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the Complete Review
the complete review - biographical


Emmanuel Carrère

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To purchase Limonov

Title: Limonov
Author: Emmanuel Carrère
Genre: Non/fiction
Written: 2011 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 340 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Limonov - US
Limonov - UK
Limonov - Canada
Limonov - Canada (French)
Limonov - India
Limonov - France
Limonow - Deutschland
Limonov - Italia
Limónov - España
  • French title: Limonov
  • US sub-title: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia
  • Translated by John Lambert

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Our Assessment:

B+ : oddly fascinating writer-homage cum (self-)analysis

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 24/10/2014 Julian Barnes
The Independent . 3/12/2014 Marcus Tanner
Literary Review . 10/2014 Rachel Polonsky
London Rev. of Books . 23/10/2014 Gary Indiana
NZZ . 23/11/2011 Ulrich M. Schmid
The NY Times Book Rev. . 30/11/2014 Julia Ioffe
The Spectator . 22/11/2014 Boris Dralyuk
Sunday Times . 16/11/2014 John Carey
Svenska Dagbladet . 24/9/2013 Fabian Kastner
The Telegraph . 5/11/2014 Rosamund Bartlett
TLS . 2/3/2012 Bernard Besserglik
Wall St. Journal . 17/10/2014 Sam Sacks
The Washington Post . 22/10/2014 Michael Dirda
World Lit. Today . 3-4/2012 Warren Motte
Die Zeit . 4/9/2012 Martin Brinkmann

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is a most peculiar book. (...) As a text it is constantly self-reflective, without always being self-aware. (...) But this doesn’t make his book a novel; rather, a knowingly inaccurate biography -- one which I enjoyed having read more than I actually enjoyed reading. It also struck me that Carrère was perhaps not the best choice to write about Limonov" - Julian Barnes, The Guardian

  • "Carrère describes his book as a novel, which enables him to be inside Limonov's head as well as outside it, sitting in judgment. This confusion over who is telling this story and over whether what we are reading is "true", actually adds to its energy. (...) Carrère tries hard to present Limonov as a modern knight errant, a bright meteor in our dull, grey universe. I wasn't persuaded." - Marcus Tanner, The Independent

  • "The timing of the English publication of Limonov is opportune. It is hard to think of a book that presents more perceptively, or more engagingly, the bewildering paradoxes and perversities of Russian political and literary culture over the past half-century" - Rachel Polonsky, Literary Review

  • "Carrère deckt in Limonows Lebensbeschreibung eigene biografische Möglichkeiten auf, die aber unrealisiert geblieben sind. Mit dem Namen Limonow besetzt er alle Tabus, von denen seine eigene ruhige Existenz in Frankreich beherrscht wird." - Ulrich M. Schmid, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "There's something very Russian about the Eddie that Carrère gives us, a man who laughs at life before it has a chance to bring him low, who masters it by exalting himself above all others." - Julia Ioffe, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Those interested in understanding the forces at play in Putin’s Russia and on its periphery can learn a lot from Carrère’s insightful reflections on Limonov’s unlikely but (mostly) true story." - Boris Dralyuk, The Spectator

  • "Limonov är inte bara den fascinerande berättelsen om en bisarr rysk rebell i evig opposition mot världen, skriven på en rak, driven prosa utan onödiga litterära krusiduller. Det är också en högintressant berättelse om dagens Ryssland." - Fabian Kastner, Svenska Dagbladet

  • "You might not have heard of him, and after you have read this book you might wish you had not heard of him, but you will certainly have enjoyed reading about his life, thanks to the verve of Emmanuel Carrère’s exhilarating narration. You will probably also understand considerably more about the country that produced such a narcissistic and controversial figure, whom the author finds alluring and repellent in equal measure." - Rosamund Bartlett, The Telegraph

  • "The style is conversational and loosely demotic, as befits his subject. (...) The sprinkling of irony throughout the text, typified by jocular references to "notre héros" or "ce facho", suggests a hedging of bets." - Bernard Besserglik, Times Literary Supplement

