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Billancourt Tales by Nina Berberova


Billancourt Tales: Billancourt Tales collects thirteen superb stories from those Nina Berberova wrote in Paris between 1928 and 1940 for the émigré newspaper The Latest News. In Berberova’s own words, these stories contain traces of “human tears that were more like the drop formations on a piece of Edam cheese than the dew on a rose petal.” Billancourt, a highly industrialized suburb of Paris, gave Berberova her subject. Here thousands of exiled Russians — White Guards, civilians, and Berberova herself — were finding work and establishing a home away from home with their Russian churches, schools, and small business ventures. Berberova thought the significance of the tales was in their historical and sociological aspects — and yet these fine stories are the kind that have led to comparisons to Chekhov. They portray a wide range of human beings and the twists and turns of their various lives. Sometimes amusing, sometimes sad, these stories show Nina Berberova at her very best: “her appeal remains strong, and becomes stronger still, because she was both participant and chronicler, because she experienced and imagined. Translated by Marian Schwartz.


Billancourt Tales by Nina Berberova Book Chapter One


It was the national holiday on the Place Nationale. The evening of July 14th.

A stage had been set up where our people usually sit at sunset twiddling their thumbs, or stroll, chatting. On it was a four-man orchestra that had been engaged to play the same waltz all night long. The drum beat sad and loud, couples swirled, a thick wall of people watched from the sidelines; there was plenty to look at.

This time the couples were the genuine article, each cavalier dancing with his lady; occasionally you’d come across two cavaliers, of course, but rarely, and no one paid them any mind.

The local lion danced (I never did find out how this lion earned his living). A Chinaman danced, a swoop of hair carefully trained over his right eye; my boss, my foreman (a member of the French Communist Party, actually), wearing sky blue suspenders, danced.

The rest of the politically unaffiliated public, with some Arabs interspersed, were standing in a circle, arms hanging at their sides.

There were many precious and even priceless faces in that crowd, shaven not only because of the national holiday but also because it was Sunday. Parts ran across heads like bright shoelaces, took a turn eight and a half centimeters above the ear and, rounding the crown in a free line, descended to a starched collar. The starched collar that dug into the neck was clean as a whistle, something you couldn’t say about the tie, which twisted and turned for no apparent reason on the chest of someone who had already suffered more than his share. A vest of a blue so dark it was almost black, nipped in at the waist by a tailor’s invisible stitch, often swathed such a chivalrous form you couldn’t help but feel a certain pride for the vest’s wearer. The cleaned boots and colorfully patterned socks were less visible by dint of the twilight. The most priceless faces, as always, were rather pale and puffy from their cares and God only knows what nutrition. Even on a holiday you saw no happy satiety in them; what mostly showed through were their nerves. Individuals walked around the square, to and fro, watching the dancing. The sky was growing dark, the apartment buildings shrouded in the evening’s gray. The drum beat sad and fine.

There were three of us—Shchov, Petrusha, and me—sitting under a high canvas awning lettered “Cabaret.” Petrusha—my dear friend Peter Ivanovich, actually—simply could not come to any agreement with Shchov, who’d fought alongside him, concerning where they both were at dawn on December 23, 1919. And if it was on that side of B., the famous fortress, then why wasn’t Colonel Maimistov with them? Their argument had dragged on since morning with only brief respites.

“Grisha, tell him!” Petrusha—Peter Ivanovich, that is—shouted at me. “Why don’t you say something? Tell him he was drunk that day so his memories have flitted away like moths. Because if we really had been on that side, Maimistov wouldn’t have been away at headquarters, that stubborn soul, he would have been right there with us like the most inseparable friend.”

“I was not drunk,” Shchov replied. “I mean, I couldn’t have been drunk because it was Wednesday.”

“Wednesday! Dear God, now he really has lost his mind. Grisha, believe me, it was Monday! Why don’t you say something?”

Why did they have to hash out every detail of the distant past? He, Petrusha, Peter Ivanovich, that is, later admitted to me that he wanted to write a military history, even if he only printed three copies, for God’s sake: one for himself, one for posterity, and one for the woman he loved, should she ever come his way, Shchov was only annoying him as a matter of course.

Just then, a vision appeared from around the corner. It was wearing a sky blue, knee-length silk dress and a sky blue hat; it was holding a brown leather purse. Head held high, it walked past the three of us toward the dancing. Everyone turned to look. It lingered in the crowd, shifting from foot to foot, and suddenly evaporated before our very eyes: it had gone to dance with the local lion to the waltz the reader has already heard all about.

A mere scrap of blue hat flashed by. The crowd of spectators was getting thicker and thicker, and the drum was beginning to fill them with longing.

“That’s it! That’s it!” Petrusha shouted when we lost the scrap of hat entirely. “Right this minute my entire life’s happiness may have gone to dance, and simpleton that I am, I’m sitting here wondering about Colonel Maimistov. What I’d like is a better fit between my emotional behavior and the circumstances of my life.”

“Often there is no fit,” said Shchov. “Why should there be? You don’t think it comes from living a good life, do you?” Neither one of us had anything to say.

“If you want a fit, go dance: it’s the national holiday on the Place Nationale, the band is playing. . . . What are you sitting here for?”

But we didn’t dance.

“You know, Shchov, you’ve got it all wrong again,” exclaimed Petrusha. “I say you have to try as hard as you can.”

“It’s not in our nature.”

He was taller than both of us, and he must have been able to see the blue hat because he glanced in that direction much too often.

“The drum’s playing. If you’re not going to dance, at least you should walk around and look at the others. Or else what?”

Petrusha stood partway up again and searched with his eyes. In the crowd I finally saw the ethereal dress and the brown purse in the small hand. The vision was waving her handkerchief. Not one of us took his eyes off her. We didn’t feel like talking about December 23, 1919, anymore.

“Hello, Petrusha,” said Semyon Nikolaevich Kozlobabin the businessman as he walked up to us. “Isn’t that your car parked on the corner? How about making some honest money by driving me to the Gare du Nord and back? I have to meet my brother.”

Kozlobabin the businessman looked troubled. He had tied a silk kerchief around his neck and put on a raincoat, even though the night was practically hot.

“Are you still celebrating? Then I beg your pardon, I’ll find someone else. Perhaps the captain is at liberty?”

Shchov didn’t answer. Petrusha said: “Oh, why not, I’ll go.”

Semyon Nikolaevich Kozlobabin looked at his watch.

“I want to meet my weak-chested brother,” he repeated without any special enthusiasm. “We haven’t seen each other in nine years.”

Petrusha went to start up the motor. He couldn’t just leave, though: he got out of the car and walked over to me.

“Can I ask you one favor, Grisha?” he said. “Watch her, brother, the one in the blue with the purse, see who she goes with and where. Got it?”

I didn’t blink. “Fine, Petrusha my boy, I’ll watch her.”

As he was getting in the car, Semyon Nikolaevich Kozlobabin said to me: “Would you like to come for a ride with us, Grigory Andreevich? There’s room. You might get various impressions: you might see a train or someone might get run over. Isn’t that the sort of thing you like? Maybe some interesting idea will occur to you.”

Again, I didn’t blink. “No, I’m very grateful, but life’s too short to go chasing after ideas. I’d rather sit here with the captain.”

Shchov and I were left in our seats and our silence.

It was growing dark. The calvados in our glasses was dispersing its fragrance. The dance circle was getting rowdy.

“Why does our businessman seem less than overjoyed at seeing his brother?” Shchov, asked. “He should be jumping up and down, hugging every friend and stranger he meets, but he’s his usual self.”

“So the way he’s acting doesn’t fit the moment.”


“You know, though, Captain, I might not be doing exactly what I ought to right now either. Maybe I have reason to hate someone but I’m just not saying anything.”

He gave me an astonished look.

“And maybe,” he said significantly, “maybe I have reason right now to start a fight.”

“You mean you don’t always find yourself fitting the circumstances either.”

He looked as if he had just remembered something. He pushed his cap back on his head and wiped his sweaty forehead with the palm of his hand. He eyed me as if he were unsure of something, as if he had definite doubts.

