Because of Who She’s Known and What She’s Seen, the World Has Rediscovered . . . : Madame Berberova


The ill-fated coup d’etat in her homeland was but hours old when the telephone began to ring in Nina Berberova’s high-rise Society Hill condominium.

French journalists wanted her opinion on the future of the Soviet Union. She demurred, kindly.

“I said ‘I am such a pessimist, that I don’t want to talk,’ “recalls Berberova. “Nothing, nothing, in my opinion, do I see that would be good. But why leave people without any hope? And who am I to speak of politics? So I played the laaaaady!”


Nina Berberova toys playfully with the word lady, then laughs quietly. There is irony here, which this Russian poet and writer obviously enjoys. For Berberova has rarely if ever played the role of a polite lady, afraid to speak her mind.

“I, to my chagrin, considered myself made of pig iron,” she wrote in her autobiography, “The Italics Are Mine.”

For good reason. This determined, pig-iron constitution is very much the reason Berberova has survived. At 90, she is the last of an emigre circle that fled Russia in 1922, when the revolution she once welcomed turned to the persecution of intellectuals.

From Berlin to Sorrento to Paris, Berberova moved in the same emigre circles with such writers and poets as Bunin, Gorky, Bely, Zaitsev, Nabokov and Vladislav Khodasevich, the great 20th-Century poet who was her lover and companion. In relative obscurity, she wrote prose, poetry and journalistic accounts for emigre publications, known to a finite audience of artists, writers and poets in exile.

Now, in the twilight of her life--41 years after she moved from Paris to America with two suitcases full of papers and books--Berberova has attained what was never hers in youth. She is famous.

The French rediscovered her works in the late 1980s. Her newly translated short novels and autobiography became a fixture on the bestseller lists, and Madame Berberova flourished as a media darling.

In 1989, she was invited back to the Soviet Union, where tremendous crowds greeted her and, for the first time in 67 years, she discussed her life and her work.

She has never attained such popular acclaim in America, but today she appears poised for that, too. “The Tattered Cloak and Other Novels,” a collection of six short novellas, was recently published by Alfred A. Knopf. Reviewers have judged the work as being everything from respectful and vivid, to dazzling and brilliant.

Early next year, Knopf is scheduled to publish an expanded version of “The Italics Are Mine.” The book was first translated and released in the United States in 1969, but reviews were cool. In the last decade, however, a new audience of scholars and readers fascinated by her intimate memoirs and insights into emigre life have rediscovered her work. Recently, the book has been called “one of the great human documents of this century.”

When “The Italics Are Mine” was published in France in 1989, Berberova enjoyed watching it ascend the bestsellers’ list, for a while neck-and-neck with Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses.”

“I jumped over that Persian writer--Rushdie,” she says. “He was 9, I was 10. He was 5, I was 6. And then I was 1 and he was 2. So that was the great day when I brought back my money that I made in France and bought the condominium.”

Berberova is sitting in that condo now. She and friends jokingly call her one-bedroom home with a view of the Delaware River her “little piece of America,” the first real estate she has owned. It is college-student bare--a couch, chairs, a working desk covered with precise piles of papers, a stereo, a dining room table and chairs, bookcases. No icons, no samovars, no overtly material possessions that Berberova never cared for.

And yet this room is completely filled with her life, and everything that was and is important to her.

One bookcase is devoted to the European editions of her work--her poetry, which she stopped writing in the ‘30s; her novels, a collection of unsentimental yet poignant, dark accounts of emigre life; her biographies, ranging from Tchaikovsky and Blok to Marya Budberg, former secretary of Gorky and mistress to H. G. Wells, as well as double agent for Stalin and the British.

On one shelf rests a photograph of Hubert Nyssen, Berberova’s European publisher and owner of Actes Sud, the Parisian publishing house credited with rediscovering Berberova in 1985 when Nyssen read and later published her book, “L’Accompagnatrice” (The Accompanist) .

On an opposite wall, bookcases are tight with Russian works by other emigre writers, as well as English texts on their lives. This collection of Russian literature and history reflects the life Berberova created for herself in America.

For seven years after her 1950 arrival in New York, Berberova wrote for journals, supported herself as a file clerk and went to night school to learn English. Along the way, she met Richard Burgi, a Yale professor of Russian language and literature. In 1958, she began to teach Russian at Yale, quickly moving to Russian literature. When Burgi moved to Princeton in 1963, Berberova went, too.

