Yuri Felsen’s modernist work delivers a sometimes brilliant, always stark and intricate, account of his Russian emigre protagonist’s inner world.
Deceit, by Yuri Felsen. An outstanding English translation from the Russian by Bryan Karetnyk. Prototype Publishing, 2022. 240 pages.
In the midst of his long exile in Argentina, Polish novelist Witold Gombrowicz mused on the effect emigration has on a writer:
Everything to which they were tied and everything that bound them – homeland, ideology, politics, group, program, faith, milieu – everything vanished into the whirlpool of history and only a bubble filled with nothingness remained on the surface. Those thrown out of their little world found themselves facing a world, a boundless world and, consequently, one that was impossible to master.
In his 1930 novel Deceit, Russian emigre writer Yuri Felsen gave a frenzied expression to this impossibility while providing a harried, consuming view of what filling this bubble might look like. Written in diary form and covering the space of an unspecified year in the 1920s, the narrator recounts the arrival of fellow Russian emigrant, Lyolya Heard, charting his expectations of their romance as it turns into obsessive torment and a belated measure of self-awareness.
Felsen, born Nikolai Freudenstein in St. Petersburg in 1894, left Russia following the Revolution, making his way to Riga, Berlin, and finally, Paris. It is in Paris that the novel is set, and yet this Paris is an insubstantial, phantom city. Neither its streets and monuments nor its atmosphere is conjured up. The narrator passes his time in unnamed cafes, restaurants, and hotel rooms that are featureless and interchangeable. The same is true of the narrator’s job. He describes the “scurrying about” it involves but never gives much of a hint what “it” is. He is apparently in business of some kind. The tenuous economic realities of the emigre hover over the book but as if they were an atmospheric phenomenon rather than a practical necessity.
There is a literary purpose to these omissions. It is as if Felsen is thumbing his nose at all the trappings and identifying marks of reality itself. The narrator’s real life doesn’t take place in Paris, at work, or among friends, but almost entirely inside his head. Even the massive historical and political changes that brought this emigre life into being are barely alluded to.
This isn’t the placelessness of a fellow modernist writer like Kafka, but more closely resembles that of a hyperrealistic painting, where the attention to detail – the glint of light on a bottle, the folds of skin on the figure’s neck – obscure any sign of the surroundings. Felsen isn’t looking at the world through a wide-angle lens but a microscope, one pointed deep within himself.
In many ways, Lyolya is just as much of a cipher. She appears here and there, speaks, but we only see her through the prism of the narrator’s obsession:
“My fear grows: the past is not yet gone and may still return, and in my memory yesterday’s Lyolya appears again, like a bolt from the blue, sitting in front of the mirror, as does my bewildered, vaguely foreboding and suddenly awakened sense of despair.”
What Deceit does deliver, sometimes brilliantly and sometimes with a frustrating repetitiveness, is a stark, intricate account of the narrator’s inner world. Felsen’s long, winding sentences read as if he transcribed his nervous system into words. There are moments of powerful insight and poetic beauty and others where the reader feels trapped inside a neurotic bubble.
Felsen is able to spin the threads of ordinary, everyday life, and emigre life in particular, into literary gold. He expounds on topics as varied as finding well-placed seats in restaurants for girl-watching, to power dynamics in relationships, to drunkenness. Here he is on procrastination in his work:
I fancy that I find initiating business inherently more difficult – like any beginning it is hard, but the difficulty also comes about because of the insulting uncertainty of my situation: I emerge from somewhere in the ether and must practically truss myself to both ends of the affair, neither of which has any need of me – and often, fearing ridicule, not wanting to become a petitioner, I delay for weeks on end the decisive first conversation, in suicidal quiescence, like those petrified during a terrible dream or before some deathly waking danger.
Felsen, with his elaborate sentences and his ambitious aim of writing a vast, multi-work collection (at one point titled The Recurrence of Things Past), has sometimes been referred to as the “Russian Proust,” a comparison reinforced in contemporary reviews of Deceit. Yet at heart his writing and thinking are very unlike the French writer’s. The narrator’s childhood, in fact the past itself, have no place in the novel. As amorphous as Felsen’s Paris is, it has far more reality than Russia, which is little more than the name of a lost world as unreal as El Dorado or Atlantis. The memories that grip him aren’t distant and evocative but immediate:
“As I close my eyes, I try to envisage Lyolya, as I once imagined her, as she appeared to me at the railway station, but now she seems unrecognisably altered, like so many people about whom one’s first impressions, when revived after a long friendship seem inexplicably naive and far removed.”
This initial act of recovered memory refers to a meeting that took place only nine days earlier, but the narrator’s overblown emotions and obsessiveness makes it feel like a more expansive look back, almost as if Felsen is parodying Proust.
In 1943, Yuri Felsen was sent to Auschwitz and upon arrival was declared unfit for work, condemning him to death. His physical death was mirrored by a literary one, in which his archive of novels, short stories, and essays disappeared. Pulling this extraordinary novel from obscurity and putting it into such evocative, penetrating, and elegant English is an unexpected gift that not only provides a broader picture of post-revolutionary Russian emigration but of a unique and masterful literary sensibility.
Michael Stein is a writer and journalist based in the Czech Republic. His short stories and journalistic pieces have appeared in European and American magazines. He is an editor at the Prague-based journal B O D Y and runs Literalab, a website on Central European writing.
Photos provided by Prototype Publishing.