Tags: english


Michael Dirda // "The Washington Post", October 22, 2014



Just as Emmanuel Carrère’s earlier book «The Adversary» was an «In Cold Blood»-style «nonfiction novel» about a man who murders his wife, children and parents, so his latest, «Limonov», might be called a novelized biography. While tracking the amazing, improbable life of Ukrainian writer, adventurer and would-be revolutionary Eduard Limonov, the book interweaves a social and political history of post-Stalinist Russia, chunks of Carrère’s autobiography and a hodgepodge of reflections on art, sex, ambition, the punk aesthetic, fascism, mysticism and old age.

Because Carrère — celebrated in France as a journalist, screenwriter and novelist — possesses such an intimately engaging narrative voice, «Limonov» feels almost nonchalant yet is, in fact, quite artfully orchestrated and completely riveting. The first sentence of John Lambert’s superb English translation immediately hooks the reader: «Until Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in her elevator on October 7, 2006, only those who had been closely watching the Chechen wars knew the name of this courageous journalist and declared opponent of Vladimir Putin’s politics».

Asked to write a magazine piece about Politkovskaya’s life, Carrère first visits the opposition newspaper where she worked, and in one sentence he captures its forlorn hopelessness: «The offices were tiny, poorly lit, and equipped with old computers». A few days later, he attends the annual memorial service for those who died during the 2002 terrorist siege of the Dubrovka Theater. In the crowd, writes Carrère, «I recognized Limonov».

At that time, Limonov was the leader of the National Bolshevik Party, whose skinhead members marched to reactionary slogans like «Stalin! Beria! Gulag!» A few years earlier, Limonov had supported the brutal Serbs in their war against the equally brutal Croats and Bosnians. He’d also spent time in Russian prisons for alleged terrorist activities. Nonetheless, Limonov’s books, such as «Diary of a Loser», were bestsellers, and his sexy young wife was the star of a Russian soap opera. Still vigorous and energetic in his late 60s, with a steel-trap memory, a wispy goatee and a hard, muscular frame, he resembled the rare-book scout played by Johnny Depp in «The Ninth Gate». Or Trotsky.

But, as Carrère tells us, the arch-nationalist Limonov had had many other lives before that of «fighter and professional revolutionary». The son of a low-ranking officer in the secret police, he was born in 1943 and grew up in the town of Kharkov yearning to be famous. Early on, the boy concluded that «there are two kinds of people, those you can hit and those you can’t — not because they’re stronger or better trained, but because they’re ready to kill. That’s the secret, the only one». As Carrère writes: «He will become someone you don’t hit because you know he can kill».

Nonetheless, there’s more to young Eddie than ruthlessness, iron self-control and an ability to down vast amounts of vodka. For instance, he composes prize-winning poetry, dresses like a mod dandy and, to pay the bills, works as a talented, self-taught tailor. When he moves to Moscow in 1967, however, Limonov meets a «lanky twenty-year-old brunette dressed in a leather miniskirt». The gorgeous Tanya beds him, but she shares her favors with other men, and so one night — crazed with jealousy and Russian despair — Limonov slits his wrists on her doorstep. Naturally, Tanya is deeply impressed by this gesture, and the pair soon marry, becoming the Scott and Zelda of the Soviet glam scene of the 1970s.

Still, Limonov the writer resents all the attention paid to poet Joseph Brodsky and novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. As Carrère remarks, «the only living legend that interests him is himself». When an opportunity arises to emigrate to the West, the handsome couple seize it, and in 1975 arrive in New York.

For a while, they are feted and petted by the local Russophiles, notably Alexander Liberman, artistic director of Conde Nast, and his wife, Tatiana. But soon Limonov is working for a depressing Russian-language newspaper, and Tanya is just another failed would-be model — as well as the plaything of a photographer heavily into sadomasochism. One day Limonov comes back to their apartment, and his beautiful wife is gone.

Broken-hearted, the youthful-looking 33-year-old decides to give up women in favor of men. He has sex with vagrants in parks, lives in a squalid hotel and spends his days working on «It’s Me, Eddie», the first in a series of autobiographical books. No American publisher wants it.

Following this gay interlude, Limonov next becomes the lover of a housemaid and, after a while, her rich employer’s butler. As it happens, he turns out to be the perfect servant — trustworthy, obsequious and polite. But as he later reveals in «His Butler’s Story», when left alone, he would drink his boss’s best champagne and bring in hookers for romps in the master bedroom. Then, unexpectedly, everything changes again: «It’s Me, Eddie» is published in France under the provocative title «The Russian Poet Prefers Big Blacks». Limonov moves to Paris, where he finds himself an acclaimed writer, a minor celebrity.

At this point, Carrère opens up about his own privileged and often unhappy youth. Compared with Limonov, «I felt that I was made of dull and mediocre stuff, and that I was doomed in this world to play the role of a walk-on, and a bitter, envious walk-on at that». Fortunately, Carrère eventually recognizes, in the words of a Buddhist sutra, that «a man who judges himself superior, inferior, or even equal to another does not understand reality».

