EDWARD LIMONOV’S COMING OUT
Edward Limonov has been in the West since 1975, and in that six years he has managed to make his mark against all odds. He came without the substantial reputation of other writers who had been published in Russian there, in English here, before they left the Soviet Union. Limonov had had only the provisional success of acclaim in an underground bohemia: his work had been circulated in typescript in Moscow and he had read at private gatherings. If he is now having a success in Europe, where his novel It's Me, Eddie! (Eto ia—Edichka) is appearing in a number of languages, it is a testimony both to his talent and to his will to escape the ghetto of the emigre writer and to appear in his own right, simply as «Limonov, writer.»1
Curiously, Limonov has attained his place outside the narrow confines of the emigre journals and publishing houses by writing the quintessential novel of the third wave emigration, the book that any writer aspiring to immortalize the experience of his generation will have to beat if he wants to lay claim to being its chronicler. From its opening pages when its obstreperous, yet ingratiating, hero introduces himself to us as he sits naked on the balcony of his welfare hotel, eating sauerkraut from a pot and taking the sun while secretaries in the surrounding Madison Avenue office buildings look down on him, we know that this book will be in a new key. The wistful, bumbling intellectual gentleman who was the first emigration’s stereotype fades away—no Pnin this.
Limonov’s vivid novel of life among the down-and-outers of the Russian emigration is a classical story of love betrayed: his wife has abandoned the emigre poet down on his luck for the classier seductions of life among the beautiful people. Having been cast to the very bottom, the poet embarks upon a quest for love. The quest is also a tour of places and people, for Edichka’s vision is double—turned both inward to his own pain and outward on the world around him with an intense and searching curiosity. In his wanderings he encounters the cast of his comedie humaine: models, photographers, fashionable painters, the dissolute practitioners of the urban «glamorous» life; earnest and garrulous members of the Workers’ Party who think they will accomplish a revolution by holding meetings and handing out leaflets; provincial American businessmen attending conferences at the Hilton; black toughs living on the street. From the kaleidoscopic life of the city, he returns periodically to his Russians, the unsuccessful ones who cannot integrate themselves into a culture they do not understand, whose language often as not they do not speak, who form the new lumpenproletariat of the city.
As the autobiographical narrator of his own story, Limonov utters a cry against the betrayal of illusions by the social structures of both the vast and indifferent countries that it has been his lot to endure.
This civilization is a paradise for mediocrities. We thought that the USSR was a paradise for mediocrities and that it would be different here if you had talent. The fuckers. There it was ideology, here it’s commercial considerations. About the same. What difference does it make to me what the reasons are for the world not wanting to give me what is mine by right of birth and talent. The world calmly gives it—the place I have in mind, a place in life and recognition—to businessmen here and to Party workers there. And there’s no place for me. What is this, world? You mother-fucker. Well, I’m waiting and waiting, but I’ll get fed up. If there’s no place for me and many others, then what the fuck do we need with such a civilization?2
He also blames, on the one hand, Russian dissident leaders like Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov, whom he sees as acting simply to secure a voice for the intelligentsia in the way things are run, and on the other, the American government, which, in his opinion, has acted demagogically in bringing thousands of Russians to the West, only to strand them once they are here.
Behind Limonov’s disaffection we recognize a more general stance that has become familiar in the modern literature of Europe and the Americas. By identifying himself with the dispossessed, he presses into a territory already claimed by Céline, Norman Mailer, Jean Genet and many others. We have moved to ever more extreme definitions of the writer’s situation: as outcast, as criminal, as, in Norman Mailer’s phrase, «white negro.» What is required is to be outside the law, outside a law. Jean Genet explains that he left Germany in the thirties because there everyone was outside the law, a «race of thieves.» «If I steal here, I perform no singular deed that might fulfill me, I obey the customary order; I do not destroy it. I am not committing evil. I am not upsetting anything. The outrageous is impossible. I’m stealing in the void.»3
Disaffection can be turned into a permanent sense of exile, protected and cherished, the stuff of the writer’s identity. Limonov creates his own myth of a permanent criminality and a permanent exile.
From childhood I refused to serve; silently, stubbornly, the kid shaped his course. I want to go to the river and I go—whether it’s snowing or raining—I go to the river. Despite his parents’ curses the kid went. If I want to rob a store, I don’t sleep nights, I roam at will, I rob it alone—in spite of the fact that this adolescent was nearsighted and that he was just fifteen years old.4
The abandonment of successive pasts has marked Limonov’s life and work. As a child he left his petty bourgeois home to join drifters, khuligany, and outcasts. He turned from his déclassé comrades to become a poet. He left his provincial southern city to go to Moscow and enter the writers’ bohemia, supporting himself outside the official society by sewing clothes for friends. Everywhere he turned the sense of exile into artistic possibility. So when he found himself in America in a situation where he was not wanted, where his writing was not valued, where there was no work, where his woman had left him, he was prepared to embrace the experience and turn it to artistic profit—to take on the role of exile, outcast, loner, and to redefine it as artist.