At both Yale and Princeton, Berberova became a campus celebrity--embraced by the world of academia and graduate students for her remarkable associations with the past.

“That was one of the things about Nina,” says Dr. John E. Malmspad, Harvard University professor of Slavic Languages and Literature and a former student of Berberova’s at Princeton. “You might have gotten a more disciplined, academic course from someone else, and a lot of professors were great scholars and wonderful teachers. But none of them had Nina’s background. Here was someone who had known most of the writers she was talking about. In that sense, she’s pretty unique.”

At Princeton, Berberova directed Malmspad’s dissertation on the poet Andrey Bely. He has since edited a collection of Khodasevich’s work, and is now writing a biography of Bely, who was with Berberova and Khodasevich in Berlin in 1923.

“Whenever I do anything,” Malmspad admits, “Nina is the only one who can answer certain mysterious questions.”

Berberova’s association with the past is literally captured in a photograph, taken in Berlin in 1923. Berberova is the only woman in the group of eight Russian writers in exile, including Zaitsev, Bely and Khodasevich. One of eight original prints hangs above her desk in Philadelphia.

In the picture, Berberova is 22, her face as she once described in “The Italics Are Mine”: “As a young girl I had a rather pretty face, though it lacked expression.”

Nearly 70 years later, her brown eyes are the same, but that is all. She recently decided to stop dyeing her hair auburn; it is growing in, white. Her face is deeply lined with expression and experience.

And Nina Berberova is still the fiercely independent woman of pig iron who left Russia in a boxcar at age 21.

She retired from Princeton in 1971, but continued to live and write there until several friends persuaded her to move to Philadelphia last year.

She lives alone. But she is quick to note her disgust for people who characterize her life as lonely, those who describe her as “a woman without children or grandchildren.” She is extremely blunt when asked about children.

“I don’t think I would have lived if I had had children . . .. I would have committed suicide,” she says, icily. “Because this is the most awful thing for a woman who counts every minute. For writing, for doing something, for encountering interesting people.”

Berberova is less direct about her personal life.

“I was never married.” A long pause. “I’m sorry. I am lying. With Khodasevich, I was not married. With the second, I was not married either. Nikolai Vasilievich Makeiev, a painter.”

Berberova lived with each companion for about 10 years, a quirk of time that once allowed her to comment to a friend, “Ten years with any man I love is long enough.”

But after she moved to the United States, Berberova married a musician whom she will not name. It “was not love at all, no love,” she insists, but an arrangement to allow the Russian musician to stay in this country. She is vague. She claims the musician was at risk, but her friends say the marriage protected her, not him.

Finally, Berberova flatly dismisses the marriage question, using what her friends call her favorite adjective: “It is uninteresting.”

Her friends note that while she comments little about the recent coup attempt in the Soviet Union, the news has taken its emotional toll. She admits that she slept 11 hours one recent night, after a day of television and French interviews.

The disturbing news no doubt takes her back to 1989, when she visited the Soviet Union for the first time in 67 years. She was disturbed by the poverty, the dirt, the lack of understanding about the past, the deterioration of her native St. Petersburg (now Leningrad). “Frankly, I see how horrible everything is,” she remembers.

When she lectured on her past and 20th-Century Russian literature in front of a crowd of more than a thousand people, “with 200 standing, to hear me talk, I felt very happy to make them happy.”

Berberova’s popularity in the Soviet Union continued after her visit.

Murl Barker, Berberova’s former student, close friend and associate professor and chairman of the Russian Department at Rutgers University’s Camden, N.J., campus, was standing on a street corner in Moscow during a recent visit and overheard a conversation between two people. As a preface to some wry comment, one Russian said, “As Nina Berberova would say . . .” Barker turned to them and announced that he knew Berberova, and “They were as astonished as I was.”

Clearly, Berberova enjoys her new-found success and recognition. Not long ago, when Barker introduced a friend to her, the young woman gushed, “You look so wonderful!” Not skipping a beat, Berberova winked. “Success helps,” she said.

But in a more reflective mood, the writer suggests a rather bittersweet ending when success comes after a lifetime of work and struggle. “Fame--so hard to take,” Berberova says. “It comes when everybody decent dies.”