CONVERSATIONS IN EXILE / edited by John Glad // "Duke University Press", 1993, 288 pp.
"Edward Limonov" is the literary pseudonym of Edward Savenko, prose writer and poet (b. 1943). While still residing in the Soviet Union, Limonov belonged to a small, unofficial group of artists and writers, but his work remained unpublished. He emigrated in 1974 and settled in New York, later moving to Paris. In the relatively conservative atmosphere of Russian letters, his books are widely read but highly controversial because of their graphic sexual descriptions and often obscene language.
Books: Eto ya — Edichka (New York, 1979); Russkoe (Ann Arbor, 1979); Dnevnik neudachnika, ili Sekretnaya tetrad' (New York, 1982); Podrostok Savenko (Paris, 1983); Palach (Jerusalem, 1986); Molodoi negodyai (Paris, 1986).
English translations: It's Me, Eddie, trans. S. Campbell (New York: Random House, 1983); His Butler's Story; trans. Judson Rosengrant (New York: Grove Press, 1987); Memoir of a Russian Punk, trans. Judson Rosengrant (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991).
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Paris, December 20, 1989
— Let me be frank: people have asked me why 1 decided to interview you. I was talking to the German Slavist Wolfgang Kasack, the author of a dictionary of Russian literature. And he said: "I didn't include Limonov. Some like him, but I don't." He complained about your use of obscenities and also that what you write is nothing more than traditional nineteenth-century realism.
— The comments of other émigrés are nothing but a case of dogs howling at the moon. As for Kasack, let him choose whomever he likes. It makes no difference to me. I don't take that seriously.
— How do émigré writers establish themselves?
— I established myself outside the émigré community. Nine of my books have been translated into French. I was first published at the end of 1980, and since then my books have been translated into eight languages.
— Why outside the émigré community? The émigrés probably read your books more than anyone else's. Or don't you feel that that is the real?
— I never tried to write for other émigrés. I wrote my first book for publication in English. Naturally, I couldn't write it in English, so I wrote it in Russian. But I never had Russian publishers in mind. It was only later that the American publishers began to put up serious resistance. It's hard to say why. They were resisting a new breed of Russian writer, who for some reason didn't depict America in a very positive light — who didn't write as he should have. I was supposed to be satisfied, like all the other writers.
— How many copies of It's Me, Eddie have been sold?
— There were at least two editions, but it's hard to check how many there were. With small publishers you never know. The first contract I signed was for about five thousand copies. Then I signed a second contract, which was also for about five thousand copies.
— What do you have to say about the criticism or, if you prefer, the comment that what you write is nothing more than "traditional realism."
— I agree with that.
— You agree?
— Many people feel that realism is a thing of the past.
— I can't go along with that. Do you seriously believe this is the age of modernism? No, this is an era of postmodernism which rebels against all the fanciness of the 1930s. In the 1960s there was a second wave of formalism, and then the writing world — the writing universe — returned once more to the same old realism, which is, in fact, extremely diverse.
— Is that "writing world" Russian, French, or Western?
— I regard the Russian world with a great deal of contempt. The books of my acquaintances, friends, and countrymen don't move me in the least. It's possible that something valuable is now being written by young people, but I haven't seen it. I don't rule it out, but to this day I have not read a single book which has stopped me in my tracks and forced me to say: "God, this is good. I wish I had written this." I haven't seen anything like that for the last thirty years. All that interests me, all that makes me feel at all envious, has been published not even by French, but by Anglo-Saxon writers.
— For example?
— I would like to have written some of Truman Capote's chapters or even certain of his short stories. Not everything, of course. I'm very picky. Or take Hemingway's later work. He has some unbelievable stylistic devices. I accept almost none of his novels, but I would gladly have written some passages out of them, as well as some of his short stories.
— What if I write in my book that you are the Truman Capote of Russian émigré literature?
— That would be untrue, because I am neither the Truman Capote nor the Henry Miller of Russian émigré literature, as the French press, as well as Americans, Germans, and whoever else, wrote after the publication of my first book. But they don't think that anymore. Now they write that Limonov has won the right to be who he is.
— Every writer claims that right.
— Everyone claims that right, but it has to be won. Since I live in France and am a French citizen, I make my judgments on what I read in the French press. After my first book they compared me to Henry Miller, then to Bukowski, Kerouac, and others.
— Vladimir Bukovsky?!
— No, Charles Bukowski. Thank God, no one has ever compared me to any Russian writers. I've been compared only to Big League writers, to those from the normal world, not émigrés or provincial Soviets.
— Did you begin to write in the Soviet Union or in the West?
— I began to write prose in New York. In the Soviet Union I wrote poetry. That's a part of my life and a part of my work that I don't deny. I think that I wrote unusual poems that have not faded with time. I don't know what place, if any, they should be given in Russian poetry. It's not my place to judge.
— You entitled your collection of poems Topics Russian (Russkoe).
