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Limonov at the Literary Olympics("The Belle Who Used To Inspire the Poet")


1. Text and intertexts: life over canon

Rivalry.Both from his poetry and prose, the life of Limonov's authorial persona emerges as a chain of victories, a la Balzac's Rastignac or Stendhal's Julien Sorel, over ever higher?class rivals. He begins by surpassing, back home in the provincial city of Kharkov, the local poet Motrich (1969; see 1979: 59). Once in Moscow, he challenges??with mixed success??various official and unofficial celebrities; Then he turns his sights on the West, which he first conquers in the literary dreamworld of his "We, the National Hero" (1977b), a scenario he will find hard to live up to in actual emigration (since 1973). 

The scope of his ambitions can be inferred from his contempt of the 1960s' Thaw generation, sarcastic treatment of Brodsky (1984b), condescension to Pasternak, and only a qualified respect for Mayakovsky (1983: 64); he reserves his real admiration for Khlebnikov, the avant?gardist Chairman of the Globe (1985b). Proclaiming his exit from Russian literature (1984c: 219), Limonov tries to take one last step from the provincial ghetto forward and up, dahin, dahin to the Olympus of world literature, in a clearcut case of the Bloomean anxiety of influence: the urge to make room at the top for one's creativity by visiting symbolic violence on literary ancestors.

Indeed, the story in question (Limonov 1990) begins at a "Poetry Olympics" in London. 

The autobiographical narrator?hero outperforms several poetic heavyweights from the Western world and, as "the Soviet authorities, angry with the West over something or other, haven't delivered the usual gift?items, E[vtushenko]. and V[oznesensky].," wins the bronze, no mean achievement for a foreign?language contestant; on its strength he also gets the sexy tele?starlet Diana. But this is, as it were, only a warm?up: the main event matches him up with no lesser an opponent than the reigning champion, Mandelstam.[1]And, improbable as it may seem, Eddie takes the upper hand??almost. 

Narrative art has evolved a variety of stratagems for arranging the protagonist's encounter with a great literary forebear. Here are some brief examples of the paradigm.

In Boris Pasternak's "The Mark of Apelle" (1915) the narrator practically identifies with his inspired poet hero, an anachronistic twentieth?century "Heinrich Heine," who wins a poetic?and?real?life combat with a challenger; the weapon and the prize is the other poet's beloved.

Ivan Bunin has a story, "Pan Mikhol'skii's Vest," (1934), told by a corny character who believes Gogol once envied him his flashy vest.

In "The Chimes of Breguet" ("Zvon bregeta," 1959) by Iurii Kazakov, the narrator chronicles one day in the life of his protagonist, Lermontov, who tries to approach Pushkin, but, alas, it is the day of the duel.

Andrei Bitov sends the literary scholar hero of his "Pushkin's Photograph (1799?2099)" into the past in a time machine; but, having failed to hit it off with Pushkin on an equal footing, the hero has to settle for the role of a Pushkinian "little man."

The narrator?hero of Isaac Babel's "Guy de Maupassant" (Babel 1955 [1932]: 328?38) sweepsoff her feet a newly rich plump lady dabbling in literature; he does so by the artistry with which he translates a Maupassant story ("L'Aveu"), whose juicy plot he thus consummates in real life. Later on, reading about Maupassant's painful dying of progressive paralysis, the narrator supplements his focus on the classic's texts with a glimpse of his life. 

In all these cases the encounter with the forebear takews place in the plot's "real life." But quite often, especially in our ultra?metaliterary age, the meeting occurs on a purely textual territory??playing exclusively with the predecessor's text. 

The story?line of Jorge Luis Borges' "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" (1939) boils down to the protagonist's rewriting, verbatim and yet anew, the great Cervantes novel.

And in Woody Allen's madcap spoof of several genres, "The Kugelmass Episode" (1975), the 1960s' hero has an affair with Madame Bovary and soon does not know how to get rid of her.

