Yuri Felzen.

Bryan Karetnyk, translator of the wonderful Gaito Gazdanov, has a LARB essay on another émigré author, the now-forgotten Yuri Felzen (Юрий Фельзен; Karetnyk for some reason spells it Felsen). After a description of Felzen’s murder in Auschwitz II-Birkenau in early 1943, he continues:

In all likelihood, you have never heard of Yuri Felsen. He plied his art in emigration in Europe, and so was already marginalized and at a significant disadvantage. Writing “difficult” prose and being labeled “a writer’s writer” sunk his chances for fame still lower. Moreover, his terrible end was followed by the mysterious disappearance of his archive, so in addition to what he published, only a handful of his letters survive, and not a single clear photograph of him remains. And yet, for all that fate seemingly tried to efface this man and plunge him into obscurity, he nevertheless left an utterly distinct, if now faint, mark.

I first encountered his curiously un-Russian surname several years ago, as I was reading Gaito Gazdanov’s “Literary Professions” (1934), one of his notorious polemics on the state of Russian literature in exile. [Gazdanov exempted Felzen from his dismissal of most writers of the emigration aside from Nabokov.]

My curiosity was piqued further as I observed, one by one, the major names of Russian émigré literary criticism, even the most inveterate rivals — Vladislav Khodasevich, Georgy Adamovich, Zinaida Gippius, Wladimir Weidlé, to name but a few — sing Felsen’s praise. Even Nabokov, who so importunately lampooned and travestied the self-styled “Paris note” (one of the emigration’s major literary movements, which sought to combine the despair of exile with the cynicism and anxiety of the modern age), singled out the now-forgotten author as the school’s only true artist.

A blueprint of Felsen’s life emerges from a handful of scholarly works and memoirs — most vividly in Elysian Fields [I, LH, would translate the Russian title Polya Eliseiskie as Champs-Élysées], an outspoken, remarkable account of émigré Paris written by Felsen’s close friend Vasily Yanovsky. The author, critic, and essayist’s real name was in fact Nikolai Freudenstein, and he was born on October 24, 1894, in St. Petersburg, not long after his parents moved to the Russian capital from Riga. […]

He debuted under his literary pseudonym in 1926, and by the time of his death 17 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 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. […]

Will Felsen finally find his audience? Perhaps Gazdanov again holds the answer. The off-the-cuff remark that began my acquaintance with Felsen, despite its grim foreboding, went on to elicit from me a wry smile. To illustrate the author’s predicament, Gazdanov thought it prudent to draw a parallel with a little-known German poet, who had died some eight years prior. “How many readers have heard of Rilke,” he asked, “one of the most remarkable poets and writers of Germany? You read him and are amazed: how and why is this name not famous the whole world over?” Gazdanov was ahead of the curve. And it thrills me to think that there may be hope for Felsen yet.

I myself first learned about Felzen in Leonid Livak’s superb How It Was Done In Paris: Russian Emigre Literature & French Modernism (see my Millions review); I look forward to reading what sound like wonderful novels. (Via Boris Dralyuk.)


  1. Does ‘felzen’ mean anything in Russian? ‘Felsen’ certainly means ‘crag’ or ‘big rock’ in German. Perhaps those who call him Felsen in English think his pseudonym is a Russian spelling of the German word. Aren’t there lots of Russians with German ancestors and Russianized German names? Besides Freudenstein himself, I mean. Then again, I have no idea whether a German S would be turned into a Cyrillic Z. Can someone who knows Russian say whether that would be at all likely?

  2. Yes, Фельзен is the normal Russian transcription of German Felsen. That is also a German last name (we had a teacher with that name at our elementary school), and Russians with German ancestry and family names are a dime a dozen, so that’s probably also the case here.

  3. So a man whose birth-name was Joystone picked Crag as his pen-name? Looks like he wanted to ditch the joy and trade in the ordinary stone for a big stony crag, The fact that a Felsen is a really big Stein seems unlikely to be coincidental.

  4. Boris says:

    As to “Felsen,” he chose his pseudonym in emigration, knowing that his audience would understand its referent, and it appeared as “Felsen,” in Roman letters, during his lifetime, e.g., here. That gives some justification for the choice.

    So I agree it’s a perfectly reasonable form to use; I still prefer transliterating the Russian directly, but it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other (or “Mandelstam, Mandelshtam, so long as you’ve got your health”).

  5. The English cognate, fell, is interesting as a word that is obsolete in standard English in the singular. (It survives in some dialects, though.) The plural is, while not that common, still used to describe places and in proper names. The name of Middlesex Fells north of Boston is a perfectly good compositional, and the two-lane highway that runs by the park is known as the Fellsway.

  6. There are references to Sca Fell (as Scaw Fell) and the fictional Harthover Fell (a moor rather than a cliff: “Away from the Place, and over Harthover Fell, and down Lewthwaite Crag!”) in The Water-Babies, where I first met the word; and then there’s the Harvath-fells, the cliffs of the Carpathians.

