The prologue of Limonov places Emmanuel Carrère in Moscow, circa 2006, at a commemoration ceremony outside the Dubrovka Theatre, where in 2002 the Nord-Ost hostage crisis ended when the Russian military pumped Fentanyl gas into the theatre, indiscriminately killing well over a hundred hostages along with their Chechen captors. ‘In the centre of a circle, dominating the crowd, standing back and yet still attracting attention’, Carrère glimpses a vaguely familiar figure, holding a candle like everyone else. This nebulous entity ‘exuded importance’. The flickering candle suddenly lights his profile: ‘I recognised Limonov.’ The scene-setting strikes a ponderously cinematic note. ‘How long had it been since I’d thought of him?’ Carrère asks himself, or the reader, before whisking us back to the early 1980s, when Edward Limonov – Ukrainian émigré poet, recently down and out in New York – arrives in Paris, ‘crowned by the success of his scandalous novel, It’s Me, Eddie’. Limonov is a comet blazing across the local literary cosmos ‘where I’, Carrère tells us, ‘was making my own timid debut’.
Carrère and his timidity figure importantly in what Limonov’s US jacket copy calls ‘a pseudo-biography’, in which passages from the subject’s life story are followed by parallel scenes from the author’s own. At odd moments Carrère slips into Limonov’s skin, assuming the role of ventriloquist. More often he interjects timely comparisons and contrasts: ‘Like him, I admired the Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.’ Carrère had to start wearing glasses ‘at the age of eight. So did Edward, but he suffered for it more than I did.’ Self-inscription has featured in Carrère’s work since the true-crime book The Adversary (2001), which opens with the news that ‘while Jean-Claude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was with mine in a parent-teacher meeting,’ and sporadically evokes other similarities between author and subject. His habit of comparing himself with the people he writes about is too reflective to be mistaken for Maileresque narcissism. Rather, it suggests an internal probe designed to measure his own deficiencies of empathy, weak resolve, blurry motives and low testosterone levels. He’s inclined to depict himself, deprecatingly, as the slightly above average product of a lycée-trained, French upper-middle-class background ‘that might have been used to illustrate the theses of Pierre Bourdieu’. Despite this insightful modesty, he assumes his readers share precisely this background and its code of sentiments, including its delicate political conservatism and fondness for fatuous gender stereotypes.
It’s hard to write about yourself. It seems strange to do so in a biography, even a pseudo-biography, of someone else. The relevance of the authorial ‘I’ to Limonov is opaque, its effect subtly coercive. The eponymous anti-hero’s saga raises so many contentious matters that the author’s running gloss assumes a strangely prescriptive character, pre-empting the reader’s wherewithal to draw independent conclusions from reported facts. Carrère reminds us, in a practised style of calculated understatement, that he’s a firmly established writer in France, himself of Russian ancestry, who also makes films and has recently shot a documentary near Limonov’s home town. (He also wrote the pilot episodes of the astonishing TV series The Returned.) If we didn’t already know, we learn that his mother is the eminent historian Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, whose bestselling Decline of an Empire predicted long before anyone else the collapse of the Soviet Union. He has grown-up sons, with whom he sometimes collaborates. He is serious, well-mannered, discernibly anxious to make considered judgments and to do the right thing. His childhood imagination was fired by Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, W.W. Jacobs’s story ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ – and there’s still a well-behaved French schoolboy inside him who delights in weird tales of human oddity, pirate ships, revenants and Captain Nemo. In a constellation of freakish stories, Edward Limonov’s is not out of place.
As his own recent memoirs record, Carrère is a romantic monogamist (though even a devoted reader has trouble distinguishing between the various women with whom he plans to spend the rest of his life). He’s more inclined towards family cosiness than Limonov but they share a consumerist appraisal of their partners as status-enhancing accessories. (‘She was a knockout,’ Carrère reports of his first long-term girlfriend, ‘with curves like a Playboy model and a way of dressing that left nothing to the imagination.’ His colleagues at the Institut d’études politiques in Paris are duly envious. Limonov grades the women in his life like a report card, by letter.) Unlike Limonov, Carrère is mild and bookish. But the few real audacities he confesses indicate a shared obtuseness about women. Carrère’s mother implores him not to betray painful family secrets; in My Life as a Russian Novel he proceeds to spill them all, secure in his belief that it will ultimately prove therapeutic for her, though she hardly sounds like someone who needs therapy. In the same book, he springs what he imagines will be a delightful surprise on his current girlfriend by publishing a richly detailed account of their intimacies in Le Monde. He’s utterly bewildered when she leaves him after reading it.
