Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1853
The work of Russian poet, novelist, biographer, and critic Nina Berberova is slowly becoming more well known in English language circles as a result of recent translations. Although she lived in the United States from 1950 until her death in 1993, the author was virtually unknown to Western readers until the English publication of The Accompanist (1988). The Tattered Cloak and Other Novels (1991) began to establish her reputation, and The Ladies of Petersburg, a collection of three novellas, received admiring reviews when published in the United States in 1998.
The Book of Happiness is divided into three parts, each of which centers on the relationship between Vera, a young woman from an aristocratic Russian family, and a different man. Part 1 describes her childhood friendship with a neighboring boy, Sam Adler. Part 2 follows Vera’s relationship with her husband, Alexander Albertovich, a man much older than herself, and part 3 tracks Vera and a man named Karelov as they share a passionate relationship, which takes place after Vera’s husband dies. Berberova’s storytelling technique is similar in each section, with the first two parts beginning in medias res and then proceeding by flashback to explain the origin and the course of each relationship. In part 3, Berberova employs a similar technique, though she makes some changes.
A reader might be forgiven for assuming that the title of the novel is meant ironically, an impression that might be confirmed in the first scene, in which a man has just shot himself to death in a Paris hotel. However, there is indeed nothing ironic about the title. Happiness serves as the theme throughout the book. Vera has it as a child, loses it, and recovers it, and other characters are given to speculating on the meaning of happiness. It is as if happiness is the permanent substratum of existence, upon which the events of human life, whether tragic, comic, or simply dull and unremarkable, occur and are enjoyed or endured. This observation can be inferred from one of Vera’s final realizations, in which she becomes aware “of a happiness that had never left her, had never slipped away but was ever present and enduring.”
In part 1, Vera as a young woman is summoned to Paris where she discovers that the man who has just committed suicide is Adler, her childhood friend. She reminisces about how they first met when she and Nastya, her governess, discovered the then-nine-year-old Adler lost in a park in St. Petersburg, Russia, on a freezing winter’s day. Ten-year-old Vera becomes interested in Adler, who lives across the street, and decides the ginger-haired boy will become her property. They develop an intense friendship. Vera wants to look at him all the time, to tell him everything about herself, and hear everything about him. Giving herself totally to the friendship, she is almost unbearably happy to experience such closeness with another person. She appears to have no siblings or other playmates of her own age.
On one occasion early in their friendship, she and Adler sit together, with their happiness bubbling in laughter for no reason at all. Vera does not know whether she has taken Adler prisoner or vice versa; she just knows that this is happiness and hopes it will last: “She felt as if she were flying through the air and singing at the top of her lungs. She felt as if she were about to shatter and out of her, out of her chest, out of her linen-buttoned bodice, her soul would fly off to God.”
This happiness also manifests in Vera’s love for her mother and the physical closeness they share. The child’s view, in which many events in life have not yet settled into adult categories of “good and bad” or “desirable and undesirable,” are conveyed by her evenness at the prospect of her grandfather’s death. His infirmity does not seem the least bit gloomy to her. “She considered it as natural as the fact that she herself was healthy and alive and would live a long time.” Her happiness has nothing to do with emotions or sentimentality, both of which embarrass her. Rather, her happiness seems more like the “nameless ecstasy” she feels when she observes the stars in the sky or the flowers in the field.
World War I breaks out and as the years pass, Vera’s family becomes aware that Russia is poised on the brink of a revolution that will change their lives. Vera is sixteen when the revolution comes, which, incidentally, is the same age that Berberova was in 1917. This similarity suggests a strong autobiographical element in the novel, particularly as Berberova lived part of her life in exile in Paris, as does her character Vera.
Meanwhile, the love between Vera and Adler has grown. He has already become an accomplished musician, and great things are expected of him. In 1918, however, he and his family must leave St. Petersburg. The last chapter in this section shows the family moving out of their home; their old life, like that of the old Russia, is falling apart. Adler and Vera bid each other a wrenching farewell.