What does Limonov do? With his Chernyshevskian conviction that 'life' is more genuine than 'art,' he is bound to opt for a personal confrontation.[2] Limonov would not be interested in a purely literary attack on a Mandelstam textor in regurgitating the poet's biographyor even in sneaking into that biography in the guise of a real or fictional contemporary. Nor would he indulge in fantasy, committed as he is to writing "the truth." On the other hand, the idea of stealing not only the show, but also the beloved of his literary rival would certainly appeal to him.

To meet the contradictory demands, Limonov has recourse to the motif of the 'Great Widow.' Elsewhere (e. g., in 1983: 64), he has shown off his friendship with Mayakovsky's two most famous loves, Lily Brik and Tatiana Iakovleva?Lieberman, by then in their senior years.[3]

Thus it is that in the title role of his "belle" Limonov casts Mme. Salome (Salomeia Nikolaevna) Andronikova?Halpern (1889?1982), the addressee?heroine of Mandelstam's "Solominka" (lit. "Little Straw," 1916), with whom the poet was secretly and unrequitedly in love in the early 1910s.[4]

In London for the Poetry Olympics, Limonov is taken by Alla, a "professoress" (professorsha) of Russian literature, and their common friend, the sexy Diana, to visit Salome. A chemistry seems to work between Limonov and Salome, and over a glass of "J & B" (having read It's Me, Eddie, Salome remembers that it is his favorite drink), she tells him how she had paid no attention to that "runt" (pliugavyi) Mandelstam, preferring the brilliant aristocrats of the Guards Corps. 

Thus Limonov, who in the first round has won the affections of Diana, ends up, in the finals, as a confidant of the once beautiful Salome. Put together, the saucy Diana and the genuine, if old, Salome, approximately equal one young Solominka. Mandelstam, meanwhile, is left holding merely literary laurels.

Memento mori.Limonov's 'victory' distinguishes his text from most of the other encounters with literary greats, mostly written in a reverently conservative mode; "The Belle" is also different because it tackles the ultimate problems of the human condition and creativity. In both these respects it is similar to Babel's "Maupassant."

There, the narrator?hero's foil is Kazantsev, a translator from Spanish, who knows all the castles in Spain, but has never been there,a hairless bookworm, identifying with Don Quixote's idealism and Tolstoy's vegetarian homilies. The hero, on the contrary, sees art as a means of conquering life; by replicating with the fleshy Raisa the erotic denouement of the Maupassant story, he, albeit only symbolically, visits France, the sunny land of lovemaking.

Art, however, is an instrument not only of love, but also of death. "Then I spoke of style, of the army of words, in which all kinds of weapons are on the march. No iron can enter the human heart so chillingly as a well?timed period." . At close range, this dissertation on verbal weaponry helps the hero to pierce Raisa's soul and body, while its more distant aim is to foreshadow his punchline response to the death agony of Maupassant: "My heart contracted. A foreboding of [the] truth touched me." The implied "truth" seems to be that while art has power over love and life, they, in turn, are inexorably fraught with death.

Not always is Babel so dead serious. His "Answer to an Inquiry" ("Spravka," 1964 [n/d]: 16?20), is, in a sense, the same story, except on a deliberately cruder level and in reverse. 

The narrator?hero charms the prostitute Vera he has been lusting after with an invented tale of his martyrdom as an orphan male prostitute kept by rich old lechers, and thus gains her passionate "sisterly" love, generously free of charge.

The happy ending is a perfect celebration of the Baudelairian equation/mating of literature and prostitution, but it would have been unlike Babel to leave death completely out.

"A church warden!... I filched that out of some book or other, an invention of a lazy mind. To make up, I thrust an asthma into the old man's yellow chest, fits of asthma, a coarse whistle of choking. The old man jumped out of his bed and wheezed into the kerosene Baku night. Before long he died.His relatives kicked me out...."

Whereas in "Guy de Maupassant" death has the last word, in "Answer to an Inquiry," the narrator wards it off in advance by spoofing its kitschy fictionalization.[5]Still more cloudless is Pasternak's romantically modernist "Apelle."

