The Weird and Instructive Story of Eduard Limonov

Denis Sinyakov/Reuters
Policemen detaining Eduard Limonov at an unauthorized opposition rally in central Moscow, December 2009

Eduard Limonov’s first book, published as a “fictional memoir” back in 1983, showed the rarest of talents: the ability to laugh at one’s own insecure, obnoxious, angry, and overbearing self. It’s Me, Eddie begins with a rant describing the main character living in squalor—we first see him eating sour cabbage soup (shchi in Russian), half-naked on the balcony of a disreputable New York City hotel. By the fifth paragraph the novel stumbles as it tries to distance the narrator from himself:

I think it’s clear to you by now what a character I am, even though I forgot to introduce myself. I started running on without announcing who I was; I forgot. Overjoyed at the opportunity to drown you in my voice at last, I got carried away and never announced whose voice it was. My fault, forgive me, we’ll straighten it out right now.

I am on welfare. I live at your expense, you pay taxes and I don’t do a fucking thing. Twice a month I go to the clean, spacious welfare office at 1515 Broadway and receive my checks. I consider myself to be scum, the dregs of society, I have no shame or conscience, therefore my conscience doesn’t bother me and I don’t plan to look for work, I want to receive your money to the end of my days. And my name is Edichka, “Eddie-baby.”

The author has by now made it clear that he is from Russia, and he anticipates the inevitable question:

Who was I over there? What’s the difference, what would it change? I hate the past, as I always have, in the name of the present. Well, I was a poet, if you must know, a poet was I, an unofficial, underground poet. That’s over forever, and now I am one of yours, I am scum, I’m the one to whom you feed shchi and rotten cheap California wine—$3.59 a gallon—and yet I scorn you. Not all of you, but many. Because you lead dull lives, sell yourselves into the slavery of work, because of your vulgar plaid pants, because you make money and have never seen the world. You’re shit!

Going from underground poet to scum was just the first chapter or two of Limonov’s adventures. More precisely, it was the first of dozens of books that Limonov would write about his own life, all of them “fictional memoirs.” (He’s now seventy-two, living in Moscow.) Sometime relatively early on, certainly by book twelve (A Foreigner in Troubled Times, published in Russian in 1991), he lost the ability to avoid taking himself too seriously—or dropped the pretense of not doing so. He also gradually lost his foreign-language publishers.

Now the French writer Emmanuel Carrère has condensed the first sixty-six years of…

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