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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

My Life as a Russian Novel

Emmanuel Carrère

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To purchase My Life as a Russian Novel

Title: My Life as a Russian Novel
Author: Emmanuel Carrère
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 276 pages
Original in: French
Availability: My Life as a Russian Novel - US
A Russian Novel - UK
My Life as a Russian Novel - Canada
Un roman russe - Canada
My Life as a Russian Novel - India
Un roman russe - France
La vita come un romanzo russo - Italia
Una novela rusa - España
  • French title: Un roman russe
  • US title: My Life as a Russian Novel
  • UK title: A Russian Novel
  • US sub-title: A Memoir
  • Translated by Linda Coverdale

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Our Assessment:

B : fairly interesting, though pulled in rather too many directions

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 18/10/2010 Maria Crawford
The Guardian . 16/10/2010 Josh Lacey
The Independent . 22/10/2010 Jonathan Gibbs
Libération . 1/3/2007 Claire Devarrieux
Svenska Dagbladet . 19/7/2007 Thomas Lunderquist
TLS . 10/12/2010 Tadzio Koelb
The Washington Post . 1/9/2010 Marie Arana

  From the Reviews:
  • "In candid prose, Carrère captures the contradictions of his fictional persona." - Maria Crawford, Financial Times

  • "Muddled, disjointed and uncomfortable as it may be, A Russian Novel is also gripping and fascinating, an intimate portrait of a complicated man's inner life and his struggles to find some kind of happiness and fulfilment." - Josh Lacey, The Guardian

  • "Lucid and compelling as this car-crash writing is, you can't help wondering if the world is, after all, a better place because of it. This worry is disagreeably banished when tragedy draws Carrère back to Kilotnich, and the resonance of the book's title grows and grows as the mood darkens and darkens. (...) This book is very much at the crossroads of writing-as-therapy and the sort of fact-fiction blurring that fans of WG Sebald and Geoff Dyer will appreciate. It clearly needed to be written. I won't say the same about reading it, but I'm glad that I did." - Jonathan Gibbs, The Independent

  • "Pour qui sait l'écrire, et lire entre ses lignes, la vie est d'un raffinement inouï en matière de suspense comme d'organisation romanesque." - Claire Devarrieux, Libération

  • "Emmanuel Carrère genomför sitt bokprojekt till synes lika slumpartat som filmen. (...) Han är förtjust i sin penna och ger den fria tyglar. Det gör han i princip rätt i. (...) Boken må vara ofokuserad men blir ändå, och kanske därav, vacker, innerlig och spirituell." - Thomas Lunderquist, Svenska Dagbladet

  • "If A Russian Novel is in any way unsatisfying, it is because we never learn how Carrère escapes from the fortress of self-pity he has constructed for himself." - Tadzio Koelb, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(I)n the end, Carrère brings the whole pastiche to sharp focus with a few jarring truths and a moment of great beauty. You leave its last pages with a deep appreciation for life. (...) As I say, it doesn't clack into place until the final page. (...) Never mind. This maddening and uncomfortable book will be worth it." - Marie Arana, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Emmanuel Carrère's 'memoir' promises to be My Life as a Russian Novel (or simply A Russian Novel, as the UK title has it (and, as Un roman russe, the French original did too)), and in many respects it does deliver. It's not so much that much of it is set in Russia, but rather what happens -- his family background, his own ill-fated love-affair, and the obligatory tragic occurrences in Russia -- that give it the feel of a nineteenth-century Russian novel.
       The story begins in 2000, with Carrère working on a documentary film (what would become Le Soldat perdu (2003)), for which he travels to the Russian town of Kotelnich. The story behind the film is a good one: an Hungarian soldier, Toma András, forgotten after World War II, has spent "fifty years in a psychiatric hospital in the Russian hinterland", the last living prisoner of war, before the right people put two and two together and he gets repatriated to Hungary.
       The story is also of particular interest to Carrère because his own grandfather, an immigrant from Georgia who had come to France, disappeared without a trace in 1944, and the similarities to Toma's case are striking:

He, too, vanished in the autumn of 1944; he, too, went over to the side of the Germans. But fifty six years later, András Toma returned. He returned from a place called Kotelnich. I went there, and I sense that some day, I will have to go back. Because Kotelnich, for me, is where you can be found when you have disappeared.
       But that's only part of it -- a good story, and explanation. As Carrère eventually admits (as he does return to Kotelnich -- to make another film, eventually released as Retour à Kotelnitch (2004)):
     Still, why Kotelnich ? The short answer -- that I'm looking for my roots -- it is a load of crap. I have no roots in Kotelnich, or even in Russia. [...] My grandfather was Georgian, my grandmother grew up in Italy, I couldn't care less about my great-grandparents' vast estates. This country means nothing to me, beyond its language. And my mother learned Russian not here but in Paris, and that's where I heard it as a child.
       Picking up the language is important to him: he studies it assiduously, and comes to be able to read and, sometimes, speak it well -- but never finds himself in a complete linguistic comfort-zone, and often it still eludes him, much to his frustration.
       The story moves back and forth between France and Russia: after filming the scenes for Le Soldat perdu, Carrère decides he wants to return to Kotelnich, to make a Seinfeldian film 'about nothing', as it were. Eventually he makes a convincing enough case that he gets the funding for the undertaking.
       There is practically nothing in the insignificant Kotelnich -- except maybe the trains passing through -- and when Carrère returns he finds many of the locals are suspicious, and unwilling to be filmed, knowing that the only thing of interest about them is how sorry and pathetic their lives are. Carrère and his crew do make friends of sorts with a couple of the local characters; out of the blue, too, they eventually find themselves with an appropriate ending to the film, a Dostoevskian twist that is reason for Carrère to travel one more time to Kotelnich and finish things off -- though it is less a satisfying conclusion than a brutal, inexplicable twist. Just like life -- or an episode in a Russian novel.
       Meanwhile, Carrère also relates his ups and downs with his love-interest in France, Sophie. They're a pretty happy couple, but Carrère doesn't make it all that easy. The class differences -- Carrère and all his friends live in a certain easy comfort, able to do more or less as they please; Sophie has to work for a living, and not in a position that's really of her choosing -- are somewhat problematic, but Carrère's insecurities are what really cause tension. And while he is passionate about her he doesn't mind sleeping around a bit behind her back. And there's another man in her life, too .....
       Carrère's Sophie-issues culminate in a story he writes for Le Monde, a love-offering explicitly for her and where she is supposed to live out the fantasy he penned, the story itself: set on a train, she is to buy a copy of the Le Monde in which the story is printed and then Carrère's fantasy is to play itself out on the train. But, of course, life does not allow itself to be neatly scripted beforehand and needless to say, Carrère's well-laid plans don't work out as he imagined (and wrote) them. Carrère's jealous, pouting reaction when things go wrong also leads to things getting out of hand very quickly; yes, like in a Russian novel, romance can get very complicated.
       Early on Carrère diagnoses himself:
My problem is precisely the opposite. I don't spend much time in the outside world (real life); mostly I'm in my inner world, of which I am tired and where I feel trapped. I dream of breaking out of my prison but can't manage to do it. Why not ? Because the idea frightens me and -- harder to admit -- I actually love my prison.
       His fumblings in the real world, in Kotelnich and with Sophie, suggest he has himself pegged fairly well. Certainly, with Sophie there's a (self-)destructive edge to how he handles himself and things which suggests his inability to embrace happiness in the form of another human being (something rather different from sex, which seems practically a given, regardless of the circumstances).
       My Life as a Russian Novel is full of fascinating titbits, of family history (his mom, a central figure in this, too, is a person of considerable note as well -- no less an 'immortel' at the Académie française) and personal observations, including about his works, notably The Adversary and The Mustache. Yet it's also a bit of a mishmash, a back and forth that, rather than being aimless, seems almost overwhelmed by purpose. It's interesting to follow Carrère's thoughts, actions, and self-analysis -- for the most part (there are a few times it gets wearing) -- but it doesn't add up to a true whole. My Life as a Russian Novel may aspire to being a novel -- a grand Russian novel at that -- but ultimately all there is to it are pieces of memoir.

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 July 2010

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My Life as a Russian Novel: Reviews: Retour à Kotelnitch - the film: Other books by Emmanuel Carrère under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Emmanuel Carrère was born in 1957. He has written numerous books, which have been widely translated.

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