Limonov, on the contrary, places 'death' at the very center of his composition, creating a symbolic effect of descent into the nether world. 

Invited to meet Salome, he says he does "not want to visit a corpse."Salome's apartment has many locks, is cold, dark, smells like a museum. The hostess is old, dressed in a man's overcoat, and walks with the support of agnarled stick. To Limonov's tactless question about feeling old, Salome replies: "The most unpleasant thing is... that I still want, but cannot play all those naughty female tricks that I so loved to commit... It is as if I were put inside a heavy, rusty diving suit. The suit has grafted itself onto my body; I live in it, move around and sleep in it. Heavy leaden legs, heavy head on a stiff neck." Earlier in the story it was said that the old woman's face "was in harmony with the lacquered knottiness of her stick" and that Diana and Alla saw her as "a sort of iron woman."

This is, of course, reminiscent of the mythological image of the maiden grown one with her armor, from which the hero has to break her free with his sword in a first pre?wedding test (see Chapter 3, section 6) and of the fatal engagement with a female statue in Prosper Merimee's "La Venus d'Ille" (1837). The consequences of Salome's answer are no less ominous: 

Both Salome and Limonov become pensive, the sun abandons even the lawn outside her window, the guests leave, and as they drive across London, the two women chat in the front, while Limonov broods sadly, alone in the back seat.

Limonov fancies the "Hemingwayesque" open closures, where the hero, having survived a traumatic experience with honor, if not without loss, remains alone with his stoicism (see Eddie, "Love," "On the Wild Side" [1983, 1984, 1985]). In "The Belle," this psychological superstructure is placed on a solid archetypal foundation. One of the story's major intertexts is Pushkin's "The Queen of Spades" (1833).

Salome is akin to Pushkin's old Countess (even before meeting her, Limonov feels "like a working man who had climbed into bed with a countesss"), once famous in Paris as La Venus Moscovite. They are about the same age: the Countess is eighty?seven, Salome, ninety?one,[6] and, as Limonov promptly announces, his own grandmother, eighty?seven. In both texts, the heroines' longevity serves as a bridge to a long?gone era and its romantic liaisons, which form similar time?warp triangles (Hermann to Countess to Saint?Germain as Limonov to Salome to Mandelstam); the survivors also voice their opinions of today's writing (Pushkin's old lady comments on the literature of the 1830s; Limonov's, on a novel by Limonov). Diana the starlet and Alla the professoress together fill the role of Pushkin's Lizaveta Ivanovna, the Countess' poor young ward.

For himself, Limonov reserves the role of Hermann, a Russian Rastignac, forerunner of Raskolnikov. Limonov flaunts his delinquent tendencies: "I was... brazen, like a petty criminal who had finally done a 'big job'"; "[I was] no damn writer, just a crook."[7] Limonov's criminality is aimed, among others, at decrepit mother figures (he has an urge "to get his hands under senior women's skirts"). Indeed, the earthly interest the protagonist, whether Pushkin's or Limonov's (Hermann; Limonov) may have in the young companion (Lizaveta; Diana), is but a step toward the existential rendezvous with the old mother figure (the Sphinx, Pythia, Death), the androgynous (in "a man's overcoat")[8] keeper of otherworldly mysteries. The 'diving?suit' motif submerges all this even deeper under the ground, or rather, under the water.[9]

Although on the surface of things the discussion of old age is painful for Salome, it deals an even deadlier blow to the protagonist, just as the death of the old Countess, involuntarily caused by Hermann, leads to his demise. On the whole, the antagonists are well matched.

Limonov parades as a "criminal" and is "cruel" in his refusal "to come into a premature contact with another's old age... what's the rush, when my own awaits me." (To be sure, along with cruelty, this statement manifests the narrator's thinly disguised fear of ageing, in a foreshadowing of what is to follow in the plot.)

