THE BILLANCOURT TALES

Nina Berberova, Author, Marian Schwartz, Translator, Nina Berberova, Preface by , trans. from the Russian by Marian Schwartz. New Directions $24.95 (192p) ISBN 978-0-8112-1481-0

The pursuit of fulfillment—monetary, psychological or romantic—is at the heart of all 13 of these fleet-footed and poignant short stories about life in a Paris suburb settled by Russian émigrés during the 1930s. Originally written for an émigré newspaper, the tales emanate grace even when describing loss and pain. In "The Argentine," a man's attempt to match a single friend with an unmarried woman fails when the woman reveals that she is pregnant and then leaves town before the hesitant suitor can claim her. In "About the Hooks," a man travels into Paris from Billancourt to sell a patent to an industrialist, even bringing a puppy for the industrialist's daughter. The first meeting is promising, but before their second meeting, the young inventor sleeps on a park bench, the puppy dies and the industrialist expires as well. Some stories offer redemption and happiness at the end, all the more welcome for the degradation that precedes them. A lonely, aging woman who is the protagonist of "The Little Stranger" is forced to become her niece's guardian; against all expectations, the girl brightens the woman's later years. In "The Violin of Billancourt," a formerly genteel woman reunites with a long-avoided suitor when they have both encountered hardships and need companionship for survival. The narrator of "The Billancourt Manuscript" changes his formerly negative opinion of a deceased acquaintance after reading a mystical unfinished manuscript (reprinted in the story) bequeathed to him by the deceased. These stories occur against the impressionistic and often seductive backdrop of Billancourt, with its leafy promenades, dilapidated back streets and socially ambitious gentry, all attentively recreated by Berberova's ever-observant eye. At once unsparing and subtle, these stories illuminate a sociological minority struggling to find solid footing in a radically transformed world. (Nov. 27)

Reviewed on: 10/15/2001
Release date: 11/01/2001
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