French novelist/screenwriter/journalist Carrère (I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey Inside the Mind of Philip K. Dick, 2003, etc.) recalls two fraught years that took him to Siberia and ended a love affair.
Heavy drinking, infidelity, questions about meaning and identity, white nights in the long northern summer—it’s a Russian novel in subject matter, but the author’s approach is decidedly French: minute analysis of each emotional up or down, brutal frankness about his (and others’) less-than-admirable behavior that recalls Flaubert or Stendhal. In 2000, Carrère traveled with a film crew to the provincial town of Kotelnich for a news story that later turned into an open-ended project for the French National Film Commission. Since he had no real plan for the project, he mostly hung around aimlessly with the locals—experiences that are sharply described in the memoir’s least solipsistic scenes—while obsessing over two loose ends in his life. The first was the fate of his grandfather, a Russian immigrant to France who disappeared in 1944, presumably killed in reprisal for collaborating with the Germans. Carrère’s mother, a distinguished French intellectual, begged her son not to write about her shameful father. Believing that she “denied us the right to our suffering,” he did it anyway. This would be less distasteful if the author’s motives didn’t seem to be entirely selfish, which is the impression also created by his account of his tortured relationship with Sophie, the second loose end. The couple had great sex, but everything Carrère writes—including a semi-pornographic story he published in Le Monde, instructing his lover to read it on a train ride and follow its instructions—backs up Sophie’s anguished belief that he was uninterested in her job, her friends and her life, embarrassed by her lower social status and intent on controlling her every move. She had an affair, became pregnant and eventually married another man. Readers will most likely conclude that Carrère deserved Sophie’s payback.
Intelligent, well-written and scrupulously honest, but off-puttingly self-involved.