“All Russia has become nomadic” declared writer Zinaida Shakhovskaya, in response to the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. During the ensuing civil war some 136,000 Russians sought the safety of Western Europe, leaving the ports in Yalta and Odessa for new lives in Berlin, Paris, and New York. This motley band of émigré’s was composed of liberal intellectuals, anti-Bolshevik dissidents, Tsarists, former aristocrats, and dirt-poor writers, who formed their own communities away from Bolshevik Russia. Ernest Hemmingway observed that among the crowds gathered in Montparnasse cafés, that Russian intellectuals were waiting for something “wonderful to happen”, to some it felt as if history could be plucked from thin air.
Yet over time a wider generational divide emerged between the established writers who lamented their lost readership and younger upstarts who were drawn to new trends in French writing. Ivan Bunin, famed in pre-revolutionary Russia, was keen to uphold the survival of traditional Russian literature against the French influenced modernists (as well as being opposed to the socialist realist writers now popular in the Soviet Union). For him, this tradition was pressingly political: “Russian literature is our Holy Writ, our Bible – it is not books, but the Book, not words, but logos. The logos of the national spirit.” However, over time, as Russia itself became ever more unrecognisable to the world before 1917, the question of nationality became ever fraught with tension. Vladimir Nabokov, himself caught in this move west, called these new communities “compact colonies”, no longer quite Russian nor entirely assimilated, emigre existence instead acquired “a certain air of fragile unreality”.
This act of writing for reclamation, was itself tinged by a nostalgia for the ever distant homeland. The eccentric writer Alexey Remizov, who had emigrated to Paris in 1923, wrote stories of supernatural happenings about his inner fantasies. The radical writer Ilya Ehrenburg wrote how he “indulged in oddities rather than in involved abstractions”, bringing with him to Paris “three handfuls of Russian earth” in a keep-safe box to take with him everywhere he went. However, not all were consciously keen to re-vitalise the pre-revolutionary nation, no matter how far nostalgia drew other writers back. As the poet Zinaida Gippius would answer to the question “Russia without freedom or freedom without Russia?”, it was preferable to have “Freedom without Russia, and that is why I am here and not there”.
One such writer who was here, rather than there, was Yuri Felsen (a pseudonym for his birth name of Nikolai Berngardovich Freidenstein). A Russian Jewish émigré and writer, he followed much the same route West as his fellow countrymen. The son of a physician from St Petersburg, he graduated from law school in 1912, and after the revolution first emigrated to Riga, then Berlin before finally settling in Paris. We know very little about his own biography and have only a few photographs; what remains is made up of fragments from compatriots, friends, and fellow writers. What we can construct of his own identity is largely vague and inconsistent, a triptych of unread works and passing mentions in memoirs and diaries. In his memoir Elysian Fields, fellow emigré writer Vasily Yanovsky wrote a portrait of Felsen, that he “composed long and difficult sentences”, smoked Gauloise Jaune cigarettes, and sipped hot chocolate instead of coffee. Felsen’s deportation and death at Auschwitz in 1943 saw the burning of much of his personal correspondence and leftover papers, leaving much of his legacy to be a complete mystery. Bryan Karetnyk’s translation is a welcome reassertion of this forgotten writer, but one which still leaves open questions to Felsen’s ultimately unknowable identity.
In Paris, Felsen wrote three novels which largely concern the obsessions of a developing young writer in the 1920’s and 30’s. He was known more widely among the younger Russian avant-garde as the ‘Russian Proust’, in large part due to his presentation of themes like desire and jealousy, and his extremely lengthy sentences. Felsen had intended his novels to be combined into a much larger work entitled “repetition of a trodden path”, but this project was left incomplete at the time of his death. Despite the epithet, Felsen marks himself as different to Proust, and much of the inner conflict he examines in his own obsessions relate to the self rather than his wider environment. Writing in literaturnyi Smotr (literary review) in 1940, Nabokov declaimed that while his work was “real literature pure and honest”, the lengthy prose “drags the reader behind him”, searching and then abandoning structures, only to hold onto them and continue clause structures without purpose. Yanovsky painted a similarly unsympathetic portrait of Felsen’s work, calling his prose “a grey drawing with a sharp pencil, marked by boring precision”.