— It was the title of a poem written in 1971. That poem was a collage of Russian literary cliches. It's an ironic title. It was also relevant because I published the collection again only in 1979, and all of the poems included in it were written in Russia. That was the reason for the title — the sense was one of great distance and humor. Of course, I use the Russian language, and I probably always will. There is still time to switch languages. On occasion I've written in English, and my first attempts weren't so bad. I could write in English. But I live in a country where French is spoken, so to write in English would be idiotic. I get translated in any case, so what's the sense of trying? I will probably never be able to write in French, since ifs a difficult language for me. But my world view is mine and mine only. Let Russia do its own thing and Africa — its own. Who cares about Russian writers? They interest me so little that I'm sometimes ashamed to be associated with them. Evidently they realize in-groups. Some of these people know how to write books. Others do not. And then there are people like me. I write my books in Russian, but I will never belong to either Russian or French or American literature. People like us are always outsiders, walking among others, but not fitting in, bored with them in any case. And we should be gratified when they say they don't like us. Many people have not been liked, and they are always the best and brightest. As the saying goes: "you'll only get appreciated later."
— This is not the first interview I've conducted, or even the twentieth, and everyone that I've interviewed considers himself an outsider. I interviewed Zinoviev and he said: "Oh, I was never appreciated. Everyone acknowledges me in the West. It's only the émigré community that doesn't." Gorenstein said the same thing in his interview. Siniavsky also considers himself an outsider. If everyone is "out," who is "in"?
— I can't answer that, John. I'm not a literary critic. I can only talk about myself, about how I feel and what I see. And I believe I have far better reasons for thinking I am an outsider than Gorenstein or anyone else. I think that Zinoviev has some grounds for considering himself an outsider, but far fewer than I. I am the pariah of Russian and Soviet literature for a multitude of reasons. But I am not God, and I can't look down from above and say that I am more or less of an outsider than they are. I insist on my outsiderness, or marginality, because it is evident.
— I'm not arguing with what you say. I am simply saying that this is true of others as well, albeit perhaps truer of you than most.
— Here we are going into the 1990s, when writers have great resources and opportunities. The publishing business is becoming more and more international. You can count the number of principal world-class authors on one hand — artists too. They are sold everywhere. At the Frankfurt Book Fair an author is marketed instantly in twenty or twenty-five countries at once. This is new and hitherto would even have been unbelievable. This system, this opportunity, sustains authors like me. And I'm not the only one. Take English writers, like Lawrence Durrell, who has lived for a decade in the south of France.
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sities, work as journalists, etc. There are very few people in this country, literally only a few hundred, who can live on their royalties. But I do. And I am earning more and more. I think that my books interest people because they are three-dimensional from the start. They are about America, the Soviet Union, France. We live in a big world, the world of modern man. French books, for example, are rarely bought in the United States or other countries because, in most cases, they are aimed at French readers. Their interest rarely extends beyond the borders of France.
According to Le Monde, only seven French books were sold at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Out of those seven, one was mine. I consider myself an international writer. Some of my books sell better than others, but almost all of them are translated into many other languages and sold in a lot of countries. Here, in France, my experiences in America were of interest as the experiences of a European in America. It was the shock resulting from the contact between European and American cultures. My first book was seen as a journey to the edge of night. It was, so to speak, "The Adventures of a European on a Different Part of the Planet." So I can't complain.
I'm making more and more money. On the whole I'm still not sold often or paid much in the United States, although the press is getting better. For example, I've sold well in Germany since the publication of my first book, and I came out in paperback in both the States and England.
— In terms of royalties, what country and language earns you the most in sales?
— That depends on the book, but for the first few years most of the money came from Germany.
— And now?
— It depends. I just sold a new book to Flammarion for a lot of money, even by American standards. That's just for the French rights. Gradually I am earning a reputation. With each book my fame is growing.
— Can't the opposite happen? Being prolific can result in a kind of inflation. For example, Solzhenitsyn has written so much that it's a rare individual who has read everything he's written.
— His problem has to do with something entirely different. He has the megalomania of the historian or the philosopher. He wants to change the world. In his writing he tries to prove that his point of view is right, and in the attempt to substantiate his claims, he writes these crazy 1,500-page books. I have never done that and never will. None of my books in Russian exceeds two hundred pages. And they are getting shorter, which proves that I am able to say what I want in fewer words. But his books are getting larger. He has different goals. He is more like a sociologist or philosopher who, for some reason — in my opinion not a very intelligent one — tries to overextend his talent and put everything he has to say in a novel. He should write essays instead of absurd books like his "Knots" or "Wheels." All of that is unbearably boring and stupid and could go as a footnote at the bottom of a page. When I write, I do not necessarily show the manuscript to a publisher. Only later do I submit my manuscripts. Once, when I had completed a book, I was asked if I couldn't give a bit of thought to a certain idea. The idea was not given to me in written form. It was just a couple of phrases tossed out in conversation. Using that idea, I wrote a pretty good book which, unfortunately, still hasn't come out.
Not all books are equally successful. I know which are better and which worse. I'm normal and don't suffer from any excessive manias. I think that as a writer I have developed normally. In other words, I started out with poetry and then switched to prose.
— How would you characterize your development as a writer?
— That's complicated. I'm not a literary scholar or a critic. I read the reviews of my books. Then I begin to understand what I do.
— Criticism helps?
— It doesn't help in the actual writing, but it does help you to define your path. It helps you to understand something, even if you do not use your understanding for many years or books ahead. But you can define who you are, at least for the time being. There was an article last year on His Butler's Story, published by Grove Press. It was an article by Edward Brown, and it was a pleasure to read. It wasn't just a newspaper article.
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