Few who experience death on a personal scale, as in the death of a friend or relative, or on a mass scale, like that from a terrorist killing or natural disaster, are unaffected. In addition to the immediate, visceral emotions that can overwhelm, there is often a deep wrestling with the theodicies of the events, questions such as "how could a good God allow such pain and suffering and death?" or "how can such evil exist?" Such trauma has both led to faith and been the end of faith, and yet seldom does one pass through such events without brushing up against such issues. French novelist, biographer, filmaker, and journalist Emmanuel Carrere may be an exception.
Lives Other Than My Own is Carrere's 2009 French memoir, recently translated and forthcoming in English by Metropolitan Books (September 2011). The memoir is actually two stories, unrelated except for the fact that the author experienced both. The shorter is his telling of the effect of the 2004 Asian tsunami on a family with whom he became acquainted while vacationing in Sri Lanka. The couple, Jerome and Delphine, lost their young daughter, Juliette, in the ensuing waves. More observer than one intimately involved in assisting the couple (in contrast to his partner, Helene), his description of the tragic events and the effect of Juliette's death on this family is oddly dispassionate, like it is viewed from a distance. Carrere himself describes his detachment this way: as he watches Helene spring into action to assist the family, he says "I look at Helene and feel clumsy, helpless, useless. I almost resent her for being so caught up in the task at hand that she's paying no attention to me. It's almost as if I no longer exist." And yet this event draws him closer to Helene at a time when they were considering separating.
Perhaps his detachment is a symptom of his self-described "inability to love" that he blames for drawing them apart. Elsewhere, he describes himself as one who live[s] in disatisfaction, constant tension, running after dreams of glory and laying waste to my loves because I always imagine that one day, somewhere else, I'll find something better." Yet his refreshingly honest appraisal of himself, even to the extent of portraying himself in unflattering ways, never seems to cause him to ask ultimate questions that may call for transcendent answers, even for God. Perhaps it is symptomatic of a largely secular European environment, a closed, naturalistic system where God is consigned to wishful thinking, the province of the old or uneducated.
Returning to Paris with Helene, they are once again touched by tragedy. Helene learns that her sister, also named Juliette, had cancer again. The remainder and by far larger part of the book concerns this other story, the sickness and ultimate death of Helene's cancer-ridden sister, as well as its effect on her husband Patrice and her friend and co-worker, Etienne. Along the way, we are treated to richly descriptive biographies of Etienne, Juliette's fellow judge who suffered the amputation of his leg at an early age, as well as Juliette's left-leaning cartoon-drawing husband, Patrice. Many of the intimate details of their lives are laid bare under Carrere's journalist's eye. Sometimes it seems embarrassingly voyeuristic to be looking into their personal lives in such a way.
Carrere is adept at describing people, settings, and events, and yet while a party to much of what surrounds Juliette's dying, he is at the same time emotionally distant, an observer who rarely professes to how the emotions of the events weigh on him, whether describing Juliette's decline or the impact on her three children left without a mother. Perhaps this is just an experienced journalist's posture, allowing him to remain objective. Or perhaps it is an emotional detachment the author struggles with. Maybe it is both. And yet his account is an insightful window into the lives of two ordinary people who grapple with handicaps, illness, and death.
While the book generally sustained my interest, the section which details the attempt by Etienne and Juliette, both judges, to secure some favorable law for debtors in a debtor-creditor case, is a bit arcane. To non-lawyer types, this would likely not be of interest, and even for me, a lawyer, it detracted from the more universal appeal of the events and personalities described in the rest of the book. I think Carrere would have done well to leave much of this section out or significantly revise it.
In the end, I was unsatisfied with the effect all these events had on Carrere. Summing it up, he concludes: "I love my life now (no great achievement, since it's so pleasant), and my philosophy can be summed up in the remark made on the evening of her son's coronation by Madame Letizia, the mother of Napolean, who murmered, 'Let's hope it lasts.'" Really? Is that all? Better yet to walk out under the stars, the same stars the Psalmist beheld, and say, "When I look at your heavens, the work/ of your fingers,/ the moon and the stars, which you/ have set in place,/ what is man that you are mindful of him,/ and the son of man that you care for/ him?" (Ps. 8:3-4, ESV). Better to say, simply, thank you.
I recommend Lives Other Than My Own for the writing, for the nuanced insight into lives not our own. Set in the context of a universe "charged with the grandeur of God" (to use Hopkins' phrase), you may find a plentiful hope, faith, and love and go back to your own life, renewed, from a distance no more.