23 June 2022

Rediscovering ‘the Russian Proust’

Posted by Bryan Karetnyk

Yuri Felsen was one of the leading writers of his generation, a significant voice in the Russian diaspora in interwar Paris. But when he was arrested by the Nazis, deported and killed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz in 1943, his work was almost lost forever. With his collected works republished in Russian in 2012, and the first English translation of Deceit (in fact, the first full translation of his work into any language) published this week, his legacy is beginning to be restored. Bryan Karetnyk, translator of the new edition from Prototype Publishing, introduces the writer and his work.

On Saturday, 13 February 1943, a crowd of 998 men, women and children clambered out of the dilapidated boxcars and down onto the Judenrampe, the unloading platform for new arrivals at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The transport had been organised by Adolf Eichmann’s department of the Reich Security Main Office, which at the time was busily overseeing the deportations of foreign-national Jews from occupied France. This was the forty-seventh such group to endure the two-day journey from Drancy, a transit camp situated in one of Paris’s north-eastern suburbs. En route, three people—two men and one woman—had tried to escape but failed.

It is the sabbath, and among the crowd, a tall, elegant, slightly stooping figure, noted for his ‘Aryan’ good looks and fair though greying hair, joins the men’s queue, awaiting selection. For those sent to the right, what lies in store is the dehumanising process of registration, tattooing, disinfecting and, ultimately, hard labour in the typhus-ridden camp. For those sent to the left: oblivion. Though the figure, whose documentation lists his profession as ‘homme de lettres’, is only forty-eight, the SS doctor examining him notices his slight stoop—the result of an affliction affecting the ligaments of the vertebrae—and duly directs him to the left. Unfit for work, and so, in these brutal days, for life. That night, a little after the sabbath ends, the figure, along with 801 others, is led off to one of two bunkers that lie to the north of the ramp, converted farmhouses hidden from view by woodland. We cannot be certain whether it was in ‘the little red house’ or ‘the little white house’ that he met his end (although it was most likely in the latter), but we can be sure that late that same night his murdered body would be borne out and disposed of in a nearby mass grave.

Yuri Felsen’s death plunged him into near-total obscurity. Flight from Soviet tyranny early in life had put him at a significant disadvantage, obliging him to ply his Russophone art in European exile. Writing ‘difficult’ prose and being labelled ‘a writer’s writer’ had sunk his chances for posthumous fame lower still. His terrible end was followed by the mysterious disappearance of his archive, and so, in addition to what he published, only a handful of his papers survived and now scarcely any photographs of him remain. And yet, here was a man who in his heyday had been held up alongside Vladimir Nabokov as one of the most gifted and distinctive writers of the young Russian diaspora, an author who had embarked on one of the most ambitious literary projects undertaken in Russia Abroad, an artist who had achieved the seemingly miraculous: accolades from every quarter of the infamously factionalised greats of émigré literary criticism (and, perhaps most astonishingly of all, from Nabokov himself). According to Georgy Adamovich, the doyen of Russian Montparnasse, Felsen’s prose ‘left behind a light for which there is no name’—and indeed, for all that fate tried to efface the man, he made an indelible, if now faint, mark.

Felsen was born in 1894 in St Petersburg, the then capital of the vast Russian Empire. However, if you were to search in the archives of the city today, you would find no record of any such individual, for his real name was in fact Nikolai Freudenstein. The eldest son of a distinguished Jewish family (his father was a doctor and his extended family held influential connections at Court), he was a brilliant student who won a coveted place to read law at Petrograd Imperial University, graduating there in 1916, as he would later claim with a mix of irony and self-deprecation, ‘without the least vocation for it’.

In the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, he and his immediate family fled to Riga, in newly independent Latvia, where he soon made his first forays into print, writing feuilletons for the local press. Keen to ‘rejoin’ Russia, however, he journeyed on in the summer of 1923 to Weimar Berlin, a city abuzz with cultural renaissance and hyperinflation, and then, towards the end of that same year, to Paris, the self-styled capital of the diaspora. Settling there, he engaged in what he archly termed ‘independent ventures’ (which is to say he dabbled in the stock market and illicitly traded foreign currency). He likewise wasted little time ensconcing himself in the literary scene and, having metamorphosed into the littérateur Yuri Felsen, promptly set about launching his career as a writer in earnest.

He debuted under his artfully ambiguous pseudonym in 1926, but it was the publication of Deceit in 1930 that consolidated his reputation as a serious writer. It was this work, moreover, that marked the first step in a grand literary opus that would, by the time of his death, encompass two further novels, Happiness (1932) and Letters about Lermontov (1935), as well as seven interlinking short stories, each of which develops the project episodically, jigsaw-like, all the while advancing the same long-suffering hero’s romantic, psychological and artistic evolution towards his literary vocation.

Taking the form of a diary, Deceit presents its readers with a sustained psychological self-portrait of a young Russian émigré, a neurasthenic and aspiring author whose oft-thwarted amorous pursuits of the elusive Lyolya Heard provide the grounds for so many beautifully wrought extemporisations on love, letters and human frailty. In its opening pages, readers—like voyeurs, party to the unnamed diarist’s most intimate thoughts and burgeoning infatuation—accompany him as he goes about the city of his exile, making enraptured preparations for the materialization of his fantasy, casting light not only on his eagerness, dreaminess and poetic inclinations, but also on his compulsive desire to analyse his surroundings and self. Yet as the bright optimism of the opening passages gives way to darker emotions, these ravishing, beguiling flights of scrutiny soon betray subconscious slips, solipsisms that hint at his more monomaniacal tendencies, which at times blind him, for all his sophistication of thought, from the true nature of his circumstances. So begins an exquisite game arranged by Felsen, wherein it falls to the reader, while delighting in the narrator’s observational acumen and linguistic bravura, to second-guess the essence of what really lies behind those descriptions, and to plumb the depths of deceit in all its manifold variety.

