Book Review: The Story of the ‘Hand Grenade’ — Emmanuel Carrère’s Biography of the Russian Writer Eduard Limonov
A compelling chronicle of the life of the notorious Russian writer and political activist Eduard Limonov.
Limonov, by Emmanuel Carrère, translated by John Lambert. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 340 pp., $30 (cloth).
By John Taylor
Despite stylistic and methodological lapses in Emmanuel Carrère’s Limonov, this biography of the notorious Russian writer and political activist Eduard Limonov (b. 1943) is a good read.
How could it not be? Limonov’s life is full of extravagant ups and downs. The man’s curriculum vitae, as summed up by Carrère (b. 1957), is that of “a young punk in Ukraine, the idol of the Soviet underground, a bum, and then a multimillionaire’s butler in Manhattan, a fashionable writer in Paris, a lost soldier in the Balkans, and now, in the fantastic shambles of post-communism, the elderly but charismatic leader of a party of young desperadoes.” Carrère relates all these phases of Limonov’s life in graphic detail.
This is not the first time that Carrère has sought to grasp a controversial individual whose behavior is at antipodes from respectable bourgeois morality or whose ideas surpass even the most liberal definitions of political correctness. Jean-Claude Romand, the real-life “anti-hero” of The Adversary (2000), for example, claimed to be a medical doctor who worked for the World Health Organization in Geneva. Yet Romand had concocted a professional screen and had hoodwinked his own family for some eighteen years. This “normal man” had no job whatsoever. When his family at last suspected that something was up, he killed them all: his wife, his two small children, and his parents. He set fire to his house, out of shame for what he had done, His suicide attempt failed; he was revived from an overdose of barbiturates. Carrère acknowledged his fascination for the story when it appeared in the French news, contacted Romand, gained his confidence, attended his trial (at which Romand was sentenced to life imprisonment), corresponded with him, and then wrote his book.
Combining information from Romand’s letters, documentary evidence, and his own personal anecdotes related to his investigation and the very drafting of the manuscript, The Adversary marked Carrère’s departure from the stylish fictional vein that had distinguished his first novels, Gothic Romance (1984) and The Mustache (1986), both of which are also available in English. Yet in his hands, the autobiographically tinged nonfiction genre typified by The Adversary and now Limonov still explores the same types of subject matter as his fiction. (Here is the Arts Fuse review of Carrère’s memoir Lives Other Than My Own.) Gothic Romance, for instance, had delved into how fact and fantasy play roles in Mary Shelley’s drafting of her novel Frankenstein. For Carrère’s Shelley, Frankenstein is more “normal” a monster than one might have fantasized, with philosophical implications that she astutely develops. Gothic Romance stakes out uncomfortable psychological territories not unlike those inhabited by Romand and Limonov. By the way, another book by Carrère, The Behring Strait (1986), is based on the notion of “uchrony,” the chronicle of what might have happened in the past but did not.
Because the Romand tragedy takes place in the present (and, analogously, because Limonov is still very much alive), questions of narrative vantage point are raised for the author. In The Adversary, he gropes (in front of his reader, as it were) for a legitimate approach to this unbelievable imposter-cum-family-murder tale that long remained hot news in France. After some experimentation, he abandons third-person storytelling and brings his own life into the book. He speaks about himself in relation to Romand’s story, ponders why he is attracted to it, questions how his investigation should be recounted, and candidly expresses his doubts and conjectures. A sort of literary variant of the Heisenberg principle of uncertainty is at stake: the biographer discloses how subjectivity enters into his analysis. Most importantly, Carrère states that he will not “judge” Romand and merely wants to “understand” this uncanny double life.
Anglo-American readers might be inclined to impugn this autobiographical, or “auto-fictional,” slant to Carrère’s recent biographical writing. To be sure, it remains at a remove from the fact-checking methodology inherent to our conception of nonfiction and objectivity. But is “objectivity” all that unassailable? Let’s don’t dismiss the French so readily: for centuries now, their writers have skillfully overturned literary fundamentals while reinventing autobiography, that is, while giving new spins to the Cartesian “I think therefore I am.”
Limonov, which was published in France in 2011, proceeds similarly. Carrère explains how he had become acquainted with the Russian writer at the beginning of the 1980s in Paris and unexpectedly came across him two decades later at a human rights rally in Moscow. But by 2002-2006, during the time Carrère first spots Limonov in Moscow and then resolves to interview him, the writer is no longer just the hip Henry-Miller-like memoirist who had written the scandalous It’s Me, Eddie about his life in New York (1975-1980) and whom “le tout Paris” kept inviting to literary cocktail parties. Now he is also the would-be pro-Serb soldier who had been filmed, on Pawel Pawlikowski’s BBC documentary film Serbian Epics (1992), firing a machine gun at least in the direction of (if not directly at) Bosnian civilians scrambling down the besieged streets of Sarajevo and who had co-founded (also in 1992) the National Bolshevik Party, the members of which march with a closed fist thrust out at an angle recalling the Nazi salute. By the way, Limonov’s real name is Savenko. His penname derives from the word limon “lemon” and the slang term limonka, a kind of “hand grenade.”
