A New York Times Notable Book of 1991
The greatest collection by one of the great Russian writers is now back in print. First published in Europe in the 1930s and ’40s, these searing, evocative stories by the late émigré writer Nina Berberova (1901-1993) are portraits of the lives of Russian exiles in Paris on the eve of World War II. The protagonists range from housekeepers and waiters to shabby-genteel aristocrats and intellectuals—but all are united in a haunting displacement from their pasts, and all share a troubling uncertainty about the future.
A splendid, tragically beautiful writer capable of drawing unforgettable characters … sublime. — Los Angeles Times, July 14, 1991
First rate…. These stories are very much of their time, but the years haven’t tarnished them… — Newsweek, July 15, 1991
Haunting … as graceful and subtle as Chekhov. — Anne Tyler, New Republic
"Their Corsets Were Stuffed with Bank Notes"
The literature of exile is the most vivid testimony to the distresses of this century. It is the fiction of the dispossessed, the legacy of the shadow lives that trail in the wake of history. One writer who has charted this path is Nina Berberova, an 89-year-old Russian émigré who has lived in the United States since 1950. Her fiction, originally published in Europe from the late 1930′s to the 1950′s, has recently been reissued in France and Britain; now, in a graceful translation by Marian Schwartz, more of it is appearing in America.
Five of the six novellas or long stories—call them what you will—in "The Tattered Cloak" are brilliantly impressionistic evocations of the incestuous, impoverished and courageous life of the Russian enclave in Paris in the period before and during World War II. The final story, "In Memory of Schliemann," is a surreal and futuristic allegory set, apparently, in postwar America. It does not come off, and is so different in style and effect from the earlier work that one is bound to see Nina Berberova as one of those strange and miraculous writers who are, in a sense, the creation of the events to which they bear witness. Her gift is to reflect circumstance.
There is neither self-indulgence nor sentiment in her fiction. The people of whom she writes—the former White Russian officers eking out an existence as waiters or warehousemen, the female servants with childhood memories of St. Petersburg and Moscow—are presented not as victims but as ordinary, fallible human beings. Several of them are positively disagreeable. The protagonist of "Astashev in Paris," for example, is a parasitic young man who preys emotionally on both his mother and his stepmother, flitting between them as between wife and mistress. He makes a living selling life insurance, a profession that provides a deft and inspired satire on these ruined lives: "What I want is someone to insure me against life," exclaims a potential client. The story is a fine study of heartlessness, its impact stemming from the detached narration in which people are left to condemn themselves by words and actions, with just the occasional sparkling phrase to nail a personality (Astashev "jiggling the pale fat of his baby cheeks as he walked").
Tania, of "The Waiter and the Slut," is also pretty unprepossessing. But here the presentation of selfishness and unscrupulousness is underpinned by a sense of stoical tenacity. The reader is left feeling revulsion, but also a grudging admiration. As a young woman, Tania ruins her sister’s life by stealing her fiancé. Her own ensuing history is one of drift and disillusion as her marriage disintegrates; without talent or vocation, she exists by attaching herself to men until at last she is washed up in a Paris garret, all her resources gone, including youth and good looks. She too is a parasite; but what commands our respect is her inextinguishable will to survive.
On the brink of destitution, Tania hovers between two plans: spending her last francs on a gun with which to commit suicide or getting her hair done, dressing up and going out to a good restaurant. She chooses the second, of course, and falls in not, as she had hoped, with a rich protector but with a seedy old waiter, a fellow exile. The resolution of the story doesn’t quite live up to its promise, but it offers an emotive picture of the tarnished lives of dispossessed young women, trailing around Europe in the years between the two world wars, initially with their corsets stuffed with bank notes, ending up as nursemaids and laundresses, seeking comfort in the claustrophobic friendships that are all that is left to them of their privileged past.
The choice of title story in a collection is always a quirky editorial matter. In this instance, "The Tattered Cloak" seems to me a comparatively unsuccessful offering—a rambling tale that tries to cover too great a range both in time and in space and ends up demonstrating Nina Berberova’s weakness, which is a failure to come to grips with fictional structure. But, that being said, there are riches once again in the story’s presentation of émigré life, done with a marriage of humor and matter-of-fact depiction of dire circumstances that perfectly reflects the attitudes of the characters.
