A a memoir, first published in 1945 and now keenly translated from the French by Anne Thompson-Ahmadova, which spans the tumultuous period from the author’s birth to 1924. Reflecting an era of bloodshed and terror, it should be a grim read. Instead, however, this account is an effervescent and irreverent feat of recollection and imagination—epic in sweep yet intimate in tone—that introduces the reader to an exotic, antique world and to characters so vividly drawn that their raucous voices seem to echo long after they have vanished from sight ... Playfully mirroring Tolstoy, Banine could be ushering us into a capacious 19th-century novel. And in a way she is. For what follows is a captivating drama of family, money, marriage and disaster that unfolds with deceptive ease and irresistible charm, thanks to the agility of a narrator who is both innocent girl and ironic observer.
A love story between a Georgian princess and a noble Azeri boy set in Baku during the Russian Revolution ... The poignancy is clear from the very first page: we know communism is coming, and with it the end of everything. Childhood slips into adulthood. Family scandals — her sister’s elopement, her widowed father’s second marriage to an Ossetian — weave into the bristling history: war, exile and a shortlived period of Azeri independence, during which her father was a minister. When the Bolsheviks arrive, it is only fitting that Banine and her cousin fall for a dashing commissar and espouse all the excitement of historical materialism even as her father is imprisoned ... The language is a free-flowing river — an adventure written decades later. Like Nabokov, fellow writer-in-exile, she writes memoir almost as fiction, as though it happened to someone else. Banine falls out of a love triangle and into marriage with an apparently eligible gambler with the right connections to get her father a passport ... a delightful memoir of an eventful life set against the helter-skelter of the 20th century, which plunged her family into exile and penury just as arbitrarily as it had set them in gilded houses and bedecked them with diamonds.
Every so often a voice emerges from the archive so vivid that it seems impossible that it should ever have been forgotten ... Banine’s sensual writing and remarkable ability to conjure the emotions of lost childhood recall Colette, but the comic grotesquerie of her accounts of her grandmother’s gossips doing their laundry in a frog-infested pool are all her own. Original, too, is her authorial voice, dashingly translated by Anne Thompson-Ahmadova, its wit combining with tenderness and self-knowledge.