The Truest Testament: On the Life and Art of Yuri Felsen

By Bryan KaretnykJuly 10, 2018

The Truest Testament: On the Life and Art of Yuri Felsen
ON SATURDAY, February 13, 1943, a crowd of 998 men, women, and children clambered out of the dilapidated boxcars and down onto the Judenrampe, the unloading platform for new arrivals at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The transport had been organized by Adolf Eichmann’s department of the Reich Main Security Office, which at the time was busily overseeing the deportations of foreign-national Jews from occupied France. This was the 47th such group to endure the two-day journey from Drancy, a transit camp situated in one of Paris’s northeastern suburbs; en route three people — two men and one woman — had tried to escape, but failed.

It is the Sabbath, and among the crowd, a tall, elegant, slightly stooping figure, noted for his “Aryan” good looks and fair hair, joins the men’s line, awaiting selection. For those sent to the right, what lies in store is the dehumanizing process of registration, tattooing, disinfecting, and, ultimately, hard labor in the typhus-ridden camp. For those sent to the left: oblivion. Though the figure, whose documentation lists his profession as “homme de lettres,” is only 48, the SS doctor examining him notices his stooping back — the result of an affliction affecting the ligaments of the vertebrae — and duly directs him to the left. Unfit for work, and so for life. That night, a little after the Sabbath ends, the figure, along with 801 others, is led off to one of two bunkers that lie to the north of the ramp, converted farmhouses hidden from view by woodland. We cannot be certain whether it was in “the little red house” or “the little white house” that he met his end (although it was probably in the latter), but we can be sure that late that same night his murdered body would be borne out and disposed of in a nearby mass grave. Thus ended the life of one of the most unique figures in 20th-century Russian literature.

In all likelihood, you have never heard of Yuri Felsen. He plied his art in emigration in Europe, and so was already marginalized and at a significant disadvantage. Writing “difficult” prose and being labeled “a writer’s writer” sunk his chances for fame still lower. Moreover, his terrible end was followed by the mysterious disappearance of his archive, so in addition to what he published, only a handful of his letters survive, and not a single clear photograph of him remains. And yet, for all that fate seemingly tried to efface this man and plunge him into obscurity, he nevertheless left an utterly distinct, if now faint, mark.

I first encountered his curiously un-Russian surname several years ago, as I was reading Gaito Gazdanov’s “Literary Professions” (1934), one of his notorious polemics on the state of Russian literature in exile. Feeling by then the strains of deracination, Gazdanov was in a characteristically mordant humor, and in the article he provocatively claimed that the emigration, for all its freedom from Soviet tyranny, had produced only one writer of genuine artistic merit: Vladimir Nabokov. He immediately qualified this assertion, however, adding an ominous comment that was later revealed to be sinisterly accurate:

I wrote “only one talented writer,” but that of course was an oversight […] It is impossible really to talk of Felsen, whose fate seems almost foredoomed. He is an honorable fatality, a battle of one against the many, lost before it is begun.

My curiosity was piqued further as I observed, one by one, the major names of Russian émigré literary criticism, even the most inveterate rivals — Vladislav Khodasevich, Georgy Adamovich, Zinaida Gippius, Wladimir Weidlé, to name but a few — sing Felsen’s praise. Even Nabokov, who so importunately lampooned and travestied the self-styled “Paris note” (one of the emigration’s major literary movements, which sought to combine the despair of exile with the cynicism and anxiety of the modern age), singled out the now-forgotten author as the school’s only true artist.

A blueprint of Felsen’s life emerges from a handful of scholarly works and memoirs — most vividly in Elysian Fields, an outspoken, remarkable account of émigré Paris written by Felsen’s close friend Vasily Yanovsky. The author, critic, and essayist’s real name was in fact Nikolai Freudenstein, and he was born on October 24, 1894, in St. Petersburg, not long after his parents moved to the Russian capital from Riga. The eldest son of a distinguished Jewish family (his father was a doctor and his extended family had influential connections at Court), Felsen read law at Petrograd Imperial University, graduating in 1916 “without the slightest vocation for it.” In the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, he and his family relocated to Riga, in newly independent Latvia, where he began writing sketches and publishing in the local press. In the summer of 1923, he made his way to Weimar Berlin, and then, toward the end of the year, on to Paris, the capital of “Russia abroad.” Conversant in French, German, and English, Felsen set himself up in business there, engaging in what he himself termed “independent ventures” — which is to say he played the stock market and pursued various commercial enterprises, among other things, as a means of supporting himself as a writer.

He debuted under his literary pseudonym in 1926, and by the time of his death 17 years later he had published three novels — Deceit (1930), Happiness (1932), and Letters on Lermontov (1935) — as well as over a dozen short stories and scores of feuilletons, essays, and criticism. The publication of his first novels secured for him a serious reputation; it also marked the beginning of a great literary project, variously titled The Recurrence of Things Past and A Romance with an Author, which would span the rest of his days and encompass each of his subsequent novels and the lion’s share of his later short stories. The scale of Felsen’s literary ambition, combined with his thematic interests and baroque, stream-of-consciousness prose style, earned him the moniker “the Russian Proust.” His chef d’œuvre presents a fine, sustained psychological portrait of a neurasthenic would-be author, Volodya, and his eternal object of desire, Lyolya, while at the same time elaborating beautifully wrought philosophical meditations on love, art, and human frailty.

