Emmanuel Carrère's Limonov
Limonov, the latest in Emmanuel Carrère’s run of novelistic nonfiction, is a wonderful, weird journey. Translated by John Lambert, this biography of Eduard (Eddie) Limonov, a wild Russian, combines the excitement of a thriller with the deep moral questioning of a French philosopher. Its lengthy subtitle—«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»—is simultaneously hyperbole and understatement. Limonov is an utterly fascinating figure: a violent, unstable bastard, he’s also charming, loyal, and loving. People who enthusiastically agree with him one minute are appalled by his opinions the next. But he’s «someone who didn’t leave people in the lurch, who took care of them if they were sick or unhappy, even if he didn’t have anything good to say about them». Minus the memory loss and the intoxication, his life resembles the Russian drinking binge zapoi, described by Carrère as «serious business»:
Zapoi means going several days without sobering up, roaming from one place to another, getting on trains without knowing where they're headed, telling your most intimate secrets to people you meet by chance, forgetting everything you've said and done: a sort of voyage.
The voyage opens at the funeral of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006. Limonov appears in the distance, dramatically lit as in a film. There follows a flashback, to Carrère’s personal interactions with the man, which segues to the time after the funeral and the author’s musings on who Limonov is in Russia now. Finally, there’s the dive into the full breadth of the man’s life. Carrère uses pacing and shots redolent of film to entice the reader and to accentuate the novelistic dimension of this supposed work of nonfiction.
Limonov is a contradiction, a mishmash of expectations and identities—in short, he’s Russian. There is the Limonov Carrère met and admired in France in the 80s: a talented writer, a «sexy, sly, funny guy, a cross between a sailor on leave and a rock star». Then, the Limonov who emerges after the Soviet Union’s collapse. His friends realize that his railing against Gorbachov was never simply the dark joke they thought it was; this man mourned the fall. Later, fighting for the Serbs in the fractured Balkans, Limonov becomes the enemy. He ends in Russia, leading the National Bolshevik Party. It churns the guts of his old friends in Paris: men marching with shaved heads, dressed in black. Their salute is «half-Nazi (raised arm), half-Communist (balled fist)». Yet when Carrère meets him in 2006-7, he finds another Limonov. This man has become a hero of democracy. He speaks out against Putin. He mourns those civilians gassed to death in the Moscow theater hostage crisis. Through his changes-his stint of homelessness and his time as a butler for a rich New Yorker—Limonov breaches a sense of continuous self.
Carrère’s mission goes far beyond a straightforward arrangement of the facts of Limonov’s life. Carrère wants to expose every corner of his subject, seeking understanding, leaving room for both love and disgust. His shifting perspective becomes ours too, as does his empathy. The authors interrupts his Limonov novel to insert himself, his own life, his own qualms. In a Paris Review interview, he is clear: «I prefer to take responsibility for my own mistakes than take on your reality. I don’t acknowledge the right to speak in your place». Instead, he creates another reality, his own Limonov, one that nevertheless overlaps with the original. A Limonov to go along with Eddie Limonov.
Carrère’s sources are numerous and unclear. They seem to include interviews with Limonov while relying heavily on and Limonov’s writings about himself. That Limonov’s books—It’s Me, Eddie or His Butler’s Story—themselves are a blend of fiction and biography is passed over quickly and quietly. Instead, Carrère refers to Limonov’s prodigious-and supposedly accurate-memories. When we trust Carrère, we’re asked to trust Limonov—not just his facts but his fictions. Yet other sources, various conversations, go unspecified, only hinted at. When Carrère mentions a tertiary character’s thoughts about Limonov, it’s unsettling. He could have interviewed someone else, it could be another other source we don’t know about, it could be part of the fiction of Limonov’s writings. Or it could be entirely the creation of Carrère. There is palpable tension in this style: we want answers but can’t have them. Certainty would interrupt the aesthetic, placing a barrier between Limonov and us.
Amidst all these complications, Carrère starts at the beginning. A man and a woman meet, and a child is soon born. The details of facts matter less than the quality of vividness, of fidelity to an imaginative ideal. The knife carried by a teenaged Limonov was the length of «the breastbone to the heart, which means his switchblade can kill». It becomes clear that privacy will not exist in Carrère's depiction of life. Limonov can’t encountered if parts remain hidden. We read of how he lost his virginity. Determined to take the sex he wants, he is willing to rape, to kill a rival. Instead, the sex is given freely: it is quick and disappointing. This first lover takes the time to explain his youthful sexual inadequacy to him.
