«Limonov», by Emmanuel Carrère
Everyone in Russia knows Eduard Limonov as the sinewy old man with the little goat beard, surrounded by a coterie of young hoodlums (members of his outlawed National Bolshevik Party, now called the Other Russia) — the snippy contrarian who gets arrested every other month when he comes out to protest for the right to free assembly, guaranteed by the Russian Constitution, and who, in his vagabond youth, lived as a down-and-out émigré in the New York of the 1970s.
For those of us who didn’t grow up passing around copies of Limonov’s «fictional memoir», «It’s Me, Eddie», we have Emmanuel Carrère — a French writer and filmmaker who never tires of telling us of his mother’s status as a prominent Soviet historian — and his jaunty, raunchy «Limonov», which the publisher calls a «pseudobiography», to fill in the colorful outlines of the old eccentric’s life.
Eduard Limonov was born in 1943, in wartime Dzerzhinsk, a Ukrainian city named after the founder of the Soviet secret police, to a strong and vicious woman named Raya and her husband, Venyamin, a middling, piddling N.K.V.D. officer whom Eddie spies one day taking a group of prisoners to their deaths. Venyamin’s banal example taught Eddie to disdain rule-following and the gray anonymity of Soviet life, and to hunger for adventure and fame. His mother imparted a different lesson. «The truth, and never forget this Edichka», Raya told him, «is that men are cowards and bastards, and they’ll kill you if you’re not ready to strike first».
Limonov has spent his whole life living those lessons. Growing up in an industrial slum in Kharkov, he learns to shun the rules early, rolling with the petty gangsters in town. They go on benders that last for days, fueled by vodka and cheap cognac; they rob shops. Eddie’s first robbery produces such a surge of adrenaline that it erupts as a stream of diarrhea on one shop manager’s floor.
Soon, Eddie decides to become a poet, the true way to stardom — and to women — in the Soviet Union. The ploy pays off: When Eddie’s poem on love wins a local competition, Eddie is summoned by Tuzik, a 20-year-old draft dodger who’s the head of a local gang. First, he makes Eddie kiss his girlfriend — «Go on, use your tongue!» — then they all go out drinking and pillaging. After witnessing Tuzik’s men rape a woman in the street, a fevered Eddie rushes off in search of the girl he wrote his love poem for. She tells him she likes older men, but it doesn’t take much to coax her into bed. «And that’s how he loses his virginity», Carrère notes wryly.
After a short stint in the mental hospital in Kharkov (he had tried to slit his wrists), Eddie falls in with the local bohemians. By taking their obese, bipolar queen, Anna Moiseyevna Rubinstein, as his common-law wife, he becomes their king. (It doesn’t hurt that at a time when it’s hard to get modern clothing anywhere, Eddie starts a little business sewing bell-bottom jeans for 20 rubles a pop.)
But a few years later he’s outgrown Kharkov, and his hunger for fame takes him and Anna Moiseyevna to Moscow. And this is where Limonov’s life becomes a window onto the life of late Soviet literature. Limonov, a young punk from the provinces, is suddenly in the thick of the Moscow intelligentsia he so envies and despises. There’s the disheveled Joseph Brodsky shuffling around a party; the sellout Yevgeny Yevtushenko; the grave old wizard Solzhenitsyn who, writing from the provinces, nevertheless dominates everything; the tragic genius Venichka Erofeev slowly drinking himself to death; and the young poet Vadim Delaunay, descended from a prominent mathematician and the last governor of the Bastille, whose remaining family fled to czarist Russia to escape the French Revolution. (Imprisoned for his role in the 1968 eight-person protest on Red Square against Soviet crimes in Prague, Delaunay later fled to his ancestral Paris, and died there at the age of 35, of a heart attack.)
It’s in Moscow that Eddie meets Tanya, the lithe young fiancée of an apparatchik. To woo Tanya, Eddie waits for her on the landing in front of her apartment even after she goes inside with another man. She tells him to go away. «Fair enough!» Carrère writes. «He slashes his wrists on the landing». Tanya — who, it’s worth noting, is actually named Elena both in Eddie’s books and in real life — is flattered and so begins a torrid romance (along with Carrère’s characteristically French descriptions of Elena’s «small, light, firm breasts that drive him wild») followed by a wedding in a church, a rare sight in Moscow in 1973. Old Lilya Brik, once Mayakovsky’s muse, convinces Elena that she could be a supermodel in the West, so Elena and Eddie do what everyone else seemed to be doing those days and emigrate.
But in New York, Eddie and Elena find what so many other Russian émigrés do: No one needs them. They’re minnows in a big, indifferent city. They live like tramps in a hovel, and the exquisite Elena has to sleep in Eddie’s socks to stay warm. They drink, fight, make love, repeat. Finally, Elena leaves him for a third-rate photographer, and a heartbroken, sobbing Eddie finds himself in the arms of a black man named Chris. «There’s nothing furtive about it», Carrère writes. «It’s untroubled, intimate, majestic».
All of it inspires Eddie, who now spends his days tanning and eating pots of cabbage soup on his balcony at the dingy Hotel Winslow, on Madison and 55th, to start writing about his favorite subject: himself. When, years later, his memoir is accepted by a French publisher under the title «The Russian Poet Prefers Big Blacks», he will have eaten many pots of cabbage soup and had many adventures, including working as a butler on the Upper East Side.
With Paris come the success and fame Limonov has lusted for so violently his whole life, but it is also where we lose Eddie. The freewheeling young ruffian recedes into the shadows as Carrère and Russian history come to the fore. Eddie appears here and there, almost as an afterthought, as Carrère recounts his own youth as a self-conscious snob in Paris (or, in his words, «a sort of wunderkind of film criticism»), the upheavals that came with Gorbachev’s unsealing of the vault of Soviet history, and Carrère’s own travels to and thoughts on the fun-house mirror that was post-Communist Romania and war-ravaged Yugoslavia. In all of this, Eddie barely exists, except to pop up as someone who agrees with the K.G.B. hard-liners who tried to take over in Moscow in the August 1991 putsch, or as the desperado who joins the fighting on the side of the Serbs, standing with Radovan Karadzic on a mountain outside Sarajevo and emptying a magazine at the distant city below.
Eddie reappears in perestroika-era Moscow, back as a quasi-celebrity, hunting for Natasha, the new wife — described by Carrère as a bipolar, alcoholic nymphomaniac who appeared on the cover of the Cars’ first album and who disappeared on him in Paris. Limonov starts a party of young hooligans, gets arrested more times than we can count, marries again. He becomes the legend he wanted to be, known not for any feats or accomplishments but just for the kind of man he is — one who, living in New York City on $278 a month in welfare, makes sure to dress in a white suit and heeled boots and raspberry velvet; who has sex with another man just to see what it feels like; who disdains the Russian émigrés littering the West because he pities them; who likes Stalin and the Soviet Union not because of any kind of ideological solidarity but because people are afraid of them; who can drink and fight and fornicate as ardently and recklessly as the rest of them, but one who keeps a critical distance, smirking at them all.
There’s something very Russian about the Eddie that Carrère gives us, a man who laughs at life before it has a chance to bring him low, who masters it by exalting himself above all others. He is the antihero we came to know ages ago, in «Eugene Onegin» and «A Hero of Our Time», but this scoundrel is so much better at relishing his life, so much better at entertaining his reader. Carrère, like Limonov, knows exactly what we want.
«International New York Times», 25 november 2014