For me, the real revelation in reading Felsen was his beguiling use of language and the sheer depth of his psychological introspection. His long, tortuous periods take the reader on a journey into the human psyche. To paraphrase Adamovich, the emigration’s foremost critic (as well as Felsen’s friend and early mentor), reading him is by no means an easy undertaking, but for those willing to engage with his work, the rewards are exquisite. His style is unlike that of any other writer in the Russian canon, and with this rich, idiosyncratic, poetic prose he evokes not only the existential angst of his milieu, but moreover the innate psychologies of his characters, which are drawn with a lightly cynical, wry humor. Time and again I find myself reading and rereading passages, marveling at Felsen’s ability to give expression to the counterpoint of thoughts and emotions, profound and trivial, that we can experience in a single moment. Take, for instance, Volodya’s at once comic, perceptive, and ultimately touching attempt to justify a shopping spree intended to impress his beloved:

Without stopping at home, I set out post-haste for all the shops I required — earlier, before the money’s arrival, in order not to tantalize myself needlessly, not for anything would I have lingered by shop windows (much too enticing and beyond my reach) — today, however, as soon as I left the bureau, where the debonair old boy had paternally slipped me a primed envelope containing a check, I immediately began totting up how much I would spend on what, adjusting the figures, swapping one decision for another and proving to myself once again that I was quite able to make spontaneous decisions — indeed, I drew up a half-mock (though quite serious) budget, carefully adhered to it, and then hastily bore off my purchases, so as to lay them out together all the quicker. At home each purchase seemed to me a miracle of good taste (as we find everything that bears the hallmark of our selection, our accidental favor, our slightest efforts, and to which we immediately cede both our sense and our serene equanimity), and each of these tastefully chosen items, gifted to myself, unexpectedly drew me closer to Lyolya — for her sake alone had I chosen them, and so in every respect, even in this act (not only mentally and emotionally), did I prove myself worthy of her.

Or his crystalline description of the indignity and dread that follows a night of inebriated over-indulgence:

Now this “tomorrow” has dawned, one of those maddening days that are spoilt from the very outset, when, having awoken, you do not know what went wrong the previous evening, when you look for something to find fault with and then recall some heated, unnecessary words, a careless act that might seem frivolous, deceitful, irrevocably binding, and the sense of having made an irreversible mistake now permeates everything, irrespective of what happens before sleep comes again, and there remains (because of the impossibility of undoing what has been done or taking back what has been said) but one sole desire — to hide, to sleep, and never to wake up.

While many writers have successfully conjured up the atmosphere of the Parisian cafe, with its Russian waiters, “gypsy” music, and romantic anticipation, few, I think, have captured, with such nuanced, expressive clarity, the internalization of that atmosphere. In Deceit, Volodya diarizes an evening spent there, as he waits for his beloved Lyolya to arrive the next day:

Now the gypsy woman urgently sings out my favorite “everyone remembers their beloved” — and, one after another, muddled thoughts race through my mind: that without fail “everyone” will remember (there is a touching grandeur to the enormity of the generalization); that I too shall remember is, for me, the most important thing, but this alludes not to the past (though the music might easily have stirred that up), but to tomorrow’s Lyolya, in sudden proximity, alive and almost palpably in love with me. Then comes a new, dancelike, lulling meter and new, peculiar words — “the heart is spent on caresses” — they have the charm of a humble, uncomplaining, eternal readiness to sacrifice, but my objection is unwavering: no, the heart is not “spent,” but enriched — one need only crack open the heart’s riches, and they shall prove inexhaustible.

In Felsen’s world, it is precisely these inner riches that are able to engender poetic vision and raise the quotidian and prosaic to an apotheosis of artistic beauty. For all her cruelty, the mercurial, beautiful, and enigmatic Lyolya forever remains the center of Volodya’s psychological and emotional world, and his love for her the impetus for his writing. How sobering and poignant, then, to learn that the original of Lyolya — Felsen’s “Beatrice of Riga,” as Adamovich dubbed her — would ultimately share in his woeful fate, also perishing in the Shoah.

In the Talmud it is written, “Blessed be the one who resurrects the dead.” I cannot resurrect Felsen, but perhaps in trying to raise him from obscurity I can do the next best thing. And what better place to begin than his art, which, for all that has been lost and destroyed, shall forever remain the truest testament to Yuri Felsen’s life.

Will Felsen finally find his audience? Perhaps Gazdanov again holds the answer. The off-the-cuff remark that began my acquaintance with Felsen, despite its grim foreboding, went on to elicit from me a wry smile. To illustrate the author’s predicament, Gazdanov thought it prudent to draw a parallel with a little-known German poet, who had died some eight years prior. “How many readers have heard of Rilke,” he asked, “one of the most remarkable poets and writers of Germany? You read him and are amazed: how and why is this name not famous the whole world over?” Gazdanov was ahead of the curve. And it thrills me to think that there may be hope for Felsen yet.


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.

LARB Contributor

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.


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