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Emmanuel Carrère

June 12th, 2014


Exactly two years ago, in June 2012, I was here, both as a writer in residence at the Santa Maddalena Foundation and as a finalist for the Gregor von Rezzoriliterary prize. A writer in residence: it was the first time in my life I had had such an experience. I remember that I had been a little frightened at the prospect. And I had been warned: it can be either a magical experience or a nightmare, depending on whether or not you get along with Beatrice. Well, I had a delightful time! And I think I can say that I got along very well indeed with Beatrice Monti della Corte, who is the founder, the life and soul of this “retreat for botanists and writers” and of the event that brings us all here together today. One may find her intimidating, it’s true. One may have trouble with her irony, or be thrown off by her complete lack of sentimentality and the fact that she clearly shares an intimate friendship with a vast number of famous and talented people. If she tells you about a nice young chap, the son of a mechanic who set up a rock group with some friends, it’s Mick Jagger she is talking about. I was absolutely enchanted when she told me about travelling to Ethiopia with Malaparte, when she was only 10 years old. Or how, a little later, she lived at Henry Fonda’s with Rex Harrison, James Stewart and Laurence Olivier. Or how my favourite author, Henri Michaux, courted her, although very timidly, when she was a young art dealer and managed her own gallery. She admits, however, that at the time she “was fairly pretty,” although the truth is that she was a sensational beauty then ‒ and still is today. I adored her when she told me about her friends, her houses, her loves, and especially the great love of her life, the man around whom and for whom she created Santa Maddalena: Grisha.

Like everyone else here, I began to call the famous Austro-Hungarian writer Gregor von Rezzori – who would have turned a hundred this year – by his nickname Grisha. As though he had not been dead for over twelve years; almost as though he and I had just come back from a long walk in the countryside together, with the dogs. I had read and admired The Snows of Yesteryear and Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, and after this experience I read all his other books. I admire his easy and flowing prose, his unfettered freedom, the way he enjoyed making fun of everything. I love him like I once loved Nabokov, though he displays neither the pedantry nor the arrogance of Nabokov. When you open the door onto one of his books, you don’t get the impression that you’ll have to watch your step. Grisha is friendly, welcoming, and even when he is clearly making fun of you, you feel that he is really rather fond of you. God knows he is present in his books! And his presence can be felt in every room at Santa Maddalena – especially in the small study on the first floor of the tower, where I so enjoyed working and which he wrote about at length at the beginning of his wonderful book Anecdotage. He is present everywhere: you feel as though he has just nipped down to Donnini to run an errand. And he is especially present in Beatrice’s conversation. I think that’s what I liked most here. The way she loved him, and the way he loved her, and the good vibrations with which this great love still fills the house, the garden, and which appears to imbue even the assemblies of fireflies that gather, after nightfall, around the pyramid dedicated to the memory of Grisha. One could tell the story from Beatrice’s viewpoint, but since I am a man and a writer it is with Grisha that I tend to identify, and I can’t help thinking Grisha was wildly lucky. To live the life of a wanderer, a vagabond de luxe as it were, and then – at the age of fifty – to meet Beatrice and spend the next thirty years with her. To live with Beatrice in Santa Maddalena, where he wrote the great books that he had had neither the time nor perhaps even the idea of riting before. I think Grisha was – and it is rare that one can say this of a writer – a happy man.

And this is the first theme that I had thought of for this lecture: is it possible to be both a great writer and a happy man? Are there any precedents? I started to look for them, and then I shifted to another topic, which is also related to my stay in Florence two years ago.


