.EDDIE-BABY ON THE TOWN
Once again, Edward Limonov, the powerful and problematic Soviet émigré writer, has offered up a piece of self-proclaimed autobiographical fiction about his life «in freedom.» And once again, he has employed every device of obscenity and scatology at his command to undermine both the pieties of American life and the approved public image of the Soviet émigré. In 1979, Limonov’s It's Me, Eddie
outraged many of his fellow exiles, who found it slanderous and pornographic. One prominent critic declared, «If freedom means the freedom to write that book, then I am against freedom.» Others, however, expressed their support for the book and declared its author one of the most important of the writers to have left the Soviet Union in the so-called third wave and almost the only one to articulate in his fiction a certain experience of exile.
Limonov’s two novels about his life in America (It’s Me, Eddie
and His Butler's Story
) explore the disorientation and unhappiness that are frequently the lot of those who have «chosen freedom.» Between the strait-laced Solzhenitsyn in Vermont delivering jeremiads against «pluralism» and other evidences of «degeneration» in the West, and Eddie Limonov slaking his omnisexual appetites on the underside of New York City, while inveighing against the «vel’fer» that supports him, there is not really a great distance. Both articulate feelings that exiles generally disguise or suppress: nostalgia for the homeland, together with genuine contempt for American institutions and an appalling lack of interest in learning about how those work.
According to his more or less fictional biography. Limonov was an adolescent thief, a psycho, a tailor and an underground poet before leaving the Soviet Union in 1974. Two novels set in the Soviet Union, The Adolescent Savenko
and The Young Scoundrel
, both of which will soon appear in English, are apparently based on his life in the Soviet criminal world, on his sojourns in jail and in a mental institution, and on his career as a dissident poet in a flourishing cultural underground. As with the pair about his life in the United States, these books view the clean world from the underside. Savenko
explores the psychology of a Soviet adolescent who moves from his working-class family into the criminal world; nothing in the book mitigates our horror at the simple motivations for theft, rape, mutilation and murder. The novel also gives us, as though incidentally, a vivid look at life in a working-class suburb of Kharkov: the reek of vodka and violence, the ugly housing and the scramble to get it, and especially the way in which corruption in the «law-abiding» sector feeds the criminal underground. In The Young Scoundrel
, Eddie has blossomed into an unpublished poet moving among the disaffected intelligentsia of Kharkov, who spurn Soviet respectability in a way that foreshadows Eddie’s lavish contempt for the New York establishment. The essence of Limonov’s work, whether set in the West or in the Soviet Union, is its vivid articulation of the mute misery and hatred felt by those on the bottom for the scrubbed and fancy world of those on top. From their point of view, as Eddie puts it in It's Me, Eddie
, «There isn’t a hell of a lot of difference between here and there [the Soviet Union].»
Limonov has assured us—mistakenly, I think—that the practice of deducing the author's biography from his fiction is quite sound in his case. He says that he writes only about himself, «since he has studied that character better than any other,» and insists that there are no «purely invented» situations in his books; he does admit that he has simplified many things, and eliminated others, thus acknowledging the novelist's work of selection and structuring. But because Limonov identifies himself with the «Eddie,» sometimes «Eddie-baby,» of his narratives, and provides only flimsy cover for the real people who appear in them (this has cruelly embarrassed some of them), a reader is likely to assume that Limonov and his tormented narrator are one, that the author is as morally vacuous as his central character. Such a conclusion involves a serious critical misunderstanding. Limonov is not the luckless dropout whose character he so vividly creates in his fiction. In fact the real Limonov, as far as we can tell, was actually a good tailor and poet and has managed his affairs quite well in emigration. The Eddie who fantasizes shooting up his rich master’s house with an AK-47 or who, in the final pages of His Butler's Story
, takes careful aim at the repulsive Secretary General of the United Nations, offers a fictional statement as to how slugs and underdogs feel about the world of those who have made it. The latter scene is a powerful realization not of Limonov, of course, but of the Lee Harvey Oswalds of the world.
In His Butler's Story
Eddie is a Russian poet obliged to work as butler, general handyman and factotum in the palatial East River residence of Steven Grey, a WASP multimillionaire whose fabulous income derives from many enterprises. Steven’s house guests range from the Shah of Iran and a variety of American and foreign moguls to a visiting Soviet poet—Yevgeny Yevtushenko with, as Eddie assures us, his C.I.A. impresarios, very thinly disguised—who provide him with the cachet of high culture. The image of Steven Grey, seen from the viewpoint of a proud and penniless Russian poet, is a creation of great literary power. Huge, oppressive, abusive and totally self-centered, Steven arouses in Eddie an insufferable physical revulsion. But Eddie not only hates him, he also envies him his jet-set connections, his money and limitless sexual opportunities.
