Tag Archives: Tolstoy

Harmony and Melody

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.









More Bleeding Stumps of Verse

“But the truthfulness of juxtapositions and deductions is sometimes better preserved on the near side of the verbal fence.” – Vladimir Nabokov, The Gift

Maybe it should be called: Inside The Brain of a Writer 101, by Vladimir Nabokov. The sausage making process in all of its fantastic wonder. The only problem is that his sausage tastes so good I can’t think of why I’d ever bother to make my own.  I am left with my sad offerings of “bleeding stumps of verse,” Nabokov’s euphemism for excerpts and quotes. Chagrined but not deterred, I continue –

“But sometimes he envied the simple love life of other men and the way they probably had of whistling while taking off their shoes.” (178)

I think it is the word “probably” in that sentence that makes me love Nabokov so much. He is so astoundingly authentic in his description of life lived in the interior; he admits uncertainty, but come on -let’s have a little fun. He is never so profound and joyful as when he is at his most flippant:

“Because of her I almost forgot butterflies and completely overlooked the revolution.” (161)

Nabokov understands that all experience is sensual, even writing- especially writing. He is not one to leave out bodily or mental functions, and I love him dearly for it. This was Nabokov’s last book written in Russian, and I wish I had a deeper understanding of Russian literature with which to fully experience it, but my limited love affairs with Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Pushkin will have to do.

“Leave Pushkin alone: he is the gold reserve of our literature. And over there is Chekhov’s hamper, which contains enough food for years to come, and a whimpering puppy, and a bottle of Crimean wine.”

I like to think he is referring specifically to one of my all time favorite short stories, Chekhov’s The Lady With The Dog, I can’t remember if her dog ever whimpered, but there was a shared melon that stays with me…After all, does it matter if I comprehend every reference?  At least I am getting to a point in my life where I know what I don’t know. Progress.

“And not only was Zina cleverly and elegantly made to measure for him by a very painstaking fate, but both of them, forming a single shadow, were made to the measure of something not quite comprehensive, but wonderful and benevolent and continuously surrounding them.” (189)

Yes. Perhaps my favorite description of love I have ever read, whether or not it is true I am left to wonder, but I like it all the same. “Made to the measure,” – it’s a lovely notion. A lovely image.

One can get lost inside Fydor’s mind, I think even he gets a little lost in his own mind at times. But the final chapter may just be one of the sweetest I’ve ever read and funny as well with a nude amble through a park’s woods that is forcibly protracted when his clothing is stolen.

There is much about you I don’t like- your Petersburg style, your Gallic taint, your neo-Voltaireanism and weakness for Flaubert- and I find, forgive me, your obscene sporty nudity simply offensive.” (353)

Fydor’s gift is his writing, or rather it is Nabokov showing us his writing from the inside out in a way that is of course a ridiculous impossibility to show, right up until the moment the words find your eyes and it becomes clear that it is an effortlessly obvious thing to show. What was I thinking?

“I have been reciting a fictitious dialogue with myself as supplied by a self-teaching handbook of literary inspiration.” (88)

Oh good, I’m not the only one.

In Nabokov’s view, Fate, apparently, is sweet to some, tenaciously, even insistently, bearing the gift of love. It’s delicious.