Lost Books – The Accompanist

I first discovered Nina Berberova’s work a year ago when I read The Book of Happiness which told the story of a young woman, Vera, who lived through the Russian Revolution before eventually leaving Russia for France – a story not unlike Berberova’s own (though hers eventually ended in the USA where she arrived in 1950 with very little money and, within ten years, was professor of Russian Literature at Yale). While New Directions have been her main publisher in English, I recently came across a UK paperback (the now extinct Flamingo imprint) of her short novel, The Accompanist, translated by Marian Schwartz in 1987, though originally written in 1936.

The Accompanist is an intense novel, not simply by nature of its brevity, but as a result of the relationship it describes between the singer, Maria Travina, and the young accompanist of the title, Sonechka. Taking the form of Sonechka’s diary, it is presented as having been sold to a friend of the author by a junk dealer, an early comment on Sonechka’s sense that she has been side-lined by life. The difficulties of Sonechka’s life begin even before she is born as her mother, a music teacher, falls pregnant to one of her students and must leave in order to have the child:

“I realised that my mama was my disgrace, just as I was hers. And our whole life was one irreparable shame.”

Despite their difficulties (her mother loses most of her students when it is discovered she has an illegitimate child), Sonechka is able to train as a pianist at the Conservatory and is offered the position of accompanist to Maria Travina, a famous singer, at eighteen years old. The year is 1919 and work is scarce; Sunechka and her mother are living in poverty:

“My boots were made from a rug, my dress from a tablecloth, my winter cloak from mama’s cloak, my hat from some gold-embroidered sofa cushions.”

Sonechka can now define her feelings of inferiority with reference to Maria and her “wild, inaccessible perfection”:

“She is ten years older than I and of course does not hide the fact, because she is beautiful and I am not. She is tall and has a relaxed, strong, healthy body. I’m small, tense, sickly looking… She has smooth black hair, tied in a knot at her nape; my hair is fair and lifeless…”

This infatuation develops in her a need to balance their relationship by requiring Maria to be indebted to her, for example for keeping a secret. When a man calls on Maria she feels she has a chance to demonstrate her loyalty and is disappointed when Mara tells her husband.

“I have to earn her trust… I have to earn it, so that later, when the time comes, out of the blue, I can shield her from some misfortune, rescue her suddenly, serve her so slavishly that she doesn’t even know it’s me.”

Sonechka is hampered by her sense inferiority, unable, for example, to make anything of the more sophisticated company she now keeps:

“The majority of them I knew, but it seemed impolite of me to talk with them, and anyway I had nothing to say.”

Over time her admiration of Maria becomes a determination to discover an imperfection:

“But right now I dreamed of only one thing – finding that strong woman’s weak spot, finding a chink for when remaining her shadow became unbearable – and then dealing with her life.”

When Maria tells her to give up her boyfriend as “he’s very silly”, we sense the bitterness in her thought that “compared to her, all people were pitiful and silly.” Still, she does not see him again, even though they had plans for marriage, placing Maria’s life before her own once more as they go abroad:

“Suddenly I realised that my romance with him was a digression from the main plot line I had picked up back in Petersburg.”

She does, of course, eventually discover Maria’s weakness, which is, just as expectedly, a man she is seeing in Paris behind her husband’s back, a long term love affair which dates back to a letter Maria asked Sonechka to post shortly after they met. Sonechka comes to resent Maria’s ability to hide her emotional turmoil:

“Perhaps if during those weeks Maria Nikolaevna had changed, body and soul, had suffered – so that everybody could tell, including me – if she had fallen ill or lost her voice – I don’t know, maybe then I would have been satisfied.”

The only question which remains is whether Sonechka will step out from the wings to direct the novel’s tragic conclusion, or stay in the shadows, the replaceable accompanist, forever.

The Accompanist is a sharp, sad novel which views fame from the side-lines. Maria is never cruel to Sonechka but does take her inferiority, her unimportance, for granted. Post-revolution Russia is not the dramatic background it was in The Book of Happiness, in keeping with Maria’s position centre stage, but it makes the occasional unheralded appearance with references to her husband’s friends (“some had been executed; others were in prison; most had fled”) and their journey out of Russia (”fated to pick lice of ourselves, to be robbed down to our last kopek”). In both Maria and (perhaps ironically) Sonechka, Berberova creates memorable characters who both win the reader’s’ sympathy. As I said last year, it feels like time for this writer to be rediscovered.

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5 Responses to “Lost Books – The Accompanist”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Definitely agree with you there, Grant. I’ve only read some of Berberova’s shorter works but they were excellent and I really want to explore her novels. May try to track this one down… 😉

  2. Caroline Says:

    She’s a favourite of mine. I was living in Paris when she was discovered. I think all of her books were published for the first time in the 80s although she’s written them much earlier.
    I loved this book and the Book Of Happiness too.
    For a while she was mentioned all the time but now, I agree, she’s overdue to be rediscovered. I’m glad you reminded me of her and several unread books on my piles.

    • 1streading Says:

      it would be nice to see some of her work reprinted in the UK – the most recent editions are all American. She featured in Penguin Classic’s recent anthology of Russian emigre stories so hopefully that leads to further recognition.

  3. Caroline Says:

    Btw the Paris mention wasn’t gratuitous. She was first discovered in France, I think.

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