Nina Berberova has been among the least well known of twentieth century Russian writers. Although she possesses impeccable credentials in terms of background and attachments, there has been a danger that much of her work would remain lost or ignored in the files of the Russian émigré literary magazines to which she contributed and that helped support her exile in Paris in the years between the two world wars. This danger continued to exist despite the 1969 publication of Berberova’s memoirs, The Italics Are Mine, which detail her sophisticated background and give keen insights into prominent members of the Russian expatriate intelligentsia. A short novel, The Accompanist, was published in 1988. It is only with the appearance of The Tattered Cloak and Other Novels, however, that the general reader may begin to appreciate the quality of Berberova’s talent and the nature of her distinctive artistic contribution to twentieth century Russian literature. In addition, this work documents with a precision that is intimidating in its fastidiousness and coldness the fate of the author’s expatriate generation, with a particular emphasis on the female members of that generation.
The conception of fate that the volume expresses is not merely an external or circumstantial one. On the contrary, the emphasis is on the quality of the various protagonists’ consciousness. The corrosive effects of estrangement, inevitable decline of family fortunes, degrading and unremunerative employment, isolation, and the other innumerable losses that exile connotes culminate in severe cases of existential anxiety and vulnerability. It is as though the physical landscape in which Berberova’s characters are obliged to live is matched by an internal spiritual disorientation. Because it goes beyond the anecdotal to anatomize the stagnant spirits of its characters, The Tattered Cloak and Other Novels becomes an important, if recognizably interwar, statement on the human condition in one of its representative twentieth century embodiments, that of the refugee.
The international recognition that Berberova’s work has received since the works in The Tattered Cloak and Other Novels began to be published separately in France in 1986 is fitting acknowledgement of the international theme and its significance in her work. At the same time, however, Berberova handles the theme in such a way that its origins in Soviet and Russian history is inescapable. One of the author’s ambitions seems to be to confront these origins in the name of her suffering protagonists, characters who suffer partly because they are incapable of carrying out such a confrontation on their own behalf. The imaginative intensity that Berberova brings to her hapless and largely unprepossessing protagonists is a means of expressing something of the spirit that they have either lost or misplaced or of which they have been deprived. An additional arresting feature of The Tattered Cloak and Other Novels is that it retains that intensity and that the reader feels its remarkable impact despite the change in contexts between the time that the book’s contents were first published and the time of their republication. Moreover. Berberova seems to have been well served by her translator.
The Tattered Cloak and Other Novels is a more comprehensive collection of Berberova’s works than the French and British publications upon which it is based. The volume’s title is slightly misleading, in the sense that it is not accurate to refer to its contents as “novels.” Rather, the work consists of six novellas. No dates accompany them, and the verso of the title page states the dates of their most recent publication in France. From their settings and storylines, however, it may be concluded that they all date from the years of Berberova’s most obvious travail, from the time of her departure from the Soviet Union in 1924 to her leaving Paris for the United States in 1950. An exception to this dating rule of thumb may be the volume’s final piece, “In Memory of Schliemann.” This is the volume’s least characteristic, thinnest, and, from one point of view, most chilling story, which consolidates and generalizes the mood and plight that the other, more localized, novellas depict.
In terms of the overall balance of the book, however, and the relationship between its components and the manner in which this relationship can be fashioned and refashioned by the reader, which is one of the obvious pleasure of any volume of short fiction, “In Memory of Schliemann” provides a striking counterpart to the volume’s opening story, “The Resurrection of Mozart.” As with all the pieces in The Tattered cloak and Other Novels, the main theme of both the opening and closing stories is termination. In view of the stories’ background, this theme’s prominence is hardly surprising. Not only does it articulate the characters’ historical and cultural circumstances, together with their existential implications, but also it brings to the fore the immediate drama that the characters are obliged to endure.
The drama derives from the uncertainty that the end of things inevitably brings. The sight of the cast of characters in “The Resurrection of Mozart” driving erratically down the road to the hostilities of World War II—preeminently the war of displacement and the war against civilians—is an image of inconclusiveness as eloquent as it is pathetic. The story’s title may seem to suggest...