Book review: The Kingdom: A Novel

Writer Emmanuel Carrére states that ‘things of the soul, the things involving God embarrass me’ but, according to Josephine Fenton, there’s more embarrassment to come ...

Book review: The Kingdom: A Novel

Emmanuel Carrère

Allen Lane, €25 (HB)

This is an extraordinary book. Carrère subtitles it “a novel” but its form has been described as biographical non-fiction written in the first person.

Essentially it is a history of early Christianity.

Three of the first-century characters are named Jesus, Paul and Luke.

The narrative is interwoven with Carrère’s 21st-century first person voice — it is as if he is in conversation with the disciples. It’s compelling and unsettling.

The Kingdom gives an account of the Damascene Conversion. It has a long section on Luke, who seems to be Carrère’s favourite chronicler.

The Gospel of Luke tells a familiar story but Carrère’s apparent intimacy with the narrator is achieved through comparison of available sources/translations and especially a close investigation into style.

Carrère gets really excited because at two points in his gospel Luke changes from the third person to the second person. So what was an account of Paul’s travels talking about “him” or “them” becomes “we”.

Luke is there with Paul apparently. Carrère enjoys speculating about that.

Secondly Carrère is interested in what has been omitted as well as in what has been recorded.

In all four gospels there is only one half sentence that suggests that Paul was imprisoned in Jerusalem for two years. Here Carrère uses his Biblical knowledge as a springboard for imagining what Luke did with those 24 months.

He decides that what Luke did was to make things up — in other words, Carrère thinks that much of the gospel is fiction. Paul and Jesus are characters in Luke’s novel.

Emmanuel Carrère: Form of his latest work has been described as biographical non-fiction written in the first person. <span class="contextmenu emphasis">Picture: Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images</span></p><p>
Emmanuel Carrère: Form of his latest work has been described as biographical non-fiction written in the first person. Picture: Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images

Extracts of reviews printed on the blurb are apostolic in their reverence for The Kingdom. Julian Barnes calls Carrère “the most important writer in Europe”.

All those quoted are men and whilst they notice his narcissism they do not comment so much on his representation of women.

It has to be said that nearly all of the writer’s choices seem rooted in misogyny: Subject matter, characters, sources, attitudes and style are all overtly male. And this in spite of a personal life in which Carrère is surrounded by strong women.

What embarrasses Carrère is that for three years, from 1990, he was “touched by grace”.

During that period he became a fervent believer, filling notebooks with daily thoughts stimulated by reading the Gospel of John. He attended Mass every day, took Communion and made confessions.

Bookending his devout episode Carrère, a French intellectual and urbane Parisian, is more at home with works of philosophy, psychology and literature such as Nietzsche, I Ching, Kafka and Homer.

But, in order to write The Kingdom, Carrére had to research Christian exegesis, as he had previously done in the early 1990s, for his own spiritual purposes.

Working over recent years on The Kingdom has, says Carrère, been like writing an early Philip K Dick novel. In the story a child is born to a virgin.

The boy’s father is an invisible God. After being killed by rational unbelievers the prophet is resurrected and promises eternal life to those who believe in him.

Members of his sect spread the word throughout the world and establish one of the great, and most resilient, religions.

For Carrère, who currently presents himself as sceptical and agnostic, this sounds like science fiction. Maybe that’s why he calls The Kingdom a novel?

Carrère is open about himself, his thoughts and his behaviour. It is shocking to read his self-deprecatory account. He is selfish, self-indulgent, self-revelatory, self-loathing and self-aggrandising.

It’s all about him in a way that I find deeply repellent but at the same time I feel that I may know him better than any other

human being, other than myself. He holds nothing back, stating that he “loves himself to the point of hatred”.

I cannot condemn him though as I think this level of honesty should be applauded, unless, of course it is all an enormous confidence trick. Maybe, that’s what he means when he calls The Kingdom a novel?

Perhaps this soul-baring, breast-beating Emmanuel Carrère is a self-created fictional character and if I were to visit the author in his apartment in Rue des Petits-Hôtels I would find someone completely different.

Interestingly the narrator has two amazing and loyal friends. He mentions others but it’s these I covet.

His godmother, Jacqueline, both loving and challenging, is a constant figure in his life. She, it is, who when he reaches the slough of despond in his early 30s, guides him into Catholicism.

She provides an extensive reading list, and, as necessary, reassurance. She warns him of the perils he will face in his pilgrim’s progress.

Jacqueline has a lovely flat in Rue Vaneau, full of beautiful things, like a sanctuary for the soul. If she were still alive I would like to go there.

She is “well versed in Oriental wisdom and yoga” and thus is able to provide spiritual leadership in a number of ways.

She is a mystic who steps in when therapy and analysis fail Carrère. At the point just before he finds his faith, he remembers, “just being me became literally unbearable”.

The other thoroughly desirable companion is Jacqueline’s other godson, Hervé. He is a one-on-one friend with whom Carrère has, for 25 years, spent a fortnight at the end of every summer.

They sojourn in Valais, Switzerland and walk and sit for hours in silence. Beyond these trips he and Hervé rarely meet.

But Hervé, a superannuated hippy, whose own notebooks juxtapose the words of Christ “with those of Lao-tze and the Bhagavad Gita”, is “the least fanatic of human beings”. He sounds really great.

There is one episode in The Kingdom which I found especially distressing.

Carrère and his first wife, Anne, need a nanny for their two small boys. I am not sure what Anne’s work might have been but Emmanuel was in the habit of going to the office everyday to write screenplays or fiction.

The new nanny, whose sole advantage is that she might have been employed previously by Philip K Dick, is left alone on her very first day. Both parents exit the apartment leaving a baby in a bassinet.

What ensues is shocking and I would say that if it had been part of my experience of parenting I would have been too embarrassed to make my negligence public.

For Carrère, however, the embarrassment comes not from his behaviour in the rational world but in his short-lived relationship with the Lord.

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