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.
Just as Eddie had been something of a parodic anti-dissident dissident, however, so Limonov became a parodic right-winger; a better poet than his friend Karadzic, he was a less successful fascist. He briefly joined the right-wing politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky and then founded his own National Bolshevik Party in 1993. The party's name and its iconography (a sort of retro-Stalinist chic) were a perfect avant-garde version of the ascendant Russian red-browns. But most of Limonov's early followers were urban hipsters and punks who were closer to a clown troupe than to Sturmtruppen. They dressed up like Nazis—and then threw vegetables at politicians. Their public pronouncements ranged from high satire to low nationalism. After Limonov received less than 2 percent of the vote in a bid for the Duma in 1995, he held a press conference promising to impose order on the party and set to work right away by administering a haircut to a "shaggy hipster." He then promised to organize military camps in southern Russia to train for the recapture of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine.
The authorities were not amused, and the party was increasingly harassed. Then, in early 2001, shortly after the NBP party newspaper published a plan for creating a "second Russia" in northern Kazakhstan (which had a significant Russian minority there, went the thinking, and sparsely patrolled borders), two NBP members were arrested while purchasing Kalashnikovs. In the wake of what must have been some very persuasive interrogation, the youths claimed they were acting under orders, and Limonov was promptly incarcerated; he has been in prison ever since. After serving for years as the court jester to an already clownish far right, whose leading denizens liked to call him a "fag," at last Limonov has found someone to take him seriously. The state prosecutor asked that the writer receive 14 years. The judge will rule in mid-April.
Yet something about Limonov still haunts the mind. He is, without question, a real asshole—he called for press censorship during the first war in Chechnya, he struck the British writer Paul Bailey in the head with a champagne bottle at an international writers conference, he declared that what Russia's liberals needed was a dose of the gulag. He is not himself an anti-Semite, but, as the anti-Semites used to say, some of his best friends are. His arrival at this low point was certainly large parts stupidity, confusion, and just plain inferiority complex—Solzhenitsyn once called him "a little insect," and how do you get over that? But there's more than foolishness here. All his writing is shot through with a curious mixture of self-pity and self-regard—the self, the self, the self. Perhaps every memoirist is already something of a fascist, the politics a logical extension of the idea that your life is more than other lives.
Which is why Limonov's prison writings are so interesting. At first he accelerated his production, writing seven books (mostly memoirs) in less than two years. And then, as he admits, he ran out of Limonoviana—and he began to look around. He saw Lefortovo, "the Russian Bastille," and he saw his fellow prisoners, some of them Chechen rebels, and he listened to the awful radio programs pumped into their cells 10 hours a day. His last book, V Plenu u Mertvetsov, or Prisoner of the Walking Dead, includes a finely observed description of prison life, an imaginary dialogue with Joseph Brodsky, whom he knew ("Holy shit!" Limonov tells Brodsky about Sept. 11), and an 80-page motion for his release. It's the best thing he's written in 20 years.