Deceit by Yuri Felsen,
translated by Bryan Karetnyk

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 presented artists and writers with a difficult choice: to stay in Russia or to flee? It was obvious that staying would mean enduring terrible privations and civil war, as well as submitting to the dictatorship of the Communist Party—particularly after Stalinist orthodoxy hardened. Leaving Russia, on the other hand, allowed them to save their life and freedom, but only at the cost of being permanently cut off from their audience.

Writers had it worst of all. A choreographer like Balanchine or a composer like Stravinsky could communicate with audiences around the world, but a Russian writer in exile could only address a handful of fellow émigrés. The great exception was Vladimir Nabokov, who managed to re-invent himself as an anglophone writer of the first rank. But for every Nabokov there were dozens of writers like Yuri Felsen. Who? Exactly.

Felsen was the pen name of Nikolai Freudenstein, a Jewish writer born in St. Petersburg in 1894, who fled the Russian Revolution with his family and ended up in the émigré colony in Paris. There he published three little-read but highly praised novels, earning him the nickname “the Russian Proust.” Trapped in Paris during the German occupation, he was deported to Auschwitz and murdered in 1943, leaving behind a few anecdotes in other people’s memoirs and virtually nothing else—no manuscripts, no letters, barely even a photograph.

Felsen (top row, sixth from left) with fellow contributors to the émigré literary review Chisla.

But books are harder to annihilate than people, and now, thanks to the British translator Bryan Karetnyk, Felsen is back in print for the first time in almost a century. “For all that fate tried to efface the man, he made an indelible, if now faint, mark,” Karetnyk writes in the introduction to his new translation of Felsen’s first novel, Deceit.

Originally published in 1930, Deceit is heavily autobiographical; the unnamed narrator, a Russian writer in exile in Paris, is effectively Felsen himself—an obvious point of resemblance to Proust. Another is the novel’s meticulous, agonizing analysis of sexual jealousy. The role of Albertine, Proust’s untrustworthy beloved, is played here by Lyolya, “a dazzling, delicate blonde with an inquisitive and cultivated mind, vulnerable and at the same time courageous, able to tackle any setback head-on.” Tellingly, that description is offered by the narrator before he has even met Lyolya, simply on the basis of stories he has heard from her aunt. When we fall in love, Felsen suggests, it is with an imaginary person we have invented for ourselves. The presence of the actual beloved can only complicate matters.

So it goes in Deceit. The novel takes the form of a diary, but the time that the narrator and Lyolya spend as a couple is simply omitted: Part One ends in December and Part Two starts up again the next June. (Felsen doesn’t specify the year.) We hear very little about the missing six months even in retrospect. Rather, Felsen writes about meeting Lyolya and their early courtship, then skips ahead to the aftermath of their breakup, as the narrator schemes to get her back.

Trapped in Paris during the German occupation, he was deported to Auschwitz and murdered in 1943. But books are harder to annihilate than people, and now Felsen is back in print for the first time in almost a century.

When love is happy, Felsen implies, it can’t be written about, only lived. It is the failure of love that turns the narrator into a writer: “Like a drunkard bereft of his senses, the cleverest thing for me to do would be to keep my peace. And yet, there is something that still yearns to be expressed, for all that a time in my life (one that I have regarded as uniquely happy) is now at an end.”

The narrator is never more eloquent than when he is abjectly begging for Lyolya’s love. It’s not that he’s romantically inept or undesirable. When Lyolya abandons him to return to a former lover, a well-known actor, he easily seduces Zina, another woman in their circle. But the very ease of the conquest makes it meaningless to him, and as soon as Lyolya returns to Paris he drops the other woman. When Lyolya, in turn, falls for Zina’s brother Bobby, the narrator realizes that she is treating him with exactly the same contempt that he showed toward Zina. “It’s a known condition,” Lyolya explains, “irritation to the point of hatred, directed against those who dare to love us, those we can’t get rid of—unless we ourselves love.”

Jealousy, solipsism, obsession, sadism—these are all among Proust’s themes, and it’s a tribute to Felsen that he handles them with something of Proust’s complex, unsparing insight. By the same token, however, a reader of Proust will find many things in Deceit familiar. Ironically, the things only Felsen could have showed us—the way Russian exiles lived in Paris in the 1920s—appear only fleetingly and in the background. It is as if he wanted to concentrate on his inner life in order to drown out the tedium and sorrow of his outer life.

That is a mistake Proust never made; the great psychologist is also a great observer, as attuned to the comedy of high society as he is to the tragedy of love. Still, there is something moving about Felsen’s absolute dedication to his own unhappy heart, which by the end of Deceit he comes to see as a kind of religious duty: “I have been given no other pinnacle than love, and no other love than Lyolya.”

Adam Kirsch, an editor for The Wall Street Journal’s weekend Review section, is the author of several books, including The Revolt Against Humanity: Imagining a Future Without Us