Unlike most of the Western world, the Paris-based Limonov doesn’t welcome perestroika. Why? Because it implies that 70 years of Russian history were nothing but a mistake and a nightmare, thus denigrating the millions of ordinary people who worked and sacrificed for a noble idea. Still, Limonov’s writing does become available in the Soviet Union. As result, when stopping in Belgrade on a book tour in the late 1980s, the celebrated author is invited to visit the recently liberated — that is, demolished — city of Vukovar. Like Gabriele D’Annunzio, T.E. Lawrence and other writers, Limonov is thrilled by this glimpse of war; Soon he throws himself into the Serbian cause, much to the consternation of his Parisian friends. The Johnny Rotten of Russian literature appears to have joined the fascist thugs. But, to use one of Carrère’s catch phrases, «Things are more complicated than they seem».

After moving back to Russia permanently in the 1990s, Limonov reinvents himself once more, this time as a leading ultra-nationalist. He even publishes an incendiary newspaper called Limonka, «The Grenade». But in the wide-open Wild West Russia of those Yeltsin years, Limonov and his National Bolshevik Party are no match for the ruthless multibillionaires who now pull the strings. For a while, however, freedom thrives despite political and financial chaos — until a former taxi driver named Vladimir Putin comes to power.

One man in his time plays many parts, and Eduard Limonov — now in his 70s — isn’t off the stage yet. Whatever you think of his actions and beliefs, Limonov has lived faithfully by the rule of «no hypocrisy, no embarrassment, no excuses». It’s been a spectacular roller coaster life, and Emmanuel Carrère has turned it into an equally spectacular book.

Matt Taibbi // "NPR Books", October 21, 2014



I had a typical first experience with famed Russian emigre-turned auteur-turned neo-fascist revolutionary Edward Limonov: I misunderstood him.

Everybody misunderstands Edward at least once. Usually, they underestimate this slight, bearded man with the mild manners.

I knew him in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when he wrote a column for the eXile, a punk/anarchist English-language paper Mark Ames and I edited in Moscow. (He'd been brought in by Ames, who was a fan.) Edward back then was the chief of an aesthetically cool but literarily tedious revolutionary rag called Limonka.

He was also the would-be leader of a would-be rightist revolutionary group called the National-Bolsheviki. His few hundred bomber-jacketed followers were known as the «Nats-Bols», which they gleefully pronounced «Nuts-Balls».

I had Edward figured wrong. I thought he was a clown-memoirist who was using real-world stunts to capture the attention of the literary community. But he ended up doing real time for his revolutionary «acts», which included a real takeover of a military base in Latvia using fake grenades (called, appropriately, «Limonki» in Russian). What was he up to? You could never tell with Edward.

Some of his books, like the stunning diary of his poverty-stricken youth in Ukraine, Podrostok Savenko («Diary of a Russian Punk»), are full of gorgeously raw, painful, true writing that he clearly suffered over. Other books he just flat-out mailed in. And in the same way, sometimes he really was a revolutionary, and sometimes he appeared to be playing at it — it was hard to tell.

All of these thoughts came rushing back when I read the new biography of Edward, Limonov, by French author and filmmaker Emmanuel Carrere, translated by John Lambert.

It's a sweeping account of Edward's unmistakably epic life, from the cruelty and poverty of his youth in Ukraine, to his conquest of the Western literary scene as an emigre writer in the 1980s, and finally to his return to Russia first as the most minor of rightist revolutionaries, then as a prisoner (locked up in the worst Russian prisons for faux-fomenting real revolution, or really fomenting faux revolution — it's hard to explain). The last chapter involves his bizarre re-emergence as a mainstream political figure, playing at being a respectable supporter of peaceful change.

Carrere begins by being dazzled by the Limonov of the '80s, a self-styled punk writer who called Johnny Rotten a hero and «didn't think twice about calling Solzhenitsyn an old fart».

He ends up puzzled to see the punk hero sharing a stage with chess champion Garry Kasparov as a titular leader of «Drugaya Rossiya» (Another Russia), a polite, socially acceptable, Orange Revolution-style mainstream movement that the rhetorically bomb-tossing Edward of the '90s would have dismissed as a pathetic bourgeois affectation.

Carrere wonders: What could Limonov be thinking? «Does it amuse him», he writes, «the outlaw, the mad dog, to play the virtuous Democrat?» He spends the rest of the book trying to answer the question: Is this last part the act? Or was it the earlier part?

Carrere struggles with that theme throughout, and in the end toys with a horrifying surprise conclusion: Limonov is above all else a failure. «Edik» played his cards dramatically right at times (his truly steely, heroic endurance of Russian prison life made even his harshest critics take note), and very wrong at others. (Fighting and presumably killing with the Serbs in their ethnic massacres of the '90s? Really?)

But in the end, Limonov did not take over Russia. He became neither the next Lenin (his '90s ambition) nor the next Vaclav Havel (his 21st-century ambition), but is instead living out his days in his ultimate version of hell, if one goes by the punked-out ethos of his early books: approaching his senior years as a respectable quasi-celebrity and defender of virtue, sustained by the comforts of — of all things — family (well, his two children).

Edward Limonov is one of the most amazing people on Earth, the author of a few truly great books, a man who has lived a fuller life than any 10 of your most interesting friends combined. That would be more than enough, for someone who was only out to do just that. But for someone who sincerely wanted to rule over hundreds of millions, change the very lines on the map of the world, perhaps die gloriously in battle, and take a seat next to Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky upon his death — not so much.

Deep down, what does Edward want? We'll never know, and Carrere doesn't pretend to, either. Which makes his book as fascinating as its subject.

