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 …

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