Cape of Storms

Cape of Storms
By Nina Berberova
Translated by Marian Schwartz
New Directions, 2000

Cape of Storms, one of the great Russian writer’s most fascinating novels, was published serially in 1951 in the Novyi Zhurnal — and Nina Berberova herself, late in life, took the old migr journals off a shelf and handed them to distinguished translator Marian Schwartz. Now this forgotten, riveting late masterpiece is available in English for the first time.

Centering on three half-sisters, Cape of Storms treats a very specific generation, born in Russia but raised in Paris: a lost generation, having suffered childhood traumas, and now neither really Russian nor truly French. The three sisters — Dasha, Sonia, and Zai — share the same father, Tiagin (portrayed by Berberova as an attractive, weak-willed womanizing White Russian). As the specter of war looms, and the sisters enter adulthood, each chooses a different path: Dasha marries and leaves for a bourgeois, expatriate life in colonial Africa; Sonia studies philosophy, becomes obsessed with radical politics, and ends a suicide; Zai, the youngest, an appealing adolescent, flirts with becoming an actress or a poet. It is a shattering book, which opens with an absolutely hair-raising scene of Dasha witnessing her mother’s murder at the hands of Bolshevik thugs, and ends as the blitzkrieg sweeps towards Paris. Cape of Storms is unparalleled in Berberova’s work for its high drama, its starkness, and many shifts of mood and viewpoint.


“The Three Sisters”

The third of Nina Berberova’s books to be published posthumously in English, ”Cape of Storms” follows in the wake of ”The Ladies From St. Petersburg,” a trio of novellas, and a novel entitled, not entirely ironically, ”The Book of Happiness.” Berberova, who was born in Russia in 1901, spent the last four decades of her life in the United States, where she died in 1993. Yet for many years her fiction was not widely available in English, and it was the republication of her work to great acclaim in France that led to her ”discovery” on these shores. Berberova’s longtime friend and translator, Marian Schwartz, has aided considerably in this process, rendering Berberova’s distinctive Russian into fine and elegant English.

Berberova has been compared to her great Russian antecedents — Gogol, Tolstoy and Chekhov — and not without reason. The first two novellas in ”The Ladies From St. Petersburg,” produced early in her career, share a ruthlessly Chekhovian simplicity and precision of detail, while the last novella, written later in life, owes a greater debt to Gogol. In contrast, ”Cape of Storms,” which was initially published serially in 1951 in Novy Zhurnal, has a very different feel. An interior novel that aims somehow to articulate the ineffable, it seems to draw more from Dostoyevsky.

Berberova’s work repeatedly describes the experience of White Russians at the time of the revolution and afterward, and ”Cape of Storms” is no exception. The story of three half sisters living under their father’s roof in Paris between the world wars, it depicts the vastly differing choices that set the course of their adult lives. It is not a book, however, in which plot is intended to function as the central element: although filled with powerful and glittering scenes, this is largely an examination — rigorous and at times oblique — of the young women’s psyches, of their metaphysical quests.

The book opens with Dasha, the eldest of the three, recalling the terrible day of her mother’s murder by the Bolsheviks, an event that is described in haunting, almost surreal detail. Saved by her mother’s lover, Alexei Andreyevich Boiko, she is eventually collected by her father, Tiagin, from whom her mother had long been separated, and taken to live with Liubov Ivanovna, his new wife, and her daughter, Dasha’s half sister Sonia. Even in the midst of her tragedy, Dasha reflects: ”What if the most terrible thing in her life had already happened? What if there could never be anything so terrible again?” Looking inward like this gives her ”a strange sensation . . . a sensation of freedom, self-confidence, self-containment, a sensation of being ready for anything.”

Perhaps because of this experience of violence, Dasha is granted an equilibrium and an equanimity that her sisters can only dream of. Hers is a soothing, harmonious presence; indeed, her fiance will note that ”especially in her presence, there was peace, and above all, peace with himself.” With this gift, however, comes a question of responsibility: Dasha must determine whether she is destined for a special fate (how could she not be, given such a history?) or whether her lot is simply to accept the comforts of a bourgeois family and lavish her gifts, more modestly, upon them.

Her youngest sister, Elizaveita, nicknamed Zai, is only six months old when Dasha is reclaimed by their father, and does not join the Tiagins in Paris until she is a teenager. Her mother, Dumontelle, was an actress and friend of Boiko’s (it was he who raised her); her father, of course, is Tiagin. Zai and Dasha form a strong bond, and Zai alone is aware of the extent of Dasha’s healing powers. Her own gifts are more mercurial and dramatic: she writes poetry, then turns to the stage (where she meets her first lover) and eventually becomes a reader of literature.

Early in the book, when traveling on the train to Paris, Zai tells a man: ”There are two kinds of people. Some are like insects. They are half transparent, you can barely see them, they tremble in the light. The others are like carpenter’s nails, you can’t break them with a hammer no matter how hard you try.” She herself, she confides, is more like an insect; and the journey of her young adulthood is to try to shuck off her fear, to reach the state where she can say, as she does when in love: ”I’m happy. I’m free. I’m a human being, not a trembling insect.”

Only the middle sister, Sonia — the child of Tiagin and Liubov Ivanovna — is given direct voice in the novel, in the form of her diaries. Very beautiful, Sonia is also a negative vortex: she ruins Dasha’s great love affair and has a hand in souring Zai’s. She, who has never had friends, seeks the harmony that comes so naturally to Dasha, although she dismisses her sister as superficial. She recognizes her own ”thirst for completeness and wholeness,” but becomes increasingly aware that this thirst cannot be quenched. ”There is no capital-T Truth,” she announces. ”Our whole lives are spent anticipating — and surviving — the ‘moment of horror.’ ” ”Life is lonely, not death,” she concludes; ”choosing one’s end means being free and connected — life means being disconnected.”

