Second Glance: A Voice Displaced

"Second Glance: A Voice Displaced"
by Karen Vanuska

Last year Sovietologists and a few nonfiction book critics celebrated the publication of Lesley Chamberlain’s Lenin’s Private War: the Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia. Thanks to Chamberlain’s thorough research and translation of recently-released Soviet documents, Lenin’s exile of two boatloads of Russian intellectuals in 1922, an event which had been a mere footnote in the history books, now has a full chapter of its own. Lenin personally drew up the list of intellectuals he wanted exiled and at one point berated Stalin, whom he had put in charge of the operation, for not taking swift enough action on his directive. Among the Russian exiles who left during this purge were the poet Vladislav Khodasevich and his wife, Nina Berberova.

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Nina Berberova with Vladislav Khodasevich

Upon reading this, I hurried to my bookshelves. Yes, there were all my Berberovas: The Tattered Cloak, The Accompanist, Billancourt Tales, The Book of Happiness, Three Ladies from St. Petersburg, Cape of Storms, the biography Moura, and, her autobiography, The Italics are Mine. During most of Berberova’s life, these works were available only in Russian or French. We are indebted to translator Marian Schwartz, with a little help from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, for rescuing this exiled Russian author from the footnotes of Russian literary history.


Berberova composed her fiction, poetry, and autobiography in Russian. During the twenty-five years she lived in France, where she had settled after her exile, her works were slowly translated into French and eventually enjoyed enough popularity that one of her early books, The Accompanist, was turned into a movie. In 1950, having endured the Nazi occupation of France, she emigrated to the United States and taught Russian at Yale, then Princeton, and retired in 1971. Though Harcourt Brace published Berberova’s autobiography The Italics are Mine in 1969 (translated by Philippe Radley), her works of fiction did not appear in English until the late 1980s. According to Schwarz in the introduction to Moura, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis discovered French volumes of Berberova’s fiction in the 1980’s published by Actes Sud, brought them to the attention of Knopf, and so brought The Tattered Cloak to readers of English for the first time. Just before Berberova’s death, glasnost arrived and brought her the great joy of seeing her works finally find their way home to a Russian audience, an event she hadn’t thought possible in her lifetime.

Berberova has the kind of dramatic back story that today’s publicists love to have attached to their authors: a writer who suffered years of obscurity but was redeemed late in life. Irène Némirovsky, author of Suite Française and, shares a similar, yet more tragic history that ended with her death at the hands of the Nazis and her works discovered years later in suitcases. While also Russian and writing in France during the same era as Berberova, Némirovsky had emigrated to France with her family when she was only fifteen, and she composed her works in French directly for a French audience. Berberova’s works were confined to Russian émigré publications until after the war. To date, there is no evidence that the two writers knew each other. Némirovsky mined the chaos of the German occupation of France for her moving stories. Berberova bought a black notebook at the start of the war but found she could only record brief facts and thoughts about the events of that time. Excerpts from this notebook can be found in her autobiography, The Italics are Mine. One cannot help but feel the pain with which she unearths these memories when she introduces this section by writing,

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My black notebook now begins, and still smells of earth: at one time it was buried in our basement and bloomed with dark-green spots of mold.

The only time Berberova’s fiction addresses the war is in opening story in The Tattered Cloak, “The Resurrection of Mozart.” There are scenes eerily similar to Némirovsky’s in Suite Française: roads clogged with French refugees, villages overflowing with strangers, everyone on the run, but not knowing where to go to escape the Germans. But ultimately Berberova’s opening scene in has more in common with the dinner party that opens Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Russian émigrés are gathered in a country home thirty miles from Paris while the French army retreats from Sedan. The conversation turns to what the dead would say about the disturbing turn of world events if they could be resurrected:

“Yes, it was exactly a year ago today that Nevelsky dies. He knew a lot of this was coming. He predicted so much of it.”

“Well, he couldn’t have picked a better time to die. At least he doesn’t have to see what we see. If he were resurrected he’d either spit in disgust or break down and cry.”

