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Moura: The Dangerous Life of the Baroness Budberg Hardcover – June 30, 2005

3.1 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Berberova's Tattered Cloak (1991) is a cherished work of Russian emigre literature, as is her scintillating autobiography, The Italics Are Mine (1992). Her own favorite book was this dramatic, richly descriptive, and historically illuminating biography of a fellow Russian refugee and a woman for all seasons, Moura Budberg, a work just now published in English. Berberova (1901-93) met the smart, tough, and resourceful Moura, a slender woman with a "feline smile," when they were both part of the celebrated writer Maxim Gorky's unconventional household during the turbulent 1920s, and Berberova never forgot the highly influential yet persistently enigmatic baroness. Ultimately, Moura--multilingual, alluring, and invincible--was involved not only with Gorky but also with the daring diplomat Robert Bruce Lockhart (his story alone is worth a book) and H. G. Wells. Given the volatile times and Moura's masterful practice of the art of survival, Berberova takes on a complex and compelling tale of political upheaval, espionage, sexual passion, and all the suffering wrought by war, poverty, oppression, and exile, and tells it brilliantly with empathy and panache. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Review

"Nina Berberova, canny witness and survivor, tells a story that offers the satisfactions of history and the intimacy and strangeness of her extraordinary fiction. She brings to life not only the unknowable Baroness Budberg—probable spy, sometime translator and film scenarist—but her unlikely trio of lovers—the British agent Bruce Lockhart, Maxim Gorky and H.G. Wells."
— Honor Moore

“In this fascinating late work by a writer of genius, the encounter of biographer and subject—the Baroness, lover of Wells as well as Gorky, suspected spy and double agent—is among the most mysterious and vital in twentieth-century literature. Nina Berberova was a gourmand of the ‘juiciness’ of secrets, the tingle of lies and silence. She claims to have left herself out of her portrait of Moura, whom she knew and whom she admired for her refusal to be a victim. But the book is permeated with what feels to the reader like an enduring power-struggle. Is this an indictment, or a love-song? Nina, in seizing Moura’s life-story, emerges as the victor.”  —Kennedy Fraser, author of Ornament and Silence

“Nina Berberova, canny witness and survivor, tells a story that offers the satisfactions of history and the intimacy and strangeness of her extraordinary fiction. She brings to life not only the unknowable Baroness Budberg—probable spy, sometime translator and film scenarist—but her unlikely trio of lovers—the British agent Bruce Lockhart, Maxim Gorky and H.G. Wells.” 
—Honor Moore, author of The White Blackbird

“Although Moura’s life provides the thread of this biography, Berberova enriches the story with pen portraits of revolutionaries, spies, international financiers and what seem like half the characters from an Eric Ambler thriller.”
— Michael Dirda, The Washington Post Book World

“Moura is revealed as a true femme fatale, capable not only of enchanting men but of luring them into turbulent, even dangerous waters. Berberova can sometimes bring herself to admire Moura’s courage and sangfroid; she can even acknowledge her undoubted charm. But she produces a chilling portrait of a woman who scrupled at very little in order to achieve her goal, which was basically her survival in circumstances as favorable as possible.
Moura certainly kept her head when all about her were losing theirs, but once you have read Nina Berberova’s pungent portrait of her, you cannot help thinking at least a little bit about those people who did not succeed in keeping theirs. And this is not the least of Berberova’s accomplishments in her admirably humane book.” 
— Martin Rubin, Washington Times

“Berberova’s [ ] own favorite book was this dramatic, richly descriptive, and historically illuminating biography of a fellow Russian refugee and a woman for all seasons, Moura Budberg, a work just now published in English... Given the volatile times and Moura’s masterful practice of the art of survival, Berberova takes on a complex and compelling tale of political upheaval, espionage, sexual passion, and all the suffering wrought by war, poverty, oppression, and exile, and tells it brilliantly with empathy and panache.”
Booklist

"The mysterious baroness known as Moura, was likely a Soviet spy and possibly a double agent, as Berberova shows in this intricate biography, one that is also a meditation on the Bolsheviks, penniless Baltic nobility and the attractions of the femme fatale….Though Moura was published in Russian in 1981, it didn’t appear in English until four years ago, with Marian Schwartz and Richard D. Sylvester’s translation. As many readers discovered then, Berberova is a splendid writer who deserves to be better known."
The Wall Street Journal
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Product Details

  • Series: New York Review Books Classics
  • Hardcover: 404 pages
  • Publisher: NYRB Classics (April 10, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590171373
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590171370
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1.1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,433,042 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
You've got to take this one in the right spirit. Berberova isn't a terribly good writer--discursive, disorganized, fatally susceptible to digression from almost any direction. Morever she doesn't seem particularly to like her subject--a failing perhaps more common among biographers than you might at first guess.

