JANUARY 8, 2020
IT SEEMS FITTING somehow that Yuri Felsen’s “Extras” should receive its belated English-language debut in Los Angeles. Despite the narrative’s transatlantic remove from Hollywood, readers will surely discover in Felsen’s story a curious familiarity, recognizing, as they are transported to the Golden Age of cinema, the stock footage of youth hungry for fame and stardom, the mannered theatricality of actors in unforgivingly sharp close-up, the imposing might of the studio and its top brass, and even the perennial vogue for British royalty. Yet in the poignant, elegiac sequence that Felsen has laid out for us, it is not the glitter and greasepaint of celebrity that takes top billing, but rather the insult and humiliation of the anonymous figures who make up the crowd scene.
First appearing in a Parisian revue in 1940, “Extras” was the last published instalment of Felsen’s great literary project, The Recurrence of Things Past, which by his untimely death in 1943 encompassed three novels and seven intercutting novellas and short stories. In this episode, the dreamy, artistically inclined protagonist, Volodya (addressing his prose as ever to Lyolya, his muse and the cruel and fickle object of his love) recounts a trip to a film studio on the outskirts of Paris, where, alongside his “comrades in misfortune,” he is brought to suffer the abasement of working as an extra on a movie set so as to stave off penury. After a day spent playing his part and observing the servitude and sycophancy of his fellow émigrés, he comes to reflect on the fragility of circumstance, the crushing psychological changes wrought by exile, and the wretched lot of those mistreated by fortune.
To audiences at the time, Volodya’s experience would have been painfully familiar. Throughout the ’20s and ’30s countless Russian expatriates had likewise ventured to “sell their shadows,” as Vladimir Nabokov so memorably put it, and there is in fact an uncanny kinship between Felsen’s Volodya and Nabokov’s Ganin, who in the novel Mary (1926) has a nearly identical experience:
[H]e went out to the suburbs to work as a movie extra on a set, in a fairground barn, where light seethed with a mystical hiss from the huge facets of lamps that were aimed, like cannon, at a crowd of extras, lit to a deathly brightness. They would fire a barrage of murderous brilliance, illumining the painted wax of motionless faces, then expiring with a click — but for a long time yet there would glow, in those elaborate crystals, dying red sunsets — our human shame. The deal was clinched, and our anonymous shadows sent out all over the world.
Farther afield of the literary world, Felsen’s line of émigrés waiting to audition would doubtless have reminded filmgoers of Josef von Sternberg’s wildly successful The Last Command (1928), and cognoscenti would likely have seen behind the unnamed studio a recognizable outline of the celebrated Parisian company Films Albatros, which kept so many Russian actors and filmmakers employed. The opening sequence of von Sternberg’s picture, with its crowd of extras desperate for work, could almost pass for an ecranisation of Felsen’s story. A film about a tsarist ex-general who ekes out a pitiful existence as a Hollywood extra until he is cast as his glorious former self, its great irony is that the general himself was played by the German actor Emil Jannings, while von Sternberg hired as extras a number of real Russians. As though attesting to the verisimilitude of Felsen’s story, von Sternberg recalled in his memoirs, Fun in a Chinese Laundry (1965):
I had fortified my image of the Russian Revolution by including in my cast of extra players an assortment of Russian ex-admirals and generals, a dozen Cossacks, and two former members of the Duma, all victims of the Bolsheviks, and, in particular, an expert on borscht by the name of Koblianski. These men, especially one Cossack general who insisted on keeping my car spotless, viewed Jannings’ effort to be Russian with such disdain that I had to order them to conceal it.
Even in Felsen’s day, the “background artist” had become emblematic of the very condition of exile: voiceless, ignored, stripped of individuality, the term “extra” resonated as much with the émigrés’ role in wider society as with that on screen. Here, however, Felsen takes this mass of “human shame” and individualizes it, distinguishing the characters and private histories of those whom chance has reduced to playing the obscurest of parts.
This same journey from obscurity to light, from silence to sound, from incoherence to exquisite articulation, lies at the heart of Felsen’s prose. That the author’s own voice was tragically silenced, and his legacy plunged into darkness, so soon after this story appeared strikes a particular note of pathos. In literary terms, moreover, it consigned to Felsen the very role of which he wrote. In translating this final fragment of his roman inachevé here, I hope to shine a small spotlight on his work, allowing him a rare cameo. In the meantime, however, how pleasing to ponder the striking verisimilitude of the piece. One wonders even whether his own shadow isn’t still roaming the world, from city to city, from screen to screen, somewhere in a crowd scene of some half-forgotten picture.
