Yuri Felsen; Bryan Karet­nyk, trans.

  • Review
By – February 6, 2023

Though near­ly com­plete­ly for­got­ten today, Yuri Felsen (born Niko­lai Freuden­stein) was one of the most cel­e­brat­ed mod­ernists of his day, admired by Vladimir Nabokov and lion­ized as the Russ­ian Proust.” This first Eng­lish trans­la­tion of Felsen’s 1930 nov­el, Deceit, aims to res­cue him from the obscu­ri­ty into which he fell short­ly after his mur­der in Auschwitz in 1943.

Set in Paris dur­ing the inter­war peri­od, Deceit is an exam­ple of pro­to-aut­ofic­tion, writ­ten in the form of a diary. The unnamed nar­ra­tor recounts in minute detail the ups and downs of his rela­tion­ship with Lyolya Heard, the object of his roman­tic obsession. 

The account takes place all with­in the head of the nar­ra­tor, which can be a claus­tro­pho­bic place for the read­er. He is in an emo­tion­al rut, a neu­rot­ic vic­tim of mod­ern ennui. As an astute observ­er of the self, he cat­a­logs the nuances of his emo­tion­al state, whether anx­ious­ly antic­i­pat­ing Lyolya’s pres­ence, bask­ing in her approval, fear­ing her dis­plea­sure, pin­ing over her absence, or nurs­ing jeal­ousy and regret over some per­ceived slight or humil­i­a­tion. In a heart­beat, Lyolya can morph from a famil­iar chum into a ter­ri­fy­ing object of desire, such that the nar­ra­tor spends para­graphs ruing the clum­sy man­ner with which he kiss­es her hand in a taxi.

Lyolya her­self is almost beside the point, as we are nev­er privy to her per­spec­tive. She seems to func­tion for the nar­ra­tor as a sort of tal­is­man stand­ing between him and nihilism, rather than an indi­vid­ual with free will of her own. He bemoans the fate of humankind, who try to ward off the inevitabil­i­ty of death, who dreamed up fairy tales and, now that these sto­ries have been dis­proved, are dis­con­so­late — and for me the only means of defend­ing myself from our ter­ri­ble fate is love, my love — Lyolya.” Fre­quent­ly unfaith­ful, he acknowl­edges that love is a form of deceit, yet he finds it prefer­able to noth­ing­ness. The two are a sec­u­lar Dante and Beat­rice, and though it is told in three parts, this is not a tale that leads to paradise.

Born into a wealthy Jew­ish fam­i­ly in Saint Peters­burg, Felsen, like his nar­ra­tor, fled into Euro­pean exile in Berlin and Paris after the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion. While his char­ac­ters are clear­ly Russ­ian, he nev­er makes clear whether the pro­tag­o­nist and his cir­cle of émi­grés are Jew­ish. Even if this was owing to the fact that he was not par­tic­u­lar­ly reli­gious, the read­er under­stands what he does not: that his Jew­ish­ness will soon become the only per­ti­nent fact about him. In an unin­ten­tion­al and chill­ing fore­shad­ow­ing of the hor­rors to come, at one point Lyolya, in excus­ing her tar­di­ness, explains how her train had been stopped out­side the sta­tion, with the pas­sen­gers being forced to show their papers (“Clear­ly, they were look­ing for some fugi­tive criminal”). 

As trans­la­tor Bryan Karet­nyk explains in his fore­word, almost no phys­i­cal trace remains of Felsen, nei­ther in archives nor pho­tographs. Kudos to Karet­nyk for tak­ing on what was undoubt­ed­ly a dif­fi­cult trans­la­tion project, giv­en Felsen’s writ­ing style, and for attempt­ing to restore the author to his place in lit­er­ary history. 

Lau­ren Gilbert is Direc­tor of Pub­lic Ser­vices at the Cen­ter for Jew­ish His­to­ry in New York City, where she man­ages the Lil­lian Gold­man Read­ing Room and Ack­man & Ziff Fam­i­ly Geneal­o­gy Insti­tute and arranges and mod­er­ates online book discussions.

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