The Billancourt Tales
By Nina Berberova
Translated by Marian Schwartz
New Directions, 2001; paperback ed. 2009
Thirteen newly discovered stories by the great Russian writer, translated into English for the first time. Now added to the quartet of books by Nina Berberova that New Directions has presented for the delight of American readers is this delectable baker’s dozen—Billancourt Tales. These are thirteen stories (Berberova called them "Fiestas") chosen from those she wrote in Paris between 1928 and 1940 for the émigré newspaper The Latest News. In her preface Berberova mentions how she found what to write about through her discovery of Billancourt, a highly industrialized suburb of Paris. Here thousands of exiled Russians—White Guards and civilians—were finding work and establishing homes away from home with their Russian churches, schools, and small business ventures. Berberova thought the significance of the tales was in their historical and sociological aspects rather than in their artistry but the reader will demur, for these are fine stories, the kind that have led to comparisons to Chekhov. They portray a wide range of human beings and the twists and turns of their various lives. There is Ivan Pavlovich making a success of his rabbit farm but procrastinating too long about a proposal of marriage; Kondurin, happy to play the piano in restaurants rather than working as a bookkeeper—his only problem is the restaurants keep going out of business; and Gavrilovich who loses a job as an actor in the movies because the scene requires him to steal a lady’s purse and even though it is make believe he just can’t do it. All in all a group of very Russian tales very well told.
A winning collection of 13 previously untranslated stories about exiles living in Paris in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution, written for an émigré newspaper in the years 1928–40 by the late (1901–93) author of The Tattered Cloak (1991) and the moving autobiography The Italics Are Mine (not reviewed). They’re Chekhovian sketches focused on "déclassé intellectuals" and variously thwarted souls, like the gifted pianist who cannot rise above his unfulfilling job as a bookkeeper ("An Incident With Music"), a "rabbit farmer" unable to accept the pregnant woman who offers an escape from his loneliness ("The Argentine"), and a hopeful inventor whose formula for success is repeatedly frustrated ("About the Hooks"). Though disappointment and resignation are the prevailing moods, Berberova also surprises us—with the stories of a reluctant "guardian" whose demanding niece later becomes her protector ("The Little Stranger") and of a supposedly failed writer who, it is later learned, "had died of imagination.” Delicately fashioned cameos that deserve a place among the minor classics of expatriate fiction.
Publishers Weekly, November 27, 2001:
The pursuit of fulfillment monetary, psychological or romantic is at the heart of all 13 of these fleet-footed and poignant short stories about life in a Paris suburb settled by Russian émigrés during the 1930s. Originally written … more » for an émigré newspaper, the tales emanate grace even when describing loss and pain. In "The Argentine," a man’s attempt to match a single friend with an unmarried woman fails when the woman reveals that she is pregnant and then leaves town before the hesitant suitor can claim her. In "About the Hooks," a man travels into Paris from Billancourt to sell a patent to an industrialist, even bringing a puppy for the industrialist’s daughter. The first meeting is promising, but before their second meeting, the young inventor sleeps on a park bench, the puppy dies and the industrialist expires as well. Some stories offer redemption and happiness at the end, all the more welcome for the degradation that precedes them. A lonely, aging woman who is the protagonist of "The Little Stranger" is forced to become her niece’s guardian; against all expectations, the girl brightens the woman’s later years. In "The Violin of Billancourt," a formerly genteel woman reunites with a long-avoided suitor when they have both encountered hardships and need companionship for survival. The narrator of "The Billancourt Manuscript" changes his formerly negative opinion of a deceased acquaintance after reading a mystical unfinished manuscript (reprinted in the story) bequeathed to him by the deceased. These stories occur against the impressionistic and often seductive backdrop of Billancourt, with its leafy promenades, dilapidated back streets and socially ambitious gentry, all attentively recreated by Berberova’s ever-observant eye. At once unsparing and subtle, these stories illuminate a sociological minority struggling to find solid footing in a radically transformed world.
Michael Upchurch, “Little Russia,” New York Times, December 2, 2001:
”I know this feeling increasingly: falling from our usual dimension into another.” These words come from ”The Italics Are Mine,” the 1969 autobiography of Nina Berberova, who was born in Russia in 1901 and died in the United States in 1993. And while they refer specifically to the vertigolike sensation of living in St. Petersburg during the Russian Revolution, they could apply equally well to other dislocating episodes in Berberova’s long life: her move in 1925, after interludes in Berlin, Prague and Italy, to Paris, where she lived for 25 years; her experience of occupied France as a Third Reich fief following the Nazi invasion; and her final migration, in 1950, from Europe to America.
Berberova eventually flourished in her adopted homeland, becoming a professor of Russian literature, first at Yale University and then at Princeton. But it was her life in Paris that figured most prominently in her fiction, notably her novels, ”Cape of Storms” and ”The Book of Happiness,” and numerous shorter works, among them her brilliant novella ”The Accompanist.”
Her hallmark strengths—a whimsy and cool resolve that, in tandem, functioned as a wry stoicism—came together most powerfully in ”The Resurrection of Mozart,” a story set during the fall of France in 1940. Pitting a ghost of civilization (a bewildered Mozart who is accidentally summoned from beyond the grave) against ”the omens of war,” Berberova weighs what’s at stake as German air raids shatter Europe’s peace. While civilization appears momentarily eclipsed, there’s an unspoken confidence that its ghosts will endure and eventually be resurrected, even if it is into a world altered beyond recognition.
