Portrait of French writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (1908 - 1986), Paris, France, 1952. (Photo by Gisele Freund/Researchers History/Getty Images)




By Irina Vinokurova


The Montréal Review, March 2024


Nina Berberova: Known and Unknown

By Irina Vinokurova
(Academic Studies Press, 2023)


Nina Berberova was unhappy whenever her Italics Are Mine was called a memoir. She would insist that her book was an autobiography—and not merely insist but do everything in her power to cement this specific genre definition in the reader’s consciousness. The word “autobiography” is in the subtitle of Italics, and the first sentence of the first chapter also says that “this book is not reminiscences” and explains in detail wherein the difference lies between the two genres.1  

Berberova would return more than once in Italics to the subject of autobiographies, both others’ and her own. In particular, she discusses several “Russian autobiographies” written by such dissimilar authors as Berdyaev, Boborykin, Bely, Stepun, the “tsarina’s maid of honour,” Nabokov, and also other émigré writers not mentioned by name. Berberova accompanies each of these works with biting commentary and then exclaims as if at a loss due to the overabundance: “The choice is too great. Who shall I take as my example? Who shall I learn from? . . . Here I am setting aside everyone who wrote before me. I neither remember anyone nor invite anyone to stand over my shoulder.”2

Indeed, none of those listed were chosen by Berberova as her “example,” although this naturally doesn’t mean she had no need of examples in principle. But the critics apparently took those words to mean exactly that and, most important, accepted them on faith and made no further inquiries in this regard.

Meanwhile, Berberova most certainly did have an example, but she chose it among French, not Russian autobiographies, even though in the opening pages of Italics she challenges all the French as a body: “I had no need to liberate myself from the consequences of a bourgeois upbringing (the difficult task in which Louis Aragon and Jean-Paul Sartre have been engaged for fifty years in France).”3

However, while mentioning Aragon and Sartre, Berberova for some reason says nothing about yet another author of famous autobiographical prose, Simone de Beauvoir, whom it would seem natural for her to mention here first and foremost. During the period of Berberova’s work on Italics (1960-1966), de Beauvoir’s autobiographical books—Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter) (1958), La Force de l’âge (The Prime of Life) (1960), and La Force des choses (Force of Circumstance) (1963)—were on everyone’s lips, not only in France, but also in America, where Berberova was living at the time. In addition, Beauvoir’s experience intersected with Berberova’s own. They were both professional writers, both were linked to extremely prominent men of letters of their day, and both were in Paris during the same years, including the years of German occupation.

But the matter does not end at these obvious facts. A comparison of Italics and de Beauvoir’s autobiographical prose reveals many other intersections, most of which cannot be written off to simple coincidence. We have an intense dialog with de Beauvoir running throughout Italics, although Berberova is by no means eager to publicize this dialog. Actually, it would be naive to expect any other reaction. After all, one of the chief leitmotifs of Italics is just this, that in her whole life Berberova never found anyone she could “look to.”4 This assertion is also her response to the question of her literary precursors.

The dialog with de Beauvoir comes to the surface only in the book’s final pages, where Berberova writes about her trip to Paris in the summer of 1965. Arriving for a few weeks from America, where she had resettled fifteen years before, Berberova wanders through the familiar and once beloved city, goes “to the old places,” returns “again and again to the boulevard that leads from the Observatoire to the Gare Montparnasse,” and stops in at cafés, in one of which she encounters de Beauvoir:

I order food and sit, and watch, and listen to what is going on around me. And just as one’s eyes sometimes, peering into the darkness, start to recognize objects, so my memory, slowly, groping, circling around a woman sitting in the corner, suddenly recognizes her. It is Simone de Beauvoir.

I saw her for the first time in 1943-44—gay, lively, and young. She was walking down the street, swinging her broad hips, smoothly coiffed, her eyes sparkling with life and intelligence. And now twenty-two years had passed, and I didn’t recognize her right away. She was playing with the broken clasp on her old purse with fat, clumsy fingers, her tilted face seemed sunken and as if it had no eyes—a puffy, somber face, with heavy cheeks and swollen eyelids. In the third volume of her memoirs she wrote about her appearance. How cruelly she spoke of herself! The entire book is full of hospitals, operations, and horror at old age and death; she writes about blood pressure (her own and Sartre’s) and an imminent heart attack. . . . When I arrived, they were finishing their meal. When I left, they were still sitting there. Might they have been waiting for Godot?5

I must say that the scene described always seemed to me invented. The coincidence was painfully apt: a woman no longer young sitting with a female companion in a half-lit café turned out to be de Beauvoir, and Berberova recognized her, but not right away. And so, when I found myself in Berberova’s archive at Yale University, I decided to verify this surmise and checked her diary for 1965. Berberova kept a diary for this year that was far from complete, but the entries referring to her summer trip to Europe were indeed intact. Among these entries I found the entry for July 1, which obviously referred to this event: “11:30 on Montparnasse and St. Germain. Walked for a long time. Rummaged around bookstores. . . . It was all the same as before, only the crowds were bigger. In the Flore—they were waiting for Godot.”6

The “Flore,” as we know, was de Beauvoir’s favorite Café de Flore, so Berberova had gone there with a specific goal in mind. De Beauvoir was not there at that moment, evidently, otherwise Berberova would certainly have noted the fact in her diary, where she recorded such details with special care. It’s no coincidence that Berberova had to take the description of de Beauvoir’s appearance (“her tilted face seemed sunken and as if it had no eyes—a puffy, somber face, with heavy cheeks and swollen eyelids”) from the third volume of de Beauvoir’s memoirs, repeating the author’s own words almost verbatim: “I hate my reflection: the drooping over my eyes, the bags under my eyes, my face grown plump, and that sad look one gets from wrinkles around the lips!”7

This kind of “fictionalization” of the narrative is common in autobiographical prose, and Berberova’s book is no exception in that regard. In Italics she resorts to this device more than once, although in each specific instance she had different motives. In the case of de Beauvoir, these motives were obviously especially complex.

On one hand, for Berberova the connotations that the very name of Simone de Beauvoir brought up in the reader’s consciousness were extremely vital. The three volumes of her autobiographical prose, as well as her famous Le Deuxième sexe (The Second Sex) (1949), raised precisely the question Berberova raises in Italics: the problem of a creative woman’s self-actualization on the professional as well as the personal level. Mentioning de Beauvoir gave Berberova the opportunity to place her own autobiography in a specific literary context and thereby give the reader the key to this book.

However, Berberova had a second, no less important objective, too: to lead away from the discussions of influences and similarity that inevitably arise in these situations. She managed to combine these two largely opposite goals using a very precisely calculated move: she focused her attention on the third volume of de Beauvoir’s memoirs. Berberova analyzes this book in detail in Italics, not stinting on abundant quotations:

Now she [de Beauvoir. — I.V.] has become indifferent to travel and admits that sometimes she hates beauty. “I will soon be lying in my grave anyway...” “Death stands between me and the world.” “Death has already begun, actually.” “...A whirlwind is carrying me toward my grave, and I’m trying not to think.” “Do away with myself, perhaps, just so I don’t have to wait?”

And where are the young people? “Young people are taking the world away from me,” she admits. Then she lists what there won’t be: nevermore refers to skiing, nights in a hayloft, and lovers.8

Berberova motivates her focus on Force of Circumstance by saying that this volume was read last (“her books had always been my reading, and I had just finished the third volume of her memoirs”), but this, apparently, is only part of the truth. The other part of the truth is that Force of Circumstance gave her the opportunity to compare it to Italics with virtually no risk of bringing up the idea of any similarity. After all, at first glance these two texts are in fact strikingly dissimilar. The decline of de Beauvoir’s moral and physical condition, which she spoke about so frankly in Force of Circumstance and which Berberova so eagerly paints in Italics, contrasts directly to Berberova’s own sense of self, described in her book in no less detail. Here she is coming out of the restaurant where de Beauvoir continues to sit gloomily, walking leisurely through evening Paris:

A fresh evening, lights, car horns, neon flashing, Rodin’s Balzac lurking under the green of the trees. Where? Where am I going? Does it matter? Since I have a place in the world, does it matter what path I take to it, walking, riding, or flying? One way or another, I’ll get there. It’s waiting for me.

Looking ahead and looking back, I pictured what awaited me in two weeks: my large desk by my wide window, my desk heaped with papers, bookshelves, sharpened pencils, and quiet. . . . And suddenly—steps and the bell. And smart young faces dear to me. Handsome because smart and young—always handsome. What do I care that I’m aging? Just so they stay young—and they will. I won’t see them old. Friends. Books. Papers. Letters with stamps from California, Australia, Sweden. . . . My life awaits me there, in my university town, and a spasm of happiness grasps my throat. . . .

