Berberova, Nina (1901–1993)

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Berberova, Nina (1901–1993)

Russian-born writer whose life as an exile was vividly portrayed in her autobiography, The Italics Are Mine. Name variations: Berbérova. Born Nina Nikolaevna Berberova in St. Petersburg, Russia, on August 8, 1901; died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on September 26, 1993; daughter of Nikolai and Natalia (Karaulova) Berberova; lived with the poet Vladislav Khodasevich for over a decade, starting in 1922; married Nikolai Makeyev (divorced); married George Kochevitsky, in 1954 (divorced 1983).

Grew up in the last years of pre-Bolshevik Russian literary and artistic culture; left Russia (1922) after Communist takeover, living mostly in Paris (1920s–1930s); existed in near-poverty, at the same time writing novels that remained unpublished in France; survived World War II hiding in French countryside; immigrated to U.S. (1950); had a successful academic career at Yale and Princeton Universities (1958–71); returned to visit Russia (1989); became famous in English-speaking countries in later years.

Although it was not until the last decade of her life that Nina Berberova became a literary superstar, books and words were at the center of her existence from infancy on. Born into an upper-middle-class family that was passionately involved in the arts, by the age of ten she had confidently chosen the writing of poetry as her adult career. Both of Nina's parents were active participants in the intellectual life of St. Petersburg; her father Nikolai was a civil servant of Armenian ancestry, while her mother Natalia Karaulova Berberova was descended from an old Russian noble family. One of these ancestors was a slothful landowner of 400 pounds who served as the model for Oblomov, the famous character described by Ivan Goncharov in his classic novel depicting the decline of Russia's aristocracy. Characterizing her youthful decision to embark on a literary career, Berberova described the power she felt as a child:

Verses gushed out of me. I choked in them, I couldn't stop. I wrote them at the rate of two or three a day and read them to myself, to Dasha, to Mademoiselle, to my parents, to their friends, to whoever was there. This rigorous sense of vocation has never left me.

Life was pleasant for Berberova until 1917, when the Bolshevik revolution signalled the end of the leisurely existence enjoyed by Russia's intelligentsia. Civil war, foreign blockade, and a terrible famine seemed to only make more intense the struggles of the nation's artists. Berberova's manuscripts were passed from hand to hand, and the noted poet Nikolai Gumilev encouraged her to carry on writing despite the obstacles. Nina continued to dream of success as a writer, but the acquiring of skills for survival took up most of her energy: "I had not been taught anything useful; I did not know how to sew felt boots, to comb out lice from children's heads, to bake a pie out of potato peels." She did not abandon her quest to become a renowned writer, however, and somehow managed to pursue her studies at Rostov University. But the specter of Bolshevik cultural repression made her leave Soviet Russia in 1922; Nina Berberova never saw her parents again—they died of cold and hunger in 1943.

Berberova had by now fallen in love with a fellow writer, the brilliant but unstable poet Vladislav Khodasevich, and for the next few years this inseparable pair traveled throughout Europe as members of Maxim Gorky's household. In 1925, Berberova and Khodasevich settled in Paris where her income as a book, theater and film reviewer, and occasional contributor of critical essays and short fiction to the exile newspaper Poslednye Novosti often barely enabled her to pay their room and board.

Life with Khodasevich was often emotionally trying, and by the early 1930s Berberova had left him, eventually marrying the journalist Nikolai Makeyev. During the 1930s, she wrote novels and biographies, including a study of the composer Tchaikovsky that included a frank discussion of his homosexuality. By the late 1930s, despite the need to earn a living through her routine journalistic work, she had been able to publish three novels and a series of novellas based on the countless tragedies and rare triumphs of emigré life. Berberova's sharply etched evocations of the lives of Russian exiles in the Paris suburb of Billancourt, where thousands of them carried on precarious existences as workers in the Renault automobile factory, have taken their place as classic achievements of modern Russian literature.

During these years, Berberova's personal life was complex and multifaceted. Although separated from Khodasevich, she remained on good terms with him and spent years nursing him through what proved to be a terminal illness. The years of World War II were full of fear and suffering, with many of her friends dying. Poverty was never far from Berberova's door, when she and her husband hid from the Germans by living in the French countryside. The end of the war in 1945 seemed to bring fresh energies to Berberova, who continued to write novels and other pieces as well as remaining active as a working journalist. She played a key role in the establishment of the first new Russian newspaper in Paris in many years, Russkaya mysl. Her reports of the trial of Viktor Kravchenko, author of I Chose Freedom and a sharp critic of the Soviet system of terror, began the slow process of informing French public opinion about the existence of the gulag system in the Soviet Union.