Facing the hostess, at the opposite end of the table, sat a Frenchman brought along by Chabarov but whom no one else really knew. Simply, and without any fussy apology, he asked them to translate what they were all saying.

“Monsieur Daunou, we were talking about the dead, and what they would say if they were resurrected and saw what’s going on now,” replied Maria Leonidovna Sushkova.

Daunou took his black pipe out of his mouth, furrowed his brow, and smiled.

“Is it worth waking the dead?” he said, looking his hostess straight in the eye. “I suppose I might well invite Napoleon to come and have a look at our times, but I’d certainly spare my parents the pleasure.”

Russians, in the face of catastrophe, politely discussing death and resurrection – Tolstoy would be proud. The next morning, Maria Leonidovna Sushkova’s husband and her friends go off to work in Paris only to become trapped there as Germans begin bombing. Home alone, Maria becomes disconcerted when a refugee turns up on her doorstep. She lets him sleep in a shed while she worries over her husband’s fate. Finally, her husband and friends return from Paris after an arduous journey. They decide to flee deeper into the countryside and Maria tells the refugee he must leave. He disappears before she has a chance to say goodbye and their plight, the very fate of France, seems sealed in sadness:

“He’s leaving, he’s leaving,” she said very quietly but distinctly, the way people sometimes utter a meaningless word, and burst into tears. And without understanding what was wrong, or why she had suddenly been overcome by such weakness, she closed the gate gently and went into the house.

This story ends with the suicide of the Frenchman who had earlier said he’d spare his parents the pleasure of being resurrected during these difficult times. The Russians, in a script taken from Berberova’s own life, flee rather than succumb to death.

Berberova’s novel The Accompanist, written in 1936, begins with an awkward eighteenth century narrative device used by Daniel Defoe in Moll Flanders: Berberova paints a thin disguise of a memoir onto her novel. Thankfully, once the opening page announcing this artifice is turned, we are immersed in a story whose lineage can be traced to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The Accompanist’s Raskolnikov is Sonechka, a young poverty-stricken pianist who finds work in St. Petersburg with a glamorous soprano. Sonechka is alternately enraptured and repulsed by her employer, Maria Nikolaevna. Soon she plots her course:

I have to earn it [Maria’s trust], deserve 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. I have to make myself indispensable, irreplaceable, utterly faithful, without a thought for myself … Or else some day betray her, all her beauty and her voice, just to prove that there are things more powerful than she, that there are things that can make her cry, that there is a limit to her invincibility.

Sonechka escapes Bolshevik Russia with Maria and her husband and moves to Paris, where Maria finally pursues her vocal artistry to great acclaim. Though Sonechka’s belly is no longer empty and her clothes are finer, she continues to watch for her chance to bring down Maria. The appearance of a mysterious man from Maria’s past offers Sonechka an opportunity. Ultimately, the ending twists and surprises and Sonechka’s poisoned arrow hits an unintended mark. She finds herself “punished” by a return to a life of strained circumstances. More than many of Berberova’s works, The Accompanist is steeped in the gloom of St. Petersburg in the early days of the Bolsheviks. Sonechka carries this gloom within her, like a worm mixed with resentment and guilt, within her and even the bright lights of Paris are incapable of extinguishing the St. Petersburg darkness from her soul.

Just as The Accompanist is anchored by its St. Petersburg setting, Billancourt Tales is defined by its location in the Billancourt suburb of Paris. Here is where Russian émigrés, forced to flee because of the Revolution, are gamely trying to make their way in whatever job they can find to keep poverty at bay. The thirteen stories in this collection were written between 1928 and 1940 and published in the Russian émigré newspaper, The Latest News. The Russian exiles in these stories, if not for the Bolsheviks, would have happily lived out their lives on Russian soil. Instead, they find themselves celebrating Bastille Day, auditioning for movie roles, pawning their meager possessions for food, and forced to face ghosts from their Revolutionary pasts. This collection suffers from an immature narrator who is a constant witness and too often a participant in these stories. The best moments are when the narrator melts into the background and we’re left to suffer alone with the Russians of Billancourt. “The Little Stranger,” is one of the finest stories in this collection. Anastasia Georgievna, who had “been a cheerful, flirtatious young thing” under the tsar’s regime, has come to live alone in the Hotel Caprice in Billancourt:

She [Anastasia] walked up to one of the women who was rocking an infant, shifting him from arm to arm. She had just nursed him, and her breast was bared. The infant had been born about a week before and had probably still not been registered at the Billancourt City Hall. Anastasia heard the woman croon:
     Tri-ta-taski tri-ta-tish
     First on that one, then on this.
Anastasia Georgievna looked at the breast that had been dragged all across Europe and felt something warm fill her eyes and even spill over her eyelids and run down her cheek, something people might notice. She went to the bistro owners, took out a little of the money she kept in her traveling bag, and asked them to put a piece of meat in each cup of bouillon.

Nine years pass and Anastasia falls upon difficult times. Then she receives a letter saying that her sister has died and her thirteen-year old daughter was left in Anastasia’s care:

Anastasia Georgievna turned white, then gray, and barely reached her chair. At first she was pierced by a kind of joy, but then a horrible unease engulfed her: Not for this had she inured herself to her ferocious loneliness all these years, not for this had she reconciled herself to the idea of dying with unclosed eyes, not so that now, suddenly, everything would be violated and her memories of her life as a young thing and her habits as a dying woman would go up in smoke.

Comfort comes from unexpected sources and, so it is for Anastasia. When she falls ill shortly after her niece’s arrival, her niece proves a practical companion. Though this story feels in danger of veering into Dickensian sentimentality, we are in Russian hands. There is no windfall of riches that the dead bestow on the living. Instead, there are a few coins to cover the eyes of a corpse and pay the burial fees. The last words of the narrator proclaim Anastasia’s life as lucky and leave readers with the rusty taste of irony in their mouths.

It is the trilogy of Cape of Storms, The Book of Happiness, and The Ladies from St. Petersburg, all written between 1948 and 1952 that show Berberova at the fullest command of her art. Russians are once again her protagonists and Paris is the primary setting. However, in these novels the émigré experience recedes and an exploration of feminist and humanist themes takes the podium.

Cape of Storms is a coming-of-age story of three young Russian women in the émigré community of early-twentieth century Paris. They are half-sisters who share the same father and live with him and his current wife in near-poverty. As a child, the oldest sister Dasha witnesses the brutal death of her mother at the hands of the Bolsheviks, is saved by a neighbor and whisked away to Paris by her father. The youngest, Zai, loses her actress mother to illness and lives with the same neighbor who saved Dasha until the age of fourteen when she is sent to Paris to begin a new life with her father’s family. The novel’s chapters alternate between Dasha’s and Zai’s points of view and Sonia’s (the middle child’s) journal entries.

Berberova’s great feat is in taking three characters of the same sex who are similar in age and background and making their voices unique without resorting to clichéd devices such as verbal tics. She again channels Tolstoy by differentiating them by their distinct moral compasses. Dasha, after engaging in a brief bout of mysticism, devotes herself to a printing house profession and keeps her emotions at bay to the point that she barely recognizes a proposal of marriage from her French employer when it falls into her lap. Disappointingly for her and the reader, she accepts the proposal and is whisked away to a life of luxury on a hilltop in South Africa. Banished from her family, the stepmother of two high-spirited boys, Dasha is seemingly left for dead:

It was as if all the furniture in her soul had been rearranged: everything had changed. In Paris she had had a habitable, well-worn, not always comfortable, not always well-swept room, an old bookshelf over the sofa, a window looking out on another building. Now everything was different. Out her window were eucalyptus and orange tress, books lay on a pedestal table, though she didn’t know how they’d gotten there, the carpet was rolled up to reveal a beautiful waxed parquet floor that you could slide on. The day was meted out so that there was not time for self-contemplation. And at night sleep was sweet in her low, fresh bed.

