Julian Barnes on Limonov by Emmanuel Carrère review — portrait of a political punk
Hero or thug? This «fictional» memoir of politician Eduard Limonov can’t decide, but it does reveal the corruption in post-Soviet Russia.
This is a most peculiar book. It is published here as fiction (as it was in France, where it won the Prix Renaudot), but — even allowing for the capaciousness of that form — isn’t remotely a novel. Rather, it is a biography whose author only interviews its subject — and then, very unsatisfactorily — when he has already written a full draft. His book describes the life of a Russian outsider, punk, hoodlum, writer, socialite, jailbird and eventual politician, whose existence you might doubt if the internet did not confirm it. It is also difficult, as a reader, to make up your mind what to think of its subject, Eduard Limonov, because the author, French writer and film director Emmanuel Carrère, cannot make up his mind, either. Indeed, at one stage he sets the whole project aside for a year because a late-surfacing TV clip of Limonov brown-nosing Radovan Karadzi´cc and loosing off a machine gun in the general direction of Sarajevo makes his hero look, not violent or criminal, but worse: «ridiculous». There are equivalent times when the reader might want to set the book aside, having run out of patience with its self-mythologising protagonist; and yet its wider subject, the condition of post-Soviet Russia — raucous, vulgar, pitiful, despairing, angry — keeps pulling you back in. As a text it is constantly self-reflective, without always being self-aware. Perhaps the book it most closely resembles is Paul Theroux’s memoir about VS Naipaul. Some took that as a late-taken act of literary and personal revenge. It always struck me as much more a document of thwarted love, as does this book.
Carrère comes from the comfortable Parisian professional class (his father a senior executive, his mother a distinguished historian), and while he had some bohemian-hippie days, his main act of filial rebellion, as he admits, consisted in a change of arrondissement; he has, generally, done things from within his own society, and with that society’s approval. Limonov was born in 1943 into the Ukrainian working class (his father a low-level secret policeman, his mother a munitions factory worker), and his social, literary and political trajectory — to Moscow then New York and Paris and back to Moscow — has been dramatic, even melodramatic. In Russia, it is possible to go from a punk autobiographer who signs himself «the Johnny Rotten of literature» to co-leader of a political coalition alongside Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion, and Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister. Nor does this tardy, seeming respectability prevent him also dreaming about armed revolt, and establishing an (admittedly tiny) training camp near the Kazakhstan border. In Britain, we tend to think of political extremism as being represented by Nigel Farage, whose supporters turn their backs on the European parliament. Limonov ran the National Bolshevik Party, shortened to the unlovely yet telling «Nazbol», whose supporters are not shy of bellowing their enthusiams: «Stalin! Beria! Gulag!»
The conformist loves the transgressor, the bourgeois loves the punk, the careful man the adventurer; while the Parisian intellectual (see Sartre and «Saint Genet») typically loves the intransigent despiser of all that Parisian intellectuals stand for. Some, if not all of these themes play out in Limonov. And the man who needs a hero finds a hero. Not just in the sense of protagonist, either. Carrère is a man of reflection, Limonov a man of action. Carrère is a self-doubting liberal, Limonov a clear-headed extremist. Carrère requires psychoanalysis, Limonov knows his own mind so clearly that he would despise outside intervention. Most of all, Carrère is soft, Limonov hard. He takes a pitiless view of the world, admiring strength, despising weakness, admiring winners, despising losers. At the same time, he is, he claims, «always on the side of the underdog». But he’s also on the side of the overdog, his most consistent hero being Stalin. Also revered are Gaddafi, Charles Manson, Andreas Baader, Lenin, Felix Dzerzhinsky, Yukio Mishima and Jim Morrison. He hates all «bullshit», he hates all «assholes», by which he tends to mean liberals, humanists, democrats, anti-totalitarians. Specifically: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov, Elena Bonner, Boris Pasternak, Mstislav Rostropovich, Mikhail Gorbachev. And even more than his «natural enemies», he loathes those who occupy his own niche but with more success. So, he began as a poet; ergo, he hates most other poets, and all famous ones, but especially the one who came, like him, from the Russian sticks, yet rose higher: Joseph Brodsky. His attitude is less rivalrous than pathological. Writers, on the whole, admire great(er) writers. Whom does Limonov admire? As far as this book shows, Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas and Jack London. The boys’-adventure brigade.