After their encounter in Russia, Carrère’s initial project of writing an article about Limonov grows into this book. As in The Adversary, he declares that he won’t judge Limonov’s acts morally, but rather attempt to comprehend “his romantic, dangerous life.” He observes: “[It] says something. Not just about him, Limonov, not just about Russia, but about everything that’s happened since the end of the Second World War. Something, yes, but what? I’m writing this book to find out.”
Modern Russian history also fills out Carrère’s chronicle. This is sometimes beneficial to the reader, sometimes tedious. Long passages leave Limonov on the sidelines and detail the political background in the Soviet Union from the 1970s to the present. Carrère draws on the news we all heard during those years as well as on the opinions of specialists, notably his mother, the historian Hélène Carrère d’Encausse. Stylistically, some of these digressions have a cut-and-paste quality to them, as does a similar passage on post-Communist Romania and the execution of the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena on Christmas Day, 1989.
However, while offering little more than a refresher course on Eastern European and especially Russian history, such passages do contextualize Limonov’s involvement with the National Bolshevik Party and show how this “hideous fascist leading a militia of skinheads,” as Carrère ironizes with respect to the writer’s reputation in France, could end up joining forces, at least for anti-Putin demonstrations, with Yelena Bonner (the widow of Andrei Sakharov), Gary Kasparov’s Drugaya Rossiya Party, and human rights activists. Carrère demonstrates that Russian political culture is much more complicated than it looks. This is a particularly troubling part of that “something” that he pins down.
Oddly enough, the chapter on Limonov and Paris is comparatively weak. Is this because, to Carrère’s mind, the elusive “something” has much more to do with Russia and its unfathomable nature? It would have been easy to interview more Parisians than he does in order to obtain different perspectives on the writer’s personality. His involvement with the journal L’Idiot international is telltale, but I wonder how some of the erstwhile regular contributors, and not just the equally controversial editor-in chief, Jean-Édern Hallier (1936-1997), recall him.
During the 1980s, I also knew Limonov a little. Not long after his arrival in Paris, we met at a recording session for Bertrand Jérôme’s playful talk show, Les Papous dans la tête, on France Culture (the national cultural radio station). With a few other foreign writers, we were asked to talk, in French, about funny expressions in our respective languages. At the time, Limonov had little command of spoken French, a fact that discomforted Jérôme at the onset of our session. But Limonov’s English was fluent, so I filled in as his interpreter during the session and then afterwards, at the Café “Les Ondes,” where we all had a drink. He was already a literary legend. It’s Me, Eddie had been published in French in 1980 under the provocative title Le poète russe préfère les grands nègres, an allusion to a homoerotic scene in a New York City park with an Afro-American man. However, nothing in Limonov’s words or behavior that evening, at the Café “Les Ondes,” revealed this fame.
He was even somewhat reserved, as he was during the next two or three times that we chatted after similar encounters. On another occasion, in front of the Shakespeare & Co. Bookshop, he mentioned that more of his work was going to be translated into English—but he mentioned this only because I had asked him. I never heard him bragging about his books. In fact, I never heard him talking about literature.
A few years later (probably around 1986), as my wife and I were leaving the metro station one evening at the place d’Italie, we came across him once again, this time with a map in his hand, trying to figure out where the place des Alpes was. “I’m supposed to meet some Russians at a café there,” he explained. We walked with him for a while and then pointed him in the right direction. Long afterwards, I read in the Times Literary Supplement that Limonov had gotten into fistfights in Parisian cafés because of arguments with other Russians about the Soviet Union. (And Carrère describes him “slugging a British writer in the face after the writer badmouthed the Soviet Union” at an international writers’ conference in Budapest.) Could there also have been a fistfight that night at the café in the place des Alpes?
Let me recount one last anecdote, going back to 1989 or 1990, when Limonov and I met at the Short Story Festival in the town of Saint-Quentin. He didn’t seem to have much contact with the other writers who had been invited. And were those French short-story writers keeping their distance from him? This was my impression. He sat down next to me in the local auditorium while Antonín Liehm, the dissident Czech francophone editor-in-chief of a well known publication, La Lettre internationale, was explaining that most European writers didn’t know how to write stories and that he would “edit and rewrite, just as in The New Yorker,” whatever texts he accepted. Hearing these words, Limonov bounded from his seat and shouted “but we are craftsmen!” Some uneasy applause followed, but, luckily, no fistfights. We agreed to meet for breakfast the next morning. When he failed to show up, I learned that, instead of staying for the rest of the conference, he had taken the earliest train back to Paris. Carrère mentions that Limonov is an early riser, his alcohol-fuelled pugnacious nights notwithstanding. By seven a.m. the next morning, he is at work on a manuscript.
