What commends Days in the Caucasus, quite aside from its rakish narrative, is Banine’s exquisite, prose and unremitting eye for comic absurdity even amid the profoundest personal tragedy. After experiencing such drastic loss one could be forgiven for rose-tinting the past; but Banine resists sentimentality wholesale — and the result is all the more striking for it. More than that, she contends that adversity itself can be the very source of joie de vivre. Momentarily considering whether she regretted her mistreatment by fortune, she concludes: ‘Not at all: I abhor that state of innocence precisely because it is ignorant of the real world in all its magnificence, horror and divinity.’
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. “As I now describe my former self,” writes Banine, “I feel neither compassion nor sympathy for her.” But we, her captivated readers, feel both.
Banine is a day-dreamy, bookish child, half-forgotten as the youngest of four daughters, given to wallowing “in visions and sensations”. The first half of the book is a paean to paradise lost. “The champagne flowed freely, to use the classical phrase,” she writes, “thus our world marched toward disaster.” 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... 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 herself shines through as an intelligent and independent spirit, longing for her own self-determination. I would very much like to read her sequel, Days of Paris — yet to be translated — to see what happens next.