A hero of our time?

INTERVIEW: author Emmanuel Carrère. Just imagine a Russian Henry Miller with a Bolshevik heart and a soft spot for the fascists of this world – with the exception of Vladimir Putin. Limonov is a ‘biography’ that reads like an adventure page turner.

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Photo by Raphael Labbe (Wikimedia Commons)

Just imagine a Russian Henry Miller with a Bolshevik heart and a soft spot for the fascists of this world – with the exception of Vladimir Putin. Limonov is a ‘biography’ that reads like an adventure page turner. The book won one of France’s best literary prize and is now available to readers in Germany – don’t miss author Emmanuel Carrère at the International Literature Festival on September 13.

Who is Eduard Limonov? Surely a character larger and dodgier than life, the ideal protagonist for the “picaresque” biography Emmanuel Carrère set himself to write: an unlikely Soviet Henry Miller (he fictionalised his bi-sexual escapades in mid-1970s New York in books such It’s Me, Eddie) with an unshakable Bolshevik ethos, fascist inclinations and a penchant for characters shadier than himself – from mob-style crooks to mercenaries to Le Pen and Radovan Karadzic… until he joined Russia’s anti-Putin democrats.

His biographer is French Emmanuel Carrère, a self-professed “squishy left-wing bourgeois bohemian from the 10th arrondissement” who regularly captivates literary critics and Sunday readers alike with a sharp, clear prose that taps into first-person journalism and reads like a novel – a style for which he was often compared to Truman Capote. For his 12th book, Carrère chose to write a unique brand of “non-fiction novel” that earned him our deepest admiration and a Prix Renaudot, one of France’s  highest literary accolades.

Don’t miss the launch of the German translation at the ILB, and if you can’t read French, grab a copy of the German translation of Limonow. The English version won’t be available until next year.

Eduard Limonov is a household name in Russia. Some French intellectuals might still remember him because he lived there in Paris in the 1980s, but people in Berlin might not be very familiar with his name. So if you had to sum up a very complex, ambiguous character in a few words – who is Limonov?

An adventurer! A writer. Someone who tried to do politics. A hoodlum who has been through quite a few interesting moments in history. But honestly in France it was the same; he had been mostly forgotten. Or he had a pretty poor reputation. He’s always been a very polarizing character.

That’s the least one can say: in the West he had a pretty tarnished reputation as an ultra nationalist (he created the Nationalist Bolshevik party) who sympathised with Serbian war criminals such as Radovan Karadzic. But then, in the last few years he’s been seen demonstrating side-by-side with Russia’s most respectable anti-Putin, pro-democracy forces, even creating a party with former chess champion Garry Kasparov. He is a man of many paradoxes. Is that what attracted you to him?

Yes, certainly. I had known him for quite a while – I had read his books, I had met him on occasion, but I could never decide what to think of him. I think this is good fuel to write a book – not knowing what to think about someone!

At what moment did you decide to write this book?

It was a sequence of two events. I had known Limonov as a writer in France, but his later political choices had totally perplexed me. When he was sent to prison later, I can’t really say I felt deeply sorry for him. At some point I bumped into him again in Russia and I realised with some degree of surprise that the most respected figures of democratic Russia, like Anna Politovskaya, Elena and Bohner held Limonov with high esteem. This, in contrast to my idea of Limonov as some weird fascist creature, intrigued me. I found the status he had in Russia very interesting, that’s something I wanted to explore. So, I went to do a reportage about him for a French magazine [Revue XXI]. Twenty years after my last encounter with him I went to Moscow for two weeks to write about him. After that pretty long article, I wanted to go further. Suddenly I understood that there was material for a story that would say a lot about the recent history of Russia, with a character that was complex and ambiguous and who also had this amazing life energy. In short, the perfect protagonist for a novel.

How were those two weeks with Eduard Limonov?

He welcomed me cordially but with some reserve, which I could understand. He didn’t know what my intentions were, whether I was coming to praise him or damn him – I myself didn’t really know. I never did a formal interview, but I basically followed him through all of his day-to-day activities for 10 or 15 days.

How was it compared to your expectations, did you get to understand him better?

