Sunday, September 25, 2016

Big Book Four: Ulitskaya’s Yakov’s Ladder

Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Лестница Якова (Yakov’s Ladder or Jacob’s Ladder, though I’ll use Ulitskaya’s agent’s title with “Yakov”) is a family saga of sorts, a novel that solidly covers four generations, with mentions of two others. One is younger and the other is older than the core four. Ulitskaya varies her form—sometimes writing almost story-like episodes about characters, sometimes including letters from her personal family archive—as she jumps back and forth in time, too, stretching from 1907 to 2011. To Ulitskaya’s great credit, she manages to structure the book so it feels like a novel and reinforces one of the book’s recurring themes: the difficulties that separations create for the family in all generations.

The book starts off promisingly, presenting four generations at once: Nora Osetskaya is introduced as the mother of an infant son, Yurik. She soon takes a call from her father, Genrikh, who’s calling to say that his mother, Marusya, has died. When Nora goes to her grandmother’s apartment, she takes a chest of family letters. (This small chest turns out to contain more than letters: there are also bedbugs that bite Nora during that first night. This earned three exclamation marks in the margin.)

There’s far too much plot in this book of more than 700 pages to write anything that resembles a meaningful plot summary but, for this reader, it’s the separations that unify the novel most successfully, thanks to how Ulitskaya incorporates the personal (e.g. the letters) and the historical and political. I should note that the Elkost literary agency’s Web site sums up the book’s examination of freedom very concisely. ***I will now include mild spoilers. The book will be published in English by FSG.*** Marusya and Yakov meet at a Rachmaninov concert—theater, dance, and music twist into a thick, thick thread in the book—and quickly become a couple, though they are separated almost as quickly when Marusya leaves Kiev for Moscow to study dance. I found their generation the most compelling in the book, perhaps because of Yakov’s combination of optimism that his relationship with Marusya can survive multiple terms of exile and the occasionally cranky (rightfully so, really) honesty he expresses in his letters. At one point he writes, “И теперь каждому ясно, кто разрушил мою семью. И таких, как мы, я вижу вокруг себя тысячи.” (Literally: “And it’s now clear to anyone who destroyed my family. And I see thousands like us around me.”) The book contains chunks of Ulitskaya’s grandfather’s personal letters and KGB file. Yakov was, for me, the most fully formed character in the novel, with his study of music, ability to find work wherever he lands, and attempts to hold his family together.

Nora, Yakov’s granddaughter, born in 1943, also gets a fair bit of attention, though I think her chapters lack the spark of Yakov’s. Nora marries her unusual high school boyfriend, Viktor, though they never live together and she has a closer—I’m thinking soulful here, not location, since they often go for months, even years, without any contact—relationship with Tengiz, a Georgian theater colleague she collaborates with. Yurik, too, gets plenty of ink, and he’s perhaps most notable for love of his music, where the Beatles (of course!) play a big role, along with the gift of a guitar from Tengiz. Yurik ends up in New York for part of the book, where Ulitskaya’s writing about his bohemian nineties life leans toward the essayistic and encyclopedic. She includes many details of the time and place, rather than focusing on character development that might have given me more basis for understanding Yurik’s heroin addiction.

All in all, Yakov’s Ladder certainly isn’t my favorite Ulitskaya novel—I think I’ll always prefer her Daniel Stein (previous post) and Sincerely Yours, Shurik—and she hits on many of my personal “please don’t” biases by using a fractured form (less successfully, I think, than in Daniel Stein, where she really made it work, but still effectively enough), including a real-life minor character (Solomon Mikhoels, who is a thoroughly interesting figure but…), and, as I mentioned above, background that felt superfluous. Despite all that—and its 700-plus-page physical heft—Yakov’s Ladder managed to hold my interest enough for me to finish the novel: nothing in the book felt especially new to me but I suspect it’s the familiarity of Ulitskaya’s settings, characters, and conclusions about the legacy of the past that make her books feel so easy—“easy” for me here means to comfortable to read despite some uncomfortable subject matter—to read. It’s no wonder the print run listed in my copy of Yakov’s Ladder is 100,000 copies and a translation is on the way.

Up next: Moscow trip report. Alexander Snegirev’s Faith/Vera and Oleg Zaionchkovsksky’s Timosha’s Prose: I think I’m going to write about these two in one post since there were odd similarities between them… And Sasha Filipenko’s Травля (Persecution, maybe? I’m still undecided), which is (about a quarter in) painful enjoyment, painful because of the characters’ difficulties but enjoyable because it’s strangely suspenseful and pretty lively. Unless it implodes, I suspect I’ll rate it fairly high on my Big Book ballot.

Disclaimers: The usual. I received electronic copies of the book from Ulitskaya’s literary agency, Elkost, whom I’ve known for some years now, and from the Big Book Award, where I’m a member of the jury. But I read the book in a printed edition.


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