As I was saying, I was a finalist in the von Rezzori Prize. I did not win the prize: it went to Enrique Vila-Matas, a shy and dreamy man who appeared to be saddened by the award, fearing that his less fortunate companions would turn their back on him. We tried to comfort him by telling him that he was the one who deserved to win, also reminding him that in this event it’s not only the winner who gets a check, but all the other finalists as well. This generosity is worth noting because I believe it is unparalleled. Before the prize is awarded, a Lectio Magistralis, like the one I am giving this year, is always organized as part of the Prize. Two years ago it was delivered by the great Canadian novelist Michael Ondaatje. And Ondaatje’s lecture was truly masterly! He talked about mongrel art, hybrid art, and just like every member of the audience I found it fascinating, bewitching; but what I want to tell you about, the episode I want to start my own lecture with, is something that happened just before the talk, in a room nearby.  At the time, these keynote lectures took place in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi. And in this Palazzo, as all art lovers know well, there is a chapel whose four walls are all decorated with frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli depicting the Adoration of the Magi. The chapel is really very small and can be visited by small groups, and only at certain times; of course, this is better than nothing, but even these small groups – of around twenty people – create quite a crowd in the tiny chapel. So the ideal is to be able to see it outside the regular visiting hours, as one does when visiting a museum on its closing day. Thanks to Max Rabino, that’s what I was able to do.

Max Rabino is a very dear friend of Beatrice’s: an “amateur” in the original meaning of the word, an infinitely knowledgeable and enlightened art lover, who like certain characters from Chekhov’s plays seems to be part of the house. With Max, it was friendship at first sight. I loved in him the combination he displayed of the wisdom of an old man – the disenchanted wisdom of Ecclesiastes – and a childlike innocence: a Taoist True Man, our friend Max. So it was with him that I had the privilege of visiting the Benozzo Gozzoli Chapel of the Adoration of the Magi, and it was during that visit that Max drew my attention to a fascinating fact. In this procession of the Magi there are dozens, maybe even hundreds of characters – I have not counted. Among these characters, the leading figures are the dignitaries of the Medici Court: Cosimo, Lorenzo, Lorenzo’s three sisters, the Condottiero Sigismondo Malatesta, as art historians tell us. The others are quite clearly passersby, ordinary people that one would come across walking down the streets of Florence, around 1460. Whether it’s the main characters or the secondary figures, there can be no doubt that each one of them was painted from life. Even if I do not know who the model was, I can bet my life on the fact that each one of them is an absolute likeness of a real person. However, once you get to the manger where the Christ child is, here the characters are angels, saints, heavenly legions: all of a sudden the features become more regular, more perfect, more ideal. What they gain in spirituality, they lose in expression, in individuality, in lifelikeness. There is no doubt that these figures are no longer real portraits.


I love landscape painting, I love still life compositions, I love non-figurative painting, but above all I love portraits. When I visit a museum, it is the portraits that attract my attention first; and I think that if I were a painter I would undoubtedly be a portrait painter. Moreover, even in my role as a writer I think of myself as a kind of portrait painter. That is why I was so struck by what Max said.  After that I tried the following experiment and I can recommend that you do it, too. Look at a portrait, any portrait. You will find that instinctively, intuitively, without even making a specific effort, you are able to distinguish between one that is an actual portrait, painted from life, and one that represents a fictional characters and is the work of the artist’s imagination. Take the portrait of Monsieur Bertin by Ingres or Bellini’s Doge Loredan: we do not need a guidebook to tell us that both these men really existed. Whereas Michelangelo’s figures or Raphael’s Madonnas did not. I’m not saying that the former are better than the latter, or viceversa. I’m just saying that there is a difference and that the difference jumps out at you. And what I asked myself after this realization was: can this distinction, which is so obvious in painting, be observed in literature as well?

This is a question that is of special interest for me, since for about twenty years now I have no longer been writing novels. I mean, in the sense that novels are works of fiction, featuring fictional characters. I now write what is called non-fiction, for lack of a better word.  And I am the first to stress, perhaps with too much insistence, the fact that the events I write about are true, that the characters I am portraying are modelled on reality and are not creatures of my imagination.

But it has been pointed out to me, and rightly so, that this argument over what is “real” can give rise to several objections. I can repeat till I’m blue in the face, for example, that Limonov is real, but this will not stop the Limonov character in my book from being partly the real figure and partly the Limonov that is a creature of my imagination. And I’m not entirely sure myself where the one begins and the other ends. I am forced to admit that there is no clear boundary between the two. This kind of ambiguity is a typical characteristic of literature. It does not exist in the cinema. Critics will always tell you that it is a complicated matter, that the boundaries between documentary and fiction are increasingly blurred; yet, this does not mean that that boundary does not exist, and that it’s not – in fact – very clear indeed. In a fiction film, the characters are played by actors. A documentary, on the other hand, is a film in which we see the real characters. In my opinion, it’s as simple as that. And I challenge you to name a movie that does not fit into this classification.

