"The Lost World"
by Michael Frank
Los Angeles Times, March 3, 2002
The story of Nina Berberova’s career has all the earmarks of a literary fable that might have been written by Henry James or her compatriot Vladimir Nabokov or even by Berberova herself, although it never was. Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1901, Berberova spent all of her writing life in exile, separated from her family, her point of origin and her principal audience. She began to write fiction in the early 1920s after she emigrated to Paris and gave up writing it in the early 1950s, when she moved to the United States.
In the course of her long life, she was impoverished, productive, fleetingly popular among a certain limited readership, neglected, forgotten and, before she died in 1993, rediscovered, first in Paris, then (after glasnost) in Russia and finally–and still–in America. The moral of the fable: Good writing should–will, when the stars are in correct alignment–assume its rightful portion of inches on the world’s bookshelf even if it takes many decades to do so.
In such novels and novellas as “The Ladies of St. Petersburg,” “The Tattered Cloak” and “A Book of Happiness,” the reader finds Berberova’s astute fictional eye turned on Russian men and women whose lives are shaken up by the events of the revolution. Her narratives tend to sweep widely across time and place. Her characters experience themselves in a familiar Russo-literary tradition of introspection and impassioned self-regard. They are often restless, soulful, troubled and groping; they seek, but seldom find, happiness or perfect love; they strive for but rarely achieve great professional success. They are empathically drawn, incisively mulled over and occasionally rather summarily cast into the hands of fate.
The mystery at the heart of the Berberova fable is this: Why, when she so clearly had a knack for stories, did she give up writing them when she came to the United States in the early ’50s?
The answer may lie in the issue of displacement that Berberova takes up so sympathetically in “Billancourt Tales,” a collection of 13 stories that, by any logical chronology, should have been her first book. These stories are a sampling of the dozens that Berberova wrote between 1928 and 1940 for the Latest News, one of several emigre newspapers that then appeared in France and served the substantial population of exiled Russians.
They are the rough equivalent, in Berberova’s career, of Anton Chekhov’s early comedic newspaper sketches, but to identify them as the work of apprenticeship is in no way to call them uninteresting. In “Billancourt Tales” the reader watches as Berberova’s fictional intelligence begins to take shape and acquire color. She finds her voice (in this case unified by the generally omniscient male narrator Grisha), her subject matter (the working-class, largely male Russian emigre community of Billancourt, whose central employer, the Renault factory, hired them to replace the French workers destroyed by World War I) and her themes, which perhaps inevitably center on the tensions and longings of lives led in exile.
In her autobiography Berberova described these Billancourt pieces as a “lyrico-ironical series of stories about Billancourt-Russian indigents, drunks, patresfamilias, Renault workers, courtyard singers, [and] declasse eccentrics” and reported how, as they appeared, shopkeepers would slip jars of preserves into her bag and shoemakers would resole her shoes gratis and the local hairdresser refused her tip, explaining, “We read your stories, we are very grateful to you, you do not scorn our way of life.”
Gratitude for a lack of scorn: There is something very moving in the phenomenon of a writer finding a community of displaced people, drawing their portraits and giving them a voice–in effect ensuring them a place in the most powerful container of memory there is, which is to say, literature.
And so here they are: men and women saddened–but, pointedly, not possessed–by their lost Russia, scrambling to build new Russo-French lives in French suburbia, questing for success, comfort, pleasure and love, and naturally finding little of each. There is Ivan Ivanovich Kondurin, a ballroom pianist in the time of the czar who (in “An Incident With Music”) gives up his work as a bookkeeper to play in a silent movie theater but is suddenly jobless when the talkies come along and he is “caught by history once again.” There is Anastasia Georgievna Seyantseva, a mysterious longtime habitue of Billancourt who (in “The Little Stranger”) receives an unexpected legacy: custody of her niece. And there is Grisha’s uncle, the loveless Ivan Pavlovich, a Renault worker who (in “The Argentine”) seeks company for his “empty, orphaned” home and heart but takes too long to overcome his aversion to his companion’s disreputable past (she is pregnant with another man’s baby) and loses her forever.
Loss is at the heart of Berberova’s Billancourt world–loss of homeland, history, love, hope–just as it seems to have been, at times, in her own life, where a different kind of loss may help explain why she stopped writing stories when she did. Berberova’s coherent community of exiles unraveled after World War II. Displaced once again, and in more ways than one, Berberova lost her subject matter, her regular form of publication and her readership. Determined as ever, though, she moved on–to nonfiction, to teaching, to her new American life. Sadly for her readers, Berberova’s story-making impulse stayed behind, in France, in her past. But we are lucky too: We have these “new” stories, and for the lives they commemorate and the particular time and place they so keenly preserve, we cherish them.