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...
(The entire section is 1853 words.)