Category Archives: Berberova, Nina

It’s a Wrap: 2019

Three novels

Time for my best-of-year round up. For some reason, this year the choices seemed easier.

Three Novels: The Resurrection of Mozart, The Waiter and the Slut, Astashev in Paris: Nina Berberova. 

Berberova never disappoints. 3 novellas here–all quite different from each other, yet they each weave in the theme of  Russian displacement. Berberova deserves far more recognition than she gets.

A Severed Head: Iris Murdoch

My first Murdoch novel and I hit a winner. This is the nastily funny tale of bored privileged people who create drama in their lives by unpleasant, selfish self-focused behaviour. I love reading books about nasty people, so it’s no surprise that I loved this.

Olive Kitteridge: Elizabeth Strout

Ahh… Olive Kitteridge. What a woman. Of course, we wouldn’t want her as a mother or a wife but she’s great to read about. Olive seems the epitome of a person possessing good and bad characteristics. Someone may make a great teacher or neighbour but a lousy relative. It’s no wonder that Olive elicts strong reactions from people. Olive Again is also highly recommended.

The Children: Edith Wharton

It’s been too long since I read Edith Wharton. The Children isn’t considered one of her greats, but it’s wonderful–a study in subconscious human behaviour and how we get what we want without quite confronting our own negative drives.

The Travels Of Maudie Tipstaff: Margaret Forster

Narrow-minded, inflexible, pious Maudie finally leaves Glasgow to visit each of her three children. Her first visit is awful but it goes downhill from there–until finally Maudie finds herself in a surreal situation, living in a primitive hut (without plumbing) on an isolated island.

A Very Scotch Affair: Robin Jenkins

A married man decides to ditch his wife and family in Glasgow and run off to Barcelona with his mistress. The book focuses not so much on his escape but the fallout of his actions.

Artists’ Wives: Alphonse Daudet

I’m glad that a short story collection makes my list this year. The range, the wit, the understanding of human nature–all these things make for marvellous reading.

The Hotel: Elizabeth Bowen

My first Elizabeth Bowen wasn’t that great but The Hotel is a treasure. I like books set in hotels anyway but this story is subtle, rich and entertaining.  Post WWI, a hodge-podge of guests, mainly British, socialise with varying results.

Three Obscurities from the Borderlands: Werner Bergengruen, Adalbert Stifter, Maria von Eschenbach.

A fluke find for German Literature month. One story is outstanding, another is excellent and the third has redeeming characteristics. In spite of the fact that I liked these three stories to varying degrees, it still makes my best of year list.

So Evil My Love: Joseph Shearing

I didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did. It’s not my typical read but this gaslight noir is very well done indeed. The main character is a missionary’s widow. She’s always led a pious religious life but it was never a choice. When the widow gets choices, her real nature emerges.

Dodsworth: Sinclair Lewis

Certainly not an exciting book, but nonetheless still relevant 90 years later… This is an American Abroad book. It addresses American materialism and subsequent lack of quality of life. Get off the hamster wheel in retirement and boom… what are you left with?….

 

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Three Novels: Nina Berberova

“Alyosha tried to explain to his mother that the proletariat were the people who smelled.”

Nina Berberova’s Three Novels is really three novellas: The Resurrection of Mozart, The Waiter and the Slut, and Astashev in Paris. While these three stories are very different, there are underlying themes of displacement and fate, as we see Russian emigres on the move, settled in Paris, and bitterly unhappy. (There’s another book titled Three Novels from Berberova, but it contains three different novellas.)