Why, then, is he interesting? Flaubert, asked to justify his interest in Nero and the Marquis de Sade, replied, «These monsters explain history to us». Limonov is not a monster, though would perhaps like to think himself one; he is a philosophical punk, a chancer, a blood-and-soil patriot who imagined himself a cleansing political force. Carrère, reflecting on his subject’s escapades, decides that:
He sees himself as a hero; you might call him a scumbag; I suspend my judgment on the matter. But … I thought to myself, his romantic, dangerous life says something. Not just about him, Limonov, not just about Russia, but about everything that’s happened since the end of the second world war.
That final phrase is an overclaim by some distance; but certainly Limonov’s deeds and beliefs help illuminate the history of the Soviet Union since 1989: the chaos, the anger, the despair, the wild-west capitalism, the pillaging of the economy by the oligarchs, the destruction of ordinary people’s savings, the loss of any sense of day-to-day normality, even if that normality had been dull and tarnished and unfree. What an extraordinarily short time has elapsed between the official abolition of the Communist party and the coming to power of a former KGB man, followed by the nostalgic semi-rehabilitation of Stalin. Carrère chooses as his epigraph Putin’s line: «Whoever wants the Soviet Union back has no brain. Whoever doesn’t miss it has no heart». As the book proceeded, I was half-expecting that Putin’s arrival would be applauded by Limonov: here, finally, comes the strong man, the anti-Gorbachev, the all-action keep-fit fanatic, the cleaner-out of softie dissenters, the hard leader who will make the west tremble again … But Russian reality is always much weirder than you can anticipate. Limonov hates Putin (perhaps, as Carrère points out, because he is the final and greatest example of someone occupying his own niche but with more success), and Putin duly responds by having Limonov banged up on plausible if semi-invented charges. The book’s natural conclusion — especially if indeed it were the novel it proclaims itself to be — would probably find Limonov in Ukraine, among the official-unofficial hero-thugs come from over the border to defend Greater Russia. But it ends before Putin’s invasion of Crimea; and perhaps Limonov, in his early 70s, is in any case now too old for action.
«Hero» or «scumbag»? Note Carrère’s reply: «I suspend judgment». This is a very strange authorial position, but Carrère is consistent in his inconsistency. Just as he seems to think at one point that his book might be a novel, only to tell Limonov, when he finally goes to interview him, that it is a «biography», so he oscillates between calling Limonov «unsavoury» and a «two-bit thug» to calling him «magnificent». Three-quarters of the way through the book, he notes: «I don’t think Eduard’s vile or a liar. But who’s to say?» Who, if not his biographer, you would think. What Carrère admires about Limonov is his sense of purpose, his clarity of mind, his directness, his honesty. «It’s not like him to exaggerate», Carrère notes. The Frenchman also admires the way the Russian intimidates others with his very presence. Here he describes Limonov in New York during the late 1970s:
He walks home along Madison Avenue looking at the passers-by, above all the men, and judging them. Better than me? Worse? Most are better dressed: this is a rich part of town. A lot of them are taller. Some are more handsome. But he alone has the hard, determined look of someone who’s able to kill. And all of them, when they happen to make eye contact, look away in fright.
This would seem to have been very sensible on the part of those New Yorkers: Manhattan, before the big clean-up, was a potentially violent place, and eye contact was not what you made when someone looking like a Russian thug from the wrong part of town came striding towards you.
More importantly, this passage shows how trusting Carrère is of Limonov’s own written account. He has already decided that Limonov is honest, that Limonov never exaggerates (and can also see into the hearts of Americans approaching him in the street). And yet Limonov’s own books contain explicit warnings against taking them as gospel. On the third page of his first book, It’s Me, Eddie (1979 in Russian, 1983 in English), Limonov warns that «objectivity is not among my attributes». The book is subtitled, in its British edition, «a fictional memoir». In a later book, His Butler’s Story, Limonov specifically refers to this earlier one (which he is having difficulty selling) as «a novel». Even without such signposts, the text itself ought to have been enough to alert Carrère — the more so since time has passed and its genre has become more apparent. Limonov writes with a coarse exuberance which seeks to catch the eye of some while hoping to offend others (the influence of Henry Miller is evident). An adventurer rather than a hero, a delinquent rather than a dissident, Limonov’s freewheeling version of his life, swaggering in both its highlights and lowlights, has the relentlessness of one terrified of being thought a bore. And Carrère buys into it.
