Stuart Walton reviews Bryan Karetnyk’s landmark translation of Yuri Felsen’s modernist masterpiece.
Yuri Felsen, Deceit, translated by Bryan Karetnyk (Prototype, 2022), 320pp.
The early years of the twentieth century were the decisive inaugural period of the literature of exile and displacement. If the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Bildungsroman had sent its hero out into an unknown world, building his life out of unexpected occurrences and characters whose like he had never met before, he went out to meet his happy or tragic fate willingly. In the subsequent era, when the modernist novel attempted to collapse the age-weathered formal distinction between art and the lived life, political exigency forced upon people the self-construction of the exile. Moreover, as evidenced by the consciousnesses of Mr Bloom, Mrs Dalloway, Marcel, the modernist novel had exiled its characters from Victorian narrative shaping, but some lives were nonetheless more exilic than others.
From the death-machine of the Great War, via the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia to the anti-Semitic persecutions and brutal occupations of Nazi Germany, not to mention the millions uprooted from settled lives in the colonies of the European powers, waves of migration were instigated that have not abated since. Early modernism and its antecedents witnessed the precariousness of industrial revolution migrants who gravitated to the cities for economic reasons. Later modernism discovered this was mere prelude to the unending churn to which war, invasion and pogrom would subject the twentieth century’s unluckiest.
Among the fugitives in 1918 was Nikolai Freudenstein, eldest son of a Jewish doctor, whose extended family had professional connections at the Tsarist court. Correctly judging that they would hardly find favour under the new regime, the Freudensteins fled from St Petersburg to newly independent Latvia, where they improvised a kind of settlement among the parks and boulevards of Riga. In 1923, Nikolai was on the move again, this time to Weimar Berlin, metropolitan centre of a teetering Republic in the grip of hyper-inflation. It would be no more than a slippery stepping-stone to Paris, home of the avant-garde and of a cosmopolitan cultural milieu charged with an acute sense of its own ephemerality.
By the time Freudenstein, still in his late twenties, began establishing a literary presence in the city, he had become Yuri Felsen, a partly Russian, partly Germanic nomenclature that denoted an artistic persona that was nevertheless entirely Parisian. Felsen quickly came to the notice of other Russian exiles, among them the young Vladimir Nabokov who, almost as parsimonious with praise of others as he would be in dyspeptic maturity, yet saw in the parvenu a diamond in the rough. Felsen’s first novel, Deceit, was published in Russian by the émigré company Povolotsky in 1930. It would not see the light of day in its author’s homeland until 2012, and now appears for the first time in English translation.
Deceit takes the form of a journal, extending over ten months, between two unspecified years in the 1920s. Its writer is a Russian emigrant who, piecing together a shreds-and-patches living from occasional work he despises, describes his daily activities in diaristic detail. His chief preoccupation is an elusive beauty, Lyolya Heard, whose arrival is hotly anticipated in the opening entries of the journal. When he goes to greet her at what seems to be the Gare de l’Est, she might well have arrived by magic carpet as by train. Endowed with all the power of an enchantress – ‘[t]here is something that is forever joyous about my conversations and my relationship with Lyolya – I find it difficult to break free of my own accord’ – it will turn out that the beloved’s attitude to the narrator is not exactly reciprocal.
Lyolya married a staff officer in the army in the immediate aftermath of her father’s death, but the marriage was a failure. A consistent aspect of the narrator’s consciousness of her is the tormenting intimation that nobody else with whom she becomes involved is quite worthy of her. The military husband exercised a ‘smug, triumphant power over her’, and by the final part of the novel, the narrator must endure an excruciating social trio, in which the third participant, a well-meaning simpleton called Bobby, appears effortlessly to exert a more powerful pull on Lyolya’s affections than does his jealous rival – ‘he had won, was free to do as he pleased, and hence was playing the magnanimous victor’.