The Resurrection of Mozart is set in France, June 1940, “just at the time when the French army was beginning its final and irrevocable retreat.” It’s a “quiet warm evening” thirty miles from Paris at the country home of Vassily Georgievich Sushkov and his wife Maria Leonidovna Sushkova. The handful of guests talk about war and “the omens of war,” and the conversation turns to a dead friend and what the dead would say “if they were resurrected and saw what is going on now.” From this point a discussion ensues with each guest offering an opinion of who they would resurrect if they had the power. One man would “spare his parents” while another man says he’s resurrect Tolstoy:

I would drag Tolstoy back into God’s world. Wasn’t it you dear sir, who denied that role of the individual in history? You who declared that there would be no more wars? And wasn’t it you who took such a cynical view of vaccination? No, don’t try to wriggle out of it now. Just look at the result.

Everyone has an opinion, and the hostess decides she would resurrect Mozart. Gunfire is heard in the distance, and the dinner party breaks up. It’s an evening which will never be repeated, for when our characters gather again, it’s under vastly different circumstances.

The Waiter and the Slut is set in Paris, and is the story of Tania, the daughter of a “Petersburg bureaucrat who had risen to the rank of full councillor of state–a distrustful, unhealthy and discontented man.” He’s transferred to Siberia and when revolution begins, the family flee to Japan. Tania seduces her sister’s lover, and they marry. Little does she know that this is the high point of her life, for soon she’s in Paris penniless, alone, and aging. This novella reminded me of Jean Rhys for desperate Tania is loitering in bars with the hope to pick up a man who will support her–true her friends scrape by with menial work, but Tania’s life has been defined by seducing men, and so it continues.  She’s

in search of something she couldn’t give a name to but without which she couldn’t imagine living in the world. This indispensable thing consisted of idleness and physical pleasure, in other words, in her private language, Parisian happiness. 

After a series of liaisons, she meets an older Russian waiter who can’t believe his luck when she allows him to take her home. He was once a handsome cavalry lieutenant but now he’s poor–employed, yes, but in a humiliating capacity.  He connects with Tania, a woman who theoretically he could have danced with at a ball in the grand old days. To Bologovsky, Tania is “his last treasure.”

She had somehow managed to come back to him, bringing with her all he had lost.

While the waiter is grateful, Tania isn’t. Bored by her waiter, she becomes obsessed with lurid crime stories and hatches a plot. …

The last novella, Astashev in Paris is my favourite. Astashev is a middle-aged bachelor, an insurance salesman who has managed to replicate the bones of his life in Russia. In Russia, as a child, he moved between his mother’s impoverished home and the gaiety of his father’s household which was under the direction of Astashev’s glamorous risque stepmother. Decades have passed but Astashev moves between his mother’s grimy, dilapidated little apartment (which is “delightfully situated,”) and his stepmother’s salon. Astashev doesn’t regret the lost of Russia and he seems perfectly at home in Paris. As a salesman, meeting people who worry about the future and the meaning of life, he tries to sell financial assurance but in his private life, he’s amoral and completely corrupt. He meets a respectable young woman who works at a theatre, and the meeting results in tragedy.

This book is not to be missed for Berberbova fans or for those who like Russian emigre writing. The three stories illustrate phases of Russian emigre displacement. In The Resurrection of Mozart, displaced Russians are about to be displaced once more. In The Waiter and the Slut, Bologovsky prizes Tania for what she represents–his lost world. In his memories, Bologovsky has images of himself as a dashing young cavalry officer:

Tight white gloves on his little hands, and his long cadet’s overcoat, and something proud and awesome which happened after he joined the Corps. The wild and wonderful freedom of spring, and again the azure December weather, and that intersection near Exchange Bridge where for some reason he always imagined an ocean liner entering the Neva through the mists, bursting its banks, and growing and growing until it towered over the Peter and Paul Fortress; and something else: sobbing strident brass, the curl of regimental trumpets over his father’s coffin. Sand and snow. And quiet. And in the black northern sky a comet he had glimpsed one night from a window. And something else, something…

In Astashev in Paris, Astashev is, materially at least, much better off than older Russians. He’s built a life for himself in Paris; he doesn’t long for his past as his present offers a smorgasbord of illicit, deviant possibilities, but there’s a void where his moral center should be, and there’s the idea that while he’s done well, somehow, he’s been corrupted in the process.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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The Revolt: Nina Berberova

“But reality in the past and present is all twisted and smashed.”