Though Limonov is a deeply intimate portrait of one man, it is also a history of Russia. Limonov’s father worked for the secret police, and this is the foundation of the son’s politics. There is pride, respect for authority, as well as shame and embarrassment that his old man had to take orders. Limonov sees those leaders who are beholden to no one and envisions himself becoming one. He searches among gangsters and workers, finding only dead ends. After a suicide attempt, a doctor points him toward the literary crowd. Joining them, he leaves his birth name—Savenko—behind. In 1967, at twenty-five, outgrowing his home city, he moves to Moscow. With his older lover, Anna, he lives the life of a poet and a rebel. These two identities will shift in their shades, but they will endure.
Limonov is a rebel on the side of nobody but himself. He loathes Solzhenitsyn and «admiration paid to [Brodsky] is stolen from him». In small instances and life-changing events, Limonov’s insecurity and pride drive his writing, politics, and pursuit of women. He leaves Anna, his first serious relationship, who is slipping into mental illness. He finds twenty-year-old Tanya, who provokes a fight between Limonov’s competing desires: he wants to be the glorified bum. He wants to live counter to the rich, resentful of money's glamour. He wants punk élan, despising the wealthy yet finding himself continually in their company. Tanya, who is set to marry a rich man, aspires to be a model. When they arrive in America in 1975, she hopes to pose for Vogue. Of his time as a butler Limonov’s writing makes clear how deeply he resents the role, though one imagines he’d have a butler if he had the chance. When we see him in contemporary Russia, he almost does. Out of prison, scorned by the government, he has followers; among them are armed men, thugs, bodyguards.
Limonov’s American exile provides the excuse for a dramatized refresher course in Soviet history. Carrère recreates the events that lead to civilians being allowed to emigrate. Free to go, never to return, they leave, believing glory lies ahead. The departure allows Carrère to do a Dostoyevsky impression. There are tears, fits, and kisses, begging, praise, and dramatic physical gestures, including Anna throwing herself at Tanya's feet. Carrère doesn’t hesitate to let novelistic pacing have the upper hand, when appropriate.
Novelistic nonfiction: the term hedges a definite stance. It is a mischaracterization, an inadequate wave of the hands. The term has been applied to other writers—Erik Larson and Simon Winchester, among others—but Carrère’s project is different. They use the structure of fiction and create a character’s consciousness to get their reader closer to facts. The appeal is history but something less dry than an unimagined recounting. They promise that what you are learning completely is always factually true. They aren’t interpreted as fiction. They are practical, and enrich your knowledge. Carrère withholds that promise. The men of Limonov and The Adversary aren’t brought to life in order to educate his readers in history.
Carrère places high ethical demand on himself. He calls the absence of Truman Capote in In Cold Blood «morally hideous», and by putting himself in his books, questioning the act of his writing, he takes greater responsibility for what he writes about, and the liberties he takes.
In American literary culture, there’s been much resistance to similar liberties. It seems that every year there is a repeat of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces: the falsities behind a memoir come to light and there’s an outraged readership, an ashamed author. Part of the outrage is that the authors promise a single, factual truth. They don’t accept from the beginning how easily that is lost. There still remains a hope for a cleanly drawn and impenetrable line between fiction and nonfiction. This desire is a reason so many books are published with that little tag «a novel» on the cover.
What is so bewildering about this reluctance is that in many ways, people have accepted that we do indeed live in a world of layered realities. In literature, with the success of post-modernism, readers are accustomed to protagonists sharing a name with their authors, to facts of fiction matching up with facts of biography. That friction is one that readers embrace, the confusion of fiction towards concrete reality. Its risks, the tensions of wondering what is authorial confession secreted within the imaginative are a form of play, and we’re accustomed to it. Even further back, there’s Daniel Defoe, who guised his fiction under nonfiction to bring respectability to it, «The Editor believes the thing to be a just History of Fact; neither is there any Appearance of Fiction in it». All of this moves in the opposite direction as Limonov, and none do it so casually and comfortably.
Carrère moves a «History of Fact» closer to fiction in order to lend it legitimacy and life, while also making the use of biography, and autobiography, in fiction more than a postmodernist game. If a reader is told that something is fiction, then an author can add as much nonfiction as they like, and it’s not objectionable, only exciting. The other way around though, is the source of trouble, and so often our culture wants the proper label in literature before accepting it.
Carrère acts as corrective to both. The American literary world could be freed from the shackles of one reality in nonfiction, and when multiplicity is accepted, it can be so truth is sought, rather than spectacle. As part of contemporary life, this tenuousness of reality is something that can be terrifying. In Carrère's early novel The Mustache, fear wins completely. A man has worn a mustache for years. Then he shaves it, and everyone he knows insists he’s never had one. At first, he believes it’s a prank orchestrated by his wife. She refuses to back down, the discrepancies mount, his reality against hers, his sanity dissolves, and horror sets in. The protagonist’s attempts to reach certainty with logic lead only to more traps. Reality may be shifting against the protagonist, he may being going insane, she may be the mad one, pushing a joke well past its limits, but it doesn’t matter; the result is the same: a man defeated. With Limonov, Carrère also sees biographical gaps multiply. But there is no defeat, and Limonov, still strong, reaches his hoped-for destiny. The gaps in his lives are like The Mustache’s gaps in reality but they are opportunities, not traps.
