Reading the first lines of her very first book, the 1992 novella Sonechka (which won the Medici prize for best foreign language novel in France) was for me love at first sight:
Almost before she was out of the cradle, Sonechka was a bookworm. As Efrem, elder brother and family satirist never tired of repeating, "All that reading has given Sonechka a butt like a chair and a nose like a pear.Unfortunately, his formulation was not too far off the mark. Her Nose really was pear-shaped, and lanky broad-shouldered Sonechka, with her skinny legs and flat unmemorable rear end, had only one indisputable physical asset: large womanly breasts, which ballooned at an early age but seemed out of proportion with the rest of her thin body. She slouched round-shouldered and favored shapeless loose-fitting dresses, daunted by her uncalled-for endowment in front and dismayed by her flatness behind.
(Trans. Arch Tait)Sonechka's tale is that of a girl turned woman who never thought much of herself, lived in books, and was happiest in the library – first as a reader, then a librarian. There she met and fell in love with Robert, a man trice her age, once an internationally known artist and "the luckiest of life's losers," having spent only five years in Stalin's prison camps. He proposed on the first meeting. They lived together, poor but blissful, Sonechka's energy diverted from reading into domesticity, and raising their only daughter Tanya. Fast-forward 17 years and Tanya falls in love with her classmate Jasia, an orphan and former prostitute, who one day offers herself to Robert. Unaware, Sonechka suggests that poor orphan Jasia come live with them. Even when her husband dies while making love to Jasia, Sonechka still embraces her as if she were her own daughter.
The story was first published in Moscow's Novyj Mir (New World) magazine and took literary circles by storm. These were the early 1990s, a turbulent time for Russia after Perestroika, yet a fertile ground for a new kind of writing - open, risky, soul searching, unafraid. For the first time in over fifty years it was okay to write about sex and prostitution, suffering and betrayal, repression and loss of life (subjects forbidden or proclaimed non-existent in the Soviet society). This kind of literature no longer needed to be typewritten on the tobacco-rolling-paper-thin pages of Samizdat presses.
There is thus no question that Ulitskaya came of age as a writer at the right time, but Perestroika only helped to propel her to the top of the literary Olympus. A geneticist and molecular biologist by training, Ulitskaya was a literary late bloomer; though she was born in 1943, her first book, Sonechka, came out in 1992. Shortlisted for the Russian Booker Prize in 1993 and 1997 (this time for Medeya and Her Children), she eventually won for Kukotksy's Case in 2001. Daniel Stein, Interpreter, translated into English only last year, won Russia's National Literary Prize when it came out in 2006. Her Manhattan-set novel, The Funeral Party, was a nominee for the 2009 Man Booker Prize. Since her debut, Ulitskaya has had 15 works of fiction translated into over 25 languages. Only five, however, have made it into English.
If I were to place Ulitskaya on a map of global literature, I'd put her earlier works next to Alice Munro's, and more recent ones on a shelf holding books by South Africa's J.M. Coetzee. In close up, Ulitskaya's descriptions sparkle with clarity. She's always funny and sad at once. Realistic to the core, her characters live ordinary lives, suffer, struggle, and die, yet their reactions are always subtle, their stories never boring or depressing. One sentence is enough for a character to evolve into an interesting representative of a certain social class:
Alexei Kirillovich wasn't yet forty. He belonged to a breed of people solid from birth, whose age was determined once and set forever.
(Medeya and Her Children, 1997, translation mine)Ulitskaya's prose is like a confession, piercing, honest and absolute. Nuances of human nature, the unspeakable and the unspoken are the leitmotifs of her stories, told in an extraordinary kind of language, simple yet sophisticated and elegant. Her character types are familiar to those who grew up in the Soviet Union between the 1940s and 80s: people who want to live and love, trying to better their fates under an oppressive regime of dogma and bureaucracy which corrupted their lives, often diminishing even the noblest to petty survivors.
This familiarity is not the only reason people in Russia and abroad enjoy reading Ulitskaya. When you read her books, you feel lucky that nothing of the sort happened to you (no matter whether you grew up under an oppressive regime or one that lets you burn flags), only to realize later that you do know or could have been one of the people in those tales: couples unhappy in their marriages with nowhere to go, career scientists reduced to mundane jobs, women trying to marry foreigners, women aborting their unborn children, Jews trying to emigrate, relatives betraying relatives.
