AUGUST 1, 2022
“DEEP DOWN nothing has changed: by no means I have chosen my present identity (buried as it is under layers of women, books and cafes).”
Displacement and the search for identity form the heart of Deceit, a novel by the Russian Jewish emigré author Yuri Felsen, which was published in Paris in 1930 and now appears in English for the first time. Meticulously translated by Bryan Karetnyk, and with a thoughtful, informative introduction by Peter Pomerantsev, the novel takes the form of a diary written by an anonymous Russian émigré in 1920s Paris. Each of the entries is a deep psychological exploration of the nature of love, heartbreak, and deceit, and collectively they chart the diarist’s obsession with a fellow émigré, the alluring but ultimately unattainable Lyolya Heard.
Lyolya, perhaps in her imagined rather than her real form, offers our bachelor salvation, as well as a link with his Russian self. Identity is essential to survival for those forced to quit their homeland, a fact repeatedly if obliquely emphasized by our diarist, who laments that “everything in Russia feels taken from us forever.” This desire to retain a Russian identity is one of the novel’s main threads. The diarist only speaks to fellow Russians and seems permanently ready to criticize others for their un-Russianness. Meanwhile, the French language, always untranslated, encroaches just at the very edges of the text and reminds the reader of these Russians’ status as foreigners in a foreign land.
If the diarist’s relentless quest to win Lyolya’s affection could be seen as an attempt to find a safe harbor while he is adrift from Russia, then he is fated to remain at sea. Lyolya, he finally concludes, “embodies deceit.” Hidden beneath his allegedly candid diary entries, however, is the core paradox that Lyolya has a closer relationship with the truth than he does. As the story unfurls, the diarist’s unwillingness, or inability, to admit to what both his friends and his readers can see as the truth, is highlighted by his own observations. Our bachelor describes each of Lyolya’s slights against him in excruciating detail, and yet he continues his pursuit. Take, for example, this beautifully timed description of his first few days with Lyolya who, we soon learn, is adept at shutting down her potential lover’s amorous advances. The pair have just spent the evening with a friend, the enigmatic Monsieur De Waal, and are finally on their own:
I began to kiss her hands (which until then had been so singularly alluring and out of reach, unforgettable even for a moment), but I did not kiss them boorishly, as I might have wanted, but with that usual disingenuous tenderness that every one of us can muster if only we ape infatuation, which was necessary here, lest I repulse and offend Lyolya. I was clumsy — I know this to be true – but Lyolya seemed touched, commending me amicably and freeing herself:
“Thank you, my dear, for the evening — you engineered it all admirably. Till tomorrow, then.”
Lyolya’s standoffishness does not stop him from pursuing her. Later, when he suspects (while the reader is certain) that Lyolya is having an affair with his friend, the diarist is still resolved to be with her. He refuses to leave the pair on their own and sits in their bedroom like a petulant toddler in an effort to prevent any intimate relations. He then sequesters himself in the adjacent room, straining to hear proof of any intimacy. While he listens, he reads, without a trace of irony, André Gide’s Les nourritures terrestres.
Our bachelor’s self-deception is not the only example of deceit explored here. Despite his professed love for the uncooperative Lyolya, the diarist pursues intimate relationships with two other women, Ida and Zina, and drops them upon Lyolya’s return without any regrets. He is only annoyed that he has to go through the breakup process at all. Would a letter be too cruel, he ponders. He claims he sleeps with Ida because he is drunk and starts a relationship with Zina in order to make Lyolya jealous. He would much prefer to be able to meet with his women for “immediate gratification” without performing all the “tedious and insincere overtures” he feels obligated to make.
The reader may not approve of our bachelor’s attitude to women, or his penchant for watching them in cafés, but we can readily sympathize with his anguish when he does not hear from Lyolya, and the torment he experiences as he sits and waits for her alone in a café on a Friday night. Recognizable too are the heartbroken diarist’s actions. When Lyolya returns to her former lover Sergei N., our bachelor revisits old arguments, going over what he should have said. Eventually he writes Lyolya a letter listing all of his grievances, though he never mentions whether he actually sends it. He tests their relationship constantly, searching for proof of Lyolya’s feelings for him, and even when he is with Ida, his description of physical pleasure quickly spills over into recollections of Lyolya.
Throughout the diary, Karetnyk’s seemingly effortless translation captures Felsen’s wit and comic timing perfectly. The diarist considers spending the night with a prostitute just before he meets Lyolya for the first time, but he decides against “gifting [himself] a night of unncumbered generosity.” Likewise, the description of his quest for oblivion after Lyolya’s rejection is wonderfully paced: “I began to intoxicate myself with an array of various liqueurs in turn, trying to avoid that ambiguous, transitional state […] Intoxication came quickly.” When he decides to visit Ida in the hope of a night of passion, and realizes that success is near, he admits that “in such cases I know I wear an obnoxious, triumphant smile, one that I cannot suppress.”
Karetnyk’s careful handling of Felsen’s intricate sentences is to be not only commended but relished. Midway through Deceit, the diarist hopes against all odds that Lyolya will return to him and performs a mental trick to convince himself that he can still salvage their relationship. He describes his thoughts as he rescues himself from despair, layering clause upon clause to create a vivid account of his mental process:
Without love we fall into a stupor or despair, it covers our naked animal essence; With the fear of death, with deliberate attempts to grab hold of some kind of eternity, one that is at once a mystery to us and yet devised by us, even the remains of love, even its very echo in music, imbues us with a semblance of fearlessness, dignity and the spiritual range to disregard death. Only by loving, by knowing about love, hoping for love, are we inspired and meaningfully engaged in life, able to banish the sovereign of petty day-to-day cares, to stop waiting for the end to come; hence my conclusion, my hope — despite doubt, despite experience, despite my perennial, easily pacified patience: Lyolya must love — for my sake (thankfully I have mellowed, and it starts me to think for the first time — for her own sake, too); she cannot leave me, else she will know how feeble, how inadequate and elusive are the remains of love, and how, before we realise it, it will be too late. Because of the enormous triple strain — Lyolya’s almost tangible presence all day, somebody else’s dying, desperate music, my own foolish fever — I have ceased to doubt and now begin to believe, with rejoicing, with relief, that Lyolya has already staged her intervention .
One wonders what Felsen, who was killed in Auschwitz in 1943, would make of his long-delayed transportation from Russian into English. Had Karetnyk not stumbled across Felsen during his research, this author, who was heralded as an heir to Proust by his peers, might have remained unknown to the Anglophone world. The fact that Deceit has come into English almost a hundred years after its debut speaks not only to the power of translators to rescue authors from obscurity, but also to the importance of independent presses such as Prototype in commissioning new and relevant voices, no matter where or when they are writing from. Timely, relatable, and thoroughly absorbing, if Deceit proves anything, it is how little both our interior and exterior lives have changed over the span of a tumultuous century.
Sarah Gear is a PhD candidate at the University of Exeter. Her work examines the ways in which politics and publishing intersect, by comparing the commission, translation, and reception of contemporary novels by nationalist and liberal Russian writers.