Life & Culture

Deceit book review: Intriguing introduction to the work of largely forgotten Russian emigre Yuri Felsen

English translation of the first novel of a writer whose work elicits profound truths about human nature and its motivations


Deceit by Yuri Felsen
Translation by Bryan Karetnyk
Prototype Publishing £12

Yuri Felsen, born Nikolai Freudenstein in St Petersburg in 1894, was one of a number of Russian émigré writers who settled in Paris following the revolution.

Caught fleeing to Switzerland in 1943, he was deported to Auschwitz and gassed on arrival. Following his death, Felsen and his work were largely forgotten, then a complete edition of his writings was published in Russia in 2012.

Bryan Karetnyk, his English translator, came across him only a decade ago, in a reference in Gaita Gazdanov’s 1934 Literary Professions.

After claiming the emigration had produced only one writer of note, Vladimir Nabokov, Gazdanov corrects himself, adding Felsen in this enigmatic passage written nine years before Felsen’s death: “(His) fate seems almost foredoomed. He is an honourable fatality, a battle of one against the many, lost before it is begun.” Nabokov, who was also a fan, wrote of Felsen: “This is real literature. Pure and honest.”

Deceit, published in 1930 and Felsen’s first major novel, takes the form of a diary in which the narrator recounts his fraught, on-off relationship with Lyolya (whose real-life counterpart perished in Riga during the Holocaust.) In what amounts to an exploration of the age-old Madonna-whore complex, Lyolya represents Felsen’s Platonic ideal but is unfaithful both to her husband and the novel’s protagonist (and narrator), who in turn betrays Lyolya with two other women, leading the reader to conclude that self-deception is the mother of all deceit.

Yet for Felsen, deceit contains existential properties. There is a “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.”

Equal in importance to deceit is the act of writing: “I find writing to be not only a useful and distracting enterprise but also a means, perhaps the only means, of speaking freely about what matters most to me.”

Felsen, a modernist, has been described as “the Russian Proust”. His three novels, of which Deceit was the first, were indeed meant to form part of a large scale literary project entitled, at one time, Recurrence of Things Past. Felsen, like Proust, is preoccupied by “involuntary memory” and its relationship to fiction.

But readers expecting a Russian version of Remembrance of Things Past will be disappointed. Proust, as capable of looking outward as inside, draws his readers in with what Nabokov termed “the transmutation of sensation into sentiment”, whereas Felsen’s preoccupations with the inner workings of his psyche can be more alienating than inviting and his characters often little more than vehicles for philosophising.

Yet his tortuous style paradoxically beguiles, and, in the detailing of his inner world Felsen frequently elicits profound truths about human nature and its motivations. His self-regarding prose stands as a riposte to that unchallenged dictum of contemporary writing: “Don’t tell, show.” Given social media’s solipsism and public self-examination, Felsen’s writing captures the zeitgeist well.

And at a time when Eastern Europe has once again descended into nihilistic hostilities, this autobiographical fragment sadly resonates: “I should like to belong to the school that… for me represents a kind of neo-romanticism, the exultation of the individual and love set in opposition to Soviet barbarism and dissolution in the collective.”

Felsen’s narrator wishes: “I cannot escape the persistent vain hope that one day these notes of mine (despite myself and, as it were, as a reward for my pains) will be read carefully by somebody.” Prototype Publishing has performed a useful service in introducing a neglected but intriguing Russian writer to an English-speaking readership.

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