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The Book of Happiness


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About the Author

Nina Nikolaevena Berberova (1901-1993) was born in St. Petersburg. She left Russia after the revolution in 1922, eventually settling in Paris in 1925 with her lover Vladislav Khodasevich. She moved to the U.S. in 1950 and taught at Yale and Princeton. In France she was honored as a Chevalier of the French Order of Arts and Letters.


Russian ‚migr‚ writer Berberova, who died in 1993, is known primarily for her memoirs and her criticism. Marian Schwartz, the translator of this and previous works, helps to round out the picture with this novel, giving voice to Berberova's finely tuned, tersely evocative fiction. The heroine, Vera, is much like Berberova describes herself in her autobiography: a woman with a cool head in the hothouse world of Russian ‚migr‚s' Europe in the 1920s. Immediately signaling the ironic title, the narrative begins with a suicide. Sam Adler, once a musical prodigy, shoots himself in a hotel room in Paris. A hotel clerk calls Vera, to whom he has left a note: "Life tricked me... and I'm surrendering with honor before it's too late." By this Lubitsch-like conceit we then move wholly into Vera's existence. Sam is her childhood friend, and his death brings up memories of prerevolutionary St. Petersburg. Berberova vividly evokes the flight of the upper classes when the revolution strikes; how the crammed opulence of those Petersburg mansions blocks the exits. Vera, who is similarly privileged, stays, while Sam's family emigrates to America. There, he fails to find the successful career he expected; years later, he returns to Paris to die. Meanwhile, Vera meets the sickly but charismatic Alexander Albertovich, who takes her from the Soviet Union to Paris. Albertovich is reminiscent of Berberova's real-life lover, Khodasavich. He drowns Vera's youth in his own lingering death, so that when he dies, Vera feels released. She travels to Nice and embarks on love affairs, one of which sends her fleeing back to Paris with her ex-lover and his ex-wife on her heels. Berberova makes Vera's inner life so opaque that the reasons why Vera seems repeatedly to define herself in terms of sickly men remains enigmatic. Yet this book is an important addition to ‚migr‚ literature, which, as we are discovering, is much more than just Nabokov. (Apr.)

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