Katie Engelhart // "Maclean's", October 17, 2014

Opposition leader Eduard Limonov leads his supporters as they take to the streets to mark May Day in Moscow, Russia, on Wednesday, May 1, 2013. Thousands of Communists, members of Russia's main political parties and opposition activists staged competing m


Book review: Emmanuel Carrère’s ‘Limonov: The outrageous adventures of the radical Soviet poet’

The book opens with a quote by Vladimir Putin: “Whoever wants the Soviet Union back has no brain. Whoever doesn’t miss it has no heart.” And then, a murder: The journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a critic of the Russian president, is found dead. A memorial service is held in Moscow. It is here that we encounter the protagonist of this enchanting book: the aging Russian dissident Eduard Limonov.

Carrère, a French writer and journalist, had known Limonov in the ’80s, in Paris, where Limonov—a hard-drinking, skirt-chasing novelist and Soviet émigré—was popular among France’s intellectual elite. But then things went horribly wrong. In the ’90s, a BBC documentary captured him attacking the city of Sarajevo, under the command of Serbian war criminal Radovan Karadžic. He returned to Russia to found the National Bolshevik Party: a fascist movement whose lackeys adopt the shaved heads and raised-arm salute of their German neo-Nazi forebears.

How did all this come to be? Carrère begins in the beginning, with Limonov’s birth in Second World War-era Ukraine. The ensuing life story, told chronologically, is so wildly implausible, it would appear absurd—if it weren’t entirely true. We get to know Limonov as an anti-establishment poet in Ukraine, a shadowy rebel in Moscow, a famous novelist in Paris, a millionaire’s butler in Manhattan, and a hero to Soviet nostalgics in Central Asia. We watch him party with Salvador Dali, Susan Sontag and Andy Warhol in New York—and spend months in a dreary Russian jail (“something to do with arms trafficking and an attempted coup in Kazakhstan,” in Carrère’s words). Along the way are gaggles of love affairs: with soap opera actresses, heavy-bottomed bookkeepers and, once, a gay man in an empty park.

With considerable space devoted to the revolutions of 1989, the book will surely find an eager audience with those watching events in the former Soviet Union with unease. But it’s also a rip-roaringly fun read. In his writing, Carrère—described by the Guardian as “the most important French writer you’ve never heard of”—is something of a Parisian Truman Capote. He describes this book as a “non-fiction novel,” for, while its stories are rooted in fact, they are also heavily stylized.

In the final pages, he travels to Russia to interview a rather disinterested Limonov, who asks why the author has chosen to write his biography. Carrère answers that he finds Limonov’s story “fascinating.” Limonov, in turn, only shrugs—and declares that he has lived “a s–tty life.”

Sam Sacks // "The Wall Street Journal", October 17, 2014



The ‘Johnny Rotten of literature’ morphs into a Russian ultra-nationalist hoping to overthrow Yeltsin.

Sometime in the early 1980s, Emmanuel Carrère came across a memoir by the Russian writer and political agitator Eduard Limonov. The book, about the author’s exploits as a penniless bohemian on the streets of New York City in the 1970s, carried the suggestive title “The Russian Poet Prefers Big Blacks.” It had been a gift to Mr. Carrère’s mother, a celebrated French historian, and it bore the author’s inscription: “from the Johnny Rotten of literature.”

Carrère mère dismissed the book out of hand (“boring and pornographic,” she pronounced it), but her son, an aspiring writer himself—and today one of France’s most acclaimed authors—was more impressionable. He was struck by the crude energy of the writing, with its graphically itemized sexual escapades involving both women and men and its sneering, punk-rock mannerisms. As the decades passed, he kept stumbling across Mr. Limonov’s name. The Russian was internationally denounced for fighting with the Serbian paramilitary during the Bosnian War. Back home, he founded a neo-fascist political party, was thrown into prison by Vladimir Putin and, once released, assumed the mantle of a pro-democracy dissident.

With “Limonov” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 340 pages, $30), Mr. Carrère attempts to make some kind of sense of this improbable curriculum vitae. His addictively interesting narrative (nimbly translated by John Lambert) goes back to Mr. Limonov’s youth in postwar Ukraine, where he cultivated his “writer-hoodlum” guise—part vagabond-poet, part two-bit thug who carried “a switchblade in his pocket with a blade longer than his palm is wide.” From Kharkov, he migrates to Moscow’s literary underground and then, in 1974, procures an exit visa and moves to New York.

This was not political exile, as such emigration was for Mr. Limonov’s more talented and better known literary rivals Alexander Solzhenitsyn or Joseph Brodsky. Mr. Carrère argues that, following the pattern that would define his life, Mr. Limonov was motivated by nothing more than a thirst for adventure and an opportunistic pursuit of fame: “The only life worthy of him is the life of the hero; he wants the whole world to admire him.” When he instead hits the skids in New York, living in flophouses and eventually taking work as a butler on Long Island, he converts the experience into the chronicles of noble squalor and social rebellion that make him a cult figure for “all the hate-filled losers on the planet.”

Mr. Limonov calls his books fictional memoirs. Similarly, Mr. Carrère’s work is a fictional biography (or, as the author prefers to think of it, a nonfiction novel). Though grounded in reportage, “Limonov” embellishes scenes and projects itself into the thoughts of real figures in ways impermissible in straight nonfiction. Mr. Carrère’s trademark is his use of the first-person singular; he frequently inserts autobiographical accounts of his family life, his writing career or his spiritual leanings into the narrative, even when they have only minimal connection to the story. Yet the storytelling in “Limonov” is fast-paced and full of zest, consciously modeled on the swashbuckling novels of Dumas that both Messrs. Limonov and Carrère hungrily read as a child.

