“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