Nina Berberova’s novella The Revolt is a well crafted gem–the story of how WWII intervenes between two lovers. The story opens in Paris with two lovers, facing an unknown future, about to be parted. Olga, a Russian émigrée, who lives with an uncle, a famous writer, is about to say goodbye to the Swedish Einar. It’s September 2, 1939, the day after Hitler invaded Poland. Einar talks of Olga coming to Stockholm, of them travelling to Brazil, of a trip to Russia. They don’t know yet how bad things will become–how travel will become much more difficult and fraught with danger. Many promises are made–promises which prove impossible to keep.

the revolt

The German occupation is marked by four very different visits made to Olga and her uncle: each visit reflects the ever shifting times. The emphasis here is in time passing with an almost dreamlike quality. Olga writes to Einar but the letters are returned unopened and marked “address unknown.” Olga never forgets Einar, and then seven years after they parted, Olga travels to Stockholm to collect an inheritance….

To say more would be to spoil this slim, subtle understated novella, but I will say that Olga who has, as we say these days, no closure, is given an opportunity for love once again. But this time the price is too high.  Sometimes second chances are not the gift they appear to be.

In everyone’s life there are moments when unexpectedly, for no apparent reason, a door that has been shut suddenly cracks open, a trellised window, only just lowered, goes up, a sharp, seemingly final ‘no’ becomes a perhaps’, and in that second the world around us is transformed and we ourselves are filled, transfused, with hopes. 

For Olga, love comes at a price, and the question becomes: is she willing to pay it or not? There’s a lot of talk in our society about ‘unconditional love’–a term, frankly, I’ve never understood. This book explores the price we are willing to pay for love–a topic that goes hand-in-hand with that twisty term: unconditional love. And while unconditional love asks how far a person can go before we stop loving them, Berberova asks how much Olga is willing to sacrifice to be with the man she loves.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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The Ladies from St Petersburg by Nina Berberova

I recently searched the internet for information about Russian Silver Age authors, and this led me to the topic of Russian emigre literature. I read a few articles that stated that while Nabokov is considered the greatest Russian emigre writer, Nina Berberova is also one of the greats. Last year, I’d read Berberova’s The Accompanist which I liked but didn’t love, and so I decided it was time to read another Berberova. This time I reached for The Ladies From St Petersburg which is actually three stories combined together under one title.

ladies from St PetersburgThe Ladies from St Petersburg is published by New Directions and translated by Marian Schwartz. Schwartz is the Berberova translator, and by that I mean that Marian Schwartz has translated a number of Berberova novels (The Accompanist, Billancourt Tales, The Cape of Storms, The Book of Happiness, The Tattered Cloak and Other Stories) , and after reading the foreword (also by Schwartz) it’s clear that the two women–writer and translator–had quite a relationship.

 Berberova was born in 1901, emigrated in 1922 and died in 1993, a professor emeritus at Princeton University. berberovaAccording to Schwartz, Berberova is the “classic neglected writer” and she defines that by this description: “despite her literary excellence, readers and critics overlooked her, mostly due to circumstances beyond her control (revolution, war, social prejudice).” Just reading Schwartz’s foreword is enough to make any sensitive reader intensely curious to read the work of Berberova.

The first story, The Ladies From St Petersburg gives the book its title. Although there are no dates given, there are clues that it’s 1917. Middle-aged Varvara Ivanovna and her daughter Margarita have travelled from St Petersburg by train for a long-arranged holiday in the country at a genteel boarding house owned by Dr. Byrdin. To the other houseguests cut off from the news of events taking place in the cities, the new arrivals represent a chance to get updates about the unrest. No one yet grasps the magnitude of the events taking place, and while the guests feel uneasy at the news of shootings, uprisings, and shortages, Dr Byrdin downplays the idea of a revolution:

“I assure you that all this revolution business will fizzle out very quickly. We here are all agreed that the Bolsheviks have no chance whatsoever of success.”