I walk and walk. The spasm of happiness doesn’t release me until I take a turn around the Luxembourg Garden. It was here that P.P. Muratov once tried to persuade me to abandon writing in Russian and instead learn to write in some other language because . . . I don’t recall his arguments now, although it’s not hard to guess what they were. It was here that I avidly waited for someone I later would kiss under the dark trees. Eagerly waited. Eagerly thought about. And now I’m eagerly preparing to go home. This is the exact same eagerness I had thirty, forty, fifty years ago. It hasn’t changed, hasn’t worn out. Hasn’t frayed. It’s just as intact as I am.9

Nina Berberova, Princeton, 1982

While avoiding direct comparisons, Berberova painstakingly sets out a series of parallels, obviously hoping that readers of Italics will draw their own conclusions. And if in the case of de Beauvoir it is a matter of the terrible changes wrought over twenty-two years, then in the case of Berberova the situation is quite different. Not twenty but “thirty, forty, fifty years” had had no effect on her energy and eagerness for life—for work, travel, and friends, including young friends.10

Berberova is not simply establishing the current state of affairs, though, but attempting rather to find an explanation for it. The ironic comment aimed at de Beauvoir and her companions—“Might they have been waiting for Godot?”—seems key. After all, Berberova herself certainly did not wait for Godot. “Not waiting for Godot”—this is exactly what she titled the seventh and final chapter of Italics.

In the first British-American edition (The Italics Are Mine, 1969), this comment is not footnoted, but in subsequent Russian editions of Italics Berberova feels it necessary to explain: “Waiting for Godot, a play by Beckett in which Godot never does come.”11 This note is undoubtedly useful but obviously insufficient to clarify the crux of the matter. Apart from at least the most general notion of Beckett’s play, it is important to know what de Beauvoir wrote about it. And she does write about it in Force of Circumstance.

I saw Waiting for Godot. Plays in which the shared human lot is presented through symbols arouse mistrust in me; however, I admired the way Beckett was able to win us over by simply depicting the indefatigable patience that, despite everything, keeps our kind and each of us individually on earth. I was one of the performers in the drama, and my partner was its author. While we were awaiting—what?—he spoke and I listened; my presence and his voice maintained a vain yet essential hope.12

De Beauvoir identifies directly with Beckett’s heroes, a kind of self-identification that seems rather paradoxical from the mouth of a founder of existentialism who condemns passivity and emphasizes the importance of individual action. This paradox can be interpreted variously, but Berberova treats it as de Beauvoir’s confession of her own weakness, her own inability to make the necessary choice. Berberova herself had been able to make that choice, as she recounted in that chapter, “Not Waiting for Godot.”

That chapter talks about the extremely difficult circumstances (material, spiritual, and personal) in which Berberova found herself in postwar Paris, as well as about “the most important, most sensible, and most difficult conscious choice” she’d ever made in her life: her decision to leave France for the United States. And although it seemed extremely risky (Berberova left without money, language, or hope of finding skilled work), in the final analysis it was an unconditional victory.

Nonetheless, a close reading of de Beauvoir’s literary and life text gave Berberova more than just grounds for sarcasm about “waiting for Godot.” Above all, it gave her a metaphor that allowed her to formulate the essence of her own character. After all, as the reader understands on the last page of Italics, Berberova uses this phrase to define the meaning not only of the final chapter but also of the book in its entirety—“the tale of how I did not wait for Godot.”13

However, the similarity between Italics and Force of Circumstance is by no means limited to this episode alone. There are several other, sometimes quite eloquent, coincidences to be found.

“No, I did not suffer only due to belonging to the feminine sex but rather combined, since I was twenty, the advantages of the two sexes. After L’Invitée (She came to stay) was published, my circle regarded me both as a writer and as a woman, and this was especially noticeable in America,” de Beauvoir writes in Force of Circumstance.14

And here, for comparison, is a passage from Italics: “I never suffered from the fact that I was born a woman. . . . Meanwhile, I had a great deal of what men have, but I did not cultivate it, perhaps subconsciously afraid of a loss of femininity. I had physical and emotional endurance, I had a profession and financial independence, I had success, initiative and freedom in love and friendship, and the ability to choose.”15

True, in Italics these admissions are offered as a 1946 diary entry made many years before not only Force of Circumstance was published but also before the first two volumes of de Beauvoir’s autobiographical prose, in which she spoke more than once about this secret of her life’s success: combining the “advantages of both sexes.”16 Actually, de Beauvoir wrote about this in her famous Second Sex (1949), which, as it turned out, Berberova also managed to outflank by nearly three years. Her reference to a remote diary entry is, more than likely, a literary device, though. The diary for that year is not held in Berberova’s archive, so it is possible to suppose that she wrote these lines not in 1946 but nearly twenty years later, while working on the final chapters of Italics.

Of course, this does not mean that Berberova ascribed to herself the listed qualities—“physical endurance, emotional strength, financial independence, success, initiative and freedom in love and friendship, and the ability to choose”—after the fact. There is no question that she possessed all these qualities, and in abundance, as her actions, books, letters, and diaries attest. Nonetheless, in order to become conscious of her own experience and put it into words, Berberova obviously needed a prompt from de Beauvoir. Berberova finds this kind of prompt not only in Force of Circumstance but also in the two previous volumes of de Beauvoir’s autobiographical prose: Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter and Prime of Life. Apparently, though, these two volumes played an even more significant role in Berberova’s fate. These may well have prompted the very idea of Italics, work on which put an end to the prolonged creative crisis that lasted nearly ten years, from the moment of her arrival in America.

True, a little less than a year before her departure, but already knowing she would leave, Berberova had decided to “abandon writing,” as she informed her cousin Asya at a 1950 New Year’s Eve party. In a postcard written on January 2, Asya returns to this conversation: “We felt sad leaving you. The news that you want to abandon writing plunged us into sadness. What would happen to the glorious name of Nina Berberova? It’s awful. Give it more thought. . . . And so we begin a new half-century. Bon courage!”17

Asya tries to turn it into a joke, but Berberova has no thought of joking. From 1950 to 1960 she wrote virtually nothing “literary,” with the exception of a dozen poems, four stories, and a few brief memoir essays. Naturally, there were many reasons for this, including her shakiness in American life: her difficulties with English, a string of random jobs that taxed her nerves and strength, and the constant fear of being left without a paycheck. In letters to her closest friends, though, Berberova advances another explanation. Specifically, that she was no longer interested in working for Russian readers (“the new ones, of course, since there aren’t any old ones anymore”) and that “it is impossible to write knowing you’ll be read by a hundred or a thousand people.”18 In the end, it came down to a search for a topic that could interest an American audience, and in this sense de Beauvoir’s experience might have been very much to the point.

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), which instantly became a bestseller in France, was immediately translated into English and came out a year later in the United States, where it enjoyed tremendous success. This success attested not only to the popularity of de Beauvoir herself but also to the rapidly mounting interest in the “woman question” and, as a consequence, in autobiographies written by women. There were still very few such books on the market, and Berberova undoubtedly had something to say about herself.

American readers of Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter especially liked the fact that, unlike existing women’s autobiographies, de Beauvoir’s story was a story not of defeat but of unconditional triumph. And Berberova’s circumstances by that time were such that this reader’s condition of success could be met now, too.

The first volume of de Beauvoir’s autobiographical prose arrived right as Berberova’s own fate was taking a new and very important turn. In the summer of 1958 she was offered a teaching position in the Slavic Department at Yale University. Although by American academic standards, the workload was quite large (five hours a day), Berberova made not a murmur. She had never even dared dream of a job like this, having made ends meet for eight years in technical, primarily secretarial, jobs. The position at Yale, one of America’s oldest and most prestigious universities, gave Berberova the opportunity to look in a new way at her life path, which now felt like a slow and difficult—yet unswerving—ascent.

Indeed, Berberova’s teaching career would develop onward and upward. In 1963 she would move from Yale to Princeton, to a position much better in every sense. But even at Yale everything worked out extremely successfully, even from the very start. In a letter to her cousin, still in Paris, Berberova writes: “We have very pleasant people in the department. I immediately went from ‘language instructor’ to quasi-professor (not only my salary but my friendships corresponding to this) when, four days after my classes in Russian language began, I was asked whether I would teach a literature course (Russian Symbolism) beginning the next September. And I agreed. A few days after that I was asked whether I would begin immediately. (There were students wanting to take the course.) I agreed—boldly. I’m lecturing in Russian, preparing very carefully, but I’m speaking, not writing, which is very highly valued here. . . . I am happy. The work is quite interesting, and I have very capable and talented students—future specialists in Russian literature and the Russ<ian> language.”19

Berberova’s innate energy and organization, as well as her first-hand knowledge of the subject (that she was closely acquainted not only with the texts of the Russian Symbolists but also with many of the Symbolists themselves lent her lectures a special vitality), are appreciated by both her students and her employers. With each semester, Berberova feels more and more confident and her position at Yale gets stronger and stronger. By the summer of 1960 it has become so stable that Berberova allows herself a trip to Europe—for the first time since her arrival in America. On the way back, as Berberova informs her reader, she got the idea for Italics; however, she does not specify exactly what gave rise to this intention.

