Inside Story

To Paris, from the land of fire

Newly translated, Azerbaijan-born Banine’s memoirs chronicle her extraordinary early years

Sara Dowse Books 22 December 2023 1966 words

Dutiful daughter: Umm El-Banu Assadullayeva, later known as Banine, at sixteen.

On the recent celebration of my eighty-fifth birthday my children surprised me by asking what I thought was the best decade of my life. I shrugged and said there was good and bad in each of them. I knew even then it was a fairly limp answer for such an important question, and wished I could come up with something better, at least with a little more flair. Something more on the lines of this: “When I look back over my already very long life I am always surprised, astounded even, by its not very poetic resemblance to a Neapolitan ice cream with its layers of different colours and flavours.”

That delicious sentence was written by a woman born Umm El-Banu Assadullayeva, and comes from Days in the Caucasus, her memoir’s first volume. It reveals a distinctive juxtaposition in her prose, in this book and in its sequel, Parisian Days. There’s a curious self-effacement combined with a resolute lightheartedness and flashes of wry wit, the work of a woman whose life was a rollercoaster of heartache, love and adventure.

She was born in 1905 in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea, and came to be known in twentieth-century Paris as the writer Banine. Her mother had died giving birth to her, her three sisters were quite a bit older and her father didn’t remarry for many years, though the family “welcomed polygamy and disapproved of celibacy.” The family she wrote of were “oil millionaires” — stupendously, one might say ridiculously, rich — who in one generation had leapt from peasantry to plutocracy from the oil discovered on their land.

She was a lonely but happy and imaginative child. Her father, still in his thirties and, like his brothers, thoroughly Europeanised from his travels, had hired a Baltic German governess for his daughters. Fraulein Anna was Banine’s mainstay, a mother substitute and “guardian angel” who schooled her in German and encouraged her to learn the piano.

But her paternal grandmother, “a large, fat, authoritarian woman, veiled and excessively fanatical,” ruled the roost, sticking to the old traditions. She loathed Christians, spoke only Azeri, a Turkic language itself a sub-branch of Azerbaijani, wore the clothes typical of observant Muslims at the time, and preferred sitting on floor cushions to any of the sumptuous European-type furniture to be found in the “reception rooms” of Banine’s father’s apartment.

Thus, here was a young girl buffeted between two radically different influences and traditions, though apart from the grandmother the family was not particularly religious. Banine took refuge in books and daydreaming, the necessary humus for any writer it seems, although it took many years before she became one.

Azerbaijan (Persian “land of fire,” for the spontaneous fires occasioned by its oil slicks) was part of the Russian empire. Its people were mainly Christian Armenians and Shiite Azerbaijanis who, as Banine describes it, periodically massacred each other in revolving reprisals. A smattering of Georgians and Russians also lived there. In the year of her birth the empire was in turmoil, until Tsar Nicholas II made his small, grudging concession to democracy.

Then, early in 1918, the year Banine turned twelve, Nicholas was forced to abdicate, not long after which the province became the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic and Banine’s father, now remarried and father to a son, was its minister of commerce. When the Bolsheviks solidified their control, the province lost its independence. Her father was thrown into prison.

The family’s traditionally pragmatic attitude to sex and marriage is relevant here. Polygamy was normalised in Islam, as was same-sex coupling for young unmarried males. For Banine’s father and others of his generation this was changing, but marriage in the upper class was still essentially a business proposition with love reserved for extramarital liaisons.

In this scheme of things the hymen was the husband’s trophy, pleasure an incidental consideration. Banine’s cousin Gulnar, for instance, was eager to get married so she could indulge her sexual appetite with a succession of partners in addition to her promised husband. But Banine, the dreamer, longed for a different trajectory, and had fallen deeply in love with a dashing Bolshevik commissar. Unlike any of Gulnar’s conquests, hers was an intensely romantic affair fuelled by a mutual love of literature (he her Prince Andrey, she his Natasha) but had yet to be consummated. There were plans, though, for her to elope with him to Moscow and be wedded there.

Knowing nothing of this, the family had two other suitors in mind. One was another cousin, the other a man who’d ingratiated himself by helping get Banine’s increasingly weak and emaciated father released. Then there was the problem of getting her father to Paris, where his wife and young son were waiting, and it was this same man’s connections he depended on for that. Still the dutiful daughter, and even though she hated her father for “blackmailing” her, she agreed to marry the man.

“Filial affection,” as she wistfully defined it, won the day. Without a word to her commissar, she failed to turn up at the designated rendezvous that would have swept her off with him to Moscow. Instead she was yoked to a man twenty years her senior whom she loathed with all her heart. She was all of fifteen.

The tone of the memoir’s sequel is even more bittersweet. In Days in the Caucasus she had written of her father and two sisters eventually finding refuge in Paris. Parisian Days finds her on the Orient Express to join them. In Paris her father and stepmother are renting a large, luxurious apartment on the fashionable Rue Louis Boilly, where they stay until they run out of jewellery: “the sole, slim remains of our oil barons’ fortune, democratised, collectivised, nationalised, volatilised in the revolutionary explosion, which consumed all our privileges in its flames.”