Repeatedly in her fiction, Berberova either kills off mothers or describes them as creatures devoid of life. Clearly, jobs and motherhood are incompatible.

Zai has the romantic heart of Tolstoy’s Natasha and, like Natasha, stumbles in a romantic fog; first she dabble in poetry, then casts this off to become an actress, then, after a failed adventure with love, she lands a job with a bookseller. Unlike Dasha, Zai’s choice leaves her feeling frightened, but not dead:

She [Zai] started thinking about her new job; she wasn’t sleepy and she didn’t put out the light. … Lord, help me make everything all right, so I don’t get fired, so Papa and Auntie Liuba live, so that I’m not left on the sidewalk like that dog, so that Dasha is happy and we get to see each other.

Like the dog on the sidewalk. She shuddered and opened her eyes. The empty bed by the opposite wall. She trembled under her blanket. What was she afraid of now?

Is it the books or the job that saves her? No matter, both are preferable lines to motherhood.

Sonia, the third daughter, stubbornly pursues a cloistered academic life and eventually falls victim to bitterness and hopelessness. As in “The Resurrection of Mozart,” Berberova uses suicide to make a bitter statement:

Having lost my [Sonia’s] faith in everything once and for all, I’m like a simple peasant woman. I await a miracle. Miracles sometimes occur, of course, but on in an intact world. What kind of miracle can one expect in our, where everything is backwards: people are silent when they could speak out and speak when they should be silent; the sole act that can lead them to harmony is considered suicide. By leaving the world, I will merge with it.

As I read this passage, I felt as if I’d slipped into Berberova’s black notebook. In Sonia she’d found a character into which she funneled all life’s sorrow, disappointments, and horrible contradictions.

In Cape of Storms the provinciality that can be felt in Berberova’s earlier work is cast off. Its women struggle for footholds in the modern world. Will their lives be guided by their intellect and vocations, by ties of marriage and family, or fall victim to larger forces? The questions Berberova raises in Cape of Storms remain as relevant to 21st century women, no matter what passport they carry, as they were sixty years ago.

The second volume of the trilogy, The Book of Happiness, opens with a rather broad wink: one should beware the word happiness in a novel’s title, especially if the author is Russian; irony is most surely afoot:

Sam lay on his back, his eyes closed, right at the edge of the broad, low bed. The slightest movement and it seemed he might slip off like a sack onto the goatskin rug that was spread out over a red carpet. Jerked back by the recoil, clutching a revolver, Sam’s stilled hand reached toward the shaggy gray fur. His face, staring up at the ceiling, was calm, and only his black punctured temple (which had stopped bleeding a long time ago) lent something extraordinarily sad to the wave of ginger hair and paleness of the freckled forehead.

Yet another suicide, this time as a point of departure. The deceased, Sam, is the childhood companion of Vera, the novel’s protagonist. Vera’s been called away from her husband’s sickbed to Sam’s Paris hotel room by the hotel manager who found her phone number on Sam’s bedside table. Sam’s death invites Vera to revisit her memories of their shared childhood in Russia before the Bolshevik sent his family packing. When her husband finally dies and her time of caregiver bondage ends, in a moment that will hold emotional resonance for many readers, she feels guilt over her newfound freedom. Slowly, she moves away from the two deaths that defined her and into a life she defines for herself. But wait! Her waltz with freedom is too brief! A man declares his love for her; she tries to run only to be nearly killed by the bullet of his jealous ex-wife. The miracle of the missed bullet propels her to link her fate with this man, but then Berberova’s irony returns; just as they are traveling on a train towards their metaphorical future, Vera discovers she is pregnant. “But she didn’t say anything because when she stood that close to him she lost her voice.” The Book of Happiness begins with one kind of death, and ends with another. Today’s crop of Literary Mama-type magazines would feast on Berberova’s take on motherhood.

