A spellbinding short novel set in post-revolutionary Russia about a young girl's jealousy. The fifth book of Nina Berberova to be published by New Directions, The Accompanist, written in 1936, proved to be a literary phenomenon in Europe where it was first published. A spellbinding, short novel set in post-revolutionary RussiaThe Accompanist portrays with extraordinary sensitivity the entangled relationships of three intriguing characters. Sonechka is a talented but shy young pianist hired by a beautiful soprano (Maria Nikolaevna) and her devoted, bourgeois husband. Maria is everything Sonechka is notglamorous and flamboyant. Her voice brings with it "something immortal and indisputable, something which gives reality to the human being's dream of having wings." Doomed to live in her mentor's shadow, the young girl secretly schemes to expose the singer's infidelities. But as she awaits her chance, the diva's husband takes matters into his own hands, bringing events to a surprising resolution. This intense and beautiful little novel was published in America almost fifty years after it was written; sadly out of print for a number of years, it is a wonderfully compelling and crucial addition to Nina Berberova's growing number of published fictional works.
About the Author
Nina Nikolaevena Berberova (1901-1993) was born in St. Petersburg. She left Russia after the revolution in 1922, eventually settling in Paris in 1925 with her lover Vladislav Khodasevich. She moved to the U.S. in 1950 and taught at Yale and Princeton. In France she was honored as a Chevalier of the French Order of Arts and Letters.
Read an Excerpt
By Nina Berberova
A New Directions ClassicCopyright © 1985 Actes Sud
All right reserved.
Chapter OneToday it is one year since mama died. Several times I've tried to say that word out loud, but my lips have lost the habit of it. It was odd and nice. Then it passed. Some people call their stepmothers 'mama', others call their husband's mother that; once I heard an elderly gentleman call his wife 'mama' (she was about ten years younger than he). I had one mama, and there will never be another. Her name was Ekaterina Vasilievna Antonovskaya. She was thirty-seven when I was born, and I was her first and only child.
She was a music teacher, and none of her students knew that she gave birth to me. They knew only that she was seriously ill for an entire year and went away somewhere. They waited patiently for her return. Before my birth some of them had come to her at home. When I appeared, mama stopped having them come. She was out for entire days at a time. The old cook took care of me. It was a small apartment, two rooms. The cook slept in the kitchen, mama and I in the bedroom, and the other room was taken up by the piano, so we called it the piano room. That was where we ate. On New Year's Day the boy students sent mama flowers; the girl students gave her portraits of Beethoven and death masks of Liszt and Chopin. Once, on a Sunday, we were walking down the street - I was nine years old - and we ran into the two Sveshnikova sisters, who were just then finishing high school. They took to kissing and squeezing mama so that I started screaming from fright.
'Who is this, dear Katish Vasilievna?' the young ladies asked.
'This is my daughter,' mama replied.
From that day the word was out, and in one week mama lost three lessons. A month later she was left with just Mitenka.
It didn't matter to Mitenka's parents whether or not mama was married or how many children she had or by whom exactly. Mitenka was a talented boy and they paid well, but one couldn't live off Mitenka alone. We let the cook go, sold the piano, and without losing any time, moved to Petersburg. There we picked up some Conservatory contacts. Mama was loved there as well. Slowly, laboriously, she carved out a life for herself and for me. And by the first winter she was again running all day long, in the wet, in the frost. Me, she enrolled in the Conservatory in the preparatory class. By then I already played quite competently.
It never occurred to me to give much thought to what mama went through when she abandoned our home town, where she had once grown up - alone with her mother, also a music teacher. Her father, my grandfather, died early on, and it was just the two of them, like we were now, and everything was very similar, only there was no shame. Grandmother sent mama to Petersburg at age sixteen to study. She graduated from the Conservatory, returned to N., gave a concert, played at charity evenings, and little by little started working with young beginners.
I never thought about her living alone, after her own mother's death, how it must have been for her to turn thirty, or what happened after, or who my father was. The drawers of her desk didn't lock, but I never ran across any photographs or letters. I remember once, I was very young at the time, I asked her if I had a papa. She said:
'No, my Sonechka, we don't have a papa. Our papa died.'
That's just what she said: 'our', and we had a good cry together.
I found out the whole story very simply. I was fifteen when mama's friend, a French teacher at the N. high school, came to Petersburg. It was early evening, about six o'clock. Mama wasn't home. I was stretched out on our narrow old sofa reading Tolstoy. The doorbell. Kisses. Exclamations. 'My, how you've grown! What a big girl you are now!'
