Yuri Felsen, who perished in Auschwitz in 1943, was a Russian émigré writer praised by such demanding fellow émigrés as Vladimir Nabokov (who wrote of his writing, ‘this is real literature, pure and honest’) and Georgi Adamovich (though the latter also called him a ‘cataloguer of abstractions’). Yet some twenty years passed following the fall of the Soviet Union before Felsen became part of the canon, perhaps because so little of his work had survived his arrest by the French police in 1942 as he tried to cross the Swiss frontier. Apart from the trilogy formed by Deceit (1930) and two other works yet to be translated into English, Happiness and Letters about Lermontov, we have only a short story. A more serious reason for his obscurity is that, in his meticulous and elaborate style, his obsessive ratiocination and his complete absence of idealism and curiosity about the world, he is one of the least Russian-seeming of writers. He has rightly been compared to Proust in his determination to make language capture every atom of the mind’s workings, in his total self-immersion and his scorn for the bourgeois. Yet Felsen lacks Proust’s warmth: there is no lingering taste of a madeleine, no haunting ‘little phrase’ of music (Felsen’s narrator merely feels despised for his love of Tchaikovsky and Chopin) and no enigmatic, larger-than-life Swann or Baron de Charlus.
In his resentment of others and his perverse refusal to end his own suffering, the narrator of Deceit is a clone of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, searching not for lost time but for the essence of the present. He is nameless, living in a one-room flat in 1920s Paris,