How Russian Writers in Paris Tackled the Complexities of the Interwar Period ‹ Literary Hub

We are in 1933 in Paris, and the crazy years are dead. Dada and deco came out, and the Great Depression arrived. The luminaries of Stein’s lost generation have found each other, it seems, and gone their separate ways. Scott and Zelda have traded Goofy for Peace, and somewhere in the seventh, Joyce hosts a farewell dinner for Hemingway as he sets his sights on the big game in Kenya and Tanganyika.

Pound, on the other hand, is restless in the Italy of Duce (although he continues to write his interminable Songs), and Foujita has given up crunching the beauties and brawlers of the Café de la Rotonde to return to the ever-growing empire of the rising sun, where he will soon tackle the propaganda of a living god, his memories of making drag with Kiki de Montparnasse fading faster than democracy across Eurasia. It is a polarizing and volatile time. But if the lost generation has abandoned the city of light, there is another group of artists who are here to stay. For now, at least.

There, at the Le Murat café, a stone’s throw from the Auteuil racecourse, a group of Russian expatriates meet night after night in the basement to play bridge, often until dawn. A divisive and grumpy lot, they spend their afternoons writing and their evenings arguing with each other, with the show often ending in an uproar. Exiled there, their immortal creations unpublishable in their homeland, unintelligible in their adopted country, they were dubbed by a writer of the time the pokolenie nidamechennoe—the unnoticed generation.

Just as outrageous and defiant, as ruthless and romantic, as misfit and traumatized as their colleagues of old and more visible upstairs, it was the stateless apostates who dared to turn their backs on Lenin’s gospel of communist terror and Stalin, destined to dream of Russia forever, and to live a life of such abject misery that it makes Dostoyevsky look like a Rockefeller.

At one of the tables, writer Yuri Felsen sits across from veteran poet and influential critic Vladislav Khodasevich. Perhaps Ivan Bunin, the last Nobel laureate and, to date, the greatest justification for literary emigration, is there too, grizzled and in tails, struggling to make himself understood by French waiters.

Political novelist Mark Aldanov, nicknamed “Marco Moneybags” by his jealous detractors, will no doubt pay his respects after dinner (he can afford to dine upstairs), and will likely bring with him Georgy Adamovich, the former mentor of Felsen and the opponent of Khodasevich… unless the critic has another date with a handsome young man. If money allows, even Boris Poplavsky – cocaine, novelist, pugilist and versatile enfant terrible – can come later, and with him his friend Vasily Yanovsky, who will write about all this in the years to come, when the others are dead and buried.

As the billiard shot echoes in the background, thick ribbons of blue cigarette smoke multiply in the mirrors that line the walls. The poisonous air is charged with a mixture of nervous energy and desperation, and the aging tall opposite Felsen, an inveterate gambler who only plays for money, nervously deals the cards with bandaged, greenish fingers. “Most of the time our play is neurotic,” he would one day write, capturing the scene of their own private Atlantis. “The Chekhovian era, with its soft rustle of cards and the poetry of a winter evening, has fallen back into the past.”

In truth, however, the cherry orchard was sold long ago. The irresponsible decadence of the fin de siècle has given way to the sheer obscenities of the machine age. Back in the Soviet Union, Stalin had just murdered several million Ukrainians in a year-long campaign of mass starvation, while closer to home in Germany, the Jews saw the first of many persecutions. to come and Hitler has just opened his first concentration camp outside the Bavarian town of Dachau. But in the basement of the Murat, the unnoticed emigrants can only watch, lap after lap, rubber after rubber, while accumulating losses obsessively.

For their part, it is not only the uprooting of poverty and nostalgia that has engendered their collective neurosis. They have seen their homeland crushed under the boot of a tyrant and, like Cassandra before the fall of Troy, see only too clearly what awaits Europe in the end. Add to this the burden of a broken identity weighing on their psyche, fears of artistic sterility, cultural crisis and entropy, marginalization, humiliation and, increasingly, public contempt, and there It’s not hard to see why their “neurotic” playing finds such resonance in their soul and in their writing. Struggling with these complexities and complexes, they turn to art, hoping to find refuge there from an alien environment and, perhaps, a chance to redefine their place in it, in their own way.

As he earns another rubber, a schoolboy smile playing on his handsome face, and a Gauloise Maryland smoldering in his cheap cigarette holder, Felsen is halfway through his life in Paris. He arrived there exactly a decade ago, from Berlin, and he still has a decade to go before the Nazis murder him just for being Jewish. During these fine twenty years, he will make a name not only as one of the most talented young writers to have arisen in exile, but as the author of one of the most ambitious literary projects to have been undertaken during those savage times.

