Marian Schwartz on Nina Berberova’s The Last and the First
Posted 29th July 2021 by Marian Schwartz
I came to The Last and the First as I have all of Berberova’s fiction: in anticipation of an exotic story about Russian émigrés in Paris between the wars and then firmly hooked by her gorgeous, moving prose.
Berberova’s stories and characters are compelling not just for their events and circumstances, although those do cover a broad range of human indignity, sorrow, and hope. Berberova’s fiction is very much about her sentences. She has a special gift, for example, for conveying the physical immediacy of movement. She reproduces the tracking shot in words. In this novel, we run with Marianne down the path, the main road, and into the forest to join her fiancé; we head through the orchard with Shaibin and along the edge of the field seeking out Ilya; Vasya on the train from Provence to Paris, and even the contretemps on the Paris train platform as his imminent return to Russia is thwarted. Ilya passing slowly, on foot, through Paris to its worst Russian slum and into a squalid room to deliver news of these people’s rescue is seared in my memory. Ilya and his stepmother walking through their Provençal village, all eyes on the handsome pair.
Here, once again, Berberova displays an uncommon ability to enter the minds of all kinds of people, rich and poor, good and bad, women and, quite strikingly, men. Witness here Ilya, the novel’s central character, who is what was then called a “first,” that is, a refugee who sets to making a new life, in his case, on the land, and his half-brother Vasya, though younger, who, unable to find his footing in emigration, believes himself a “last,” fated (doomed?) to return to Russia. But Ilya is just one of Berberova’s many memorable male characters, including the not unsympathetic Shaibin, who has behaved disgracefully toward women, been rescued by one of those women from the Foreign Legion in Africa, and wrestled with the possibility of returning to Russia, even though he knows that would not end well.
In his 1931 review, Nabokov was as enthusiastic about this book as I am: “Her language is uncommonly strong and pure; her images are magnificent for their solid and precise power. This is not ladies handwork, not an irresponsible fraternization with abysses or a made-to-order response to the news of the day; this is literature of the highest quality, the work of a genuine writer.”
Whatever Berberova wrote, she always knew where she was going and brought her work to a satisfying and often striking conclusion. This novel, too, ends with great beauty: “A few heavy drops fell on her dusty wooden shoe.”
The Last and the First by Nina Berberova (translated by Marian Schwartz) is out now in the Pushkin Collection.