Emmanuel Carrère 1957–
French novelist and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Carrère's career through 1990.
Best known for his prizewinning novels, Carrère has received lavish acclaim from both French and American critics, some of whom compare his intense, surreal style and experimental techniques to the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe and Franz Kafka.
Although Carrère first began his career as a nonfiction writer with Werner Herzog (1982), a critical study of the renowned German filmmaker, he garnered international acclaim with his novels Bravoure (1984; Gothic Romance) and La moustache (1986; The Mustache). Gothic Romance, which was awarded the Prix Passion and the Prix de la Vocation in France, is a comic parody of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) and utilizes such postmodern techniques as temporal and spatial dislocation, metafictional paradoxes, and an intertextual compositional structure. The central character is Polidori, a companion of Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron who was disparagingly alluded to in Shelley's preface to Frankenstein as an inept, melodramatic storyteller. In Carrère's comic rendering, Polidori is a paranoid, opium-addicted hack writer from whom Shelley stole the idea for her famous novel. He exacts revenge by relating the "true" story of Frankenstein, in which Shelley herself is killed by the monster and condemned to join a race of black-eyed zombies. Part of the book is set in contemporary Europe, where Captain Walton—also a character from Frankenstein—and a staff of romance writers peruse Polidori's manuscript and succumb to the malevolent zombie strain. The Mustache is similar in its intense depiction of psychological pathology and surreal dislocations of consciousness. The Kafkaesque story of a man who shaves his mustache, only to find that his wife and all of his acquaintances insist that he never had a mustache, the novel has been praised by critics as a compelling allegory of modern alienation, paranoia, and insanity.
Critics have generally hailed Carrère as an innovative and artful stylist who is skilled in the use of postmodernist narrative techniques, yet who also recalls the psychological intensity and astuteness of such masters of the surreal and macabre as Edgar Allan Poe, Jorge Luis Borges, and Franz Kafka. While some critics have faulted Carrère's experiments with narrative form as, at times, contrived and distracting, he has many esteemed admirers, including the critic John Gross and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and short story writer John Updike. Gross has described The Mustache as "[d]reamlike and undeniably dramatic…. Carrère has written a book that is likely to ensnare anyone who starts reading it." Updike has characterized Carrère's novel as "stunning—stunning in the speed and agility with which it slices through to its underlying desolation, and stunning in its final impact."
Werner Herzog (criticism) 1982
L'amie du jaguar (novel) 1983
Bravoure [Gothic Romance] (novel) 1984
Le détroit de Behring: Introduction à l'uchronie (nonfiction) 1986
La moustache [The Mustache] (novel) 1986
Hors d'atteinte? (novel) 1988
Je suis vivant et vous êtes morts: Philip K. Dick, 1928–1982 (criticism) 1993
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SOURCE: A review of La Moustache, in The French Review, Vol. LX, No. 6, May, 1987, pp. 904-05.
[In the following mixed review of The Mustache, Solomon contends that "Carrère has some difficulty sustaining the premise of his novel—maintaining both the literal and the metaphorical significance of the mustache and its removal."]
La Moustache begins with an apparently trivial event. The protagonist, a Parisian architect, designated in the text simply as il, decides one afternoon to shave off the mustache he has worn for several years. Its removal is intended to tease his wife Agnès, who had jokingly remarked that she would like to see him clean-shaven. The modern reader has come to expect that such innocuous gestures can have catastrophic consequences, and this one is no exception. As the narrator notes "l'ordre du monde avait subi un dérèglement à la fois abominable et discret." The perpetrator of this "criminal" act must somehow restore the order he has inadvertently shattered or be punished. The novel traces the progressive deterioration of the il's sanity as he confronts the disorder occasioned by the removal of his mustache and attempts to repair the damage. Obviously, perhaps too obviously, we are dealing with the intrusion of the absurd into what has hitherto been a well-defined and comfortable bourgeois existence.
Having savored in advance...
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SOURCE: "Uncertain Absence Under the Nose," in The New York Times, April 1, 1988, p. C33.
[Gross is an English critic, editor, and educator. In the following review, he commends The Mustache as "an authentically eerie book, full of trick perspectives that seem to cancel one another out and yet somehow coexist."]
[In The Mustache a] young Frenchman is taking a bath—we never learn his name, so for the sake of convenience let us call him X. He is also having his second shave of the day, getting rid of a 5 o'clock shadow. It is something he always does, but on this particular evening a sudden impulse makes him call out to his wife (whose name we do know—it is Agnes): "What would you say if I shaved off my mustache?"
