Translated from the French by John Lambert
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28, 400 pp.
“It’s like shooting a documentary,” Emmanuel Carrère, an ultra-prominent French cinéaste (he judges at Cannes) writes of his approach to the writing of this book. “Either you try to pretend that you’re seeing people ‘for real’—that is, as they are when you’re not there to film them—or you admit that by filming them you change the givens, and that what you’re filming is a new situation. Personally, I’m not bothered by what’s known in technical jargon as the ‘direct gaze’: when people look straight into the camera. On the contrary, I work it in, and even draw attention to it. I show what this gaze is interacting with, the things that are supposed to remain offscreen in classical documentaries: the team during the shoot, me directing the team, our quarrels, our doubts, our complex relations with the people we’re filming.”
Three quarters of this book is about the rise and early spread of Christianity as recovered from the New Testament and from framing historical knowledge of the first centuries of the Common Era. Think of that as “the people we’re filming.” Now think of Carrère, the director, stepping into the frame again and again with his direct gaze. Thus, when writing of the Greek Island of Patmos—where the last book in the New Testament, Revelation, opens—Carrère cuts to himself taking a swim off a beach on Patmos, where he has a second home, and lingering over the story of the elaborate bed that he and his second wife, Hélène, bought for this home, and how it reminds him of the bed described in Homeric detail in the famous finale to the Odyssey: Odysseus coming home to Ithaca and to Penelope.
In favor of his approach, Carrère claims only that it is “more in tune with modern sensitivities.” If such are your sensitivities, you may like this book very much, for it is a documentary in which Carrère is likely to appear on camera at any moment. Much of the justification for this approach, however, is that Carrère is not writing the story of early Christianity for its own sake but also for existential reasons of his own. He is one “taken by the urge to explore this central and mysterious point in our common and my personal history.”
Carrère’s personal history begins with his birth into a conservative Catholic family headed by a father who was “vaguely” a follower of the rabid anti-Semite and convicted Pétainiste traitor Charles Maurras. Young Emmanuel was baptized; he received his First Communion. But in short order, he assumed the default position of secular France (and also of his father): “I never broached the subject [of religion] with any friends, lovers, or acquaintances.... I would have found someone who believed in the Resurrection of Christ as strange…as someone who’s not only interested in but also believes in Greek mythology.”
Such, essentially, is still the position of the now sixty-year-old Carrère. He still believes that, as among a sectarian pamphleteer who accosts him on the Boul Mich, the disturbed science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick (of whom Carrère has written a psychobiography), and St. Paul, there is no discoverable difference: “The one was grappling with the real thing, the other two with pitiful illusions. But what if there is no real thing? If God doesn’t exist? If Christ was not raised from the dead? At best you can say that Paul’s undertaking was more successful, that it’s worthier from a philosophical and cultural point of view—but deep down it’s exactly the same B.S.”
Inserted, however, between the default secularism of the first half of Carrère’s life and the default secularism of the second half, there came a three-year interlude in which Carrère, like Dante in mezzo del cammin, found himself in a dark wood and turned briefly to Catholicism. He writes of this period in the first major section of The Kingdom, titled “A Crisis (Paris, 1990-1993).” There, writing in the cinematically realistic first-person historical present, he says things like
“I leave the store in a wretched state. Walking down the street, I try to gather myself, to cut my losses. The charade consists of telling myself firstly that most of the books that just caused me so much grief are bad, and secondly that if I can’t write any longer it’s because I’ve been called upon to do something else. Something higher.”
Taking this account at face value (as, of course, with modern sensitivities, one shouldn’t), Carrère’s was a highly fideistic, credo-quia-absurdum fling with Catholic spirituality after the manner of Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s eighteenth-century Abandonment to Divine Providence, which he learned about from his admired but slightly loopy Aunt Jacqueline. Late in “A Crisis,” Carrère compares this Catholic intermezzo to “the way you talk about a great love of your youth. A stormy passion that you’re happy to have experienced, all things considered, but that now belongs to the past.” So, yes, it’s over, but Carrère brings the memory of this fling with him into his historically informed, novelistically imagined rewrite of early church history. He brings it as a secretly superior familiarity with “the things of the soul, the things involving God. Deep down, I liked to believe I was more familiar with them than my colleagues in the little world of literature.”
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