The Book of Happiness, by Nina Berbervova (New Directions, 1999)
Translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz
Reviewed by Steve Harris
Love and its demands, and its ever changing face at different times in our lives, is the theme of Nina Berberova's fine novel The Book of Happiness. Berberova's novel is set in the early part of the Twentieth Century, a time that has seen love take its lumps. However, Berberova is willing to see love's possibilities -- as long as love is stripped free of illusion. For love to exist, it must maintain a balance between the extremes of passion and nihilistic boredom. The perfect (or, perhaps, imperfect) vehicle for this unromantic love is the character Vera, a Russian émigré (like Berbervova herself), who is a survivor of her times. Her childhood friend, Sam, is not.
The novel opens, with the surface irony (considering the title of the book) of a suicide. Vera's childhood friend, Sam Adler, a musician, has committed suicide in a Paris hotel. Called to his hotel room, Vera sits beside the dead body of her friend and remembers their childhood in pre-Revolutionary St. Petersburg. It was there, in the Tauride Garden, that she and her sister first see Sam, an epileptic, who has passed out in the snow. Vera and her sister save him, and so starts a friendship that is encased in the innocence of childhood. But there is a maturity in Vera's approach to this friendship, an innate sense of balance, that she falls back on again and again throughout the novel. She is suspicious of sentiment (thus baring Berbervova's clear attachment to Chekov), and yet, while watching Sam play his violin, she senses a beauty that is beyond emotion: But the violin touched her heart in a different way. This was like the way poems assailed her, or simply her nameless ecstasy at the sight of the stars in the sky or the flowers in the field. This was not something one talked about.
Time, and the Revolution, will eventually separate the two friends. As Sam departs, he asks Vera to bless him, even though he's Jewish:
"But I. . .you know. . . I'm not much of a believer. . . sometimes," she said clumsily, but she made the sign of the cross at the bridge of his nose. "May God preserve you and help you. Lord, if you exist, make it so that we see each other again.'"
It is tempting to see this scene as part of an ironic circle, but Vera refuses to dwell on it. God gives us what we ask for. And perhaps, in some mysterious way this blessing balances out Sam's final act. Who can say? As she watches the coaches depart, Vera now senses a new life beginning, but she also senses a kind of death:
And now the second and behind it the third carriage set out in the downpour to the Nikolayevsky Station. Oh, how those wheels turned, how the bodies of the carriages bounced, how their black, funerally shiny tops rocked.
Vera is now twenty and, at a party, meets Alexander Albertovich. She seduces the older man, as if intent on losing her virginity, and eventually Alexander gets the hint, with Vera sprawled before him on a couch in the moonlight. Afterwards, while watching dawn break, Vera becomes uneasy and tries to recall what gospel story this particular morning reminds her of. (Peter's denial of Christ is, of course, the story she fails to remember.) Vera later marries Alexander, though her father cautions her that she's marrying out of compassion, not love. Alexander, who is at odds with the Communist regime, leaves for Paris with Vera. Paris is hardly gay but is instead damp and depressing. Alexander begins his slow, tubercular descent into death. But he is dutifully attended by Vera, who looks beyond the dreary nursing of her husband, and even beyond Sam's suicide:
And the hours started to tick by the hours of her life. There were many of them, these hours. Liudmila polished the kitchen faucet and left. Outside it was May, it was December but Vera loved everything, after all, since she had made up her mind to look at life that way once and for all. What did it matter what the weather was, or who was beside her, or who awaited her after that calendar page way in the back over there was torn off, when she loved everyone and everything? This resolution, always existing as a seed within Vera, has been firmed up now by Sam's death. As Alexander declines, she reminds herself of the need to "keep on. . .with this criminal, this iron love of life, for we have nothing else." Sam's boredom and hatred of life is thus balanced out by Vera's love of life, even though her circumstances are much bleaker than that of Sam, the famous violinist who can no longer live in a wealth of possibilities. With Alexander's death, Vera, hair now bobbed, leaves for Nice, to live with her sister-in-law, Lise. It's a dissolute break for Vera, with plenty of screwing around. But, after her extended duty as nurse to her husband, she has earned her fun -- though she quickly sees it as a dead end, and her internal moral needle returns her to a kind of balance. Vera departs for Paris, but tells Lise, cryptically, she wants nothing to do with "K." "K" shows up as Karelov, a cartographer, who has fallen in love with her. It is in many ways a romantic attachment something Vera is suspicious of (though she can be quite romantic herself, provided she keeps a tight leash on how long her emotions are given free play). Also showing up is Dashkovshy, an older man, something of a domesticated demonic figure, who obviously is trolling for Vera (he was a former lover of Vera's mother). Vera herself seems to toy with the notion that Dashkovksy represents a potential lover, while at the same time trying to convince Karalov that love is, at its best, "banal" -- a definition Karelov is unwilling to accept. One reason for Vera's ambivalence is Karelov's own unsettled marriage situation. He is married, but the woman (a gypsy) is unstable. For Vera, this is not an excuse. She doesn't quite view Karelov's freedom as total. Eventually, there is a pathetic attempt at murder by Karelov's wife, which Vera submits to in an almost Christ-like way. She appears to do this for Karelov's sake. Earlier, before the attack, and upon hearing that Karelov had a wife, Vera found herself remembering her school days and a New Testament passage that had moved her: "Blessed are those that thirst." It is this passage that supplies Vera with an epiphany of sorts, and that leaves her remarking "Lord, how good it is." The New Testament may be the "Book of Happiness," though Vera recalls gospel details only in an uncertain way, turning to the gospel only when her emotions are in need of some ungraspable reinforcement. For Vera, the "Book" is hardly a concrete compilation of various books and epistles. After the murder attempt, she again finds herself lingering over the single word "Blessed." Being blessed is an understanding, no matter the hardships, she has always had. With this brief passage, her life crystallizes: she is unhappy, she is happy; she finds life and love continuously surging within her. There is nothing static about maintaining balance, as one goes through life seeking to maintain that "dizzying equilibrium." Many thanks should go to the editors of New Directions and particularly the translator, Marian Schwartz, for resurrecting this major 20th Century writer. The Book of Happiness is novel writing at its best.