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Cautionary Tales

In 1969 Nina Berberova published the American translation of her autobiography, The Italics are Mine.* When Tatyana Tolstoya was interviewed about it the other day she said: “I don’t know her personally, but she is maybe the strongest personality I have ever felt in a book. This personality tries to convince me of the image she creates, but it doesn’t. I feel she creates an image which is not truthful, and I recognize her right to do that. I feel she’s quite different, a mysterious personality strong enough to create an image that works, but for me the real personality behind all that is much more interesting than the person she wants us to believe in.” Mystery and strength are alluring, so this admiring but subliminally catty response is more of a turn-on than any blurb could be.

The six grim novellas collected in The Tattered Cloak also exude a very powerful personality. It is close to the one that informs the autobiography: tough, fierce, down-to-earth, rational, not just un- but anti-romantic, and with a disquieting combination of empathetic insight and harshness: you might almost call the attitude tout comprendre, c’est tout condamner. But the mood of the novellas lacks the resilience of the autobiography: it is more defeated, sadder.

First published in France in the Eighties, when Berberova was in hers (she is ninety now), the stories were written at various times before that. The American edition doesn’t say when, which reinforces the mystery and fits with a story about Berberova at Princeton. She began to teach there in 1963, after starting late on an academic career at Yale in 1958. As the years went by it seemed to her colleagues that she must be reaching retiring age; but she refused to consider retirement on the grounds that she had no birth certificate, so couldn’t be sure how old she was. In the end, the faculty consulted the FBI, who consulted the KGB, who traced the missing document. The anecdote is apocryphal, but displays strength and mystery in comedy form. Berberova’s fiction, on the other hand, is short on comedy, except for a sardonic gleam in the eye she fixes on her unlovable characters; who are in the majority.

All the novellas are autobiographical in varying degrees, even the last, which belongs to the genre of Brave New World nightmare fiction; so a summary of Berberova’s life seems appropriate. Her father came from a well-to-do Armenian family settled in Russia for generations; her mother was descended from Goncharov’s model for Oblomov. They lived in St. Petersburg, on the borders between the upper bourgeoisie, the minor aristocracy, and the intelligentsia. When she was ten, Berberova decided to be a poet. The school she went to was “one of those progressive ones which began to appear in Petersburg after 1905.” The girls there were earnestly literary and politically progressive, and many died prematurely in one horrible way or another during the Stalinist years. The October revolution coincided with Berberova’s graduation, and her life was disrupted as the family moved through the chaos of the postrevolutionary years, first to Moscow, then to the south, and finally back to Petersburg. As members of the bourgeoisie they were degraded to the status of “past” people, and lived in poverty, cold, and squalor in a communal flat. Berberova attended poetry readings at the Writers’ Union, read her own work there, and became an avant-garde literary groupie and the lover of the poet Vladislav Khodasevich. Khodasevich. was highly regarded by his contemporaries, and if he is little known either in Russia or the West, it is because his work after 1922 appeared only in émigré Russian publications whose readership was very small. He shared this dispiriting fate with half a generation of Russian writers (most of the other half perished under Stalin); Berberova in her old age has only recently escaped from it.

As a young girl she believed in progress, but she soon came to hate the Bolsheviks as much as she loathed the tsar and his regime. What she deplored most were

the gradual destruction of whole classes of a population…the destruction of two generations of intelligentsia…the “all is permitted” of Leninist ideology…the deliberate lowering of culture.

In 1922 she and Khodasevich left for Berlin, which was swarming with distinguished Russian artists and intellectuals. Gorky was there (when he was not in a sanatorium in nearby Saarow) with his usual entourage of mistress, friends, protégés, and relations. Khodasevich and Berberova became part of the circus, and when in 1924 it transferred to Sorrento for the sake of Gorky’s health, they moved into Gorky’s villa with the rest. The household was run—very efficiently, Berberova said—by Gorky’s formidable mistress Moura Budberg, who also acted as his secretary and translator. Berberova was impressed and intrigued by Budberg; perhaps she was jealous too. In 1981 she wrote a biography of her. Translated into vile French in 1988, it was intended to demystify its subject and reads like someone getting rid of a lifelong obsession. Everything known about Budberg, says Berberova, is based on what Budberg herself gave out, and that was often deliberately untrue. All the same, she is generous in admiring Budberg’s strength, though less enthusiastic about her aura of mystery. She even decided to model herself on her—not by imitating her style, but by being her own woman and living, as opposed to merely surviving. Still, some of the formula of strength and mystery has seeped into the persona Berberova was creating for herself.