But it’s through tragedy that the radical change taking place in Russia becomes glaringly apparent when Byrdin accompanies Margarita to negotiate with a peasant for his services. This chilling story then records, with deceptive simplicity, the startling social encounters Margarita and Dr. Byrdin endure on their brief journey outside of the cocoon of the boarding house . But again, although shocked, neither Margarita nor Doctor Byrdin really absorb the enormity of what is taking place: 

“How crude people have become,” Margarita said pensively.

And the doctor reassures her:

Not for long. Everything will fall back into place again.”

And then seven years later Margarita returns to the area and witnesses exactly how “everything” has fallen “back into place again.”

In the second story, it’s December 1917 and Zoya Andreyevna arrives by train in Rostov. She has been evacuated from Kharkov due to the threat of the Bolshevik onslaught.  A few years earlier Zoya left a husband she no longer loved and defied societal standards of behaviour by living openly with her lover. The lover, a soldier with the White Army, has remained behind in Kharkov with his regiment to fight the Bolsheviks. Zoya is waiting in Rostov for her lover to arrive.

In The Ladies From St Petersburg, Dr. Byrdin and their guests had no idea that life as they knew it was about to be swept away, and in Zoya Andreyevna, Zoya is just part of a vast wave of people who’ve suddenly, unknowingly become refugees:

“People surged by in herds, the majority of them strangers to this large provincial town. The refugees, who had seen epidemics, devastation, and war at close hand, filled the town with horror and despair. They too surged by, these people, from northwest to southeast–from Kiev, Kharkov, and Poltava, through this cold and dusty town to the overflowing districts of Ekaterinodar and typhus-ridden Novorossiisk, only to turn back westward later, but this time to the shores of the devastated Crimea, where they entrusted their nomadic lives to small vessels that hurled wrenching but futile SOS’s into the dark expanses of the Black Sea.”

Zoya, whose clothes indicate she’s a member of the privileged classes, takes a room in a shabby boarding house while she waits for the lover who will probably never arrive. The house is owned by Maria Petronova, and other residents include her sister Anna, a male student and a woman called Tamara. While the student is largely oblivious to Zoya’s presence, the women in the boarding house resent her and begin to spy on her every move. As the days pass, mild teasing of Zoya turns into spiteful resentment, and the atmosphere in the house grows increasingly hostile. Anna and Maria feel begin to feel emboldened:

 “in the general displacement, the universal alarm, the time had come for them, too, to live and act. Just as everyone around them was filled with anticipation of the end, so they had begun to anticipate. Something told them that there were not two or three or four of them but no end to the people, no counting them–whether they had a needle or a slotted spoon in hand–gripped by the general hatred and vindictiveness.”

The third story The Big City is much more elusive. It’s post WWII, a nameless Russian emigre with an unknown past arrives in an unidentified American city (a thinly disguised New York). We are told nothing of the man’s history except that he’s left a lover behind in Europe, and now like a piece of flotsam and jetsam, he arrives in America and after renting a room in a high rise building, he once more begins a new life.

In The Big City Berberova very cleverly strips her character of details of his past, and she offers us a glimpse at exactly what it is like to arrive in America for the optimistic term ‘the fresh start.”  Of course the man, who once fled Russia to Europe, and now fled Europe to America has a very convoluted past, probably full of tragedy, but washed up in America, he is just another refugee: lonely, desperate and forced to begin again. Arriving with just the clothes on his back and perhaps a battered suitcase, the man’s fragmented experience of the past is invisible. In this story Berberova perfectly captures the levelling of the refugee experience. 