On this subject, let me digress to tell you a story. About ten years ago I made a documentary film in a small town in Russia: it was called Coming Back to Kotelnitch, from the name of the small town, which nobody has ever heard of, except for the people who have the misfortune of living there and those who have seen my film. I spent several months in this town, filmed its inhabitants, entered into (often complicated) relationships with them. They could not understand why I had come to film them, what I planned to do with the footage, and I had quite a hard time trying to explain, since basically I did not really know myself. I was waiting for something to happen, and sure enough something did indeed happen. Something terrible: a young woman I knew, a woman I liked, who had occasionally worked as an interpreter for me and my team, was brutally murdered. She was hacked to pieces, with her 18-month-old baby, by a madman wielding an axe. From that moment onward the film changed radically. Instead of wandering along, searching for a subject, it started telling a story, one that was both the stuff of novels and the story of a real tragedy; some of the inhabitants of the city that we had been filming without knowing what form the story would take, also became – given the circumstances – a combination of fictional characters and real-life players in a real-life tragedy. The most fictional and yet the most realistic of them all was the partner of the murdered young woman, the father of the murdered child, who was also the local officer of the FSB – the agency that used to be called the KGB. A mysterious bloke, both charming and disturbing, suspicious to the point of paranoia when sober; yet, when he was drunk – which happened frequently – he was capable of sharing his most intimate secrets, as though we were the best of friends. The story I want to tell you, however, did not take place in Kotelnitch but in Venice, where the film was presented in 2003, in a parallel section of the Film Festival. The producer had invited the poet and screenwriter Tonino Guerra to the projection: I was very moved, truly touched to be given the opportunity to show my film to a man who had written so many masterpieces for great filmmakers such as Fellini, Antonioni, Francesco Rosi, the Taviani brothers, Angelopoulos and Tarkovsky. After the screening we all went to have a drink on a terrace at the Lido. Tonino Guerra, with his white mustache, his cap and corduroy waistcoat, looked like an old patriarch dispensing justice under an oak tree in the Romagna countryside. We anxiously awaited his verdict, which he finally handed down. He had not liked the film. He had found it both confused and sinister. As you can well imagine, I was devastated. But he did acknowledge that the film had one quality: the actors, he said, had given an amazing performance, especially the FSB character. I said, timidly: “But he’s not an actor, he really is an FSB officer. There are no actors in the film, they are all the real inhabitants of Kotelnitch.” “Really?” said Tonino Guerra, looking suspicious. I confirmed: really. Despite my confirmation, he did not look convinced. The more I repeated to him what to me seemed to be obvious, the more he suspected that I was trying to deceive him. I finally decided that Guerra’s reaction was the best compliment anyone could pay me, the best praise that I could ever be given for the film.


There is another reason why the remark Max made disturbed me and also enlightened me. It’s linked to the book that I was working on during my stay at Santa Maddalena. Just three months ago I would not have not mentioned this, since the book was not yet finished and I know from experience that one should not talk about the books one is writing till they are finished: any revelation of the book’s content, especially if shared with excitement and enthusiasm, will cost you – every time! – a full week of dismal discouragement. But now the book is finished: it is due to be published in France in the autumn and next spring in Italy. I can talk about it, therefore, and the truth is that I am longing to talk about it.

It is not that easy to do so briefly, however, since it is a huge book to which I devoted seven years of my life. Let’s just say that it is the story of the earliest years of Christianity. It takes place between the years 50 and 100 AD, when nobody suspected that they were living in years that would later be characterised as “Anno Domini” or after the birth of Jesus Christ. The book’s scenes are set in Greece, Rome and Jerusalem, and the main characters are those men that today we call St Paul, St Peter, St John, and so on, but who at the time were simply Paul, Peter, John. They were not saints with halos, but men, each with his own complications, each fallible, just like the rest of us. Just like the rest of us they quarrelled, they were jealous, and each one was convinced he knew more than the others. The only thing they had in common was an extremely bizarre faith. And the most bizarre element of it all is that that faith – which should have disappeared with them – survived them and lasted. In less than three centuries it conquered the Roman Empire from within, and even today a quarter of the human beings alive on this planet are still active members of this faith.