And yet Carrère also emphasizes that writing, for Limonov, “had never been a goal in itself; merely the only way he could conceive of attaining his real aim: namely, become rich and famous—above all, famous.” The biographer adds:
After five or six years in Paris, he realized it might not happen. He might just grow old as a second-rate writer with a pleasantly fiery reputation, whose colleagues look at him with envy at book fairs because he attracts pretty, somewhat trashy girls who make his life more colorful than theirs. But in fact he lives in a cubbyhole with an alcoholic singer, empties his pockets to buy a slice of ham, and worries over what memories he’ll mine for his next book, because the truth is he’s running out, he’s told practically everything about his past, all that’s left is the present.
Similar commentary unveils the hidden layers beneath Lemonov’s harsh surface. Carrère intelligently uses less spectacular incidents to round out his portrait. The description of a visit to his parents in Slatov (near Kharkov), in 1989, is one of these:
The train gets in a 7:00 a.m., the taxi drops him off in Saltov in front of the prefab concrete building where he spent his adolescence. His duffel bag slung over his shoulder, he climbs naked concrete steps that wouldn’t be out of place in a prison. [. . .] His inner voice tells him to take the train back to Moscow that very evening, but that would be too cruel. It’s the first time he’s seen his parents in years and will no doubt be the last, so he decides to spend a week with them. . . He’s found his old weights and exercises for an hour each morning. Lying on his childhood bed he rereads his old copies of Jules Verne and Alexandre Dumas, eats three heavy meals a day, and forces himself to have prickly conversations with his mother—his father doesn’t say a thing.
Carrère views Limonov as possessing positive qualities such as being neither “vile [n]or a liar,” of being “loyal and honor[ing] the vanquished,” of being unjudgmental. “He’s got no illusions, no compassion,” writes Carrère, “but he’s attentive, curious, even helpful at times.” Describing Limonov on a trip to Central Asia, he notes:
After being so dead set against Islam under the influence of his Serbian friends, by the time he comes back [from Central Asia] he’s swearing by nothing but Muslims, extending this newfound infatuation to include the Chechens, whose frugality, brilliant guerrilla tactics, and elegant cruelty he now extols. You’ve got to say one thing for this fascist: he only likes, and has only ever liked, the underdogs. The skinny against the fat, the poor against the rich, the self-confessed assholes—who are rare—against the legion of the virtuous.
Yet the more stunning incidents in this biography seemingly stem from Limonov’s own written accounts. The extent to which his books, many of which are available only in Russian, are drawn upon in Limonov is not entirely clear. Carrère doesn’t always state his sources. This methodology, which gives precedence to storytelling over rigor, is especially unsatisfactory in some passages. One would like to know who is detailing the extraordinary event, Carrère, Limonov, or both, or neither. Imagine a biographical account of Ernest Hemingway’s life in Paris that would borrow heavily from A Moveable Feast. We know the degree to which the author of In Our Time aggrandized himself or simply lied. This is likely not the case with Limonov, yet I wonder what events are left out of his books and whether they, or additional outside testimony, would have opened up different perspectives on his assuredly complex personality. Carrère insists on the man’s truthfulness, with one disturbing exception:
Eduard remains in this wild, mountainous region [of Serbian Krajina, during the Yugoslav Wars] for two months. He participates—he says this himself and I believe him—in a number of guerrilla actions: raids on villages, ambushes, skirmishes. He risks his life. One thing I’ve often wondered while writing this book is whether he killed anyone. For a long time I didn’t dare ask, and when I finally did he shrugged and said that was a typically civvy question. “I’ve shot, often. I’ve seen men fall. Did I hit them? Hard to say. War’s not cut and dried.” I rarely suspect him of lying; here I do a bit. He knows I’m writing a book about him, for a French readership—that is to say, righteous and quick to take offence—and perhaps he didn’t want to pat himself on the back for an experience he himself must consider enriching. I think that in his philosophy, killing a man in hand-to-hand combat is like getting screwed from behind: something to try at least once. If he did, which I don’t know, the chances are good that he did it during these two months in Krajina, where there are practically no witnesses.
The gravity and scope of Carrère’s Limonov shines forth in such passages. And so do the benefits of Carrère’s autobiographical approach: we hear him thinking about what Limonov is thinking, and in the process we hear Limonov thinking. Personally, I was shocked when I first heard about Limonov’s behavior in the Yugoslav Wars. I hadn’t known him very well, but he had always been perfectly cordial in his dealings with me. I had no reason to suspect that this could be otherwise. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I watched him shooting at Bosnians in Pawlikowski’s film. Carrère’s book puts such acts in perspective, not in any moral sense (this is not his intention), but rather in a psychological one that is often convincing but that must necessarily remain hypothetical. Ultimately, that “something” that the biographer is seeking to delineate probably concerns much more the unfathomable depths of, for the better or worse, exceptional human beings such as Limonov than “everything that’s happened since the end of the Second World War.”
John Taylor is the author of the three-volume essay collection, Paths to Contemporary French Literature (Transaction Publishers, 2004, 2007, 2011). His new collection, A Little Tour through European Poetry (also Transaction Publishers), has just appeared. He has translated books by several French poets, most recently Philippe Jaccottet, Pierre-Albert Jourdan, Jacques Dupin, Louis Calaferte, and José-Flore Tappy. He lives in France.