Nina Berberova, Italics are mine

I’m in the middle of Nina Berberova’s autobiography, Italics are mine. It’s quite a thick book, very well written, without an ounce of undue sentimentalism. How strong this woman comes out! She was born in Tsarist Russia in 1901, survived the Bolchevik revolution, starvation and repressive terror, fled to Germany, France, then after WWII went to the U.S. to teach at Princeton. She thought herself mostly as a poet, but I re-discovered her fiction works lately, with The ladies of St. Petersburg, then The Black Disease, and I like how sharply she wrote. I can’t resist translating to you a paragraph (or two…):

I was ten when I had the weird idea that I soon should find myself a job. […] As much as a job, I was looking for the opportunity to make a choice, to make a decision with full knowledge of the facts. Today, I know well enough that all the decisive and irrevocable acts in my last sixty years, like for example my leaving Russia in 1922, have not been the result of conscious decisions, unlike, on the other hand, my refusing to leave occupied France in 1940. For my whole life, not more than four or five times did I have to take resolutions that committed my whole existence and my personality. But each time I did it, I experienced an acute feeling of my strength, my freedom and my vital energy, a kind of happiness free from lucky or unlucky consequences of this choice. This feeling of intense felicity was not in any way weakened by the fact that my choice may have been partially conditioned by biologic or social determinations outside which I don’t see myself.

I realize that the realization of that very first desire, of committing myself consciously toward a set direction has given me the definitive feeling of a personal victory, not over my family circle, but over myself.


I belong to the category of people for whom home is not the symbol of a happy and safe life, and who are happy to see it disappear. I don’t have any “ancestral graves” or “sacred home” that support me when I’m in distress. I have never acknowledged any blood line. As nature hasn’t given me the skin of a buffalo, or the claws of a panther, and as I didn’t seek to get them, I live without support and without weapons. I don’t master any martial art and don’t have parents or homeland. I don’t belong to any political party and don’t pay tribute to gods or ancestors. For people like me, the most difficult is to have to struggle against hostile forces that haven’t any precise definition yet. As biped mammals, we have lost our natural defenses. Moreover, we have been cut from our ancient cultural roots. We are alone facing ourselves.


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