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Born in 1901, Nina Berberova led a life that encompassed both pre-revolutionary and post-communist Russia, and the three novellas comprising The Ladies from St. Petersburg follow the arc of their author's experience. In the title story, Varvara Ivanovna and her daughter Margarita plan a vacation in the country. True, there have been some shootings in the streets of St. Petersburg, and the trains are packed with people fleeing the city, but when Varvara expresses her fear of a "conflagration," she is assured that "all this revolution business will fizzle out very quickly. We here are all agreed that the Bolsheviks have no chance whatsoever." The sad dénouement of the tale, of course, tells a different story.
Berberova continues to explore the Revolution and its aftermath in the next two novellas. "Zoya Andreyevna" follows the fortunes of a young woman caught up in the midst of the fighting. Zoya has left her worthy but dull husband and moved in with her lover. When war breaks out, the lover enlists in the White Army and Zoya is left on her own, fleeing from town to town and at the mercy of common people who despise her as much for what she has lost as for who she once was. In the final story, "The Big City," Berberova injects a note of grace into the émigré experience as she chronicles a day in the life of an unnamed narrator who discovers after a day of small adventures that
every person brings whatever he can to this big city ... some dream, or thought, or melody, the noonday heat of some treasure, the memory of a snow-drifted grave, the divine grandeur of a mathematical formula, or the strum of guitar strings. All this has dissolved on this cape and formed the life I plan to take part in too from now on. With you, who are not here with me but alive in this air I breathe.
The three novellas in this slim but potent collection explore the psychic price of immigration and the rigors of enduring hardship alone. Russian emigre Berbova (1901-1993) first moved to France in the 1920s, then settled in the U.S. in the 1950s, where she taught at Princeton University. The first two tales, written in 1927, recall Russia's tumultuous pre-Revolutionary period. In the title story?the most powerful of the three?a young woman is left to make her mother's funeral arrangements at an inn deep in the country. When she returns many years later, the new government has erased all evidence of the entire village. Berberova's matter-of-fact tone and descriptions of the stark surroundings create a dark current of tension. The title character of "Zoya Andreyevna" struggles with her decision to live in a rooming house in an unknown city. As a middle-class woman who has divorced her husband, apparently for political reasons, she is scorned by her somewhat less-respectable roommates. In the experimental "The Big City," which was written shortly after Berberova's arrival in New York, as the narrator explores his new, monstrous apartment building, he is presented with glimpses of this country's opportunities, literally, with every door he opens and every window he peers through. Berberova describes the loneliness of the immigrant without sentimentality; once thrown into this transitional world, her characters resign themselves to the fight to stay alive. Schwartz's fine translation should help acquaint a larger audience with this writer, best known for her earlier works about life in Paris, including The Accompanist (which was turned into a film), The Tattered Cloak and Other Novels and her biography, Aleksandr Blok: A Life.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.