Apparently, Berberova was prompted by the news of the imminent appearance of Prime of Life, the second volume of de Beauvoir’s autobiographical prose, an unprecedented sensation in France. Even before the book came out, forty-five thousand copies were sold on advance order, and the first week after its appearance in the stores, another twenty-five thousand were purchased, so that the publisher decided to go back to press immediately and print a run of more than two hundred thousand.20 Berberova was able to observe this first wave of excitement personally in Paris, and this may have given her the final push to immediately take up her own book, which is what she did upon her return to Yale.

The question of the overall composition of Italics was evidently resolved fairly quickly and also not without de Beauvoir’s help. Her experience was convincing proof that the chronological principle for laying out events was by no means an anachronism and worked excellently in the genre of autobiography. It is this principle that Berberova follows in Italics, informing the reader on the very first page that she intends to tell her “life in chronological order.”21 And although Berberova constantly allows herself to step away from the chronology, she covers the same life stages in Italics (childhood, youth, adulthood) as does de Beauvoir in the three volumes of her memoirs. True, she moves at a much faster pace. If Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter runs 350 pages, then Berberova fits the same life segment (twenty-one years) into 150, comprising the first two chapters of Italics.  

Naturally, these chapters of Italics and Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter differ not only in volume but also in “time and place.” Berberova writes about the 1910s in Russia, de Beauvoir about the 1920s in France. All the more remarkable, then, are the many coincidences one can uncover in them on the level of story line, including the choice of future profession made at a very young age, the extremely difficult relationship with the mother, and also the very strong attachment to a girl who dies young. It is these thematic points that were the most important in de Beauvoir’s book and that largely determined its significance and novelty.

The choice of future profession was crucial for delineating the female character who does not want to limit herself to the traditional roles of wife and mother: “I infinitely preferred the prospect of having a profession over that of marriage,” de Beauvoir writes. “After all, there are people on earth who do something; I was going to do something, too. What exactly I did not know. Astronomy, archeology, and paleontology piqued my interest in turn, and I had the vague hope that I would write.”22 The reader finds an analogous story in Italics, although, unlike de Beauvoir, who decided to become a “writer” at around age fifteen, Berberova makes this decision substantially earlier: “I was ten when I had the strange idea of the necessity of choosing a profession for myself as quickly as possible. . . . So I made a long list on a sheet of paper of all possible occupations, paying absolutely no attention to the fact that I was a girl, not a boy, which meant that professions like fireman and postman basically had to be ruled out. Between fireman and postman, among forty possibilities, there was also the profession of writer.” Berberova, in turn, rests her choice on this profession: “At ten I was playing games, trying to get out of doing my homework, and standing in the corner picking at the plaster—in short, I was just like all children, but alongside this lived a constant thought: I’m a poet, I’m going to be a poet.”23

Another thematic line from Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter for which Italics has a direct parallel is the protest against the mother that arose early and took the form of perpetual conflict. De Beauvoir recounts in extraordinary detail and candor how her childish attachment to her mother was replaced by alienation, followed by the harshest rejection, and Berberova confesses to equally “noncanonical” feelings, only innate in her from birth. “I did—and didn’t—love my mother,” she writes in Italics. “I saw her virtues as if from afar, but at hand was my perpetual, automatic protest, like a conditioned reflex. I remember the struggling, the constant ‘no’ to everything that came out of her, and in this struggling, in this years-long, continuous duel, there was no place for anything else: no kindness, no understanding, no forgiveness, no agreement.”24

But if de Beauvoir rebelled against her mother’s very strict oversight (her mother looked through every book she intended to read, opened all letters addressed to her, and monitored her every step outside the home), then Berberova’s complaints were much more ephemeral. True, as the draft of Italics held in the archive attests, she honestly did try to find in her life examples of maternal willfulness and cruelty.25 But everything Berberova was able to remember was so insignificant (especially compared to de Beauvoir’s experience) that in the end she rejected this idea. In the final version of Italics, Berberova blames her mother for completely different things, specifically, that she “used one voice [speaking] to her children, another with the maid, a third with guests, a fourth with the clerk at the store.”26 This is the extent of her “crime,” but Berberova is inclined to interpret the essence of the problem exactly as de Beauvoir did. She, too, sees her mother as someone of “the era when upbringing, social convention, and prejudices warped women,” blaming her for her lack of ability and desire to rise above her upbringing and milieu.27

De Beauvoir’s story about her relationship with her mother shattered the persistent myth about the idyllic nature of those kinds of relationships and also reexamined—and quite radically—traditional notions of daughterly duty. This was a bold and important step.

No less bold and important, though, albeit for a narrow audience, was de Beauvoir’s story about her relationship with a school friend who appears in the book under the name Zaza. This attachment, exceptional in its intensity, went beyond the bounds of ordinary friendly feelings, although she was not able to admit that right away. “One afternoon I was taking off my coat in the school cloakroom when suddenly Zaza appeared,” de Beauvoir writes. “We started talking. The stories and comments started flowing; words bubbled up on my lips and a thousand suns spun in my chest. Beside myself with joy, I told myself, ‘It is she I’ve been missing. . . .’ For me, this was a flash of insight. All the conventions, proprieties, and stereotypes suddenly smashed to pieces, and I was flooded by emotions not envisaged by any code.”28 Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter described the complex phenomenon of an adolescent “friendship-love” that has a definite erotic underpinning, and this same “friendship-love” is also addressed in Italics.

The story of Berberova and her friend Virzhinchik begins in the same way as does the story of de Beauvoir and Zaza (an instantaneous flash of interest in each other) and ends identically (both Zaza and Virzhinchik die young), but that is not the only point, of course. The point lies in the very nature of the relationship, which Berberova writes about no less exaltedly than does de Beauvoir: “Never before had I experienced such joy over the fact that I was with someone, never before had there been in my relations with another person such magic, such creativity in dreams and thoughts, which immediately spilled over into words. I can’t call this friendship, I have to move it into the sphere of love, into the sphere of another dimension than the one I’d been used to living and feeling in up until then.”29

But if de Beauvoir tries to muffle the erotic underpinning of her feelings for Zaza (as a comparison of Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter and her diary entries attests30), then Berberova has a completely different objective. She actually tries to emphasize this underpinning, although she treads quite cautiously, primarily resorting to hints.

Some of these hints could be picked up only by those acquaintances of Berberova who were informed about the role in her later Paris life of that light-eyed woman to whom she compared Virzhinchik in passing.31 Another comparison she used, though, the comparison of Virzhinchik to Proust’s Albertine, worked with an incomparably broader reader. Admirers of In Search of Lost Time could not help but recall Albertine’s bisexual inclinations, which caused Marcel so much suffering. Especially since this specific moment was discussed in detail in a long-awaited new release, the second volume of the two-volume biography of Proust that came out toward the end of Berberova’s work on Italics.32

On both the topic of Virzhinchik and other shared topics, Berberova invariably tries to point up the most important theme, to say more than de Beauvoir did, even though sometimes she definitely strained to achieve her goal, especially in the story of her decision to become a “poet,” supposedly taken at age ten. Psychologically, it’s hardly convincing. This story was obviously dictated by the elementary desire to “out-Beauvoir” de Beauvoir by a whole five years, there being no doubt that it was later (at eighteen? nineteen?) when Berberova did in fact decide to become a “poet.” It is with this goal in mind that she sought out Gumilev at the Sounding Seashell when she was not yet twenty.

There are much more serious strains in Berberova’s story about her mother, who she speaks of as a woman warped “by her upbringing, social conventions, and prejudices.”33 In her book, Berberova cannot cite a single fact to confirm the truth of these words, and the letters from her mother in her archive directly refute them.

