The Book of Happiness

clip image002 thumb6 The Book of Happiness, by Nina BerberovaThe Book of Happiness
By Nina Berberova
Translated by Marian Schwartz
New Directions, 1999

An outstanding novel about a young Russian woman’s life in exile after the Russian Revolution. The Book of Happiness is one of the outstanding novels the great Russian writer Nina Berberova wrote during the years she lived in Paris, and the most autobiographical. "All Berberova’s characters live raw, unfurnished lives, in poverty, on the edge of cities, with little sense of belonging—except in moments of epiphany—to their time and in life itself" (The Observer). Such a character is Vera, the protagonist of The Book of Happiness. At the novel’s opening, Vera is summoned to the scene of a suicide, that of her childhood companion, Sam Adler, whose family left Russia in the early days of the revolution and whom Vera has not seen in many years. His death reduces Vera to a flood of tears and memories of the times before Sam’s departure, and thoughts about how her life has gone since—her move to Paris where she lives tied to a brilliant but demanding invalid husband. Berberova spins the story with a wonderful unsentimental poignancy, making it a beautiful testament to the indestructibility of happiness.


“Three Affairs to Remember”

Happiness doesn’t tend to be the subject of interesting fiction. Even though most of Western literature (and philosophy) has been about the relationship between justice and happiness or knowledge and happiness or mortality and happiness, convincing descriptions of happy people are surprisingly hard to come by, or unsurprisingly banal. So a book of happiness — let alone ”The Book of Happiness,” Marian Schwartz’s translation of Nina Berberova’s wonderful novel about one woman’s three love affairs — seems no more plausible than a life of happiness. No more plausible, yet no less intriguing once we realize that the author is serious, but not solemn or sentimental, about her subject. After we read ”The Book of Happiness,” our ordinary wish to be happy no longer seems like the hidden tyranny of our lives.

One of the many remarkable things about Berberova’s novel is that its title — like the book itself — is not intended to be ironic. Here there is no need to take refuge in that kind of knowingness. Yet Berberova, who wrote this pellucid narrative in Paris after leaving revolutionary St. Petersburg, never assumes that the quest for happiness is, in itself, interesting. Rather, she is convinced that there is nothing duller — nothing less congenial, in fact or fiction — than a happy person.

Like Turgenev and Chekhov, of whom she is the rightful heir, Berberova (who died in 1993) is uncannily shrewd about romance, about its bright promise, without making her characters’ real satisfactions seem trite. ”Don’t you have any regard for me at all?” the heroine’s suitor asks toward the end of the book. ”Me?” she replies. ”I adore you. Especially when you lie. You inspire me. Ask me something else.” Read ironically — read as dialogue in a contemporary novel — this would sound smart and blandly sharp. But read in the spirit (and the context) of this particular book — and the truth of this book is, above all, in its tone of passionate candor — it is at once unmocking of people’s wish to get past their naïveté and generous in the kinds of freedom it wants to offer.

Vera, the heroine, who can ”feel a happiness like suffocation,” yearns for another kind of happiness, one that will simply make her content. She knows happiness will be real only when it ceases to be a torment, when ecstasy is not incompatible with ordinariness. ”I’ve completely forgotten how to envy or want,” she says to her lover at the happy ending of the book. This is not some piece of whimsical Buddhist wisdom, some enlightened finale to her tortuous quest. Instead, it expresses a plainer truth: wanting and envying can be like skills you have no further use for. This realization is not Vera’s aim; it’s just what has happened to her in loving this particular man. So ”The Book of Happiness” is a book about what can happen to people, not about the nobility (or lack of nobility) of their projects. Because Vera doesn’t want to be remarkable, remarkable things can happen to her.

The novel is set in the years before and after the Russian Revolution, its movement shaped by the creeping deprivations of the young Vera’s family and her exile with a dying husband in Paris. But the Revolution and her journeys — which are made hauntingly vivid by being so obliquely described — are merely the frame for a triptych of romantic attachments. First there is Vera’s childhood love for Sam, a child prodigy violinist who, many years later, kills himself in a Paris hotel; then her marriage to Alexander, an invalid whom she nurses until his death; and, finally, her love for Karelov, a married man with whom she will have a child.

