Since the publication of his 2000 true-crime book, The Adversary, Emmanuel Carrère has established himself as France’s premier nonfiction writer. Prior to The Adversary, a case study of the convicted murderer Jean-Claude Romand, who was found guilty of killing his wife, children, and parents in 1993, Carrère was best known as a novelist, publishing short allegorical works like The Mustache (1988) and Class Trip (1999), though he also worked throughout the ’80s and ’90s as a journalist. The Adversary began as a magazine assignment, and was modeled after Truman Capote’s genre-defining nonfiction novel In Cold Blood (1966), with one key difference: Carrère, unlike Capote, included himself as a character in his story.
Carrère made this decision under the conviction that “the presence of the observer invariably modifies the observed,” and that this presence should, therefore, be acknowledged in writing. Like the “New Journalists” before him, Carrère challenged the traditional journalistic tenet that the observer should remain invisible and impartial, but he went further than most in incorporating details from not only his personal life. but also the personal lives of those close to him. With every book he has published since—each harder to categorize than the previous, ranging from nonfiction novel to “biographical novel” to “memoir-novel”—the author has revealed more intimate details about himself and the various people in his life, including his love interests.
But in a 2016 interview, Carrère revealed he was blocked, unable to write—in part because he was troubled by having revealed these intimate details. “What’s difficult,” Carrère said, preferring to speak in impersonal terms, “is that when one writes about oneself, one is obligated to write about other people.” He recalled an interview he had read with Jacques Massu, a former French general accused of torture during the Algerian War. “In the interview, Massu said, of la gégène—torture with electric prods from a generator—‘Listen. Don’t exaggerate. The prods? I tried them on myself. It hurts, but not worse than that.’” Carrère commented: “What’s atrocious about torture is that someone else is afflicting you, and you don’t know when he will stop.”