— Bryan Karetnyk
Petrik, my dearest friend, recently offered to fix me up as an extra on a film-shoot. Not without some embarrassment did I accept his offer, knowing full well that it would mean degrading myself, capitulating somehow in life’s struggle, since I should be obliged to settle for the sorriest part in it. Petrik gave me all the necessary details — I was to travel out of town to some remote studio, where I was to mention his name. I should have to get up at some ungodly hour, with the disagreeable prospect of impending boredom and shame, of dissolution in some shabby, squalid crowd. As I made my way to the outskirts of town on that wretched tram, I began sizing up the dubious-looking, excessively made-up, elegant young things with tired, bleary eyes, the unshaven men straight from a night in Montmartre, the bright-eyed, boisterous Russian Parisians of average height and exceptionally rakish, cavalier, idle disposition — and I identified in them unmistakable “comrades in misfortune,” otherwise known as my immediate competitors. I even feared that I might have to make the return journey empty-handed, without the requisite cash, without hope of any further (albeit modest) remuneration, and that Petrik would reproach me for everything, as he once done Pavlik for his ineptitude and indolence.
Alighting the tram after the others, I followed them down country lanes and filthy district roads, across a square with a monument to the war dead (a stone angel and a soldier with a rifle and a helmet), along a quiet, well-tended cemetery (the kind that allays the very fear of death), until we all of us arrived at a vast, gloomy, barn-like affair crammed full of people. Having satisfied myself that “the management” had yet to appear, I took a seat on a bench and buried myself in a Russian book, trying not to let my eyes rove.
“You’re Russian? Pleased to meet you. What’s that you’re reading? O-le-sha? Never heard of him.” I was afforded a certain sense of relief by this introduction, with its show of conviviality, so necessary in these situations, and engaged in friendly conversation this portly, round-faced, elderly little gentleman, who was wearing a pince-nez and smoking a pipe with an impossibly long stem. He turned out to be a lawyer from Petersburg and, having stumbled upon a “fellow countryman,” began recalling fondly the Petersburg theatres, the names of the streets, the numbers and routes of the trams, the gymnasium, the university, the professors — everything that could wrest us both from these degrading circumstances. “There are so few respectable people around here” — and, as though to stress that I numbered among those rare exceptions, he introduced me to his wife, a stout, dark-browed lady who wore on her snub-nosed, soft, kind Slavic face an expression of grandeur mixed with apprehension. “And this is my friend, the Baron Dehm, cavalry.” The Baron, a tall, stooping gentleman with a pendulous, bushy red moustache, bowed to me gravely and with indifference, maintaining his phlegmatic silence. The little lawyer, on the other hand, was exceedingly talkative and amiable; wishing to justify, as it were, his presence in this clearly abject situation, he explained to me, with feigned bravado and nonchalance, that he had lost “a heap of money” on the stock market, that he would soon “land something lucrative,” but that until then he would have to get by however he could: “The wife and I need to make a thousand a week at the very least.” He was ashamed even for his friend — “The Baron has a wealthy brother and sister in London, but, alas, he squanders every last penny he has on drink” — unexpectedly adding in rapid whisper: “He and I met on the front, though I myself am no guardsman. I joined the ranks on principle, much to the consternation of my illustrious relations — my family name, Ivanov, is common enough, although my ancestors were princes of the realm. But then who cares about such things now.”
As he was talking, there erupted, almost imperceptibly, a subtle commotion; everyone stirred, many got to their feet, as though preparing for some decisive action — at last “the management” had arrived along with a swarthy-looking young lady who moved quickly and unnaturally on dumpy legs: “That’s their secretary, Mademoiselle Klein — a Jewess, but a decent sort and pleasant enough.” Having removed her mackintosh and beret as she went, she ducked into a ramshackle little room with rough wooden walls that, to all appearances, had been knocked together in great haste; a dozen gaily colored posters covered some tattered wallpaper and there was an inscription over the door: “Bureaux.” A line of extras, chiefly Russians, stretched out outside it, and I, smiling the entreating smile of the herd, gave my name and alluded to Petrik’s recommendation. Without looking up from the open file in front of her, she lazily repeated the well-rehearsed line: “Wait here. You’ll be called soon.” Then, like generals on parade, a separate, glittering group strode past: the directors and chief assistants, among them Bobby in a crisply pressed suit — he was not in the least surprised to see me and whispered condescendingly as he passed: “Don’t let on that you know me. It won’t do you any favors.” I sensed that he was afraid of discrediting himself through a compromising acquaintance, but I did not begrudge him this and was even glad of his undoubtedly advantageous advice. My companion suddenly leapt to his feet and ran over to a swarthy, gray-haired, dignified-looking gentleman — judging by his austere air and demeanor, the most important figure of all — and this latter, with artificial though impeccable manners, shook his hand firmly and led him into the office. From there the little lawyer returned happy, but suddenly checked himself and with a business-like indifference declared: “An old colleague. We speculated together in Berlin. What can I say? He’s had a bit of luck here. A pity I didn’t manage to introduce my wife, but then again, he did invite us both to drop in on him.” And, turning to her, again with that beaming face: “To think, what a strange coincidence.” I instinctively compared this courteous gray-haired director to Bobby and ascribed Bobby’s cold-blooded betrayal to the unfounded, uncalled-for, unscrupulous (in matters of money), barefaced careerism of his (and thus my) generation. In all likelihood, this “old colleague” was no better, no more or less decent than Bobby, but at least he maintained a veneer of civility; more and more I value those old “pharisaic” conventions we have lost, that outward form of discourse at which we used to poke so much fun but which eased its very essence — rather like those do-gooding handouts that stave off hunger. As I observed Bobby and his pompous, imperious ways, I recalled Annie Davydov’s suggestion that I become his secretary and my refusal at the time: had I acquiesced, I should number today among “the management” and Bobby would not have been ashamed to be seen with me. I do not regret it, though: in taking the job intended for Pavlik, I should have broken your many years of trust in me and lost you forever.
