Emmanuel Carrère — one of France’s most admired contemporary writers — has long been drawn to fanatics and crazies. “The Adversary” sought to understand a man who, out of a sense of shame, killed his parents, wife, children and even his dog. In “I Am Alive and You Are Dead,” Carrère turned his attention to the visionary, frequently delusional science fiction novelist Philip K. Dick. “Limonov” tracked the life of Eduard Limonov, poet, memoirist and expert tailor, onetime butler to a New York millionaire and, after returning to his native Russia, founder of the extremist National Bolshevik Party.
Now, in “The Kingdom,” Carrère directs the spotlight on his own urbane, narcissistic self: Can a chic Parisian intellectual also be a Christian?
The result is an intense, compulsively readable book about the mystery of faith, seen from both an autobiographical and historical perspective. In it, Carrère depicts his spiritual journey and attendant confusions with a self-accusatory honesty that recalls both Saint Augustine’s “Confessions” and Dostoevsky’s “Notes From Underground.” But that’s just the beginning. He also speculates about the composition of the Acts of the Apostles and the four Gospels, proffering heterodox interpretations that aren’t just novel but novelistic. As Robert Graves reinterpreted ancient myth as a celebration of the suppressed cult of “the White Goddess,” so Carrère detects throughout much of the New Testament the covert presence of Luke, the Macedonian doctor who became a disciple of Paul.
Throughout, Carrère’s attitude toward the kingdom of God smacks more of llèse-majestéthan of reverence. He writes in short anecdotal segments, something like journal entries, while remaining hyper-aware of his imagined reader. Even when he is confessing to appalling behavior, his voice on the page brazenly aims to win us over, to charm. “What I’m looking for,” he once said of his style, “is a balance between a natural tone — intimate, conversational, as you say — and the maximum amount of tension, so that I can keep the reader engaged. . . . There has to be both tautness and flexibility, speed and slowness.” Carrère’s gifted translator, John Lambert, makes all this possible in English.
“The Kingdom” opens with a 65-page section —“A Crisis” — in which Carrère recalls the three-year period during the 1990s when, after a kind of epiphany, he committed himself to a Christian life. He attended Mass every day, scribbled in notebooks about his burgeoning faith and even named his second son Jean Baptiste. His devout godmother provided both guidance and inspirational stories:
“A man rebels, and complains . . . that the cross he bears is heavier than others’. An angel hears him and bears him on his wings to the place in heaven where all the crosses are stored. Millions, billions, of all sizes. The angel says to him: Choose the one you want. The man lifts a few of them, compares them, and takes the one that strikes him as lightest. The angel smiles and says: That was yours.”
Yet despite his initial zeal, Carrère gradually backslides. Psychiatric sessions, the study of martial arts and meditation replace churchgoing. One day, though, he rereads his old notes on John’s gospel — finding them sanctimonious — and then begins to scrutinize the Acts of the Apostles with the idea of writing a biography of Luke.
Before long, Carrère is sleuthing his way through the New Testament like a literary detective. He discovers rivalry and suspicion rampant among the early Christians, likening the relationship between Paul and James, the brother of Jesus, to that of Trotsky and Stalin. He ddrylydescribes Paul relating Jewish history “without showing any great talent for concision but with a praiseworthy attention to chronology.” Luke, by contrast, is “a bit of a snob and inclined to name-dropping, fully capable of pointing out that Jesus wasn’t only the son of God but also from an excellent family on his mother’s side.” After a while, the reader recognizes how deeply Carrère identifies with Luke.
As this secret history of the first 50 years after Christ unwinds, Carrère periodically intersperses personal details. We learn that he owns a summer place on Patmos, the island where John heard the words of Revelation. He tells us about his taste in pornography and notes that whenever people say they’re apolitical, “all it means is that they’re conservative.” But soon it’s back to distinguishing Pharisees from Samaritans, examining the vexed question of Jewish vs. Roman responsibility for the Crucifixion and discussing Christ’s various reappearances after his death — “the most striking thing about these stories is that no one recognizes him at first” — before finally facing the inevitable question: Okay, are you Christian or aren’t you?
“I could beat around the bush, . . . leave it open, and let everyone decide for themselves. That would be just like me. But I prefer to answer.
That “no” hardly comes as a surprise, but the avowed agnostic stresses, “I’m writing this book to avoid coming down too firmly in my favor.”
Rich and privileged himself, Carrère sees a brutal truth, not an allegory, in Jesus’ comment: “To the one who has, more will be given; from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” That is the world most of us live in. Yet an encounter with a laughing, joy-filled child with Down syndrome finally does afford Carrere “a glimpse of what the kingdom is.” But only a glimpse. In the end, he wonders whether the conflicted, heartfelt work of biblical and personal exegesis we have just read “betrays the young man I was and the Lord he believed in, or if in its way it remains faithful to them.” The last words of “The Kingdom” are “I don’t know.”
Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursday in Style.
By Emmanuel Carrère
Translated from the French by John Lambert
Farrar Straus Giroux. 384 pp. $28