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There’s a passage I love in Casanova’s memoirs. Locked away in Venice’s dark and humid Piombi prison, Casanova hatches an escape plan. He’s got all he needs to bring it off except for one thing: hemp to make a rope, or a fuse for explosives, I forget which, but the key thing is that if he can get his hands on some he’s saved, and if he can’t he’s lost. It’s not as if hemp was easy to come by in prison, but all of a sudden Casanova remembers that to absorb the perspiration under his arms, when he had his suit made he asked the tailor to line the jacket with—guess what? Hemp! Casanova, who cursed his thin summer jacket that does so little to protect him from the cold prison air, understands that it was divine providence that made him wear it the day he was arrested. It’s there, in front of him, hanging on a nail hammered into the crumbling wall. He looks at it, his heart beating. In a second he’ll tear open the seams, search the lining, and freedom will be his. But just as he goes to grab it, he’s seized by doubt: What if, in a moment of oversight, the tailor didn’t do as he asked? Normally, that would hardly matter. Now it would be tragic. So much is at stake that Casanova falls to his knees and starts to pray. With an ardor he’s forgotten since his childhood, he prays to God that the tailor has indeed sewn hemp into his jacket. At the same time his faculty of reasoning doesn’t remain idle. It tells him that what is done is done. Either the tailor has sewn hemp into the lining or he hasn’t. Either it’s there or it isn’t, and if it isn’t there, his prayers won’t change a thing. God is not going to put it there, or retroactively give the tailor the conscientiousness he lacked. These logical objections don’t stop Casanova from praying like a lost soul, and he’ll never know if his prayer had any effect, because the hemp really is in the jacket. He escapes.
* * *
In my case the stakes weren’t as high. I didn’t get down on my knees and pray for them to be there, but the archives from my Christian period really were in Jean-Claude Romand’s room. Once they were out of their box, it took me a while to overcome the wariness I felt at the sight of these eighteen green and red bound notebooks. When I finally resolved to open the first one, two folded typewritten sheets of paper fell out, on which I read the following:
Statement of intent by Emmanuel Carrère for his marriage with Anne D., 23 December 1990.
Anne and I have been living together for four years. We have two children. We love each other and are as sure of this love as one can be.
We were no less in love just a few months ago, when we didn’t see the need for a religious marriage. I don’t think that in opting out we were putting off or refusing a binding commitment. On the contrary, we saw ourselves as committed to each other, and intent, for better or for worse, on living, growing, and getting old together, and, consequently, on one of us being there when the other dies.
Quite apart from any questions of faith, I believed that the goal of communal life was to discover yourself in discovering your partner, and to encourage your partner to do the same. I thought that the growth of one was the condition for the growth of the other, and that in seeking Anne’s good I was in fact seeking my own—which I certainly didn’t lose sight of. I even started to sense that this mutual growth happens according to the laws of love as John the Baptist described them: “He (in this case she) must increase; I must decrease.”
I’d stopped seeing this formula as reflecting the kind of masochism felt by someone who’s incapable of elevating his partner without lowering himself, and had understood that I had to think of Anne, her happiness and her fulfillment, more than I thought of myself, and that the more I thought of her, the more I’d do for myself. I discovered, in short, one of the paradoxes of Christianity that turn worldly wisdom on its head—namely, that you have every interest in scorning your own interest, and in losing sight of yourself to love yourself.
I found that hard. All our misery is rooted in self-esteem, and my self-esteem, exacerbated by my line of work (I write novels, one of the “delirious professions,” as Paul Valéry said, based entirely on the opinion one has—and gives—of oneself), is particularly tyrannical. Of course I did my best to escape this quagmire of fear, vanity, hatred, and self-absorption, but my efforts resembled those of Baron Munchausen, who pulls himself out of a swamp by his hair.
I had always believed I could rely on no one but myself. Faith, which I was graced with just a few days ago, has delivered me from this tiring illusion. Suddenly I grasped that it is up to us to choose between life and death, that life is Christ and that his yoke is light. Since then I’ve felt this lightness constantly. I’m expecting it to spill over onto Anne, and that she’ll respect Saint Paul’s commandment as I would like to and be joyful always.
I used to think our union depended only on us: our free choice, our goodwill. That its endurance was contingent on us and us alone. I wanted nothing more than a life of love with Anne. But to accomplish that I relied only on our strength, and of course I was appalled at our weakness. Now I know that it is not we who accomplish what we accomplish, but Christ in us.
That’s why today I feel we should put our love in his hands, and ask him to grace it and let it grow.
That’s also why I consider our marriage my true entry in the life of sacrament, from which I have distanced myself since a first Communion which I received—let’s say—absentmindedly.