Natalia Ivanovna Berberova’s letters in fact attest to the fact that “upbringing,” “social conventions,” and “prejudices” held very little sway over her. Had it been otherwise, would she have reacted as she did to her daughter’s involvement with the impoverished, sickly, and, on top of that, married Khodasevich? In a letter written the day after the two went abroad, Natalia Ivanovna writes: “‘You’re not in Petrograd anymore.’ That was my first thought when I woke up this morning, my own, my beloved little girl! And now I’ve realized that the hearth by which I’d warmed myself for twenty years had suddenly gone out and my heart went cold. Actually, I shouldn’t write to you about this. I don’t want sadness to darken your clear eyes for even a minute. My lovely little girl, just be happy! This is my maxim. Know how to be happy yourself and to be happiness for V<ladislav> F<elitsianovich>!”34

This and all the other letters from Natalia Ivanovna cast doubt not only on Berberova’s version of her mother’s character but also on her version of her relations with her mother, which are presented in Italics as “a years-long, continuous duel” that left place for “no kindness, no understanding, no forgiveness, no agreement.”35

The letters, however, attest indisputably that Natalia Ivanovna had no notion of any “duel” and was totally confident of the most profound and tender mutual love. Their relationship is described in exactly the same idyllic key in another important, albeit indirect source of information, Berberova’s novel Bez zakata (Without a sunset) (1936-38), which is largely constructed on autobiographical material. It is obvious that her relationship with her mother was much steadier and more sincere than Berberova presents it in Italics, despite the absence of any particular spiritual, let alone intellectual, closeness between them. Hints at the existence of this problem can be found both in Without a Sunset and in the drafts of Italics, where it is addressed directly. But the main evidence are those letters from Natalia Ivanovna, their sentimental style so alien to her daughter’s, their purely mundane content, which did not go beyond familial and household topics.36 Evidently, though, the real situation felt too old-fashioned and bland to Berberova, who decided to “modernize” it. 

Unlike the majority of writers of the Russian emigration, Berberova never felt any particular nostalgia for her own childhood. Nonetheless, many “childhood” episodes in Without a Sunset are written with a certain sadness and warmth. As the years passed, though, both the sadness and the warmth dissipated, and in a sketch written in English, “About Myself” (1974), one finds admissions such as this: “Not really interested in parents, including my own, nor in children. Only in grown-ups—both sexes.”37

Evidently, this is why in the first chapters of Italics Berberova decides to follow the canvas marked out by de Beauvoir—in hopes of quickly and effectively covering material that did not interest her. As soon as Berberova begins to feel like an “adult,” though (in Italics this moment coincides with her return from Rostov to Petrograd in the summer of 1921), the situation changes.

Her direct dependence on de Beauvoir drops abruptly, but her need to sculpt her own character while constantly looking over her shoulder at the famous Frenchwoman unquestionably remains. The second and third volumes of de Beauvoir’s autobiographical prose were no less nourishing for Berberova than the first, albeit on a somewhat different level. And if Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter taught her what was “worth writing” about, then Prime of Life and Force of Circumstance instead taught her about what was “not worth writing” about and how to explain herself to the reader in this respect.

Actually, the main lesson was already there in the foreword to Prime of Life, where de Beauvoir recounted why for a long time she couldn’t bring herself to start the continuation to Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. She was troubled that in her subsequent books she would not be able to be as candid with her readers as in the previous volume, where she had nothing to hide. De Beauvoir got down to work only once she decided to tell the readers outright that she did not intend to “tell them everything,” that she intended to remain silent on many details of her own life and the life of her closest friends as well.38

Like virtually anyone who sets out to write a “full-fledged” autobiographical narrative, Berberova faced the analogous problem, and evidently the solution de Beauvoir offered seemed successful. And so Berberova, in turn, informs the reader that “while not possessing the old sense of ‘feminine modesty,’ nonetheless, she knows for certain that she will not be able to “reveal everything about herself.”39 True, she offers this sentiment as a quotation from her 1946 diary, in connection with thoughts about her hypothetical “book about myself,” but Berberova repeats almost the same words elsewhere in Italics, no longer referring to a diary entry: “I am writing a saga about my life, about myself, in which I’m free to do what I want, to reveal secrets and keep them to myself. . . . I alone take full responsibility for the six hundred written and the six hundred unwritten pages, for all the admissions, for all the omissions.”40

The last sentence is remarkable not only for her admission of her “six hundred” omissions but also for Berberova’s assurance that she alone is taking full responsibility for all the omissions. This assurance, extremely odd coming from a professional writer (who besides her could take this responsibility anyway?) betrays the presence of a definite complex that did not arise out of nowhere, naturally. Berberova was prompted to many of the “six hundred” omissions in Italics by de Beauvoir, both directly and indirectly.

In particular, de Beauvoir’s story about Sarte’s multiple offers to seal their relationship with marriage and her refusal to take that step apparently defined the version of Berberova’s relationship with Khodasevich that she offers in Italics. This version was built on the omission of the fact that, at the moment they met, Khodasevich was married and that their entire love affair—and especially their joint departure—was kept secret from his wife. The omission about the existence of Anna Ivanovna Khodasevich (née Chulkova) allowed Berberova to present herself not as a heartless “homewrecker” but as an independent woman who preferred a free union to marriage, that is, who acted in exactly the same way as de Beauvoir. In the eyes of the readers of Prime of Life, this act seemed highly unusual for a nice young woman from a “good family,” but such was the status not only of de Beauvoir at the moment she met Sartre but also of Berberova at the moment she met Khodasevich. Thus the temptation to propose an analogous interpretation of her own situation was, obviously, especially great.41

Of course, Berberova had other reasons as well to omit the existence of Khodasevich’s wife. Judging from the memoirs of Anna Ivanovna herself, the testimony of witnesses, and the preserved letters, Khodasevich did not behave very gallantly given the circumstances.42 This story did not fit the image of Khodasevich that Berberova draws in Italics, that of a straightforward and chivalrous person. Actually, Berberova follows the same plan in all other circumstances, too, painstakingly filtering out information that could inflict the slightest damage on Khodasevich’s reputation. In this sense, whether intentionally or not, she is also following the example of de Beauvoir, who invariably defended and justified Sartre.

As her biographers believe, de Beauvoir did not diverge from this rule even when appearing in the capacity of injured party was no one but herself, concealing from the reader the pain and insult inflicted on her by Sartre’s famous womanizing. In her autobiographical books, de Beauvoir omits the overwhelming majority of these affairs, mentioning only a few of them and, as a rule, cursorily. About her own two love affairs—with the American writer Nelson Algren and the French journalist Claude Lanzmann, subsequently a famous documentary filmmaker—she writes in much greater detail and, in this way, evens the score somewhat. Although de Beauvoir’s main objective is different: to convince the reader that, despite any, even very serious involvements, her union with Sartre always remained primary for them both.

Berberova sets herself an analogous goal in Italics when she writes about Khodasevich and herself, although their situation was quite different. Unlike de Beauvoir, Berberova had no real rivals either during her ten years of living with Khodasevich or even after they separated. Olga Borisovna Margolina, who Khodasevich married when Berberova left him, could not pretend to that role, as recounted very distinctly (albeit delicately) in Italics. However, Berberova did have rivals in eternity, so to speak, namely, the women Khodasevich was linked to before they met and to whom he dedicated poems that went into three of his books: Molodost’ (Youth) (1908), Schastlivyi domik (The happy little house) (1914), and Putem zerna (By way of grain) (1920). Of these rivals, Berberova mentions only Evgenia Muratova, one of the heroines of The Happy Little House, omitting Khodasevich’s first wife Marina Ryndina, to whom Youth was dedicated, and his second wife Anna Chulkova, the addressee of the best poems in The Happy Little House as well as several masterpieces in By Way of Grain, such as “Anyute” (To Anyuta) and “Khleby” (The loaves).

These omissions—especially the omission about Chulkova—not only significantly expanded Berberova’s “personal space” in Khodasevich’s life but straightened out and simplified the overall picture substantially. However, the most fundamental point for Berberova remains undisputed even after all the corrections: it was she who was Khodasevich’s strongest and longest love. It is another matter that Khodasevich’s role in Berberova’s life was not quite the same, or even not the same at all, although in hindsight it was important for her to downplay that fact.

Unlike de Beauvoir, Berberova displays extreme restraint on the topic of her own affairs, on the other hand she cannot omit them altogether. In particular, Berberova mentions her affair with Dovid Knut, the most gifted young poet of her Paris circle and subsequently also a hero of the Resistance. True, she writes about this episode so cautiously that not every reader may immediately guess what she’s talking about: “A close friendship tied me to Knut for seven years. Many of his poems speak about this relationship.”43 Berberova neatly lists the poems dedicated to her but does not quote a single line, although, naturally, she understands that for most readers of Italics these texts are admittedly inaccessible.44 Knut’s collections from the 1920s and 1930s, as well as his selected collection of 1949, were published in Paris in small print runs and have long been bibliographical rarities, a fact that actually suits Berberova. The poems dotted all the i’s, and she obviously prefers that the broad reader gain such delicate information (especially delicate in view of the close relationship between Khodasevich and Knut) from “scholarly sources”—scholarly literary articles and academic commentaries, and that is exactly what happened.45   

But if Knut never occupied a place in Berberova’s life comparable to Khodasevich’s, that in no way can be said about Nikolai Vasilievich Makeev, who Berberova would marry (this time legally) and would live with for fourteen years altogether. The start of their relationship is described in Without a Sunset (in the magazine version the novel was called “Kniga o schast’e” [The book of happiness]), and to judge by the plot’s development, Berberova was not even opposed to having children in this marriage: the matter closes with the joyous news of the heroine’s pregnancy. Actually, this may have been merely a tribute to the novelistic tradition, as even then Berberova was negatively inclined toward the idea of childbearing, wholly coinciding in this with de Beauvoir.46

For whatever reason, she and Makeev did not have children; on the other hand, they did have “happiness,” as she wholly confirms in Italics. True, developing this topic into an even slightly detailed narrative clearly does not enter into Berberova’s plans, and why that is so is perfectly understandable: Makeev was not any kind of worthy rival to Khodasevich.