At first glance, ”Billancourt Tales,” a freshly translated collection of Berberova’s earliest fiction, seems unlikely to bear comparison with anything as fine as ”The Resurrection of Mozart.” Berberova herself was somewhat disparaging about these stories, written in the 1920′s and 30′s, which depict exiled Russians living in the industrial Parisian suburb of Billancourt. In ”The Italics Are Mine,” she described them as ”a lyrico-ironical series of stories about Billancourt-Russian indigents, drunks, patresfamilias, Renault workers, courtyard singers, déclassé eccentrics.” She explained that ”some were written in a hurry for money, with low-level results, but at least half a dozen of them were very much to the point.”
Berberova didn’t do herself justice. The 13 stories of ”Billancourt Tales” are closely observed, potently phrased and dapperly shaped. Sly and heartfelt, they strike a note of picaresque melancholy as Berberova examines an eclectic assortment of Russian plights and fates.
The chronically unemployed Gerasim Gavrilovich, for instance, blows his chance at a movie career in ”Photogénique” because he can’t reconcile himself to playing the part of a thief, while 19-year-old Antonina Nikolaevna Selindrina unexpectedly becomes the title character in ”The Argentine” after a brief, eventful passage through Paris. In these and other stories, life-changing moves (you can’t call them decisions) are made on the fly. The wife of Ivan Ivanovich Kondurin says it best in ”An Incident With Music” when she tells her pianist husband, stuck in a bookkeeping job and looking for a way out, ”Fate is playing games with you.”
Acting as master of ceremonies over these games is Grigory Andreevich, or Grisha, as his friends know him. A sometime employee at the factory of ”Monsieur Renault,” Grisha serves as narrator in most of the stories, a role inspired in part by his knack for playing the confidant to a wide circle of friends and acquaintances.
On occasion, Grisha is the star of his own tale, as in the cross-continental romance recounted in ”Versts and Sleeping Cars.” (Grisha, an infantryman on the run from the Red Army, becomes ”engaged” to a woman who later turns up in Prague and Paris, sometimes remembering her fiancé, sometimes not.) More often he’s on the sidelines, observing all that goes on. Berberova, just offstage and pulling the strings, has plenty of fun with him, occasionally introducing a note of metafiction into the proceedings. When wrapping up ”Photogénique,” for instance, Grisha is forced to be frank with the story’s failed movie star. ”Nowadays,” he explains, after hearing out Gerasim Gavrilovich’s account of his failure as a silver-screen villain, ”the papers prefer to write about the opposite, about jutting chins and people getting ahead. I’m afraid no one’s going to want to read about you.”
In one lurid tale of jealousy and murder, ”A Gypsy Romance,” Grisha doesn’t narrate at all, but is glimpsed in the corner of the cafe where the action takes place, drunkenly toasting an endless lineup of ”charming” Russian-born Parisiennes. Whether he’s acting the fool or bluntly acknowledging the hard knocks of his fellow exiles (”What man in our day hasn’t been tempered in life’s battles? For us, there is no such man”), he’s crucial in maintaining the book’s fine balance between the droll and the poignant.
Marian Schwartz’s English translation deftly captures the fanciful twists and turns of Berberova’s imagination, whether she’s waxing acerbic on the stifling nature of the city’s industrial suburbs (”If it weren’t for the Paris wind we’d have nothing to breathe in Billancourt”) or detailing male Sunday attire circa 1929: ”Parts ran across heads like bright shoelaces, took a turn eight and a half centimeters above the ear and, rounding the crown in a free line, descended to a starched collar.” Berberova can write more straightforwardly, too. But even the most sweeping or plaintive outbursts of her lost souls (”Your spaces, your seasons, your climate—none of them suit me”) have a downbeat verve.
By the end of the book, Billancourt emerges as a character in itself, a working-class enclave whose very name serves as shorthand for keeping tough in tough times. ”There is no end or limit to Billancourt,” Berberova writes in the book’s closing story, ”nor will there ever be.”
With this volume in hand, the realities of a long-vanished Russian émigré community reach far indeed beyond their original temporal and geographical limits. It may have taken them over half a century to touch our shores, but now that we have them, they feel indispensable.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, 2002:
Nina Berberova’s Billancourt Tales comprises thirteen slender, artful stories of émigré life as played out in Billancourt, a Russian suburb of Paris, during the 1920s and early thirties. Nabokov’s biographer, Brian Boyd, has dubbed Berberova "the most important novelist other than Nabokov himself to emerge in the emigration"–an apt coupling, considering that Berberova’s stories share striking affinities with the Russian master’s stories of the emigration. But the tales bear Chekhov’s stamp as well, particularly in their unremitting pessimism. Nearly every story ends bleakly, a fact that Grisha, the recurring narrator, ties to the fate of the Russian emigration generally. But this fatalism hardly detracts from the delicacy and seductiveness of Berberova’s early work. As Marian Schwartz explains, Berberova, convinced that her later fiction was more mature stylistically, "came to view her Billancourt `fiestas’ as of purely sociological interest," but this is to judge these pieces too harshly. Berberova’s writing is spare, ironic, and lucid, which throws her characters into greater relief. There is the old woman who longs to see her first love one last time–and does. There is the man who throws his wife out, then spends his days waiting for her to crawl back–only to discover that she has died. Another man, tired of traveling but pining for companionship, gets engaged to an enigmatic young woman but loses her when he fails to follow her to America. Many of these stories are romances, with the emphasis on male loneliness. This motif derives from the setting. Many Billancourt émigrés worked in the Renault factory; deemed unfit for such work, women were not allowed to immigrate in numbers. Thus Berberova lends her tales a final twist of melancholy: not only has the Russian Revolution shattered the dream of a homeland but the dream of a home as well.