And, finally, that’s why it’s important for me that our marriage be celebrated by a priest I met at the moment of my conversion. It was at his Mass—my first in twenty years—that I felt the pressing need to marry, and even at the time I thought it would be good to receive the marriage blessing from him in Cairo. I’m very thankful to the parish and diocese to which I now belong for understanding this project, which, although sentimental, is far from a whim.
Of course it shook me up to reread this letter. The first thing that strikes me is that it rings hollow from the first line to the last, and yet I can’t doubt its sincerity. The second is that, leaving aside its religious fervor, the person who wrote it twenty years ago isn’t so different from the person I am today. His style is a bit more pompous, sure, but it’s still mine. Give me the beginning of one of these sentences and I’ll finish it in the same way. Above all, the desire for a committed relationship and a love that lasts is the same. All that’s changed is its focus. Its current focus suits me better: it’s less hard to believe that Hélène and I will live together in peace and harmony. Nevertheless, the things I believe or want to believe today, and which are the pillar of my life, I believed or wanted to believe twenty years ago in almost identical terms.
* * *
Still, the key thing about the letter is what I don’t say, namely, that we were very unhappy. We loved each other, true, but we did it all wrong. Both of us were afraid of life, and we were both terribly neurotic. We drank too much, made love as if we were gasping for air, and each tended to blame the other for our unhappiness. For three years I hadn’t been able to write—which I considered my sole reason to exist at the time. I felt powerless, relegated to the suburb of life that is an unhappy marriage, bogged down in a long and dreary rut. I told myself that the best thing would be to leave, but I was afraid that would bring catastrophe and destroy Anne and our two little boys, as well as myself. To justify my paralysis I also told myself that what was happening to me was a test, that making a success of my life—our life—depended on my being able to plod on in this seemingly impossible situation, instead of throwing in the towel as common sense suggested. Common sense was my enemy. I preferred my mysterious intuition, and tried to convince myself that one day it would reveal another, far higher, meaning.
Now I have to talk about Jacqueline, my godmother. Few people have had such an influence on me. A very young—and very beautiful—widow, she never remarried. In the sixties several volumes of her half-amorous, half-mystical poetry were put out by prestigious publishers. Later, my godmother abandoned secular poetry and dedicated herself to hymns. A good number of the hymns sung in French churches since Vatican II were penned by her. She lived in a beautiful apartment on Rue Vaneau in the building formerly occupied by André Gide, and something about her evoked the kind of studious, almost austere, aura that you associate with the Nouvelle Revue Française—for which Gide wrote—between the wars. At a time when it was less common than it is today, she was well versed in Oriental wisdom and practiced yoga—thanks to which, until an advanced age, she was lithe as a cat.
One day, I must have been fourteen or fifteen, she told me to lie down on the rug in her living room, close my eyes, and concentrate on the base of my tongue. I found that very disconcerting, almost shocking. As an adolescent I was too cultivated, and obsessively worried that people were trying to take me for a ride. Very early on I’d made a habit of finding “amusing”—that was my favorite adjective—everything that in fact attracted or frightened me: other people, girls, a zest for life. My ideal was to observe the absurd turmoil of the world without taking part in it, with the superior smile of someone who’s above all that. Actually I was terrified. My godmother’s poetry and mysticism offered a perfect target for my perpetual irony, but I also felt that she liked me and, to the extent that I was able to trust anyone back then, I trusted her. At the time, of course, I made a point of finding it highly ridiculous to lie on the floor and think of my tongue. But I did what she asked, tried to let my thoughts flow without judging or holding on to them, and took the first step on the path that later led me to the martial arts, yoga, and meditation.
That’s one of the many reasons for the gratitude I now feel for her. She gave me something that stopped me from doing really stupid things. She taught me that time was my ally. Sometimes I think that when I was born my mother sensed she could give me the arms I needed to face the worlds of culture and intelligence, but that for another, essential realm of existence she would have to defer to someone else. And that someone else was this woman who was older than she was, both eccentric and completely focused, and who had taken her under her wing when she was twenty. My mother lost her parents at a young age, she grew up in poverty, and what she fears above all else is counting for nothing in this world. For her, Jacqueline was a sort of mentor, the very picture of an accomplished woman, and above all a witness to this dimension that’s … how to put it? “Spiritual”? I don’t like the word; nevertheless, everyone knows more or less what it refers to. My mother knew it existed—or rather, she knows it exists, that this inner kingdom is the only one that’s really worth aspiring to: the treasure for which the Gospel tells us to renounce all riches. But her difficult personal history made these riches—success, social status, popular acclaim—infinitely desirable for her, and she spent her life going after them. She succeeded, she got it all, she never said “That’s enough.” I’d be quite out of line to cast the first stone: I’m like that myself. I need all the glory I can get, I need to occupy as much room as I can in other people’s minds. But I think that in my mother’s mind there has always been a voice reminding her that another combat, the true combat, takes place elsewhere. It’s to hear this voice that she’s read Saint Augustine her whole life, almost in secret, and that she went to visit Jacqueline. And it’s to let me hear it too that she entrusted me in a way to Jacqueline. Sometimes she’d joke about it prudishly. She’d say, “You were at Jacqueline’s? Did she talk to you about your soul?” And I’d respond in the same mockingly affectionate tone: “Of course, what else is there to talk about with her?”