In 1969, after coming to Moscow and experiencing his first severe crisis of displacement, Limonov wrote an extended prose-poem, «Three Long Songs,» which contains many of the elements that will go into It's Me, Eddie: the sense of exile as living at risk; fear of failure, fear of death, transformed into the motive for seizing life; weakness and inconsequence transformed into self-advertisement. Limonov’s search for strength has been intimately connected to his preoccupation with human mortality. In spite of its fierce commitment to life, his work is death-obsessed. The first of the «Three Long Songs» is structured by a series of fundamental, simple questions like those asked by a child. The poet wonders, «Why did my friend Proutorov die and I am still alive? Tell me, when will I die? Will it really be when necessary?» And again he writes: «I really don’t want to die. Why will I depart alone? And why will others remain?»5 Finally, the fear of death expresses itself in an elemental form:
Back to childhood as fast as possible. Shelter me, papa and mama. All morning I lay naked on my stomach on top of the blanket. I thought with horror of the terrifying grave. I fell asleep and in my sleep cried out,
Mama, I don’t want to go into the grave!
Mama, I don’t want to go into the grave!
I haven’t seen Mama for a year.6
Among the Russian gilded youth a cult is made of death and madness:
I was educated in the cult of madness. A «schiz»—shortened from schizophrenic— that’s what we called odd people, and it was considered praise, the highest evaluation of a person. Eccentricity was encouraged. Tо say of a person that he was normal was to offend him. We sharply distinguished ourselves from the crowd of «normals.» Where did we get it from, we provincial Russian boys and girls, that surrealist cult of madness. Through art, of course. A person who hadn't spent his time in a sanatorium wasn’t considered worthy. A suicide attempt in the past, almost as a child, that’s the kind of credentials that I, for example, brought to this company. The very best recommendation.7
The simple alternatives of living or dying are presented in «Three Long Songs» in a Hamletian formulation:
To shake off all flesh and let the soul...
To shake off all soul and let the flesh ...8
And what of the body? Could it be released into a heroic sexuality that would tear the veil of poor, reduced existence?
Where is laughter, this one, that one, this one. Where are these laughters? Where are these wails? These rollings about the floor? These crawlings on the ground. Why don’t I rip my clothes from myself and set fire to them? When will there be the dance of savages? When will they stop being ashamed? When will it happen that they will extend an invitation to me and I will simply spit, stomp and seize the breast of someone else’s wife not hiding it, and the husband from the other side?9
In the poem the body’s alternative is extended into sexual fantasies, or memories. Who knows? It is not significant. They return us to the refrain:
Oh, this life of fearful flesh!
It knows no laws. It knows no laws.10
Sexual curiosity expressed openly shapes Limonov’s work from start to finish. It would be bad faith to say in his defense that the sexual interest in his work is not prurient. Like Lawrence, like Joyce, like Genet, like all the poets of sex and desire, his interest in sex is of all kinds, both exalted and prurient.
Limonov’s curiosity about death and sex extends into what we might call «the politics of curiosity.» The natural curiosity of the child, which is the writer’s stock-in-trade, inevitably leads—as the curious questioner presses his «why?»—to parents’ or society’s putting up barriers. Curiosity is the first and most fundamental violation of the common law that makes the child, the writer, into a criminal. The parents’ «No, no» to the exploring child is the first provocation of frustration, and as Limonov writes in «Three Long Songs»: «There are no noes for me, only yeses.»
The stress on consciousness in modern literature comes from a sense that freedom of action in any public form is illusory. While some writers have accepted that notion with resignation and regret and turned wholly to the inner life, others have fought against it, either by striving to take part in the world of action and politics or by asserting that writing itself is a forceful activity which makes a difference in the world by creating a new consciousness. Limonov has taken both these active stances. He demonstrated against the New York Times for supporting the policy of Jewish immigration without taking account of its consequences for the people who are then stranded in a new country with little help. His work propagandizes an extreme freedom of consciousness which begins in repudiating the work-a-day world of nine-to-five and ends in rejecting any national distinction as a pernicious differentiation which leads to dissention rather than the unity of humanity. His major disappointment in America comes from its failure to elevate the artist and acknowledge his importance to society.
The politics of curiosity and desire, arising out of the question, «What would it be like if...?», leads to the elaboration of fantasies. Limonov manipulates the syntax of fantasy with a sure hand. A characteristic passage occurs in his latest long work, Diary of a Loser (Dnevnik neudachnika):
There’s a summer civil war.
In the city, things are inflamed as in a dream.
