When nonfiction writers face backlash for their depictions of loved ones, the disputes tend to center on how far their indiscretions have stretched. But what happens when someone no longer wants to appear in an ex-partner’s work, period?
The French literary world has been grappling with that question since the release in August of Emmanuel Carrère’s latest novel, “Yoga.” Carrère, 62, is one of France’s most celebrated writers, and “Yoga,” published by Éditions P.O.L., was initially tipped as a contender for the country’s top literary prize, the Goncourt. Then came questions about gaps in the mostly autobiographical narrative, and the revelation by Carrère’s ex-wife, the freelance journalist Hélène Devynck, that Carrère is legally barred from writing about her without her consent — an agreement she alleges he broke in “Yoga.”
The dispute has divided many in France, where artistic freedom is seen as sacrosanct. Some have pointed out that Devynck barely appears in the book, which has sold over 210,000 copies. Others see the unusual agreement as a sign of how women are finding new ways to wrest back control of their own narratives, especially after fractious divorces.
As part of their divorce, which was finalized in March, Carrère agreed that Devynck’s consent to being used as a character could no longer be presumed. Carrère is required to submit to Devynck any passages in which she appears, before publication, and make any requested cuts. No reason needs to be given.
Literature has seen its fair share of legal wrangling over nonfiction and autobiographical fiction in recent years. Also in France, the writer Raphaël Enthoven was sued in September by his former stepfather over his thinly disguised portrayal in his novel “Le Temps Gagné” (“Time Saved”). In Norway, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic autobiography “My Struggle” prompted national debates about what some saw as his degrading depiction of relatives, including his alcoholic father.
While Carrère first rose to prominence as a novelist, he has focused on nonfiction since his 2000 book, “The Adversary.” Devynck, who was in a relationship with Carrère from 2003 to 2018 and married him in 2011, has featured prominently in several of his books. “Lives Other Than My Own,” for example, opens with the pair in Sri Lanka during the 2004 tsunami, and goes on to detail the death of Devynck’s sister Juliette from cancer.
“Yoga” focuses on Carrère’s descent into depression, beginning in 2015, as well as his stay in a psychiatric ward and subsequent bipolar diagnosis. During those years, he said in a phone interview last month, Devynck was “the most important character in my life.” Though she has almost disappeared from the book after legally mandated cuts, one section has remained a bone of contention between them.
Near the end of the 392-page “Yoga,” Carrère quotes a page and a half from “Lives Other Than My Own,” in which he credited his belief that his life had been “a success” to his relationship with Devynck. A short commentary follows in “Yoga”: “I knew such a love was rare,” Carrère writes, “and that anyone who allows it to pass is doomed to regret.”
“I asked for this section to be removed from the start,” Devynck said in a phone interview. Carrère believes he is within his rights. “One can forbid me from writing things, but not from having written them. That’s too much denial.” In the wake of the book’s release, Devynck considered legal action before giving up: “Once it’s out in the world, what can I do? Bad faith won the day,” she said.
American readers will have to wait to read the novel. While Farrar, Straus and Giroux plans to publish the English translation of “Yoga” in the United States, it has not set a publication date.
Devynck said she had asked for the divorce clause after studying case law in France, which strongly favors authors over relatives or acquaintances who object to their portrayal in a book. Laurent Merlet, an associate lawyer for the firm Artlaw (which has represented Carrère’s publisher, P.O.L.), said in an interview that plaintiffs must “establish proof of extremely grave harm.” Merlet added that he knew of no precedent in France for Carrère and Devynck’s agreement.
According to Devynck, she only learned about the existence and planned release of “Yoga” a few days after the divorce was finalized. When she received the manuscript, she didn’t recognize the chronology or the details of the events Carrère described. “The story told in the book is completely false — it looks nothing like what my family and I went through,” she said.
In “Yoga,” Carrère describes a two-month stay with migrants in Greece, and portrays it as a period of recovery after his illness. In reality, Devynck said, the trip actually lasted just a few days and took place before his stint in hospital.
In March, Devynck asked for all mentions of her and their 14-year-old daughter (a French law requires the consent of both parents for the depiction of minors) to be removed. She alleges Carrère resisted. A second version of the manuscript, sent to her in May, included even more mentions of her, Devynck said, setting off what she describes as a “fierce legal battle to get him to drop my character. There was no regard, no good will.”
Carrère was taken aback by the extent of the cuts. “I thought perhaps she would say, ‘I’d like you to delete this or that,’” he said. “It’s her right, I don’t dispute it.” He made significant changes to “Yoga,” adding or tweaking other characters as a result, and writes in the book: “I can’t say about this one what I smugly said about several others: ‘Everything here is true.’”
He has reconciled himself to the final shape of “Yoga.” “Maybe the fact that the mourning of this love only exists as a blank is an eloquent way to put it,” he said.
According to Laurent Demanze, a professor of contemporary literature at the Université Grenoble Alpes, the narrative void created by the cuts is also in keeping with Carrère’s style. “His books often start and stop, they’re composed of a succession of unfinished attempts,” he says. “He then lends continuity to that, with deliberate cracks.”
Devynck and Carrère kept mum about their dispute when “Yoga” came out in August, but rumors soon circulated in France’s small, clubby literary community. Raphaëlle Leyris, a writer and editor for Le Monde des livres, the books supplement of the newspaper Le Monde, attributed the controversy in part to a “love of gossip” among the French cultural elite.
“I understand why Hélène Devynck chose to react when untruths were being said and printed,” Leyris said.
Devynck first disclosed the agreement in the French edition of Vanity Fair in late September. “Yoga,” which had been longlisted for two major literary prizes, the Goncourt and the Medicis, was not on either shortlist when they were announced in October. The Goncourt ultimately went to Hervé Le Tellier, and the Medicis to Chloé Delaume.
“To me, there was a desire to sabotage the book,” the French book critic Nelly Kaprièlian, who works for the magazine Les Inrockuptibles, said of Devynck’s decision to come forward. “It’s a way of saying, ‘He is manipulating you, readers, the way he manipulated me.’”
Yet both Leyris and Kaprièlian believe there are other reasons that “Yoga” didn’t win top honors this year. “It is already a huge best seller, so you could argue that it no longer needs a prize,” Kaprièlian said. Leyris pointed to the role of prizes, which can alter the commercial fate of less popular releases, in helping bookshops stay afloat, especially during a pandemic.
For Devynck, the agreement was a way to break free of her status as muse and supporter. “While we were together, I read and edited his manuscripts, and our conversations and our life fed into them. It was invisible and free work, of course,” she said. (In a written response, Carrère described Devynck as “a kind and attentive reader, to whom I’ve often paid tribute.”)
“I’m asking for distance. I don’t want to be his literary object anymore. I just want to exist elsewhere,” Devynck added. (She noted that neither Carrère nor their lawyers asked for the clause to be reciprocal, and she is free to write about her ex-husband.)
Meanwhile, the changes Carrère made to “Yoga” may lead to a larger shift. “It was the first time I really enjoyed writing fiction again in years,” he said. Asked if the future may hold a return to novels with no autobiographical material, he replied: “It’s crossed my mind.”
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