The book opens with a brief oddity, "The Resurrection of Mozart," a sort of ghost story in which a mysterious figure—"I’m not a soldier, I’m a civilian. A musician"—billets himself with a Russian family in a country village near Paris in June of 1940, as the whole landscape teems with refugees fleeing the approaching Germans. It is a strangely opaque piece, one that does not entirely work, and yet as haunting as anything in this remarkable collection. It nicely sets the scene, sharpening the reader’s response to this writer whose talent has so clearly fed upon the malevolence of fate. — Penelope Lively, New York Times, June 21, 1991
"A Russian Émigré World of Dreams and Griefs"
The six short "novels"—or longish short stories—in this dazzling collection by Nina Berberova were first published during the 1930′s and 40′s in Europe. Born in St. Petersburg in 1901, Ms. Berberova had initially welcomed the Revolution, but in 1922, as the persecution of intellectuals accelerated, she fled to Paris with her lover, the poet Vladislav Khodassevitch. There, and in Berlin, she became part of the community of Russian émigrés, struggling to invent new lives for themselves far from home.
Her stories conjure up that émigré world with such artistry and emotional precision that the reader can only marvel that it took so long for her works to be made available in America, and feel gratitude for their current publication.
Whether they are fading courtesans, dronelike clerks or mousy servants, the people in Ms. Berberova’s stories all divide their lives into an after and a before: their exile marks a watershed from which they measure their subsequent lives. Some of them will experience a second watershed as well, in the form of World War II, which will undermine their few remaining shreds of security and leave them with an even greater sense of dislocation.
Indeed, the characters in "The Tattered Cloak and Other Stories" find themselves unable to escape the past, either nostalgically recalling their youthful hopes and dreams, or dwelling sadly upon lost opportunities and missed connections. In "The Resurrection of Mozart," a group of expatriates in wartime France reminisce about happier days as they fearfully await the German advance on Paris. In the title story, a laundress recalls her childhood in Russia with her beloved sister, who seemingly escaped her family’s emotionally attenuated existence by marrying an ambitious poet. And in "The Black Pestilence," a middle-aged clerk, who continues to mourn the death of his beloved wife, moves from Russia to Paris to New York to Chicago, constantly running away from the possibility of any further romantic involvements.
Cut off from their families and hard-pressed to make enough money to pay the rent, these people inhabit a dull, gray world of diminished expectations. Though some of them still "search for grandeur," still thirst "for wisdom, love and truth," they find no way of reconciling their dreams with the reality of their shabby surroundings. Bit by bit, they relinquish their hopes of romance and success, and in time, many of them also forfeit their dignity and their pride.
In "The Waiter and the Slut," Tania, the daughter of a St. Petersburg bureaucrat, winds up in Paris, where her husband dies in an insane asylum and she finds herself alone and penniless. It’s not long before she is reduced—like a Jean Rhys heroine—to subsisting on meals paid for by male admirers. As she grows older, her admirers, too, grow seedier and more pathetic, and she soon finds herself trapped in a desperate romance with a waiter—a romance that will culminate, tragically, in a terrible act of violence.
In fact this volume is filled with melodramatic events: A self-absorbed cad carelessly seduces a vulnerable spinster, who proceeds to kill herself in shame; an unhappy woman fantasizes about stealing her sister’s husband; another despairing woman tries to stage the murder of her lover, in emulation of the shocking stories she’s read in the local tabloids. Though operatic in intensity, these events are related with the delicacy of a string quartet, and they never feel implausible or extreme; rather, they feel like the inevitable outcome of that horrible spiral of emotions that turns hope into disappointment, expectancy into loss.
"Only we ourselves changed," says one character. "Father’s sister Varvara, who had sent for us and who seemed at first a fresh, 40-year-old woman who never lacked either work or a lover, in those years became an old woman, still doing daywork, going to other people’s kitchens to wash dishes or to mop floors. Her friends still came by in the evenings as they always had, but her lieutenants and captains were not as bold or assiduously groomed and pomaded as they had once been. No, they were old and meek, like Varvara herself, and they had the same big rough worker’s hands."
