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 in it. The very opposite of a Nabokovian lord of language, he is everywhere plain and direct. The combination of a painter’s eye and a straightforward prose style turns out, in fact, to give us as good an account as we could wish for of well-to-do bourgeois life in St. Petersburg before 1917. Certainly the prototypical Russian nanny could not be better described. Nor could the family apartment:

Our apartment’s decoration was the epitome of bourgeois bad taste. We had five high-ceilinged rooms, very clean and as silent as the grave. There are three things about the entrance hall that have remained graven in my memory: an enormous stuffed bear serving as an umbrella holder, a large dark closet in which I was locked up twice for being disobedient—a punishment of which I was utterly terrified; it seemed far worse than the only time I was whipped—and finally a large papier-mâché mechanical toy, a Pierrot sitting on the edge of a well. When wound up Pierrot would sing “Au Clair de la Lune”; while his head and eyes began to move, his hands seemed to pluck at the strings of his mandolin, and the moon’s wide face appeared in an opening of a tower.

Leonid had memories the like of which other exiled Russians never tire of detailing: that Nijinsky lived in the same house, for instance, and that the street ended in the Nevsky Prospect, just opposite Fabergé’s. But he is not impressed by such things. Maybe it wasn’t Nijinsky at all, he thinks, just as he goes at length into the beauty and luxuriance of his father’s stamp collection, only to ask himself, “But how good was it, really?” To those who know the drained look of that same street today there is a particular poignance in his unstressed account of it:

[It] had no more than a few shops, all on our side of the street: the shop of the Marceroux porcelains; the Bear, a very elegant restaurant where the most important businessmen would meet for lunch; next door, in contrast, a tiny State liquor store where vodka was sold to workers who would pour it down their throats and munch on salt cucumbers; and finally, at the corner of the Nevsky Prospekt, a tiny stationery store where you had to walk down two or three steps before you could go in…. There I would buy large sheets of colored cut-outs: medieval castles to assemble, hussars or uhlans that could be folded to make them stand.

Leonid and his family lived well. (“One day in Finland, I even swallowed seventy-five large sprats.”) But he took nothing for granted. He had from the first a sharp eye for those quirks of character than can destroy the happiest marriage and the most monumental fortune. He noted, but he did not judge, then or later. (“Peace be to the passions, the years, and the ashes,” he wrote of a crucial period in his youth.) If it so happened that one of his cousins was an aesthete way in advance of his day, Leonid enjoyed looking back at it all: the dining room walls painted cobalt blue, the vitrines full of Sèvres and Meissen figurines, the chests full of sarafans (women’s dresses from a much earlier day), the furniture of palest Karelian birch. Leonid also remembered the thirty or more Dutch still lifes, the Dosso Dossi that Wilhelm Bode thought might be by Giorgione, the shell-shaped furniture and the chandelier in the shape of a gondola. But when these things vanished, he did not repine. He was simply glad to escape, and to be alive, and to have a new society to monitor.


In this matter, as in all others, he was perfectly objective. He was true to what he actually remembered of the revolution: that his stepfather, an immensely rich banker, “was crying for joy, declaring that the dawn of freedom had finally come to Russia and that he was living the finest day of his life.” “And in fact,” he goes on, “the first weeks of the Revolution were a kind of golden age. There was calm, order, and joy, and all without any authorities, without any repression, all easy and natural.” Good angels looked over him, then and afterward, until he got to Paris in 1919.

With his brother, Eugene Berman, and with his friends Christian Bérard and Pavel Tchelitchew, Leonid in France between 1919 and 1939 led the kind of life that is difficult to bring off in autobiography. He did quite well, as a painter, but not in the kind of way that brings the art historians running. He had love affairs—good, bad, and disastrous—but nothing was forever. He took note of what was going on in the world of art, but what he has to say about it will not cause us to see it with fresh eyes. Above all, he lived for much of the time in remote and solitudinous parts of France that need to be brought to life for the reader. Whereas before 1917 every Russian life now seems to have been shaped by destiny, it was not until 1939 drew near that the life of an exile in France had its built-in and extremely disagreeable momentum. It is a sign of Leonid’s quality, both as a man and as a writer, that he carries us with him, unresisting. Without making any attempt to “entertain” us, or to build himself up, he impresses as a completely truthful witness. This is how life really is, we decide: quirkful, discontinuous, unreliable in the extreme, and yet full of rewards for the philosopher who does not expect too much of it.

