Russian Emigre Literature in the Context of French Modernism: The Case of Iurii Fel'zen

By Livak, Leonid | The Modern Language Review, July 2000 | Go to article overview
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Russian Emigre Literature in the Context of French Modernism: The Case of Iurii Fel'zen


Livak, Leonid, The Modern Language Review


This article explores the artistic interpretation of exile by those writers who left Russia in the wake of the Bolshevik coup of 1917. I focus particularly on the 'younger' or 'second' generation of Russian emigre writers, who by virtue of their age matured artistically outside Russia. Their maturation was informed by the confrontation between Soviet Russian, older Russian emigre, and French literary sources. Rejecting the art of older emigres, they claimed their own Russian literary ancestors. Iurii Fel'zen chose Lermontov, Boris Poplavskii opted for Blok, and Vasilii Ianovskii drew on Dostoevskii's legacy, while Vladimir Nabokov and Gaito Gazdanov drew on that of Gogol'. But in coming to terms with their status as emigre writers, they relied upon the artistic authority of French modernist literature that contrasted with both older emigre and Soviet letters. Each of the writers in question created an ideal construct of an emigre writer by combining a Russian literary ancestor with a chosen French model. (1) I illustrate this mechanism of artistic identification, using the example of Nikolai Berngardovich Freidenstein, alias 'Iurii Fel'zen'.

From the beginning of his literary career, critics saw the affinity of Fel'zen's writings with Marcel Proust's oeuvre. (2) Fel'zen wrote three novels united by one narrator, one set of characters, and a 'Proustian' style: Obman ('Deceit', 1930), Schast'e ('Happiness', 1932), and Pis'ma o Lermontove ('Letters About Lermontov', 1935). A number of his stories shared the traits of the novels: for instance, 'Vozvrashchenie' (1934), 'Vecherinka' (1936), and 'Povtorenie proidennogo' (1938). The writer wanted to combine his works into a larger novel under a title as 'effective' as A la Recherche du temps perdu. (3) He may have found this title in 1938 ('Povtorenie proidennogo'), but his death in a Nazi camp left the project unfinished. (4)

Fel'zen based his novels on Proust's philosophy of love, in which the writer's productivity depended on the pain inflicted by his object of desire: 'La souffrance que les autres lui causeraient, ses efforts pour la prevenir, les conflits qu'elle et la seconde personne cruelle creeraient, tout cela, interprete par l'intelligence, pourrait faire la matiere d'un livre [...] aussi beau que s'il etait imagine.' (5) Proust's Marcel extracts material for his literary investigation from his own psyche by means of a romantic liaison that causes him much suffering. The more misfortune he encounters, the more fruitful his investigation becomes: 'Une femme dont nous avons besoin, qui nous fait souffrir, tire de nous des series de sentiments profonds [...]. Les annees heureuses sont les annees perdues, on attend une souffrance pour travailler' (Le Temps retrouve, pp. 214, 217). Fel'zen's hero also finds desperation more fruitful than happiness: a writer must be what Proust calls celibateur de l'art because his creativity depends on the conscious rejection of happiness. (6)

In 'Deceit', an emigre Volodia falls in love with an emigree Lelia. She leaves him for her lover in Berlin, comes back to Paris, and becomes involved with Volodia's friend Bobka, whose departure restores the relationship. The truce is crowned by a session of mutual analysis. In 'Happiness', Volodia's bliss alternates with jealousy, as Lelia gets involved with his friend Shura. The suicide of her admirer Mark Osipovich brings her back to Volodia. Peace is inaugurated by a session of analysis. In 'Letters About Lermontov', an epistolary novel, Volodia writes to Lelia in Cannes, sparking her jealousy: she sees that he loves literature more than herself. The ensuing analysis brings peace to the relationship. Stories related to the novel are episodes in Volodia's jealousy.

Fel'zen called his artistic self-fashioning 'roman s pisatelem', referring to the main preoccupation of his art and its source of inspiration (Pis'ma o Lermontove, pp. 22-24). Since in Russian 'roman' means a 'novel' and a 'love affair', the expression can be read as 'a novel with/about a writer' or 'an affair/liaison with a writer'.

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