Like Chekhov, Ms. Berberova has that rare ability to talk about ordinary people’s private dreams and griefs in simple, direct language that allows the reader nearly complete access to their hearts. At once objective and sympathetic, she sees the widening gaps that time—several decades or a single moment—can open up between a character’s vision of himself and the facts of his day-to-day life; and she traces that process of disillusionment with such candor and compassion that the reader comes away with an understanding of both her people’s small, petty desires and their larger yearnings after meaning and transcendence.
Long overdue in America, this collection of stories deserves a wide and appreciative audience, while Ms. Berberova herself deserves recognition as one of the most captivating Russian writers alive today. — Michiko Kakutani, New York Times, 1991
In 1969 Nina Berberova published the American translation of her autobiography, The Italics are Mine. When Tatyana Tolstaya was interviewed about it the other day she said: ‘I don’t know her personally, but she is maybe the strongest personality I have ever felt in a book. This personality tries to convince me of the image she creates, but it doesn’t. I feel she creates an image which is not truthful, and I recognize her right to do that. I feel she’s quite different, a mysterious personality strong enough to create an image that works, but for me the real personality behind all that is much more interesting than the person she wants us to believe in.’ Mystery and strength are alluring, so this admiring but subliminally catty response is more of a turn-on than any blurb could be. — Gabriele Annan, New York Review of Books, September 26, 1991
Nina Berberova’s (1901-1993) The Tattered Cloak, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz, collects six stories dealing with Russian exiles of various backgrounds living in Paris just before World War II. "The Resurrection of Mozart" focuses on a woman anxiously awaiting her husband’s return home as she juggles French soldiers, her disabled son and a mysterious vagrant musician. The title story is narrated by Sasha, who moves from Petersburg to Paris with her father and for years is haunted by the memory of her older sister. Berberova has been compared to Chekhov, and these stories glow with a quiet intensity. — Publishers Weekly, June 26, 1991
Nina Berberova’s THE TATTERED CLOAK AND OTHER STORIES is a collection by arguably one of the best of the Russian writers from the early part of the last century. The experience of Russian émigrés in Paris is a classic story of displacement and future shock, after the ravages of war and a bad economy sent families rushing towards the heart of the Western world. Berberova could very well be telling her own story, hidden amongst the tales of lowly blue-collar workers and the "shabby genteel" of the aristocracy that doesn’t know what to make of the brave new world that is building its foundations.
"The world is going to hell, but among it all a blessed light is burning quietly for me — not from the star, which went out a long time ago, but from a new source, like a fog filled with the trembling light of stars." In gentle phrases and with the light touch of a truly enlightened heart, Berberova gives us an across-the-board look at how the world was changing and affecting all of her fellow Russians during the difficult times of the ’30s and ’40s. Given what our nation has lived through since that time, American readers will certainly empathize with the hardships of these people that were searching for ways to stay alive and perhaps even eke out a little enjoyment for themselves. It is in their heartache, their search for a new life, that Berberova enacts her timeless compassion, and each story brings us closer to the heart of the immigrant experience from the easy perspective of seven decades of historical progression.
Berberova came to the U. S. in 1951 with $75 in her pocket. An instructor at Yale and later at Princeton, she was honored as a Chevalier of the French Order of Arts and Letters before she died. Like her countryman, Chekov, Berberova employs the direct and intellectual perceptions of a natural writer with the heart of a renegade, and in so doing, THE TATTERED CLOAK can find a home amongst the immigrant classics of our generation and those that came before us. — Jana Siciliano, Bookreporter.com
The story proves to be a work of breathtaking artistic unity. Details that seemed random and incoherent fall into place as elements of an intricate design…If a story is to seem at all original…its order must somehow be disguised, known only in retrospect, and those laws of necessity governing the function of detail must be masked. — "Three Journeys, Anton Chekov on the Road," Janet Malcolm, The New Yorker, October 29, 2001
There are some that have it, but there are most that don’t. How many short story writers know how to weave the whole together so that there is a marriage of symbols and rhythm and choice-of-words of such quality that those of us who have in our lives tried to write fiction lay the book aside and say, "Never again." Thus Nina Berberova.