  7. I don’t quite agree with Brett’s analysis. In those parts of the UK where certain geographic features are known as “fells”, the proper names of such features are quite likely to include “fell” in the singular. See e.g. List of fells in the Lake District.

  8. @Tim May: Sure, there are fixed form names that include the singular, but my understanding is that in standard British English, nobody would refer to a singular “fell” outside such a proper name. (I cannot judge, not being a British speaker, whether names like Scafell feel compositional to Brits.)

    I scanned the OED entry, and there are no citations from after 1875 with singular fell outside proper names. There are also cites where fells is used in parallel with singular words for related features.

  9. LH: “I still prefer transliterating the Russian directly”

    So do I, but most English-language writers about music go the other way. Hence why even English-language texts refer to the Russian composers Ме́тнер, Шни́тке and Глиэр as Medtner, Schnittke and Glière as if they were German or French, rather than more straightforwardly (for English-speakers) Metner, Shnitke and Glier.

  10. Oh, so not having read the article Hat linked to, I missed the fact that Фельзен was a pseudonym. But, as Michael Hendry says, it was certainly chosen for its German meaning in allusion to Felsen’s real name, so IMO it makes sense to use the German spelling when writing it in Latin script.

  11. So do I, but most English-language writers about music go the other way. Hence why even English-language texts refer to the Russian composers Ме́тнер, Шни́тке and Глиэр as Medtner, Schnittke and Glière as if they were German or French, rather than more straightforwardly (for English-speakers) Metner, Shnitke and Glier.

    Well, I’m willing to give them a pass on Glière, because “Glier” looks quite mysterious in English — I can think of three plausible mispronunciations, all of which are more probable than the correct one.

  12. Brett: I don’t think anyone would use “fell” in either singular or plural except in reference to those things that are called “fells” (i.e. that is part of their individual or collective proper name), but for those things they would use both. Here are some examples of the singular that I found online (emphasis mine):

    «Catch the bus to Rosthwaite, then walk over the fell to the hanging valley of Watendlath»
    «The way to the fell is quite steep and can get a bit muddy but on a clear day the views from the top are certainly worth it though»
    «It’s usually fairly quiet in comparison to the other big-name fells, especially if you start out early. The easiest trail climbs up the fell’s east or west flank from Threlkeld (around four to five miles), but hardcore hikers will prefer the shorter but more exposed ridge ascent via Hall’s Fell.»
    «Whether it’s the views (superb), rolling ridgeback (fun), easy access (the ascent begins at the car park above Hawse End) or the Beatrix Potter connection (Miss Tiggywinkle lives behind a tiny door on the fell’s west flank), it’s got a name as a family classic – not least thanks to Wainwright who described it as a “family fell where grandmothers and infants can climb the heights together”.»

    I do agree that it’s not quite an ordinary common noun, but I don’t see the singular as being different from the plural in this regard.

    I don’t think it’s exactly an issue of dialect either, synchronically. If we imagine two ideal situations:

    A: All speakers of a certain geographically restricted dialect use the word “fell” to mean “hill”* and can apply it to any hill located anywhere; other English speakers don’t use it at all or only as part of a proper noun.
    B: The term “fell” is used to refer to (certain) hills within certain geographical areas; in principle all English speakers, regardless of dialect, call these hills “fells”; the word is not normally used to refer to hills outside these areas.

    I suspect that actual usage is less tidy than either of these but that the overall picture is closer to B than A. Of course, many English speakers don’t know the word at all, but if they e.g. take a holiday in the Lake District they’ll learn the word and apply it to the hills there. In this respect it’s perhaps more like jargon than dialect.

    Other words such as “dale”, “down”, and various Swedish words for “river” (flod, älv, å) seem comparable.

    * A “fell” can be any of a number of upland geographic features (see Wikipedia article) but I’m going to say “hill” for short.

  13. LH (9:57):
    Even worse, some go the other way with a detour. Nabokov had a bee in his bonnet about the spelling of Tchaikovsky and Balanchine, which should be Chaykovski and Balanshin in English, but for some reason English-speakers spell the names as if they were French. (A web search tells me that was in Strong Opinions 1973 edition, 171 and 234, though the latter is in error.)

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    For Balanchine it is probably relevant that he spent the first chunk of his life in the West in Paris after he left the USSR. If he had gotten used to a particular romanization of his surname that was French-influenced, there’s no reason to expect him to have picked a different one upon relocating to New York.

  15. David Marjanović says

    My colleague Pavel Skutschas publishes mostly in English, but began to do that when he was based in Germany, so he got a four-letter tsch and keeps it.

  16. It occurs to me that I would have no problem with the Felsen spelling if it were preceded by Georg rather than the very Russian Yuri.

  17. Balanchine is short for Balanchivadze (ბალანჩივაძე), and is [t͡ʃʰ], which rules out sh.

  18. the very Russian Yuri

    And yet Yuri Felsen would be a perfectly plausible name for an American, Canadian, or even Australian. My butcher introduced himself to me as George, though his colleagues at the East Village Meat Market call him Yuri. (When George isn’t available, the manager Andrew Ilnicki usually serves me.)