“Swear to me, Grisha, swear you’ll never tell anyone this, no matter how hard things get for you, no matter how bankrupt.”

“Well, would you listen to that!”


“And just where am I supposed to go telling anyone? What am I, a writer or something? Who do you take me for? And how long can they put me away for this?”

“So you’ll swear?”

What could I do! I swore. He began his story, and for a while I forgot all about the blue hat.

“It happened ages and ages ago. I was twenty-eight years old and married—not to Maria Sergeevna, to Maria Fyodorovna still, who ran off with Lieutenant Tsarsky in that very first year of our marriage and later died in childbirth in Bakhmut, at 3 Sadovy Lane.

“At the time, that is, the time I’m telling about, we were young newlyweds living on Gorshevaya Street, not Sadovy Lane. We lived with Maria Fyodorovna’s father, my father-in-law, Fyodor Petrovich—his last name was Petrov, too.

“Which is to say that we were managing. My father-in-law was a retired staff captain, though in all his days he’d never seen combat—he’d had that great good fortune, not like you and me. But my father-in-law loved to tell stories about military life. We’d be sitting there on a holiday, it would be dusk, and my father-in-law would be so wrapped up in talking about maneuvers you could never cut him off. He walked with a cane and was striking to look at, quite attractive really. His small capital, all he had, he gave to his daughter Maria Fyodorovna on her wedding day, holding back a mite so he could eat, drink, and wear clean linen. I must say, he was a sweetie pie, not a father-in-law.

“Time flies, though, and my father-in-law was turning sixty-one. One fine spring evening, just as he was getting ready to reminisce about a certain parade, he was taken by a stroke, first his tongue a little, and then it got stronger and stronger through his arms and legs. The next day Fyodor Petrovich was dead.

“Maria Fyodorovna cried a day, a night, and then another day. Truth be told, this dreadful event laid me pretty low, too.

“The house was inundated with aunts of every stripe—fat ones, who mostly rummaged around in the storerooms, and skinny ones, who went for the dresser drawers. Requiems were offered up twice a day and the guests were served heavy food and drink. The deceased lay oh so quietly off by himself in the corner of the room, the same room where his canary always sang, before and after his death.

“The day of the funeral came. It was morning, the sun was shining, the flowers were blooming. People had gathered at the house, the parish clergy, guests. I was standing in our bedroom, wiping my boots with a cloth, all set to go out, but Maria Fyodorovna just couldn’t seem to get her veil attached to her hat. She’d torn the veil taking the hat off the shelf (the veil had been sewn on in haste, for another funeral). But she had to get her hat ready because immediately after the prayers came the bearing-out, and there was only a moment, that is, no time to fuss with a veil.

“I was standing in the middle of the room when from outside the window, our open second-story window, I heard from far away someone walking through our quiet streets. In the middle of the day some not entirely sober personage was playing the concertina and singing.

“At first you could barely hear it. At first, that is, there was still hope that this concertina would pass us by, that it would go down another street, the next one. But then the whole crew turned right down Gorshevaya and you could hear the song up and down the street, with its crazy bawling and strumming, the likes of which I’ve never heard since:


If a gentleman has no watch chain

Then the gentleman has no watch.


“I took a few steps toward the window and saw the singer himself, who dipped with each step, his eyes focused on the sky, his elbows opened all the way out, and the concertina traveling along in his arms. He was trailed by eight or so little boys of indeterminate age who were running, running ahead, running in small circles, laughing. . .

“That watch and chain made me shudder. The song was coming right up to our windows; the concertina (where did he get it?) was plucking, pulling, exhausting, clattering, flicking, pestering, cudgeling, arranging the notes. I’m sorry, but they really were something special.

“And all of a sudden I couldn’t keep it up. I stopped fitting the moment—the deceased and the bearing-out and everything. Right then, unwittingly, who knows why, my shoulders started twitching to the beat. Maria Fyodorovna didn’t notice. As I said, she was fixing her veil. She was so preoccupied that quite mechanically, a pin in her mouth, she hummed a few notes and fell silent immediately. Then, placing the hat on her dresser and uttering a soft tra-la-la, she took two little steps to one side while tilting her head toward her shoulder.

“I took a cautious step and Maria Fyodorovna looked over her shoulder. Evidently it was getting to her as well, but who else it was getting to I don’t know. She stretched both her hands out to me, and at first we trod in place, catching the music with our feet, then we took a few steps between the commode and the sewing machine, and then we launched into a polka around the room along with the concertina:


If a young lady wears a corset,

Then the lady has no bust.


“Suddenly the music broke off. The patrolman on the corner had put an end to it. We stopped, still holding on to one another. Stricken, Maria Fyodorovna collapsed in my arms, which scared me, and my head began spinning. I opened the door wide and dragged my wife out, into the hall—to the seat of honor, ahead of all the aunts. The prayers were starting.”

Shchov stopped talking, and I saw his eyes slanting in the same direction as mine. The vision had emerged from the crowd, which in the meantime had become much denser and larger: a button nose, a hat with just a little too much froufrou. She was followed by the local lion threading his way through the crowd. He was carrying her leather purse and his boutonniere was coming unpinned.

Shchov pushed his cap forward and jumped up:

“I’ve got to go. I have to. I can’t just let this happen.”

He took off across the square after them. The drum was beating, tearing at my heart.

Little by little I started recalling the times my own behavior hadn’t fit, when I’d started to dance just like that, or nearly like that, at the wrong time, all the times I’d led with a six when I should have led with an ace. All the times I’d laughed at the wrong moment and been drunk in front of people who weren’t. Or felt like going home to mama when I had my marching orders. Who hasn’t had rotten experiences like that! Of course, I’m not talking about foreign citizens, who always do everything at the proper time, naturally.

Then Petrusha’s car pulled up right in front of me—at the entrance to the Hotel Caprice actually. Semyon Nikolaevich Kozlobabin the businessman and his weak-chested brother, newly arrived, were getting out. The brother looked to be about fifty and was wearing a dark shirt without any tie, a cap that had gone out of style a long time ago, and an earring. My Petrusha was dragging a pillow out of the automobile—all the weak-chested Kozlobabin had for luggage was this strapped-up pillow and an Easter cake wrapped in newspaper. The weak-chested brother looked all around—the drum was a little intimidating—and kept an eye on Petrusha to make sure he didn’t swipe his Easter cake. Semyon Nikolaevich took him by the arm:

“Don’t be afraid of the drum, Kolya. It’s our national holiday: the storming of the Bastille. You know better than I, of course, what happened then at that point in history. Brother dear, you need to drink something after your long trip, let a quick shot or a glass of joie de vivre slide down your throat. Peter Ivanovich will carry your things straight to the room. Madame will show him where. Everyone knows us well and respects us here. There’s really nothing for you to be embarrassed about.”

Semyon Nikolaevich the businessman walked over to my table, introduced me to his brother, and sang my praises. They sat down and continued their brotherly conversation:

“So, you’re here, that means you tore yourself away to see us, so to speak. . . . My family’s gone to the dacha, though, so I’m on my own right now, you understand. I have business here, you know, I just can’t get away. But you don’t care about that, I’d rather hear about Misha. Is he alive? What about Anna Petrovna? Where are the Kuroyeds? In one piece?”


“Did you see Marusya before you left? Have you had any letters from the Don? Aren’t the children going to school already?”


The weak-chested Kozlobabin was sitting there and you could tell he was listening to the drum, looking around, and marveling—and worrying a little. Petrusha walked up and leaned over to me: “Did you see?”

“Yes. They left together and Shchov ran after them. I hope there’s no fight. If I were you, I’d pass.”

Petrusha bit his lip, sat down, and started listening to the brothers’ conversation, too.

I can’t lie, they weren’t really having a conversation. Kozlobabin the businessman was peppering his brother with questions about all sorts of people, plying him with liquor, trying to explain his own material situation. The brother sat perfectly still and silent, shuddering occasionally, wary. He would look at Petrusha and me as if he could not tear himself away, then look around at the increasingly noisy celebrants nearby, at the dancers, the spectators, the lovers, the Chinese chasing each other, the elegant full-breasted girls from the bread, sausage, and dairy stores.

