Tuesday, September 10, 2013

My Berlin Child by Anne Wiazemsky - Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

One of my all-time favorite reads is the Fortunes of War series of novels by Olivia Manning.    Set during World War II, these six novels tell the story of Guy and Harriet Pringle, a married English couple who spend the war in exile, first in the Balkans and then in Egypt, unable to get home to England like many others who were caught overseas when the war began.

There's a point towards the end of the books when Harriet really sees her husband Guy for the first time, sees him for all this he is, fully aware of all his faults.   She sees her future with him, knows that he is not and will never be the man she thought he was and that her own future will not be what she hoped for as long as she stays with Guy.  But in spite of this, Harriet also sees that Guy loves her, and that she loves him.  She is aware of the choice she has made to stay with Guy, what she has given up by staying with him, and she is happy with her choice.

It's a wonderful moment in the novels; one that provides a profoundly rewarding moment for those of us who read all six novels.  While moments like this don't come along often in the fiction I read, they came along twice in Anne Wiazaemsky's wonderful short novel My Berlin Child. 

Based on the true story of the author's parents My Berlin Child is a love story that starts in the closing days of World War II.  Claire Mauriac is a young woman who drives an ambulance for the International Red Cross.  Along with a few of her friends, Claire takes a job working in Berlin almost as soon as the city falls to the Russians.  There, Claire works for the Red Cross helping to get refugees, largely Alsatian French refugees, back to their home countries.  While in Berlin, Claire meets and  quickly falls in love with Ivan Wiazemsky, the son of displaced Russian nobility forced to move to France at the start of the Russian Revolution.

Ms. Wiazemsky uses what I assume are actual letters and diary entries written by her mother and father throughout My Berlin Child.  She weaves these letters and diaries seamlessly into her novel by including their back story.  While a letter's first person narrator will give one version of a particular incident, the book's third person narrator tells the reader what the letter writer was really feeling and thinking while writing the letter.  This way, the readers gets to know both what Claire put in a letter to her mother along with what she left out and why she decided to tell her mother what she told her.  It's a little like watching a very good director's commentary track on a DVD.

Claire risks losing considerable wealth and social status by marrying Ivan.  Her father is a Noble Prize winning author, her family well placed in society, well-to-do if not actually rich.  There is a possibility that they will cut Claire off if she marries beneath her.  Becoming an ambulance driver alone was quite a rebellion for Claire, marrying a man whose family lives in poverty, even if they were once titled nobility, is a step-down for love.  That it all works out as well as it does, is kind of wonderful.  My Berlin Child is a successful love story.

That said, there are two moments in the novel when Claire looks at Ivan the same what Harriet Pringle looked at her husband Guy towards the end of Fortunes of War.  But for me, that both Claire and Harriet stay with their respective husbands, even after they become aware of what they have given up, makes their love stories all the more wonderful.  They are love stories that go past the happily-ever-after moment to find a love that continues.  Maybe it deepens, maybe it just continues past a moment when it could have stopped, but it's a love that kept going.

You can probably tell by this review that I was quite taken with My Berlin Child.  I've a strong suspicion that it  will be on my list of top ten favorite reads for 2013.  I hope to find more by Anne Wiazemsky. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is the kind of story that I may not have been interested in if it was fiction, but for whatever reason, knowing the people are real makes it more interesting to me.