- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 16, 2001

BILLANCOURT TALES
By Nina Berberova
Translated from the Russianwith an Introduction byMarian Schwartz
New Directions, $24.95,175 pages

The Parisian neighborhood of Billancourt in these 13 stories by Nina Berberova, the Russian expatriot writer, is located between the Seine and the Bois de Boulogne and is the site of a Renault factory. It is not the banlieue, or suburbs, to which the photographer Robert Doisneau so often returned with his camera, but it is of a Doisneau shot that one thinks in the opening tale, "Billancourt Fiesta," where a 14th of July crowd of White Russians in exile has gathered in the public square:
"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… . The most priceless faces, as always, were rather pale and puffy from their cares and God only knows what nutrition. Even on a holiday you saw no happy satiety in them; what mostly showed through were their nerves. Individuals walked around the square, to and fro, watching the dancing. The sky was growing dark, the apartment buildings shrouded in the evening's gray. The drum beat sad and fine."
Three men friends sit under a canvas awning as darkness falls, drinking calvados and talking about the lost Russian civil war until, "Just then, a vision appeared from around the corner. It was wearing a sky blue, knee-length silk dress and a sky blue hat; was holding a brown leather purse. Head held high, it walked past the three of us toward the dancing. Everyone turned to look."
Here, as others have remarked of Berberova's Paris fiction, one could be reading about the city through the eyes of the young Jean Rhys ("Good Morning, Midnight," "After Leaving Mr Mackenzie") but let's stick with the scene as Doisneau, a generation later, might have snapped it. The voice and feeling of ordinary but often surprisingly telling lives might be Anton Chekhov, or Ivan Turgenev, with both of whose writing that of Nina Berberova also has been compared.
Berberova, born in St. Petersburg in 1901, had nothing good to say for tsarist rule and thought of herself as a modernist. In 1922, she left Russia with Vladislav Khodasevich, a poet and her lover. She began writing her Billancourt stories in 1928, starting out at the same time on her novels. The stories appear here in English for the first time.
The writer's entire literary career was lived in exile. Among Paris' Russian emigres, she is keenly aware of the erosion of a sense of place, the pressure upon language in which French words are picked up and incorporated into daily usage, and the newcomers' hopes of a new life that too often get ground down in the brute reality of marginal social situation. The Billancourt stories selected for this volume date between 1929 and 1934. All share certain qualities, but tightness of construction and dramatic impact can be seen taking the writer time to develop, and to that extent one has a feeling of some of the best tales being kept for last.
In that opening story, "Fiesta," Berberova introduces Grisha (Grigory Andreevich), an unsuccessful writer who serves as her narrator and a staple of the tales, anchoring them to a variously sorry, often likable cast of characters, some of whom reappear from time to time. Physical fixtures of the neighborhood include the Hotel Caprice, Cabaret restaurant, the Renault factory where many of the people of Billancourt, often come way down in the world, go to work, and the "distant smoke-stacks that hold up our Billancourt sky." The story, with its muted ending, establishes the writer's feeling for place, weather and mood.
A similar sense of quickly executed sketches hinting at underlying depths is present in the next story, "Photogenique." Gerasim Gavrilovich, once a soldier and now a man with a family to which he isn't eager to go home at the end of the day it's too crowded there sits in the square at dusk as couples stroll by and tears an item from a newspaper. It is a call for movie extras and leads him to fantasize about a new career that will put his hardworking brother Boris, who has a hairdressing business, in the shade.
The first of these stories with a dramatic denouement is "The Argentine." Grisha is, as usual, on hand to report the sorry adventure of Ivan Pavlovich, who seeks the hand of Antonina, 19, recently arrived in Paris with an Estonian family. Sunday afternoon finds Grisha and the impetuous Ivan getting off the trolley near the Port d'Italie and the wooden barracks where the Estonians have been quartered. "Ivan Pavlovich didn't walk, though, he flew, and I flew in his wake. His hat could not have looked better on him; his navy suit, his light-colored tie and beetle tiepin, his brand-new brown shoes, everything was first-rate."
A tale featuring a so-called "American type" concerns a man who has his eye on getting an industrial patent for a manufacturing technique employing the hooks from old exploded artillery shells. Going to visit his prospective patron, he brings a baby puppy for the industrialist's little daughter, but when the time comes is ushered in and out without mustering the courage to present her with the animal.
In "An Incident With Music," a former musician working as a bookkeeper in a furniture business follows his wife's advice to "get back to your real work, no matter what the cost," and so hires on to play in a cinema orchestra. To fit his new life, Ivan Ivanovich lets his hair grow and buys a new collar, which Berberova puts to good use in a Chekhovian detail: "On Monday the turn-down collar was laundered, on Tuesday ironed, and on Wednesday and Thursday it lay in his bureau, wrapped in a clean handkerchief."
Friends and relatives of the Billancourt emigres still are on the move 12 years and more after Russia's 1917 Revolution. In "The Little Stranger," a woman who in the tsar's time had been "a cheerful, flirtatious young thing," but now sews glass eyes onto stuffed animals and worries about dying alone, has a 13-year-old, Ekaterina, walk in on her. Time passing and the downhill slide that are life under any circumstances, but so much more pronounced for a community in exile, are pervasive.
One story near the end of the book begins, "We're still alive," weighted with the ambivalence that implies. An adventurer, Veslovsky, now is in his 50s but not entirely without connections. Two children regularly come to visit him on Sundays. The girl, Liusenka, is well-to-do, sent by her mother to dole out 25 francs to her father. Kolka, the boy, on the other hand is rough-and-tumble and streetwise, completely different. Neither child has any idea of the other's existence. Then for no good reason Veslovsky decides to introduce them to each other.
The closing story, dating to 1934, ends the book on a characteristically wistful note but buoyed up by that aspect of the heart from which hope always springs. Businesses in the neighborhood have closed, letting workers go, even Boris Gavrilovich's hairdressing salon has become a dry goods store. Misha Sergeich has been reduced to the role of street musician, going with his violin around the courtyards of Billancourt. He is sweet on the tall and skinny Sonia, but she long has hesitated on account of his short stature. Then Misha comes home one day to find a visitor waiting: Sonia, who has been out of work since summer. And over a bottle of "ice-cold, tart red wine," he overcomes his shyness and asks her "whether she knew how to sing."
Nina Berberova is a treat to read, her gem-like short novels and stories retrieved from a world now lost and gone by the efforts of scholars and a farsighted publishing house. In the past years, New Directions has brought out new editions of Berberova works that include "The Book of Happiness," "Cape of Storms" and "The Ladies of St. Petersburg," and now here are the "Billancourt Tales," seamlessly translated into English and with an introduction by Marian Schwartz.


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