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The Ladies from St. Petersburg is a collection of three novellas each set in the early twentieth century and beginning with an arrival. Berberova’s shines her spotlight on death from natural, rather than unnatural, causes. A mother, not surprisingly, is killed off by a heart attack in the title story. Unlike in “The Little Stranger,” where death was handled as a commonplace event, this death is a major inconvenience for everyone except the daughter, who stands shocked at the story’s center. Against the backdrop of chaos caused by local Bolshevik battles, death is shown in all its ugly details:

The air was stagnant. Blue-gray incense smoke hung at eye level; there was nothing to breath. The sun was getting higher and higher in the sky ….Birds had hidden from the heat, but big blue flies in a thick buzz kept flying right up to the deceased woman’s face.

“Please don’t let them land. Please don’t let them land!” kept going through Verochka’s mind, and suddenly she saw, from the very middle of the coffin, a stream of liquid falling between the two stools and onto the painted lid of the balcony.

“Sins of commission and omission!” proclaimed the priest.

The stream ran toward a crack, spread, and puddle; the priest noticed it close to his worsted twill shoe. He said something to the junior deacon, who leaned toward Byrdin.

“We could use a basin”

A minute later the cook put a large, chipped basin under the invisible crack. The drops ran out abruptly and distinctly.

In “Zoya,” a young woman flees from revolutionary violence in Kharkov only to arrive in a less-than-welcoming boarding house filled with hostile, suspicious women. She then falls deathly ill and inconveniences the strangers who took her in. The hostile women convince a college student to take Zoya to the hospital. But it’s too late for Zoya to be saved by a man; she has fallen victim to the duel killers of disease and revolution:

He sat her [Zoya] in the high cab and put his arm around her again. She sensed an amorphous calm from this final tenderness. How quiet it had become all around, how tranquil. Suddenly, though, she was thrown forward. The wind (oh, what a wind!) lashed her face, chasing her with a howl and a roar. It’s going to tear her in two, it’s going to carry her away! Oh, hold her! Hold onto her, Mr. Student! Be a good man!

And finally, in “The Big City,” the death of a Russian’s wife propels him to immigrate to New York City in 1952. He has little money and few prospects; the death of his wife has propelled him to immigrate. After he returns to his apartment from a quest to find turpentine to remove a paint spot on his trousers, he has a new perspective on his new home:

Now I can say something about that observation I made when I went out that afternoon for paint. I realized then that every person brings whatever he can to this big city. One brings the shadow of Elsinor’s prince, another the long shadow of the Spanish knight, a third the profile of the immortal Dublin seminarian, a fourth some dream, or thought, or melody, the noonday heat of some treasure, the memory of a snow-drifted grave, the divine grandeur of a mathematical formula, or the strum of guitar strings. All this has dissolved on this cape and formed the life I plan to take part in too from now on. With you, who are not here with me but alive in this air I breathe.

I can’t help but forgive Berberova this rhapsodic ending, this epiphany extraordinaire. After facing down all that death, a moment of hope at the end of the day is such a relief.

Lenin’s banishment of Russian intellectuals, and the subsequent flight and silencing of countless others, left a hole in the cultural fabric of an entire generation of Russians. While Nabokov, Brodsky, Solzhenitsyn and many others spoke out from their banished points beyond the Iron Curtain, Berberova is one of the rare Russian women who used fiction to chronicle her experience of displacement. The Russian Revolution, the funeral of Russian Poet Alexander Blok, Berlin after World War I, the Nazi occupation of France, even America during the reign of Nixon and the Vietnam War are only some of the historical bookmarks that informed her writing. Her stories, filled with the displaced, the poverty-stricken, the hopeless and the hopeful, are stories that reach out from the twentieth century and speak with wisdom to this century. As we currently watch other embattled countries fall victim to a similar cultural loss as that of the Russians, perhaps we should read such stories as Berberova’s, not only to fill in slices of forgotten history, or to become wiser in the ways of human experience, but to honor those stories from endangered nations which may be lost to us forever. – Open Letters: A Monthly Arts and Literature Review

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