And the leader of the insurrection, half-Latin American, half-Russian, Victor, and Rita, a woman with straight hair, and the dove-elk homosexual Kendall—all came in the morning to my room and stood in the door and Victor threatens me with the muzzle of an automatic because I betrayed the world revolution for the thin, spidery arms of President Alberti’s fifteen-year-old daughter, Celestina, for her rosy dresses and marine smiles, for her little childish cunt and her eternally-pierced earlobes, for the hedgehogs in her daddy’s garden, for the hedgehogs and the snails on the gate. All of that brought me to this morning, and my best buddy in the conflict and former lover Victor is speaking terrible words in a low voice, hysterical Kendall in a fine jacket won’t look, and Rita’s concentrated face.
And in the bed little Celestina cried for a long time, shaking her naked breasts, while her father—the President—was entering the capital with a tank corps and the loyal western suburbs were trembling and comrades were being shot in the courtyards.11
The fantasy contains much that is characteristic of Limonov: the world of childhood interpreted as a world of natural and free eroticism; appreciative curiosity about things people find in natural reality (the hedgehogs and snails); the free and natural vanity of self-display; the aspiration to heroism, only to betray it in imagination.
The narrative fragment (this is the whole of it, and the book is made up of other such fragments) is a many-layered amalgam compounded from the film, from the sensationalist press, and from pornography. In the new age our fantasies are film strips and we see ourselves played by our favorite stars. It is said that John F. Kennedy fantasized he would be played by Cary Grant, not knowing that his life would have a denouement beyond Grant’s expressive capacities. The pop-culture elements are shaped seriously by their underlying homage to a literary tradition: the voices of Lorca, of Orwell, of Malraux, of Régis de Bray, sound here. The archetypal events of the Spanish Civil War and the Cuban revolution are evoked: Che lives! The stifling and yet freeing repetitions of history in each revolutionary movement—Palestine Liberation Front, Red Brigades—are laid down on top of each other until all that remains is the mythic outline.
The fragment is, in fact, the skillful summary of a genre. It is maximally economical and evocative. The opening two lines—«There’s a civil war in summer. In the city things are enflamed as in a dream»—are formulaic. They are meant to specify for us the proper context of cinematic fantasy. The characters are familiar stereotypes, subtly adjusted to the situation. The leader of the insurrection is rightly Latin-American, but also Russian. The inventor of the fantasy has the right to play all the roles: Limonov is not only the betrayer of the revolution in bed with the President’s daughter, he is Victor, too. He both shoots and is shot. He enjoys the traditional power of the victor as well as the modern power of the traitor. Victor and traitor are inseparably tied in the economy of Limonov’s consciousness. The manipulation of tense moves us skillfully backwards and forwards in time, bearing us away into the present tense of dream and then withdrawing us into the historical fatality of past tense.
Limonov’s fantasies are fantasies of power, evolved out of the materials of a mythologized history. A self-conscious, open, ironic and yet serious megalomania is the stuff of the persona Limonov has fashioned for himself as a writer. In 1977 he published in Shemyakin’s anthology Apollon a work written in Moscow before his immigration entitled We Are the National Hero.12 This collage of prose fragments elaborates a fantasy in which he and his wife Elena arrive in Paris and are greeted by the President of the French Republic as «national hero» and «national woman,» the perfect representatives of Russianhood. The «we» of the title is the kingly singular—«we/I am the national hero.» Limonov combines the Soviet mania for giving prizes and honorific titles with a modern fairytale of celebrity. We hear in the narrator’s voice both the frank megalomania of Mayakovsky and the Futurists and the wry self-deflation of Kharms and the Oberiuty. The group of concrete poets with whom Limonov has allied himself (its manifesto appears in the same issue of Apollon) openly expresses its tie to the Futurists and the Oberiu and even goes so far as to insult the Acmeists and the Symbolists, as if the new generation of experimental writers were forced to relive the history of Russian modernism. In a sense they are doing so, as contemporary Russian taste recapitulates the past stage by stage.
When Limonov wrote We Are the National Hero, he was in many respects living the very life of his fantasies. He existed outside conventional society as a hero of the marginal, unofficial world of artists. He had not only received recognition as a striking new voice among the young poets, he had not only married a beauty, herself a poet, he had even turned his work to profit by thwarting the system that refused to publish his work. He was the first of the underground writers to set up his own private distribution system and charge money for his typewritten volumes. Limonov was indeed a kind of counter-culture prince. The sense of an exuberant flowering is recorded in We Are the National Hero, where, whatever selfirony intrudes, Limonov genuinely and with a kind of surprised selfadmiration records his own success.