This faith, as you all know, focuses on the life, teachings, death and – according to believers – the resurrection of a preacher in Galilee named Jesus of Nazareth. You may think what you want of him and of what men have done with his message, but nobody can deny that Jesus is a major figure in our history. I do not think I’m exaggerating when I say that, of all human beings, he is the one that has been portrayed most frequently. Now, all these portrayals – in the visual arts, literature, cinema – are based on four short accounts that can easily fit, all together, in a slender paperback and which were written more or less between fifty and eighty years after his death, by four very different authors. I decided I wanted to know more about one of those authors. I chose Luke, for reasons I will not elaborate on here and which you will understand, I hope, if you read my book. Thus, the book became a biography of the Evangelist Luke. It is largely an imaginary biography, since we know almost nothing about him. I tried to imagine who this Luke was, what he thought, what he believed. I tried to reconstruct the context, both physical and spiritual, in which his life unfolded. And since what we call the Gospel According to Luke is in a sense a portrait of Jesus, I
found myself working on a portrait of the portraitist.

So, naturally, Ihave thought a lot about likenesses. Is the Jesus that Luke portrayed a good likeness of the real Jesus? This question is not absurd, for the real Jesus is not an imaginary character. He really existed. Whether he rose from the dead or was indeed the son of God, well, that is another matter, which concerns only faith. But that he indeed lived in this land which today we call Israel, that he breathed the same air as we breathe today, and ate, and pissed and shat, exactly like any human being… that, nobody disputes, except for a few silly atheists who are missing the mark. Take any famous scene from his life: his appearance before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, for example. We are obliged to imagine this scene, but that does not mean that it is an imaginary event. Its actual occurrence is not even in doubt, as the resurrection of Lazarus or Adoration of the Shepherds are. Roman historians documented the event. It occurred. It happened at a place and a time that we cannot determine with absolute accuracy, but which was nonetheless – like all
points in space and time – an absolutely precise point. It occurred in a specific place, at a specific time. There was a specific temperature. These two men, Jesus and Pontius Pilate, are not mythological figures, gods or heroes, floating in a fantasy world where, since nothing is real, everything is possible. The two men were an officer of the colonial government and an enlightened native: two men, just like you and me, with individual features, wearing specific clothes, and who spoke with their individual voice. Their meeting did not happen the way things happen in our imagination, by virtue of an infinite variable of circumstances; rather, it happened like all things that happen on earth, in one specific way that excludes all the others, and we know very little of that way that was the only way, that had the privilege of transforming the virtual into the real. But it happened. It is smothered under tons of fiction and legend, but it does not belong to the realm of
fiction or legend: it belongs to the sphere of reality. That is why it may be an impossible task, but it is perfectly legitimate to try and give a realistic representation of it.

As Kafka said : “I am very ignorant: but the truth exists nonetheless.”


Except perhaps John, none of the four Evangelists witnessed the events they recount. And none of them even try to make one believe that. Luke was writing fifty years after the death of his story’s hero and he states quite clearly that he is telling a story that he has heard second or third hand. This in no way stops us from reading the text, just like it does not stop us from reading the work of any historian, asking ourselves about every detail: is this true? These words he attributes to Jesus, did Jesus really say them? Did this event actually take place? This personality trait, can it be authentic?

