In December 2005, two countries, Azerbaijan and France, celebrated the centennial of Banine, the author of Days in the Caucasus, the most vivid, emotionally accurate chronicle of life in Baku in the early twentieth century.
“With a fountain of ‘black gold,’ but unloved by God… Has an oil fountain ever gushed out in your garden?”
Banine’s grandfather, Shamsi Asadullayev, owned a small plot of land in Ramana, where an oil fountain started gushing out. Many believe that riches falling from the sky, or rather from the underworld in this case, makes you happy and you can forget all your worries. But money can’t buy happiness…
Money brought the Asadullayev family nothing but trouble and even misfortune. “Asadullah” in Arabic means “loved by Allah”. But the Almighty’s love for this family did not last very long. During the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict in 1905, Shamsi Asadullayev’s son Mirza and Musa Nagiyev’s daughter had a baby girl. The family was staying in a remote village near Shamakhi at the time, the mother died in childbirth. The girl was named Umm El-Banu after her mother. She did not start calling herself Banine in French style until much later.
Banine recounted later: “I did not know my mother. In 1905, seeking to thwart the revolutionary tide, the authorities provoked interethnic clashes in the Caucasus. Azerbaijanis, Armenians, Russians, Kurds, Iranians were pitted against each other. Trying to protect my mother from the blind brutality and madness of the pogroms, my father sent her to give birth in a village far away from Baku. The delivery was difficult, and there was no doctor nearby. My mother died, but before she did, she gave me life…”
Her father, Mirza Asadullayev, was almost always away on a business trip. One day, while traveling around the country, he fell in love. His young wife, Ossetian Tamara Datiyeva, did not just become a stepmother to his four young daughters, but unexpectedly gave them a different outlook on women’s role in society. European-educated and with impeccable taste, Tamara took care of everything, from the girls’ clothes to the interior of the house and the planning of social gatherings.
Banine later said that as a child she had been greatly impressed by Tamara’s stories about Paris, where the woman had lived and studied for a long time. Her admiration for Tamara eventually transformed into a love of all things French, into a dream of Paris that seemed unattainable at the time. But 1917 was looming ahead, the year that turned her entire life upside down.
In her memoir, Banine wrote: “As a child I loved my grandmother very much; the things that were to separate us later did not yet matter to me. When they did become important, I cut myself off from her completely: she seemed to me to be from another world; indeed, she was from another world. Is blood thicker than water? I must confess that I’ve never felt that about anyone. Is it an optimistic invention of humanity or am I a monster? Impartial observation seems to show that in families where interests diverge, hatred between relatives is constant and widespread; where interests are not divisive, affection sometimes exists.”
Banine married an influential man she did not love in order to get her father out of prison, obtain an international passport, and flee to Turkey. At nineteen, now in Turkey, she separated from her husband Balabek Gojayev and went to Paris to join her family, who had moved there earlier.
From a young age Banine did not like to trouble anyone. She always believed that one should be one’s own maker, from beginning to end. Soon her complicated relationship with her stepmother forced her to leave home and start an independent life.
Banine found a job right away. She tried all professions available to the emigrant, from a sales clerk, a secretary in an office, a translator, to a fashion model—she became a model for two famous fashion houses. The first was Worth, owned by Charles Frederick Worth, the first world-famous designer, the creator of haute couture, or high fashion.
But Banine’s modeling career was also short-lived. She developed a literary talent and began to write. Her first book, Nami, published in 1943, was about her childhood. The book was barely noticed. It was a hard war year, and many people had no time for literature.
Nevertheless, her novel was read by a German officer who served in Paris, where his unit was stationed. He was a famous intellectual of the twentieth century, the renowned writer and philosopher Ernst Jünger, a German officer who made a significant contribution to military theory. He was one of the chief theorists of the conservative revolution and the author of “a complex collection of aphorisms on the state of the modern and post-modern world”.
He visited her at home without ceremony, “to have a cup of Turkish coffee at Banine’s, a Muslim woman from the South Caucasus”. A long love affair and an even longer friendship (lasting more than half a century) began between the Frenchwoman of Azerbaijani origin and the German intellectual. Banine dedicated three books to him: Meetings with Ernst Jünger, Portrait of Ernst Jünger, and The Many Faces of Ernst Jünger.
During the war, Banine continued to write, and her autobiographical novel Days in the Caucasus was published in 1946. In this novel Banine recreates pictures from her childhood, precious scenes of the time before the revolution, relationships between family and friends, portraits of her relatives, her maternal grandfather Musa Nagiyev, a famous millionaire, her other grandfather, Shamsi Asadullayev, also a millionaire, her father Mirza Asadullayev, who became the Minister of Trade in the government of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic.
The novel recreates her biography, the history of the famous houses of Baku oil producers, the realities and signs of the era, customs and habits, folk festivals and rituals. The book is incredibly picturesque, giving an insight into the mindset of the Azerbaijani people and the very spirit of Azerbaijan at the beginning of the twentieth century. The novel also reflects the young heroine’s relationship with the people around her, the state of mind and the views of her contemporaries, their feelings about the events of that pivotal period.