Having started out as an active member of the Socialist Revolutionary party and having had a vivid political career (he was one of the youngest delegates to the Constituent Assembly), Makeev subsequently tried himself as a journalist and as an artist but enjoyed no particular success in either field.

True, Berberova did not make it clear that Makeev’s affairs declined drastically only in the postwar years, for which there were quite specific reasons, among them, he’d begun to drink. Berberova talked to me about this fact when I asked her about Makeev during our conversations in September 1989. She also added that at a certain point he himself asked her to take him to a clinic for alcoholics where they had a special treatment, giving them red wine followed immediately by an emetic.  

The reading public, too, soon learned that Makeev had been drinking. Berberova mentioned this in an interview with Mikhail Meilakh, and there she explained why this problem arose: “He was destroyed by the five years of German occupation and his utter idleness. His sole occupation was sawing firewood for our little stove. A man can’t live that way.”47

During the years of occupation, though, Makeev by no means lived in “utter idleness.” Beginning in mid-1941 he was working with the Louvre as what we would now call an art dealer, and later he opened his own gallery.48 So Makeev was obviously “destroyed” by something else—specifically, the talk that went around the Russian emigration that he was making money on pictures from Jewish collections. And although the work of an “art dealer” did not necessarily constitute a crime and after the Nazis’ departure no charges of any kind were brought against Makeev, this situation could hardly have helped him maintain his emotional balance. Also, his relationship with Berberova suffered a serious rift in 1944, ending three years later in them splitting up.

It’s no surprise that Berberova undertook intensive measures to make Makeev’s presence on the pages of Italics as little noted as possible, including only the early and most general information about him and even concealing his full name behind the single initial “N.”

This choice provokes an irritated comment from one of the first reviewers of Italics, Gleb Struve, and in subsequent Russian editions Berberova does make a number of minimal additions. In the main text of Italics, Makeev would still figure under his initials, N.V.M., but in the Biographical Index at the end of the book Berberova spells them out. She also gives Makeev’s date of birth, 1889, and in the book’s second edition the date of his death as well, 1975, making a mistake in doing so, however. Makeev passed away two years before that, as is indisputably attested to by Berberova’s own diary entry for March 27, 1973.49 Of course, this mistake was unintentional, which makes it all the more eloquent.

Berberova’s desire to keep information about Makeev to a minimum offers a sharp contrast to de Beauvoir’s candor in her discussion of Nelson Algren, with whom her relations may not have ended in marriage (despite Algren’s persistent proposals) but did occupy an exceptionally important place in her life. In this case, though, a parallel in life topics could give Berberova only added stimulus for pursuing her chosen strategy. Nor did Makeev bear comparison with Algren, and the circumstances of their breakup were much less flattering, which, in turn, did not give rise to any desire to publicize them.

If de Beauvoir parted with Algren over Sartre, having described in detail in Force of Circumstance the whole tortuous process of splitting up, then Berberova writes about her breakup with Makeev rather evasively and meagerly. Berberova cites the main reason for their split as a “struggle” over a certain “third party,” not giving a single detail except to say that it was she who “won out” and Makeev who was “vanquished.”50

Although Berberova’s Paris acquaintances knew full well what it was about, other readers of Italics were left completely in the dark. And more than likely just as completely lost, for guessing from the text that this “third party” was a woman is extremely hard.51 It is understandable that Alexander Bakhrakh felt it necessary to inform Gleb Struve of this. Struve was not in the know, evidently, since he had lived in London, not Paris, since the early 1930s. After mentioning Berberova’s “opportunism” in the sense of her sexual orientation, Bakhrakh added: “the one correct thing she described [in Italics] in almost unveiled form is the reason for her breakup with Makeev, from whom she had stolen a lover.”52

True, in talking about her relationship with Virzhinchik in the second chapter of the book, Berberova compares this attachment in passing to her future attachment to a certain light-eyed woman, but this subject does not come up again over the next three chapters and, accordingly, several hundred pages. And so correlating that remote mention to the appearance of a certain “M.,” who flashes by in the sixth chapter of Italics in a purely neutral context, and especially to identify “M.” as the “third party,” becomes possible only when Berberova decides to disclose this secret Urbi et Orbi. She would do this in the late 1980s through her French publisher, Hubert Nyssen, to whom she would show a yellowed packet of love letters written primarily in the 1950s and signed “Mina,” and she would not object if Nyssen talked about these letters in his diary, which was slated for publication.53

Thus it would become known that the initial “M.” in Italics conceals Mina Journot, to whom Berberova dedicated her book on Blok (Alexandre Blok et son temps, 1947). Journot definitely helped Berberova with the translation, but her creative partnership with Berberova did not end there. Together they also translated Berberova’s biography of Tchaikovsky, which came out in French in 1948. They also attempted to translate a classic; in particular, Dostoevsky’s Eternal Husband (L’Eternel mari, 1947) came out in their translation. Mina Journot was also Berberova’s coauthor in the translation of Julius Margolin’s Journey to the Land Ze-ka, in the French edition titled La Condition inhumaine: cinq ans dans les camps de concentration soviétiques (1949).

The relationship with Journot lasted quite a long time and played a significant role in Berberova’s life. Not that Berberova had any intention of emphasizing this role or of reporting any details, here directly following the example of de Beauvoir, who invariably passed over her affairs with women.

Of course, the general reader knew of these affairs only a quarter of a century later, in 1990, when de Beauvoir’s diaries were published for the first time, as were her letters to Sartre, in which she generously shared all her intimate impressions. But de Beauvoir’s bisexuality was no secret at all for those who, like Berberova, lived in Paris in the mid-1940s and traveled in the same circles, to which Berberova had entrée thanks to her romance with Journot, who knew Sartre, Sarraute, and Paulhan well.54

Berberova found de Beauvoir’s decision to conceal this aspect of her life from the reader to be perfectly self-evident and accepted it as indication that such things should not be made public. This was what she did in Italics, although her attitude toward her own bisexuality was different, much easier than for de Beauvoir.55 The matter was explained partly by de Beauvoir’s Catholic upbringing, the consequences of which she never could rid herself of completely, but primarily, of course, by a number of serious “mitigating circumstances” in her case. All of de Beauvoir’s loves then were students at the lycée where she taught, and this created not only a certain psychological discomfort but also serious practical complications. In the summer of 1943 she was fired from her job for “corruption of minors.” And although later, after France’s liberation, this charge would be dropped for de Beauvoir, the trauma, her biographers believe, remained forever.

In Prime of Life, de Beauvoir ascribes her dismissal to the slanderous fabrications of parents dissatisfied with her freethinking, as well as to the machinations of a pro-Nazi administration, but for understandable reasons she prefers not to dwell on the subject.

Actually, de Beauvoir had another reason for restraint. As a result of losing her job and, accordingly, her salary, without which she and Sartre were hard pressed to survive, she had to take a job on national radio. And although she only did programs on the Middle Ages there, nothing to do with any contemporary subjects, de Beauvoir is obviously concerned that the fact of working on radio during the Occupation might come as a nasty surprise for the reader, and so she hastens to assure him that the national radio, also known as Radio Vichy, differed substantially from the pro-Nazi Radio Paris and that this job fully complied with the tacit ethical standards established in French intellectual circles.

The vulnerability of this argument was obvious enough, but the question of the “opportunism” or even “passive collaborationism” of de Beauvoir and Sartre, who was actually the one who got her the job, would only start to be discussed much later, in the late 1980s. At that point nothing threatened their reputation because there were other facts at the center of attention: Sartre’s attempts to contact Malraux and join the Resistance, his cooperation with the underground Lettre française and, later, Combat, where he published a series of sketches (in fact written by de Beauvoir) about the liberation of Paris. . . . All this gave them both a safe conduct that lasted for several decades.   

