Limonov by Emmanuel Carrère, review: «brilliantly fun to read»
Rosamund Bartlett marvels at a French novelist’s exhilarating Life of a scandalous Russian renegade.
This book is named after its main character, the 71-year-old Russian writer turned dissident politician Edward Limonov. You might not have heard of him, and after you have read this book you might wish you had not heard of him, but you will certainly have enjoyed reading about his life, thanks to the verve of Emmanuel Carrère’s exhilarating narration. You will probably also understand considerably more about the country that produced such a narcissistic and controversial figure, whom the author finds alluring and repellent in equal measure.
Sheer force of will as much as talent catapulted Limonov from his dingy upbringing in Soviet Kharkov to the hip artistic underground of late-Sixties Moscow, then on to New York and Paris, where his notorious first novel It’s Me, Eddie was first published in 1980, under the deliberately sensational title The Russian Poet Prefers Big Blacks.
After a scandalous interlude fighting in the Balkans with the Serbs in the early Nineties, and perhaps disappointment at the subsequent failure of his literary career, Limonov switched to politics and headed back to Moscow, where his foundation of the ultra-Rightwing (and now banned) National Bolshevik party eventually landed him a spell in prison.
Throughout, Limonov has never stopped pillaging his life as material for the books he continues to write, in which he is always the protagonist, and it is entirely typical that the last page in the 2002 account he published of his political life ends with the words «A scene from a classic novel».
Carrère has seized on Limonov’s projection of himself as a literary hero (or anti-hero) straight out of the pages of Dostoevsky, Céline or Henry Miller, and run with it. It is a brilliant ploy. By subtitling his book «a novel» rather than casting it as straightforward biography, and by vividly telling the story of Limonov’s extraordinary life in the present tense, he instantly makes it much more fun to read.
The ambiguity of the book’s genre is also appropriate, since Carrère’s main sources of information on his subject are Limonov’s own novels. Each one is devoted to illustrating another chapter in his unruly, transgressive and eventful life, and ultimately there is no knowing how much they can be relied upon. Nevertheless, Carrère’s first-person narration, in which he draws on his own experience and skill as a film-maker, journalist and novelist, lends his enterprise an air of reassuring authenticity. Admiration for Limonov’s courage and odd integrity is balanced by repudiation of his often unsavoury politics.
Having briefly met Limonov as a still-glamorous celebrity in Paris when he was just starting out as writer, Carrère is surprised when he encounters him again in Moscow in 2006 while on assignment following Anna Politkovskaya’s death.
Now a renegade ex-convict, and a figure of official opprobrium, Limonov amuses Carrère by remarking upon the similarity between the designer bathroom fittings in the Manhattan hotel he had once been housed in during a book tour, and those in the labour camp on the Volga, where he had recently been an inmate.
Sympathetic to Limonov’s feeling of pride at probably being the only person who could have experienced these two typically Russian extremes, Carrère realises there is a compelling story to tell about what lies between them, and indeed, it is as explosive as the pseudonym Edward Savenko adopts at the beginning of his career.
Derived from the Russian word for lemon, «Limonov» alludes to the acidity of his humour and the slang name for a particular type of hand grenade.
Carrère is not exaggerating when he claims that the story he recounts in this book 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». Limonov’s mad, bad, dangerous life requires the informed cultural and political context in which Carrère places it to bring it to life and give it wider meaning. As the son of the distinguished historian of Russia, Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, permanent secretary of the Académie Française, and with long-term Russian experience himself, he is well qualified to do so.
Apart from the political figures he brings into the mixture, from Trotsky to Putin, whom the supremely well-read Limonov either emulates or mirrors, the path of Limonov’s career suggests numerous literary prototypes, both real and invented. They range from the deeply ambivalent hero Pechorin in Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time to the internationally feted and envied Joseph Brodsky, a Nobel laureate.
Perhaps the strongest parallels, though, are to be drawn with the megalomaniac poet Mayakovsky, the eternal revolutionary, who eventually shot himself in 1930 rather than compromise with a tainted regime.
Now that Limonov has a regular column in the official newspaper «Izvestiya», the latest chapter in his colourful life seems tame by comparison.
«The Telegraph», 5 november 2014