So, as biography, not a delight. But as conversation--my, this is wonderful. Stick with it a few pages and let yourself hear the voice: you get the sense that you are in her kitchen, beside the samover, while she rattles on conjuring up ghosts, settling old scores, and generally jabbing the ribs of a whole generation of Russian emigres and their friends.

The "Index of Names" at the end gives you some hint of what you are up against: some 60 pages, perhaps 600 names of all the people who wandered in and out of Moura's life, or cast a shadow over it. Who /did/ this index, anyway? It is a quirky marvel, not quite comprehensive but close enough that you want to keep it around for consultation in reading any number of other emigre works.

Oddly--okay, not so oddly--the dominant figures in this tumultuous cast are not the author herself but two of the men in her life: Maxim Gorky and H. G. Wells. And what a pair of gasbags they turn out to be: writers of moderate talent and immoderate self-enchantment, too blinded by the mirror to understand anything about the dreadful world they lived in. Wells once tried to lecture Stalin on the state of the world; Stalin wasn't interested. Gorki actually moved back from exile into Russia, convinced he could make a difference; he died (or was murdered) somewhat the wiser.

The Russians do seem to have a knack for memoir: think Herzen, think Nadezhda Mandelstam, think Trotsky's autobiography.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Based on the book's description as "...a complex and compelling tale of political upheaval, espionage, sexual passion, and all the suffering wrought by war, poverty, oppression, and exile... told brilliantly with empathy and panache.", you might think this would be a fascinating read. But this book wasn't quite the read I thought it would be.

Berberova really needed a strong editor to help her tighten her writing. There were too many people mentioned and the story tended to take so many tangents into other people's lives, making it difficult to get a strong sense of who Moura was.

But you can get a sense of who Moura wasn't. She wasn't a great mom (but to her defense, that was probably the case of a lot of women in her situation), wasn't a great friend, and not too devoted to anyone except herself.

The repeated name dropping made the book frustrating as well. Whether they were in her life for a week or a decade, it seems that Berberova mentions everyone Moura ever met. The index in the back of the book was necessary just to help distinguish the characters as there is little way to keep them all straight.
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Format: Hardcover
I admit it. I'm a huge Berberova fan. I consider her one of the great fiction writers of the century and, in fact, prefer her to the brilliant Nabokov. However, I've found her non-fiction rather looser (I've read her bio of Tchaikovsky as well) and less interesting. What comes across as a richness of texture in the fiction becomes scattered in the non-fiction. Nevertheless, I couldn't put this book down.

Time and again, Moura Budberg found herself in dangerous situations, apparently impossible to escape, and yet she did. This woman had a genius for survival and apparently no conscience at all. Double-cross was too basic for her. She routinely practiced higher orders of betrayal. She kept opposing spymasters at bay, suspending her "loyalty" until she knew which side would win for sure.

Reading about her is a bit like watching the elegant and deadly moves of a beautiful snake. Most spies try to keep a low profile. Self-effacement simply wasn't part of her personality. She was a flamboyant spy, many people -- friend and foe alike -- knew it, and still she carried out her assignments and survived. Even after I'd finished the book, I kept marveling at the improbability of it all, and yet I couldn't deny the facts. This, by the way, resembles the feeling I get from much of Berberova's fiction: a very convincing and "natural" surrealism. I wish Berberova had turned this story into fiction as well.

NOTE: I am Marian Schwartz's brother. However, I have had no contact with her about this review. This represents my opinion alone.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book reads like a history text book. It hardly delves into the feelings, passions, fears and fumbles of these fascinating people. The history, however, is clearly written and replete with purges, assassinations, successful and unsuccessful spying, much friendship and many lies. I am a big fan of Berberova's fiction and her autobiography, and was not disappointed with this book. If you want to follow a fascinating and troubling life, go for it. You will feel like you are really there with them all.
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