and clear is a very demanding job. And I feel gratified when people who have had to cope with illness, great poverty or mourning and, for these reasons, were afraid to open a book about such issues, tell me that reading it has helped them.

LY: How was writing this book different from writing My Life as a Russian Novel?

EC: That book was autobiographical, which this one is not—although I am present as narrator and witness. My Life as a Russian Novel was about misfortune brought on by neurosis (I don’t know how else to translate the French word “Malheur”), this book is about ordinary misfortune (by which I mean illness, separation, death)—and I agree with Freud when he says that the best thing you can expect of psychoanalysis is to exchange neurotic misfortune for ordinary misfortune. Finally, I published My Life as a Russian Novel against the will of two of its main characters (my mother and my girlfriend Sophie). I took the risk of deeply hurting their feelings (which I had to, for my own sake, but which I regret and hope never to do again). Lives Other Than My Own was written at the request and with the agreement of its main characters: I submitted the book to them before it was published and gave them the opportunity to ask for any changes they wanted (in fact, they asked almost nothing)—and for all these reasons I feel at peace with them and with myself.

LY: In recent years, you’ve moved away from fiction to writing primarily non-fiction—some of it deeply personal. Can you explain this shift?

EC: I write what Truman Capote called “non-fiction novels” and often, as you say, deeply personal non-fiction novels, which means I use all the tools and the tricks of fiction-writing, but on documentary material. I have nothing ideological against fiction, I enjoy reading fiction and maybe I shall write it again in the future, but right now, I feel at home in this real, a huge and partly unexplored continent of literature, which I first set foot on more than ten years ago in writing The Adversary. I recently completed a new book which will be published in France next September: it’s about the Russian writer, politician and adventurer Edward Limonov, about the fall of communism and the post-communism chaos in Eastern Europe, about my own life and experiences and about the ideal of the hero.

LY: Did you work directly with Linda Coverdale in the translation of this book?

EC: We don’t work together, and except for a few questions I think Linda doesn’t need my help. She has been my translator for four books to date. Linda is perfectly faithful, but with a personal touch and tone which I like very much and am always happy to discover when I read her new translation.

Emmanuel Carrère
interviewed by
Lily Ye

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