On the far corner, where there was another little café which we zealously avoided, our own musicians announced their presence. They began sawing away at the fiddle and slapping the bass, and a horn floated over us like honey. As far as I could tell, the two orchestras were playing completely different pieces simultaneously.

And something strange started happening to our weak-chested Kozlobabin brother. He hunched over his glass and hid his hands under the table, his face turned red, a tear rolled down his cheek. Very odd.

Semyon Nikolaevich the businessman immediately left off his familial talk, and the newcomer grew embarrassed and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket—very slowly. The handkerchief was filthy from his train trip.

“What’s wrong, you aren’t crying are you?” asked Semyon Nikolaevich. The newcomer guiltily raised his eyes to Petrusha and me.

“What’s the matter? Look, there’s music playing, people are having a good time, it’s a holiday here today. They’re dancing. What’s wrong?”

The newcomer looked down at his knees and a second tear crawled down his other cheek.

“Forgive me, comrades,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry.”

Petrusha blushed and started squirming in his chair. “I humbly beg the comrades to leave him in peace. Our extremist elements might hear and raise a scandal.”

The newcomer covered his face with his hands, which after his trip were not like the hands of someone on his way to Easter services. Nor were his nails.

Semyon Nikolaevich was embarrassed. “What an odd fellow you are, Kolya! How I’m supposed to console you, I don’t know.”

I moved my saucer a little.

“Did you leave some beloved object at home?” Kozlobabin’s weak-chested brother did not reply.

“Did you lose it en route?”

“Does something hurt after your trip?”

“Do you regret spending the money?”

The newcomer didn’t answer but kept his hands over his face. It was getting awkward to look at him. Petrusha wouldn’t let up.

“Don’t you like our national holiday?”

“Are you sorry they aren’t dancing like this in Moscow?”

“Or do they dance there every day, whereas here we only dance once a year, and you feel sorry for us?”

He sat there perfectly still without answering, and his glass started trembling slightly on the table. We could not fathom the reason for this disparity between his state of mind and his surroundings.

Still, he wasn’t a young man and he was the brother of Semyon Nikolaevich Kozlobabin, a man of substance whose wife and daughter had managed to slip away to the dacha. He was a newcomer, and we were having a holiday on our square, where some were strolling arm in arm with girls from sausage stores and others with girls from bakeries. And this lack of fit between his mood and the waltzers’ hadn’t been obvious at all.

“We’d better hit the hay,” an embarrassed Semyon Nikolaevich finally said. “It’s time you went to bed, little brother. Traveling’s got you down.”

The newcomer finally uncovered his face, which was now perfectly dry, and everyone felt a little better. Kozlobabin took his brother by the elbow, paid for them both, and they went to get settled at the Hotel Caprice.

That left Petrusha and me. And once again we saw the vision. But this time it was walking on Shchov’s arm showing all its pearly teeth as it laughed. Petrusha couldn’t stand it and rushed over to introduce himself. Should I have taken advantage of the moment, too? But I didn’t budge.

I sat there a little longer and listened to both of the hired orchestras, which were still playing different pieces. Night was lingering, floating, sailing up—I don’t know how else to put it. And then they set off the fireworks. People started dancing on the third corner, where they sell oysters and other shellfish in the winter and where one of ours was plucking on a balalaika.

The crackling fireworks made a pretty show and flew apart harmlessly in the sky. What children there were screamed, and the women squinted and tossed their heads back—as if they knew squinting and tossing their heads back became them. In the sky, where the moon should have been, all you could see were green and red sparks. No one gave a thought to the moon, though, and what could you say about the stars?

It was probably a good thing that Kozlobabin’s weak-chested brother had been taken away before any fireworks. If street-lamps could make a man cry, a man tempered in life’s battles, then fireworks might have had the devil knows what effect on him. And what man in our day hasn’t been tempered in life’s battles? For us, there is no such man.




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