Remembering the Russian (and Jewish) Proust

July 24, 2018 | Bryan Karetnyk

Born in St. Petersburg in 1894 to a well-to-do Jewish family, the writer Nikolai Freudenstein enjoyed privileges rare for Jews during the reign of Russia’s last (and decidedly anti-Semitic) tsar: his family was permitted to live in the capital; he was admitted to the university there; his father even had connections in the imperial court. This comfortable life evaporated following the Bolshevik Revolution, after which he moved first to Riga (in then-independent Latvia) and then to Berlin before finally settling in Paris, where he joined the community of literary émigrés and began writing under the pen-name Yuri Felsen. Bryan Karetnyk writes:

[Freudenstein] debuted under his literary pseudonym in 1926, and by the time of his death seventeen years later he had published three novels—Deceit (1930), Happiness (1932), and Letters on Lermontov (1935)—as well as over a dozen short stories and scores of feuilletons, essays, and criticism. The publication of his first novels secured for him a serious reputation; it also marked the beginning of a great literary project, variously titled “The Recurrence of Things Past” and “A Romance with an Author,” which would span the rest of his days and encompass each of his subsequent novels and the lion’s share of his later short stories.

The scale of Felsen’s literary ambition, combined with his thematic interests and baroque, stream-of-consciousness prose style, earned him the moniker “the Russian Proust.” His chef d’œuvre presents a fine, sustained psychological portrait of a neurasthenic would-be author, Volodya, and his eternal object of desire, Lyolya, while at the same time elaborating beautifully wrought philosophical meditations on love, art, and human frailty.

For me, the real revelation in reading Felsen was his beguiling use of language and the sheer depth of his psychological introspection. His long, tortuous periods take the reader on a journey into the human psyche. To paraphrase [Georgy] Adamovich, the emigration’s foremost critic (as well as Felsen’s friend and early mentor), reading him is by no means an easy undertaking, but for those willing to engage with his work, the rewards are exquisite.

His style is unlike that of any other writer in the Russian canon, and with this rich, idiosyncratic, poetic prose he evokes not only the existential angst of his milieu but, moreover, the innate psychologies of his characters, which are drawn with a lightly cynical, wry humor. Time and again I find myself reading and rereading passages, marveling at Felsen’s ability to give expression to the counterpoint of thoughts and emotions, profound and trivial, that we can experience in a single moment.

Felsen was murdered in Auschwitz in 1943.

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