That was her role: she talked to you about your soul. We went to see her—and when I say “we,” it wasn’t just my mother and me: my father went too, and so did dozens of others, people of all ages and backgrounds, and not necessarily believers. We all went to see her on Rue Vaneau, always one-to-one, the way you go see a psychoanalyst or a confessor. With her there could be no posing, you could only talk heart-to-heart. And you knew not a word would leave her living room. She’d look, and listen. You felt yourself looked at and listened to like no one had ever looked at or listened to you before, and then she’d speak to you about yourself as no one had ever done.
* * *
In her last years my godmother slipped into apocalyptic flights of fancy that left me more than saddened. The whole logic of her life made you think her last days would be marked by an apotheosis of light, yet she sank into the darkness; it’s something I don’t like thinking about. But until she was eighty she was one of the most remarkable people I knew, and her way of being remarkable shook up all my points of reference. At the time I admired and envied a single category of humanity: creators. I thought the only thing worth accomplishing in life was to be a great artist—and I hated myself, because in the best of cases I’d be a minor one. Jacqueline’s poems hardly impressed me, but if there was anyone around I could consider an accomplished human being, it was her. The few writers and filmmakers I knew were no match for her. Their talent, their charisma, their enviable place in existence were special, narrow advantages, and, even if I didn’t know in what way, it jumped out at you that Jacqueline was more advanced. I don’t just mean she was morally superior: above all, she knew more, she put more things together in her mind. I can’t put it any better than that. She was more advanced, the way you can say in biology that one organism is more evolved and consequently more complex than another.
The fact that she was a fervent Catholic only made her more mysterious in my eyes. Not only was I not a believer, but most of my existence had taken place in a milieu where it went without saying that you weren’t one. As a child I went to Sunday school and took my first Communion, but this Christian education was so formal, so routine, that it wouldn’t make sense to say that I lost my faith at any given moment. For my mother, matters of the soul were just as little a subject of conversation as matters of sex. And as for my father, as I’ve already said, while respecting the formalities he made no bones about poking fun at the ideas behind them. He was a man of the old school, adhering vaguely to the ideas of Voltaire and the conservative thinker Charles Maurras. So he was the very opposite of a Marxist, but on one point Voltaire, Maurras, and Marx all agree: religion is the opium of the people. When I was growing up, I never broached the subject with any friends, lovers, or acquaintances, no matter how distant. It was situated beyond the pale, totally outside the realm of our thoughts and experience. I could get interested in theology, but, as Borges says, as a branch of fantastic literature. I would have found someone who believed in the resurrection of Christ as strange, as Patrick Blossier said, as someone who’s not only interested in but also believes in Greek mythology.
So what did I do with Jacqueline’s faith? Nothing at all. What for her was her very essence, her very life, I chose to neglect as a strange peculiarity, while picking and choosing what suited me from our conversations. I went to see her to hear her talk about me, and she did that well enough for me to put up with her also talking about our Lord—as she called God. One day I told her just that, and she answered that it was the same thing. In talking to me about me, she was talking about Him. In talking to me about Him, she was talking about me. One day I’d understand. I shrugged: I didn’t want to understand. When one of my friends was a child, he’d heard about a boy his age who’d been touched by grace and later became a priest. This edifying tale so frightened him that he prayed each night that he be spared from receiving God’s grace and becoming a priest. I was like him. That didn’t throw Jacqueline off. “You’ll see,” she said.
* * *
I think that as an adolescent and young man I was terrifically unhappy, but I didn’t want to know it, and consequently I didn’t. My defense system, based on the irony and the pride of being a writer, worked rather well. It was only once I’d turned thirty that this system jammed up on me. I could no longer write, I didn’t know how to love, I knew I wasn’t particularly likable. Just being me became literally unbearable. When I went to see Jacqueline in this state of acute distress, she wasn’t particularly surprised. She saw it as progress. “Finally!” I think she even said. Stripped of the ideas that had allowed me to keep up a pretense, naked, skinned, I became accessible to my Lord. Just a while beforehand I would have fought that tooth and nail. I would have said that I didn’t give a shit about my Lord, that I had no interest in consolations for the weak and defeated. Now I was suffering so much, every additional second I spent being me was such torture that I was ready to hear the words the Gospel addresses to all those whose burden is so great that they can’t go on.
“Try reading it now,” Jacqueline said, handing me the New Testament from the Jerusalem Bible—the one I still have on my desk, and which I’ve opened twenty times a day since I started this book. “And try not to be too intelligent.”