How did she slip under the radar screen all these years? Lord knows, she stayed around long enough — 1901 – 1993. Possibly it is because she wrote in Russian, was translated into French long before finally being rendered into English (the six stories in The Tattered Cloak first appeared in England just ten years ago).
We know we are in the hands of a master when, early on, a tiny jewel appears, set in such a way that it reflects the whole, a mini-mirror for an entire story. This is "Astashev in Paris;" we are being told about his house. In the rooms,
fat spiders spun their webs up by the ceilings. His mother and nurse, who were preoccupied with cleaning the painted floors and starching the curtains, never knocked them down. Sometimes in the evenings, engulfed in their own brocade and protected by female superstition, the spiders ran out to the middle of the ceiling, fell on one another, and sucked each other dry, whereupon they shriveled up and fell to the floor.
The floors were painted. The curtains starched. The spiders were fat, "engulfed in their own brocade" and "protected by female superstition." What more do we need in order to envision the world that Astashev achieves later in Paris where he spends his days selling life insurance to his fellow, using techniques of shame, a full regalia of horror-to-come (What will happen to your wife? To your children? When you are no longer….?) The bodies that are to fall, while they are still aloft, being sucked dry, expertly, by one of their own.
The title story is a bleak tale of Sasha, who works years ironing clothes in a large cleaning establishment, saying to herself, "Why? Why, though I had committed no crime, did I end up standing at an ironing board for nine years lifting a heavy iron?" A bleak life, as bad as any out of Dickens, Zola, or Dostoyevsky, working and living in her tiny apartment with her dying father and her crippled aunt. And once day, she turns on the radio, spins the dial, and
Suddenly someone said gently and with all the conviction the human voice is capable of…"You’re still here? You’re still here? But I swear to you, they’re waiting for you. Everything’s all set for your arrival. The orange trees are blooming in the gardens, and from the windows of the white villa you can see to the bottom of the sea. And you know, in the evening dark blue dragonflies like you’ve never seen flit around the garden. It’s time for you to go. It’s time!"
And then, "A moments silence. The thunder of applause. And apparently, the heavy rustle of a falling curtain."
What can we say? Page after page of the bleak dead-end of another life, and then, suddenly, orange trees, a villa where "you can see to the bottom of the sea," and, in the evening, "dark blue dragonflies like you’ve never seen…" As my sainted grandmother would say, hand on chest, when she saw or heard something unexpected, something unexpectedly gorgeous, "Ay! Mamacita linda!"
The story "The Black Spot" refers to a flaw in Evgeny’s jewels, the ones that she thought were perfect, the ones she has been paying on in hock for years and years. The jewel with the black flaw comes center stage at the early part of the story, but begins to have a richer meaning only as we get to know Evgeny better. She comes from Russia, lives in Paris, hocks all she has to migrate to New York, and then ends up in Chicago.
Each of the parts of her journey takes on its own rhythm and strange shading: trying to pawn her flawed black jewelry while living with Alya in Paris; Ludmila, the daughter of her employer in New York who becomes smitten with her; and finally, the mysterious Druzhin that she is to meet in Chicago.
This is Evgeny telling Ludmila about why she wants to go to Chicago, tells of the streets (even though she has yet to go there):
"On these narrow streets, from roofs to pavements, there are staircases, on the outside, fire escapes, like broken lines in the air, against a sky that is white in the day or red at night. Those stairs make you think of the reverse side of life, of buildings, of the city, they make you think of the flies backstage in a gigantic theatre. Once in a while motionless figures sleep on them, hunched and hanging like black sacks…"
"Have you ever been there?" she asked, looking at me in amazement.
"No, I haven’t."
"How do you know all that?"
I didn’t answer.
This on Kalyagin, her boss in New York, father to Ludmila: "On my way out I sometimes had to put iodine on his waist; he believed that iodine was a universal panacea. His body was well groomed, a touch yellow, with large birthmarks." A detail, a sharpness that suddenly pulls the character up for us, makes Kalyagin real, alive. It is Berberova’s impeccable ability to capture the touch or look or strangeness of a person (or a place) in such a few words:
Every city has its own smell. Paris smells of gas, tar, and face powder; Berlin, when I was younger, smelled of gas, cigar, and dog; New York smells of gas, dust, and soup, especially on hot days and hot nights, which can only be broken by a sudden thunderstorm or a hurricane from Labrador or the Caribbean.
