The Tattered Cloak – Nina Berberova

I don’t usually read short stories unless I already appreciate the larger piece of art that I already like. There are a variety of reasons for this breakdown of what I read, and my prejudices against the medium, including that I have a hard time connecting with the characters in such a short space, are clearly colored by the types of short stories I do read. (I have also read David Foster Wallace short story collections that are…something.) yet, I do want to read more broadly, and I had picked up Nina Berberova’s collection on a whim at Jackson Street Books in Omaha Nebraska, so I gave it a go as one of the first reads of 2017. The short version of this review: these stories are amazing.

Berberova was born in St. Petersburg in 1901 and emigrated to Paris in the 1920s; her work reflects her personal experience, telling stories about Russians fleeing circumstances in their native country and trying to make a life somewhere else. This particular collection consists of six stories, translated under the titles “The Resurrection of Mozart,” “The Waiter and the Slut,” “Astashev in Paris,” “The Tattered Cloak,” “The Black Pestilence,” and “In Memory of Schliemann.” Berberova conjures a misfit cast of Russians, all of whom are trying to make their way in life, often by somewhat unsavory means. Ultimately the collections reminiscent of Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris crossed with the best of the Russian short story tradition of Gogol.

I really liked every story in this collection, but the lead story, “The Resurrection of Mozart” was the one that stood out to me both as being a little bit different and particularly memorable. This story is set a little bit after the others, taking place in June 1940 just after the outbreak of war between France and Germany. A group of Russian emigres are gathered in a village outside of Paris and debating which famous figure is most necessary in times like these. Someone says Napoleon, another says Julius Caesar, but the host insists that in troubled times artists are most necessary and none more so than Mozart. The next day a stranger with a strange accent wanders into town while everyone is furiously making preparations for war. Without revealing what happens next, Berberova offers a devastating commentary about life during troubled times. She doesn’t suggest that calling back a famous warrior would have changed the course of World War 2, but she does seem to suggest how powerless a single individual can be.

The Tattered Cloak and other Stories did a lot to moderate my opinion of short stories. Berberova crafts short vignettes on a given theme and creates engaging and memorable characters. She does not cringe away from difficult topics, which some people might find off-putting, but as with the comparable authors I listed above, I find that these moments add a power to the stories. I intend to read more of her work in the future and absolutely recommend this collection to just about anyone.

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Next up, I finished reading John Scalzi’s The End of All Things. I started reading Lee Sandlin’s Wicked River, a history of the Mississippi River this morning and plan to read Orhan Pamuk’s The Silent House next.

Some thoughts on rereading

Once upon a time there was a young man who loved reading. he read all the time, including in trees and on buses and in chairs and one time was reprimanded in sixth grade math class for reading a book. Despite being a precocious reader, this young man once checked the same book on Sitting Bull out of his elementary school library thirteen consecutive times.* But each time he checked that book out, he read it at least once. He read all the time, but he had a lot of books that he was particularly fond of.** Then something happened: he all-but stopped rereading books, even particular favorites.

[*That young man would do worse during graduate school, but at least then he was working on a dissertation.]

[**That young man also had a curious habit of reading more than one or two books at a given time, at least until he burned himself out during college while trying to juggle close to twenty books at once.]

To no-one’s surprise, that young man is the author of this blog. I actually do quite a bit of rereading still, albeit usually for research purposes, but I hardly ever reread anything simply for pleasure even though I am still, at heart, a rereader.

So what is it that I like rereading books that I have read one, twice, or a half-dozen times before? First, I find a comfort in rereading books where I like the characters that is similar to meeting up again with old friends. Moreover, there is a comfort in this sort of safe-space where you already know what is going to happen. I also believe studies that suggest that “spoilers” generally don’t diminish enjoyment but give a pleasure of heightened anticipation. [On that issue, if the quality of a book or movie is premised on such an important twist, it is deeply flawed.] Finally, whether a book is part of a long-running and intricate series or is just a great piece of literature, there are layers to the story that will add to meaning in light of other information, whether from other books or from life experience.

Despite these pleasures of rereading, I don’t do it for the same reason that I don’t pester famous authors to finish their long-running series in a timely manner: there are too many amazing books out there are not enough time to read them all. I would like the pendulum to swing back the other direction a little bit because there are some all-time great books that I want to reread. In the meantime, though, I am comfortable allocating my limited time to new books and reading reread projects online that evoke many of the same comfortable feelings while coloring them with just a tinge of envy.