The Accompanist

clip image002 thumb12 The Accompanist, by Nina Berberova The Accompanist
By Nina Berberova
Translated by Marian Schwartz
London: Collins, 1987; New York: Atheneum, 1988; paperback ed., New Directions, 2003

A spellbinding short novel set in post-revolutionary Russian about a young girl’s jealousy. The fifth book of Nina Berberova to be published by New Directions, The Accompanist, written in 1936, proved to be a literary phenomenon in Europe where it was first published. A spellbinding, short novel set in post-revolutionary Russia, The Accompanist, portrays with extraordinary sensitivity the entangled relationships of three intriguing characters. Sonechka is a talented but shy young pianist hired by a beautiful soprano (Maria Nikolaevna) and her devoted, bourgeois husband. Maria is everything Sonechka is not – glamorous and flamboyant. Her voice brings with it "something immortal and indisputable, something which gives reality to the human being’s dream of having wings." Doomed to live in her mentor’s shadow, the young girl secretly schemes to expose the singer’s infidelities. But as she awaits her chance, the diva’s husband takes matters into his own hands, bringing events to a surprising resolution. This intense and beautiful little novel was published in America almost fifty years after it was written; sadly out of print for a number of years, it is a wonderfully compelling and crucial addition to Nina Berberova’s growing number of published fictional works.

A curious book, certainly one worth reading…for the richness of the language and the slim peek of a turbulent Russia. — Wendy Zollo, Historical Novels Review, November 2003

A slight yet moving work that throbs with very real pathos. — Kirkus Reviews, 15 May 2003

A splendid, tragically beautiful writer capable of drawing unforgettable characters … sublime. — Los Angeles Times

 

Review

Written in 1936 and published here for the first time, this slender novel is an elegant exposition of Russian temperament. The accompanist of the title is Sonechka, an 18-year-old girl, talented but impoverished and self-deprecating by reason of her lowly origin. She is abruptly lifted from her bleak life in St. Petersburg when a famous soprano, Maria Travin, employs her as a traveling companion. The ambitious singer and her successful bourgeois husband are the center of a coterie that flows with them from Moscow to Paris in 1920, and Sonechka becomes privy to their sophisticated relationships. A confidante to Maria and yet ever watchful, insecure and apart, Sonechka internalizes her distress with life in postwar Russia and harbors plans for revenge on the affluent, beautiful diva by exposing her extramarital affair. The resolution of her plan comes about in an unexpected manner, one that is entirely out of Sonechka’s control but that frees her as, in a different way, it frees the implacable diva. Exquisitely spare, the first-person narrative of this novella has a subdued intensity. Russian-born Berberova lives in New Jersey, where she was professor of Russian literature at Princeton. — Publishers Weekly, 1988

Review

The title character of this slim, spare novel is our narrator, Sonechka Antonovskaya, a young woman of modest means who comes to work for a glamorous opera soprano, Maria Nikolaevna Travina, at the height of postrevolutionary Russia’s hard times. Written in 1936 and published to much acclaim in Europe, The Accompanist’s central narrative is propelled by a brand of envy and longing at once eerie and sublime. This wanting sits largely with Sonechka’s dueling desires: the desire to be Maria and the desire to accept the lesser gift of her love—an option problematic only partly because it’s never actually offered. This emotional seesaw also characterizes Sonechka’s feelings toward Pavel Fyodorovich, Maria’s dubiously employed bourgeois husband. Rather predictably, Pavel’s presence heightens tensions that were already high, particularly once Sonechka learns of Maria’s ongoing extramarital affair. Still, Berberova is clearly playing with more here than initially meets the eye, because while the tricky triad of emotions include jealousy as well as rage, what makes The Accompanist such a captivating read is that the passion play isn’t necessarily the “real” story at all. Take, for example, the framing device Berberova employs at the story’s very start. This first narrative voice soberly explains that the pages before us were acquired for him “by a Mr. L. R., who bought them from a junk dealer,” who in turn had bought them off a landlady from “a cheap hotel where a Russian woman had lived and died.” We’re also told that her various personal effects were up for sale as well, referring to these items as “all that is left after a woman vanishes.” Like Berberova’s short, elegant tale, such a provocative turn of phrase seems ripe for mulling over, even after the writer is gone. — Stacy Gottlieb, Review of Contemporary Fiction, 2003

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