Short writings by Nina Berberova depict harsh lives of Russian emigres

July 14, 1991|By Anne Whitehouse

THE TATTERED CLOAK

AND OTHER NOVELS.

Nina Berberova; translated

by Marian Schwartz.

Knopf.

306 pages. $21.

These six fictions by Nina Berberova, a Russian writer now in her 91st year, are delicate and unsentimental tales of Russian emigre life, set mostly in Paris in the period between the two world wars. Her characters are victims or survivors, uprooted by revolution and war. All are nourished on bitterness, despair and loss. For these men and women, love is an indulgence, a luxury they cannot afford, or else it is a lost happiness existing only in the past, or a torment that will lead to destruction.

Her Paris bears no resemblance to the glittering salons of Proust, nor is it recognizable as the world capital of modern art and literature. In these fictions, she describes a transplanted culture of exiles living marginal existences in a vast, dreary city indifferent to their fates.

A contemporary of Vladimir Nabokov, Ms. Berberova was born in 1901 in St. Petersburg and fled her native country for Paris in 1922, where she remained until 1950. For the past 40 years she has lived in Princeton, where she was professor of Russian literature until 1971.

This is her first collection of fiction to appear in the United States. Written in Russian, it has been translated into elegant English by Marian Schwartz. Although billed as novels, these offerings are in fact stories and novellas, none exceeding 70 pages, intricately wrought and beautifully orchestrated.

Evgenii Petrovich, the narrator of "The Black Pestilence," speaks for many of her characters when he states, "it makes no difference to me where I live." When his beloved wife perishes in a bombing which he survived, he loses all sense of meaning in his life. A decade after her death, he still is unable and unwilling to love and be loved. He is a man without attachments, whose heart is afflicted by a "black pestilence," like the flaw in his dead wife's pawned diamond earring -- which may or may not have been switched on him for the "fine precious stone."

Alyosha Astashev's inability to love, in "Astashev in Paris," stems not from a lack of self, like Evgenii Petrovich, but rather from a surfeit of egotism. He is a 40-year-old child, oblivious and complacent, who shuttles back and forth between his mother, abandoned in his youth by his father and now aging and reclusive, and his worldly, glamorous, scheming stepmother. Astashev is both dreamy and ruthless, calculating and cruelly self-absorbed. In this masterly novella, Astashev's speculations about life and death are presented in the form of his sales pitches as a life insurance broker. Willful and shallow, he refused to acknowledge responsibility for the tragedy that he instigates.

In the exquisite story "The Resurrection of Mozart," nine Russian emigres meet in a country house outside of Paris during the German invasion of France in June 1940, and speculate on which great figures from the past they might bring back to life if they could. The protagonist, Maria Leonidovna, a gentle middle-aged woman who has made a marriage of convenience, dreams of resurrecting Mozart "because she connected that name in her mind with her earliest childhood, and because it lived on as something pure, transparent, and eternal that might take the place of happiness." After her husband returns to his office in Paris, she remains in the house with her 19-year-old mentally retarded stepson. As Paris is bombarded and a stream of refugees and soldiers passes through the village, a mysterious fugitive appears on her doorstep, asking for refuge.

The beauty of this story lies in its understatement and indeterminacy. The stranger -- frail, weary, without possessions -- takes up residence in Maria Leonidovna's annex. Although he describes himself as "a civilian, a musician," no music comes from him. Withdrawn and solitary, he is a disquieting, even threatening presence, and when he leaves Maria Leonidovna feels a sense of relief mingled with an urge to weep. His identity remains an unsolved mystery to Maria Leonidovna as she finds her world once more plunged into war.

The specters of war and social upheaval pervade this collection. Ms. Berberova's acute observations convey an authentic sense of lived experience. Sasha, the narrator in "The Tattered Cloak," describes Paris on the eve of war in 1940: "We blundered into a winter without bread, lard, wool, or coal . . . The matches wouldn't light anymore -- as in Russia once upon a time -- a sure sign of impending disaster."

Ms. Berberova writes of human beings in extremes with sensitivity and restraint. Tragedy is leavened by comic irony. Her realism is at once profound, enigmatic and suggestive. The belated appearance to American readers of this slender volume establishes her as a significant writer of midcentury, a dark voice of emigre life.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer living in New York.

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