Berberova's The Book of Happiness (1936) and French Letters

Ruth Rischin, Independent Scholar

In the Preface to C'est moi qui souligne, the French edition of Kursiv moi, in one of her few extant excurses in French, Nina Berberova (1901-1993) recapitulates moments in the two-hundred-year-long Russian conversation with French men and women of letters: Catherine the Great and Diderot; Prince Jussupov and Voltaire; Turgenev, Flaubert, and Sand; her own glimpses of Clemenceau, Valéry, and Gide. Reluctant to assign herself a place in this dialogue, she makes evident in the various genres of her writings, her membership within that company. Berberova and one aspect of the Franco-Russian literary engagement is the subject that I shall address in my paper.

In 1925 the young Berberova first made her name as a promising Russian emigré writer and journalist. Almost sixty years later, the discovery of the eighty-three-year-old Berberova by Hubert Nyssen, publisher, and the French translation of her writings that ensued under the Actes Sud imprint, putting her book sales in the tens of thousands, suddenly changed the terms of the discussion. Berberova now was no longer a Russian writer but a European, and specifically, a French femme de lettres.

This new readership came to signify for Berberova her supreme happiness, her books in translation, her livres du bonheur. It is only natural that her French readers should seek their place within an indigenous French literary tradition. Indeed, Berberova's writings invite comparison with those of George Sand (1804-1876) and Marguerite Duras (1914-96). Sand and Duras, in their experimental blurring of the genres of fiction and autobiography, introduce threadbare heroines, whose self-creation begins with the improvising of a new attire--a motif that figures importantly in various Berberova stories. Also prominent in the works of Sand and Duras, the image of the woman writer as nurturer, the theme of the writer as chronicler of her times, and discussions, if not outright manifestos of l'écriture feminine and exile--Sand from conventional marriage, Duras from the despised colonialism of L'Indo, the French Indochina of her childhood--have parallels in Berberova's treatment of writing and exile that courses through the Paris chapters of her autobiography.

As we investigate these correspondences, other concerns and themes shared by these writers emerge. It is these that I address in this paper, my focus on Berberova's Kniga o schast'e (1936), translated as Le livre du bonheur (1996). Upon examining Berberova's Book of Happiness, Sand's first novel, Indiana (1832), preceding Berberova's by a century, and Duras's L'amant (The Lover) (1985), published in the very year of Berberova's debut as a popular French writer--the affinities become eminently clear. Perceived in terms of the presentation of the heroine--Berberova's Vera, Sand's Indiana, Duras's "the girl"--these novels have in common a narration focussed on stages in loving: brotherly-sisterly affections and/or implications of incest; erotic love and/or a nurturing-of-the-weaker kind of love; finally, a mature love relationship. Second, these texts are l'ecriture of "Creole" writers--the woman writer, who whether by background or blood, as the voice of an outsider, represents an exotic culture in which issues of sensuality are a marker. ndiana, Sand's heroine who runs off to an island in the Indian Ocean, is of Creole origin, and Creole here, stands in for "outsider." Berberova's Vera takes up with a string of outsiders, beginning with her beloved childhood chum, the Jewish violin prodigy, Sam Adler, with whom she invents escapes to tropical islands. Duras's "girl," herself Eurasion, is awakened into full sensuality by her Chinese lover. The third treated in these texts is that of truth and artefact, of the authorial voice, after all, the sought-for destination of the stages of loving and of the "happiness" (to the extent that it exists) of the writer/outsider.

Berberova's oeuvre consistently reveals her remaking of inherited Russian literary traditions. Surely, Kniga o schast'e looks back to Tolstoy's "Family Happiness" (1857), and in its self-referential treatment of Vera's stages in loving to Tolstoy's Childhood, Boyhood, Youth trilogy (1852, 1854 1857). Berberova was fascinated with the 18th century, as her story, "Roquenval" (1936) and Book of Happiness demonstrate. Sand's Indiana takes place on the tropical isle of Bourbon; Berberova's moves back and forth from Paris to Nice to St. Petersburg, with an imagined island sequence in the first section devoted to the childhood friendship of Vera and Sam. The Sand and the Berberova look back to Rousseau's The Reveries of a Solitary Walker (1782) and to Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's Paul et Virginie (1787). Through the Rousseau, the Bernardin de St. Pierre, and the Sand, it can be argued, Berberova readdresses issues of sensuality, happiness, and writing, that run through Bunin's The Life of Arsen'ev (Books I-IV, 1927-1933) and that in her text seem to polemicize with the views of her esteemed contemporary and rival.

"U nas o schast'e pishut malo, pishut redko--da i kak pisat' o tom chego ne znaesh'?" quipped a reviewer, lauding Berberova's novel upon its first publication in Contemporary Annals. Precisely! Through the French literary tradition, through the remaking of concepts of happiness, Berberova wrote her own answer to meditations on the Russian unhappiness of her celebrated predecessors and Russian emigré contemporaries alike.

It would be remiss to leave the discussion here. The last issue that this paper will explore is that of translation and the creation of the paratext as part of the literary and marketing process of Berberova's Franco-Russian double appertenance. The gratifying closure of her long life, Berberova's triumphant reception in France in the 1980s and 1990s brings full circle her enduring affinities with French letters.