From Sorrento, Khodasevich and Berberova moved on to Paris where they lived in an attic room on checks from the Russian expatriate press. Berberova earned a bit extra from embroidery. In the story “The Waiter and The Slut,” embroidery figures as the bottom rung on the ladder of desperate shifts to earn a respectable living. Khodasevich and Berberova were seriously poor, but in photographs she looks as chic as one of Paul Morand’s heroines, and a great beauty besides. The affair with Khodasevich lasted until 1935; then she left him for another Russian, with whom she shared a country house near Paris. After the war they split up, and in 1950 she shook the dust of Europe from her feet. The phrase describes her state of mind exactly: a mood of bleak impatience. She transferred it to the hero of “The Black Pestilence,” who struggles—as she did—with the financial and bureaucratic problems of getting to the United States. Berberova arrived in New York alone, penniless, with hardly any English, and got a job as a filing clerk. Eventually a member of the Yale Russian faculty took her on to teach the language.

Four and a half of the stories in this volume are set in the Russian émigré milieu of Paris, and half of the fifth—“The Black Pestilence”—deals with the effort to escape from it. How Berberova hated that dingy, shabby world! In the Twenties and Thirties it was much romanticized in films and pulp novels. It provided contemporary variants of the goose girl story, with gallant déclassé heroes and heroines driving taxis or selling gloves instead of minding geese. (Jacques Deval’s comedy Tovarich has just been revived in England as a stage vehicle for Makarova. In 1937 the film version was big box office, with Charles Boyer and Claudette Colbert exuding lots of foreign charm as a grand duke and duchess reduced to domestic service.) Berberova won’t have any of that. She detests the shabby fallen grandees, the pious ladies and former generals praying in the Russian Orthodox churches of Billancourt and Clamart for the tsar who brought about their degradation. She despises the greasy waiters who were once silly cadets; she has nothing but distaste for the spoilt jeunes filles bien élevées who take up prostitution in an amateurish manner; and her pity is tinged with contempt for genteel office cleaners returning home on swollen feet to flirt with decrepit excolonels in their poky kitchens. She hisses out the sickly double diminutives by which they address one another: Tasenka, Zhenechka, Tatochka.

She hates the successes as much as the failures. The longest and most accomplished story, “Astashev in Paris,” is about a heartless, cautious insurance salesman with fat baby cheeks. Astashev battens on other Russian émigrés who have managed to keep their fortunes or make new ones. His sales technique is to frighten his clients with the prospect of death. It is very successful. He makes enough to establish his old mother in a dingy flat, and himself in a comfortable one. Then he finds the archetypal goose girl. She is unassuming and inconspicuous, devoted to the aging aunts she lives with, and herself already on the verge of spinsterhood. Her beauty is hidden by shyness, as the goose girl’s is by rags; it takes Astashev a while to notice it. But this is not the old fairy story at all, and Astashev is not a prince but a bringer of death. Zhenya works as a cashier in a cinema: a perfect metaphor for refugee existence, since the glass box in which she sits from noon till late at night separates her from other people and the lives they lead. For them the cinema is pleasure—a concept that has never come her way. Astashev takes her out, invites her back to his flat, and rapes her. Next day she kills herself. Berberova’s description of the suicide is a tour de force of concentrated writing; one feels she must herself at some point in her life have turned on the gas, and she leaves one numb with pity and horror for Zhenya.

Numbness is Berberova’s speciality, as an effect and as a subject too. The stories describe characters numbed in some way or other: Astashev by selfishness, the slut in “The Waiter and the Slut” by sloth, the rest by grief or by the exile’s alienation that takes away the point of living. Sasha, the narrator-heroine of “The Tattered Cloak,” is a few years younger than Berberova herself, and experiences the early years of the revolution as a child rather than an adolescent. In clothes made out of old curtains, she queues for food and firewood, and shares a sofa at night with her elder sister Ariadna while their father sleeps behind a screen in the same room. Sasha worships Ariadna, who leads the kind of intellectually stimulating life among artists that drew Berberova herself when she was Ariadna’s age. Ariadna goes off with an actor, as Berberova did with a poet, and Sasha and her father emigrate to Paris and move in with Aunt Varvara, who works as a cleaner:

When I looked out the window of our Paris apartment it seemed to me that everything was exactly as it had been at our old place: the feeling of being on the edge of a big city along with a multitude of poverty-stricken people, chiefly women, and chiefly old women at that; a quiet murky street with the smoking chimney of a commercial laundry and a blue locksmith’s sign; over the sign an open window with a worn tulle curtain and behind that an old man inserting a set of false teeth in his wide wet mouth. Above it all there is a narrow stripe: a swatch of the local sky, gray and low…. All you hear is the pounding from the artificial sausage-casing factory. From time to time the din increases, which means they’ve opened the door to the street, and then the whole block, including our house, starts to smell of something rotten and astringent.

I lived on that street not one year, not three, not five, not even ten. I lived there for sixteen years of my life, looking out of those windows, breathing in the black fumes from the factory chimney. Those years were utterly indistinguishable: the swing of a pendulum, from spring to summer and from autumn to winter, forming a constant rectangle of time, in the cell of which I listened with equal docility to the noise of the factory and the hush of Sunday…. Inside our house, where a Strauss waltz played on the radio day after day, where the ubiquitous cat played with her shadow day after day, where my father and I slept in our cramped room and put out folding cots end to end, like corpses in Russia, night after night—nothing ever changed…. Only we ourselves changed….