Suicide, genius, illness, exile and rapture are, of course, all staples of the great Russian fiction of the 19th century. And it is in this tradition (which is a tradition, above all, of extraordinary characters, of people with qualities) that Vera takes her place. Berberova responds to her tradition in a unique way, by making Vera a Russian heroine who is passionate without sentimentality — or derangement. Without any obvious ideological intent, Berberova has created in Vera the anti-type of the so-called hysterical woman. And this means that the men she is drawn to can love her without needing her to provide much in the way of female mystique.

If the heroes of Dostoyevsky’s novels are always men on the verge of turning into hysterical women — or trying not to, usually by killing someone — Berberova’s male characters are unseduced by melodrama. They have a different kind of glamour: the glamour of being plain, of being straightforward in their idealism. ”I would like to be proud of my happiness,” Karelov says to Vera. ”I don’t want ‘peace’ or ‘freedom.’ I want happiness itself.” In her intent but understated reworking of Russia’s great literary themes, in her wholly successful attempt to write a contemporary version of a 19th-century novel, Berberova has seen something very clearly: that melodrama is born of shame. And what she brings to the Russian novel is the fact that she (and her main characters) are not overly impressed by shame.

So when Vera is distraught in this novel — and ”The Book of Happiness” is not only, perhaps inevitably, full of tears, it is also unusually interesting about the ways people cry — her anguish has a terrible immediacy. It is not in Vera’s nature to be frantic. Early in the novel, after she learns that Sam, her childhood love, has killed himself, Vera’s happiness is at risk. ”But we have to keep on, we have to keep on,” she tells herself when she awakens, terror-stricken, in the night, ”we have to keep on with this criminal, this iron love of life, for we have nothing else.” She consoles herself by remembering that ”the flowers outside the florist’s promised such a tremendous and happy life.” Vera senses that to love life is a kind of transgression; yet it is an irresistible one. She can’t ignore the florist’s flowers, the unavoidable beauty of the world, and this is what makes her a new kind of heroine. For Vera, despair becomes a form of inattention.

Perhaps, then, it is not incidental that ”The Book of Happiness” is wonderfully attentive, particularly to the odd, gratuitous ways that love affairs begin, and that the only endings it takes seriously are deaths. In this novel, people are allowed to speak ingenuously about the things that matter to them. And even though, as one of the characters remarks, ”Russia is a very sad country,” neither sadness nor tragedy is used by the book’s heroine (or its author) as a refuge from happiness. – Adam Phillips, New York Times, July 25, 1999


Joy, at least by popular opinion, does not generally make for good reading. After all, as Tolstoy once quipped, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." How fitting that another Russian should prove him wrong–that happiness, when it comes to this novel’s long-suffering heroine, should prove as unique, as variable, as interesting as the most melodramatic unhappiness.

Nina Berberova is perhaps one of happiness’ more unlikely champions. She herself led the bittersweet life of an émigré, with all its loneliness, poverty, and loss. Her fictions–many of which are only now finding English translations–are beautifully, inventively written, if somewhat chilly to the touch. What a pleasure, then, to find a heroine as brimming with life as Vera of The Book of Happiness. Unsentimental, possessed of a "dizzying equilibrium," Vera is a breath of fresh air for those used to the feverish, pawnbroker-murdering brand of Russian protagonist. Her story is told in three parts, each of which corresponds to a love of her life. In the first, the suicide of her oldest friend sends Vera spinning through memories of her idyllic childhood; in the second, she relives her marriage to a tyrannical invalid and their emigration to Paris. In the third–well, suffice it to say there’s a happy ending. Very happy, and also good reading.

