This short tale by Nina Berberova is a story of the have and have nots but not just in terms of money but confidence and desire with Sonechka finding herself under Maria’s shadow not only because of looks and talent but because she doesn’t know how to seize the moment. As a result she drifts between liking and hating her employer and at various points actually wishing her harm.
A pianist born illegitimately moves to Petersburg with her mother and as they struggle to cope with poverty she is handed a life-line being offered a job as an accompanist to a famous soprano Maria who lives a life in complete contrast to Sonechka. She is wealthy, beautiful and confident but things change as she takes her accompanist along with her husband Pavel to live in Moscow. Life in a communist regime is not to their liking so they escape via the South to Paris where Maria restarts an affair with a man called Bers who has followed her from Russia. This affair, unlike some other infatuations men have with her that Maria shares with her husband, is kept secret and in the end he shoots himself over it. The result is that Bers marries Maria and takes her to live in America and Sonechka ends up scraping by as a pianist in a three-piece cinema orchestra.
Is it well written?
One of the bits of blurb on the cover said it had a quiet violence, which is true, but it is a violence that is never carried out by Sonechka. She seems trapped by her upbringing unable to come out of the shadows and compete with Maria even though she knows she could do. This short book is like a spring coiled up ready to explode but it doesn’t do in the book and it is left for you as a reader to work out just when you plan to explode and bounce into action claiming the position in the world that is rightfully yours. It also expresses the amazement and anger brilliantly when Sonechka discovers Maria for the first time living in luxury in a city plagued by poverty and starvation.
Should it be read?
For those looking for a story of tension in a relationship between an outsider and a couple and two artists coming from different levels of confidence it is a must read. The take on the revolution and the impact on people’s lives is a lot more subtle here than some other books but deserves to be added to those because it paints a picture of a starving Petersburg in the throws of losing its position as capital and lagging behind in the oppression that has already started in Moscow. A lot of the details – the intricacies of the relationships with Ber and the feelings of the betrayed husband – are never really sketched out in anything other than the briefest of ways leaving a great deal of this book left to the imagination of the reader which is a style that I find personally appealing.
Version read – Flamingo paperback