The debut novel by Yuri Felsen, an author once regarded as the “Russian Proust” whose work has been forgotten since he died in Auschwitz in 1943, is set to be published in English for the first time.
Felsen, the pseudonym of the Russian émigré author Nikolai Freudenstein, was born in St Petersburg in 1894, emigrating after the Russian revolution and settling in Paris in 1923. He was seen as one of the leading Russian writers of his time, ranked alongside Vladimir Nabokov, but when France was occupied in the second world war his escape to Switzerland failed, and he was killed in Auschwitz’s gas chambers in February 1943. His manuscripts and letters were lost – possibly destroyed – after his arrest, and his work is almost unknown today.
Academic and translator Bryan Karetnyk discovered Felsen’s name while reading literary criticism from the 1930s, finding that he was widely praised, and going on to track down Felsen’s own writings.
“In the so-called ‘Russia Abroad’, Felsen was unanimously held up by his contemporaries … to be one of the most original and significant writers of his generation, next to Nabokov,” said Karetnyk. “Felsen’s plunge into obscurity came about for a variety of reasons. Not content with having sent him to the gas chambers, the Nazis did everything in their power to destroy his legacy, and his archive disappeared without trace following his arrest.”
Karetnyk has now translated Felsen’s first novel Deceit, which was originally published in Russian in 1930, into English, with the book due out next May from independent press Prototype Publishing. Written in the form of a diary, and set in Paris between the wars, it sees the unnamed narrator tell of his fraught relationship with his love interest and muse, Lyolya.
“It really made Felsen’s reputation as one of the leading writers of the so-called ‘younger generation’, although of course it was banned in Russia,” said Karetnyk. “The fine psychological portraiture of the protagonist and his love interest, as well as the beautifully wrought philosophical meditations on love, art and human nature, bear parallels not only with Proust, but also with other greats of modernism including Nabokov, Woolf and Joyce.”
Jess Chandler, who founded Prototype in 2019, said that she acquired Deceit because she saw it as “an extremely rare opportunity to introduce a highly significant, undiscovered modernist work to an English readership.
“Felsen’s writing would undoubtedly have been hugely influential had his legacy not been destroyed, and Deceit will still feel contemporary and groundbreaking to readers today,” said Chandler. “As a publisher interested in freeform literary art, this novel from 1930 feels as exciting as anything I have read in recent years.”
Only brief extracts of Felsen’s writings have previously been translated, although his collected works were republished in Russia in 2012. His writing, said Karetnyk, remains resonant today.
“He consciously positioned himself as an anti-totalitarian writer (in that he was both anti-fascist and anti-Bolshevik), championing love, artistic freedom and individual identity, and seeking to give them heightened expression at a time of mounting political pressures that would rather deny them, at a time when writers were desperately seeking out new ways in which art could provide adequate response to political tyranny. Without exaggeration, I believe we’re living in a time when these ideas have renewed political, cultural and artistic significance,” said the translator.
“On a more literary note, given today’s obsessions with autofiction, his profoundly psychological prose, which marries private experience with artistic expression, is also a timely reminder that this genre in fact has a long and distinguished European history.”