«What Could Be More Romantic?»
Emmanuel Carrère’s novel Limonov was first published in French in 2011. Recently (and impeccably) translated by John Lambert, it has had an oddly muted reception. In the London Review of Books, Gary Indiana quoted the term «pseudo-biography» that appears on the book’s US dust-jacket, before sliding smoothly towards the judgement that «Limonov’s real life, as it happens, is particularly resistant to the kind of heroic narrative Carrère wishes to mould it into». In the Guardian, Julian Barnes complained that the author had shown insufficient restraint in plundering his subject’s self-aggrandising memoirs; he ended up with the claim that Limonov would have been more successful if it had been written not by Carrère but his mother, the historian Hélène Carrère d’Encausse.
Of course, Eduard Limonov does actually exist. His scandalous, riotous life is real and — after 71 tumultuous years — ongoing. But judging a novel against the content of a Wikipedia page is a bit like judging a painting against a photograph. Fiction has long sought ways of conjuring the effect of reality and using a real person as one’s protagonist is hardly tearing up the rule-book. It does not follow, as Barnes suggested, that the book «isn’t remotely a novel». Who cares whether it reflects the actual details of the actual person’s life, so long as the outcome is interesting — which Limonov certainly is.
The tale opens in 2006. Carrère is in Moscow, attending a ceremony in commemoration of the Dubrovka Theatre fiasco (where innocent hostages were gassed alongside their Chechen captors by Russian security forces in 2002). In the crowd, he recognises a face familiar from the French literary scene of the 1980s. After a couple of secret meetings with the man, who is now a prominent figure in the Russian democratic opposition, the literary die has been cast: «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».
The main body of the book charts this singular life. There are memorable scenes: the young provincial thug on the prowl; the haunted underground poet slashing his wrists outside his girlfriend’s Moscow flat; the émigré tramp having gay sex in Central Park. But the book is not just about Limonov. The prologue introduces another character: Emmanuel Carrère. This character was born and lives in Paris. The son of a historian and a senior executive, he writes books and screenplays and has dreams of acquiring a holiday home in Greece. «From a geographical and a sociocultural point of view», the Carrère-narrator interjects, «you can’t say life has taken me very far from my roots».
It seems fair to say that most of the novel’s readers will feel more akin to the character of Carrère than to Limonov, at least in so far as they will be similarly seduced by the latter’s picaresque life story. Limonov has done things that you never have, and probably never will. Any reader who identifies with the authorial voice, however, would be well advised not to take it totally at face value.
Take this example. In New York, Limonov dates the housekeeper of a millionaire, Steven, who goes on to employ him as a butler. First, there is a scene related from the American’s perspective, in which he tells his household about a local boy’s death from leukaemia: «Jenny [the housekeeper] burst into tears. Eduard, who was in the kitchen as usual, didn’t cry but also seemed moved in his stoic, military way». This is set against the version of events as they appear in Limonov’s memoir: «Let the rich boy die. I’ll be glad even. What the hell, why must I pretend that I’m moved, that I sympathize, that I’m sorry. I’m not moved, I don’t sympathize, and I’m not sorry!»
At this point, the authorial voice pictures Steven reading the passage that we have just read: «What an asshole! Steven thinks, and I think the same thing, and no doubt you do too, reader». He continues: «But I also think that if anything could have been done to save the little boy, especially if that something was hard or dangerous, Eduard would have been the first to attempt it, and he would have given it everything he had». I sometimes think that I am too trusting of untrustworthy narrators, but — after this prismatic section — even I found myself questioning Carrère’s conclusion.
Limonov’s autobiographical accounts of his time in the US capital are picked up by a French publisher, and for a short time he becomes what he always wanted to be: a succès de scandale. This chapter of the book — not, I think, coincidentally — opens with a lengthy description of the life at that point of the character Emmanuel Carrère, replete with lovesickness, failed literary ambitions and a comically catastrophic business venture. When at last we turn to the book’s protagonist, the contrast is evident: Limonov is a star, whose provocative scorn for ruling pieties are «just what we wanted in an era and milieu that, having put both political fervor and the inanity of the pseudohippies behind it, now swore by nothing but cynicism, disillusionment, and a kind of icy good cheer».
There follows a turning point, in the novel and in recent world history: the end of the Cold War. Limonov’s reaction — he is horrified — is presented as a curiosity: how bizarre that this «sexy, sly, funny guy» should mourn the fall of a catatonically repressive state apparatus. Even worse, it soon turns out that he has been fighting in the Balkans, alongside the Serbs, which — for Carrère — is a bit like «siding with the Nazis or the genocidal Hutus». But Limonov’s attitude in fact seems pretty consistent. His motto could well be that of L’Idiot international, the polemical newspaper for which he wrote while in Paris, which proclaimed itself «against everyone who was for something, and for everyone who was against something». The confusion that reigns in this part of the novel is not his; it is that of the narratorial voice and, by extension, that of us, his readers. The problem is this: attack some ruling pieties and you are a hero; attack others and you are a disgrace.
I can imagine Limonov reading this and smiling: yes, the Russian renegade reveals the hypocrisy of bourgeois, educated losers, exactly the kind of people who are likely to read a new novel translated from the French. But I do not think that the focus of the book is our failure to see our attraction to a provocative narcissism through to its logical conclusions. I think it is that very attraction.
While waiting for his first meeting with his protagonist, Carrère offers a reflective remark: «I think to myself that my story is getting off to a good start: hideouts, clandestine movements, what could be more romantic? Only I have a hard time deciding between two versions of this romanticism — is it the romance of the terrorist cell or the resistance network?» For me, the significant aspect of this comment is not the decision — hero or a villain? — but the fact that both options involve romanticism. Throughout, the narratorial voice draws on cultural figures, many of them drawn from Limonov’s presentation of himself. Here, the choice is glossed as «Carlos the Jackal or Jean Moulin?» The obvious question to ask is which of these roles best suits Limonov. But the deeper question, the one that the book really probes, is this: what is it that makes us think of these figures as comparably «romantic»?
Reviews of Limonov have accused the author of naivety, of being swept off his feet by his subject’s melodramatic persona. This is certainly true of Carrère the character, but I am not so sure it is true of Carrère the writer. In my take, the book says less about Limonov and more about readers like you and me, who are struck by the seductive glamour of a rebellious posture, but do not think properly about what this rebelliousness stands for.
«Review31», 29 november 2014