By the late 1930s Leonid’s paintings had come to interest more than one influential American: James Thrall Soby, Julien Levy, and A. Everett Austin took him up, and Janet Flanner had written about him in The New Yorker. He came to know the coasts of France as few foreigners know them. Paintings sold at $100 a time gave him a very good life in the 1930s, and he had amusing company whenever he cared to go to Paris. Nor was he often thwarted in sexual matters. (A reference to “beautiful dikes” turns out to be purely irrigational, however.) Life went on very pleasantly among the saltmarshes, the mussel beds, and the oyster beds, and in the fish markets where prices were still announced in the currency of Louis XV—louis, pistoles, and crowns—and sole, plaice, and ray, white bellies upward, formed Catherine wheels in their huge wicker baskets.

Until September 1939, that is. Leonid stayed on in France throughout World War II; and whereas his memoirs might in happier times have steadied almost to a halt in an ambiance of security and well-merited success, he was confronted in his late forties with an environment at least as dangerous as the one from which he had escaped after 1917. What finally gives this book an interest that transcends Leonid’s own personal story is his watchful and clearly veracious account of what it was like to live on the coast of occupied France during the worst days of World War II and to be conscripted into the Todt organization, whose duty it was to fortify the French coastline against an Allied invasion.


There is of course already a vast literature about life in occupied France. But whereas much of it is loaded, demonological, and self-justifying, Leonid writes with his habitual objectivity. If there were moments of unflawed happiness at even the least propitious of times, he says so:

The landscape [of Esnandes] with its mussel vineyards is unique in the world…. The road goes straight between the watery plain and a reddish cliff, partly covered with ivy and very Courbetlike. Seaweed, rushes, yellow flowers advance on the dry mud, which becomes wet when washed by the movement of the tides. The sea, the sky, the sandy shore of the Vendée in the distance blend today in an opaque radiation. It is a laguna where everything is reflected, nothing moves, nothing has a shadow, and where only two or three details, mysteriously lit, can be clearly seen.

All along the way, multitudes of birds wheel over us…. On the horizon, the flocks look like…transparent scarves sometimes shaken by an invisible hand when a bird of prey comes among them. As we go closer, here and there, the red pelt of the marshes wrinkles; it is the result of the mass rising of groups of starlings. Colonies of seagulls, those snowdrops of the shore, trace a harmonious curve where the wave expires. Sparrow hawks stand motionless in the air. And behind the cliff, like lava thrust up from a volcano, the crows come up.

Meanwhile on the French radio two professors from the Academy of Medicine recommended the rat as a more than acceptable substitute for pork or rabbit. The women of the village were ordered by the German army to form a basketball team, and to present themselves in shorts for training. Promoted by the Germans to the combined status of interpreter and delivery man, Leonid became privy to the multifarious illegal trafficking with which the French kept both boredom and starvation at bay.

His diary of those days—here reprinted verbatim—is a remarkable document. Since he could speak German he was given tasks that took him everywhere—into courtrooms, into the submarine shelters at La Pallice, into the fortifications of La Rochelle. Where recently he had to carry 100-pound bags of cement at a run, he found himself turned into a combination of Punchinello and Good Soldier Schweik. But he did not discard the gift of laconic summation which marks him out from other chroniclers. France as he saw it in 1944 had “gone back centuries to the time when peasants led primitive and self-sufficient lives. In a France worn down to the core, pillaged by resident Landsknecht, each housewife becomes a heroine of improvisation. Each home is an Ark of Noah traveling through the Flood.” And in that vast upheaval every Noah, and every Noah’s wife, was treated by him as an individual to be studied as carefully as Cocteau and Bérard and Virgil Thomson.

Virgil Thomson returned that uncensorious scrutiny for exactly fifty years, and when he came to write his preface to The Three Worlds of Leonid he said something that will be echoed by any attentive reader of this book: “With a man so consistent within himself that variations are welcomed and contrasts tolerated, friendship is indeed a privilege.”

This Issue

February 8, 1979