Carrère isn’t much impressed by Limonov’s writing talent. ‘But what a life! What energy!’ he exclaims when he encounters It’s Me, Eddie, Limonov’s first ‘fictional memoir’, tastefully published in France, by Jean-Jacques Pauvert, as The Russian Poet Prefers Big Blacks. While living in New York, Limonov couldn’t find an American publisher but he got one soon after leaving: It’s Me, Eddie (1983) was soon followed in English by His Butler’s Story (1987), and Memoirs of a Russian Punk (1990). Limonov’s Russian bibliography lists more than a dozen subsequent titles (presumably Carrère has read them all). The first half of Limonov rearranges the early memoirs into a linear chronology, and – with various elisions, compressions, shifts of emphasis – recounts exactly the same episodes, along with Carrère’s autobiographical reflections and stray pieces of extrinsic material. Apart from a section about Limonov’s years in Paris, to which Carrère was usually a distant witness, and some minor research in Moscow, there’s no reason to suppose the second half of Limonov isn’t similarly derived from Limonov’s later memoirs, interviews, newspaper and magazine articles. Hence the ventriloquial effect. Sometimes, after a hefty chunk of storytelling, Carrère mentions ‘the book from which I draw the material in this chapter’; at one point he tries to imagine what Limonov’s former boss thought when he read His Butler’s Story, of which Limonov has just delivered a twenty-page abstract. In at least one sense, Limonov is truly innovative: never before, as far as I know, has paraphrase been taken this seriously as a literary form. As in his pseudo-biography of Philip K. Dick, I Am Alive and You Are Dead (2004), Carrère has largely relied on already published sources, Limonov’s extensive self-portraiture first and foremost. He seldom questions Limonov’s veracity, except when it would be howlingly absurd not to – at which point he recommends that we suspend judgment.
Carrère says that he was driven to write Limonov because he perceived a drastic chasm between the Limonov he saw in Russia a few years ago and the one he’d briefly known in Paris in the early 1980s. Again, it’s like the expository montage in movies: ‘I have a hard time reconciling these images: the writer-hoodlum I knew in the past, the hunted guerrilla, the responsible politician, the star the magazines’ “People” sections write gushy articles about.’ A bit later: ‘I thought to myself, 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 … Something, yes, but what?’ On the latter score, Limonov undoubtedly does say something, though whether it’s as revealing as Carrère imagines is arguable at best. He describes an oatmeal-grey childhood in Dzerzhinsk in Ukraine in the last years of Stalin; precocious teenage thuggery, precocious fondness for writing poetry; after exhausting the bohemian possibilities of Dzerzhinsk, dicey underground survival in Moscow, where he achieves minor notoriety; in the mid-1970s, thanks to relaxed emigration policies, flight to New York with an aspiring fashion model wife. There, the thrill and misery of being taken up and promptly dropped by the beau monde; welfare-hotel subsistence after his wife leaves him; sexual liaisons with black men met in the streets. His brief ‘decision’ to turn gay facilitates entrée into a clique of florid Russian émigrés, who circulate the manuscript he’s been spending his days writing in Central Park. Adventitiously, he becomes the lover of a Sutton Place hostess who turns out to be the live-in maid; when she leaves him for a boyfriend in California, the fabulously rich actual owner of the place hires him as a butler. This leads to an encounter with Yevgeny Yevtushenko, whom he despises, but who’s bowled over by It’s Me, Eddie and recommends it to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who considers publishing it at City Lights but decides not to. At one of Limonov’s many rock-bottom ‘turning points’, Pauvert comes to the rescue. Limonov moves to Paris.
I’m skipping a lot: numerous women, proper names, the novelty of reading a clueless description of New York’s high cultural circles in the late 1970s. Also Limonov’s intellectual nihilism, his boundless self-pity disguised as principled hatred of everything. His fixation on Joseph Brodsky as the mortal enemy blocking his route to world fame. And the banality of Limonov’s ‘scandalous’ books, suggestive of Henry Miller’s, if Miller were viciously bloody-minded and thought Stalin was the greatest thing since apricot vodka. Brodsky put it well: It’s Me, Eddie ‘could have been written not by Dostoevsky or even Raskolnikov, but instead by Svidrigailov, the most perverse, violent, sick character in Crime and Punishment’.