Other friends and acquaintances come and go regularly throughout the narrative, but the unsettled, hurting heart of it is the desire of a young man, financially, spiritually, and existentially insecure, who fails to find what could be the simplest of satisfactions. In a fragment of his own journal, Felsen spoke of the need for individual experience to be defiantly heard amid the engulfing collectivisms of the era. In this idiom, love becomes a dissenting force, not because, as in the Victorian era, social prejudice or familial obtuseness stood in its way, but because its insistence on subjective experience was itself a resistance to the impositions of history. This, suggests the translator Bryan Karetnyk in an eloquent Afterword, is what explains the lack of specific locations in the text, where concrete details of streets and settings are elided to make way for the unfolding of the inner life itself.
For reasons that are evident from the first page, Felsen achieved with the publication of Deceit the reputation of a Russian Proust, an accolade reinforced by Karetnyk’s splendid, lucent translation. In Felsen we rediscover Proust’s elegantly elongated periods, dialectical philosophical reflection, patient attentiveness to the vicissitudes of feelings, itself deriving from forensic examinations of the attitudes, gestures, scents and smiles, the careless remarks and coruscating silences of others, even the moments of sardonic disdain; all recall the insistent rhetorical flow of the Recherche. What distinguishes Felsen is a greater sense of desperation – the instinct, contra Proust, that one doesn’t after all have all the time in the world to reach an understanding with it – and a persistent sense that what the diarist says about his emotions and dispositions in the text may not be the unalloyed truth.
The Deceit of the title thus has a twofold significance. On the one hand, it connotes the lack of honesty, the nagging note of moral indeterminacy, in Lyolya’s dealings with her admirers, but there is also a countervailing sense that the narrator himself is thereby coerced into lying to himself, like all unfulfilled lovers, about the deep shadow in which he continues to languish. In the final entry, in a tone that anticipates the humanistic objectivity of the later Freud, he confesses as much:
It is impossible to live without deceit … we are made so that we shall never find our way out of this dead end, and, amid the other ever-present contradictions that seem to mock us is the need for deceit, at the very least for an erroneous, arbitrary conjecture, or, more precisely, for that curious mental exertion that can be produced only by deception, and from which alone derives that most intriguing, most inexplicable activity of ours – shaking off the desolate human darkness, extracting more and more fragments of indisputable knowledge.
One of the ways of surviving emotional abjection is via the intellect, which by deceiving the wounded soul can heal its wounds. Felsen’s narrator knows this all too well, perceiving it with a hard-edged interior perception undimmed by all the imported vodka or Curaçao and Bénédictine consumed in cabarets. Having willingly acceded at the drop of a hat to a request she had waved aside when it was put by the narrator, the sight, reflected in the blazing mirror of a Normandy coast ballroom, of Lyolya dancing with Bobby, confronts the narrator with the radiant evidence of his own secondary status – her preferment of Bobby’s arms and Bobby’s lips – and in the morning, in Bobby’s room, as Lyolya goes about her toilette, there is Bobby’s post-coital refulgence, his unpresumptuous, tremendous contentment.
In a novel without much in the way of narrative drive, all the momentum is in its writer’s progress towards an unillusioned understanding of the indigence of his own predicament: ‘I have a sense of honour like any other man,’ he insists in closing, ‘reciprocated earthly love seems to me to be the most worthy and beautiful kind of love, and … the first pain will come the very moment the work distracting you from that love ends’. Such wisdom might feel like a sententious formula, but this is the price paid for being able to objectify the awakening pain in self-preservation.
Felsen was swept up in one of the periodic roundups of Jews in occupied Paris. He was initially interned in the camp at Drancy and then transferred, in February 1943, to Auschwitz. An SS medic, spotting his spinal deformity on the infamous arrival ramp, assessed him as unfit for forced labour. He died in the gas chamber that night. Most of his accumulated manuscripts would disappear, and all but a small handful of photographs. He was a pallid, nervous-looking man with a mistrustful gaze, destined to be consumed by a blood-hungry history that, even with a clear-eyed understanding such as his, loses nothing of its rapacity, where it can be understood at all.
Stuart Walton is the author of many books including Intoxicology: A Cultural History of Drink and Drugs, In The Realm of the Senses: A Materialist Theory of Seeing and Feeling, Introducing Theodor Adorno, a monograph on the chilli pepper, The Devil’s Dinner, and a novel, The First Day in Paradise. He lives in southwest England.