Nowhere is this more apparent than when it comes to sex. Limonov has — by his own novelistic account — been very successful with women (also, in New York, with men). A bohemian first wife, a glamorous second one, a Parisian countess, then, as he ages, women younger, and finally much younger than himself. He is a tremendous fucker, we are assured, and yet, once in a relationship, he remains noble, faithful (except when not), protective, chivalrous — even when his women become, as they do, mad, drunk, nymphomaniacal or suicidal (which is obviously all their own doing). Who tells us so? Well, Limonov himself, of course. Most people lie about their sex lives; and the successful are just as inclined to lie as the unsuccessful, a fact Carrère doesn’t appear to consider. And when a kind of doubt creeps in, it is not about Limonov’s truthfulness. Here is Carrère on Limonov’s time in New York:
I’m a bit embarrassed to report it, but he’s gotten into the habit of grading women: A, B, C, D, E, F, as in school, and this classification is at least as social as it is sexual. With the one stunning exception of Tanya, whom he’s always considered an incomparable A… he’s had a lot of Ds in his life.
Carrère is «a bit embarrassed» by this. On the other hand, consider this scene from a previous chapter, when Limonov has just had a television delivered to help him learn English:
When they turn it on, Solzhenitsyn appears, the sole guest on a special talk show, and one of Eduard’s cherished memories is having fucked Tanya in the ass under the bearded prophet’s nose as he harangued the west for its decadence.
No, he’s not a bit embarrassed by that. Rather, all through, Carrère acts as a cheerleader for Limonov’s sex life. There is the «famous Parisian beauty he practically felt up during a society dinner ... She had the most beautiful breasts he’d ever seen». There is his girlfriend Natasha: «She was spectacular: tall, majestic, her powerful thighs wrapped in fishnet stockings...» And so on. At one point Carrère refers to a girl’s «rustic pussy», which sounds a little baffling. He appears to think that when Limonov, in S&M mode, strangles his wife nearly to death, this is just the honest extremism of sex. He doesn’t seem to notice Limonov’s casual (or rather, endemic) sexism, the gynophobia which lies so close to the surface of his satyriasis — perhaps because he admires it. Here, after all, is Carrère, always an active presence in his book, recalling his own girlfriend Muriel, a fellow student at the Institut d’études politiques in Paris: «She was a knockout, with curves like a Playboy model and a way of dressing that left nothing to the imagination». I think that even if I wasn’t «a bit embarrassed» as a man by that sentence, I ought to be a bit embarrassed by it as a writer. (And no, it isn’t any classier in the French original.)
Limonov is all about hardness — political, physical, sexual. His pitilessness is also made much of — as if it were a branch of truthfulness rather than a defect of character. But the punk stance — that everyone else deals in bullshit except yourself — rarely stands up to scrutiny. He despises the weak, the losers, he never gives alms; and yet here he is, suddenly filling the tip saucer of a lavatory attendant with banknotes, crying, «Pray for us, Babushka, pray for us». The thug as sentimentalist — or rather (which he is loath to admit) as human being. Perhaps the most revealing moment in terms of Limonov’s essential character is when he considers the swift and extrajudicial killing of the Ceausescus. If Romania was less of a prison camp than the Soviet Union, Nicolae Ceausescu was as corrupt and tyrannous as most of his fellow communist dictators. Except to Limonov, who finds the manner of their deaths «a scene worthy of the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles»:
Journeying together toward eternity, simple and majestic, Elena and Nicolae Ceausescu have joined the immortal lovers of world history.
This is not just the sentimentality that often lies beneath cruelty, but also a sentimentality about cruelty.
As I say, this is a very peculiar work. Carrère claimed in a recent interview that it was «not a biography» because he didn’t «check facts, or check out what he [Limonov] actually said». But this doesn’t make his book a novel; rather, a knowingly inaccurate biography — one which I enjoyed having read more than I actually enjoyed reading. It also struck me that Carrère was perhaps not the best choice to write about Limonov — not even in his own family. Whenever his mother comes into the story, occasionally offering her professional opinion about the history or current state of Russia, she sounds cogent, accurate, unswayed by romantic admirations, and well able to make up her mind. Perhaps she would have written a better book than her son. Apart from anything else, she would certainly have been clearer-headed about Limonov and women.
«The Guardian», 24 october 2014