As Limonov relocates from Moscow to New York to Paris to Sarajevo, he changes appearance, just as his fortunes ride a wave of highs and lows. In the New York of the late seventies, Tanya and Limonov struggle. Porno theatres are places of romance. One émigré he knows lives in a room full of dog shit—he doesn't own a dog. In this place he writes all day, never sharing it, fearing his neighbors spying on him, as if he still lived in the USSR. The more absurd, the truer to life. It’s in this New York that Limonov hits a new bottom. Tanya sleeps around, he nearly kills her, and she leaves him. Devastated by love turned toxic, his writing dries up. Success seems unattainable. Out of this vicious circle, a focal point emerges: getting fucked in the ass.
That wasn’t meant to be simply crude. It leads to the spirit of the book: excess tied with intimate sentimentality. One of Limonov’s constants is to be inconstant, to make sudden decisions clearly and forcefully. Limonov’s solution is simply stated, but deeply complicated: «He needs to be Tanya to replace Tanya». His solution is rational and effective: he penetrates himself with a candle while masturbating, and the scene is graphic, but poetic. Following this, a gay Russian introduces him to a «wealthy and elegant» older man. Both end the night embarrassed. This is for the best: there would be less soul in something unoriginal like being the young boyfriend in the bedroom of a rich man. But through the experiences afterwards he is reborn. He happily collects his welfare checks, barely scraping by. Limonov identifies as a homosexual, but «it’s more a style he’s adopted». It’s artifice, or it’s sincere: it’s both. More importantly, he’s writing again, quickly and consistently, and soon has a book on his hands—It’s Me, Eddie.
The New York period is but one of many; their common denominator is that Limonov wants his life to be like The Count of Monte Cristo, where even his miserable experiences must have beauty. Later, in 2001, when Limonov is in Russian prison, Carrère shows us a strong hero who «took pleasure in every moment». But novelistic nonfiction has a constriction that fiction does not: Carrère cannot create his own plots, he can only conform to a given outline. Carrère must ignore the restraint of fiction that advises «your hero can hit rock bottom once, it’s even recommended, but a second time is one too many». When Limonov plunges down again and again, Carrère is obliged to follow him. And yet Limonov does practically live the adventure genre, though liberated from the banality of plot. Biography becomes a jungle gym, Carrère swinging from bar to bar, propelled by Limonov's nonstop zapoi.
Limonov keeps writing about his life. After New York, he finds a publisher in France, and moves again. It’s his most successful period working as an author. In a post-punk milieu, his Soviet aesthetic is more than welcome. From there, it’s on to the ’90s Balkans and the adventure that is the life of a soldier. It’s a chance to believe in a cause, but also revel in the brutality of warfare; then, a return to Russia to launch the bizarre fascist-democratic protest movement. On and on, the shifts in plot continue. But since this is an adventure narrative, we should be wary of further spoilers.
As the narrative wraps up, Carrère ponders what it all adds up to. He must end the biography of an open-ended life. He seeks a conclusion that defines a man and asks others: is Limonov a good man? Even as he questions, Carrère seems to think the telling of a life is enough, the act meaningful. The author of Limonov aligns himself with the one conviction everyone holds about Limonov:
You’ve got to say one thing for this fascist: he only likes, and has only ever liked, the underdogs. The skinny against the fat, the poor against the rich, the self-confessed assholes—who are rare—against the legion of the virtuous. And no matter how erratic his trajectory might seem, it’s coherent in that he has always, absolutely always, been on their side.
In Limonov, Carrère found a subject screaming for an exploration in nonfiction liberated from the restraints we normally put on it. His is a nonfictional life stranger than fiction, mostly through his own efforts. He recreates himself as necessary, and that a person is capable of this is a familiar postmodernist idea, but that embraces it so confidently, and with his gut instead of his mind, so it is less a philosophy and more a way of life. Carrère takes hold of this life. He carries Limonov further, creating a unified narrative Limonov. No one could be blamed if they dreamt of the same thing. A story of ourselves that brings to life a new self, full of beauty and blemishes, highs and lows, but which isn’t beholden to literal reality. Without resorting to lies, which can come back and ruin us, this possibility holds dear another true self. Postmodernism open the world to uncertainty and the multiplicity of the self, of reality, but Carrère wants to add realism, wants to ground us again, without denying what we’ve been exposed to. In this version of writing and life, what we discover is thrilling and honest.
«Music & Literature», 2 december 2014