The book grows in both excitement and absurdity as it charts Mr. Limonov’s return to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union and his bizarre transformation into an ultranationalist. His National Bolshevik Party makes bedfellows of anti-Semitic extremists, counterculture artists and other social misfits, and, for a time during Boris Yeltsin’s incompetent presidency, Mr. Limonov believes he can seize power. Mr. Carrère presents him as a kind of farcical exemplum of a new Russia run by drunks and gangsters—except that he loses out again, this time to Vladimir Putin, who trumps him in brutality and demagoguery just as Brodsky once one-upped him in literary renown. Even when it comes to immoral self-interest, Mr. Limonov is second-best, a failure and a loser. In other words, Mr. Carrère suggests, a hero of our time.

The first line of Israeli writer Assaf Gavron’s “The Hilltop” (Scribner, 448 pages, $26) is biblical: “In the beginning were the fields.” And on those fields, situated on a picturesque height somewhere in the West Bank, a former bookkeeper named Othniel Assis establishes a small farm. And, lo, soon other Jews come to reside there, and it expands into an unofficial settlement of trailer homes: “Some were lovers of the Land of Israel; others were lovers of serenity and nature; still others, lovers of low costs.” Zionist organizations donate power generators. Soldiers are sent to stand guard. Thus is the illegal outpost Ma’aleh Hermesh C. created.

But even though Mr. Gavron frames the resulting land dispute as a conflict as old as Genesis, his novel is brilliantly attuned to the madhouse complexities of the current settlement crisis. “The Hilltop” introduces an enormous cast of characters, all of whom seem to be operating at cross-purposes: left-wing protesters, muckraking journalists, wealthy American Zionists, the Palestinians in the adjacent village, foreign entrepreneurs interested in the region’s olive trees and harried government officials trying to evacuate the outpost without sparking an international incident. The parties are so numerous that they sometimes form strange alliances—when the government tries to run a wall through Ma’aleh Hermesh C. and the olive grove, Jews and Palestinians team up to stop the bulldozers.

Mr. Gavron focuses large parts of his story on two 40-something brothers, Gabi and Roni Kupper, each of whom has bottomed out and come to the settlement seeking renewal (spiritual for Gabi, economic for Roni). “The Hilltop” flashes back to their upbringing and adult troubles, but though these sections are sensitively written (and helped by Steven Cohen’s brisk, readable translation), their somber tone doesn’t match the sly satire and powder-keg tension of the scenes in the settlement. Mr. Gavron is at his best when confronting what is, in essence, an ancient contest over the ownership of lawless desert land. “That’s what’s so great about the territories,” Roni says. “There are no rules, you can make them up as you go along.” The superbly orchestrated chaos that results makes this an indispensable novel of, as one character dubs it, the “Wild West Bank.”

Роман-биография Эммануэля Каррера ЛИМОНОВ по-английски...

Emmanuel Carrère LIMONOV / translator: John Lambert // London: «Allen Lane», 2014, paperback, 340 p., ISBN: 978-1-846-14820-0

This uncorrected advance proof is made available on a confidential basis and may not be sold or otherwise circulated. The appearance and contents of this proof may not resemble the finished book and under no circumstances may it or any of its contents be reproduced before publication of the finished book without the publisher’s consent.

Copyright © Emmanuel Carrere 2014
The moral right of the author has been asserted.

Rachel Polonsky // "Literary Review", №425, october 2014



'I've noticed that the Russian media is significantly cutting back the flow of information about what is happening in Donbass', the dissident writer Edward Limonov recorded on LiveJournal on 15 September. 'Apparently there is an order not to destroy the illusion of a continuing truce.' He then listed the number of civilians killed the previous day by Kiev's artillery (twenty), noting the places in eastern Ukraine where there was fighting, the build-up of Kiev's forces at Donetsk airport and the launch of US-led military exercises in the Lviv region. 'So the truce looks like war', he ended, signing off the weblog in his habitual style: 'That was the morning sermon ... I am Edward Limonov.'

Limonov, now in his early seventies, prophesied conflict in Ukraine decades ago. There is a YouTube clip of him in 1992, after the collapse of the USSR, orating in the streets about how nationalism would lead to violence, demanding to know why Crimea, Kharkov and Donbass should belong to Ukraine and what would happen to the Russian-speaking population in the east.

Limonov's real name is Savenko. He was raised in the suburbs of Kharkov (or Kharkiv) in Soviet Ukraine, the only son of an ethnically Russian mother and a father who came from a family of Ukrainian peasants. He is a passionate advocate of the separatists in east Ukraine and their self-proclaimed 'people's republics'. He berates the Kremlin for not offering the rebels greater military and moral support. The goatee-bearded 'guru' enjoys plenty of airtime these days, while the authorities take a milder approach towards the street protests of his young followers. The 'Donbass uprising', as Limonov calls it, has given his public activism a new cause, while placing him at the furthest ideological distance from such pro-Western liberals as Gary Kasparov, with whom, not long ago, he collaborated in opposing Vladimir Putin.

This revival of Limonov's political energies could hardly have been foreseen when Emmanuel Carrère was writing the epilogue to this brilliant biographical 'novel'. 'The historic occasion, assuming he really had one, has passed', Carrère remarked of Limonov's public life. 'He's completely had it.' While he wondered just how his resilient 'hero' would grow old, Carrère felt uneasy at portraying him as a loser: 'I don't like this ending', he wrote, 'and I don't think he'd like it either.'

