Tania: Memories of a Lost World by Tania Alexander (And Thoughts of My Father the Story-Teller)

This is only the second biography of Moura Budberg that I have read — the first was Nina Berberova’s biography, which I picked up in Seattle in 2006 and, as it goes with me, took until 2010 for me to read. (In that respect, I’m doing much better with Tania Alexander’s memoir Tania: Memories of a Lost World — I received it back in March, amid a shipment of Pound-related books, and have read it only a couple of months later.)

I don’t have a lot to say about the book, but I think as a memoirs go it was well-written, thoughtful, and especially sensitive in its treatment of its real subject, Tania Alexander’s mother (Moura Budberg) and the world that made her what she was. (Both the world of the pre-Revolution Baltic nobility, and the Soviet world built out of the ruins of the Tsarist regime.) As I noted recently, the foremost impression one gets is of how small the (European) world was in the early decades of the twentieth-century: how many of the figures we know and remember as having separate stories, actually knew one another and met as their paths crossed. In this book, I discovered two new connection between H.G. Wells and Ezra Pound. (The first runs Wells – Moura – Micky, the Irish nanny who’d raised Moura’s kids, and I think Moura herself – Maud Gonne – Yeats – Pound; the second is shorter, and runs Wells – Moura – Count Alexander Benckendorff (probably via Count Djon Benckendorff, Moura’s first husband) – Ezra Pound, for Pound seems to have talked to Count Alexander Benckendorff at some point, probably in London.)

The ending of the book is particularly touching, as Tania Alexander attempts to clear her mother’s name of certain charges, especially those made by Nathaniel West (the son of Wells with his lover Rebecca West); Alexander faces difficulties because Budberg was the kind of woman to encourage and build up rumors about herself, and Alexander’s understanding of why she did so introduces new and fascinating dimensions to Moura Budberg for me. (Dimensions I’d like to introduce into my story, except since Budberg is the viewpoint character, it will be difficult for me to do so.)

In any case, for someone interested in a glimpse into the biography of Moura Budberg, this is a lighter and quicker read than Nina Berberova, though also less complete. I think it marvelously complements what I’ve read of Moura in other places, which giving a sympathetic view of her eccentricities, her attitudes, and her behaviour. It’s also an interesting look at the world of the Baltic nobility from the late 19th century (where it was good to be a Balt, by all accounts), up to the outbreak of World War II (where Nazi propaganda apparently had the whole region fooled, as Alexander sadly reports toward the end of her book).

And one last thing: like Moura, my father was a man given to story telling, including a certain degree of modification or embellishment of his stories over the years. Yet when I urged him to set down his stories, even in rudimentary form, he was resistant to the idea. I think, now, I understand a little better; Moura, though she had spent decades translating others’ writing, never wrote a biography, something I initially considered a shame, but… how could she had written a story? When one is telling tales, aloud, in warm evenings, people tend not so much to worry about the contradictions; half-truths are like spice, not just acceptable but indeed delectable in what they contribute — at least, in the right quantities. When a story is set down, then contradictions start to nag at one; the half-truths start to turn obvious, and troubling; and worst of all, once set down, a story takes on a permanent form, and it cannot be changed. I like to imagine Moura being as troubled about the permanence of the form, the fixity imposed upon it (and thus upon her life, her own history), and perhaps even disapproving of books like Berberova’s and Alexander’s, ever so slightly… at least, until she reminded herself that in those texts lay the route to some presence, however slight, in the collective memory of the world.

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