And Other Stories
Nina Berberova
Translated by
Marian Schwartz

(New Directions Classic)

How did she slip under the radar screen all these years? Lord knows, she stayed around long enough --- 1901 - 1993. Possibly it is because she wrote in Russian, was translated into French long before finally being rendered into English (the six stories in The Tattered Cloak first appeared in England just ten years ago).

We know we are in the hands of a master when, early on, a tiny jewel appears, set in such a way that it reflects the whole, a mini-mirror for an entire story. This is "Astashev in Paris;" we are being told about his house. In the rooms,

    fat spiders spun their webs up by the ceilings. His mother and nurse, who were preoccupied with cleaning the painted floors and starching the curtains, never knocked them down. Sometimes in the evenings, engulfed in their own brocade and protected by female superstition, the spiders ran out to the middle of the ceiling, fell on one another, and sucked each other dry, whereupon they shriveled up and fell to the floor.

The floors were painted. The curtains starched. The spiders were fat, "engulfed in their own brocade" and "protected by female superstition." What more do we need in order to envision the world that Astashev achieves later in Paris where he spends his days selling life insurance to his fellow, using techniques of shame, a full regalia of horror-to-come (What will happen to your wife? To your children? When you are no longer....?) The bodies that are to fall, while they are still aloft, being sucked dry, expertly, by one of their own.

§     §     §

The title story is a bleak tale of Sasha, who works years ironing clothes in a large cleaning establishment, saying to herself, "Why? Why, though I had committed no crime, did I end up standing at an ironing board for nine years lifting a heavy iron?" A bleak life, as bad as any out of Dickens, Zola, or Dostoyevsky, working and living in her tiny apartment with her dying father and her crippled aunt. And once day, she turns on the radio, spins the dial, and

    Suddenly someone said gently and with all the conviction the human voice is capable of..."You're still here? You're still here? But I swear to you, they're waiting for you. Everything's all set for your arrival. The orange trees are blooming in the gardens, and from the windows of the white villa you can see to the bottom of the sea. And you know, in the evening dark blue dragonflies like you've never seen flit around the garden. It's time for you to go. It's time!"

And then, "A moments silence. The thunder of applause. And apparently, the heavy rustle of a falling curtain."

What can we say? Page after page of the bleak dead-end of another life, and then, suddenly, orange trees, a villa where "you can see to the bottom of the sea," and, in the evening, "dark blue dragonflies like you've never seen..." As my sainted grandmother would say, hand on chest, when she saw or heard something unexpected, something unexpectedly gorgeous, "Ay! Mamacita linda!"

§     §     §

The story "The Black Spot" refers to a flaw in Evgeny's jewels, the ones that she thought were perfect, the ones she has been paying on in hock for years and years. The jewel with the black flaw comes center stage at the early part of the story, but begins to have a richer meaning only as we get to know Evgeny better. She comes from Russia, lives in Paris, hocks all she has to migrate to New York, and then ends up in Chicago.

Each of the parts of her journey takes on its own rhythm and strange shading: trying to pawn her flawed black jewelry while living with Alya in Paris; Ludmila, the daughter of her employer in New York who becomes smitten with her; and finally, the mysterious Druzhin that she is to meet in Chicago.

This is Evgeny telling Ludmila about why she wants to go to Chicago, tells of the streets (even though she has yet to go there):

    "On these narrow streets, from roofs to pavements, there are staircases, on the outside, fire escapes, like broken lines in the air, against a sky that is white in the day or red at night. Those stairs make you think of the reverse side of life, of buildings, of the city, they make you think of the flies backstage in a gigantic theatre. Once in a while motionless figures sleep on them, hunched and hanging like black sacks..."

    "Have you ever been there?" she asked, looking at me in amazement.

    "No, I haven't."

    "How do you know all that?"

    I didn't answer.

This on Kalyagin, her boss in New York, father to Ludmila: "On my way out I sometimes had to put iodine on his waist; he believed that iodine was a universal panacea. His body was well groomed, a touch yellow, with large birthmarks." A detail, a sharpness that suddenly pulls the character up for us, makes Kalyagin real, alive. It is Berberova's impeccable ability to capture the touch or look or strangeness of a person (or a place) in such a few words:

    Every city has its own smell. Paris smells of gas, tar, and face powder; Berlin, when I was younger, smelled of gas, cigar, and dog; New York smells of gas, dust, and soup, especially on hot days and hot nights, which can only be broken by a sudden thunderstorm or a hurricane from Labrador or the Caribbean.

So much of Berberova lies in that vague word, pacing. We live with Evgeny during the heart-stopping sequence of digging up enough funds to emigrate to America; we are with her when she finds Ludmila in love with her; then, during all this, she turns, paints a picture of herself that is at odds with what we have experienced of her. A contrary self-portrait that, despite all that, rings true. For, she is like all of us, what we are and what we say we are must be in conflict:

    "Ludmila Lvovna," I said. "Be quiet. I have no idea how you've managed to deceive yourself to such an extent. I lack what everyone else has --- the ability to die inside and come back to life. I don't like life or people, and I'm afraid of them, like most people are, probably even more than most people. I'm not free, I haven't really enjoyed anything for a long time, and I'm not honest because I didn't tell you anything about myself for so long, and now, when I do, it's so difficult."

With this singular speech ("the ability to die inside and come back to life!") she takes her leave of Ludmila, entrains for Chicago, ostensibly to find Druzhin. She has told all the others that ultimately she will go to Chicago to find Druzhin. And when she finally gets there, it turns out... o no: Druzhin doesn't exist. Never did.

It is this exquisite marriage of detail, imagination, paradox and perfidy that drives Berberova's stories --- drives them with a singularity that makes it hard to stop reading (often because we want to save some for tomorrow).

§     §     §

The quote at the top of this review has to do with Chekov, but Berberova is one of his spiritual heirs. Like him, she constructs her own rules: what to include, what to leave out, what to emphasize. And I claim it is these self-designed, self-imposed rules of fiction that turn a story that might be interesting into a masterpiece. Fat spiders. Hurricanes "from Labrador or the Caribbean." The smell of face powder. Sleeping figures hanging like black sacks. Iodine as a universal panacea. Dark blue dragonflies like you've never seen.

They all fit; they all work; we are in the hands of a divine master.

--- Carlos Amantea


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