From the moment of her arrival, Banine is enthralled with Paris. She is even happy when her father’s “last pearl” is sold and they are all forced to move from the Rue Louis Boilly apartment. Now on her own, she is lent a maid’s room seven flights up in a building on the Champ de Mars, and like many Russian émigrés of the day, some of whom were princesses, she finds work as a mannequin in an upscale Parisian fashion house.

What are they to make of her too-Oriental looks, her large derrière, not to mention the over-fuzzy Azerbaijani hairstyle? She moves to another, more simpatico house, and there she picks up tricks of the trade. But although she makes friends easily there and the job is her only means of survival, she is unrelievedly bored. Augmenting their pitiful wages as courtesans, the women talk exclusively of beauty, clothes and catching ever more wealthy men. They dub Banine the “little Caucasian goose.”

Salvation comes in the form of an older sister. Zuleykha, a painter, had settled in Paris long before, and she and her Spanish husband José, another painter, set up a bohemian salon in their studio compound. (Banine referred to it as Josézous.) “The guests drank, ate, debated and danced with the passion of youth and exotic temperaments prone to excess of all kinds. We couldn’t get away without a bullfight, almost as noisy as a real one.” Her sister and brother-in-law introduce her to the Montparnasse nightclubs and Paris’s huge community of Russians who’d fled the revolution.

These are the Années folles, those crazy years that spanned the end of the first world war and the onset of the Depression. And though she is definitely the young hanger-on, the timid third wheel, she revels in the company and ambience. She is watching, listening, slotting it all into memory.

In a curious way, poverty has released her, as it has softened her father. Regretting her coerced marriage, he readily sanctions divorce. (Because of her refugee status and the husband’s Turkish residence, this is more easily said than done.) Nonetheless the conjugal experience leaves her resolutely chaste for years. The Montparnasse campaigns to correct this routinely fail, even when intensified by the surprise arrival of long-lost cousin Gulnar, who has finally made it out of Baku through her own particular version of the legerdemain that émigrés were forced to adopt. Within a matter of minutes, Gulnar has Banine abandoning her seventh-floor maid’s room and sharing a flat with her.

Was Gulnar the full-blown sexual predator portrayed? The relationship was doubtlessly complicated, yet I detect the writer at work here. Striking, full-lipped Gulnar is the perfect foil, a gift to any memoirist. As is Jerome, the cultured Frenchman who acts as a kind of psychopomp, ushering the two women through the high life of Paris, its sparkling nightlife and the tangles of their love lives. As for Banine, she finally succumbs to the blandishments of one of Jerome’s rich friends, an older Orléans widower surgeon to whom she was unaccountably mean and who, after some time and hardly surprisingly, unceremoniously dumps her.

And so Parisian Days ends. Gulnar has sailed off to America, having bagged a handsome, young, fabulously rich Texan. As generous as she is acquisitive and life-loving, she has left behind all her money for Banine, the handsome husband offering her a pension. Needless to say, Banine is stunned. “My cousin whom I had so often envied and hated overwhelmed me with largesse.”

Alone now, she finds her way to the Bois de Boulogne, considering her future. Because of Gulnar’s wholly unexpected legacy, she can contemplate leaving the fashion house and chance her arm at writing. The book’s last sentences encapsulate the special amalgam of bravery and self-deprecation that characterises its protagonist throughout: “Life was waiting for me. I had to go and meet it despite the burden of my reluctant heart.”

Banine’s first published work was a novel, Nami. Set in Baku and Russia, and based on her experiences of the revolution and civil war, it appeared in 1942. She made her name in Parisian literary circles with Days in the Caucasus, published three years later. Parisian Days appeared in 1947. She wrote in French, which by then had become her natural language. I Chose Opium deals with her conversion to Roman Catholicism. It too had a sequel, After. She also supported herself translating Dostoevsky’s books and those of other writers into French.

Banine is in the process of being rediscovered. Anne Thompson-Ahmadova, the translator of these two books into English, tells us that Days in the Caucasus was reissued in French in 1985. Banine revised Parisian Days in 1990, and it is this version that Pushkin Press has published. The Soviets invited Banine to Baku after Days in the Caucasus appeared, but she declined the invitation, a decision she regrets in an author’s note to its reissue. An Azerbaijani translation didn’t appear until 1992, the year of Banine’s death.

Not having read Banine in her original French, and as is the case with any such translation, I can only take Thompson-Ahmadova’s on trust. Once or twice I came across a phrase where the English rang just a little too colloquial, but overall she seems to have captured the flavour of the author’s voice, and the vividness of the people and events she brought to life.

It’s always exciting to see a long-neglected writer resurrected, and what a gift to readers Days in the Caucasus and Parisian Days are. Others have praised Banine for being another Colette, and there is some truth in that. But I doubt if there’ll ever be another Banine. •

Days in the Caucasus
By Banine | Pushkin Press | $34.99 | 274 pages

Parisian Days
By Banine | Pushkin Press | $34.99 | 255 pages