Salome, in turn, boasts of having been "villainously beautiful in [her] youth" and "cruel": she "tortured [her] lovers and [metaphorically] drank their blood."

The narrator later concludes that "in all epochs, cruel Solominkas, Ligeiias and Seraphitas" were cruel to weakling poets, but not to guardsmen, who, in their turn, mistreated and "dumped their belles, slapped them, shook them like dolls, threw them into the mud."

Salome's parenthetical mention of 'blood?sucking' is not a mere accident of purple prose; it subtly links the theme of cruelty with the story's other leitmotifs, in particular, its emphasis on corporeality and death."A propos of my lines... about kissing the hands of the Russian Revolution, the journalist [covering the "Poetry Olympics"??A. Zh.] snidely wondered, 'whether this nice little kiss had not left Mr. Limonoff's lips covered with blood.'"

In addition to its ideological provocativeness, the figurative bloody tryst with Revolution cast as yet another deadly mother figure[10] is, of course, an early foreshadowing of the fatal encounter with Salome's old age and her message almost from beyond the grave. After that encounter, Limonov becomes practically separated from Diana, although until then he kept programmatically groping under her skirt. From his initial self?congratulatory "brazenness," via a Dantesque or Orpheus?like descent into the Hades, he arrives at a state of sad wisdom. 

In light of these life?and?death issues, the 'victory' over Mandelstam is but a meager consolation. 

Early on, describing the Poetry Olympics, Limonov stresses the physical, corporeal nature of artistic success. "But the people were not trying to make out every word. The words only provided the musical background of the show, while the principal action was performed, like in the ballet, with the help of one's body, facial muscles and, of course, of dress and accessories." In the closing passage, however, . Limonov imagines Mandelstam as "a little dwarf" who has "lain down on the wet sand [on the beach] in his bowler hat and black suit," compares him with a photo of Kafka and with Charlie Chaplin, and wonders what it is exactly that makes the guardsmen so "brilliant" in the eyes of society beauties (could it be "the abundance of epaulets and buckles [portupei]?").

In other words, the narrator comes to sympathize with the poet rather than with the crude darlings of success, thus virtually siding with Professoress Alla, who idolizes poetry and poets and keeps wondering how Salome could possibly have rejected Mandelstam.[11] Thus, from fancying poetry as a winning dance he shifts to a rather Mandelstamian view of poetry as a vulnerable, yet eternal Word. To put it in more striking terms, from a Salome (Herod's this time) he turns into a John the Baptist.[12]

The final scene, observed by Limonov from the automobile, is emblematic:"A tall impressive punk with a bright?red hairdo a la Iro quois was slapping [the face of] a pale tall girl in a leather jacket and black leotard. By the wall of a pharmacy stood a small young clerk in a three?piece suit, neck?tie and all, observing the scene, emotionally absorbed." The young girl corresponds to Diana and the other belles thrown into the mud, the clerk represents Mandelstam, while the punk is a reincarnation of the guardsmen of the 1910s, and, closer to home, of the two winners of the Olympics (and thus, defeaters of Limonov):"The most obscene in appearance was a punk poet..., whose reckless head was decorated with bluish?pink tufts of hair... The most obscene in content was... a reggae singer... He chanted his short verses [chastushki]... with the refrain: 'England is a bitch.'"

With whom, then, does Limonov identify??the punk or the clerk? His sympathies split: as a man, he values life, strength, power, sex, but as a sensitive and androgynous poetic personality, he is doomed to suffer, observe and portray life, knowing, especially after the encounter with the Oracle, that it ends in old age and death. 