Since the French publication of Limonov in 2011 (when the book won two prestigious literary prizes), history has contrived an occasion for Limonov to play the hero and shock the West yet again (though he is now too old to participate in the violence he once craved). 'I dream of a violent insurrection', he wrote in Diary of a Loser in 1982, in a passage that Carrère copied into his notebook. Limonov was nearly forty then, a penniless immigrant on the streets of New York. 'Give me a million and I'll spend it on weapons and stage an uprising.'

The timing of the English publication of Limonov is opportune. It is hard to think of a book that presents more perceptively, or more engagingly, the bewildering paradoxes and perversities of Russian political and literary culture over the past half-century. Carrère traces Limonov's story from boyhood and youth in the suburbs of Kharkov (where he first developed his aptitude for fighting, sex, writing and sewing), through years as a young poet in Moscow's artistic avant-garde in the depths of the Brezhnev era (when he earned a living as a tailor, running up flares for his fashion-starved comrades), the splendours and miseries of life as an émigré in New York and Paris, and the succès de scandale of his novel of 1979, It's Me, Eddie, which relates in pornographic detail a sexual encounter with a black man in a children's playground in Manhattan. (Limonov later denied that the homosexual experiences he portrayed ever happened.)

Limonov returned to Russia in 1989 and became politically active in 1991. With the anti-Western ideologist Aleksandr Dugin, whose vision of a Eurasian empire he shared, Limonov founded a radical newspaper, Limonka (slang for hand grenade), and an unofficial political party, the National Bolsheviks. The Nazbols became a genuine countercultural movement with many thousands of young members. In the Yugoslav wars of the early 1990s, Limonov backed Serbia. He showed up in the Balkans and was filmed firing in the direction of Sarajevo. In 2001, he was jailed in Russia for two years for illegally buying weapons. Other charges against him (later dropped) included terrorism and planning an invasion of Kazakhstan.

In Carrère's account, prison brought out the best in Limonov. The narcissist forgot himself; among his cellmates, he was the 'good guy'. In love, too, Carrère portrays Limonov as, at times, a 'good man', capable of steadfast devotion to self-destructive women. Limonov is prone to grandiosity about his prodigious sex life: 'when I am making love,' he once declared, 'I symbolise the gigantic eroticism of my nation'. Among his five wives are some spectacular beauties: the model Elena Schapova (whom Carrère calls Tania), the singer Natalia Medvedeva and the actress Ekaterina Volkova, thirty years his junior and mother of his two children. Through all the turmoil of these self-reinventions runs an unbroken habit of work and a spartan routine of physical exercise followed by long hours at his desk. Limonov has published around fifty books, most based on his own life. Above all, he is the creator of his own myth. His latest work, Old Man, came out this year.

As Carrère draws on Limonov's autobiographical fiction, which hovers just beyond the bounds of verifiable fact, he reflects on his parallel evolution as a writer in his own 'calm country on the decline'. He wryly questions his Parisian sensibilities ('bourgeois' or, at wildest, 'bourgeois bohemian') and the riddle of his fascination with the charismatic 'barbarian' Limonov. At times, fascination turns into hatred. Limonov 'sees himself as a hero', Carrère writes, but he could equally be called a 'scumbag'.

Carrère first met Limonov in the early 1980s. 'This sexy, sly, funny guy', the darling of Parisian literary circles, was the antithesis of the Russian émigré figures he knew: grave bearded dissidents who lived in small apartments cluttered with books and icons, and talked all night 'about how Orthodoxy would save the world'. Limonov's life was full of 'violence and rage', drunken benders, transgressive sex and 'extremist' political gestures. What does this 'romantic, dangerous life' say, Carrère asks, 'not just about him, Limonov, not just about Russia, but about everything that's happened since the end of the Second World War'? And what does it reveal about Putin, 'Edward's double', as Carrère calls him in a discerning passage at the end of the book?

Carrère's mother, an intriguing presence in his narrative, is the eminent historian Hélène Carrère d'Encausse, permanent secretary of the Académie française. Her scholarship has focused on aspects of Russian national identity that preoccupy Limonov: among them, the importance of Central Asia in the history of Russian imperial power and the idea of a Eurasian empire. It is in Central Asia that Limonov feels his best, he tells Carrère on the last page of the book. He imagines himself living out his old age as one of the toothless beggars in the shadow of a mosque in some 'dusty, slow, violent' city like Samarkand or Bukhara. 'He'd be fine with that,' Carrère concludes.

Anna Aslanyan // «Standpoint», №66, october 2014



Eduard Limonov cuts a colourful figure in the post-Soviet landscape. A self-made man, he grew up in post-war Kharkov, wrote poetry and burgled shops as a teenager, went to Moscow in search of literary fame, emigrated to the US, slummed it in New York, became the darling of Parisian intellectual circles, and fought in the Balkans on the side of a Serbian militia before returning to Russia in the early 1990s to found the National Bolshevik Party, a movement that counted Lenin, Mishima and the Baader-Meinhof gang among its heroes and was banned for its extremism. Since 2010 Limonov has led The Other Russia, a non-registered opposition party, and continues to write poetry and prose, including journalism — of which more later.