From the descriptions of her home, the Absheron dacha and its household, the author’s focus shifts to the events that impacted her fate and the lives of her family. These include the arrival of the Red Army in Baku and the establishment of Soviet regime: this is the background against which the family’s further misfortunes are reconstructed. Banine reveals in particular that she (thirteen at the time) and her three older sisters were made millionaires by her grandfather’s will. A few days later, however, with the arrival of the Bolsheviks, they lost their wealth overnight and found themselves forced to leave their homeland.
The book brought success to Banine. She received rapturous letters from André Malraux (at the beginning of Banine’s career, he had predicted her a brilliant future by looking at the lines on her palm), Henry de Montherlant, Nikos Kazantzakis and many others. Banine interacted as an equal with Jean-Paul Sartre, Louis Aragon, Paul Éluard, Elsa Triolet…
Russian emigrants (all emigrants from Russia and later from the USSR were considered Russian emigrants at the time) had their own little “town” of 40,000 residents in Paris. Later, in an article on Russian emigration published in Le Figaro on December 2, 1991, Banine would mention many of them: “philosophers Berdyayev, Shestov, Lossky, Bulgakov (not to be confused with his namesake the writer); poets Ivanov, Tsvetaeva, Balmont, Severyanin; finally, many writers, first of all, Ivan Bunin, Teffi, Remizov, Merezhkovsky, his wife Zinaida Gippius, Kuprin, Zaitsev, Adamovich… I may have forgotten to name many others.”
Banine’s closest friend was Janet Andronikova, a former lady-in-waiting of the Russian imperial court, who was close to the Romanov family. Her other friend, novelist and famous satirist Nadezhda Teffi, popular in Russia and later in France, helped her enter literary circles. It was at her place that Banine met many prominent Russian writers, including Bunin himself.
Banine: “I was lucky—I was admitted to the sancta sanctorum of émigré literature through the friendship Teffi bestowed upon me. In her modest room, rented to her also by an émigré (‘an exile like all of us,’ Teffi said), she received the ‘cream of the pen’ (also her expression). Her colleagues, a glass of tea in one hand and a cigarette in the other, argued with youthful fervor, although there were hardly any young people among them, they argued often and fiercely about something like the correct way to use commas.
“Often there were too many of us in this cramped room, cluttered with furniture and books, smoke-filled so that we could no longer breathe, but we were happy in this atmosphere, in this sense of belonging. Ivan Bunin was often a sort of chairman, for he was crowned with the prestigious Nobel Prize for his accomplishments in Russian literature. A handsome man with silver gray hair, he held himself always upright and, despite the burden of his years, was very attractive. He ruled the assembly not only by virtue of his authority, but also because of his thunderous voice, which they dared to criticize only in his absence.”
Banine met Ivan Bunin on June 13, 1946. Banine, proud and capable of making her own judgments without relying on the opinions of others, and Ivan Bunin, an absolute authority among émigré writers. Bunin fell in love with her at first sight and immediately invited himself to her home. He was 76 and she was 40. And yet, an affair began between them… A platonic, painful, complicated romance that resembled a ride on a roller coaster, up and down, up and down… They spent many evenings together by the fireplace in Banine’s apartment.
Banine recalled: “He looked regal, his facial expression was often that of arrogance. Bunin put on his arrogance as a toga to show the distance that separates the genius from mere mortals. But once he became a little unhinged, to which his temperament contributed in no small measure, the toga fell away. I must confess that I liked his arrogance. It reminded me of my first literary love, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. Besides, I was fascinated by the delightful youthfulness of his spirit.”
Bunin, on the other hand, was fascinated by Banine’s oriental beauty. He called her “the Shemakhan Tsarina”, or “black-eyed gazelle”, or “black rose” of which he had dreamed all his life.
“Dear Mme. Banine! As you can see, a mere letter separates us,” the master of Russian literature wrote to her on June 30, 1947.
Two months after they met, he gave her a picture of himself in a soft hat pulled down over his eyes, his expression dreamy and haughty, tired and ironic.
Under the photo, Bunin’s fountain pen inscribed: “What is your German writer compared to this?” (a display of jealousy of sorts toward Ernst Jünger, whose photo he saw on Banine’s mantel during his first visit), and on the reverse: “Janim, allow me to use the words of Karl Ivanovich from Tolstoy’s Childhood: Remember near, Remember far, Remember me. To-day be faithful, and for ever— Aye, still beyond the grave—remember That I have well loved thee.! Iv.B., August 18, 1946, Paris.”
When visiting Banine, Bunin would sit in an armchair, they would drink tea and talk about literature. Their conversations were endless, they enjoyed each other’s company, but nonetheless, it was a complicated relationship: Bunin was annoyed by the lukewarm attitude his beloved had toward his work, as well as her stubborn unwillingness to write in Russian—she wrote only in French, never hiding, however, her origins. When he was angry (which happened often), he would bang on the floor with his cane and shout loudly.
Once Bunin gave his beloved two books of his: a collection of short stories The River Inn and Selected Poems. The second book contained a dedicatory inscription: “Dear Mme. Banine! Black rose of Allah’s heavenly gardens, learn to write in Russian. Ivan Bunin, June 21, 1947.” The word “Mme” was crossed out, followed by “I crossed it out. Iv.B.”
