Neukölln nights

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In the 1920s Berlin came to be known as the “third capital of Russia”, as more than 60,000 exiles from the former Russian Empire settled in the city. Predominantly – but not exclusively – Russian, they included the Pasternaks, Vladimir Nabokov, Nina Berberova, Andrei Bely, Marina Tsvetaeva and Marc Chagall. Some, like Nabokov, eventually travelled further West; others chose the perilous path back to the Communist East.

The writer and formalist theorist Viktor Shklovsky joined the returnees in 1923. He had just published Zoo, or Letters Not About Love, an epistolary novel named after the zoological gardens in Berlin’s Charlottenburg district, then home to so many Russian émigrés that it earned the nickname “Charlottengrad”. Shklovsky was in love with Elsa Triolet, a fellow Russian exile who went on to marry Louis Aragon; she was willing to receive his letters provided he never mentioned his feelings. Zoo is the product of that correspondence. Its final epistle is Shklovsky’s appeal to the Soviet authorities seeking permission to return.

Darkly humorous and brilliant, Zoo was a formative influence on me. A copy that accompanied me on my own westwards migration in the 1980s was so heavily underlined that it would have been quicker to highlight the bits that didn’t merit re-reading. Yelena Moskovich’s playful novel of lesbian love, Nadezhda in the Dark, is a direct descendant of Zoo, and not only because of its Berlin setting. Its free verse subverts the form that stretches back, in the Russian tradition, to Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. It is also sexy and readable: don’t let the strange-sounding names put you off.

As Ukrainian refugees and Russian political exiles join earlier waves of emigrants, Berlin is once again the hub of post-Soviet culture. When I was there last spring, it was no longer Charlottengrad but Neukölln, a district in the southeast that tourist guides describe as “bustling” and “full of contrasts”, that made me think of the 1920s. Its streets echoed with every Slavonic language you can think of, easily overtaking the once dominant Turkish of the Gastarbeiter and even, occasionally, German itself.

Moskovich’s story unfolds in Neukölln one rainy November night, as two women – one Ukrainian Jewish, one Russian, both multiply displaced – sit knee to knee on the fifth floor of an anonymous block of flats. As the time passes in “black milk darkness”, the unnamed narrator evokes their personal and national histories. The name Nadezhda means “hope”, and the novel is a quest for that meaning: “Soviet mothers, / their hope was choked out of them / by their Soviet mothers / and their Soviet motherland / my Nadya, my Nadezhda, / how did you manage to keep your name alive?”

This is a story of one night, but you could equally describe it as a 182-page love letter (“she is my Russian Bonnie / I am her Ukrainian Clyde”); a celebration of resilience and of myriad survivors (I will not easily forget the story of a skincare vlogger making over a trans woman under bombardment in Luhansk); a troubling history of LGBTQ+ communities in Eastern Europe; and a lament for lost homelands, and all the other losses that ensue.

There is much worth underlining, particularly when Moskovich evokes connections between belonging and mother tongue, the comfort of its sound in lovemaking, even just hearing your name being pronounced correctly: “I love you – Ya lyublyu tebya, / the way Anna Karenina said to Vronsky, / or Dr Zhivago to Lara Antipova, / or the Master to Margarita, / I said it back to Nadyenka, / and between us / centuries of Slavic loves / and death …”. Through her narrator, the author depicts the multiple paradoxes of her background as a Ukrainian with the heritage of Russian culture (“soldiers on both sides still cantillate / the same verse”, she writes poignantly of Konstantin Simonov’s ballad of 1942, “Wait for Me”); as a Jewish woman (“free Ukraine, / my Ukraine, / beloved Ukraine, / Jew-hating Ukraine, / you never / claimed me as your own / until I left”); and, finally but importantly, as an anglophone American writer.

The author moved to the US with her parents when she was seven. Her lines hum with the sound of the American Beats, of long poems such as Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”, and, perhaps less successfully, with some of their rebellious refusal of the rigour of form. Her cabinet of Soviet curiosities is an overcrowded place, though it is fascinating nonetheless. If you love the Beats, you may find yourself loving Yelena Moskovich’s night in Berlin even more. She is a stranger in every city.

Vesna Goldsworthy is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Exeter. Her most recent book is the novel Iron Curtain: A love story, 2022

Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS here

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