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.