Billancourt Tales

Nina Berberova

translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz
New Directions 2001
A book review by Danny Yee © 2012
These thirteen stories, written between 1929 and 1934, are set in the White Russian community in the Paris suburb of Billancourt.

Berberova's characters look back to previous lives — before defeat and loss of position or wealth in the Russian Revolution or Civil War — but are firmly located in the present, adapting to new circumstances and building new lives. A one-time pianist enjoys a brief return to his old vocation. A farmer comes to Paris to try to find a Russian wife. A layabout's scruples get in the way of a career as an actor. An inventor strikes lucky in getting funding for his ideas. A dying man watches a murder of passion from his window. A once-lively woman fallen on hard times prepares to die all by herself. A man gives a woman a thimble and then follows her across Europe. And so forth.

Several of the story plots could easily have descended into melodrama, but Berberova handles them with a lightness that makes that impossible. And the down-at-heel writer-narrator occasionally intrudes himself, allowing for some reflections on writing and story-telling (which a brief introduction by translator Marian Schwartz links to Berberova's own life).

The stories in Billancourt Tales are straightforward and uncomplicated. If they are individually quite slight, however, they come together effectively as a collection, presenting a portrait of a diverse migrant community held together by a common culture and shared history.

May 2012

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%T Billancourt Tales
%A Berberova, Nina
%M Russian
%F Schwartz, Marian
%I New Directions
%D 2001 [1992]
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9780811218337
%P 175pp