The more I studied the Gospels – Luke’s and the other three – the more I became aware of the distinction that I was talking about earlier, the difference between portraits from life and from imagination. Between characters, words, events that quite obviously may have been changed a bit, but which are based on something real; and others which are derived from myth or from religious iconography. Let me take another example: when Jesus is seized by the soldiers on the Mount of Olives. Once again, it is an event of the crudest realism. That night a death squad surreptitiously ambushes and arrests a rebel fighter. Dim lanterns, clubs and bludgeons, chiaroscuro: the atmosphere is reminiscent of a painting by Tintoretto or Caravaggio. One of the rebel’s men attempts to resist. He pulls out his knife and, lashing out almost blindly, cuts off one of the soldiers’ ears. John the Evangelist tells us that soldier was called Malchus. And the Evangelist Luke adds that Jesus touched the wound and healed it. I see in this short scene a striking juxtaposition of the two levels. The ear being sliced off, I believe that, and I also believe that the man who had his ear cut off was called Malchus: why write it down, otherwise? But I do not believe in the miraculously re-attached ear, and not just because I’m sceptical about miracles: but rather because the detail is, so obviously, of the kind that is invented in order to teach a lesson, and not simply the kind of detail that is reported merely because it happened.

Basically, what I’m wondering is whether there is a test to tell if a picture is a real likeness, if an anecdote is authentic. I think there must be, but I have to admit that the criterion is highly subjective: it is what we might describe as sounding real, something having the ring of truth about it. You feel it, but you cannot prove it. Yet there is another criterion, a more objective one: it’s what scholars call the embarrassment criterion. Something that must have been embarrassing for the author to write down, something he would certainly have preferred to omit, but which he scrupulously recounts nonetheless: there is indeed a good chance that this is true. When Mark tells us, for example, that Jesus’s brothers and sisters thought he was a madman and wanted him locked up, we believe him. When he shows us the disciples fighting like cats and dogs, instead of competing with each other in nobility of soul and piety, we believe him. And when the four Evangelists, for once unanimously, tell us that Peter, the eldest and most faithful of Jesus’s disciples, the stone on which Jesus wanted to build his church, denied his master three times during the night after his capture, we believe it. And the reason we believe it is primarily because the episode is anything but flattering to Peter. It’s the same in a painting. If a court painter, in his portrait of the king, gives him a noble, strong face, calm and resplendent, we will tend to think that this may be a likeness, but it may also not be: we have no real way of knowing. But if he portrays him with crossed eyes and a huge wart on his chin, you can be sure of one thing: that the king really did have crossed eyes and a wart on his chin. Basically, what we can believe as being a good likeness is that which is – short of being downright ugly – characterized by imperfection.


I did not attempt a portrait of Jesus: I would not have dared. I tried, more modestly, to paint a portrait of one of his four official portraitists. Although it could not be a close likeness, I tried to paint at least a plausible portrait of Luke, and this is risky business in the case of a man about whom we know nothing and who – what’s more – lived nineteen centuries ago. I thought a great deal about how to produce a historical novel that would not sound too fake. I re-read all the masterpieces of the genre. We have one in France, but I do not know how well Italian readers are acquainted with it: it is the Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar. And I would like to quote for you, even though it’s a bit long, the passage in which Yourcenar explains how she went about writing the book:

“The rules of the game: learn everything, read everything, inquire into everything, while at the same time adapting to one’s end the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, or the method of Hindu ascetics, who for years, and to the point of exhaustion, try to visualize ever more exactly the images which they created beneath their closed eyelids. Through hundreds of card notes pursue each incident to the very moment that it occurred; endeavour to restore the mobility and suppleness of life to those visages known to us only in stone. When two texts, or two assertions, or perhaps two ideas, are in contradiction, be ready to reconcile them rather than cancel one by the other; regard them as two different facets, or two successive stages, of the same reality, a reality convincingly human just because it is complex. Strive to read a text of the Second Century with the eyes, soul, and feelings of the Second Century; let it steep in that mother solution which the facts of its own time provide; set aside, if possible, all beliefs and sentiments which have accumulated in successive strata between those persons and us. And nevertheless take advantage (though prudently, and solely by way of preparatory study) of all possibilities for comparison and cross-checking, and of new perspectives slowly developed by the many centuries and events separating us from a given text, a fact, a man; make use of such aids more or less as guide-marks along the road of return toward one particular point in time. Keep one’s own shadow out of the picture; leave the mirror clean of the mist of one’s own breath; take only what is most essential and durable in us, in the emotions aroused by the senses or in the operations of the mind, in our point of contact with those men who, like us, nibbled olives and drank wine, or gummed their fingers with honey, who fought bitter winds and blinding rain, or in summer sought the plane tree’s shade; who took their pleasures, thought their own thoughts, grew old, and died.” [1]