If Vera’s happiness with Adler is her Eden, her relationship with Albertovich, which dominates the next part of the novel, is her Fall. As with Adler, the relationship begins as soon as Vera sets eyes on him. She is a woman who commits herself quickly and irrevocably. She first meets Albertovich at a New Year’s party shortly after Adler has left. He is taciturn and looks as if he is over forty years old. He is, in fact, not yet thirty but still ten years older than she. The party is a drunken one, and he and Vera make love that night in a dark room. Over the next few days, Vera bitterly regrets her impulsive actions. However, when he asks to see her a week later, she begins to change her mind. She is lonely and believes that love with this new man, even though he has no profession and is sick, may be possible. The reason is simple:
She realized that everything that had been burning in her all these last few months—perhaps even for years—was the desire to be good to someone. She guessed that only goodness could save her from orphanhood, passions, and loneliness, that only goodness could make her happy once again, the way she was as a child, that only goodness, goodness alone, was for her, now, love.
As their relationship develops, Vera, who is always seeking explanations and understanding of her emotional states, still dwells on the idea of happiness. She asks Albertovich whether he has ever had a moment when he felt that even death could not take away what was most important to him and whether he remembers anything ever making him so happy that he thought he might fall down and lose his mind. Albertovich answers with a brusque “no” to each question. Seemingly, no one in Vera’s world, except perhaps her mother, understands her fascination with happiness and her capacity for it. Albertovich’s uncomprehending responses recall an earlier incident between Vera and her father, in which he belittles her love for Adler by instructing her about the relentless passage of time that destroys love and turns everything to dust.
Vera accepts Albertovich’s proposal of marriage, but she does so without joy. She thinks she has no choice and feels oppressed, as if all the sadness in Albertovich’s world is pouring into her.
When the newlyweds emigrate to Paris, Albertovich soon becomes sick with tuberculosis and exerts a tyrannous control over Vera’s life that makes her feel as if she is suffocating. However, after a year of enduring his controlling ways, she meekly accepts her situation and longs for the death of her husband. After three years of marriage, his death sets her free again.
Albertovich’s death takes place in December, and after this winter in Vera’s life, part 3 of The Book of Happiness begins the following spring. Appropriately for the season, Vera is clearly on the way to recovering her true nature. She wakes up one morning and experiences a moment of such intense happiness that it acquires almost mystical dimensions:
. . . everything inside her, relaxed by sleep, eased: suddenly she looked out calmly and attentively and saw something where before there seemed to have been nothing, looked and saw the life that was in her, that current, and having seen that, merged with something else in a suffocating joy—not over the reflection in the mirror she had once dreamed of, but over the entire universe, the rising sun, the screeching birds, with everything that does not and cannot have an end. And in this almost intolerable instant . . . she felt not that time was flowing through her but that she herself was time, she and the sun, the birds, and the universe.
As a result of this moment of illumination, Vera realizes that everything that will happen to her in the future is somehow already contained within her and therefore cannot originate from anything outside of or foreign to herself.
The eventual upshot of this rebirth is that Vera meets her true love, Karelov. He appears one day at Vera’s apartment, and, from their ensuing conversations, it seems that they have had a previous close relationship that Vera terminated for unexplained reasons. Karelov is a match for her, as he is the one character in the book aside from Vera who talks directly about his need for happiness. This strikes a deep chord with her because what Karelov wants is exactly what she wants, “not peace’ or freedom’ but happiness, the most genuine and impossible happiness.” Karelov also has the ability to discuss the nature of happiness with her in the speculative, imaginative way she enjoys.
When they finally commit themselves to each other, despite her troubled marriage to Albertovich, Vera realizes that all her life she had believed herself to be happy but now realizes that she had been actually very unhappy. This statement should perhaps not be taken at face value yet should merely show that there are degrees of happiness, and when one finds a greater happiness, former ones may seem like nothing by comparison.
What is the nature of the happiness Vera now discovers? In the final scene, when she is standing close to Karelov, gazing into his eyes and wanting to express her deepest thoughts to him, she finds that she can say nothing at all. She becomes completely mute; not a single word escapes. Happiness, it appears, has no words; it simply lives in the heart, in awed silence, as the lover contemplates the beloved.
There have been countless novels that have dissected every shade and nuance of human misery but not so many that have so delicately explored the texture of happiness as this one does. The Book of Happiness is a memorable novel that will certainly enhance the posthumous reputation of Nina Berberova.
Sources for Further Study
The New York Times Book Review 104 (July 25, 1999): 26.
Publishers Weekly 246 (February 22, 1999): 64.
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