Most of Limonov's life has been documented in his own books, the best-known of which is his brave, grungy 1979 debut It's Me, Eddie, a fictionalised memoir of his life in America. The French author Emmanuel Carrère, fascinated by the Russian punk turned politician, has collated the various bits of his subject's adventurous life in what he calls a novel (for reasons — ignoring the practicalities of contemporary publishing — that remain unclear). Based on interviews with Limonov and people who know him, the book draws heavily on the protagonist's prose. However, instead of quoting from it, Carrère retells stories already familiar to Limonov's readers. His version is full of sanitised passages like this: "It's Edichka, the Russian poet who costs you $278 a month, dear American taxpayers, and who cordially despises you." Limonov himself put it much better: "I live off your labour: you pay taxes and I don't do shit. . . . What, you don't like me? You don't want to pay? It's not much — 278 dollars a month. You don't want to pay. Well then why the fuck did you get me to come here, me and a whole crowd of Jews?"

Not terribly impressed by Limonov the writer, Carrère gushes: "But what a life! What energy!" He admits that his own is far less exciting. Another Frenchman is quoted in the book as saying that in the USSR, "life is real: serious, adult, as weighty as it should be", a statement Carrère may not fully subscribe to, although he clearly thinks of his subject as a real man, strong, independent and mature. Some of Limonov's exploits corroborate this view, for instance when we learn about his time in prison, where he was sent in 2001 on charges of terrorism, fabricated by the FSB. However, the image of a serious adult leading a group of like-minded individuals fades when we are told about the "bunker" where the National Bolsheviks hang out, its walls adorned with "posters and paintings [of] Stalin, Bruce Lee, the Velvet Underground and Nico, and Limonov in a Red Army officer's uniform". Carrère goes out of his way to paint a sympathetic portrait of his hero; reluctant to use the word "neofascist", he tries to reason with the reader: "Things are more complicated than they seem."

The same refrain is repeated in the chapter about Limonov's most notorious escapade — as a volunteer in a Serbian unit under the command of a war criminal — where Carrère tries to analyse the actions of an adventurer entrusted with a machine-gun. A scene in which Limonov talks with "Dr Radovan Karadžić, psychiatrist and poet, leader of Bosnian Serbs", taken from a BBC documentary, ends with Limonov emptying a magazine in the direction of Sarajevo. Carrère's admiration is stronger than his revulsion: Limonov with the gun may look like "a child encouraged by the adults' laughter", but the author still doesn't think him "either vile or a liar".

Carrère positions his book not as a lightly fictionalised biography (it's a novel, remember) but as a commentary on "all our history since the end of World War II". Russia is at the centre of the author's attention, and his story of the turbulent events of the past two decades is well-researched and informative, especially in the chapter describing the 1993 putsch. Writing about more recent developments, Carrère looks at the oligarchs running the country with disgust, as befits a Western liberal, which doesn't dispel his belief that "there are worse things than Putin-style totalitarianism".

Carrère's strongest suit is irony, to which he occasionally adds a measure of vitriol, as in this passage about Limonov's son: "The boy's called Bogdan, in honor of his Serbian years. I think that Bogdan got off lightly: he could have been called Radovan or Ratko." Recounting the activist's attempts to raise money for his party, the author describes Limonov's contacts as "timid fascists [who] have enough trouble sustaining their own little boutiques". The irony grows subtler when Limonov, asked in 1993 what he does in Russia, says: "I'm getting ready to seize power."

The book ends in 2009, when Carrère finds his interviewee unresponsive and decides to make do with what he's got. The latest turn in Limonov's writing career — a regular column in Izvestia, the mouthpiece of Russian officialdom — serves as a postscript to the book about a man whose most endearing trait, in the eyes of his novelist-biographer, is always being on the side of the underdog. This is Limonov's reaction to a protest held in Moscow in March 2014 against Russia's acts of aggression towards Ukraine: "My creative imagination pictured [the protesters] as a collective of prostitutes, prepared for any humiliation because they find pleasure in it." His piece, reeking of imperial megalomania, makes you feel nostalgic for the days when the word "prostitute" didn't have a purely negative meaning to Limonov. Heartbroken after his wife leaves him, the protagonist of It's Me, Eddie says: "There was me hoping, thinking: we'd be whores, swashbucklers, prostitutes, whoever — but still together throughout life."

I saw Limonov at a book festival in Moscow four years ago. He arrived flanked by several bodyguards and read some of his recent poems — very good, fresh and energetic, delivered with such gusto it was hard to believe the author was in his late sixties. Poetry aside, comparing Limonov's political persona today with his younger self is rather depressing. In his 1977 book, Diary of a Loser, the young rebel was sure that even in the old age he would be able "to be a lone wolf . . . and cry out in a hoarse voice: Kill 'em! . . . Those who are not with us are against us!" Three and a half decades later, Limonov prefers to play it safe on the side of Putin's big battalions.

Robert McCrum // "The Observer (The Guardian)", 21 September 2014

Emmanuel Carr re / Ed Alcock / M.Y.O.P.


As his latest «non-fiction novel», Limonov, comes out in English, the acclaimed and bestselling author discusses his extreme personal candour and why he likes to court danger.

Relaxing cross-legged in his Paris apartment, with his crew cut, bare feet, and black fatigues, sun-tanned Emmanuel Carrère could be a guerrilla commander at a ceasefire, or a colonel in the French Foreign Legion enjoying some metropolitan R&R. In fact, he's the best kind of writer, not just a bestseller but a man who is not afraid to leave the comfort zone of his desk, go out into the world, take risks, and get his shoes dirty. According to the Paris Review, «There are few great writers in France today, and Emmanuel Carrère is one of them.»

