The Ladies from St. Petersburg

clip image002 thumb7 The Ladies from St. Petersburg, by Nina BerberovaThe Ladies from St. Petersburg
By Nina Berberova
Translated by Marian Schwartz
New Directions, 1998; paperback ed., 2000

Selected by The New York Times as one of the Best Books of 1998, now available as a ND paperbook. Writing with a resonating clarity, unsentimental yet full of human sympathy., Nina Berberova stands as one of the treasures of twentieth century literature and the continuance of the great Russian tradition.The Ladies from St. Petersburg contains three novellas which chronologically paint a picture of the dawn of the Russian revolution, the flight from its turmoil, and the plight of an exile in a new and foreign place all of which Berberova knew from her own personal experience. In the title story the protagonists are taking a vacation, unaware that their lives are about to be irrevocably changed. In "Zoya Andreyevna," an elegant, privileged woman, in headlong flight, falls ill among unfriendly strangers who resent her wealth and position even though she does not flaunt it. In "The Big City," an emigrant lands in a surreal New York, a place that is not yet, and may never be, his home.


“To Russia, Without Love”

The title novella in this slender collection ends with two words: “Oh, Russia!” It takes only 45 pages to get to this sigh, an expedited journey that would normally take despairing Russian writers (Gogol, for example) hundreds more. For this we may credit the lucidity of Nina Berberova’s prose and the deftness of her characterizations, qualities that are evident throughout her work.

Berberova, who was born in St. Petersburg in 1901 and fled Russia in 1922, is best known in America for her autobiography, “The Italics Are Mine” (1969). She went on to have three volumes of her fiction published in English (much more of her work has appeared in French) before she died in 1993, a professor emeritus at Princeton University. “The Ladies from St. Petersburg” is the fourth book of her work to be translated.

Closely similar in theme and story line, two of these three novellas were first published in Paris in 1927. In each, a well-to-do Russian woman on the run from revolutionary turmoil falls ill among unsympathetic countrymen. Berberova’s characters prove themselves to be vain and small-minded, even selfish and cruel. “Oh, Russia!” is pronounced dry-eyed. The author never romanticizes her homeland.

The distinguishing virtue of Berberova’s work is the manipulation of visual images. Born two years after Vladimir Nabokov, whom she befriended in Paris, Berberova shares Nabokov’s sensitive attention to the protean qualities of color and shadow. Thus she writes of a sunset, as experienced by a man in an uncurtained apartment: “The red needle of a distant skyscraper was reflected in the sink, and a blue flame fell on the face of my watch. Something orange played with the door lock, and the ceiling suddenly looked as if it had been sliced by a long ray. Something flickered in the corner. I didn’t guess right away that these were the buttons on my jacket, which I had dropped on the chair.”

In this exquisite passage (which goes on, to the reader’s deepening pleasure), Berberova was clearly influenced by Andrei Bely. The weird, rich imagery of Bely’s 1913 novel, “Petersburg,” inspired a generation of Russian poets and writers who would be unable to act upon that inspiration in their own country. In Berberova’s work, as in Bely’s and Nabokov’s, the physical world melts against the screen of vision; stationary objects suddenly make use of the verbs of motion. In the title story, Berberova works this magic upon the flight of crows above the countryside:

“Rooks landed on the cart occasionally and then sketched something incomprehensible and instantly forgotten across the puffy sky. From time to time the blunt thatched roofs of huts poked up near the distant line of the horizon. Solitary birches by the sides of the road curled up against the weak, damp wind.”

The third novella in this collection, “The Big City,” was written in 1952 and demonstrates the growth of abstraction and absurdity in Berberova’s fiction. It too is about flight and exile, but it’s set in an unnamed city, with an unnamed immigrant who takes up residence on the top floor of a strange, anonymous building: “The unfamiliar mirage all around me seemed to share nothing whatever in common with my entire life and destiny so far.”

The narrator is proved wrong in this assumption, though not before embarking on a surreal adventure—in search of turpentine with which to clean his paint-spattered trousers. He eventually makes a friend in a neighboring apartment, and through his friend’s mysterious binoculars sees his own past lighted in the windows of the city’s other skyscrapers; he has discovered “that every person brings whatever he can to this big city.” The unnamed city, says the story’s translator, Marian Schwartz, is indisputably New York. Berberova’s view of it ends not with a lament but with an epiphany: the exile has found a home.

