Translated from French by Anne Thompson-Ahmadova
This time last year we caught sight of an 18-year old Banine boarding a train in Istanbul heading for Paris. It was to be the final stage of her flight from the Bolsheviks and her besotted though detested husband, Jamil. (Poor man, he had no idea this was a final goodbye.) Parisian Days picks up where Days in the Caucasus left off. Arriving at the Gare du Nord in 1923, Banine is met by those family members who had fled some years earlier: her father, her stepmother, her sisters and one brother-in-law. One thing for sure she’s not going to be lonely.
The family, former oil barons, are living off the proceeds from jewellery which they had managed to smuggle out of Azerbaijan. At first they are comfortable, but as the funds diminish, their accommodation is accordingly downgraded, until Banine finds herself lodged in a maid’s chamber employed as a real-life “mannequin” . Her life as a model is hardly glamorous, but is better than than being a waitress or a dishwasher, employment many of her fellow emigrés are forced to accept. Their previous station in life counts for nothing.
A dozen members of the Tolstoy family also lived in Paris. At first they were as poor as church mice, so poor that when the film Anna Karenina was shown in Paris in the 1920s, the author’s daughter Tatiana Sukhotina-Tolstaya could not afford to go and see it.
However, having attained the much desired freedom of the West, Banine often feels like a fish out of water. She mentions being size 14 at one point; she feels plain next to the other models. They all have lovers and cannot understand why Banine prefers to be single. (Escaping from a marriage arranged at the age of 15 to obtain her father’s freedom doesn’t seem to register with them.) But the pressures Banine gets from them is nothing, absolutely nothing compared to those exerted on her by her cousin, Gulnar.
Remember Gulnar. She’s the one who ran off, while still married, with the Russian bolshevik that Banine had not had the courage to marry. Now she reappears as the mistress of the elderly Otto, a man with money made allegedly from shady dealings that take him away for long periods of time. And Gulnar takes full advantage to enjoy more amorous encounters. Jérôme, her friend and mentor, is determined to transform Gulnar into the epitome of cultured French womanhood. She’s only interested in how this knowledge will aid her social-climbing ambitions.
Gulnar takes the rather shy Banine under her wing. While this makes Banine’s life much more interesting, playing second fiddle to Gulnar’s amusing, virtuoso performances as social butterfly and femme fatale are not good for her self-esteem. Her commentary becomes ever more self-effacing, and at times waspish, even bitter. Eventually though Gulnar and Jérôme prevail, and Banine agrees to become the lover of the candidate they present to her.
Banine and Grandot are as incompatible as Banine and Jamil. Banine can’t stand him, but he does have unexpected talents in the bedroom. Though how he stuck with her long enough for her to discover this is beyond me! I’ll say this for Banine, she’s not afraid to tell the story warts and all. There are times when her behaviour is less than glorious (particularly during their first night.) Nor does it say much for the man putting up with such imperiousness and contempt. But Banine’s lover isn’t the only one. Gulnar dishes it out too. The cynic in me wants to say that the men take it solely to make the conquest. Though there are signs of genuine affection/devastation in most of Gulnar’s lovers. As for Grandot, he is playing a game until someone better comes along.
Banine stays in her fractious relationship for about a year. Even after a disastrous holiday which proved that their bond “had been a delusion, but (she) had still felt incapable of breaking it.” She asks,
Is it because, thanks to my inner demons, I enjoyed the hatred that Grandot so often inspired in me? It’s not impossible.
Two things happen to signal the end of this phase of Banine’s life. 1) Gulnar meets someone she genuinely cares for. As she has all the luck, he’s stinking rich too. 2) Grandot breaks with Banine. She finds both events difficult.
How hard to open one’s arms and close them again on emptiness; how hard to see others reaping a rich harvest from one’s desert.
Yes, she’s bathing in a slough of despond. Her experience of freedom during these early Parisian days has been anything but joyful, but at least, even if Banine doesn’t realise it, now that two bad influences in her life have disappeared, she is at a turning point. Like the layers of a neopolitan ice-cream (to which she earlier compares phases of life), her life is about to take on a different hue and an epiphany in the Bois de Boulogne awaits … Her painful coming-of-age is complete.
There was never going to be a #ReadIndies event without me reading something from Pushkin Press. As I wrote after reviewing Days In the Caucasus last year, Pushkin Press is the publisher with more shelf space in my library than any other (excepting the Folio Society). I also hinted strongly that I’d love to see Parisian Days appear in English. 12 months later, et voilà! What a publisher!
I love Pushkin too, so I’m glad I managed to squeeze one of their titles in. But this sounds marvellous, dammit, so onto the wishlist it goes!!