Deceit is written as a series of diary entries following an anonymous (but most likely autobiographical) sketch of Felsen’s experience of 1920s Paris. We follow a young writer's interior monologue which explores an obsession with an unattainable woman, and the anguish that he undergoes in his pursuit of loyola Heard. Felsen copies other Russian writers in choosing this mode of narration, like Gogol’s Diary of a Madman, or Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, the first person diary enables the use of inner monologue for intense psychological introspection. In this way, the diary pulls us inward, with much of the novel taking place in long multi clause sentences through which the narrator outpours his every thought and consideration. However, despite this psychological depth, the narrator's identity remains ever vague, and even rather depthless. He can be at once a satirical literary aesthete cramped into bistros with “a volume of poetry and old notebooks”, railing against contemporary writings “combination of names and words”. Or, on the other hand, a relatively sedate businessman, and even a devious womaniser. This is by no means a stable identity - in reaching for a self “buried as it is under layers of women, books and cafés”, Felsen projects a narrator who is almost strangely detached from anything but the act of writing, projecting through the diary an almost satirical high romanticism which jars with an almost obsessive cruelty to Felsen’s narrator.
Described by his contemporary Lazar Kelberinas as the “most non-soviet émigré writer”, Felsen refused to orient himself temporally in the 1930’s, largely ignoring the turbulent political climate he found himself within. Deceit is detached almost completely from contemporary events: Paris and Russia are mentioned in only brief passing;politics and history are only even mediated by the characters our narrator encounters. For example, Lyolya remarks the changes that the isolation of emigration has wrought : “everything on our side of the Russian border seems somehow closer, more tangible, whereas it’s as if what’s on the other side has been taken away from us for ever”. Instead, Felsen is more interested in unpacking his inner thoughts towards love, rather than dissecting the nature of Lenin’s revolution or the broader sense he feels of his otherworldliness from the Russo-Soviet sphere. This detachment makes his characters appear almost non-Russian - seemingly detached from their nationality. Describing Ida Ivanovna, a fellow émigré the narrator meets and begins a relationship with, the very process of leaving hides her origins, “as if she has been stripped of her nationality – a common occurrence among Russians abroad”. To leave is to admit to a kind of politics (a rejection of the Soviet Union), yet what's constructed in its place remains ever ephemeral and unreal.
For Felsen the purpose of writing itself remains inconsistent. It can be at once confessional and obsessive, yet at other times purely deceptive. Within this paradox the purpose of writing becomes one of feverish high-ideals: to “save from oblivion another special time in my life”, to save from oblivion the narrator’s, and by extension Felsen’s, own legacy within the text we read. And yet it is also a text which is consciously critical of its own relentlessly naive protagonist. Felsen’s attempt as a narrator to grasp onto a sense of fraught identity, and the obsessive untangling of his self-indulgent attitude towards this unrequited love, remains ever unresolved. Instead Felsen’s narrator is neither an accomplished writer nor an accomplished lover; he sits in his unrequited lover’s bedroom after returning from dancing to stop a “lonely night of jealousy”. He reads Les Nourritures Terrestres by André Gide, seeking help “in certain desperate fictions”, while his best friend makes love to the person upon whom he has devoted some 200 pages unravelling his deepest thoughts about.
Where does the real Deceit lie? Felsen offers no true conclusion. In his own, his narrator deceives his own self, his nationality, and apart from occasional place-names, the sense of being in Paris itself. Contemporary critic Vladislav Khodaesvich saw promise in the “microscopic investigation of feelings” that Felsen approached in his work, yet perceived the psychological suffering behind the stylistic complexity and artistic flourishes, the multi-clause sentences that conceal rather than illuminate. Though seeking artistic truth, Felsen’s elusive narrator instead leaves behind far more unanswered questions, for the novel conceals as it unravels, thus confounding the reader’s own temporality.
By Charlie Taylor
Deceit, Yuri Felsen tr. Bryan Karetnyk, 2022. Prototype Press.