By 1950, Nina Berberova had decided that the time had come for a major change in her life. She divorced her husband and set out for the United States. Arriving in New York virtually penniless and speaking almost no English, she exhibited a courage verging on recklessness. For almost a decade, she worked at many different jobs, only occasionally being able to publish in a Russian-language journal. Once more gaining in confidence as a writer, she published a novella in 1958. That same year, she joined the editorial board of the emigré journal Mosty. Her 1954 marriage to the musician George Kochevitsky, although it ended in divorce in 1983, helped provide almost three decades of relative stability in her private life.

In September 1958, Berberova became a member of the Slavic Department at Yale University. Her friends almost immediately noticed signs of a profound intellectual rejuvenation, not only in the classroom but in her writings. Among the signs of this new creativity were experimental works of free verse, well-argued critical articles, and translations of T.S. Eliot into Russian. In 1963, Berberova joined the Princeton University Slavic Department, remaining there until her retirement in 1971. It was during her Princeton years that she published her autobiography, The Italics Are Mine (1969). This richly textured, highly opinionated memoir first brought Berberova's life and personality to the attention of the English-speaking world. The doomed world of Old Russia and the tragedies of emigré life in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s were now recreated on the pages of a brilliantly written autobiography. Reviews were enthusiastic, and the process of turning Nina Berberova into a literary superstar, the last survivor of the great tradition in Russian literature, now began to gather momentum.

Berberova's retirement from teaching in 1971 signalled the start of the most intense productivity of her writing career. During the next years, she wrote several important books, including a biography of Moura Budberg , a collection of poetry, and a history of Russian Freemasonry in the 20th century. Advancing years served to intensify rather than slacken her intellectual energies, and she thoroughly enjoyed writing, preparing her older works for the press, and entertaining a steady stream of visitors. Continuing to live in university housing at Princeton, she was a familiar figure at the faculty club and library. She enjoyed travels to Europe, continued to drive her car well into her 80s, and bought a computer which she thoroughly mastered.

A high point of her final years was doubtless her 1989 trip to the Soviet Union. Accepting an invitation by the Soviet Writers' Union, her appearances were little short of triumphal. Returning to Russia after an absence of 67 years, she packed every auditorium in Leningrad and Moscow where she read from her works and answered questions from the audience. Now ranked with the greats of Russian literature, some critics began to compare her writings with the works of Chekhov and Turgenev. After decades of neglect and poverty, Berberova clearly enjoyed her belated fame and affluence. Her autobiography had sold well in the United States, but in France in the 1980s her books were explosive bestsellers. By the time of her death, Berberova's books were available in translations in 22 languages. France made her a Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1989, while Yale University awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1992. Despite her advancing years, Berberova continued to plan for the future, moving to Philadelphia in 1990 and purchasing a condominium in a building designed by I.M. Pei that provided a striking view of the Delaware River and Society Hill. It was here that she fell in March 1993, suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. After a brief hospitalization, Nina Berberova was moved to a nursing home where she died on September 26, 1993. Thus ended a remarkable life, full of work and achievement (and disappointments as well) which had begun in the radically different milieu of tsarist Russia. In her final years, the world came to fully appreciate the life and work of a remarkable woman whose willpower to prevail over adversity had been more than matched by her artistic talent.

sources:

Barker, Murl G. "In Memoriam Nina Nikolaevna Berberova 1901–1993," in Slavic and East European Journal. Vol. 38. No. 3. Fall, 1994, pp. 553–556.

Barker, Murl. "Nina Berberova on Surviving," in Selecta: Journal of the Pacific Northwest Council on Foreign Languages. Vol. 11, 1990, pp. 69–72.

Berberova, Nina. Histoire de la Baronne Boudberg: Biographie. Translated by Michel Nigueux. Paris: Actes Sud, 1991.

——. The Italics Are Mine. Translated by Philippe Radley. Rev. ed. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

——. The Tattered Cloak and Other Novels. Translated by Marian Schwartz. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.

——. The Ladies from St. Petersburg. Translated by Marian Schwartz. NY: New Directions, 1998.

Bethea, David M. Khodasevich: His Life and Art. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Buck, Joan Juliet. "Nina Berberova," in The New Yorker. Vol. 69, no. 35. October 25, 1993, pp. 94–95.

Collins, Glenn. "Nina Berberova, 92, Poet, Novelist and Professor," The New York Times Biographical Service, September 1993, p. 1339.

Collins, Louise Mooney, and Lorna Mpho Mabunda, eds. The Annual Obituary 1993. Detroit, MI: St. James Press, 1994.

Kakutani, Michiko. "An Émigré in Paris Willing to Start Afresh," in The New York Times. April 14, 1992, p. B2.

Raeff, Marc. Russia Abroad: A Cultural History of the Russian Emigration, 1919–1939. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Rose, Phyllis, ed. The Norton Book of Women's Lives. NY: W.W. Norton, 1993.

Tucker, Martin, ed. Literary Exile in the Twentieth Century: An Analysis and Biographical Dictionary. NY: Greenwood Press, 1991.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Berberova, Nina (1901–1993)

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