And yet, perhaps because he conducts himself less like a grand homme de lettres, and more like a journalist and film-maker, with discretion, modesty and good humour, Carrère's reputation has never progressed very far in the Anglo-Saxon world. Today, he is probably the most important French writer you've never heard of.

In part, this is to do with the range of his curiosity, his penchant for exploring many different genres, and the sheer variety of his life so far. He was born in 1957. After military service in Indonesia, he became a film critic for Télérama. While also writing screenplays for cinema and television, he has written several volumes of highly admired avant-gardefiction.

Carrère's breakthrough occurred in 1986 with The Moustache, a bestselling novella hailed by John Updike in the New Yorker as «stunning». Thereafter, he wrote a novel about a compulsive gambler (Hors d'atteinte?) and then a paedophile murder (Class Trip).

In 1993 he published I Am Alive and You Are Dead, a strange and obsessive inquiry into the life of Philip K Dick, the cult sci-fi writer whose work inspired movies including Blade Runner and Total Recall. Dick devoted his life to the unanswerable question, «What is real?». Similarly, Carrère seems happiest to work at what Graham Greene called «the dangerous edge of things.»

The gap between the banality of everyday life and the wild wastes of his imagination is what fascinates Carrère. In his most recent book, Limonov, he writes: «I live in a calm country on the decline. Born into a bourgeois family in Paris's Sixteenth Arrondissement, I became a bourgeois bohemian in the Tenth. The son of a senior executive and an eminent historian, I write books and screenplays and my wife is a journalist. My parents have a holiday house on the île de Ré – more or less the French equivalent of Martha's Vineyard.» Despite, or possibly because of, this inheritance, Carrère's imagination is anything but tranquil, or bourgeois.

First of all, he writes as if his parents are dead. In A Russian Novel, he portrayed his White Russian grandfather's wartime service in the Wehrmacht, for which he was executed as a collaborator, in stark defiance of his mother, the formidable Hélène Carrère d'Encausse, secretary-general of the Académie française. Her son, although awed by her achievements and celebrity, seems to relish the creative challenge presented by her example. «When I began to write,» he says, «it was not so easy for me.»

Elsewhere, he spares none of his family circle in print, including himself. Throughout his work, Carrère has pushed personal candour to the limit, exposing his worst self to public scrutiny. In the same novel, excruciatingly, he repeats the true story of the pornographic letter to his girlfriend he published in Le Monde.

It's no exaggeration to say that Carrère's life seems to be conducted, by accident or design, in extremis. For example, in 2004, he and his girlfriend took a Christmas holiday in Sri Lanka and were caught up in the tsunami. Other Lives But Mine, another bestseller, not only described their harrowing escape, but also grimly anatomised the death from cancer of his girlfriend's sister.

As if to elucidate his addiction to displays of the tormented self, he says: «I have had psychoanalysis for about 12 years in three different stages, with three different analysts. In France, there is a tendency to say that psychoanalysis does not work and that it is… « he searches for the word in a rare betrayal of his otherwise excellent English «fakery… quackery… crooked. But I feel grateful. Psychoanalysis has helped me as a man and as a writer.»

Psychotherapy, he says, has contributed to his career as a novelist working at the dangerous edge. «For 15 years, I was a fiction writer. Then there was a moment when I wrote The Adversary [the true story of a serial killer] and I stopped writing fiction and began to write «non-fiction novels». I tried to write about the world and about myself, describing reality through my own experience. Yes, maybe I'm more explicit than some.»

The writers Carrère admires are those like Montaigne, famous for declaring «I am myself the matter of my book», and Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy, who mash up art and reality and break literary conventions. «I like very much that kind of writer,» he says. «A man whose mind is liberated and not caged in a genre, free from censorship.»

In the manner of Truman Capote, whose quest for an ordinary mid-western murder story eventually became the classic «non -fiction novel» In Cold Blood, Carrère has waited, with the patience of a deer hunter, for the true story that would not only illuminate aspects of his own life, but also exemplify the puzzle of the post-cold war west.

In 2006, investigating the dark side of Putin's Russia, in the aftermath ofjournalist Anna Politkovskaya's killing, he found it in Moscow in the wrecked, transgressive figure of Eduard Limonov, the dissident nazbol, as Russians call members of the far-right National Bolshevik Party.

Limonov was tailor-made for Carrère's imaginative gifts. Born in second world war Ukraine, this dangerous, romantic rebel, «a cross between a sailor on leave and a rock star», had been a young punk in his native Kharkov, an avant-garde poet and idol of the Soviet underground in the Brezhnev era, and then an alcoholic down-and-out, before heading to America in the spring of 1974, coincidentally at the same moment as Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

As a refugee in 70s Manhattan, contemporary with the poet Joseph Brodsky, Limonov took a cheap room in the squalid Winslow hotel, living on cabbage soup, and writing about his life with the simple, raw energy of a Russian Jack London. While Limonov was making a minor literary name for himself, he also became a multi-millionaire's valet and published a sensational fictionalised memoir, His Butler's Story, with the Grove Press. About this chapter in an extraordinary career, Carrère says: «What interests Limonov is to be famous. The dream he has of himself is as the hero of a novel. He is not so proud of being a writer. He just wants to be a hero.»