She and I sat together for quite a while. It was evening and the lamp was lit; someone was singing on the other side of the wall. We talked, reminiscing about years long past in N., about my childhood. I don't know how it happened that she told me about my father being a former student of mama's and all of nineteen at the time. Before him she had never loved anyone. Later he married and had children. I didn't ask his first name or his last.
Mama came home. She was over fifty now. She was rather grey and little - like most mamas actually - and freckles had started appearing on her hands. I myself couldn't have said what was going on inside me: I was sorry for her, so sorry that I felt like lying down and crying and not getting up until I'd cried my heart out. The thought of her shame drove me wild; had he come in right then I would have hurled myself at him, punched him in the eye, bit him in the face. But even more than that I was ashamed. I realized that my mama was my disgrace, just as I was hers. And our whole life was one irreparable shame.
But that passed. At the Conservatory no one ever asked me about my father - not that I ever got that close to anyone. It was wartime. I had become an adult. Gradually I had grown used to the idea that I would have to choose a career for myself - I already had a craft.
I called my father 'the offender'. Later I realized that that wasn't quite right. He was nineteen years old. For him my mother had been nothing but a step on the path to maturity. More than likely he never even suspected that she, at her age, was a virgin. And she? How passionately and hopelessly, notwithstanding their closeness, she must have loved in order to enter into a liaison with a man young enough to be her son and to give birth from that - a brief and for her unique liaison - to a daughter. What remained from all that in her memory and in her heart?
And now - revolution. For each person the old life ended at a different moment. For one, when he boarded the boat at Sevastopol. For another, when Budenny's Red Guards entered his steppe village. For me - in the peaceful life of Petersburg. There were no classes at the Conservatory. Mitenka, who had already been hanging around Petersburg for a month (he had come to study composition) came to see us on October 25th, in the morning. Mama had caught a cold. Mitenka played, then we had lunch, then Mitenka dozed. Oh, how I remember that day! For some reason I was very busy sewing something. In the evening the three of us played cards. I even remember that we had beef and cabbage for dinner.
Mitenka was the son of wealthy merchants in N. He was mama's old student from the time of shame, so to speak. He was a phlegmatic young man, about three years my senior, utterly indifferent to life in general and to his own person in particular. He had peculiarities; he was a scatterbrained sleepyhead whom tutors had a hard time teaching cleanliness. He was not so much devoted to music as he was a sort of conduit for certain chaotic sounds which through him burst out of nonexistence into reality. When he entered the composition class he shocked everyone by being avant-garde and revolutionary. But in conversation he was helpless and could neither make a point nor defend his views. Mama became more and more discouraged over his cacophonies, which were turning into a crude and terrible obsession.
I didn't care about him one way or the other. That autumn, after so many years away from N., I was really seeing him for the first time. He was twenty. He was not handsome. He had started to shave but didn't always, and the hair on his head was already thinning. In addition, he wore a big silver-rimmed pince-nez, had a nasal twang, and breathed heavily through his nose while he listened. But he loved mama very much. He apologized for his 'chorales' based on words by Khlebnikov and said that the time would come when there would be nothing: no roads, no bridges, no sewers - just music.
My Conservatory friends who visited us considered Mitenka a cretin, but no one questioned his musical genius. I had no use for his chorales or his affection. I was concerned with events, I was concerned with the future, I was especially concerned with a certain Evgenii Ivanovich, lately departed for Moscow, who had worked in the Conservatory office and with whom I had had the following conversation a month before:
He: 'Are you a good guesser?'
I: 'I think so.'
'There's something I want to tell you but I can't. You have to guess.'
'Now you answer: yes or no?'
My heart started thumping.
But it was not Evgenii Ivanovich who was to give my life a new turn but foolish, pale-faced Mitenka: Evgenii Ivanovich went to Moscow and never came back. He did not vindicate my matrimonial hopes. That winter, when I thought over our conversation and still had hopes that he would write, that he would come, sometimes I started wondering whether he might not have been declaring his love at all, whether he might have had something completely different in mind: for example, he might have wanted to ask me to lend him a small sum, or to say hello to someone for him, maybe someone he cared for. Oh, let it be! Let us turn instead to a new introduction that had 'fateful' consequences for me. In the winter of 1919 Mitenka introduced me to Maria Nikolaevna Travina.