Banine, in turn, accused Bunin of callousness and selfishness. The affair was very brief: one day they started another one of their verbal altercations, had a terrible falling out, and parted ways. Many years later, when Banine was about sixty, she decided to bring back to life the emotions of her love affair and the events of those romantic years in the short novel Ivan Bunin’s Last Duel about their failed love.
In her novel, Banine does not idealize Bunin, she paints his portrait based on the already established image of him in the emigrant environment, adding details and little things, showing his weaknesses, his everyday behavior, his character traits, his relations with his family, his wife, and other women.
Many historians and literary scholars have tried to understand why the relationship between these two extraordinary people did not work out. The reason was simple: although Banine was already quite a famous writer, Ivan Bunin argued with her and denied her the right to have her own point of view. Banine, on the other hand, was not only shrewd but also very generous. She had a way of understanding individualities.
Reminiscing about Bunin, Banine wrote: “Vera Nikolayevna, Ivan Bunin’s wife, stoically endured all her husband’s amorous adventures. And in this she was right and wise. Because for a writer of Bunin’s type, creating the most favorable climate is the only right condition. Vera Nikolayevna’s wisdom was that she turned, so that her profile was no longer visible and all the light of fame reached Bunin unhindered, not lingering on any obstacles.”
Banine could not stand “in profile”. She did not want to and did not know how. She was known in France not only as the author of great novels, but also as an excellent translator of fiction from Russian, English and German. She was considered one of the best experts on Bunin and Dostoevsky. She translated some of the latter’s works into French.
Ramiz Abutalibov, Ambassador-at-Large for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Secretary General of the National Commission for UNESCO, Commander of the French Order of the Legion of Honor, Soviet and Azerbaijani diplomat, public figure, researcher of Azerbaijani emigration, who worked in France for sixteen years, recalled his meetings with Banine, who lived a long life and passed away in 1992: “Being part of bohemia made her inapproachable, and she herself avoided contact with her compatriots, concerned that Azerbaijan had so easily, without a struggle, reconciled itself to the Bolshevization imposed by Lenin.”
“I was essentially the first Azerbaijani with whom she engaged,” Ramiz Abutalibov said. “It happened in 1981, at the exhibition of Azerbaijani carpets in Paris. Before the exhibition, I sent her a postcard with an invitation, without expecting her to accept it. To my surprise Banine came, not alone, but with a distinguished-looking elderly Frenchman. She looked quite young and even coy for her advanced years, which suited her very well. She was proud of her Azerbaijani heritage: she was not a Turk or a Persian, as some of our compatriots pretended to be to create a false charm, she was Azerbaijani. She was a very willful and extraordinary personality, even somewhat prone to scandalous behavior. For example, in response to the Bolsheviks calling religion “the opium for the people”, Banine wrote a book with the shocking title I Chose Opium (published in 1959—O.B.), which was a great success…”
“I remember introducing her to a famous Azerbaijani artist,” Ramiz Abutalybov continued. “He gave her two jars of black caviar as a farewell gift. Accepting the gift, Banine looked at him point-blank and jokingly asked: ‘Is that all?’ He looked confused and said with embarrassment: ‘Why, madam?’ ‘Nothing,’ she smiled, ‘when we left Baku, we left a lot more there.’”
Even though Banine became part of French literature, she continued to be a faithful daughter of her people, deeply moved by the events in Karabakh, and spoke of them as “machinations of the Dashnaks”. She was a member of the Azerbaijan House association in Paris and actively spoke out in the French media about the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, contributing to the defense of her homeland.
In the black days of the Azerbaijani people, Banine spoke out in an article entitled “Nagorno-Karabakh” published in the French newspaper Le Monde on January 20, 1990. In that article Banine wrote about Karabakh, the Armenians who were resettled by the tsarist government as a result of the war with Persia and Turkey in the Azerbaijani lands in the early 19th century. She spoke about the Armenians’ old claims to the Azerbaijani lands, the Dashnaks’ ties with the Bolsheviks and their joint actions against the Azerbaijani people.
“While people often talk about the Armenians as ‘victims’ of Ottoman imperialism, for some reason no one talks about the atrocities the Armenians committed in Azerbaijan in the past,” Banine wrote in her article.
When Banine passed away, Le Figaro reported the death of “the first French-speaking Azerbaijani female writer, the national glory of Azerbaijan”. Sadly, Banine remained virtually unknown in Azerbaijan for a very long time, despite her considerable literary legacy, including novels, essays, translations, diaries, and letters, as well as reprints of her books and unfinished manuscripts.
It was not until 1988 that her novel Days in the Caucasus, translated from French by Hamlet Gojayev, was published in Baku in the Azerbaijani language. Articles and messages about her and her work began to appear. Her work can be roughly divided into two parts: writings devoted to Azerbaijani themes, motifs, memories and retrospection, and those on French, European themes.
Based on the materials by A. Mustafayeva, N. Suleymanova, R. Abutalibov, I. Tolstoy