Inspired by Proust The research and embracing three novels with multiple interconnected short stories (the manuscript of the nearly completed fourth novel will be lost or destroyed after his arrest and deportation), Felsen’s unfinished roman is a sort of self-portrait that traces the psychic and artistic evolution of his alter ego, a neurasthenic immigrant and budding author, whose entanglement in a cruel love story stimulates his verbal art and generates an interior monologue of remarkable , sometimes agonizing , honesty.

For their part, it is not only the uprooting of poverty and nostalgia that has engendered their collective neurosis. They saw their native land crushed under the boot of a tyrant.

Rooted in the idea that the mystery of individuality is revealed in acts of creation, suffering and love, Felsen’s art is distinguished by its depth of psychological insight and its depictions of humanity in all its shame and its splendor. To find the words, he even developed a unique, sometimes mysterious style of prose. But this is not a precocious exercise in modernist aesthetics: for him, the whole enterprise testifies to an urgent moral impulse.

A witness to 1917 and bearer of his traumas, Felsen watched from the dubious position of this Parisian basement with horror and disgust as the Soviet authorities, other atrocities aside, decree fiction as definitively as any five-year plan, and as they sanctified as their artistic credo class hatred and intolerance to any demonstration of individualism. Like the best of his generation, he pondered how best to exercise what is perhaps the only consolation offered by exile – the freedom of creation – to oppose the day’s fetish for collectivization, the subjugation and displays of force and brute force, whether communist or fascist. . (To his watchful eyes, the difference is only cosmetic.)

“The rebirth of slavery is bitter and terrible,” he wrote in a few months, tackling the era head-on,

however, this is only the dark ‘zigzag of history’, and its adversaries are by no means pathetic epigones, but rather – the further one goes, the more indisputable – harbingers of a real future. And this same “zigzag of history” now rushes to their aid: we know how the desires of tyranny increase, how insatiable it is, how it inevitably goes too far, and how, by dragging itself into misadventure, it ends up destroying itself. Of course, that does nothing to lessen the tragedy of the present.

From underground, however, this tragedy still seems in many ways a world apart. In Deception, the first of Felsen’s three novels, the anonymous narrator imagines these realms of tyranny and torture and the people who inhabit them as something distant and otherworldly, something almost fictional, “as if we were talking about ‘an exciting new novel’. It is no coincidence that this other world is embodied by the protagonist’s love rival, a Soviet actor who is himself “a friend of the commissars, an upstart and a Bolshevik”, and whose unexpected intrusion and closeness make this world a more tangible reality. , bringing both real and psychological danger.

In the days to come, however, these dangers will only encroach further, and in ever more diverse and hellish forms. During tomorrow’s games of bridge, questions will be asked, fingers will be pointed and hands will be twisted, as the emigrants ponder what to do with the elephant in the room. Talking about “it” will sometimes be too painful, too futile for others. In a later novel, this same protagonist will respond to an unseen reprimand from his beloved. Why doesn’t he write about Russia? she apparently wants to know. But it is already too late for that. “It’s my conscious choice not to write about Russia,” the response seems to come from both Felsen and his fictional representative.

Like the best of his generation, he pondered how best to exercise what is perhaps the only consolation offered by exile – the freedom of creation – to oppose the day’s fetish for collectivization, the subjugation and displays of force and brute force.

I want to talk endlessly about Russia, complain about “our Russian generation”, but this has already turned out to be so absurd, that every thought about Russia, every conversation makes us embittered and impoverishes us spiritually, because Russia and everything that is currently happening there is fleeting, subjective, unforgivable, while love, platonic and romantic (about which I write only to you), the poetry of human relations – this is where the beat of eternity… In Russia, from Russia – there is an attempt to spread hatred (or at least a perversion of love), while I and “my generation” need pity and forgiveness, to be inspired by pity and forgiveness.

Needing to forgive, but not being able to; understanding only too well, and still holding firm in your condemnation; wanting to warn others, but lacking words and an audience: these are the age-old Gordian knots of exile. And yet exile is the only possible choice.

Turning away from open polemics, Felsen believes the answer lies instead in an art that exalts the soul, the individual, all that is enduring and human, even amidst the ruins of exile, in the dim light and smoky from this Auteuil basement. And maybe he’s right. Although his life would trace, as one future émigré eloquently noted, “the arc of exile from brutal civil war to ultimate atrocity”, his art will endure. Fresh out of his Parisian Atlantis, he speaks to us today from beyond the grave, long after the arrival of the Nazis and the last hand played by its author and the rest of his unnoticed generation.


Yuri Felsen’s novel Deceptiontranslated by Bryan Karetnyk and prefaced by Peter Pomerantsev, will be published in the UK by Prototype on June 22, 2022, and in the United States by astra in February 2023.