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The compromises of love… #ninaberberova @mbs51

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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!

Émigré Dreams… @Bryan_S_K @PushkinPress

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The Beggar and other Stories by Gaito Gazdanov
Translated by Bryan Karetnyk

Careful or casual readers of the Ramblings will know of my love for the work of Gaito Gazdanov; I’ve covered the three wonderful novels published by Pushkin Press, as well as “An Evening with Claire”, and I think his writing is outstanding. So I was more than excited to find out that Pushkin were issuing a collection of his shorter works, entitled “The Beggar and other Stories”; particularly as I’d enjoyed those which had featured in the exemplary collection “Russian Emigre Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky”.

“Beggar…” collects six works, and one fascinating thing is the date range they cover: the first, “Maitre Rueil”, dates from 1931, whereas the final tale, “Ivanov’s Letters” is from 1963. The selection is by translator Karetnyk, who points out in his informative and interesting introduction that Gazdanov seemed to feel that a collection of his short works was unnecessary; Karetnyk obviously disagrees, and having now read a number of Gazdanov’s stories I can only concur – this is an essential collection.

As with any volume of short works, it’s hard to know how much detail to go into about the individual pieces that make it up; but I will give a little information about each of the six stories featured here, as they are all quite remarkable in their own way (and that’s down to Gazdanov’s wonderful writing I think). Maitre Rueil is the evocative little tale of the titular agent, who suffers an existential crisis of sorts whilst making a melancholy journey back to Moscow on a mission; Happiness is the story of a émigré whose delicate relationship with his son is disturbed by the arrival of a beautiful stepmother; and Deliverance tells of a man who has come into money but finds the riches bring him no happiness, leaving him detached from life. Then there is The Mistake, somewhat groundbreaking I felt, which tells of the affair of a Russian woman in Paris, presenting the story from her point of view and acknowledging her needs but also identifying her inability to recognise love. The titular character of The Beggar is an ageing tramp who is suddenly triggered into remembering his former life and understanding how the freedom of total poverty, an almost non-existence, is better than the restrictions and restraints of a comfortable but controlled life. And finally Ivanov’s Letters paints a portrait of Nikolai Franzevich, on the surface a calm, educated and cultured man, about whom his friends actually know very little – until all is unexpectedly revealed.

Time marches on by itself; we live until some mechanical force restores the calendar’s truth. But really, time does not exist. We have memories, imagination, we can delve into the past, fear the future, but we term it thus – past, present, future – I think, only because we do not make for ourselves the trouble of contemplating this and understanding that all this is mere sensation.

Each of these stories is a little gem on its own; however, I can see that they’ve been carefully selected by Karetnyk as there are recurring threads which run through the stories and bind them together. Each story distills an aspect of the émigré experience in a way that is never explicitly stated; but there is almost the sense that the lives the characters are leading are not quite real, as if they have left their proper existence behind them in their home country and are half ghosts in their adopted land. The characters all suffer from ennui, or physical ailments which characterise their suffering in exile, and there is a constant feeling that everything is a sham. Money brings no comfort and is often rejected, as is love – rejected, or not understood – and the stories have the same surreal, hallucinatory feeling as do Gazdanov’s novels. The dream-like prose often causes a blurring of lines between reality and imagination and the vividly beautiful descriptions brilliantly evoke a kind of drifting atmosphere which haunts you.

It was as if her senses were a long sword, whose tip, after the blow had already been delivered, still quivered and trembled, fluttering like a banner in the wind, or the white trim of a sail over the rippling sea; or the wings of a bird sitting on the water.

In fact, I keep returning to the word atmosphere, and certainly Gazdanov’s writing and the world he conjures has a distinct and unique character all of its own: dreamlike, contemplative and often achingly beautiful, the sensation and the sadness reading the stories created stayed with me for ages after finishing the book – they really have quite an emotional wallop.

Sometimes I feel ready to laugh at myself, for I have always held a naive and idyllic dream, a utopian vision of a world in which there is no poverty, no suffering, no envy, a world that is built on a great and complex system of harmonious and happy equilibrium. But I digress. If life be movement, then until very recently I would have been well within my right to consider myself dead.

Author and translator

“Beggar…” is an extraordinarily rich collection and while I was reading it I couldn’t help thinking what a wonderful job Pushkin are doing bringing Gazdanov to us. Also, and most importantly, it struck me that some authors are lucky enough to get the perfect translator: Calvino and William Weaver seemed a match made in heaven, as do Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky and Joanne Turnbull, Platonov and Robert Chandler. And that’s definitely the case here, as Bryan Karetnyk’s elegant translations have been pivotal in Pushkin’s spearheading of the Gazdanov revival; I can only hope he keeps on translating this wonderful author’s works for us. Thanks to his efforts there is so much Gazdanov available for Anglophone readers now – the three novels and this collection from Pushkin, as well as the four stories in “Russian Emigre Short Stories…” – and if you haven’t read any of Gazdanov’s works yet, it might be worth risking £1 on Penguin Modern 21 to get a flavour of his writing. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed…

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks. “The Beggar and other stories” is published today so you can all rush out and buy a copy….. :)))

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