Jacqueline gave me another present, at the start of the summer of 1990. She’d long been telling me about her other godson, saying that it would be good for us to get to know each other one day. But as soon as she said it she’d shake her head and change her mind. Would it be such a good idea? Would you have anything to say to each other? Probably not. It’s too early.
That summer of agony she felt it was no longer too early, and suggested I call him. Two days later a guy a little older than me rang the doorbell at our apartment on Rue de l’École-de-Médecine. He had blue eyes and his red hair was going gray—it’s completely white now, Hervé’s just turned sixty. He’s the kind of guy who looks like a little boy for a long time, and then like an old man, and never really like an adult. The kind of guy who doesn’t really strike you the first time you see him: nondescript, without any apparent sparkle. We started to talk—that is, I started to talk, about myself and the crisis I was going through. I rambled on and on, feverish, confused, mocking. I smoked cigarette after cigarette. Even before starting a sentence I corrected it, qualified it, warned that it would be inexact, that what I wanted to say was in fact far more immense and complicated. As for Hervé, he spoke little and without hesitation. Later on, I got to appreciate his sense of humor, but what threw me off the first time we met was his total lack of irony. Everything I said and thought at the time, even the most sincere expression of distress, was steeped in irony and sarcasm. I think this trait was quite common in the little world I lived in, that of journalism and publishing in late-eighties Paris. No one said anything without a little smile at the corners of their mouths. It was tiring and stupid, but we didn’t see that. I only realized it once I was friends with Hervé. He wasn’t ironic, he didn’t bad-mouth anyone or play the wise guy. He didn’t care what people thought of him or play social games. He tried to state precisely and calmly what was on his mind. In saying this, I don’t want readers to imagine some kind of sage, unaffected by life’s ups and downs. He’s had his share of miseries, obstacles, and secrets—and still does. As a child he wanted to die. As a young man he took a lot of LSD and his perception of reality was permanently altered. He was lucky enough to meet a woman who loves him as he is, to have a family with her, and to find a career—he’s worked at Agence France-Presse his whole life. Without those two strokes of luck, he could have become a complete misfit. He adapted to the minimum. The only things he really cares about in life are of a—again I trip over this terrible word, with everything it entails in the form of pious inanity and otherworldly claptrap, but there you go—“spiritual” nature. Let’s say that Hervé belongs to that group of people for whom being isn’t something you take for granted. Since his childhood he’s wondered: What am I doing here? And what’s “I”? And what’s “here”?
A lot of people can live their whole lives without ever being bothered by such questions—or if they are, it’s only very fleetingly, and they have no problem getting over them. They manufacture cars and drive around, they make love, talk at the coffee machine, get pissed off because there are too many foreigners in their country, or too many people who think there are too many foreigners in their country, plan their vacations, worry about their children, want to change the world or be successful—and when they are they’re afraid of becoming less successful—make war, know that they’re going to die but think about it as little as possible, and all of that is quite enough to fill a life. But there’s also another type of person for whom it’s not enough. Or too much. In any case, who aren’t content with things as they are. You can argue all you want about whether they’re more or less wise than others, but the fact is that they’ve never gotten over their astonishment, and can’t live without asking why they’re living, what it all means, and whether it means anything at all. For them, existence is a question mark, and even if they don’t exclude the possibility that there’s no answer, they go on searching, they can’t help it. As others have searched before them—and some even claim they’ve found it—they listen to their testimonies. They read Plato and the mystics, they become what are known as religious minds—outside of any church, in Hervé’s case, even if, at the time I got to know him, like me he was under the influence of our godmother and for that reason oriented toward Christianity.
* * *
At the end of this lunch, Hervé and I decided to become friends, and that’s just what we did. As I write these lines, our friendship has lasted twenty-three years, and its form, strangely, hasn’t changed in all that time. It’s a close friendship: I just wrote that, like everyone, Hervé has his secrets, but I think he doesn’t have any from me. What makes me think that is that I have none from him. Nothing is so embarrassing to me that I can’t tell him about it without feeling the slightest shame. That may seem appalling, but I know it’s true. It’s a calm friendship that has gone through neither crisis nor eclipse, and developed quite apart from any social interference. Our lives are as different as our characters, and we only see each other alone. We have no common friends. We don’t live in the same city. Since we met, Hervé’s worked as correspondent and then as bureau chief with Agence France-Presse in Madrid, Islamabad, Lyon, The Hague, and Nice. I went to visit him at each of these posts, and he comes to see me sometimes in Paris, but the real locus of our friendship is a village in the Valais region in Switzerland, where his mother has an apartment in a chalet and where, ever since we first met, he’s invited me to come and stay at the end of the summer.
Copyright © 2014 by P.O.L éditeur
Translation copyright © 2017 by John Lambert