Sometime in the 80’s a very racy book was doing the rounds. In my circles some found this fictional memoir of a Russian punk to be life changing.
We were all such serious souls in those days, worrying about Political Economy and Freedom. And here was this Russian poet, living rough in New York on a $278 monthly hand-out from the US government on the basis of his (fake) Israeli visa, seemingly unconstrained by any ethics. His name was Edward Limonov and today he is living in Russia (Mikhail Gorbachov gave his citizenship back) a declared opponent of Putin, and leader of The Other Russia Party.
My copy of It’s Me Eddie was published by Picador in 1983, but the book was published first in French, having been rejected by 35 publishers. Limonov has said he couldn’t find a publisher because his book was too anti-American, but it was also anti-Russian. In fact Limonov hated everybody. This book is an outpouring of anger. ‘You don’t like me? You don’t want to pay? It’s precious little—$278 a month. You don’t want to pay? Then why the fuck did you invite me here from Russia along with a horde of Jews? Present your complaints to your own propaganda, it’s too effective.’
But Eddie’s always been hard to get on with. In a later book about his early life, Diary of a Russian Punk, the Eddie character says,
‘People deserve to be killed. When I’m completely grown, I’ll definitely kill people.’
So over a strong leaning towards violence Eddie has also to cope with the lack of status, the inability to speak English, the poverty, and the loss of his wife Elena. Because even though the women he wants are fickle beauties,
‘What I need are capricious and whorish young-girl pals, haughty and painted and perfumed…’ (His Butler’s Story 1986)
his masculine pride is offended by the straying Elena, and he gives uncensored accounts of her drug habits and many sexual partners. She tried to write her own version, ‘It’s Me Yelena’, which ended up being naked pictures of herself with a text written by someone else. And he lets it be known that he of course tried to strangle her.
Limonov has been compared with Charles Bukowski and Henry Miller and I think the obsession and graphic detail of his sexual encounters is the reason why American publishers wouldn’t touch him. There is something vicious in his reductive view of women, always judging how they might serve his needs, being so critical of the way they look and smell, the size of their sex, but so tender about himself, Eddie Baby in his white suit and black lace shirt.
He also has some quite confused political ideas. He is for revolution but complains about Lenin making the workers go back to work after the Russian revolution. He definitely sees work as an imposition, but he can work if the need is great enough For quite a while in It’s Me Eddie he tries to live on his government hand-out, but has to live in a hotel for transients, filthy, violent, filled with the poor and mad, but he has a big vodka habit and can’t always latch on to someone to buy his drinks. Later he makes piroschki and pelmeni, moves furniture, and repairs clothes.
His Eddie really is an obnoxious character, drunk, stoned, in one pose a revolutionary, in another yearning for Yves St Laurent suits, but he is at his most sympathetic in his relationships with the black homeless and the people of the streets. He does not shy away from contact, sharing bottles, even having sex with these men when his rage and hurt at Elena make him take a vow to give up women. These encounters on vacant lots or deserted buildings show him acting with some degree of empathy, and moved by another’s passion.
And the man can write. Life in New York,
‘Often I go downtown for the whole day. I usually begin with Washington Square, where I lie in the fountain, if it’s working. I put my feet in, my buns repose on the last step before water level, I lie back philosophically and contemplate my environment, or even more often I close my eyes am merely aware, opening them infrequently. The sun, the water, the hum and the shouts—to me it all makes up the melody of life.’
Limonov left America and lived in France for many years, returning to Russia in 1992. He now leads The Other Russia party in conjunction with Gary Kasparov and Mikhail Kasyarnov, and is violently anti-Vladimir Putin. He has spent a number of years in jail for political reasons, but as he cites his heroes as Joseph Stalin, Mikhail Bakunin, Yukio Mishima, Julius Evola it will not be surprising if he ends up dying for a cause.
‘I’m a punk. I’m on welfare. I have to cook for myself now, eat shchi. I’m alone, I have to think of myself. Who else will take care of me? The wind of chaos, harsh and terrible , has destroyed my family. I also have parents, far away, halfway around the globe from here, on a green little street in the Ukraine. Papa and Mama.’
We have revisited Limonov because Emmanuel Carrère has just published a “biography” called Limonov a Novel, highly praised by Julian Barnes but controversial, as Carrère seems to have made a lot of it up. We’ll talk about it in a few weeks. Interesting to see another take on Eddie Baby.
Disclaimer: Don’t read any of these books if you are likely to be offended by obscene language and blatant sexism. But they are a very convincing account of the underside of American life by a man who has hacked his way into the world through his monumental self- belief.
The photo of Eddie is taken from this article: