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Uncovering the Meaning of a Life

IT's not often that the author of an autobiography declares her intentions as forthrightly as Nina Berberova does at the beginning of her life story, "The Italics Are Mine." In this book, she tells us, she will "loosely follow the chronological order of events and uncover my life's meaning.... With no deliberate effort on my part," she insists, "the meaning of life will unfold, the meaning of my life, or, indeed, of every life." However (as she goes on to assure us), "this meaning will never be put befor e life itself to obstruct it; it will creep into the tale and coexist with time and space...."

Berberova made her American literary debut last year at the age of 90 with the publication of "The Tattered Cloak," a collection of six novellas. Her writings - fiction, literary criticism, biographies of Tchaikovsky and Borodin - had been appearing in Europe since the 1930s, and her autobiography - perhaps her crowning achievement - was written in the mid-1960s and published in Philippe Radley's English translation in Britain in 1969. Berberova has lived in the United States since 1950, having spent the

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previous three decades of her life in Paris. Why it should have taken this long for her work to be published in the US is yet another of the many mysteries of the American publishing industry.

Born in Russia in 1901 of an Armenian father and a Russian-Tatar mother, Berberova fled her native land in 1921 in the company of her first husband, the poet Vladislav Khodasevich. Following a brief period in Berlin, they, like many other Russian emigres, settled in Paris, where they managed to eke out what little they earned from their literary endeavors with whatever odd jobs came their way.

Their circle of acquaintances - in St. Petersburg, Berlin, and Paris - included such figures as Andrey Bely, Anna Akhmatova, Vladimir Nabokov, Marina Tsvetaeva, Ivan Bunin, Maxim Gorky, Boris Pasternak, Viktor Shklovsky, Roman Jakobson, and the deposed Russian prime minister Aleksandr Kerensky. (A 59-page alphabetical list of "Who is Who" at the back of the book is a helpful guide for the reader lost in the thickets of famous and semifamous Russian names.) Although Berberova warns us that her book is an autobiography of herself, not a memoir about the famous people she knew, her intensely felt, sharply etched portraits of her contemporaries provide unforgettable insights into their characters.

Of Kerensky she recalls, "When he was invited, he looked into his little book: 'No, I can't, busy. Perhaps I will drop by for a short while.' In fact, he was completely free, he had no place to go and few came to visit him." She characterizes him as "a man of little willpower but great intentions, of negligible strength of conviction and mad stubbornness, of great self-assurance and limited intellect," allowing that "both the self-assurance and stubbornness grew in him with the years.... A man such as he , who was killed, in the full sense of the word, by 1917, had to build up his armour to continue to exist: beak, claws, tusk."

The brilliant and gifted writer Bely was a close friend: "In spite of playing the fool painfully, his nightly drinking, his treacheries ... each encounter with him was an illuminating event that enriched one's life." An exceedingly emotional and subjective man who did not really understand himself, the pathos of Bely's life, she feels, made little impression on people living in an increasingly "pitiless" time: "The word 'pity' was living out its last years," she remarks, "and it is not for nothing that t his word is now used in many languages only in a derogatory sense ... with an overtone of scorn in French, of vexation in German, of ill will in English."

Berberova writes with great passion and perception of her times, both in characterizing them as historical eras and in expressing her own relation to them. For all the hardships she faced, she feels certain that she was born in "the only suitable century" for her. She cannot imagine herself happy as a 19th-century Russian woman, one of "Pushkin's Nanettes and Zizis," as she puts it. "I arrived at the right moment," she declares. "Treasures lie all around me. One need only grab them. I am free to live whe re I want, as I want, to read what I want.... The horrors and misfortunes of my age have helped me, the Revolution liberated me, exile tempered me, World War Two pushed me into another dimension."

Berberova looks inward to uncover the deep impulses, ideas, and symbols that have shaped her personal life, and at the same time, she looks just as searchingly at the world around her. She cogently defends her fellow emigres against the charge that they were "scared of the masses": It wasn't the masses they feared, but the literary bureaucrats out to enforce cultural conformity. She still feels outrage at the willful ignorance of Western leftists who refused to see how the Soviet revolution was devouring

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its own. She criticizes her fellow-countrymen, however, for lacking the ability to compromise and for taking themselves too seriously.

But in many ways, Berberova's most interesting subject is herself. At age 10, she decided she wanted to be a writer, yet repeatedly she tells us that for her living was always more important than writing: "I could never sacrifice a living instant of life for the sake of a line to be written, my balance for the sake of a manuscript, a storm within me for the sake of a poem." This is certainly a far cry from the credo of many of her contemporaries and perhaps explains some of her shortcomings as a writer. Yet the writing of this very book, her autobiography, she accounts as one of the handful of profoundly meaningful acts of her life, along with leaving Russia, settling in France, and coming to the United States.

On several occasions in this long work, Berberova exults in her freedom as a writer to choose what to include and, just as important, what to leave out - a freedom the reader is happy to accord her. But when we find her referring to her second husband as "N." and telling us even less about her third spouse and very little about the kinds of work she has done since coming to America, her cherished passion for "secrets" becomes rather irritating.

It would be misleading, however, to suggest that the tone of Berberova's autobiography is prudish or coy. "The Italics Are Mine" is an immensely vibrant and passionately intelligent story of one woman's life, and a meditation on the meaning of life by a mind and heart committed to the belief that life has meaning.

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