  19. Yuri
    And there can be quite a few twists along the way.

    Jüri Järvet (18 June 1919 – 5 July 1995) was an Estonian actor. His name sometimes appears as Yuri Yevgenyevich Yarvet, an incorrect back-transliteration from the Russian transliteration Юри Евгеньевич Ярвет. His birthname was Georgi Kuznetsov, and he took the Estonian form in 1938.

    Järvet’s mother was Russian, while his father has been believed to have been a French or ethnic German immigrant from Lorraine.

    Jüri Järvet

  20. January First-of-May says

    It occurs to me that I would have no problem with the Felsen spelling if it were preceded by Georg rather than the very Russian Yuri.

    To be fair, as far as the Russians are concerned, Георгий and Юрий are two completely different names. I suspect that most non-linguists aren’t even aware of their historical identity.

  21. The NYTimes informs me that George’s surname is Kossakowski. The retired founder, on the other hand, is Julian Baczynsky, as the front of the building informs us (“a sign so dated, it’s accidentally retro”).

  22. David Marjanović says

    front of the building

    That page is completely empty.

  23. To be fair, as far as the Russians are concerned, Георгий and Юрий are two completely different names. I suspect that most non-linguists aren’t even aware of their historical identity.

    Sure, but I’m confident Freudenstein/Felsen (Freidenshtein/Felzen) was, and he could have chosen to adopt a fully Germanized pseudonym. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the name he chose, just that if he’d gone the other way I wouldn’t have had a problem with transliterating it Felsen.

  24. The East Village Meat Market page works fine for me.

  25. Works for me, too. (And makes me hungry for kielbasa.)

  26. David Marjanović says

    Must be a weird browser issue, then.

  27. @rosie: Medtner lived in Germany, France and England for 30 years. He probably had a good enough reason to spell his name the way he did. Schnittke was conscious of his German ancestry (German-speaking Jewish on his father’s side, Volga German on the mother’s side) so it’s unthinkable that he would have allowed his name to become “Shnitke.”

  28. David Marjanović says

    The page isn’t empty anymore.

  29. Leo Livak wrote me to say:

    Very briefly — the first name is a reflection of his passion for Lermontov (Mikhail Iur’evich — hence Iurii; it is the same principle as Erst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, with Amadeus being Hoffmann’s reverential nod in Mozart’s direction). As for “Fel’zen”: Nikolai Freudenstein began his literary career in Riga’s Russian emigre newspapers in the genre of the “feuilleton.” He signed his pieces there “FEN” — a pen name that incorporates the first and last letters of the genre and of the author’s real family name. The rest, how FEN became Fel’zen, is wide open to interpretation. Brian Karetnyk’s biographical information about Fel’zen’s life comes from my introduction to his complete works in Russian, where I also reproduced scans of the Nazi and Vichy documents pertaining to Fel’zen’s arrest and deportation. Finally, for those interested in Fel’zen’s “Jewish question,” which is not treated in How It Was Done in Paris, I have a chapter on it in The Jewish Persona in the European Imagination.

    Interesting stuff!

  30. I’m happy to report that Deceit, Karetnyk’s translation of Felzen’s first novel, Обман, is due out next May from independent press Prototype Publishing; see Alison Flood’s Guardian piece from Dec. 1. (Thanks, Trevor!)

  31. Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings has a nice, detailed review:

    What also emerges in “Deceit” is an interesting portrait of emigre life in Paris during the 1920s. The narrator seems to mix mainly with other Russian exiles, keen to keep up that sense of national identity. There’s a general feeling of uncertainty and insecurity, as if the characters have a very unstable lifestyle and fortunes seem to rise and fall very easily. There is a fair amount of nostalgia for the homeland, with some of the characters shuttling between Berlin and Paris, and it’s clear that none of the exiles feel at home or settled where they are.

    Felsen’s novel is a remarkable achievement and his style is very individual. This is not a book you can read in a hurry, and he’s called the Russian Proust for good reason! His somewhat Baroque writing style, with its complex sentences, is the kind you need to wallow in and enjoy, exploring the narrator’s feelings, emotions and delusions. And this brings rewards as you become absorbed by his interior life and thoughts; although it’s also fascinating to be able to stand back a little as a reader and observe the inconsistencies and misconceptions of his thinking. Translating this work is a remarkable achievement by Bryan Karetnyk and it’s an unforgettable and haunting piece of writing; kudos to Karetnyk and Prototype for bringing this to us, and I do hope more of Felsen’s novels will appear in English!

  32. David Marjanović says

    The rest, how FEN became Fel’zen, is wide open to interpretation.

    I’ll try: Freudenstein > Stein “stone” > Fels ~ Felsen “rock” (landscape feature), the German word most similar to FEN other than Feen “fairies” or I guess Fenn “swampy piece of northern Germany”.

  33. PlasticPaddy says

    There is also for me an association Felix/Freude, which reinforces the Fel of Fels, but I do not know if this is relevant…

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