Berberova writes with both great feeling and great restraint. Take, for instance, the invalid’s description of falling in love: "Just imagine someone who is dying of life. On his forehead is ice, on his chest a bag of oxygen, his hand in someone’s dear hand. And here it all is, in you: the ice, the oxygen, and the hand." His love is the opposite of Vera’s: she loves not for hysterical transports, but for the simplest and most natural of reasons. What she wants, she decides is "not ‘peace’ or ‘freedom’ but happiness, the most genuine and impossible happiness"–a state of mind as difficult to find on the page as it is in real life. In this elegant translation by Marian Schwartz, Berberova comes as close as humanly possible to reproducing the sensation of joy. — Mary Park, Review


Russian émigré writer Berberova, who died in 1993, is known primarily for her memoirs and her criticism. Marian Schwartz, the translator of this and previous works, helps to round out the picture with this novel, giving voice to Berberova’s finely tuned, tersely evocative fiction. The heroine, Vera, is much like Berberova describes herself in her autobiography: a woman with a cool head in the hothouse world of Russian émigrés’ Europe in the 1920s. Immediately signaling the ironic title, the narrative begins with a suicide. Sam Adler, once a musical prodigy, shoots himself in a hotel room in Paris. A hotel clerk calls Vera, to whom he has left a note: "Life tricked me… and I’m surrendering with honor before it’s too late." By this Lubitsch-like conceit we then move wholly into Vera’s existence. Sam is her childhood friend, and his death brings up memories of prerevolutionary St. Petersburg. Berberova vividly evokes the flight of the upper classes when the revolution strikes; how the crammed opulence of those Petersburg mansions blocks the exits. Vera, who is similarly privileged, stays, while Sam’s family emigrates to America. There, he fails to find the successful career he expected; years later, he returns to Paris to die. Meanwhile, Vera meets the sickly but charismatic Alexander Albertovich, who takes her from the Soviet Union to Paris. Albertovich is reminiscent of Berberova’s real-life lover, Khodasaevich. He drowns Vera’s youth in his own lingering death, so that when he dies, Vera feels released. She travels to Nice and embarks on love affairs, one of which sends her fleeing back to Paris with her ex-lover and his ex-wife on her heels. Berberova makes Vera’s inner life so opaque that the reasons why Vera seems repeatedly to define herself in terms of sickly men remains enigmatic. Yet this book is an important addition to émigré literature, which, as we are discovering, is much more than just Nabokov. – Publishers Weekly, April 1999


As Berberova demonstrates in this deftly nuanced novel, passive Russian happiness has at least two virtues that its more active American cousin lacks. Memory must embrace the past in its entirely, indiscriminately, for otherwise a person might fail to note the various threads patterning former happiness. Even more important, those desiring happiness must understand each moment to be pregnant with the possibility of its arrival. As limpidly preserved by Marian Schwartz’s translation, Berberova’s is a prose of small gestures, pregnant moments, and memories polished bright as sea pebbles by the constant tumbling of thought. Thus the real beauty of Berberova’s sweet watercolor of a novel emerges only at the book’s end. – The Washington Post

A deftly nuanced novel. — Washington Post Book World


In the past decade, American readers have with the publication of "The Ladies from St. Petersburg," been graced with her fiction (translated with precision and elegance by Marian Schwartz). Berberova is a wondrous writer. A master of the long short story, she has been compared with Turgenev and Chekhov. And properly so–her lyricism, emotional wisdom and understatement bring even her shorter stories to full, novelistic life. Because many of her characters are deracinated women of sophistication and gentility, she has also been compared to Jean Rhys. Berberova’s greatest asset is her control, the balance she achieves between restraint and enthusiasm. She writes about the harsh Russian winters with a delicacy that is chilling. She writes about the joy and ambitiousness of lucky youth as it should be written about–ecstatically. And she writes about sex with an uncommon combination of sensitivity, knowingness, and courage. — Boston Book Review, April 1999


Berberova evokes Czarist Russia’s feckless exiles with so deft a touch, she seems to be writing memoirs of other selves whose loss she only half regrets. Yet while their impression remains, she evokes a wistfulness as charming as it is ambivalent. – Michael Pinker, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring 2000

[A] memorable novel that will certainly enhance the posthumous reputation of Nina Berberova. Bryan Aubrey, Magill’s Literary Annual 2000

Berberova’s self-possession — even her prose style has the honed elegance of finely tempered steel and taut lineage — is admirable. — Confrontation, Winter/Spring 2000

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