Schwartz, Berberova’s longtime friend and translator, has written an affecting introduction to this volume, which she has translated with care and a suitable transparency. “The Ladies from St. Petersburg” is a very slight book, but it should add to readers’ respect for Berberova and, as Schwartz puts it, for “the force of her art, her intellect and her will.” – Ken Kalfus, New York Times, November 1, 1998


Berberova wrote within the nineteenth-century literary tradition….Her language is classical and lyrical. Her images, such as the description of the leaking coffin in The Ladies from St. Petersburg, are unforgettable….Common to all three main characters is a sense of rootlessness and a longing for stability. Berberova depicts their suffering with lyrical intensity. — Bonnie Marshall, World Literature Today


The three novellas in this slim but potent collection explore the psychic price of immigration and the rigors of enduring hardship alone. Russian émigré Berberova (1901-1993) first moved to France in the 1920s, then settled in the U.S. in the 1950s, where she taught at Princeton University. The first two tales, written in 1927, recall Russia’s tumultuous pre-Revolutionary period. In the title story–the most powerful of the three–a young woman is left to make her mother’s funeral arrangements at an inn deep in the country. When she returns many years later, the new government has erased all evidence of the entire village. Berberova’s matter-of-fact tone and descriptions of the stark surroundings create a dark current of tension. The title character of "Zoya Andreyevna" struggles with her decision to live in a rooming house in an unknown city. As a middle-class woman who has divorced her husband, apparently for political reasons, she is scorned by her somewhat less-respectable roommates. In the experimental "The Big City," which was written shortly after Berberova’s arrival in New York, as the narrator explores his new, monstrous apartment building, he is presented with glimpses of this country’s opportunities, literally, with every door he opens and every window he peers through. Berberova describes the loneliness of the immigrant without sentimentality; once thrown into this transitional world, her characters resign themselves to the fight to stay alive. Schwartz’s fine translation should help acquaint a larger audience with this writer, best known for her earlier works about life in Paris, including The Accompanist (which was turned into a film), The Tattered Cloak and Other Novels and her biography, Aleksandr Blok: A Life. – Publishers Weekly, October, 1998


An elegant voice from the past speaks lucidly in three fine long stories, all written decades ago by the late expatriate Russian author (1901-93) of The Accompanist (1988), The Tattered Cloak (1991), and many other works of fiction (most as yet untranslated into English). Berberova lived through the 1917 Revolution, then emigrated to Paris, and later (in 1950) to the U.S., where she would become a respected professor at Princeton. Her own experiences are perhaps most clearly reflected in the last of this volume’s stories, ‘The Big City’ (1952), which renders a Russian émigré’s uneasy accommodation to his huge New York City apartment building as a hallucinatory clash of bizarre images, mingled with recurring memories of a dangerous childhood accident. The earlier ‘Zoya Andreyevna’ (1927) records the emotional vacillations of an ‘independent’ Russian woman who has left her husband, then lost her lover to the army, as she suffers the contempt of fellow boarders in a rundown rooming house. The story is rather marred by too much historical summary (its period is immediately pre-revolutionary) and needless statement of its themes; still, the manner in which Zoya Andreyevna’s loneliness and self-consciousness build to the brink of dementia is very nearly Chekhovian. Better still is the superb title piece, in which a mother’s and daughter’s vacation on the eve of the Revolution is shattered by the former’s sudden death and unavoidable burial far from home. Berberova’s point is this sheltered family’s slowness to comprehend the reality of the changes shaking their country—a point vividly underscored when the daughter, Margarita, returning years later (with her own young daughter) to reclaim her mother’s body, finds in place of the rustic town she had remembered a landscape altered beyond recognition, and her mother’s grave indistinguishable from many equally anonymous others. Moving and memorable stories, beautifully translated by Marian Schwartz. Here’s hoping she’s at work on more of Berberova’s fiction. – Kirkus Review

Three poignant glimpses into a not-very-far past era, an unadorned and yet elegant hell. -– Marilis Hornidge, Courier-Gazette

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