A discreet autobiography of a Russian emigre

September 20, 1992|By Ben Davis

THE ITALICS ARE MINE.

Nina Berberova.

Knopf.

591 pages. $30.

The Russian emigres in Paris, the refugees from the Russian Revolution, constitute a fascinating group: Images of former czarist generals and dukes driving cabs and working as waiters or distinguished writers cleaning toilets create melancholy pictures of the fall of the mighty. Nina Berberova, Russian poet and fiction writer, was a part of this emigre world and in this book writes about her life among the Russian intelligentsia.

She begins by describing a middle-class childhood in prerevolutionary St. Petersburg -- the daughter of a Russian mother and Armenian father and a precocious lover of poetry. She takes us with her into exile in Paris in the 1920s, '30s and '40s, when she was part of a circle of penniless but distinguished literary Russian exiles. The book ends with her first few years in the United States, to which she emigrated in 1950.

Her autobiography is more a series of personal reminiscences than a detailed, multi-textured work. The warning she issues early on that she will be selective about details emanates probably from a sense of privacy. This reticence, however, imparts a sense of incompleteness and vagueness about the people she writes about and the circumstances of her life and theirs.

She seems particularly discreet about those closest to her. Her relationship with her lover and husband, Vladislav Khodasevich, a prominent poet and critic with whom she went into exile, is sketchy at best. She is not even specific about whether she married him.

Ms. Berberova's theme in this memoir, what she obviously considers the significant thread that runs through her life, is her commitment from an early age to literature and poetry. The dominant pattern of the book is a series of reminiscences of those friends and acquaintances since her early childhood who were connected to her through a common passion for poetry and intellectual pursuits. As a young woman in St. Petersburg and Moscow, for example, she knew such luminaries as Shklovsky, the Russian formalist, whose wedding party she attended. Most of her subjects, however, are obscure political and literary figures. She provides a Who's Who listing at the end of the book to identify all of them. The difficulty, though, is not their obscurity but rather the sketchiness of her presentation: She has a large number of people and a long span of time to cover.

Her reminiscences provide an insider's view of the members of this emigre circle and of world events connected with them. She is honest in her assessments of their literary stature: "As a writer he [Boris Zaitsev] is in many respects finer than Bunin [the Nobel Prize winner], but his inertness, the intellectual laziness he acknowledged many times to me, impeded his whole life."

Ms. Berberova reports interesting bits of historical information, such as the influence of Masonry on the Kerensky government's decision to keep Russia in World War I, a decision that helped lead to the success of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Most of all, she conveys the waste of these talents and careers because of the Stalinist course of the revolution. None seemed to adjust well financially or emotionally to life outside Russia. She talks about the blindness of the West and its intellectuals to the repressive measures Stalin took against Russian intellectuals.

Ms. Berberova is right -- the italics are hers. This book is idiosyncratic, giving us what she chooses to tell us in the way she saw it from her limited perspective. It makes an interesting footnote to the history of the Russian literary circle of the first half of the century.

Mr. Davis is a writer living in New York.

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