I find this text very beautiful. I approve of this method, which shows both pride and humility. The very poetic list of things that do not change – “those men who, like us, nibbled olives and drank wine, or gummed their fingers with honey, who fought bitter winds and blinding rain, or in summer sought the plane tree’s shade; who took their pleasures, thought their own thoughts, grew old, and died.” This list makes me think, because it raises a huge issue: what is eternal, unchanging, in what Yourcenar calls “the emotions aroused by the senses or in the operations of the mind”? In other words, what is it that is not part of history?  The sky, the rain, thirst, the desire that drives men and women to mate:  right. But in our perception of these things, in the opinions we form, history – which means change – creeps in quickly, continues to take over places which we thought were out of reach. Where I personally disagree with Marguerite Yourcenar is when she refers to one’s shadow, or the breath that makes the mirror mist over: she means the presence of the contemporary author. I firmly believe that this is something that cannot be avoided. I think that shadow will always be visible, for readers will always be able to see through the tricks by which the author tries to conceal his presence; therefore, I feel we would do better to accept that presence and place it clearly on stage. It’s like when you are filming a documentary. Either you try and make people believe that they are watching people in “real life,” that is as they are when you are not there to film them. Or you admit that the very fact of filming them modifies the situation: therefore, what is being filmed is this new situation. I am not particularly bothered with what is called, in film jargon, “looking into the camera”: actually, I always keep such shots, I even draw attention to them.  Although in classic documentaries any shot of people looking into the camera is edited out, I keep such scenes and show what they really mean: they tell us about the team that is doing the filming, and myself as their director, and all our discussions, doubts, as well as the complicated relationships we establish with those we are filming. Once again, I’m not saying that my way is better. Just that there are two schools of thought and all that can be said in favour of mine – the school of suspicion, I would call it, the opposite of designed sets and films on making the movie – is that it is more in tune with modern sensitivities than Marguerite Yourcenar’s haughty yet naive claim that she disappears in order to show things as they really are, in their essence and truth.

What is amusing is that, unlike Ingres or Delacroix who strived for realism in their representations of the Romans at the time of Livy, or the Jews in biblical times, the old masters naively applied this modernist creed and distanced themselves from the subject in a Brechtian manner. Had we tried to talk about this with them, I’m sure that the majority of the old masters – once they stopped to think about it – would probably have admitted that it was unlikely that Galilee at the time of Jesus looked much like contemporary Flanders or Tuscany. But the question would not even have occurred to them. An aspiration to historical realism was not part of their frame of mind and I think that basically they were right. They were truly realistic to the extent that what they depicted was really real. It was them, it was the world in which they lived. The rooms in which the Virgin receives the message from the Angel in the altarpieces of the Annunciation were the rooms of the patron’s palace or the painter’s home. The Madonna’s clothing, depicted with such care and love of detail, was of the same materials and styles as the clothes of the painter’s wife, or the patron’s mistress. Nor did the painter hesitate from depicting himself in the painting. There is one such painting, a work I am very fond of, which was painted by the great Flemish master Rogier van der Weyden: it shows Saint Luke, my hero, as he paints the portrait of the Virgin Mary. For there is a tradition – that I find enchanting, but which has absolutely no basis in historical fact – that the historical Luke was a painter: he is even the patron saint of painters. In the Rogier van der Weyden painting the face of Saint Luke is one of those that leave no room for doubt: this is the portrait of a real person. And art historians tell us that this is not only a real person, it is Rogier van der Weyden himself. His Saint Luke is a self-portrait. I was very happy the day I discovered this since, in my book, I had done the same thing. I portrayed myself as Saint Luke. As Flaubert said of Madame Bovary, I could say, “Luc, c’est moi – Luke is me.” And I must confess, honestly, that I feel it was the most sensible solution. My Luke probably does not resemble the real Luke, nobody knows what Luke was really like, but at least he is like me: and that is something. I believe that it’s not that important who a character resembles, who he’s like. What matters is that he should be a good likeness of someone.

[1] Reflections on the Composition of Memoirs of Hadrian, translated by Grace Frick.