Last week, in the provincial Russian city of Saratov, a judge heard final arguments in the case of writer Edward Limonov. Though Limonov stands accused of plotting to invade a large central Asian country, Kazakhstan, the trial has received zero attention in the United States—in no small part because Limonov is a disgusting nationalist who was once filmed firing off a few machine-gun rounds at the defenseless city of Sarajevo while visiting his pal Radovan Karadzic (the prosecution played the tape at Karadzic's trial at The Hague). And yet 25 years ago, Limonov was poised to become a great émigré writer—a wild-man antidote to all those high-mandarin Brodskys and Kunderas. His failure to become that writer is a telling chapter in the history of modern literature and post-Soviet confusion. It is also a stunning indictment of a certain now-familiar kind of literary narcissism.
Once upon a time, Edward Limonov was an American welfare queen. There was no place in the Soviet Union for his strange, deeply personal, and explicitly sexual poetry, and so he emigrated to the United States in 1974, just after Solzhenitsyn. But he was no Solzhenitsyn. His first and best novel, the profane and affecting It's Me, Eddie, opens with Eddie sitting on the balcony of a Midtown residential hotel on Madison Avenue, eating cabbage soup and addressing the lawyers he hopes are watching him from across the street:
I receive Welfare. I live off your labor: you pay taxes and I don't do shit, twice a month I head down to the clean and spacious welfare office at 1515 Broadway and pick up my check. ... What, you don't like me? You don't want to pay? It's not much—278 dollars a month. You don't want to pay. Well then why the fuck did you get me to come here, me and a whole crowd of Jews? Take it up with your propaganda—it's too strong.
Dumped by his wife Elena, a despairing Eddie wanders the streets of New York searching for understanding, like a Soviet Céline. Only the most despised and dejected—homeless black street hustlers and members of the Trotskyist Workers Party—will take him in. After a number of back-alley homosexual escapades, the book ends with Eddie, in tears, telling everyone to go fuck themselves.
Eddie raised all sorts of hackles when it was published in 1979: The Soviet press found it filthy, while the more perceptive émigré establishment denounced Limonov for stating the awful truth: that for many of those who came over, America was just nasty, brutal, and expensive—and New York was no city on a hill. But Eddie had its admirers, Truman Capote among them; the Germans gleefully gave their translation the English-language title Fuck Off Amerika, and the French went with Le poète russe préfère les grands nègres. The book sold over a million copies when it was finally published in Russia in 1991.
In the hunt for bigger game, and unable to compete with his self-appointed archrival Joseph Brodsky, Limonov abandoned poetry and moved to Paris. He continued to write his peculiar brand of memoir-novels, some of which, particularly The Teenager Savenko (Limonov's real name), were excellent. And then the Soviet Union began to dissolve, and it was as if the thin layer of cloth that had separated Limonov's literary fantasies from his reality dissolved with it.
There had always been, even in his poetry, an intense fascination with violence. In the series of notes and semi-absurdist sketches that make up Diary of a Loser (1982), there is this short poem:
The pygmies have taken the city of Muchacha!
"They're four feet tall," the radio intones.
And I'm thrilled, thrilled that the pygmies have taken the city of Muchacha.
I wonder—will they remember to rape all the big women and burn the place down?
And yet this is not a poem about violence or rape—it's a poem about the little people taking on the big people, about the poet's comic desire for revolution and his worry that the revolutionaries might louse it up. The Soviet Union, and the American empire that opposed it, are both going to last a thousand years; in the meantime, the poet is on the side of the pygmies.
But as things started to heat up back home, the violence in Limonov's writing became both more prevalent and more banal—braggadocio about his time in war zones, and his father's NKVD-issue pistol (the NKVD was the precursor to the KGB), about his affection for Russian ethnic separatists and Serb war criminals. As he later put it: "Enough walks in the park with red-cheeked girls, it was time to walk with loyal comrades underneath a red flag. That was my slogan for the 90s." A terrible slogan—and it led to some terrible writing. He continued to compose his autobiography, but it was now under the guise of history. He wanted to be a man of action, a truth-teller in the post-Soviet time of troubles, but his self-involvement was prohibitive. The great self-explicators like Roth and Bellow had gazed inside their souls and seen the whole epic of human emotions; Limonov, closer to Dave Eggers, began to look at others and see only himself. His chief impression of Belgrade during the early '90s was that he went to some cool parties with the Milosevic gang and got laid. His description of Arkan, the leader of the Serbs' top ethnic-cleansing paramilitaries: "I've always loved bright and handsome gangsters." In 1992 he returned to Russia for good. By then he had become, in politics, an extreme nationalist; and as a writer, an extreme narcissist.