Paula's Reviews > The Book of Happiness

The Book of Happiness by Nina Berberova
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Oct 05, 09

bookshelves: fiction, best-reads-of-2009
Recommended to Paula by: Steve Harris
Read in July, 2009, read count: 2

The Book of Happiness, although apparently written in the 1990s, at the end of Berberova’s long life, reads like a modernist novel of the early 20th century. (Both Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Richardson come to mind). This despite the author’s own references to Russian writers such as Tolstoy, Pushkin, and Garshin as well as to Jules Verne. The Book of Happiness is divided into three sections each of which is an account (although not in any reportorial sense) of a love affair/ relationship. Three sections, but four men with whom the protagonist Vera becomes involved in some way. Each man stands, in a sense, for an aspect of the old Russia of memory, story and childhood dreams. In fact it is their storytelling that creates a common denominator among the four men in Vera’s life (five if one counts Vera’s father).

It is Berberova’s treatment of time, I believe, that places her writing in the camp of the 20th century Moderns. In Part Three, Vera notes that she is “alone with time, which was passing, making her neither mortal nor immortal” and that “she felt not that time was flowing through her but that she herself was time. Berberova’s prose is hallucinatory and dream-like throughout; she segues from image to image, episode to episode, as if splicing frames in a film.” The novel opens with the image of a suicide. A young man, a concert violinist named Sam, has been found dead in his Paris hotel room from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. He has left the address and telephone number of Vera, his closest childhood friend, on his night stand for the hotel staff to find. Here, from the very beginning, Berberova explicitly invokes cinematic techniques: “Through the window [of her dead friend’s hotel room:] she could see the Place de l’Opéra and the beginning of the Boulevard des Capucines, as if someone had started some director’s old film running on the screen of the window.” Gazing at Sam’s dead body, Vera muses that “It was like trying to lay a negative over a printed photograph so that they coincided.” In his last letter, Sam wrote, “I’m bored. I wanted something I couldn’t have, and everything I did get bored me.” For Sam, despite love, “life is the enemy.” For Vera, life is the experience of happiness, a happiness that she defines as that which lasts. Part I of the novel concerns itself with Vera and Sam’s childhood and adolescent friendship: Vera and Sam meet in St. Petersburg when Vera is 10 and Sam is 9 (circa 1911). Sam is Jewish, Vera, Christian. Sam’s father is a lawyer and Vera’s an engineer. From the day they meet, Vera and Sam spend every free moment together. Sam’s world is that of the imagination. He is a fanciful teller of tales and the two children create an almost hermetic world together, one that lasts until Sam’s family must emigrate in the aftermath of the 1917 Russian revolution. Vera remains behind in Petersburg to endure the hunger and scarcity as well as the change in social conditions brought about by the political turmoil of the era. Soon, she too leaves Russia for Paris, along with her newly-wed, tubercular, and soon-to-be dead husband Alexander Albertovich (Alexander’s father was French, although a naturalized Russian citizen). Part II accounts for the love story (if it is one) between Vera and Alexander and the first years of Vera’s life as a Russian émigré in Paris. Part III takes place after Alexander’s death and involves two subsequent relationships: one between Vera and Daskovsky, one of Vera’s beautiful mother’s four former lovers. Daskovsky becomes something of a flawed (perhaps even suspect) mentor or confidante to Vera. A second relationship links Vera and Karelov, whom Vera encounters in the south of France after her also-widowed sister-in-law Lise whisks her away following Alexander’s funeral. Vera returns to Paris a year and a half later, freshly determined to experience, and thus to know, the fullness of life and happiness, She is soon followed there by Karelov, who appears without notice at her door. They resume their affair in what appears to be a blissful state of matter-of-factness. Upon this note, the novel ends.

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Steve Great review! (I loved this novel.)


Paula Yes, and it was because of your rave review that I read the novel. So thank you for the tip, since I much enjoyed it as well. Much more to say about it than I had time or inclination to put in my review here.


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