Much follows. Paris in the heyday of Le Palace and Les Bains Douches. Beaucoup de publicity, in outfits of his own design. Boozy round-the-clock editorial covens on the place des Vosges, at Jean-Edern Hallier’s place, for L’Idiot international, a scurrilous rag devoted to slandering human rights groups, Mitterrand, Serge Gainsbourg et al. Like Limonov, L’Idiot ‘was against everyone who was for something, and for everyone who was against something’. When Limonov ‘started disappearing to the Balkans for long periods of time’, resurfacing on BBC television in the hills above Sarajevo, strafing the city below with an AK-47, the Parisian glitterati who’d considered him, as Carrère puts it, ‘our barbarian, our thug’ abruptly understood that he’d meant business. Carrère and his friends could have gleaned this earlier, if they had read Limonov’s articles in L’Idiot international – or his books, for that matter. In any case, Limonov’s saga plunges downhill from there. He continues writing memoir-novels, some of them widely read in Russia. But his chief activities are now well-publicised political provocations, and rulership of a militant cult drawn from disaffected young fans scattered across Russia: anaemically neo-Nazi skinheads, would-be rock guitarists, disgruntled delivery boys, runaways of both sexes whose dream date is Charles Manson. With the self-avowed fascist ‘visionary’ Aleksandr Dugin, Limonov founds the National Bolshevik Party, an amalgam of Nazi mysticism, nostalgia for the USSR in the 1930s and anarchist incoherence. He inserts himself in the Chechen war, in pro-Russian agitation in the Baltics. Arrested during a field trip ‘to explore the possibility of destabilising Kazakhstan’, he serves several years in three successive prisons, his notoriety considerable enough by this time for TV cameras to await his release. At the beginning and end of Limonov, he’s aligned himself, with exquisite insincerity, with the anti-Putin, democratic opposition and Drugaya Rossiya, Gary Kasparov’s coalition.
Carrère relates all this in brilliantly cogent detail, capturing complicated nuances of post-Soviet political and social history. It would be plausible to see Limonov as exemplifying a personality type uniquely produced by ‘everything that’s happened since the Second World War’ (crumbling ideologies, accelerated history, repeated displacements) if he wasn’t just as legibly the spawn of more timeless phenomena like early exposure to violence, social deprivation and neurotic family dynamics: the gifted malcontent who feels cancelled out by what passes around him and resolves to take revenge on its pieties and the people it rewards, believes in nothing but himself and, like Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov, a failed opportunist of limitless cynicism whose gentler sentiments are only evident when he’s looking in a mirror, knows it’s preferable to be a monster than a nobody.
Carrère sees it differently: Limonov’s life, he thinks, has a real yet incredible trajectory resembling the arc of a compelling work of fiction. But Limonov’s real life, as it happens, is particularly resistant to the kind of heroic narrative Carrère wishes to mould it into – i.e. the story of a man of rigorously uncompromising values (loyalty, honesty etc) at odds with hypocrisy, whose quixotic virtue sometimes leads him to do contemptible things. Carrère’s efforts to persuade the reader of this eventually appear desperate, even grotesque. He fudges an episode involving the humiliation of a Muslim prisoner in Pale, where Limonov was playing soldier with the Serbs, by telling us the incident is ambiguous, open to different interpretations: is the footage showing Limonov firing a machine gun into downtown Sarajevo similarly questionable – a trick of film editing? Elsewhere, reproducing a text Limonov wrote after watching the execution of the Ceausescus on television (‘they’ve given us, unrehearsed, a scene worthy of the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles. Journeying together towards eternity, simple and majestic, Elena and Nicolae Ceausescu have joined the immortal lovers of world history’), Carrère tries to soften the effect of a fascist panegyric by suggesting that Limonov had been thinking of his then wife, ‘of his dream of growing old with her and dying by her side’, and by noting his own discomfort while watching the video. Most people who saw it felt uncomfortable, but only a special sort of person could have imagined they were watching ‘immortal lovers of world history’ die.
What Carrère offers to support his notion of the ‘good’ Limonov is anecdotal and thin. He finds Limonov highly intelligent and personable tête à tête; I’m sure he is, and so what? The saintly prison behaviour Carrère reports sounds more like survival instinct than selfless altruism, though maybe Limonov found himself in the one place where by helping others he could become as important as he thought he was. But it’s straining to offer as anything besides idle chitchat the pe0ple Carrère questioned – ‘more than thirty’ of them (‘whose cars I’ve been in … because anyone and everyone moonlights as a taxi driver’ in Moscow), along with ‘friends you could safely call Russian yuppies’, none of whom ‘said a word against’ Limonov. Carrère would like Limonov to be considered as good a writer as Malaparte, who could get away with being an ideological strumpet and all over the map politically because his writing transcends any damning facts about his life. Something similar can be said on behalf of Céline, Jünger, Hamsun, Drieu la Rochelle, even Gottfried Benn, as well as numerous committed communist writers like Henri Barbusse, all of whom landed on the wrong side of history, but escaped their own ugliness or lack of prescience in all, or at least part, of their work. But Limonov isn’t even as interesting or talented as Pitigrilli.