Agnes laughs and says that it might not be a bad idea. She has never in fact seen X without a mustache: he was already wearing one when he married her five years before. Then she tells him that she is going out for a few minutes to do some shopping, and while she is gone the same "perverse high spirits" that prompted his question impel him to get to work on his mustache with scissors and razor.
The results aren't altogether satisfactory. The tan he acquired on a recent skiing vacation hasn't worn off yet, and the pale strip of skin that now surmounts his upper lip stands out in unbecoming contrast. Still, the deed has been done.
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SOURCE: "Is This Paranoia, or Am I Nuts?," in The New York Times Book Review, April 17, 1988, p. 36.
[In the following negative review of The Mustache, Conant asserts that Carrère's novel is flawed by "improbable ingredients, implausibly combined, [and] an excess of gimmicky contrivances."]
To have and enjoy a mustache, to rather pride oneself on one's mustache—a fine, thick, dark mustache of 10 years' duration, and then, suddenly wishing to see oneself differently, to shave off this mustache. Then to discover that not only do one's acquaintances fail to observe any change in one's appearance, but that one's wife of five years (half the lifespan of the mustache, consequently a woman who has only known one with a mustache) appears oblivious to the change and declares positively that one has never worn a mustache!
This is the modest premise of Emmanuel Carrère's short, rather silly novel [The Mustache] fluently translated by Lanie Goodman. The central characters in such putative avant-garde fiction are often unnamed, and Mr. Carrère's character, a successful architect, is no exception. He at first wonders if Agnes, his wife, carried away by her "excessive appetite for paradoxes," is playing one of her extended practical jokes. Or has she gone mad? Has he? Or has Agnes been carrying on an affair with Jerome (an architectural colleague) and are they trying to get...
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SOURCE: "Frenchmen: Small Packages," in Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism, Alfred A. Knopf, 1991, pp. 404-12.
[Updike is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist, critic, short story writer, poet, essayist, and dramatist. In the following excerpt, which originally appeared in The New Yorker in July 1988, he praises The Mustache as "a nightmare of slippage the author pulled quickly from the placid yuppie textures of the life around him."]
The young French writer Emmanuel Carrère is … a formidable magnifier, at least in The Mustache. It is his third novel; his second, Bravoure, won two prizes, the Prix Passion and the Prix de la Vocation, and this one comes to translation into English bedecked with Franco-American praise. The tale's point of departure seems as trivial as a pigeon in the hall: a young Parisian architect, left nameless, decides to shave off the mustache he has been sporting for ten years. Like the bank guard of [Patrick Süskind's The Pigeon], he is a man of routine, who shaves twice a day, the second time while luxuriating in his bathtub, which is surrounded by mirrors. "He'd prepare a drink, kept within arm's reach, then lavishly spread the shaving cream on his chin, going back and forth with the razor, making sure not to come too close to the mustache, which he would later trim with a scissors." Any fictional character with a razor in his hand makes a...
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SOURCE: A review of The Mustache, in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring, 1989, p. 256.
[Malin is an American critic and educator. In the following positive review of The Mustache, he remarks on some of the philosophical implications discussed in and raised by Carrère's novel.]
The hero of this deceptively simple, metaphysical novel [The Mustache] decides to remove his mustache, to transform his appearance. He is, after all, an adult who wants to become another person. He is tired; he wants some special change. He desires to create another physical—and spiritual—design. We are not really informed about his reasons for metamorphosis; we merely accept the desire as an ordinary longing—one we can easily understand.
But once he shapes himself differently, he—and his social relationships—falls apart. It appears that, once any design is acceptable and routine, it cannot be changed without wide-ranging consequences. Creation and decreation are subtly married; and any change leads to divorce and nightmare. The hero claims that his new look—his new life—can easily return. But his creator—Emmanuel Carrère—undercuts the ordinary desire because he recognizes that we lead shaky lives, that the social—and theological—world is precarious. Any change carries subtle warnings—there are no easy, convenient transformations....
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SOURCE: A review of Gothic Romance, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 237, No. 21, May 25, 1990, pp. 51-2.
[In the following review, the critic summarizes the plot of Gothic Romance.]
