The Ladies from St. Petersburg: Three Novellas

The Ladies from St. Petersburg: Three Novellas

by Nina Berberova

Russian emigre Berbova (1901-1993) first moved to France in the 1920s, then settled in the U.S. in the 1950s, where she taught at Princeton University.

  • Language: English
  • Category: Fiction
  • Rating: 3.54
  • Pages: 122
  • Publish Date: May 1st 2000 by New Directions Publishing Corporation
  • Isbn10: 0811214362
  • Isbn13: 9780811214360

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And so we get one of the enduring images of the years between the wars - the streets of Paris clogged with Russian emigres, destitute yet haughty, their drawers stuffed with expensive baubles from the old Empire, the cafes and shops of Billancourt resounding to the thick gutturals of the Russian tongue. But this is old Russia: the village is twelve versts away, the roads are rudimentary, and the transports slow, rickety and painful... This is a beautiful story, full of the sounds, smells and sensations of Mother Russia, earthy in the best sense of the word. The next story "Zoya Andreyevna" is set in the heat of the Civil War, when it has become obvious that the Reds are sweeping all before them. Reading the biographical notes, you realize that Berberova wrote this story as a response to her arrival in New York after the war, even Paris by then being a distant memory. I guess it is to Berberova's credit that when she wrote it, Borges was still a decade away from breaking into the Western world, so at least she has some claim to originality!

In one of the previous reviews written here the writer says the stories take place in Paris, but none of these stories takes place in Paris, though Berberova did live there for a time and two of the stories were published there. I think the stories are offering dignity and individuality to people even as they fall into categories, easily. If the stories were to answer this question, which I'm not sure they do, it might be something like this: our actions sometimes spring from our convictions, and sometimes spring from a sense of power or entitlement or curiosity, and sometimes spring from impatience or cruelty, and sometimes spring from a form of learned decorum. I am curious to read Andrei Bely, a writer who is said to have influenced her style, especially the surrealist style of "The Big City." I do think of Bruno Schulz a little when I read these, mainly for the painstaking attention to detail and because the third story reminds me a little of "Cinnamon Shops."

I have to say that short stories or novellas, are not for me. There isn't enough background detail to make the characters real, and their short time on stage seems too abrupt to develop a story. The first novella was of 2 women, mother and semi-grown daughter, going on vacation, at the start of the revolution, which looked to some as a minor disturbance that would soon be pacified. The second novella is about a formerly rich woman, Zoya, who is well educated. A refugee man comes to a new large city (NYC), and tries to understand, fit in, and make a life for himself. One of the issues is you are never sure if the translation sucks the life out of the stories or not.

I was thinking about this summer read last night and felt like writing something about it; weird, since I had nothing to say when I finnished it - but it came suddenly to my mind, so why not?. It's like looking fixedly at a wall in front of you: no feelings or startles.

The next two stories delve deeper into the time of revolution and beyond, but were not near as interesting or as expertly crafted.

Nina Nikolayevna Berberova was a Russian writer who chronicled the lives of Russian exiles in Paris in her short stories and novels. There Berberova began publishing short stories for the Russian emigre publications Poslednie Novosti ("The Latest News") and Russkaia Mysl ("Russian Thought"). After living in Paris for 25 years, Berberova emigrated to the United States in 1950 and became an American citizen in 1959.