Life Studies

The Three Worlds of Leonid

by Leonid Berman, preface by Virgil Thomson, translated by Olivier Bernier
Basic Books, 275 pp., $13.95

Leonid Berman
Leonid Berman; drawing by David Levine

For the last twenty and more years of his life—he died in 1976 at the age of eighty—Leonid Berman seemed the very picture of contentment. He was not “a famous artist,” but he had patrons who loved his paintings and could never get enough of them. He had a marriage—to Sylvia Marlowe, the harpsichordist—that was stable but not at all stagnant. He had never been ill, and he got around the tennis court to great effect until he was in his late seventies. He read widely and with intense pleasure in English, French, and Russian. He and his wife had friends who rarely said a dull thing. If Leonid himself did not often intervene in the conversation, it was because so many champion chatter-boxes were around. Besides, he was a master of the shrug: by moving one shoulder one inch, he could suggest an affectionate and fatalistic tolerance while the conversational howitzers blasted off on every side.

He was known to be writing a memoir of some kind, and to have kept a diary for much of his earlier life. Some people had great hopes for his book; others inferred from his laconic and often nonverbal replies to leading questions that he might be equally unforth-coming in print. The Three Worlds of Leonid settles that argument. It proves that Leonid (who for all but passport purposes had dropped his surname many years previously) was an autobiographer of exceptionally high quality.

He had led a life of great intrinsic interest. Born near St. Petersburg in 1896, he came of that well-to-do Russian-Jewish stock which contributed so much to the cultural life of pre-revolutionary Russia. Though his family had its origins in Kovno, he quite rightly attributed to himself honorary citizenship of St. Petersburg and took pride in conforming to what he regarded as a classic Petersburg type: “dreamy, sentimental, elegant…with black hair and eyes and a small, narrow head.” He had that clearsightedness about himself that augurs well for autobiography. He also had the temperament—invaluable to a man of his birthdate and ethnic origin—of the predestined survivor. “I have inherited,” he wrote, “my mother’s looks and my father’s good temper; I am healthy in body and mind, and perfectly happy. I forget all past miseries and live in peace with myself, never wishing I were Rockefeller, Piero della Francesca, the handsomest man in the world, or anything else. The very existence of our planet and my little spark of life on it both seem to me the miracle of miracles!”

Incapable by nature of either whining or bearing a grudge, he was also completely unsentimental. Like a great many other people, he “lost everything” as a result of the revolution of 1917. But The Three Worlds of Leonid is nowhere tainted with rancor. “This happened, and then that happened” is the schema of his narrative. Neither blame nor regret plays any part…

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