Book Notes: Emmanuel Carrère’s Limonov

I’m going to write about the book Limonov by the French writer Emmanuel Carrère as a work of literature. I’ll write about Limonov as a person and political activist in a later post because it’s an important topic that’s different from what I want to say about the book.

I never read Carrère before, so I don’t know what he usually does but Limonov belongs to one of the strangest genres I ever encountered. The book is about the life of the Ukrainian writer and the founder of the Russian National-Bolshevik party Eduard Limonov. But instead of actually writing about Limonov, Carrère retells Limonov’s autobiographical novels as if they were statements of fact or compendia of documentary evidence.

It’s the strangest thing. Carrère seems unaware that literature exists. He takes everything that Limonov’s first-person narrators say completely at face value and painstakingly retells their words in the third person. The truly bizarre part is that all of Limonov’s books that Carrère retells have been translated. And French was actually the first language they were translated to. They sold very well, too. So it’s not like Carrère’s readers lack opportunities to read the actual novels Carrère so unnecessarily rewrites.

Another issue with this exercise in retelling is that Limonov is way more talented as a writer than Carrère. It got really funny when all of a sudden I came across a strikingly well-written page in Carrère’s book. “Wow,” I thought, “if Carrère knows how to do this, then why is the rest of the book so inferior in comparison?” And then I realized that Carrère was simply providing a long direct quote from a novel by Limonov. I was reading on Kindle, and the opening quotation mark got lost. Reading Carrère’s plodding retelling of Limonov’s novels reminded me of the old joke where a guy decides that Pavarotti is a terrible singer because his friend Rabinovich sang him a couple of arias and they sounded like crap. Sadly, Carrère seems to have no idea that he’s playing the role of Rabinovich. But hey, how convenient. What a great shortcut for a biographer. There’s no longer any need to investigate, sift through records, interview people, rummage around archives. Simply retell a couple of first-person novels, and that’s all.

It gets even more disturbing, though. As background to Limonov’s life, Carrère tries to explain the late and post-Soviet history and does it with the same uninformed aplomb as when he undertakes to copy a more talented author. He avoids researching his topic and instead narrates a highly tendentious and controversial version of events as if it was THE TRUTH. It’s clear that he heard or read it somewhere and is now doing his favorite thing: retelling.

What’s really weird is Carrère’s almost deathly lack of curiosity towards the people and the events he writes about. You’d think that at some point he’d get over what is clearly an extreme case of congenital laziness and try to explore the subject he writes about a bit. That never happens, though. He plods along, stripping every vestige of the literary from Limonov’s novels and turning them into stenographic accounts. Then he randomly stops. And the book ends.