I, of course, changed more than anyone. I had been thirteen and I became twenty-nine….

When I turned twenty, I started working as a presser in the commercial laundry on the corner….

She goes on pressing for nine years while her father falls to pieces in body and mind: he calls her his Cordelia, and so she is. When he dies, her savings go to his funeral. By this time the Second World War has broken out and “the matches don’t light anymore”—as in Russia once upon a time—a sure sign of impending disaster. Sasha—and Zhenya in “Astashev in Paris”—are the only characters in the stories who are allowed to develop any pathos. They have something of Dostoyevsky’s meek heroines. Their circumstances are like the ones that Berberova knew, but their reactions are different. Cordelias don’t survive. She pities, but doesn’t exalt them.

Outsiders don’t even get her pity. In her autobiography she pays tribute to Marina Tsvetaeva as “a great Russian poet,” but criticizes her from her own anti-romantic standpoint:

The part of a misfit, which she adopted…betrayed her immaturity: being a fish out of water is not, as was once thought, a sign of originality in a human being who stands above others, but is the misfortune—both psychological and ontological—of a man who has not matured to the point of uniting with the world, of fusing with it and his time, that is with history and other people.

Berberova’s stories are cautionary tales about misfits. The central character of The Black Pestilence is a double misfit: he is a poor émigré in Paris, and he won’t allow himself to get over the death of his wife killed in an air raid seven years before. He is utterly alone, and so he decides to move to America, where he has a friend called Druzhin in Chicago. Two Russian women cross his path, the first as he prepares to leave Paris, the second in New York. Both are attractive and attracted to him, either would make a suitable companion for life. He rejects both and sets out for Chicago although he knows—and we discover in the last few paragraphs—that Druzhin has never existed. It is a case of ultimate willful alienation, and a stunning shock ending for the novella; stunning in the sense of numbing as well as brilliant.

In “In Memory of Schliemann” the sense of a life wasted in emptiness and dreary routine is transferred to an imaginary Chicago-like city, as desolate as the real Chicago of The Black Pestilence. The story is an Expressionist fable with a lament for the environment built into it. The narrator is blind—not literally, but unable to recognize or interpret himself or his surroundings. A somewhat Kafkaesque clerk, he works long hours in the accounts department of a huge organization; what is left of his day is spent traveling by bus and train through the vast unlovely city. He does not object; in fact, his mind is filled with a crazy scheme to increase the world’s working space by building underground offices, and its working time by adding an hour to every day. He is not an exile, but he might just as well be one. He has no family or friends. He eats in cafés. At the height of summer he is given an unexpected four-day holiday, and decides to spend it by a lake he has heard of but never seen. The rest of the story describes his sweltering bus journey past never-ending shopping malls, factories, parking lots: it’s not until the third day that he reaches the lake, to find crowds of bathers meekly queuing for a turn in the water. The beach is paved with bodies and backed by high-rise buildings: the farther shore is invisible through the smog. The clerk imagines it lined with cool green trees, but when the smog clears at dawn, he sees another line of office blocks and tenements rising from the sands.

Berberova brings off this nightmare vision with details as diabolically chosen as the sausage-casing factory in “The Tattered Cloak.” She sticks in each one with the accuracy of a sorceress sticking pins in a wax model. Meanwhile, her prose trudges on—even, unemotional, relentless. It has to be admitted that in “The Tattered Cloak” and in “In Memory Of Schliemann” she allows glimmers of light to fall in; Sasha is sustained by memories of an inspiring conversation she once held with her sister’s husband about human grandeur, the “thirst for wisdom, love, and truth”; and the anonymous clerk in “Schliemann” comes in sight of a happy ending when he is reunited with a sweet, scatty girl who was sacked from his organization for always being late. Her unpunctuality probably symbolizes the spontaneity that has been ground out of the clerk. I found these sops to optimism unpersuasive. Berberova’s pessimism, on the other hand, is crushingly convincing; and the “Schliemann” story with its American Everyman protagonist shows that she doesn’t need the convenient metaphor of Russian émigrés to make her point about man’s exile in the late twentieth century. The ontological element has driven out the genre painting. One may regret that—the genre painting makes addictive reading. But Berberova writes with such intensity and detailed imagination that even in the arid mode of the symbolic fable she manages to make an overwhelming impact.

Existential exile is a thoroughly familiar subject. Berberova is unusual in refusing to accept the condition. I think she’s whistling in the dark. There is an element of pretense in doing that, and it may be connected with the fictitious persona that Tatyana Tolstoya detects in the autobiography.

  1. *

    Harcourt, Brace and World, 1969, reviewed in these pages by Helen Muchnic on September 25, 1969.

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