A Russian Novel is a tricksy little number. A quick perusal of the cover is enough to give the impression that, especially as it weighs in at a svelt 250 pages, this is a book that you could probably throw quite a lot further than you ought to trust. (And yes, there are times when this is a temptation). First up, as the blurb reveals, this isn’t a novel. It’s a memoir, ‘weaving fact and fiction, travelogue and an erotically charged game of cat-and-mouse’, in which the noted French author and film director Emmanuel Carrere ‘builds fictions from his own life, inflicting his plots on lovers and family on the way’.
This places the reader on unsteady ground – is it meant to be true or isn’t it? – not least because the overriding impression throughout A Russian Novel is that it’s all a bit contrived. Throughout, the meta-radar of the long-suffering reader of postmodern fiction will be on red alert. In a Pirandellian gesture, the book tells the story of Carrere the author/character in search of a plot. At the beginning of the book, Carrere and his film crew travel to the bleak Siberian town of Kotelnich to make a documentary film about an elderly Hungarian WW2 veteran who is about to be repatriated having been discovered in a mental hospital where he has remained forgotten for 50 years.
However, auspicious documentary material though this may seem, it’s really a smoke-screen from behind which Carrere delves into his past – and endures the tribulations of his present (the tense in which the book is narrated) – as he searches within his own experiences for the real story that he wishes to tell. En route, Carrere will uncover the big family taboo: the secret of his Russian grandfather, a disillusioned émigré in Paris who was arrested as a collaborator by the militants of La Resistance and never seen again. Carrere’s mother, a well-known academic, has been haunted by shame for her entire life and has never told anyone of her father’s story. Until now.
Meanwhile, Carrere negotiates the ongoing histrionics of an extravagantly intense, mutually destructive relationship. In another piece of meta-fictional playfulness, the central event, which ties together the disparate thematic strands of the novelistic plotline, is a mise en abyme. The character Emmanuel Carrere is asked to write a short story to be published in Le Monde. In an act of literary showmanship, he decides to publish, under the guise of a story, an erotic letter to his lover, Sophie.
The story is intended as a stunt, an act of ‘performative literature’, in which Carrere controls Sophie’s every move, shaping reality under the guise of fiction. Carrere orchestrates events meticulously so that Sophie will read the story on a specific train at a specific time on a specific day – she will even be sitting in a specific seat. All of this will be revealed to the other passengers who are reading Carrere’s story in Le Monde on the train that day. What’s more, Carrere’s story will be such a major turn-on for all concerned that they will take it in turns to surreptitiously masturbate in the toilet.
So far so clever, chic and, well, French. A Russian Novel reads rather like a nouveau roman – slowly marinated in post-structuralist theory, smugly self-reflexive, and forcing the reader to take on an active role in working out what did and didn’t really happen. If you were that way inclined, you could write a neat essay on how the parts fit together, plots mirroring sub-plots, events mirroring memories, to achieve a clever artistic effect. However, here’s the punch line: it seems like most of this actually did happen.
Exhibit A: Carrere’s story within a story was actually published several years ago as a stand-alone piece in Le Monde. What’s more, he has revealed in an interview that the family secret he reveals in the book is real – and his mother now isn’t speaking to him. Most shockingly of all, the gruesome murder, whose structural role as the grimly ironic conclusion to Carrere’s search for a subject to film in Kotelnich seems so clear, is also real: it involved a real woman and a real baby getting hacked to death with a real axe.
What appears on first encounter to be a tricksy novel masquerading as memoir is in fact a bizarrely novelistic chain of real-life events masquerading as fiction. The American version was entitled My Life as a Russian Novel, making somewhat clearer the relationship between fact and fiction than the more disingenuous A Russian Novel (a literal translation of the original French title, Un roman russe). So what was Carrere’s purpose in pulling this all off, presenting a memoir consisting of intimate confessions, public betrayals and real-life tragedies as if it were a postmodernist novel?
Fiction these days – or at least what we conventionally think of as the novel, with its characters and well-made plots – is so passe. The fictionalised non-fiction is this season’s must-have form, a literary equivalent of the fixie bike. Earlier this year David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto declared the novel culturally defunct, supplanted by the ‘lyrical essay’ as the medium for our times. Many of the past decade’s avant-garde novelists are, in Shields’ words, ‘breaking off ever bigger chunks of reality into their work’: think WG Sebald’s walks in the Suffolk countryside, JM Coetzee’s third-person memoirs and lectures-as-novels, lyrical essayists like Britain’s own Geoff Dyer or Ian Sinclair, the novelistically structured non-fiction of late Milan Kundera.
In Elizabeth Costello, JM Coetzee broke off chunks of reality by taking texts that had already been published as lectures, and republishing them as a work of fiction. Similarly, A Russian Novel hinges on taking a slightly creepy, public romantic stunt Carrere had previously pulled to no great acclaim (and with disastrous effects on his private life), and recasting it as mise en abyme. Whereas Sophie complains that Carrere is trying to control her in the letter ‘like a character in a novel’, by actually turning her into a character in a novel Carrere was able to resurrect and reinvent the story, give it a structural meaning and effect beyond that which it had in real life. This is anti-fiction in action, playing on our knowledge of the tricks, sly winks and ironies of the postmodern novel to make us doubt good old fashioned reality.
A Russian Novel poses far more questions than it answers. Taken as a work of pure fiction it would be readable, engaging and at times surprisingly moving, if a little on the gimmicky side. Despite its non-fictional foundations there’s no doubt Carrere is being deliberately cute, and one of the novel’s central mechanisms is the way it bounces off our preconceptions, disrupting any genre-complacent approach we may care to take. However, the knowledge that Carrere is laying real cards on the table turns it into a perversely admirable work of bravery bordering on recklessness. It may not provide the narrative satisfaction of the sort of Tolstoyan epic its name evokes, but A Russian Novel is a genuinely inventive work with balls of steel.