Posts Tagged ‘Nina Berberova’

Lost Books – The Revolt

June 23, 2019

Nina Berberova’s The Revolt begins with the separation of two lovers – no doubt one of many separations which took place in Paris during September 1939. Einar has decide to return to his native, neutral Sweden as war breaks across Europe, leaving behind Russian émigré, Olga. The scene is described in some detail as she accompanies him to the Gare du Nord, the “night not black, rather a kind of green…”

“The entire city, and the sky up above, and the river, and the inside of the bus – everything was dark green, bottle green: our faces and the faces of the other passengers, and the Grand Palais, which we rumbled past, were all the same colour.”

The city itself seems to have physically changed, and later Olga wonders, “Was this not an underwater kingdom? Had we not drowned?” as the landscape embodies the change of state taking place in their relationship. The war itself is visible in the “crowd of recruits marching in the utter darkness,” their future, like Olga’s, now suddenly obscured. The scene is almost melodramatic were it not for Olga’s awareness (and, of course, Berberova’s too) of the potential clichés inherent in the scene she is experiencing:

“I pressed my face to the pane, the way they used to write in novels.”

The journey towards Einar’s departure is ironically interrupted with stories of promised trips together – to Stockholm, to Brazil, to Russia – an early indication of Einar’s unreliability. It is seven years before they see each other again; two letters she sends to him are returned marked ‘address unknown’. When she is eventually invited to Stockholm it is not by Einar, but by a publisher who wishes her to write a book about her uncle, Dmitrii Georgievich:

“It all came down to three questions: Is he alive? Will I ever see him again? Does he still love me?”

When she is finally reunited with Einar, however, it is to discover he is married:

“Einar’s wife was a blue-eyed giantess with light brown hair, big round cheeks that puffed out a little, bringing to mind a chubby angel or, if you prefer, an angel blowing a trumpet.”

Though she stays with Einar and his wife, Emma, for four days, Emma is careful that they are never left alone, something Olga finds harder to accept than the marriage:

“No, there was nothing to explain, and no point in belabouring the past, but maybe we could have spent a little time together?… In that moment, in powerless and bitter despair, I felt as if I were burning up with hatred, grief and outrage.”

She returns to Paris, but she will see Einar again when Emma invites her to holiday with them in Italy. “I felt like some sort of trap had been set for me,” she reflects, and certainly Emma’s intentions seem different as Einar and Olga are frequently left alone.

This is the third of Berberova’s novels I have read, and each of them deals with love, though all in a different manner, in a way that suggests a deep understanding both of her protagonists’ emotions and the dynamics of their lives. Here she cleverly begins by describing the novel’s final scene at the same time as its first:

“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…”

She also speaks of what she calls a person’s ‘no man’s land’:

“…a domain that is his and his alone. The life everyone sees is one thing; the other belongs to the individual, and it is none of anyone else’s business.”

This, she says, is where she and Einar met, suggesting the closeness of their relationship, but, at the same time, this does not make love more important. As she says in the novel’s final pages, in reference to Dmitrii Georgievich’s fate:

“…if you allow anyone to arrange your no man’s land, then in the end, reasoning logically, it will reach the point where they put you in a luxurious suite of a luxurious hotel and burn your books and drive away everyone you ever loved.”

The Revolt has been recently review by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings who described it as “a subtle, nuanced piece of writing which certainly lingers in the mind”, and by Max at Pechorin’s Journal who ended his review by saying “very, very highly recommended and likely on my end of year list.” Hopefully this revival of interest in Berberova’s work will attract the attention of publishers as she deserves to be both back in print and more widely known.

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Lost Books – The Accompanist

February 15, 2019

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.

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.