Berberova had no safe conduct and so her position was incomparably more difficult, as it had been from the very start. Makeev’s work as an art dealer and the relative material prosperity connected with that work, which distinguished their daily life during wartime, gave birth to talk and dissatisfaction, including among the most envious of their neighbors in Longchêne, one of whom tried to make short work of them by his own hand. The first day after the Germans’ departure, Berberova was grabbed, tied up, and thrown into a shed, where she lay until the police freed her.56 Berberova recalls this episode in detail in Italics, but she does not write that much more serious trouble came at the same time from their own circle.

Conversations went on in this milieu not only about how Makeev had been living “off the Germans” but also about the pro-Hitler sympathies of Berberova herself, although she had not collaborated on a single Russo-German publication and had published nothing during the Occupation. In early 1945, these discussions even found their way into the press, prompting Berberova to write an open letter in which she categorically denied all the accusations, admitting only to quickly dispelled illusions that Hitler might liberate Russia from Stalin.57

A number of writers spoke out in Berberova’s defense, above all, Boris Zaitsev, who had remained in Paris during the years of the Occupation and had been in constant contact with her and Makeev. The issue was exhausted and not raised again publicly (no new incriminating facts of any kind were uncovered), but Berberova knew that the echoes of that distant story continued to roam through émigré circles. It is no surprise that she builds her narration of the war and postwar years in Italics with painstaking attention to the accusations once leveled and the justifications she laid out in her open letter. Berberova decides to pass over the former but develop the latter as fully as possible, transforming each detail, even the tiniest, into an independent story line.    

However, her main task was, naturally, to make her story maximally convincing, something de Beauvoir helped her do. Berberova obviously added to her arsenal de Beauvoir’s idea of talking about wartime events and impressions using excerpts from her own diary. In Prime of Life, de Beauvoir quotes page after page of her diary without any later commentaries, and it is this device that Berberova uses in Italics. The subsection of the book called “The Black Notebook” consists exclusively of diary fragments. This creates the impression of a documentary narration, that is, precisely what Berberova was trying to achieve.

It is another matter that in her case this device was not very effective. Unlike de Beauvoir, Berberova quoted her diary selectively rather than without breaks, a fact that could not fail to trouble people. It inevitably aroused suspicion that anything at all compromising was left out. There was no way to refute this suspicion because Berberova had not kept the originals of her diaries.58

The diary entries de Beauvoir quotes cover eleven months (September 1, 1940, to July 1941), whereas “The Black Notebook” covers nearly eleven years (from late August 1939 to April 1950), although the emphasis is also on the years of the Occupation. As we know, the French call this period the années noires, which certainly came before the title “Black Notebook,” although Berberova starts her own count of the “black years” a year before the Occupation (from the moment the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was signed) and by no means stops it after France’s liberation but rather continues for another full six years—all the way up to her departure for America.  

Indeed, during those six years Berberova’s personal circumstances were exceptionally hard. Mina Journot appears in her life in 1944, and Berberova’s relationship with Makeev swiftly gets complicated, ending as a result in a total rift. During that same postwar period, there is an ideological schism inside the Russian emigration (some are accused of sympathizing with the Nazis; others become “Soviet patriots”; still others even take Soviet passports), and Berberova loses the majority of those friends and acquaintances of hers still left in France. She also loses the possibility of earning a living through literary work because the Russian newspapers and journals where Berberova collaborated in the 1920s and 1930s ceased to exist back before the war began, and her work at Russkaia mysl’, which was created in 1947, did not allow her to make ends meet.

However, as Berberova writes in Italics, there was one other reason prompting her to give serious thought to moving to America: the intellectual atmosphere of postwar France had ceased to be as nourishing for her as had been that of the prewar years. Moreover, Berberova laid the responsibility for this state of affairs largely on Sartre—due to the scale of his success and the degree of his influence on people’s minds. Berberova blames Sartre not only for his Communist ideas but also for the “ambiguity” of his own position, for “while demanding responsible action from others,” he “was drawn to what seemed to him (and not him alone) the courageous power of the antibourgeois race of the ‘chosen’—be they the mature proletarians making a socialist revolution, or the fair-haired soldiers in field gray, or simply the hairy criminals condemned by the law.”59 Berberova considered one of the manifestations of this position, which had especially regrettable effects on the intellectual climate of France, to be Sartre’s glorification of one such convicted criminal—Jean Genet and his scandalous books.  

De Beauvoir mentions Sartre’s six hundred-page Saint Genet, comédien et martyr (Saint Genet, actor and martyr) in Force of Circumstance as well, but mentions it literally in one sentence, and this haste is completely understandable. She obviously found all the stir around Genet less than pleasant but felt she couldn’t publicly express her disagreement with Sartre. De Beauvoir also preferred not to play up her serious doubts concerning Sartre cozying up to the French Communist Party and his decision to devote his life to political activism. De Beauvoir skirted the issue of Sartre’s pro-Stalin sympathies just as assiduously, placing her main emphasis on the hopes planted in him by the changes that came about after Stalin and that were not destroyed (although they teetered briefly) by the Soviet invasion of Hungary. It’s no surprise that de Beauvoir’s story about Sartre and his postwar “days and labors” arouse frank sarcasm in Berberova, as she sets out in Italics this topic so central for Force of Circumstance:

She [de Beauvoir - I.V.] complained that Sartre, who all his life had demanded engagement and did not recognize literature without engagement, for a quarter-century now had been unable to decide which side he should be on. How should he be? Who should he be? And from time to time she gloomily asks, What should we do? Where should we go? Who should we be with? . . . At one point he admitted, We can do nothing without the Communists. She and Sartre and the Communists went out on the streets to demonstrate against de Gaulle. That same day, one of their Communist friends admitted to them that he’d never ridden the Metro and was today taking it for the first time. His whole life he’d only used taxis. They both condemned what happened in Hungary in 1956. Then they went to Moscow, deciding to meet there only “with the privileged class.”60

Of course, this retelling intentionally simplifies the picture, but the key moments are marked out precisely. Berberova has no doubt that the “philosophical and political” influence de Beauvoir admitted Sartre had always had over her hadn’t benefited her for a long time, indeed had been devastating for her, above all because de Beauvoir could not admit the existence of the problem (her relationship with Sartre would have immediately lost its most undisputed value) and attempt to change anything.

It is here that Berberova sees the reason for the depression that is so obvious in Force of Circumstance, and that seemingly can be explained in the context of that string of victories discussed in this book. Victories in the personal sphere (despite several serious affairs, Sartre stayed with de Beauvoir) and, of course, in the professional. The success of her first novel, She Came to Stay, was immediately secured by the appearance of her next three novels, for the last of which, Les Mandarins (The Mandarins) (1954) de Beauvoir received the Prix Goncourt. She was brought even greater, now international fame by her Second Sex, which became the bible of nascent feminism, and then there were the first volumes of autobiographical prose, which were greeted on two continents with tremendous enthusiasm. At the moment she completed Force of Circumstance, de Beauvoir was not yet fifty-five and she was already world-famous, but all the more unexpected was the epilog of that book, where she asserts in utter despair that her life is over and all that lies ahead is old age and death.

Unsurprisingly, this epilog discouraged most of the readers of Force of Circumstance—but not Berberova. On the contrary, she emerges with a very specific diagnosis, which she characterizes as “waiting for Godot.” And although Berberova, naturally, was not about to advise de Beauvoir as to what choice she should have made, her opinion isn’t hard to guess.

The appearance of Force of Circumstance—not only the gloomiest but also the weakest of de Beauvoir’s autobiographical books—allowed Berberova to bring about a very important “reshaping.” At the very end of Italics, Simone de Beauvoir is no longer standing “over Berberova’s shoulder,” a shadow invisible to the reader, but is now seated across from her in the Café de Flore and in direct dialog with her. In the course of this dialog, Berberova gradually leads the reader to the thought that although she may not be as talented as de Beauvoir, and is certainly not as famous, on the other hand she is much more independent, decisive, and vital, and so her “tale” is far more instructive.

In this way, Berberova returns to where she actually began her narrative: the topic of genre, underscoring yet again, obliquely rather than directly, it’s true, that Italics is an autobiography, not a memoir. And this was by no means an idle issue. It determined the potential audience for Italics. The memoirs of Russian émigré writers little known or completely unknown in the West had little chance of sparking interest outside a relatively narrow circle of readers. Whereas an autobiography, especially a woman’s, and especially one who might outshine de Beauvoir, should attract a much wider audience. Such was the calculation of Berberova, evidently, as well as of the respectable American publisher that put out her book in English translation.