Chapter TwoI was eighteen years old. I had graduated from the Conservatory. I was neither smart nor pretty; I had no expensive dresses and no outstanding talent. In short, I didn't have much going for me. The famine was beginning. My mama's dream of me giving music lessons was not to be - there were barely enough lessons for her. Once in a while an odd job would come along for me at musical evenings, in factories or workers' clubs. I remember a few times - in return for soap and lard - I went somewhere in the dockyards and played dance tunes all night long. Then I got a regular job, on Saturdays - for bread and sugar - in the Railroad Club at the Nikolaevsky Railway. First I played the Internationale, then Bach, then Rimsky-Korsakov, then Beethoven, then Mitenka's 'chorales' (which were then coming into vogue). But I couldn't support myself on one Saturday job. So I found an opera singer who needed an accompanist, which took up three hours a day; it was a long way away, and there were no trams. And until he got me through the various official registries for a ration card more than two months passed. But at last that too was arranged.
The singer had been a rather well-known baritone. Now he was coming up on seventy, he smelled of cheap tobacco and the wine cellar, and his hands were black from working in the kitchen and chopping wood. He was getting so thin that each month his clothes hung more and more loosely. Buttons came off; elbows and knees wore through. He never washed, only shaved his chin and upper lip on rare occasions, and then powdered himself so heavily that it sprinkled off. And it seemed to me like plaster flaking off him, like off an old crumbling wall, and that he smelled not of the wine cellar but simply of damp earth.
'Sonechka,' he used to say to me, 'why is it you're so skinny? You won't get anywhere on your youth alone. You need curves, curves! You have a paw like a chicken's, a leg like a goat's, and a bosom like a cat's. Ah, what will ever become of you, my child, with a figure like that!'
He was sincerely distressed over my future. I was happy to have learned his repertoire and be bringing home what rations I did. That winter he caught a chill and was laid up. Everything in his apartment quickly fell to pieces: the pipes froze, it was two degrees in his rooms, the piano strings broke, the paraffin ran out. A doctor was sent from the Union. I continued to come every day. Some friends showed up, some ladies. There was semolina. I was sent to the neighbours for salt; I ran to the distribution centre for jam. Then it was all over: he died on his dirty sheets, on his torn pillowcase, and there was a lot of fuss over his funeral. Taking care of the dead man was draining.
I was out of a job. My boots were made from a rug, my dress from a tablecloth, my winter coat from mama's cloak, my hat from some gold-embroidered sofa cushions. I might live, but I also might not - and somehow it didn't much matter which. Mama would look at me with curiosity and sadness. Mitenka wheezed through his nose and sat up late with us, watching me darn, drink tea, play, or, ignoring him, read. One evening he came over, looking very preoccupied; Maria Nikolaevna Travina needed an accompanist, permanent, not temporary, perhaps to go abroad.
Mitenka was preoccupied because, first of all, he was trying to convey to me the conditions of the job in a businesslike, coherent way, and that, like everything practical, was tough for him. Secondly, he felt sorry for me, sorry that I was going to leave mama and him. He did not like things to change.
At first mama was upset. Maybe it would be better if I did become an accompanist, not a music teacher, if I broke away from her to lead my own life? I looked at her. This was an old woman already, who in recent years had become stooped and shrunken, whose eyes were lifeless and hair grey, who sometimes couldn't summon up the right words. She couldn't be an adviser for me, a support. I tried to look at myself objectively. There was no way I could help her. At one time I had been a hindrance to her in life, and now I was no consolation. Something dimly told me that I would never bring her happiness. Did she love me? Yes, she did. But there was a pathetic gap in that love, and when she kissed me I always felt as if she were trying to smooth over that gap - for her sake, for mine, for Mitenka's, for God knows who else's.
I didn't say anything. Mitenka sat with his arms stretched across the table and elaborated. I was being offered a position, a permanent position with a salary, with board; I would be taken to Moscow, to the provinces, I would be my own person.
'As a lady's maid? A lady's companion?' I asked suddenly out of angry curiosity.
Mitenka even laughed, and mama smiled as well. We should have been very happy, but we weren't. But clocks tick too without happiness, and rain falls without happiness, but life goes on nonetheless. How beautiful God's world is, and how rightly everything in it is ordered!
So I put on my rug boots and all my masquerade-type clothes typical of the time, which made me look as if I were a moulting, faded youth from some nomadic Asiatic tribe, and set off to see Maria Nikolaevna Travina.
Petersburg. 1919. Snowdrifts. Silence. Cold and hunger. A belly swollen from millet. Feet unwashed for a month. Windows chinked with rags. Greasy stove soot. I walk into the building. A large building on Furshtatskaya Street. A lift suspended between floors. In it - excrement frozen solid. A door on the third floor. I knock. No answer. I ring the bell. To my surprise, it works. A maid wearing a cap and proper shoes opens the door. It's warm. My God, it's warm! No, this is not to be believed: a huge tile stove so hot you can't get near it. Rugs. Curtains.
Excerpted from THE ACCOMPANIST by Nina Berberova Copyright © 1985 by Actes Sud
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.