Where was he from? And where should he go, and did he have to go any farther? And what was life, this pulse, this breathing, this waiting, what was this ecstasy, this grief, this war? He was so weak, but he had a powerful harmony in his heart, a melody in his head” (25) – Nina Berberova, The Resurrection of Mozart.
The Tattered Cloak and Other Stories by Nina Berberova is exhibit A in my perpetual side note defense of libraries. Her books happen to lay on the shelf above the Bulgakov I had sought out. In all honesty it was another title of hers that first caught my eye, The Book of Happiness. I can’t quite say why I chose this one instead…perhaps it stems from my status as an unbeliever, but now that I have read her stories I feel confident that she and I have some congress. Still, one must roam. One must have the opportunity to bump into books. We are all far too limited, left to our own insular and circular devices. What will become of fate?
“I don’t smoke and I don’t philosophize,” said Astashev (125, Astashev in Paris)
Fine with the smoking but, As Mallarmé wrote, let’s think it over…Berberova’s character’s are a hurting shell shocked bunch, their lives are one blow after another – philosophy is hardly possible in a state of shock, and difficult in a state of poverty, but seems, to me, essential. In these stories, as cynical and inured to fate a person may seem, there is no end to the stupefaction of the dischord. I think we all know it’s not suppose to be like this.
But I wasn’t going to hug her anymore, and I wasn’t going to cry with her. That night I had hardened, and I even experienced a certain satisfaction from feeling harder (177, The Tattered Cloak).
Written in the 30’s and 40’s Berberova’s stories are primarily about Russian emigres in Paris. The one-two whammy of the world wars is described with a cool distance: a disjointed, moorless, disconnect. It is heart wrenching- the true result of war – death: for the dead and living alike. I already would have taken some convincing to believe that anyone could raise the bar for the Russian Department of Despair- given their exposure, but holy smokes, Nina!
I would drag Tolstoy back into God’s world. Wasn’t it you, dear sir, who denied the role of the individual in history? You who declared that there would be no more wars? And wasn’t it you who took a skeptical view of vaccinations? No, don’t try to wriggle out of it now. Just have a look at the results” (6, The Resurrection of Mozart).
I will confess that I would have most likely put this book aside had I been without another (I have a high tolerance for pain, but I am truly on a campaign to change my errant ways, I swear). There was a glimmer in Astashev in Paris, but that was, apparently, just my relentless seemingly innate groping hope rearing its head. Needless to say, Berberova slapped that bitch down.
“You’ve got a lot to learn, Zhenechka. I suggest you start taking instruction from me” (141, Astashev in Paris).
I really wanted this one to end well….I think that is the point – isn’t it all suppose to end well? How does it happen that it doesn’t? There is something un-credible about the human ability to manufacture its own pain and suffering so relentlessly. No child would believe it. Some call it innocence, but I feel there is that bud of love in our cores that wants to grow, must grow, and the perversity of a world which stunts that urge is appalling and unbelievable.
She had everything I hold dear in this solar system, all the rest was Neptune and Pluto (271, The Black Spot).
It was Berberova’s story The Black Spot that will stay with me always. By the time I got to it, I was fully Russian in spirit if not actuality. Far away, almost like a dream, the narrator’s voice called…yes, she said: this is the story, this is reality, but… but I tell the tale for a reason, I give you, Reader, these dead hearts so that you will know there is another way. As bleak as it is, as crushing as poverty and the stupidity of war is, we all want the same thing. Yes. We do. Fate will write the score, but we are not wrong to expect harmony and melody from each other.