Eddie needs to prove to everybody «just what sort of person it was they were neglecting.» He is in constant communication with contemptible editors and publishers who keep rejecting his poetry and prose, but his principal activity is the pursuit of happiness through sexual adventures described in explicit and disgusting detail. Limonov’s sexual scenes are emetic rather than aphrodisiac. Neither transports of love nor the pleasures of simple ravishment can be found anywhere in this book. Of his principal sex object in the novel, Jenny, Eddie says, «I made love to her but I didn’t want to.» And it turns out that she never wanted to either, but did it because she loved Eddie and thought he liked it. Then there is a «little twat named Mary Ellen,» whom he didn’t want to fuck, and a number of others whom he did, but without conviction and almost without pleasure. There are some who flit in and out as fantasies or nymphets, but the novel is simply an account of Eddie’s «struggle against the world and everybody in it,» and Jenny and the rest are only episodes in his contest with Steven and the others who control that world. The German translator of It's Me, Eddie
distilled the ichor of that book and this one too as the single English obscenity which served in the title of the German edition: Fuck Off, Amerika
Limonov breaks the widespread stereotype of the Soviet émigré as a man of the political right. In his role as Eddie he is a man of the left, not ashamed to work as a trucker, a tailor or a busboy, and he associates with the unhappy and underprivileged and with the radicals who claim to speak for them. He makes friends with blacks who are unacceptable to his fellow Soviet émigrés. As a matter of fact the American novels embrace humanity in a way that is altogether original and refreshing in a writer of Limonov’s provenance. Soviet émigrés are as a rule people who have escaped or been expelled from a failed utopia; they are frequently skeptical at best about the liberal hopes still very much alive in Western democracies. In helping to define that émigré pattern by escaping from it, even though by way of épatage
and obscenity, Limonov’s novels have performed an important service.
In almost everything he has written Limonov’s style is marked by the effective use of two kinds of linguistic anomaly. Foreign words—American, of course, but spelled out in Cyrillic letters—variegate the Russian text of Limonov’s novel and function as the linguistic mark of Eddie’s strangeness in a world of vel'fer, biznessmen, leeving-rums and dyning-rums, Dzhenni’s rashen-boi-frend, Tsentral-Park, Khadson-reever and Eesreever. One of my problems with this otherwise excellent translation is that these words are presented in their proper English spelling, and thus an important lexical mark of the narrator as a contemptuous alien presence in «Amerika» has been lost. Other Russian émigré writers also use transliterated English words in their Russian text, but with a quite different function. Vassily Aksyonov uses such concoctions as «khash-poppies,» meaning a kind of footwear, but the effect is less alienating than exotic. Perhaps the nearest analog to Limonov’s verbal device is Henry Miller’s use of French phrases in Tropic of Cancer
as a mark of the narrator’s ironic detachment from the Paris scene. Limonov’s use of English in his Russian text suggests, also, the newly arrived émigré who will never lose his native accent nor make the new ideas and concepts his own.
The other persistent lexical feature in Limonov’s writing is the exceptionally rich and varied use of obscenities, which also carries a heavy charge of revulsion from the normal American world, from, as he would put it, the varied collection of fuck-offs with whom he is obliged to deal in his brave new country. These two features of style, «barbarisms» and obscenities, call attention to the verbal texture itself: as a Jakobsonian linguist would put it, they are iconic rather than arbitrary, or transparent, «signs.» And Limonov gives us, incidentally, a perfect model of the Russian language in its rich inflectional power when he uses the vulgar words for the male organ of generation and for the act of copulation as creative linguistic pivots, deriving from the original root form multiple parts of speech through the use of prefixes, infixes and suffixes. Much attention has been given to the linguistic features of Limonov’s work, and it does seem likely that the Russian literary language will have been affected by his virtuosity. Russian, in this century, especially since the triumph of Soviet puritanism in the 1930s, has lagged far behind the West in the breaching of linguistic taboos, with the result that Limonov's writing contains a higher shock potential in its Russian context than any translation could possibly convey. In everything he has written Limonov gives new life to literary Russian by opening it up to a powerful vocabulary from the regions of proscribed speech.
Limonov does obeisance to Henry Miller in this book, and there’s no doubt that his novels owe something to Miller’s. Eddie is compulsive and often miserable in his pursuit of sex and he is uncertain as to what kind gives him satisfaction; in fact, his passionate accommodation of a beautiful young black man in a vacant lot near 51st and Broadway (in It's Me, Eddie
) contrasts sharply with his sexually frustrating encounters with women. But for Miller’s character the sexual smorgasbord includes both mystery and occasions for poetry. And Miller’s nihilism is more philosophical than Limonov’s: The chaos he mirrors is in the nature of things; the whole world is a kind of cancer eating itself away. Limonov’s world is particular and concrete. He seldom budges from that Amerika—or Kharkov—in thought or image. Miller’s view of catastrophe is cosmic; Eddie’s is local and confined. But the problem I’ve alluded to above concerning the confusion of author and central character is foregrounded in the work of both writers. Limonov himself has illuminated his relationship to Eddie in his recently published poem in the Times Literary Supplement
(June 26, translated by G.S. Smith):
HERO NEGATIVEThis is my hero negative
He’s always here along with me
I drink a beer, — he drinks a beer
He lives in my apartment room
He goes to bed with girls I do
My dark-skinned member hangs from him
This is my hero negative...
And we may see his elegant back
Around the city of New York
On any one of those dark streets.