Archive for the ‘Nina Berberova’ Category

Lost Books – The Book of Happiness

February 9, 2018

Nina Berberova was a Russian émigré author who began writing in the 1920s but was not widely translated into English until fifty years later, largely thanks to US publishers New Directions. She was born in St Petersburg in 1901, leaving for first Berlin and then Paris in 1922. Twenty-five years later she immigrated to the United States, becoming an American citizen in 1959 and living and working there until her death in 1993. The Book of Happiness, her most autobiographical novel, was translated by Marian Schwarz in 1999 though it may have been written as early as the 1930s.

The novel tells the story of Vera, from her childhood in the years prior to the First World War, through the Russian Revolution, and into French exile. Divided into three parts, each part focuses on a man she has loved. It opens with the death of the first of these, her childhood sweetheart, Sam, who kills himself in a Paris hotel room leaving only her address:

“She stood over him and strained to recognise in this much too dead face those lively features that had lived on in her memories before she crossed the threshold of this room. It was like trying to lay a negative over a printed photograph so that they coincided, so that there were no gaps – and she just couldn’t manage it.”

At this point she is living in Paris with her husband, Alexander, but the narrative returns with her memories to her first meeting with Sam as a child when she finds him lost in a park in St Petersburg. When it is discovered the two children live on the same street they become inseparable, despite her father’s warning:

“Yes, but he’s going to grow up and marry a Jewess, or do something with his violin, and you’re going to run off with some dashing young man, some prince of the blood. Nothing will remain of this love but dust, dust.”

Sam leaves Russia in the aftermath of the revolution and soon after Vera meets Alexander. Even as he meets her for the first time he tells her:

“I thought all week…that if someone could be loved in this horrible repulsive world, full of malice and filth, then it had to be you.”

Alexander is a character who might have walked out of the pages of Turgenev – sickly (his lungs), world-weary, and (as Vera puts it) “full of a kind of vain nobility that was no longer of any use to anyone.” He tells Vera:

“You know, I would never kill myself, but if someone were to kill me…”

When he gets permission to leave Russia for France he asks Vera to go with him as his wife. Though she does not love him with the childish whole-heartedness she felt for Sam, she also feels their relationship is inevitable:

“The thought kept pounding in her head that nothing had been decided, that it could all be fixed, it could all be redone because no promises had been made. She knew that this was a temptation and a lie because everything had been decided, and there was nothing to fix, and she had given a promise firmer than ‘I do’.”

By the time Sam commits suicide, Alexander is dying from consumption, a slow decline which has been taking years and has left him bedridden for months. When he finally dies, Vera feels relief:

“There was no doubt about it: She was free.”

Alexander’s death allows her to fall in love again in the novel’s final part. This may seem a risky enterprise given her previous experience (particularly for the man, Karelov) but it would be wrong to assume that the novel’s title is ironic. Despite the difficult circumstances of Vera’s life, happiness is far from absent. When she realises that Sam will not immediately disappear from her life when his parents are found, for example:

“…as soon as she felt they were together she was amazed at the rush of joyous assurance that all would be just as she had dreamed… And in her heart she called all this happiness, because it lasted.”

Can happiness last? the novel asks. When a sparrow flies into Vera’s room, and then out again she realises:

“…it would never come back again, she could not even tell it apart from the other sparrows like it… that you couldn’t know everything there was to know in life, have everything, love everyone, or enjoy everything.”

Later Dashkovsky, a man who had loved her mother, visits her. He tells her that, as you get older “All you want is one thing: stability, assurance that the happiness that you are with me today will be the same happiness for me tomorrow and the day after.” Her relationship with Karelov begins with his declaration, “I want to be happy.”

The Book of Happiness not only evokes the lost Russia which opened the twentieth century and the émigré life which followed for many, but portrays, with an eye for honest detail, the development of a young woman, and her discovery of love and happiness, in a manner which still resonates today. If Penguin Classics (or anyone else) are looking for a deserving author to return to print, they need look no further.

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