Sonia’s sense of doom is profoundly Dostoyevskian; hers is a growing nihilism from which there can be no escape. At the very end of the novel, she even renounces literature: ”Books seemed to have a hint of dishonesty, of playing games. You couldn’t just say, Ivanov put a bullet into his head, you had to surround the action with clouds that now and again sailed across the moon or a locomotive moaning in the distance or occasional dripping from the kitchen faucet. . . . But sometimes you don’t feel like knowing that.”

In ”Cape of Storms,” Berberova seems to share some of Sonia’s frustration with the external mechanics of fiction. Her unflinching insistence on the three women’s interiority — and the inevitable triangulation of their metaphysical journeys — gives the narrative a dense and uneasy aspect. It is sometimes difficult to gauge the passage of time or to sense the quotidian rhythms of the Tiagins’ lives. With its occasionally turgid abstraction, ”Cape of Storms” never achieves the moving lucidity of ”The Ladies From St. Petersburg.” But this is also a book that glimpses great truths and asks the most vital questions. Like Dostoyevsky’s novel ”The Possessed,” it rewards the dedicated reader with a visceral ache of recognition and a renewed sense of what really matters. – Claire Messud, New York Times, January 9, 2000


Originally published in 1951 as a serial in Novyi Zhurnal, . . . Berberova’s epic novel is a dark Little Women, a feminine Brothers Karamazov. Three half-sisters, each of whom emigrated from the Soviet Union to France at various times to live with their father Tiagin, an ex-colonel in the Russian army, take turns describing their lives in Paris on the brink of WWII. Dasha, who as a small girl saw her mother brutally murdered by Bolsheviks, cuts short a potentially mystical destiny by marrying a dull banker. The beautiful Sonia buries herself alive with cynicism and contempt. Zai, the youngest, is the most hopeful of the bunch, confusedly waffling between passions for boyfriends, family members, poetry and acting. As explained in the book’s epigraph, the title refers to the Cape of Good Hope, discovered in 1486 by Bartholomeu Dias; Dias called it the Cape of Storms because he failed to sail around it. Similarly, the sisters never manage to realize or even fully articulate their respective dreams. Berberova, herself an migr who was best known in her lifetime for her memoirs and criticism and recognized posthumously for The Ladies of St. Petersburg and The Book of Happiness, works of fiction also translated by Schwartz, excels at switching between voices and moods. Each woman’s personality is artfully distinguished, the existential odes to solitude leavened with doses of pointed humor. At one point, just after Sonia decides, "I had nothing in common with this city, this country, this continent, this planet, and never would," she wonders, "Should I have a glass of wine in the corner caf … Or should I order coffee?" Available in English for the first time, this is a work of high literary merit. – Publishers Weekly, 1999


The Cape of Storms, as Nina Berberova’s epigraph reminds us, is also known as the Cape of Good Hope–and in this aptly named novel of émigré Russian life, both hope and storms abound in almost equal measure. The book follows three half sisters as they pass from the terrors of revolutionary Russia to the quieter but no less perplexing environs of pre-World War II Paris. Dasha, Sonia, and Zai are neither quite Russian nor quite French. Bereft of both country and creed, they struggle to reconcile themselves with a world come loose from its moorings–and doing so means wrestling with some ancient and difficult dilemmas. What is freedom? What is harmony? Is there any such thing as absolute truth? Or, as Sonia puts it in her last, desperate hours: "Who is to blame? What is to be done?" She echoes, of course, the famous questions posed by Herzen and Chernyshevsky respectively, questions that Russian thinkers have visited and revisited ever since.

The book begins with gentle Dasha, the eldest, who preserves an unrufflable poise even after witnessing her own mother’s murder. Like Vera, the heroine of Berberova’s The Book of Happiness, Dasha’s "dizzying equilibrium" keeps her in constant tune with the world around her. That’s in contrast to beautiful, chilly Sonia, who lives only for ideas, doesn’t care about the patches in her dress, and dreams obsessively of unity, harmony, and "totalitarian happiness"–all things that come naturally to Dasha, who Sonia both scorns and envies: "Well-balanced human beings! They all end up the same way: they get fat and die surrounded by grandchildren." Somewhere between the two extremes is trembling little Zai, who believes that all Russians are either insects or nails, either victims or oppressors. In Paris, she discovers that there is enough bread for everyone, writes fanciful poems about washing the kitchen floor, dabbles in acting, and tries earnestly to learn how to live as a free being.

This sort of expertly nuanced characterization almost takes the place of narrative in Cape of Storms. It’s not that the novel is without external plot; on the contrary, it boasts a miraculous healing, a marriage of convenience, and a suicide, as well as several love affairs that end in disillusionment or betrayal. Yet most of these stormy events occur almost off-stage. Berberova is after something quite different than melodrama: that is, the record of three consciousnesses attempting to locate themselves in physical as well as philosophical exile, one failing, one settling for the unexamined life, and one sinking back into fear. Her style throughout is elliptical, unsentimental, simple yet fiercely personal–the sort of thing Chekhov might write if he had lived separated from everything that he loved. "All dualism is painful for me," Berberova wrote in her autobiography, The Italics Are Mine. "What is it really, this world? And what am I in it? Am I at one with it? Does it agree with me the way I am? Or could it be that only by perishing can I merge with it?" Sonia muses, and sad to say, we think we know the answer. Elegantly written and masterfully translated by Marian Schwartz, Cape of Storms is further proof that Berberova’s talent was overlooked for too long. –Mary Park, Review

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