Emmanuel Carrère Essay - Critical Essays

Carrère, Emmanuel


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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

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


Philip H. Solomon (review date May 1987)

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 the surprise and confusion he will cause Agnès and their friends once they perceive the absence of his mustache, the il becomes distraught when no reaction takes place. When he finally tells Agnès what he has done, she insists that he never had a mustache. Even the photo on his identity card, which shows him with a mustache, does not convince her. She argues that the mustache has been added with a marking pen and then proceeds to scrape it off with a knife.

Finding no...

(The entire section is 799 words.)

John Gross (review date 1 April 1988)

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.

When Agnes returns, however, she doesn't seem to notice any change in him. At first he is puzzled; then, by the time the two of them set out for dinner with their friends Serge and Veronique, he has decided that her lack of response must be a tease, the kind of kidding she often goes in for. But Serge and Veronique don't betray any reaction, either, despite the heavy hints that he drops at dinner (bringing the conversation round to the mustache that Marcel Duchamp drew on the Mona Lisa, and so forth).

Well, Agnes went on ahead to their apartment while he was parking: she must have persuaded them to join her in keeping up the joke. But at the end of the evening, while he is driving home, X decides that enough is enough. He questions Agnes about his defunct mustache point-blank, only to be told by her that he has never had a mustache.

The more he says he did, the more she says he didn't, until finally she tells him that the joke—his joke!—is getting monotonous. After she has gone to bed, he rummages around until he finds some photographs, taken on a vacation in Java, that show him wearing an...

(The entire section is 1066 words.)

Oliver Conant (review date 17 April 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 507 words.)

John Updike (review date 4 July 1988)

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,...

(The entire section is 1383 words.)

Irving Malin (review date Spring 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 442 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 25 May 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 215 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 22 July 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 784 words.)

Scott Winnett (review date November 1990)

SOURCE: A review of Gothic Romance, in Locus, Vol. 25, No. 5, November, 1990, p. 29.

[In the following positive review, Winnett relates the story line of Gothic Romance.]

(The entire section is 811 words.)

R. R. K. (review date November-December 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 368 words.)

Faren Miller (review date December 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 307 words.)