Even a beginner in meditation knows that when a thought comes to mind, you shouldn’t blame yourself. You need to observe rather than engage: “Oh, there it is again, me thinking I’m a failure, me worrying about this or that, me…. No matter.” But in “real life”, we usually don’t have access to another mind’s chimerical self-analysis. In Emmanuel Carrère’s latest book, YogaWe do.
Carrère begins his book by saying that he set out to write “an optimistic and subtle little book” on yoga. Instead, he wrote Yoga, a long work of reflection that covers four years of his life, mixing personal account with philosophy, biography, journalism, art criticism and travelogue. He begins with a meditation retreat, candidly and intimately recounting his experience (present and past) with tai chi and meditation. His stay is interrupted by the news of 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting, in which one of his friends was killed. Carrère must return to Paris to deliver a eulogy. This tragedy and an unnamed domestic crisis subsequently trigger a severe depression and a prolonged hospital stay. The implication (never fully explored) is that he sabotaged his happiness (and second marriage) with infidelity, both spiritual and sexual, with a woman he met at another yoga retreat.
One July 2022 New YorkCarrère’s profile, “Emmanuel Carrère writes his way through a breakdown”, explains the obvious omissions in Yoga: Carrère is contractually obligated not to write about his second (now ex-) wife without his permission. The profile takes up the biography of Carrère where Yoga ends, letting us know that Carrère is now living with the much younger woman he meets at the end of Yoga.
Carrère’s misery is ultimately, if not completely, relieved by two things: an accurate mental health diagnosis, offering him a belated realization that his problems are at least partially chemical, and an attempt to engage with those who have more. problems like him, especially the young Afghan refugees on a Greek island where he briefly volunteered. He is (like many of us) prone to ruinous self-reflection when alone, and less sunk in himself when in the company of other people.
In the center of the personal room of YogaCarrère’s narrative is Carrère’s self-proclaimed major flaw: his “uncontrollable despotic ego”. He is obsessed with achieving the very literary greatness that others have already attributed to him. Karl Ove Knausgaard described Carrère as “the most exciting living writer”. A 2017 New York Times profile noted that Carrère is “widely regarded as France’s greatest non-fiction writer” and that he “managed to write one masterpiece after another”. And yet, he hungers for more comfort.
Through Yoga, Carrère juxtaposes his “neurotic misery,” as he calls it, and his “ordinary unhappiness,” without neglecting either form of suffering, even as he criticizes his own privilege. On the Greek island of Leros, Carrère stays with Erica, a woman whose personal “shadow,” the post-stroke physical manifestation of his multiple heartaches, is as compelling as the harrowing ordeals of the young Afghan refugees he encounters. That Erica’s circumstances are, in part, fictional is a somewhat puzzling admission at the end of a book that seemed, until then, to be purely non-fictional. This is all the more true since Erica’s story is so breathtaking, including the tragic and mysterious story of her mentally ill sister, a strangely slow-moving woman who nevertheless frantically played Chopin’s “heroic” Polonaise. . The potential meanings of Erica’s story multiply when placed alongside Carrère’s discussion of the deliberately slow movements of tai chi and her analysis of a video of Martha Argerich performing this same Chopin piece. .
Despite his acknowledged flaws, Carrère is fascinating company, engagingly recounting and interpreting his life and loves, as well as the experiences of friends and strangers, as he unpacks his putative subjects – the spirit, the precepts yoga and tai chi. He’s lived a great life – as a literary superstar, as a witness to the tsunami in Sri Lanka, as the son of a great Russian scholar, as a film director – and is a clear polymath, equally adept at referencing to Captain Haddock in Tin Tin or Jack Nicholson in the brilliant as it is to mention a Tibetan master or Plutarch.
Carrère can be funny and sarcastic – he describes a fellow writer as “a neckless, sullen apoplectic” – but his impulse is less the black and white of judgment than the gray of careful and creative observation, consideration and consideration. layered analysis, manufacturing Yoga the opposite of yoga, because it fills rather than empties the mind. Indeed, towards the end of the volume, Carrère quotes an Australian novelist saying that writing is not so difficult: “You just have to tilt your head and drop everything on a sheet of paper. While reading Yoga it’s a bit like tilting your head and dragging the contents of that sheet of paper.
Debra Spark’s most recent books are And Then Something Happened: Essays on Fiction Writing and the novel Unknown Caller. She co-edited Breaking Bread: Writers from New England on Food, Hunger and Family, which was released in the spring of 2022. She teaches at Colby College and in Warren Wilson’s MFA for Writers program. She regularly reviews books for Frenchly.