I pretty much remained perplexed. Sometimes there were things he would tell me or that other people would tell me about him that would intrigue me. For example, there was an interesting moment that clicked for me, something he told me: when he was sent to a penal colony near Saratov on the Volga, he said the toilets reminded him of the Philippe Starck bathrooms in a trendy, posh hotel in New York. While saying that, he realises that there might not be so many people in the world who have experienced such contrasts, with such a wide spectrum of experience. He took some kind of pride in it and I could empathise with that.

Wasn’t it a challenge to write the story of a man very much into self-mythologising. How do you deal with a character who’s constantly been trying to create a legend out of his life, especially in his books, which are all autobiographical? It’s very rich material, but maybe deceptive…

Actually his books were my primary material. I have read pretty much everything he wrote, starting with the books translated into French. I liked them a lot. He is a good writer. Later, I had to read books that were published only in Russian, which was a lot of work for me because I don’t read Russian fluently…

So, how did you manage to go through the character he made out of himself?

This creation of his own iconic character, the way he’s always been dramatising his own life is part of the subject.  I never tried to verify his autobiographical accounts. In many cases, I couldn’t, like when he talks about his childhood in Karkov in the 1950s. But as a general principle, I decided to trust him. If I had the ambition to do a totally trustworthy American-style biography about Eduard Limonov I wouldn’t have fulfilled the assignment…

Actually, there is no genre written on the book. It doesn’t say “biography”, but it doesn’t say “novel” either. It’s been compared to a non-fiction novel, in the style of Truman Capote…

Yes… No, that was a deliberate choice. Of course one could call it a novel, but it’s a personal thing, I have a pretty strict definition of the novel – a book of fiction, and this was obviously not one. Plus in France the novel is supposed to be the ultimate literary genre, which means you write the word “novel” on pretty much anything and I’d rather abstain from that.

Back to your encounter with Limonov: did you at any point feel like he was trying to take advantage of you to perfect his biography?

No, that’s something that actually struck me and that I respect a lot. He never tried to charm me at any point. After all, there was this writer coming all the way from France to write about him. In his place a lot of people would have tried to be really impress and please me. But no, he was only correct, rather reserved, a little bit wary. He always kept a little distance and that has always been our relationship. Cordial, but we’re not friends. We never got chummy together, we never got drunk together. 

How did he react to the book?

He reacted in a really intelligent way, saying that he would never express his feelings about it publicly. Which I think is a very clever thing to say.  His other choice could have been to rectify a few errors in my book, which would be totally pointless, or he could have voiced some disagreements with the many judgements or opinions I express about him in the book. And I think he was very wise to abstain from that.  But he made clear that he is totally grateful and happy that somebody wrote a book about him and the resurrection he can enjoy in the West, thanks to my book. Mutual respect is what could describe our relationship best.

What do you respect about him?

I would say his courage and the way he stands behind his actions, no matter what the consequences are.  He’s sent to jail: he goes and doesn’t complain about it. There is something very honourable about that. This said, there are many things I don’t like about him. I believe he is totally irresponsible politically. No matter how respectable the anti-Putin people he is currently siding with are, I am rather happy someone like Limonov doesn’t hold any political power.

You make pretty plain in the book that you went through a phase in which you lost faith in him as a man and as a character?

I actually took a break of about a year, because at some point I felt too uneasy about him. I started to think he was the ultimate “bad subject”. What I mean by that is that he was a mauvais sujet –  a bad guy, a troublemaker but as well ‘a bad subject’ for a book, that I had made a mistake and chosen a pathetic, uninteresting character.  But then I got over that phase and returned to it.

At what point did that happen?

Very clearly at the time of his escapade in Serbia. That was something I found particularly unpleasant. It’s not just about choosing the wrong side. That can happen to anyone. It’s that particular moment, in a film you can see on the internet, where he is in Sarajevo, hanging out with the Serbian forces [with Radovan Karadzic].

He looks like a nerdy little boy trying to rub elbows with the big strong soldiers…

Yes, exactly. Suddenly I got the impression that my character was nothing but this pathetic, ugly character – that he lacked the stuff of the hero for a novel.

This impression is related in the book, which is pretty characteristic of a writing style in which you incorporate your own perspective – feelings, doubts, etc. How important is this to you?

I would have a hard time not doing it. It’s not really a choice.  It’s very simply a way to say that what I’m writing is not the absolute truth. It’s doesn’t pretend to be objective. That’s what I’ve seen, experienced, heard, felt – that and only that. I think there is some sort of honesty towards the reader.