As they scrambled over one another, these thoughts of mine were interrupted by Mademoiselle Klein, who was hurriedly calling us (out of turn, Ivanov and his wife taking priority); we were given some sort of ticket and dispatched to a stark new barracks-like structure that was damp and cold and to my mind resembled a disused village theatre. The renowned Russian director, wearing a markedly casual, unseasonably bright jacket, a man of average height, sickly pale countenance, fat and bald, with great, morose, bugling eyes, stood somehow helplessly before us, giving instructions to his nearest assistants and technicians (all dressed in caps and apache neckerchiefs, as if to spite their well-groomed, dapper patrons).
One by one, we were arranged in a ludicrously haphazard order, and I was struck — although I had the vague notion of this even earlier — by the conceited despondency of the men and the energetic, airy, affected coquetry of the women (two friends, for example, both elegant, made-up Russian ladies, spent the whole time gadding about arm-in-arm, not wanting to be separated on the plateau — which the director indulgently allowed): evidently, many of them, having been fed on a diet of industry advertising, about pictures and “vedettes,” had come here in the hope of success, with the intention of making their debuts and, having spontaneously, magnificently dazzled whomever necessary, winning fame. In the given instance, however, none of this was possible: everything required of us was much too simple and uninspired — we had to play happy English countryfolk welcoming the king and his young wife with joyous cries (“Long live the King! She loves him, loves him!”). As we did this, the two young Russian ladies in the front row exaggerated their English accents and vociferous enthusiasm, which bordered on frenzy; their efforts, needless to say, went unnoticed. I was surprised by the Ivanovs’ work ethic, shouting as they did with a sort of spirited desperation and that inimitable Russian pronunciation — only the Baron gave a sullen and disdainful sniff as he maintained his silence.
They let us go for lunch and dinner — in some dingy “bistrot” we drank ghastly coffee and ate sandwiches topped with some insipid cured ham. I was suddenly taken by an urge to economize and not waste a penny of my “fee,” as though work and play were two separate arenas, and where business reigns, one must be thrifty. As always, there were amusing incidents that one could never have dreamt up — over lunch, not far from me, a Russian lady was putting on youthful airs and complaining as she touched up her lips: “Nobody understands my suffering; they’ve all got it in for me. What sort of a life is this?”
We wasted a whole day and half the night on our undemanding program, then — having pocketed our lavish pay — we were dispatched back to the city aboard creaking trucks, like soldiers, and I, as behooves a third-rate businessman, spent the journey reckoning the unprofitability of “their” enterprise. We all had to sit and wait for the first metro in a dubious-looking café on the outskirts of town, while fat little Ivanov, aglow with success, reminisced interminably about cavalry charges, shrapnel fire, and titled aides-de-camp, although the weary, grim Baron could not bestir himself, and his prosaic, distinctly plebeian wife talked ecstatically of the remarkable encounter with the director, of fate, of “terms,” and of money. Before, in pre-émigré, “normal” times, I dare say such a meeting of two old friends, under such circumstances and in such a setting, would have seemed extraordinarily romantic, but everything has changed so much in emigration, the higher-ups are within reach of the lower-downs, so fragile are names, status, and wealth that it was not, for instance, the singularity, the unexpectedness of the encounter that aroused the astonishment of Ivanov’s wife; in truth, she experienced nothing but envy, resentment toward her husband, and the hope for some additional patronage.
Yuri Felsen (né Nikolai Freudenstein, 1894–1943) was one of the most interesting and original writers of the post-Revolutionary Russian emigration. His stylistically rich, psychologically penetrating novels and stories earned him the moniker “the Russian Proust.” After his death in Auschwitz, he fell into obscurity, and his work is only now being translated into English.
Bryan Karetnyk is a Wolfson Scholar at University College London. He has translated several major works by the émigré author Gaito Gazdanov, including The Spectre of Alexander Wolf (2013) and The Flight (2016), and is the editor and chief translator of the anthology Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky (2017), which was shortlisted for the Read Russia Prize. He is at present preparing a translation of Yuri Felsen’s debut novel, Deceit.