The bad boy of soviet writers
Emmanuel Carrère’s New Book Profiles Edward Limonov.
Emmanuel Carrère, one of the best known and most inventive French writers, has found a perfect subject in Edward Limonov, the self-described Johnny Rotten of Soviet dissident writers. The result is a picaresque gonzo biography, «Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia».
In «Limonov», published last week in the United States, Mr. Carrère focuses his distinctive blend of reportage, memoir and fiction, and his affinity for the big questions, on this uncategorizable Russian: at once a rebel and a totalitarian, a salacious writer of semifictionalized memoirs who, after years in the West, stood with the Serbs in the Bosnian war and then returned to Russia to become an ultranationalist political agitator.
Mr. Carrère, whose mother’s family is Russian, said he saw in Mr. Limonov something emblematic about the post-Soviet world. The two met in Paris in the early 1980s, and Mr. Carrère rekindled the acquaintance in 2008, spending two weeks with Mr. Limonov in Moscow when he was trying, unsuccessfully, to get his National Bolshevik Party, made up of people ranging from ultranationalist skinheads to countercultural misfits, into Parliament.
«After two weeks, I knew even less than before what I thought about him — first, if I liked him or disliked him, and if I thought he was quite a good guy or a villain», Mr. Carrère, 56, said in a recent conversation in his minimalist apartment here. «It made the story far more interesting».
The book opens with a citation from Russian President Vladimir V. Putin: «Whoever wants the Soviet Union back has no brain. Whoever doesn’t miss it has no heart». That complex nostalgia is a central theme in «Limonov», as is the interplay between radicalism and revanchism; the lure, even among the creative class, of fascism; and the naïveté of the Western intelligentsia to think that history, or at least nationalism, would end after the Cold War.
Known for his nuanced portrayals of troubled men, Mr. Carrère has a résumé that includes novels, memoirs, a true-crime story and a biography of the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. In France, «he is pretty universally celebrated, and his books always get front-page treatment», said Jean Birnbaum, editor in chief of Le Monde’s book supplement. «But, on the other hand, he doesn’t really belong in the literary establishment», perhaps because his books are considered too journalistic, Mr. Birnbaum added.
Published in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in a crackling translation by John Lambert, «Limonov» is written in a galloping third person and based largely on Mr. Limonov’s semifictionalized memoirs. After all, how would Mr. Carrère know what went through Mr. Limonov’s mind when he was making love to one of his troubled wives or many girlfriends? Or that he had a kind of nirvana experience while in prison?
«I made no fact-checking», Mr. Carrère said. «If I am wrong, I don’t care. I know, it’s not very American».
Mr. Limonov, now 71, was born Edward Savenko in a Ukrainian backwater, the son of a low-level official in the secret service. He changed his name to Limonov as «a tribute to his acidic and bellicose humor, because ‘limon’ means lemon, and ‘limonka’ is slang for a kind of hand grenade», Mr. Carrère writes. After stints as a menial laborer and petty thug, he turned to poetry writing. In 1974 he defected from Moscow to New York, where he lived in fleabag hotels and eventually worked as a butler to a multimillionaire, the subject of «His Butler’s Story», a fictionalized memoir published by Grove Press in 1987.
Unlike Joseph Brodsky and Yevgeny Yevtushenko, respectable dissident poets whom Mr. Limonov envied and despised, he lived a New York life full of drugs, violence, sex with women and, in one phase, with black men he met in city parks. (Decades later, he would try to hide this chapter from the ultranationalists in his cohort.)
Mr. Limonov arrived in France in 1980, riding on the success of «It’s Me, Eddie», a fictionalized memoir about his life in New York, translated into French as «The Russian Poet Prefers Big Blacks». Mr. Carrère found a copy in the Paris home of his mother, Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, an esteemed historian of Russia whose 1978 book, «The Decline of Empire», predicted the end of the Soviet Union. Mr. Carrère wrote about his mother’s family in «My Life as a Russian Novel» (2010), in which he revealed that his maternal grandfather, a White Russian, had worked as a translator for the Germans during World War II, and was probably executed as a collaborator.
Mr. Carrère was drawn to Mr. Limonov’s paradoxes and his prose. «What he’s got in his head is ghastly, but you’ve got to admire the honesty with which he unloads it: resentment, envy, class hatred, sadistic fantasies, but no hypocrisy, no embarrassment, no excuses», he writes.
He interviewed Mr. Limonov for a magazine. They fell out of touch. Then came the war in Bosnia. Mr. Limonov, attracted, as always, by adventure and the idea that neutrality is akin to cowardice, went to Croatia and supported the Serb side, «which was the most terrible thing that we could imagine», Mr. Carrère said.
He set the book aside for a year and nearly dropped it after watching «Serbian Epics», a 1992 BBC documentary that shows Mr. Limonov shooting rounds of a machine gun into Sarajevo with Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader who is now on trial for war crimes. «It’s not only that I disapprove», Mr. Carrère said, «it’s morally and politically that he’s ridiculous».
Under Boris N. Yeltsin, Mr. Limonov returned to Russia. «He was convinced that Perestroika was a disaster», Mr. Carrère said. Mr. Limonov started his National Bolshevik Party, whose platform was hazy, violent and nostalgic, and the government banned the group. From 2001 to 2003, he was jailed on charges of terrorism and participating in an illegal armed group, an essential chapter, Mr. Carrère writes, for a man who considers himself a romantic antihero, and a period when he wrote mystical books.
Some critics have found «Limonov» too flattering a portrait, though Mr. Carrère says he finds Mr. Limonov’s politics unpalatable. «We are not on the same side of the barricades», he said, adding that Mr. Limonov told him, «If I were in power, I would send you to the gulag».
Mr. Limonov is now living modestly in Moscow. He writes sometimes for the Russian editions of Playboy and GQ. Even though his party has been banned, he still holds monthly meetings. He defends Russia’s annexation of Crimea and is critical of Mr. Putin for not going further.
Even if many in the Russian intelligentsia are at odds with Mr. Limonov’s politics, they admire both Mr. Limonov and «Limonov».
«I think that to be a troublemaker is something that’s very important for a Russian writer», said Victor Erofeyev, a Russian author. «It’s not necessarily to fight against the state, but it’s necessary to fight against human nature. This is a very good beginning».
«The New York Times», 29 october 2014