Critics have highlighted the contrast between Limonov, the depraved artist, bad guy, thuggish crazy adventurer and you, the clean-cut guy cum Parisian bobo intellectual… two polar opposites. But at the same time I couldn’t help thinking while reading this book that deep down you identified with him and felt closer to him than appearances would suggest.

You’re totally right, but for dramatic purposes it was in my interest to highlight the contrast. When you have a strong character and someone telling his story, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson can be a good model. The idea is to have Dr. Watson as conformist and virtuous as possible in order to highlight the contours of Sherlock Holmes.

So, what do you feel you might have in common with Limonov?

It might not be a direct answer to your question, but there is one thing that touched me. He is someone who has lived all his life remaining faithful to an ideal he formed when he was a very young man. Not that I think that one should live all his life according to a little boy’s ideal and that one shouldn’t try to reach a certain maturity and grow beyond that – that’s something I have personally tried to do in my own life. But the fact he has tried all his life to conform to that ideal and in many ways it was the ideal of a puny kid with glasses who would get beaten up by the bigger kids in the schoolyard and who says ‘from now on no one will beat me up again, I’ll be the one, I’ll be the boss’. I find it moving.

Two things that perplexed me about your book: the opening quote by Putin and the way you actually compare Putin and Limonov to conclude they have a lot in common, something I found almost shocking and hard to believe.

It’s not that I hold Putin to be a great thinker or writer! I was certainly being a little bit provocative. I definitely think it’s very good that Limonov opposes Putin, but as a matter of fact I think Limonov is definitely closer to Putin than to those democrats who form the opposition to Putin, many of whom are former dissidents. Limonov has always hated those dissidents. He is definitely much more on the side of the law of the strongest; “might is right” is certainly more his thing. He wants a strong Russia, a Russia that won’t let itself be stepped on. And, in my opinion, and of course he wouldn’t agree with that, if he were really honest with himself, he would definitely consider Putin to be the perfect leader for Russia. Not me, but he should! You know Limonov found Saddam Hussein to be a great leader too… Another thing Putin and Limonov have in common: they both think one shouldn’t be ashamed of the communist past.

This nostalgia for communism is shared by many people in Russia…

Yes, probably, but that’s something the two definitely have in common. And deep down, that’s one of the subjects of this book. What are we doing with the legacy of communism? This book tries to recount how the liquidation of communism happened and the way it actually didn’t entirely happen. And Limonov was the perfect character to explore that through his own life trajectory.  It was all the more interesting to choose a character who is rather unknown in the West…  because we know the historical dissidents like Solzhenitsyn…

Solzhenitsyn, whom Limonov hated all his life…

To be more exact, Limonov spent his whole life detesting and envying Solzhenitsyn. And Solzhenitsyn to whom Limonov was absolutely nobody once referred to him as “a little insect who writes pornography”, which was pretty terrible for somebody like Limonov who spent his life constantly wanting to be acknowledged as someone important.

Why call your novel just Limonov, a name which not many people can relate to?

For a while I wanted it to be A Hero of Our Time. And I wanted to quote Lermontov from A Hero of Our Time. I liked the parallel with Lermontov’s dark hero Pechorin, who is a reference in Russia. The quote was: “Perhaps some readers,” it’s Mikhail Lermontov speaking, “will want to know my opinion of Pechorin. My answer is the title of this book. ‘But this is wicked irony!’ they will say. ‘I wonder.’” But at the end I thought Putin was more fun and I tend to think that when it comes to titles, the simpler, the shorter, the better. I actually personally like books that are named after the main character. Like the big novels of the 19th century like David Copperfield. Here it’s a pretty good name that you can remember easily.

You’re lucky that he gave himself a nickname. If you had to call your book by his real name, Eduard Veniaminovich Savenko, it would have been a mouthful!

Yes, he should be credited for that!

Have you seen the jacket of the German translation, with the lemon-shaped grenade on it?

No, not yet… I can see the reference for a Russian reader [a Limonka in Russian is a type of hand grenade; it is also the name of Limonov’s National Bolshevik Party’s newspaper]; but for a German audience it could be a bit cryptic.

LIMONOW is published by Matthes & Seitz Berlin