The work also records the anxiety of the king for a day who is all too afraid that the momentary realization of his fantasy may prove to be an illusion. There are bemused asides and deflations. Limonov fantasizes that Antonioni asks him to star in a film. At the same time he marvels that he with his little squinty eyes has been selected instead of his beautiful wife Elena. Celebrity has an element of chance. No matter how confident one is of one’s talent, of the deservedness of one’s success, the suspicion lingers—have they got the wrong person?
Limonov’s doubts were soon to be made real. The police fixed up false papers and dumped him in the immigration—good riddance to a troublemaker. Limonov came to experience the deflation of his celebrity in earnest:
Here in New York I lose additionally, because I am a Russian writer, I write in Russian words, and it turns out that I am spoiled by underground fame, by the attentions of underground Moscow, artistic Russia, where a poet—well, that’s not what a poet is in New York, but for several centuries a poet in Russia has been everything—something like a spiritual leader; for example, to become acquainted with a poet there is a great honor. Here a poet is trash...13
Limonov’s megalomaniacal self-proclamation and his sober realism are not unrelated postures. When celebrity is so provisional, at the mercy of forces beyond the individual talent, fantasy becomes a weapon against destruction.
In conversation Limonov has used the word «coquetry» to describe his poetic strategy. If Rousseau justified writing his confessions on the grounds that no one before had written completely honestly about himself and that therefore the very laying bare of the self would be of interest, the new confessional literature bases its claim to our attention on a different foundation: the writer has dared more than we. he has penetrated into areas of experience—perverse sexuality, crime—that the rest of us will not enter; he has crossed the social boundaries and mingled with people of other races and with the rejected scum of society. Genet captures the self-appointed task when he says that the goal is to take all that has been rejected and despised by society and turn it into a thing of the highest beauty. The writer has to shock to prove the validity of his claim on the reader’s attention, but he must court the reader, too, and hope to win him over to his point of view. Most of all, he must capture and retain attention by asserting, «It’s me, it’s me, It’s me, Eddie!»
Hence the complexity of narrative voice in Limonov’s most complex novel. His harshness towards himself and others is implicit in the confessional mode. What good is confession if it cannot win our pity, and yet how to avoid falling into sentimentality? Harshness opens the door to pity, even self-pity. They belong to the same universe of feeling. Moreover, cruelty can be presented as an evidence of capacity to feel. It demonstrates the narrator’s knowledge of the worth of the emotional sphere. It shows that sincerity of feeling stands at the top of the scale of values. Feeling is so important that any holding back or falsity traduces it. In Limonov’s book the body is the constant locus of sensations, the mind their register. The moral consciousness works unceasingly to distinguish the true from the false.
All this is to say that Limonov is an authentic representative of his genre. But does he have any further claim on our attention? Does the Limonov phenomenon mean nothing more than that Russia, too, has its dreaming, bookish boys from the provinces posing as toughs and demanding that we look at them? In his impressive programmatic work «Three Long Songs» Limonov reports another fantasy:
Why not disappear from everyone, leave a note and one’s things on one bank. And hide others for oneself. Come out on the other bank. Dress and walk away. When will that happen?14
Limonov has come out on the other bank. There was always a sense in which the experience of Moscow unofficial cultural life was easy for all its dangers. It was psychologically easy, because it removed the person from ultimate responsibility for his own success or failure. It was possible to say, Well, it’s the fault of our repressive regime, which cannot recognize great poetry, great art, great scholarship. Limonov’s book is about coming out in many senses—coming out into the frank recognition of his own homosexual propensities for one. But more important, it is about coming out of the shelter of the ready-made nest of the Muscovite counter-culture. Limonov does it crying out with anguish, but he does it, and therein lies his book’s power. One doesn’t have to think it gives a balanced picture or even that it is fair to acknowledge that it is the most powerful book about this wave of Russian emigration yet to be written. Limonov has fully embraced the experience of his failure, and by doing so has turned it into success.
1. Eto ia—Edichka was published by Index Publishers (New York, 1979) and has recently appeared in English as It's Me, Eddie (New York, 1983). It has also been published in French translation under the title Le poète russe aime les grands nègres (Paris, 1980). Translations into German and Dutch are forthcoming.
2. Eto ia—Edichka, p. 154.
3. Jean Genet, The Thief’s Journal (New York, 1973), p. 135.
4. Eto ia—Edichka, p. 200.
5. Russkoe (Ann Arbor, 1979), p. 64.
6. Ibid., p. 69.
7. Eto ia—Edichka, p. 175.
8. Russkoe, p. 64.
9. Ibid., p. 61.
10. Ibid., p. 63.
11. «Sekretnaia tetrad’, ili dnevnik neudachnika. Otryvki iz knigi,» Ekho, 3, 1978, p. 58.
12. «My—natsionai’nyi geroi,» Apollon (Paris, 1977), pp. 57-62.
13. Eto ia—Edichka, p. 218.
14. Russkoe, p. 65.