The baroque, tortuous prose style that Felsen contrived to give expression to this elaborate counterpoint of thought, emotion and subliminal motivation immediately distinguished his voice from any other. ‘Whosoever reads his works will agree,’ wrote Adamovich, ‘that they contain poetic vision and psychological revelation. You cannot confuse them with any other book.’ It was, moreover, the combination of this unique style with the novel’s psychoanalytical motifs and its intense focus on a love affair whose cruelty fuels the narrator’s creative faculties that ultimately earned for Felsen, not without justification, the epithet ‘the Russian Proust’.

Yet while Proust and his philosophy of love, art and jealousy may figure most conspicuously among Felsen’s artistic models, Deceit has at the same time a broader eye to the literary fixations of its day. On the surface, at least, the novel resonates with the leading literary genre of the diaspora: the human document. Confessional, deeply psychological, drawing copiously on autobiography, the movement prefigured autofiction by almost half a century: militating for the documentary at the expense of fiction, it sought to make an art of the author’s own reality. And sure enough, the narrator’s self-portrait in Deceit broadly accords with what is known of Felsen’s own biography: the dissipation of a life spent in exile; the drip-drip of economic precarity and the eternal pursuit of money; the engagement in various commercial enterprises and obscure ‘independent ventures’; the string of romantic liaisons crowned by an impossible love affair with a married woman who appears and disappears with tormenting regularity. Yet while Felsen may share all of this with his fictional narrator, he is careful to keep them on parallel tracks, never letting their lines cross. For a diary, the work is remarkably short on specifics: we never learn, for instance, where or even in which part of Paris the narrator and the object of his romantic attentions live; though the work is strewn with all manner of cafés and restaurants, not a single one is ever mentioned by name; it is only by circumstance that we deduce the lovers’ first encounter must take place at the Gare de l’Est; and indeed, all the expected particulars of day-to-day life—details of work, money, acquaintances, the narrator’s very habits and modus vivendi—are more often than not elided, glossed over, traduced only to what immediately touches on the mercurial and enigmatic Lyolya, who, as she is glimpsed at from every angle and distance over the course of the novel, forever remains the epicentre of the narrator’s psychological and emotional world. By obscuring these details that would otherwise risk tethering the work to its time and place, Felsen goes beyond the human document as such, discarding the ephemerality of the mundane so as to look unswervingly beneath, at the hidden workings of the psyche. Stripped of its topicality, the timeless work of diarising an individual’s inner world—hinted at so elegantly by the discreet omission of the date’s final digit in the very first entry—propels the novel beyond the mere documentary and even led one perceptive critic to view the work not so much as an exercise in deceit so much as a study in the possibilities of truth itself.

Though it may seem frivolous, perhaps even antique, to have written of love in years so bleakly marked by a darkening landscape of social upheaval and political polarisation, of proliferating fascism and fanatical communism, years in which the émigrés’ dreams of a return to Russia were dashed irrevocably, it would be a mistake to think of Felsen’s art as the product of a nostalgic romanticism. For him, writing his latter-day ars amatoria was as timely as it was urgent; it was an act of subtle political defiance, one that sought to reaffirm the supremacy of the individual in an age when ever-newer regimes were forcing more and more private citizens to submit to the collective. ‘I do not know to which movement to ascribe myself,’ Felsen muses in an autobiographical fragment. ‘I should like to belong to the school that […] for me represents a kind of neo-romanticism, the exultation of the individual and love set in opposition to Soviet barbarism and dissolution in the collective.’ Refusing to enter into dialogue with brutes, he instead developed a writing that was anti-totalitarian in essence, championing love, artistic freedom and individuality, and seeking to give them rich, lucid expression at a time of political pressures that would sooner deny them, at a time when so many of his contemporaries were desperately seeking out new ways in which art could provide adequate response to mounting tyranny.

The power of art to defend the humane was an article of faith to which Felsen clung to the end of his days. On the eve of the war that would ultimately take his life, he responded to critics who, in those dreadful years, maintained that it was no time to write of love or sentiment, of individual need. ‘I cannot fight directly—my sole act is that of observation,’ he declared, ‘but we are defending the same thing, man and his soul.’ For him, this was the ne plus ultra of art in exile: ‘Everything that ought to be said about the writer’s role in our terrible and absurd times pertains doubly to the literature of the emigration: the emigration is a victim of non-freedom and, by its very raison d’être, a symbol of the struggle for the living and of the impossibility of reconciling with those who murder them. Its literature must express this “idea of emigration” with twofold force: it must animate the spirit and protect man and love.’

Ultimately, Felsen’s belief was not enough to spare his life. Nor was it enough to save the real-life prototype of Lyolya, his Beatrice of Riga, who shared in his woeful fate, perishing in the Shoah in Latvia. Yet in spite of all this, his art remains. In the Talmud it is written, ‘Blessed be the one who resurrects the dead.’ Perhaps in raising him from obscurity I can do the next best thing. And what better place to begin than his art, which, for all that has been lost and destroyed, shall forever be the truest testament to his life.

Deceit, then, or truth? Fiction or fact? Perhaps it would be more fitting if we imagine the novel as a fictional palimpsest written over the now scarcely legible lines of Felsen’s life, one in which the most vital, transcendental details can yet be glimpsed. For those willing to look and weigh each in the balance, there is surely much truth to be found in his Deceit.

Books mentioned in this blog post