So much of Berberova lies in that vague word, pacing. We live with Evgeny during the heart-stopping sequence of digging up enough funds to emigrate to America; we are with her when she finds Ludmila in love with her; then, during all this, she turns, paints a picture of herself that is at odds with what we have experienced of her. A contrary self-portrait that, despite all that, rings true. For, she is like all of us, what we are and what we say we are must be in conflict:
"Ludmila Lvovna," I said. "Be quiet. I have no idea how you’ve managed to deceive yourself to such an extent. I lack what everyone else has — the ability to die inside and come back to life. I don’t like life or people, and I’m afraid of them, like most people are, probably even more than most people. I’m not free, I haven’t really enjoyed anything for a long time, and I’m not honest because I didn’t tell you anything about myself for so long, and now, when I do, it’s so difficult."
With this singular speech ("the ability to die inside and come back to life!") she takes her leave of Ludmila, entrains for Chicago, ostensibly to find Druzhin. She has told all the others that ultimately she will go to Chicago to find Druzhin. And when she finally gets there, it turns out… o no: Druzhin doesn’t exist. Never did.
It is this exquisite marriage of detail, imagination, paradox and perfidy that drives Berberova’s stories — drives them with a singularity that makes it hard to stop reading (often because we want to save some for tomorrow).
The quote at the top of this review has to do with Chekov, but Berberova is one of his spiritual heirs. Like him, she constructs her own rules: what to include, what to leave out, what to emphasize. And I claim it is these self-designed, self-imposed rules of fiction that turn a story that might be interesting into a masterpiece. Fat spiders. Hurricanes "from Labrador or the Caribbean." The smell of face powder. Sleeping figures hanging like black sacks. Iodine as a universal panacea. Dark blue dragonflies like you’ve never seen.
They all fit; they all work; we are in the hands of a divine master. — Carlos Amantea, RALPH Magazine, Fall 2001
“An age . . . had ended with August 1921,” Nina Berberova writes in her autobiography, The Italics Are Mine. “All that came after was only a continuation of this August.” On August 24, sixty-two had been shot in St. Petersburg, including Nikolai Gumilev, who had worked with Mandelstam and Akhmatova—thus the odyssey of Russia in the twentieth century, which sent Russians, including Berberova, into exile, and those who stayed into silence, if not Siberia and death. The world as one had known it was gone, and it was not only the Russian experience, but for much of Europe, the modern one, to be replaced by a world in which survival, no matter how it might be accomplished, was less an achievement than an accident. Bureaucracy and the machine did not permit one to breathe in either the East or the West. The world of Kafka, and that of Walser, had come to be everyday. “The future loomed like a weight he couldn’t budge,” one of Berberova’s characters thinks. Her stories of Russian exiles in Paris in the thirties and forties are less stories than evidence entered into the court record. They describe “a special shabbiness that began and ended with . . . life abroad”; the lack of any future or possibility; the burden of a past one can never rid oneself of but must, somehow, anesthetize oneself against (“To nowhere,” Evgeni Petrovich says of his moves from Paris to New York to Chicago, “to see no one”). A waiter who saves a woman from starvation and the streets, falls in love with her only to be rejected. He strangles her and thinks, “thank God, there was no future.” A woman in her thirties who has endured loneliness all her life kills herself after she is seduced by another exile, a successful life insurance agent who preys upon exiles (life insurance, as they say, for those who have neither life nor insurance). Sasha, a young girl in St. Petersburg, listens to friends of her older sister discuss art, poetry, and theater, and years later as a laundry worker in Paris, remembers several lines of a poem that had been recited that night: “But we the heirs of Blok/Are helpless to forget.” Berberova, who left St. Petersburg for Prague, Berlin, Paris, and America, where she taught at Princeton, will not turn her back on her past to re-create herself, as so many who came to the new world did. She remembers so we won’t forget. — Robert Buckeye, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 2001