  • "His addictively interesting narrative (nimbly translated by John Lambert) goes back to Mr. Limonov’s youth in postwar Ukraine (.....) Though grounded in reportage, Limonov embellishes scenes and projects itself into the thoughts of real figures in ways impermissible in straight nonfiction. (...) (T)he storytelling in Limonov is fast-paced and full of zest, consciously modeled on the swashbuckling novels of Dumas that both Messrs. Limonov and Carrère hungrily read as a child." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "Because Carrère (...) possesses such an intimately engaging narrative voice, Limonov feels almost nonchalant yet is, in fact, quite artfully orchestrated and completely riveting. (...) It’s been a spectacular roller coaster life, and Emmanuel Carrère has turned it into an equally spectacular book." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

  • "Throughout the book, Carrère frets about his own motives, never quite coming to satisfactory terms with his decision to write on Limonov. In certain inevitable ways, Limonov forces Carrère to consider himself anew, and that process is an intriguing one, especially for those readers familiar with Carrère’s previous work." - Warren Motte, World Literature Today

  • "Carrère schildert dieses Leben, das der Geschilderte selbst für "ein Scheißleben" hält, spannend wie einen Thriller. Indem er Limonows -- auch an libidinösen Verwicklungen reiche -- Lebensgeschichte mit seiner eigenen Biografie verschränkt, entstehen erhellende Kontraste, durch die weltanschauliche Fragen neu beleuchtet erscheinen: Vielleicht ist es gar nicht die Aufgabe und Pflicht des Menschen, unseren Vorstellungen von politischer Korrektheit zu entsprechen ?" - Martin Brinkmann, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Emmanuel Carrère's writing is not neatly divisible into fiction and non. His books range from the entirely fictional -- The Mustache -- to works based on actual events, distant (such as Gothic Romance, based on the Frankenstein-crowd) or contemporary (The Adversary). Some are close to autobiographical -- even if the focus is ostensibly on, for example, Lives Other Than My Own (published in the UK as: Other Lives than Mine) -- but even in a biographical work such as his Philip K. Dick-book, I am Alive and You are Dead, the author figures prominently.
       Limonov is another work in which the subject-matter is, as the title, suggests, a specific person -- Eduard Limonov. [Limonov's work was published in the US under the sensibly transliterated name 'Edward', rather than the affected-sounding 'Eduard', but this translation of Carrère's work sticks with the pseudo-Frenchified version (in French, he publishes as 'Édouard') -- perhaps appropriately differentiating between the real Limonov (or at least the one he presented in his own autobiographical works) and Carrère's re-imagined version.] A Prologue has Carrère describe meeting Limonov and suggesting what he is undertaking with this book on the man he wants to write, but the then author fades from what begins as a fairly straightforward biographical narrative for a long stretch. When he resurfaces, about midway through, when Limonov and Carrère are both in Paris during the 1980s, the author becomes a much more prominent presence, and the book a more obviously (self-)reflective one, on Carrère's own life and career, and its contrast to Limonov's.
       Limonov can seem an odd choice as the subject of a biography -- especially if the approach is one such as Carrère takes, rather than a more critical/scholarly/academic one. Limonov himself is a writer, and his subject has most frequently been himself; he is a self-aggrandizer who has created his own mythology. In the US his books that were translated -- It's me, Eddie, His Butler's Story, Memoir of a Russian Punk -- are long out of print and largely forgotten; in France, where he achieved somewhat greater popularity and notoriety, the myth seems to have lingered slightly longer (perhaps helped by, for example, It's me, Eddie being sold under the catchier title, Le poète russe préfère les grands nègres (which the Germans tried to do one better, by selling it as Fuck off, Amerika)). So it should be understood that most everything in Limonov -- at least about Limonov -- has been covered in Edward's own books -- but that's not something Carrère makes very clear, especially at first.
       It's me, Eddie -- published in the US by Random House, back in the day -- was presented as: 'a fictional memoir', and Limonov just takes off from there. Only late in the book does Carrère mention, for example, in writing about Limonov's later years: "his Book of the Dead, from which I've drawn a great deal", but it seems clear that the 'Limonov' Carrère is presenting is very much the 'Limonov' Edward has sold to the world. For what is meant to be a biography Carrère doesn't seem to have done much serious research, comfortable enough relying on what Limonov has claimed (though raising the occasional doubts about this or that interpretation). But then Limonov isn't really biography; it may not be quite what (English-speaking readers) conceive of as fiction, either -- it's not your usual novel -- but is a different kind of literature. Indeed, if a traditional genre-name has to be applied, then Limonov is, in fact, autobiography. Like Limonov, Carrère can't get away from himself as character, and though he keeps himself out of it for an admirably long stretch at first, Limonov does very much become a work about Carrère.
       This would seem to explain the choice of subject-matter, as well as Carrère's long-standing fascination with Limonov. Carrère doesn't see himself in Limonov, but he sees them as kindred writing spirits, obsessed with themselves and presenting themselves in their writing. Significantly, Limonov has also lived the life that was closed to Carrère, because of his ultra-bourgeois background and limited experience. Carrère has a writer-crush on this buffoon who has 'lived' so much. When Carrère meets his idol -- yes, he's critical, too, and has his doubts about much of what Limonov has done and represents, but fundamentally he clearly idolizes the man -- he explains why he is writing this book:

Because he's living -- or he lived, I don't remember what tense I used -- a fascinating life. A romantic, dangerous life, a life that dared engage directly with history.
       Carrère clings to the notion of the romance of the experienced life. He describes, at age twenty, enjoying the company of knockout hippy-girl Muriel, and doing his alternative military service at a French Cultural Center in Indonesia -- experience ! exoticism ! All in all, "without question the best thing that could have happened to me", to such an earnest, boring youth. And yet, and yet, it can't compare, of course, to the experience Limonov was able to accumulate, from the tenderest age, in a Soviet Union that is described as much more rough and tumble than Westerners might imagine that ultimate law and order state to have been. "But what a life ! What energy !" Carrère enthuses when he, an impressionable young wannabe-writer first reads It's me, Eddie (his mother passing on her autographed copy; she -- a serious academic -- easily dismissing it as: "boring and pornographic"). Carrère can't see himself doing as Limonov did, not in childhood and not in adulthood, but there's a sense of great regret about that, too; Limonov ultimately feels like nothing more so than an author wistfully daydreaming of a life he envies terribly (even as he is also terribly relieved not to have endured much of what Limonov goes through -- better just to (re)live it in the pages of a book ...). Writing is his escape, but that sense he gets from reading Limonov -- "I felt I was made of dull and mediocre stuff, and that I was doomed in this world to play the role of a walk-on" -- lingers in these pages.
       Edward Limonov's life is what can be called 'interesting'. Tempted by lawlessness and those who don't play by the rules, Limonov liked to skirt along the fringes of society. Able and willing to put up with considerable hardship, whether in the Soviet Union or then in 1970s New York or in the modern Russian prison system (which feels a lot like the old Soviet one), he's lived a 'rich' life. It is always, however, all about him: as Carrère notes early on:
Eduard doesn't like cults dedicated to anyone but himself. He thinks the admiration paid to them is stolen from him.
       Carrère's chronicle of Limonov's life follows the many high- and low-lights of this lowlife -- culled largely from Limonov's own accounts (i.e. often of highly dubious value). It's strangely entertaining: Carrère presents the material in an engaging way, and the sheer bizarreness of it all is in many ways fascinating. (Despite a strong personal antipathy to the nominal subject-matter -- I find it hard imagine a more disagreeable and uninteresting person and type than the Limonov presented here -- even I found the account enjoyably readable.)
       Limonov does fail as anything but the glossiest of biographies: one does well to recognize just how much Carrère relies on Limonov's own spin on things. (Given the buffoon Limonov's cartoonish life, veracity is in any case perhaps beside the point.) In any case, it's certainly preferable to wading through Limonov's own accounts, a reasonable one-volume overview of the man's colorful life. But, of course, Limonov isn't meant to be a biography, and is much more interesting as an obliquely autobiographical study, a writer reflecting on his own life and work via another's. As such, it really is quite good.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 October 2014

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Limonov: Reviews: Other books by Emmanuel Carrere under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Emmanuel Carrère was born in 1957. He has written numerous books, which have been widely translated.

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© 2014-2022 the complete review

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