The Revolt by Nina Berberova
Translated by Marian Schwartz

There’s been quite a buzz on blogs and bookish Twitter about author Nina Berberova, and I suspect there might have been a bit of a run on some of her books via online booksellers because of it. Berberova was a Russian-born author who left her country in 1922 with her husband, the poet Vladislav Khodasevich; they lived in Berlin, then Paris (where Khodasevich died in 1939) and she eventually emigrated to the USA in 1950 where she spent the rest of her life. I came across her work in the book “Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky” which I read and reviewed here (and her short story was also included in Penguin Modern 21). I found her writing particularly interesting, and so when I read Max Cairnduff’s review of “The Revolt” I really felt I needed to track down a copy.

I was ahead of the game a little, I think, as I snagged a first edition hardback with dj from an online reseller for a minimal price; sadly, much of her work seems to be out of print, and that’s a great shame. However, New Directions in the USA publish a number of works, and there are a few editions in this country; but it does seem she needs to be properly rediscovered and give a bit of a promote by someone like Pushkin Press. That’s by the by; when I was casting round recently for the next book to read, Max reminded me that Berberova was calling, and this slim novella was indeed the ideal read. At 61 pages it’s in that grey area between short story and novella; however, what it might lack in length it certainly makes up in intensity!

I feel sorry for people who are alone only in the bathroom, never anywhere else.

“The Revolt” opens in Paris, 2nd September 1939; the narrator, a young Russian emigre called Olga, is seeing off her Swedish lover Einar. The latter is returning to his home country as war breaks out, and neither know if they will ever meet again. They talk of visiting each other, of meeting up in other places, other countries and promise never to forget each other. Needless to say, war keeps them apart and life goes on; Olga survives the conflict and the occupation (although her uncle does not). However, she never forgets Einar, despite the fact her letters had been returned unopened; so when she has the chance to travel to Stockholm in order to collect an inheritance she takes it. Is Einar still alive, and will she find him? How will their circumstances have changed? Well, the blurb doesn’t hide much, and Einar is alive and well and married to Emma. The latter is described as “voluptuous”, as physically unlike Olga as she could be; and although Emma outwardly is all smiles and loveliness, underneath she’s a manipulative piece of work. Olga is eventually faced with the opportunity of a second chance – but there is a cost attached, and the crux of the matter is whether she’s willing to accept this.

It seemed to me that he and I had never had a past, and there was nothing to say about the future – a spectre ahead, spectre behind, we were both spectres, and all around us was spectral, and of it all the only thing real was that force tearing us asunder: right now you’re here, with me, right now we’re together, but in an hour you won’t be here; you’re alone, I’m alone, and there’s nothing whatsoever to keep us together other than an idea – yours about me and mine about you.

“The Revolt” is a beautifully written work and on the surface seems a fairly straightforward story of love and the compromises we make for it. Are we prepared to sacrifice all for it, or are there times when we have to back away. Repeatedly, Olga has Berberova emphasise the importance of personal space and control over your life, and it seems that she’s a woman who will take love on her own terms or not at all – perhaps a more modern concept than we might expect. There is much that’s under the surface with Berberova’s writing; she tells Olga’s backstory of exile from Russia with economy, and the wartime years are sketched in just enough for us to be aware of them but not allow them to dominate the narrative. All of this is enough to paint a portrait of Olga’s character so that her actions in the end (in Venice, of all places) are entirely understandable. In fact, the choice of Venice for the final sequences is probably significant as there are any number of masks, illusions and deceptions surrounding Einar, Olga and Emma.

Berberova and Khodasevich (Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Berberova’s novella is a subtle, nuanced piece of writing which certainly lingers in the mind. For such a short work of art to evoke so many places, sensations and emotions seems to me a real achievement; and though I’m surprised this book isn’t better known, I’m very grateful to the bloggers promoting her work and pointing us in its direction. “The Revolt” really is a little treasure and I have to confess to now having other Berberova stories nestling on the TBR waiting for me…

*****

“The Revolt” has also been reviewed by Guy Savage here, and if the buzz around the author on Twitter is anything to go by there will be more to follow!

And a quick word about the translator (they’re some of my favourite people!) Berberova’s work is translated by Marian Schwartz and a quick look at the latter’s website reveals that’s she’s translated a dizzyingly impressive array of books. She’s also regarded as the pre-eminant translator of Berberova’s works, having actually known and worked with the latter during the 1980s and 1990s – there is a fascinating interview with Schwartz here, and she’s obviously done a marvellous job of bringing Berberova’s work into English!