Has Limonov read Limonov, Carrère's account of his life? «Publicly, he says not,» replies the writer. «Privately he says he disagrees with my version. But the book has had a great success, so Limonov does not mind.»

After the American interlude, in another metamorphosis, Limonov moved back to Europe and became a louche, fashionable writer in 80s Paris, a city susceptible to the dangerous charm of the Russian émigré. Another scandalous novel, It's Me, Eddie, enjoyed a succès fou. «I knew him then,» says Carrère, «but we were not friends.»

Once again, Limonov's world fell to pieces. In 1989, the Soviet Union disintegrated in mayhem, euphoria and recriminations. As communism collapsed, Limonov disappeared into the Balkans. Here, to the horror of Carrère and his bien pensant circle, he ended up among the Serbs. «In our eyes,» says Carrère, this was like «siding with the Nazis». A BBC documentary from this time shows Limonov bombarding the besieged city of Sarajevo under the benevolent eye of Radovan Karadzic. An important strand of Limonov is Carrère's anguished grappling with the demons of fascism from Nietzsche to Milosevic. «Limonov,» observes Carrère, indulgently, «is the good incarnation of a fascist. Do not, as Pasolini says, underestimate the charm of fascism. To do that is not to understand a thing about Russia.»

Still in search of existential and political coherence to his life as a post-Soviet citizen, Limonov returned to his homeland in 1994, coincidentally the same year as Solzhenitsyn. Mikhail Gorbachev had just been deposed by Boris Yeltsin. Limonov's response to the chaos in Russia was to found the National Bolshevik party, an aggressive neo-fascist movement appealing to disaffected, post-Soviet youth. Limonov's supporters occasionally popped up in news clips from the time: shaved heads, dressed in black, marching down Moscow's streets giving a half Nazi (raised arm), half Communist (balled fist) salute, and chanting «Stalin! Beria! Gulag!» The clear implication: Bring back the USSR. These, says Carrère, were Russia's «rock'n'roll years. Moscow was the centre of the world. Nowhere else are the nights so crazy, the girls so beautiful, the cheques so exorbitant.» But then, out of this wild revel, like a wolf from the forest, came the cold, sinister figure of Vladimir Putin.

In 2001, Limonov was arrested, tried and imprisoned for obscure political reasons, apparently connected to arms trafficking and an attempted coup in Kazakhstan. When Carrère, who had known Limonov during his Paris heyday, encountered him again in 2006, he appeared, he says, «a little like an aged d'Artagnan», a telling clue to the direction of Carrère's interest in an extraordinary life story.

However, despite his novelist's attraction to Limonov's peculiarly Russian tale, Carrère could not reconcile the many characters locked inside the persona of Eduard Limonov (writer-hoodlum, hunted guerrilla, or post-Soviet politician). Perhaps telling his story would make sense of history? «I thought to myself,» he writes, «[Limonov's] romantic, dangerous life says something. Not just about Russia, but about everything that's happened since the end of the second world war.»

More than that, this bizarre life is a vivid mirror to Carrère's own complex personality, and his hidden drives. As a writer who relishes risk, he is fascinated by a life so connected to current events. His «non-fiction novel», Limonov, has two explicit modes – part adventure story, part cultural-historical analysis. It is, he insists, «not a biography. I never tried to do what a real biographer would do. I did not check facts, or check out what he actually said».

So, finally, and most covertly, it is about Carrère's exploration of himself, his Russian heritage, and what it means to be a European after the second world war, especially since the end of the cold war. He cheerfully admits to a sense of confusion. «I spent two weeks with Limonov,» remembers Carrère «and after two weeks, I did not know what to think. Could this be a long article, or a book? Not to know what you think is quite a challenge. It could be a biography, an adventure story, a roman picaresque, after Dumas, and also a book of history, with all the tension of a novel.»

Life, however, rarely comes up with neat or satisfying narratives. Limonov still opposes Putin, with great courage, and is regularly thrown in prison for his pains. «The problem,» says Carrère, «is that, basically, he supports Putin. He just thinks Putin is not hard enough. Limonov still dreams of a great Russia. But honestly,» he concedes, «his career is over.»

In Limonov, as a writer in search of a narrative line, Carrère struggles with this diminuendo. There's a moment in 2009, in one of his conversations with the ageing rebel, when he praises his «fascinating life – a life that dared to engage with history». Limonov's bitter response cuts the writer to the quick. «A shitty life, yes.» Russian history is too merciless often to make ordinary life heroic and Carrère admits: «I don't like this ending.»

This seems like a good moment to ask Carrère about his own French literary career. «I live a protected life,» he says. «I have a nice apartment. My kids go to good schools.» A shrug. «It's OK.» That, apparently is Limonov's reproach to his biographer. «He says to me, «We are not on the same side of the barricades. You are a bourgeois. I am a revolutionary. You are the kind of guy I would like to send to the gulag. »»

So where does Carrère put himself in the pantheon of contemporary French writing? «Honestly?» he pauses. «I am quite well known. I am next to Michel Houellebecq. I am happy to hear that Julian Barnes is a fan. It sounds immodest to say this, but for the last 10 years I have been quite successful.»

In Limonov, he writes of his younger self that «My ideal was to become a great writer.» Was this at all an ironic self-description? «Oh no.» Carrère becomes quite serious. «That was always my dream. And…» He drops his voice almost to a whisper. «It still is.» Then he rallies himself. «You should not confess that kind of thing. But really, it's not possible to write books if you don't have that dream.»