It’s another matter that this calculation did not pan out, at least on the first try. Most of the book’s critics saw the main value in it—despite the presence of mistakes and the subjectivity of her opinions—in its memoir aspect. No one noticed (or wanted to notice) the similarity to de Beauvoir.61

A few years later, when Italics was published in Russian, it immediately rose to a completely different level, that of N.Ya. Mandelshtam’s Vospominaniia (Reminiscences) (1970) and her Vtoraia kniga (Second book) (1972), as well as the memoirs of Irina Odoevtseva, Na beregakh Nevy (On the banks of the Neva) (1967), and later Na beregakh Seny (On the banks of the Seine) (1983), and it is in this category that it begins to be routinely examined by critics, first émigré and later Russian as well.62 In the eyes of most readers of Italics, in both English and Russian, de Beauvoir remained in the most modest roles—the book’s least important, purely passing character.

This is unfair, of course. Without de Beauvoir’s autobiographical prose, without its stimulating effect, Italics might never have been written. Or would have been written later and quite differently and not necessarily for the best.

Translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz


Dr. Irina Vinokurova (aka Irene Kolchinsky) is a Russian-American literary scholar and critic. Her articles appeared in The Russian ReviewThe Slavic and East European JournalRussian Literature, as well as in Russian literary magazines Voprosy literaturyZnamia, and Zvezda. The biography of Nina Berberova (2023) is her third book. Since 1991, Dr. Vinokurova has lived in the US.

“Who shall I take as my example? Who shall I learn from?” is a translation of a slightly edited chapter from Irina Vinokurova's book "Нина Берберова: известная и неизвестная" (Nina Berberova: Known and Unknown), published by Academic Studies Press, 2023.





The Montréal Review, December 2023


1 Nina Berberova, Kursiv moi: Avtobiografiia [The italics are mine: An autobiography]. In 2 vols. Second edition, amended and supplemented (New York: Russica, 1983), p. 28. Henceforth, citations from this book refer to this edition.

2 Ibid., vol. 2, p. 441.

3  Ibid., vol. 1, p. 12.

4 Ibid., p. [2].

5 Ibid., vol. 2, pp. 617-618.

6 Nina Berberova Papers. MSS 182, series IV, b. 50, f. 1144. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

7 Simone de Beauvoir, La Force des choses [The force of circumstance] (Paris: Gallimard, 1963), p. 685.

8 Berberova, Kursiv moi, vol. 2, p. 619.

9 Ibid., pp. 619-621.

10 This series of parallels applies just as naturally to her appearance and health. Although seven years older than de Beauvoir, Berberova in the mid-1960s looks exceptionally youthful, as the photographs in the book testify, in particular the large photograph on the cover of the first English-language edition of Italics. And Berberova’s health, unlike de Beauvoir’s, was perfect, as she frequently informs the reader. The same is confirmed by her diary, where Berberova regularly recorded her blood pressure and test results, as well as her weight and waist measurement (invariably ideal).

11 Ibid., p. 619.

12 De Beauvoir, La Force des choses, p. 320.

13 Berberova, Kursiv moi, vol. 2, p. 626. This metaphor would prove so successful that it would be taken into service enthusiastically by those who would subsequently write about Berberova. See, for example, the material prepared by I. Tolstoy for Radio Svoboda, “Not having waited for Godot”: On the centenary of the birth of Nina Berberova” (October 14, 2001). An article by A. Nemzer, “To Be Together and Survive: Nina Berberova Was Born One Hundred Years Ago,” in turn uses the same phrase: “Berberova believed . . . one must live. Live and not wait for Beckett’s dubious Godot.” Vremia novostei, August 8, 2001, no. 141.

14 De Beauvoir, La Force des choses, p. 207.

15 Berberova, Kursiv moi, vol. 2, pp. 519-520.

16 See, for example, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter: “Naturally, I by no means regretted that I was a woman. On the contrary, I derived enormous satisfaction from this. . . . This gave my successes a special luster in comparison with the achievements of the male sex. It was enough for me not to lag behind them in order to feel exceptional. . . . Nevertheless, I did not renounce my femininity. . . . I wanted to believe that I combined in myself a ‘feminine heart and a masculine mind.’” De Beauvoir, Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée, pp. 295-296.

17 Papers of N. N. Berberova. Boris I. Nicolaevsky Collection, b. 400-401, reel 284. Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University.

18 Letter to Boris Zaitsev, June 19, 1955. Quoted in O. Demidova, “Amerikanskii opyt Niny Berberovoi” [The American experience of Nina Berberova], Kosmopolis, no. 2 (18) (2007): 20.

19 Letter dated November 7, 1958. Nina Berberova Papers, b. 4, f. 62.

20 See Deirdre Bair, Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography (New York: Summit Books, 1990), p. 485.

21 Berberova, Kursiv moi, vol. 1, p. 7.

22 De Beauvoir, Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée, p. 106.

23 Berberova, Kursiv moi, vol. 1, pp. 20, 21, 22.

24 Ibid., pp. 50-51.

25 In the draft of the first part of Italics, Berberova wrote: “My mother was a restrained person (as she was taught), and only twice did I ever see her lose her self-control. Both times I was the reason for it. The first time, I was thirteen. My father had come out for dinner holding Tolstoy’s ‘Response to the Synod,’ which had just been received in Russia, and he wanted to give it to me to read. . . . I reached out for the ‘Response’ but my mother suddenly dropped the ladle she was using to serve the soup and said in a ringing voice that she would not allow it. All of a sudden, everything that had been building up in her for so long gushed out: my godlessness, my revolution, my precocious reading, my unmonitored reading, the influence of my school friends, my willfulness, my permissive father. Beautiful and stern, she had suddenly stopped pretending. My father put the ‘Response’ away, and we both calmed her down and began to eat. Two days later the ‘Response’ was already making the rounds of my class and I had read it during the long class change. . . . It happened a second time on the eve of the revolution. Guests were sitting in the parlor discussing modern poetry. They were praising me for writing poetry. Nadson, too, had begun early, as, actually, had Apukhtin. I waited for my moment. An irrepressible wish to ‘suffer for the truth,’ on the one hand, and to ‘lay it on them,’ on the other, overtakes me. ‘Nadson hasn’t been considered a poet for a long time, and Apukhtin is rubbish,’ I say. I know my mother has in her room two volumes of Apukhtin in blue bindings and she has recently been given Nadson in red leather. In the same ringing voice she again demands I leave the room. I go to my room and open Blok.” Nina Berberova Papers, b. 25, f. 690.

26 Berberova, Kursiv moi, vol. 1, p. 51.

27 Ibid. The attempt to offer an additional explanation for this revulsion for her mother can be found in the penultimate chapter of Italics, where Berberova recalls that her mother copied into her childhood album a poem by Pleshcheev, “Poor child, she is homely . . .” and that this was done not without a hint at her homeliness (the poem is called “A Plain Girl”). This episode, in turn, was apparently prompted for Berberova by de Beauvoir’s story of the serious insult inflicted on her, true, not by her mother but by her father, who made no attempt to hide that he considered her a “plain girl” (de Beauvoir, Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée,p. 113).

28 De Beauvoir, Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée, pp. 94-95.

29 Berberova, Kursiv moi, vol. 1, p. 115.

30 See Margaret A. Simmons, “Lesbian Connections: Simone de Beauvoir and Feminism,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 18, no. 1 (1992): 143-144.

31 Berberova, Kursiv moi, vol. 1, p. 116.

32 George D. Painter, Marcel Proust: A Biography, vol. 2 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1965). This book is mentioned in Berberova’s diary among other books she read (Nina Berberova Papers, b. 50, f. 1146).

33 Berberova, Kursiv moi, vol. 1, p. 51.

34 Letter dated November 16, 1922. Nina Berberova Papers, b. 4, f. 61. It is worth noting that Natalia Ivanovna was generous not only with handsome words. With the earrings she gave her daughter before her departure, earrings that may have been her last valuable, Berberova and Khodasevich were able to buy furniture for their Parisian lodgings. See “Pis’ma V. Khodasevich k N. Berberovoi” [Letters from V. Khodasevich to N. Berberova], Minuvshchee: Istoricheskii al’manakh, no. 5 (1988): 299. These facts do not find a place in Italics, though.

35 Berberova, Kursiv moi, vol. 1, p. 51.             

36 This did not prevent Natalia Ivanovna from carrying out the far from mundane requests given her by her daughter and Khodasevich. In particular, she compiled and sent to them a list of the poems Khodasevich published in the eighteen years of his literary work in Russia, right up until he went abroad. See Vladislav Khodasevich, Sobranie sochinenii [Collected works] (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1983), pp. 275-276.

37 Nina Berberova Collection. MSS 573, b. 5, f. 66. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

38 Simone de Beauvoir, La Force de l’âge (Paris: Gallimard, 1960), p. 10.

39 Berberova, Kursiv moi, vol. 2, pp. 519.

40  Ibid., p. 441.

41 It is characteristic that in Berberova’s novel Without a Sunset, Alexander Albertovich, largely “drawn” from Khodasevich, is not married, and so his relations with the heroine unfold in a much more traditional vein. They register at the commissariat and get married in church and only then leave the country.

