by Naïve Livres, Paris
“The energy of her prose makes one recall the ‘experimental’ Russian prose of the 1920s-30s, written on both sides of the barricades of those times. And at the same time, we have a kind of summing up of the literary 20th century – Russian, Georgian, international.” (Russky Zhurnal).
The novel “Belle Vie” may be confidently placed in the same rank as the brilliant Russian novels about emigration by Nabokov, Berberova and Bunin. And it is unimportant that the main character, Monsieur Kisseleff, came to France from Russia when he was a 9-year-old boy, and his young friend Philippe was born in a village by Nice to a taciturn French farmer. Where does this purely Russian melancholy come from, for something that you remember poorly, don’t remember at all, but which you love, in spite of it all?
From Russia, Monsieur Kisseleff brought an old chest with pre-revolutionary gramophone records, the cry of his mother: “don’t look back, don’t look” when the Reds broke into their house, and a love of Russian opera. But he has never sought out meetings with Russians, preferring to avoid them. “His nostalgia was strange. In every town, in every village where they stayed, he would vanish for a few hours, for half a day. He went to the cemetery and looked for Russian graves. He bought flowers by the entrance and almost always found someone to give them to. Did he like them dead, perhaps?” And when the first Soviet Russians appeared who spoke a foreign language, Kisseleff immediately switched to his “terrible” French. “This Russian prince and connoisseur of Russian opera did not wish to meet any of the Russians. He did not reply to inquiries about his surname. He did not go down to have breakfast at the restaurant, but shut himself up in his room, in silence.”
This was the same kind of silence in which Philippe’s father lived, who fought in the Second World War in his youth. After the war, he delivered milk to the family of formerly rich family, who were now impoverished. “Mother played the piano and sang. She threw back her blond head, and the song flew into the window, like smoke. And really, this happened every time he approached! Father did not know that he was handsome, no one had ever told him. She rushed to the piano when she heard the canisters clinking, from a long way away. In her song, all the words were about love. A password. A key. Straws stuck in her blond hair.” Philippe’s mother hated silence. She “took the table into the yard, as soon as summer began, and received guests there. Tea with jam, cherries with pits. She adored guests! She liked to have someone to talk to her. But guests visited her rarely. They had had it with this impoverished rich lady. She didn’t know one side of a cow from the other.”
Philippe would never have gone away if his mother had lived. He would not have left her in silence. But along came Monsieur Kisseleff, who needed a chauffeur. They went away for one summer, and spent 16 years together. He wasn’t successful as a student, “books made his head explode”, but women went crazy for him: night, a quiet knock at the door, a red carnation between the lips… “There were no streetlights. He walked home by moonlight. Love was all very well, but tomorrow he had to get up early.” Kisseleff taught Philippe to love the theater. “When you’re 30, you’re alone, and your heart beats hard only in the theater, you often ask yourself – maybe I am not wanted? Will real love, a real woman, ever come to me? And what is the feeling called when you love a country you have never been to, and a life which does not exist in your life? It’s a strange nostalgia.”
Monsieur Kisseleff, who lost his voice as an opera singer at the height of his fame (and here a femme fatale was involved, of course), found himself in a vacuum, although he was even recognized on the streets of Paris. “No therapy would have saved the singer from the pistol. But then he met Philippe…” And they threw caution to the winds – they bought and sold hotels (always with their last money, and always calling them “Belle Vie”, “Beautiful Life”), as if they were fleeing from fate.
They did not know then that they were running from happiness, but happiness always has a past tense. “But they were both happy, if they looked back now. There were always people around them. Like at the theater. Like in Russia.”
And thus they reached the “end of the world” - Montreal. They bought a hotel, but Monsieur Kisseleff caught a cold, and he had to go to Nice. At the airport, Philippe met Katenka – his Russian destiny, his happiness. But then came a letter from Monsieur Kisseleff : “You are my only one, the greatest in my life... “ Read it again, Katenka, what does it say ? The telegram was from his father. And it said concisely, you couldn’t put it any more concisely : “Come here, he’s dying.”
They only quarreled once, when they first met, because of Philippe’s father. Monsier Kisseleff shouted at Philippe: “How can you say that!... six Fritzes!... he risked his life for all of us!... I’m forever grateful to him…” As if Monsieur Kisseleff knew that his father would sit silently by his bed when he was dying. He would bury him, crying.” And then Philippe…
In Montreal, Katenka waits for the father-in-law manqué. “She stroked her stomach with both hands. There was something lying curled up inside her… And father remembered his own wife again, and was surprised at the resemblance. Everyone thought they were an unsuitable couple – an impoverished rich woman who didn’t know how to approach a cow, and the village milkman. But he loved her very much – as he was able. And when she died, he wanted to love someone more than her, the blond chatterbox, but no, it wasn’t to be. Just once.” Katenka asked what she should call Philippe’s son. “Serge. Monsieur Kisseleff was called Serge.”
Perhaps this is the mysterious “Russian soul”, which blossomed on the soil of Russian literature, or perhaps it is some chemical compound of “Russian” blood that is unknown to science, but where else is emigration perceived in the way that Elena Botchorichvili describes it:
“You come to emigration, like to heaven, through death. You cut off the past, like a tail. There is blood on the tail. There is blood all over the body, everywhere.
I am a little bird. I only have eyes and wings. And a bleeding wound. I don’t know where my heart is – in the tail, like in fairytales, or still in my chest. I don’t hear it beating because of the rustle of wings. I take off and squeeze the wound, clenching it tightly.
From above, from my bird’s eye view, I can see my tail, chopped, covered in blood. I try to get used to the thought that it was atrophied, that I could not have flown away with it. I hit the glass of skyscrapers. I am reflected in it. I – and the sky. This is heaven. Is it heaven?”