A Countess in Limbo: Diaries in war and revolution 1914-1920 (Review)

by Isabel Stoppani de Berrié

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Translated by Maureen Ranson and Evgeny Zilberov, Inkflight Publishing, Vancouver, Nov 2012

The countess of the title, Countess Olga Hendrickhoff, turns out to have been a cosmopolitan, cultured aristocrat who over the course of her life lived in Russia, Constantinople, Paris, Philadelphia and Calgary. Although “Lala”’s (the Countess’s pet name) background of incredible privilege, and her own and her brother Barbos’s positions at the Russian Imperial Court are outlined in the introduction, this rarefied past is little referred to within the diaries themselves. Rather, the Countess captures the events of each day: a new regulation, salient items of news, encounters with members of her wide circle. The stated purpose of the diary, which begins in 1914, was factual: to record the events around her, since “developments…were changing the world around me so quickly that I was afraid I might forget the series of events unless I were to record them.” Thus caught up in the present, she may be uncertain about long-term prospects or partially in denial – but for whatever reason, as little as she dwells on the past, neither does she speculate on the future.

The events of the Russian revolution, although highly significant in the sense that they provide Lala’s stimulus for writing and the catalyst for her departure from the country, in fact take up only a small proportion of the diaries. Her journey through Russia covers a series of temporary stops of which the casual reader will rapidly lose track just as the Countess feared she herself would (chaotic though this journey appears, it later emerges that through all of these journeys, seemingly to her own surprise as much as ours, she has brought her sewing machine with her!).

The diaries break off in 1920, resuming when the start of another period of turmoil, that of World War II, inspires the Countess to pick up her pen again. Perhaps because conditions there were more congenial to writing, the bulk of the observations cover the time she spent in France, which spans the period from just before the beginning of the Nazi Occupation right through to the Liberation. The diaries therefore serve as valuable documentation, from a highly personal perspective, of a period which sometimes constitutes a gap in other memoirs.

Despite her relative wealth and privilege, Lala is not immune to the Occupation’s daily struggles, and shortages gradually begin to bite as more and more items are subjected to rationing. On their arrival, the German soldiers buy up everything from the shops, and the Countess and her friend the Baroness have to take a cycle out of town to get butter, but since many people have reserve supplies, this represents only the first stage of hardship, which later escalates. Domestic details – the difficulty of obtaining butter or shoes, the weather, availability of news –are a constant preoccupation. Rationing affects not only food, but other essentials such as fuel and shoes. The Countess’s observation that she takes off her furs only to sleep reminds us that she is still in the luxurious dress of the aristocrat – one of a diminishing number of ways in which she is insulated by wealth. (The hardship of cold provides a linking motif; earlier, “Madame T” amuses Lala by remarking, “I’m not really cold but I feel as though my head is always outside.”) Aside from her conversations with people of all nationalities concerning culture, her artistic life has mostly stopped. Her trip to see Fidelio at the opera on the first of December 1940, provides a rare exception.

From the silence on the radio as a marker of grief at the Occupation’s beginning, to the sound of vowels on a language programme that remind the Countess of her mother and sister, the radio serves as a constant presence and channel of information, conveyor of news, music, and memories. Correspondence between the occupied and unoccupied zones becomes limited to a model postcard, where correspondents are invited to simply cross out those which do not apply from a limited number of phrases. In response to Lala’s small additions (such as “very” and “affectionate thoughts”), the card is returned to her with “writing between the lines is not allowed.” Very often she helps her contacts to obtain news of their families at war, living in an insulated world while aware that people are in death camps. At times, a shadow falls, for instance in her work at a dental clinic, when she is instructed to give priority treatment to some soldiers and likens this to the final grooming of a prisoner to be executed. The worst tragedies for the Countess personally, however, are Russian in origin: the murder of her sister-in-law, her brother’s death in the gulag. In France she functions as an outsider.

Despite being in “Limbo” in the broader sense, the Countess is far from idle as she vigorously throws herself into a range of tasks, always ready to muck in with whatever needs doing. In addition to the advantages of energy and resourcefulness, she also possesses those of being well-connected with a genuine interest in other people, and of understanding the unofficial economy of favours. For a long time, she appears to possess a genius for making the best of delicate situations – though later on it starts to look as though this good fortune has been partly down to luck. Only on the 5th March, 1941, do things start to get sticky for the Countess and her family, when her nephew Vladimir is asked to betray details of the source of some dangerous rumours. At around the same time, the Countess herself unwisely lets slip that she knows of ways to cross the border between the occupied and unoccupied zones, and the potential consequences of her indiscretion are enough to dampen her spirits, at least temporarily. Even then, it seems that Lala is more worried that she or a member of the family might betray someone else, than that there will be difficulties for themselves.

The Countess displays a fondness for animals; back in Russia, she cries at being separated from her beloved horse, later shedding further tears over the death of a dog, for which she is criticized as being overly sentimental since such emotion should be reserved for humans. It is unsurprising, then, that animals feature in her cast of characters; the parrot that gets adopted by a neighbour in France, the abandoned pets in the empty streets of Paris, the cattle that the farmers won’t abandon. By 1941, however, their meals consist mainly of rutabaga, a vegetable, she observes, “no-one …ever heard of before the war; it seems to me it was intended exclusively for cattle.” She asks the German officer von der Dammerau about the German soldiers who won’t kill stray dogs, receiving the response: “When I asked him how men who refused to kill animals could kill human beings, he answered that was very different; dogs could not defend themselves. But war could be compared to hunting and all hunting is exciting and should be considered an honourable sport.”

Such strikingly serious moments of bloodthirstiness are not, however, permitted to set the tone. First impressions of the German occupiers are lightly-drawn, even humorous; the soldiers are presented as excessively clean, very polite, always changing their outfits in a way the Countess clearly finds comical. On many fronts, she prefers them to the French, finding the latter somewhat spineless (waiting to be rescued by the English) as well as inferior in matters of hygiene. She also notes that the German soldiers appear more egalitarian than their English equivalents. When talk of Hitler comes up, Lala senses fanaticism, but listens attentively as they attempt to convince her of the virtues of National Socialism for which their good behaviour and restraint from pillaging form part of the propaganda. The curiosity of the Germans, meanwhile, is chiefly focused on the Frenchwomen’s red lipstick. When this is due to be rationed, the Countess notes, “You would think, in times like these, makeup would be the least of our worries. But Paris will always be Paris, under any regime!”

While the Countess claims no authority beyond the recording of her immediate experience and such news as reaches her, the volume is shaken throughout by the resonance of wider historical events which lends weight to the finer details of her account. Thanks to her gregarious nature and wide connections we obtain indications of how a cross-section of people comported themselves and a weathervane of opinion on the English, French, Russians and Germans and the progress of the war. Her characterful writing, along with the immediacy and richness of her observations, contribute to the riveting quality these diaries are likely to have for both scholars and general-interest readers, while her position as a foreigner in Paris leads to the embodiment of a distinct perspective. Although she is not a literary diarist, we live vividly through her senses. The partial approach leaves much to the imagination; hence, the introductory family tree and background information are useful in supplementing the diaries with a measure of context. Footnoting – more tailored for the general reader than for the specialist – and an index are also included, and a few rare photographs are a welcome accompaniment to a text well worth reading with or without such enhancement.

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