The brilliant selection of these particular stories combined under one cover can be no accident, for we see the stages range of the revolution through a handful of characters. The Ladies From St Petersburg offers a brief, painful view of a society on the brink of destruction. In Zoya  Andreyevna, Russian society is in freefall. Maria, Anna, and Tamara form a vicious pack against a woman they view as their class enemy, and their behaviour is an eerie prototype of Stalin’s purges. In The Big City, the lack of indentifying markers of this main character serve only to poignantly underscore the refugee’s anonymity.  There are no longer concerns about where to bury a relative or how to keep a few personal possessions, the tattered remnants of a former life. But the absence of identification is perhaps also symbolic of the erasure of Russian culture. Instead there are memories. Just memories and survival, and that is all.

“I am in the centre of a thousand possibilities, and a thousand responsibilities, and a thousand unknowns. The horrors and misfortunes of my age have helped me, the Revolution liberated me, exile tempered me, World War Two pushed me into another dimension”

–from The Italics Are Mine, Nina Berberova’s autobiography

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The Accompanist by Nina Berberova

“But when I thought about the Hyacinths, about the maid, about the warmth and cleanliness, something inside me rebelled and I asked myself: does all this really in fact exist, and won’t someone exact retribution for it? After all, if it were to happen to mama and me, to my baritone, to the thousands of others whose fingers were freezing off, whose teeth were crumbling, whose hair was falling out from malnutrition, cold fear, filth, wouldn’t retribution be exacted, comrade Chekists, for that apartment, that woman, that smoky cat? Wouldn’t someone ensconce in that living room some metalworker’s lice-ridden family, who would use the grand piano for a toilet and force her to clean it out every morning – with her pink hands? Isn’t that what you call civic ‘duty’? Was all that really going to be left intact? And were all of us–stripped, robbed hungry, broken–going to stand for it?”

As a fan of Russian literature, I was drawn to reading The Accompanist by author Nina Berberova after reading a plot synopsis. The book–a novella at only 94 pages (and my used copy is in large print) begins with the memories of a young Russian woman named Sonechka. It’s St Petersburg in 1919, and 18-year-old Sonechka lives with her music teacher mother. There’s little food, hardly any hope of employment, and virtually no prospects of anything changing. A stroke of luck occurs when a friend of the family sends Sonechka to audition to play music for a beautiful, gifted singer, Maria Nikolaevna Travina.

Employed by Maria, Sonechka’s life rapidly alters. Suddenly she has food and clothes, and before long she moves in with Maria and her wealthy merchant husband, Pavel. While most of us would heave a sigh of relief for our good fortune, Sonechka harbours a resentment that is directed towards Maria. This resentment festers until Sonechka contemplates destroying her employer.

Since I enjoy Russian fiction in translation (added to the fact that the book was made into the 1992 French film, The Accompanist), The Accompanist was an interesting read. However, the book doesn’t explore Sonechka’s motivation in detail and ultimately it’s possible to ascribe her motives to several psychological impulses. She could be motivated by resentment, jealousy, class, the desire for attention from Maria, or a combination of all these impulses. But as an emotionally twisted human being, Sonechka shortsightedly bites the hand that feed her (reminds me of Balzac’s Cousin Bette): “Another’s fame, another’s beauty, another’s happiness were all around me.”

The novel is largely introspective and contemplative, concentrating on Sonechka’s inner life. Unfortunately, Sonechka isn’t prone to a great deal of self-examination, so while her desire to destroy Maria festers and grows, and yet also vacillates with wild fantasies of ‘rescuing’ Maria, Sonechka fails to analyze these oppositional desires. Furthermore Sonechka is primarily an observer rather than a major player here, and yet her observations are not particularly insightful or detailed (Henry James knew how to create a perfect observer). As a result the book, which begins strongly, seems lacking in focus and intensity. But in spite of this, I’m interested in Berberova and will seek out some other titles. I have a feeling I’ll like them….

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