[1]The choice of Mandelstam may have to do with his status as arguably the greatest Russian poet of this century; the only 'victim writer' who dared epigrammatize Stalin; an idol of the liberal intelligentsia; and, last but not least, Brodsky's mentor and namesake.
[2]Limonov once said, in response to my query about what had influenced his poem "A Bandit's Wife" (1986: 6?7): "The bandit's wife did." In a telling contrast, Brodsky, promotes the Language, rather than the Beloved, as the Poet's Muse (see Ch. 5, Conclusion).
[3]Cf. the protagonist's obsession with superannuated women in Sasha Sokolov's Palisandriia (1985/1989]) and the historical marriage of Vasilii Rozanov (one of Limonov's few acknowledged mentors) to Apollinariia Suslova, Dostoevsky's real?life femme fatale.
[4] The text of the poem is cited in the Appendix; see Mandelstam 1967?69, 1: 59?60, 430?31; 1990, 1: 110?11, 475?6; Semmler?Vakareliyska 1985; the association with 'straw' is paronymic (Salomeia??Solominka).
[5]The target of this parody could well have been My Childhood (1913) by Babel's mentor?guardian Maxim Gorky; on the "underdog" spin Gorky's autobiographical trilogy gives to his not?so?victimized childhood, see Wachtel 1990: 131?52.
[6] This places the actual interview somewhere in 1980. Professor John Bowlt remembers visiting Mrs. Andronikova?Halpern in London in 1976. In discussing Vasilii Shukhaev's illustrations for the 1920 French edition of "La Dame de Pique" (Paris: Pleiade), she "paused, as if arrested by some vivid, yet distant thought,... not because she was recalling her friendship with Shukhaev, but rather as if, in some perverse manner, she was identifying herself with Shukhaev's image of the cold, aloof, and still powerful countess" (Bowlt's memo to me, March 10, 1992). 
[7]In this, Limonov is not all that different from the historical??rather than his own, stylized??Mandelstam, who saw genuine literature as "created without permission" and downright criminal: "stolen air" [1990, 2: 92] and admired the poet?criminal Francois Villon. 
[8] Incidentally, the androgynous protagonist of Balzac's Seraphita (invoked in Mandelstam's "Solominka") is both young and "more than a hundred [years old]" (Balzac 1986: 36) and wears at home "his usual garment, which was as much like a woman's dressing gown as a man's overcoat" (p. 32).
[9] Underwater imagery was actively explored by the Decadents/Symbolists circa 1900 (i. e. during Salome's formative years), in particular, in Balmont's 1894 sonnet "Underwater Plants" and Valerii Briusov's 1904 essay, where he portrayed the Decadent Poets as "walking under water in a diving bell, preserving a telephone link only with those... at the surface, where the sun shines" (in Vesy, 1904, no. 1: 50; quoted in Tsivian 1993).
[10]"Revolution" is feminine in Russian, as are "life," "love," and "death."
[11]Cf. a similar shift in the narrator's point of view in the end of "Gentle Breathing"; see Ch. 4. 
[12]The Salome/Saint John the Baptist myth originated in the Gospels (Matthew 14: 1?13; Mark 6: 14?29; for a recent analysis see Girard 1984), had a long history in European painting, was recycled in Heinrich Heine's Atta Troll and became the rage in the "decadent" era (Kuryluk 1987: 189?258; Meltzer 1984), into which Mandelstam's and Limonov's heroine was born. The Salome paradigm includes:??the dance at a public gathering, leading to the decapitation of the prophet;??the prophet's blood?dripping severed head, cognate with that of Orpheus;??the kissing of bloody lips; decapitation as castration;??a castrating female, either a virgin (veiled, lunar, ice?like) or a goddess of the underworld (Hecate, Venus);??a "doubles" relationship between precursor and follower (John and Jesus;??the crushing of Salome (with the shields of Herod's soldiers).Mandelstam may have used some of these motifs (e. g., in Neva's icy invasion of the room and the ceiling's descending on Solominka's eyelids) deliberately. Limonov's story, in its turn, features the following: a Salome; blood?sucking; victimized, symbolically castrated poets; dancing; kissing the bloody lips of the Russian revolution; a 'doubles' relation with Mandelstam; and, of course, a fateful meeting with an underworld figure. Whether this powerful interplay with the Salome topos is intentional is of secondary importance.