Un roman russe is translated literally in the English (but not the American) edition as A Russian Novel, although it's largely autobiographical, representing just two years in Emmanuel Carrère's life. However, lives other than his are involved here, and the book begins with a small film crew (of which Carrère is the director) being sent out to Kotelnich (no second 't' in English), a depressing Russian town 500 miles east of Moscow.
The original intention was to make a film about András Toma, a Hungarian soldier captured by Red Guards who spent fifty-five years imprisoned in Russia, the last fifty-two of them in a psychiatric hospital in Kotelnich: somehow, Toma had been forgotten over the years and was declared dead in the 1950s. However, there is not enough material for a feature film and the crew go back to France. But Carrère and crew later return to Kotelnich to make the film Retour à Kotelnitch (2003), and Un roman russe is in part about the making of this film. (The original film about Toma became a bonus short on the DVD called Le Soldat perdu ('The Lost Soldier')).
So we have a story about Carrère which begins as a story about Toma, although that (much like the film) really turns out to be a kind of false start, or maybe an excuse for a new beginning. But why does Emmanuel return to this hole? He's not too certain, although as a kind of therapy he's working on a dark part of his family history that has hitherto remained a secret that his mother Hélène Carrère d'Encausse wants to keep buried until her death: her father Georges Zourabichvili, a Georgian refugee, 'disappeared' after collaborating with the Nazis in World War II. Perhaps Kotelnich is where the disappeared go, or more likely perhaps Carrère can find a psychological gravestone for his grandfather, can exorcise his demons.
Emmanuel's demons, though, are often self-created and he has strong self-destructive impulses. The book is also a kind of love story, involving the fraught relationship between Emmanuel with his partner Sophie. And here we come to one of the central issues, because Sophie, who works for a children's publisher, is of a lower class than Emmanuel, who is proud of displaying her beauty to friends, but ashamed, for instance, of the fact that on hearing about the merits of Saul Bellow, she writes herself a reminder to read some 'Solbello'. Emmanuel is egotistical: the couple's life revolves around his whims, whereas Sophie's wishes come a low second and she is unsure of her position in the relationship. It is perhaps not too surprising that (on one of Emmanuel's several long trips away) she takes a lover as a kind of emotional insurance policy: and of course it is no surprise that Emmanuel finds her infidelity wholly unacceptable, even though he adheres to the age-old double standard and has had a brief affair with a young woman himself.
Partly to attempt to patch up the flagging relationship, Emmanuel (before discovering Sophie's infidelity) writes a short story which is published in Le Monde, and which amounts to a long erotic (some might say pornographic) love letter which is – in keeping with Emmanuel's dominant character – almost in the form of an instruction manual. It uses explicit language that shocked many people and annoyed some writers, Philippe Sollers being a notable example.
Some readers might admire Carrère for, as it were, laying himself bare, for exposing his faults for all to see, while others might find him heartless and self-centred for revealing the skeleton in the family cupboard and causing his mother (a highly respected public figure) considerable discomfort. He writes directly to his mother at the end of the book and says that it's better that he uses this form of psychotherapy if it prevents him from killing himself. But doesn't that sound slightly like emotional blackmail?
I wasn't troubled by the multiple narrative threads in the book, nor by its start-stop nature, and in many respects I found this an enthraling read. But the protagonist isn't a sympathetic character at all: he is a weak, unstable person, much like a spoilt child with little emotional maturity and very little regard for anyone but himself.
Below is a link to the short story published in Le Monde and called L'Usage du Monde: this is also the title of Nicolas Bouvier's 1963 book that was translated as The Way of the World. There are also a links to other book comments by the author that I've made.
L'Usage du Monde, by Emmanuel Carrère
Emmanuel Carrère: D'autres vie que la mienne | Lives Other than My Own
Emmanuel Carrère: La Classe de neige
Emmanuel Carrère: La Moustache | The Mustache