This book (published [in French] by Gris Banal in 1990) is the sequel to the memoir the author wrote a few years earlier about her childhood and youth in Azerbaijan, and which ends with her flight to Paris and desertion of the husband she was forced to marry while still in her teens. I reviewed her previous book, ‘Jours Caucasiens,’ a few months ago, and it, too, was lent to me by my kind next-door neighbor.
Banine’s delight at finally finding herself in Paris, the city of her dreams, and joy in being reunited with her sisters and father is soon superseded by the need to work in order to support herself. The jewels and precious objects the family had been able to salvage when their wealth was confiscated by the Soviets were all sold off to pay the rent and buy food, so that now each member had to make his or her own way in life.
The author describes the existence of the thousands, if not millions, of refugees from Russia and the Soviet satellites who found refuge in Paris after the Revolution. The detailed analysis of this new diaspora portrays a sad picture of displaced persons forced to leave their home and struggle to make ends meet, after having lived in comfort if not luxury. Many of them had no professional training and were quite unequipped for life in a modern city. Russian night-clubs sprang up throughout Paris, and former members of the Russian military and aristocracy found themselves eking out an existence as dancers, singers, or circus entertainers. The fact that there were some forty thousand Russian taxi-drivers in Paris is testament to the dire situation in which many found themselves. Some of them were former officers and soldiers in the White Army, which had been defeated by the Bolsheviks. Among the latter, I might add on a personal note, was Viktor Savinkov, the man who later met and married my aunt, Ilse van Son, and thus became my uncle. His brother, Boris Savinkov, whom I did not know, was persuaded by the Soviet authorities to return to Russia, and met his death at their hands.
But to return to Banine (who peppers her narrative with expressions of this kind); we find that despite her own sense of not meeting Parisien standards of beauty, she is employed as a mannequin or model by the fashion houses of the city, and is able to support herself on the meagre salary she receives. She describes the other models she encounters, deriding their obsessive concern with money, lovers and sex. Her life consists of a mixture of the luxurious clothes she is required to put on in order to parade before wealthy customers (whom she hates) and the miserable living conditions she is forced to endure.
Her life takes a turn for the better with the arrival in Paris of her cousin, Gulnar, with whom she had played as a child. Gulnar is pretty and vivacious and has a wealthy lover, enabling her to rent a large apartment and bring Banine to live with her. The life of the two young women is dominated by Gulnar’s affairs, the relations with the various young and not-so-young men who appear and disappear, the parties they attend and the night-clubs they frequent. One of Banine’s sisters has married a painter, and so we are given a glimpse into the bohemian life of Paris in the 1920s, many of the artists being themselves Russian emigrés. Gulnar and Banine benefit from the platonic friendship of Jerome, a very knowledgeable young man who instructs them in literature and cultural matters, takes them to the races and introduces them to interesting people, among them the man who eventually becomes Banine’s lover.
The book ends with Gulnar’s marriage to a wealthy American and departure for the USA, leaving Banine lonely and miserable until she decides to find consolation in writing.