Ulitskaya's uncanny insight into human feelings and motivations also extends into the disturbing, which she does not shirk from describing. Set in the 1950s, when homosexuality was a crime in the Soviet Union, Angel (part of Sonechka: A Novella and Stories, translated from the Russian by Arch Tait) tells the story of aging Nikolai, "a lonely professor of philosophy" and a closeted homosexual. Echoing Nabokov's Humbert Humbert, Nikolai meets Slava, a twelve-year-old boy with a "brow white as milk and with blonde brushes beneath his eyebrows," a son of an alcoholic scrubwoman. Infatuated with Slava, Nikolai arranges a marriage of convenience with the boy's mother, which is to see Slava "grow up in his house, turn into a boy, a young friend, a pupil, his beloved". They eventually become lovers, but after Nikolai's sudden death Slava descends into a life of rough sex, ending in prison camps and, ultimately, death.
While most of Ulitskaya's stories take place in Russia, the pages have always been peppered with characters connected to zagranitsa (abroad). Perhaps because she spends her time between Moscow and New York City, Ulitskaya plants her characters (and readers) in those realities like an experienced local, with insider knowledge of social and cultural landscapes, be they those of Germany, Israel, or the U.S.
A long-term relationship stands to falter despite the infatuation of its early stages, at the onset of familiarity, fatigue, and ennui. Similarly, novelists can fall out of favor with critics. Ulitskaya's writing has been faulted for being thematically repetitive, with characters reliving their Soviet pasts, struggling to love and be accepted, their journeys always accompanied by notes of nostalgia for a life that was or could have been. Some of Ulitskaya's former countrymen refuse to read her altogether, as they can't bear to be reminded of having lived 'like that' or of the fact that history might be repeating itself.
Historical reminders aside, her novels are important for the revelations they offer about the human soul. Her 2001 novel, Kukotsky's Case, one of my personal favorites, is a love story spanning forty years, the family saga of Kukotsky, an eminent and visionary gynecologist seeking to rebuke Stalin's 1936 resolution prohibiting abortions. As he works on a program to combat unsafe abortions, he inevitably performs many such operations himself, saving countless lives. Ironically, he loses the two women dearest to him – his wife Elena, who falls prey to amnesia, and his daughter Tatiana, who dies of a botched abortion performed by an amateur. Devastated, he slides into a world of drinking and despair.
In this groundbreaking book, Ulitskaya raises a slew of universally important issues that are as human as they are ethical and political. Can a state impose restrictions on a woman's body? (Those of us living in the U.S. today cannot believe we still have to discuss the answer to this question.) Should doctors limit their acts to those allowed by law, or do anything in their power to save a patient's life? With a surgeon's determination and precision, Ulitskaya is not afraid to make a few sharp and decisive cuts to the consciousness of Russia's society, giving it a much-needed bloodletting.
Her 2006 novel, Daniel Stein, Translator (translated by Arch Tait, 2011), is perhaps her most controversial work to date. It tells the story of Daniel Stein, a Polish Jew who miraculously survives the Holocaust by working for the Gestapo as an interpreter. After the war, he converts to Catholicism, becomes a priest, enters the Order of Barefoot Carmelites, and emigrates to Israel. Daniel Stein is based on the life of Oswald Rufeisen, the man known as Brother Daniel. The epistolary novel is made up of documents and letters from different – at first unconnected – characters covering a period of over 70 years (from 1930 to 2000) and moves from the U.S. and Israel to Russia, Germany, Poland, and Lithuania. Daniel's life is full of contradictions and undaunted faith, but some critics wonder why Ulitskaya had to pick a real-life subject still rife with controversy and turn his story into a book. In her own acknowledgments for the book, Ulitskaya begs "forgiveness of all those I will disappoint, those who will be irritated by my outspokenness, or who will totally reject me". The book sold over two million copies worldwide.
The Green Tent (Eksmo, 2010), her last novel about dissidents, with real historical characters - Andrei Sakharov and Joseph Brodsky among them – made strong waves in Russia. At a press conference for the book last year Ulitskaya, a vocal opponent of Vladimir Putin, declared:
I feel that the country is quite consciously becoming Stalinized again. And I don't like it one bit. Even though the generation of today's 30-year-olds is unbeaten and impertinent, I feel a whiff of fear. It would seem that we got rid of the slave inside of us, but there he is again, subservient to power - the power of statesmen and bureaucrats. And here we are, turning into Akaky Akakievich again.
We shouldn't blame her for returning to these painful subjects, then, as Stalin sent both of her grandfathers to labor camps, and the current political climate feels eerily familiar to her.
Perhaps I should have discussed Ulitskaya's writing as a representative of women's literature, or talked about the feminism in her work, as she always stands behind her female heroines however insufferable their plights. And, after all, she was awarded the 2011 Simone de Beauvoir Prize, an international human rights prize for women's freedom. For me, though, she is simply a writer of a world caliber. Just as her descriptions of Russia transcend the specifics of that country, so do her characters feel familiar to any reader. Her stories, in the end, are universal.