An allusive and contrived retelling of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) and the circumstances of its composition—when the Shelleys, Byron, and his mad young medic "poor Polidori" lived abroad and traded ghost stories—this novel [Gothic Romance] shuttles to and fro in time as if an intertextual exercise. It opens with the embittered addict Polidori living in squalor with a prostitute and claiming that Shelley stole his ideas for her story while his own tale, The Vampire, has been slighted. In a suicidal overdose, he imagines himself drenched on the deck of a sinking ship. The scene shifts to contemporary London, where the ship's captain, Robert Walton (the Arctic explorer in Shelley's novel, to whom the marooned Dr. Frankenstein described his monstrous creation), is now a publisher of romances. He telephones tips to his bevy of authors, notably one named Ann, whose adventures reveal the evolution of romantic myth, e.g., Frankenstein, seen today as a construct of psychoanalysts, biographers, storytellers, filmmakers, and scholars. Written before Carrère's lauded The Mustache, this piece of literary gamesmanship will appeal most to readers concerned with narrative as a puzzle and a process....
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SOURCE: "Monster Frankenstein's Doctor," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 22, 1990, p. 3.
[Eder is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, journalist, and educator. In the following negative review of Gothic Romance, he complains that the plot and style of Carrère's novel are overly complicated and lacking in substance.]
Emmanuel Carrère's Gothic Romance turns the dicta of contemporary literary theory into a sardonic mystery novel; a play of twists and reverses that mocks the frontier between the fictional and the real. It is what Umberto Eco did in Foucault's Pendulum, and the two novels much resemble each other.
Both are consistently and sometimes joyously clever; both are remarkably good at creating a world of suspense. And in both, the deconstructionist or deflationary process—the joke to the effect that no figure in the story is any more real than something this figure may be imagining or making up a story about—is a series of interlocking traps that spring at length and with maddening deliberateness.
For his variation on the theme that anything written is an invention—even history and biography, because although the events and personages existed, the way they are presented and written about is the writer's choice—Carrère uses Frankenstein and the circumstances of its composition.
Part of the novel,...
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SOURCE: A review of Gothic Romance, in West Coast Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 6, November-December, 1990, p. 38.
[In the following mixed review of Gothic Romance, the Critic concludes that "Frankenstein buffs will thoroughly enjoy this read," while others "will miss the stylish innuendoes and likely find it unrewarding."]
Students of English literature know the circumstances under which Mary Shelley's novel, Frankenstein, evolved. Gothic Romance is a tongue-in-cheek tall tale about this story and how it triggered other "horrors" including the "romance" novel.
Frankenstein was supposedly born of ghost story telling during evening socials attended by the Shelleys and Lord Byron. In Gothic Romance, a lesser-known attendee and drug derelict, Doctor Polidori, claims the idea was stolen from him and pursues revenge by writing his own version. In it, Dr. Frankenstein kills people, starting with his wife, and brings them back to life. However, the restored beings are black-eyed evil people-monsters bent on world supremacy. They proceed to kill others, blackmailing Dr. Frankenstein, an unprincipled wimp like Polidori himself, into restoring their victims. As Frankenstein, Polidori gets even by bumping off Mary Shelley herself and restoring her as an evil black-eyed one. Reference is made to The Body Snatchers as grave diggers are hired to...
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SOURCE: A review of Gothic Romance, in Locus, Vol. 26, No. 6, December, 1990, p. 17.
[In the review below, Miller provides a favorable assessment of Gothic Romance.]
Emmanuel Carrère's Gothic Romance belongs to a very different tradition of literary horror: elusive, elliptical, a theater of cruelty where little blood gets spilled, but dreams slice sharper than knives. At worst, this mode can generate pretentious nonsense or out-of-focus navel gazing—and the first chapters of this novel do not seem to promise much more. Then the surprises begin.
The initial encounter with down-and-out druggie Polidori (a historical participant in the tale-spinning session that inspired Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) is woozy with opium and angst. Fortunately, it mutates into a livelier Gothic tale being penned, in our own times, by one Captain Walton. Like Frankenstein, it's an account of disastrous scientific hubris, equal parts ancestral sf and pre-Victorian horror. This short narrative is interrupted by glimpses of Walton at work, and intimations that some elaborate game is in progress.
Enter Ann, part of Walton's stable of romance writers. Just when it seems we're safely back in the real world of answering machines, literary fads, casual sex, and the muddle of everyday life, Ann falls into a sequence of increasingly bizarre adventures, from a...
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