42 See A. Khodasevich, “Vospominaniia o V.F. Khodaseviche” [Reminiscences of V.F. Khodasevich], in Sovremenniki o Vladislave Khodaseviche [Contemporaries about Vladislav Khodasevich] (St. Petersburg: Aleteiia, 2004), pp. 37-43; N. Chukovsky, “Otritsatel’” [The denier], in ibid., pp. 292-298; I. Muravieva, “‘Schastlivyi domik’: Vladislav Khodasevich, Anna Khodasevich, i ikh perepiska” [“The happy little house”: Vladislav Khodasevich, Anna Khodasevich, and their correspondence], Zvezda, no. 11 (2010): 153-163.

43 Berberova, Kursiv moi, vol. 1, p. 317.

44 Berberova lists all of these poems by Knut: “Two eyes—two windows,” “Far from my savage life,” “You are once again with me, there was no separation,” “Years were needed,” “By your guiltily cheerful eyes.” Ibid.

45 See E.V. Vitkovsky, “Pocherk Petrarki” [Petrarch’s signature], in Berberova, Kursiv moi (Moscow: “Soglasie”, 1996), p. 14. True, in quoting one of the poems dedicated to Berberova—“Years were needed”—Vitkovsky can’t bring himself to quote the final, most candid line, referring readers to the publication of this text in Arion, no. 1 (1995): 50-52. See also Dovid Knut, Sobranie sochinenii v dvukh tomakh [Collected works in two volumes] (Jerusalem: Hebrew University, 1997). In this edition all the poems Berberova lists are equipped with appropriate annotations.

46 In her book, de Beauvoir explained her lack of desire to have children: “[Motherhood] seemed incompatible with the path I had started down. I knew that to become a writer I would need a lot of time and great freedom.” De Beauvoir, La Force de l’âge, p. 92. Berberova, in turn, admitted in Italics that she had never wanted children, and in a later interview she basically repeated de Beauvoir’s words: “Because this is the most awful thing for a woman who counts every minute. For writing, for doing something, for encountering interesting people” (Margaret O. Kirk, “Madame Berberova,” Los Angeles Times, August 29, 1991).

47 “‘Ne proshlo i semidesiati let . . .’: Nina Berberova v Rossii” [Seventy years have not yet passed: Nina Berberova in Russia], Literaturnoe obozrenie, no. 1 (1990): 71.

48 See Berberova to Bunin, March 19, 1943: “In 2 years Nikolai has made a head-spinning career as a marchant de vieux tableau. He has a gallery on the rue de la Boétie, i.e., in the midst of the Paris antiquarians; he has made connections and certain discoveries. In short, he has been successful in business, and this is quite flattering for him. He is thinner and older, as is everyone, but he feels well and his spirits are up.” Perepiska I.A. Bunina i N.N. Berberovoi (1927-1946)” [Correspondence between I.A. Bunin and N.N. Berberova (1927-1946)], preface by Maksim Shraer, in Maksim Shraer, Yakov Klots, and Richard Davis, I.A. Bunin: Novye materialy [I.A. Bunin: New materials],  issue II, comp., ed., O. Korostelev and R. Davis (Moscow: Russkii put’, 2010), p. 88.

49 Nina Berberova Papers, b. 51, f. 1156.

50 Berberova, Kursiv moi, vol. 2, pp. 443-444.

51 It is no accident that the majority of researchers of Berberova’s biography left the question of this “third party” open, while others confidently called him a “young man.” See Christine D. Tomei, Russian Women Writers, vol. 2 (New York: Garland, 1999), p. 1110.

52  Letter dated August 5, 1969. Gleb Struve Papers, b. 75, f. 11. Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University. See also the May 18, 1944, entry in V.A. Zaitseva’s diary: “I went to see Berberova . . . Nina’s ‘friend’ Minush was there, and N<ikolai> V<asilievich> [unintelligible] is obviously suffering.” In“Vera zhena Borisa”: Dnevniki Very Alekseevny Zaitsevoi 1937-1964 [“Vera Boris’s wife”: Diaries of Vera Alekseevna Zaitseva 1937-1964], author and comp. O.A. Rostova, ed. V. L. Telitsyn (Moscow: Marina Tsvetaeva House-Museum, 2016), p. 128. A few days later, Zaitseva returned to this topic, developing it somewhat: “I was at Nina Berberova’s. What a strange mess they’re in over Minush. . . . Nina has avenged all women.” Ibid., p. 129.

53 Hubert Nyssen, L’Editeur et son double [The editor and his double] (Arles: Actes Sud, 1988), pp. 239-240. With a reference to Nyssen’s testimony, this fact is mentioned in several articles devoted to Berberova. See Michel Niqueux, “Lecture”[Reading], in C’est moi qui souligne [The italics are mine] (Arles: Actes Sud, 1989), p. 600; Kennedy Fraser, “Going On,” in Kennedy Fraser, Ornament and Silence: Essays on Women’s Lives (New York: Knopf, 1996), pp. 955-956; Nadya Peterson, “The Private ‘I’ in the Works of Nina Berberova,” Slavic Review, vol. 60, no. 3 (2001): 504. In Peterson’s essay, the fact of Berberova’s bisexuality is raised in the context of her complex strategy in a discussion of this subject in Italics.

54 According to Nyssen’s testimony, this fact was constantly mentioned in Journot’s letters. See Nyssen, L’Editeur et son double, p. 239.

55 Berberova’s attitude toward bisexuality, both other people’s and her own, is demonstrated by notes found in her archive that were made in October 1983 and that she entitled "Predsmertnye dialogi" [Deathbed Dialogs]. Thinking in these notes “about sex” and “about the people who find sex complicated,” Berberova writes: “I gradually came to think that there are several groups of people in this area (as in any other) who can be called: 1. people without sex, 2. people of calm sex, 3. people of two sexes, 4. people drawn to the opposite sex (the majority), 5. people drawn exclusively to those of their own sex, and 6. people of criminal sex (corruption of minors, bestiality, and others). . . . Neither the first nor the second, nor the fourth, fifth, or sixth, ever interested me. Naturally, this speaks clearly to the fact that I myself belonging to group 3. . . . I long ago came to the conclusion that this group is the most interesting, the most complex, and the most modern, and more deeply than all the others has come to know itself as well as, having come to know this, have accepted themselves, living in full harmony with this acceptance and understanding. And so the happiest in the world.” Nina Berberova Papers, b. 47, f. 1095.

56 See the entry in V.A. Zaitseva’s diary made on September 6, 1944, after seeing Berberova in Paris: “How terrible it was when she recounted how they had wanted to kill her in the village.” “Vera zhena Borisa,” p. 160.

57 See O.V. Budnitsky, “’Delo ‘Niny Berberovoi” [The Nina Berberova affair], Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, no. 39 (1999): 141-173. See also Omri Ronen, “Berberova (1901-2001),” in Omri Ronen, Iz goroda N. [From the town of N.] (St. Petersburg: Zvezda, 2005), pp. 41-64.

58 De Beauvoir, as it happens, had kept the original of her diary. When it was published in 1990, though, it was immediately discovered that the entries cited in Prime of Life were rather seriously edited. And if the original of the diary attested that de Beauvoir perceived the initial period of Paris’s occupation with curiosity primarily, as a kind of extremely interesting experiment, then emotions of that kind were carefully deleted from the entries contained in the book. The same went for de Beauvoir’s mentions of German soldiers she met, to whom she related not only without hostility but even with sympathy, trying to put herself in their place. See Terry Keefe, “Autobiography and Biography: Simone de Beauvoir’s Memories, Diary and Letters,” in Autobiography and the Existential Self: Studies in Modern French Writing (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995), pp. 75-76.

59 Berberova, Kursiv moi, vol. 2, pp. 568, 567. It is curious that the justness of her words about Sartre were noted especially by the well-known literary scholar D.E. Maksimov, one of the first readers of Italics in the Soviet Union. See Maksimov to Berberova, January 1974. Nina Berberova Papers, b. 13, f. 371.

60 Berberova, Kursiv moi, vol. 2, p. 619.

61 Only once and much later did the names of Berberova and de Beauvoir stand side by side: in alphabetical order in an anthology of women’s autobiographical prose, The Norton Book of Women’s Lives (1993). The author of the foreword also draws attention to a certain commonality between these two writers’ autobiographical “I” when the book came out. This would happen after Berberova’s death.

62 See A. Sumerkin, “K iubileiu Niny Berberovoi” [On the anniversary of Nina Berberova], Novoe russkoe slovo, August 9, 1981, p. 10; Vitkovsky, “Pocherk Petrarki,” pp. 20-21; E. Shklovskii, “Utselevshaia” [The survivor], Znamia, no. 4 (1996): 225.




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