Rooms of Their Own

Smart, stubborn and sexually active, the women of Ludmila Ulitskaya's fiction have done their fair share to redefine Russian literature in feminine terms.

By Josephine Woll
Published: May 13, 2005

Ludmila Ulitskaya belongs to a handful of women who have transformed Russian fiction over the last 25 years. Like Ludmila Petrushevskaya, like Tatyana Tolstaya, like Nina Sadur, she gives voice to Russian women in Soviet times and in the larger (both geographically and experientially) post-Soviet world. Gone in her deft, engaging prose is that idealized, sexless female so dear to 19th-century Russian writers like Ivan Turgenev and Fyodor Dostoevsky, and only slightly revised in Soviet fiction. Ulitskaya's protagonists are intelligent, willful and sexually active, or, as the title of the last story in this collection ironically dubs them, "Dauntless Women of the Russian Steppe."

While men matter enormously to Ulitskaya's women, they often figure off-screen -- more "hearsay characters," as scholar Helena Goscilo has called them, than active participants or partners. Of the three main characters in "Dauntless Women," one is a widow, another has divorced her drunk of a husband and the third has dumped her married lover, at least temporarily. They meet in New York, gorge on gourmet Russian-style delicacies from Zabar's, pickle themselves on booze and share stories -- mostly about men. One of them muses, "Could it really be that in America, a world away, in the city of New York in 1990, this completely zany conversation was taking place, bitchy, more at home in a Moscow kitchen, and before you know it likely to boil over into a fight?" Both here and elsewhere, Arch Tait's English translation faithfully captures Ulitskaya's carefully constructed colloquial style.

Unlike men, who usually prove faithless and unreliable, Ulitskaya's women support one another, offering staunch friendship and frank criticism, companionship and consolation. But not always. In "The Queen of Spades," Ulitskaya presents four generations of females presided over by a tyrannical matriarch, Mour. Physically aging but still formidable by the time the action begins, Mour has vamped her way through several husbands and cartloads of lovers. As disdainful of her family as Alexander Pushkin's capricious countess in the story whose title Ulitskaya borrows, she nevertheless feels fully entitled to ungrudging devotion.

Under her mother's iron fist, Anna, a noted scientist, is transformed into a domestic slave, her ex-husband, Marek, having long since disappeared from both her life and the country. Granddaughter Katya has a daughter by her "first dysfunctional husband" and a son by her married lover, to whom family -- his first, and legal, family, at any rate -- "is sacrosanct ... and Katya could not but agree." Into this stifling female nest returns Marek, now a successful physician and entrepreneur in South Africa and no longer cowed by his erstwhile mother-in-law. He brings with him a sense of possibility and freedom, but can he defeat the Queen of Spades?

Love, in all its varieties, is a common theme of Ulitskaya's stories, whatever their particular subject matter. In "Angel" it takes the form of a homosexual relationship between a stepfather and his stepson, as well as the emotional but nonsexual intimacy between the younger man and his childhood girlfriend, now a fellow musician. "The Beast" begins with a declaration of love's centrality: "In one and the same year, Nina lost both her mother and her husband, leaving her no one to cook or live for." And it's love, Soviet-style, that features at the heart of "The Orlov-Sokolovs," in which a couple's mutual ardor founders on the shoals of pregnancy, abortion and academic ambition.

First translated by Tait for the Moscow publisher GLAS, "Sonechka," the longest and most complex work in the collection, again stresses the lodestar of love in its heroine's life. Sonechka, a homely bookworm, finds passion and unimagined happiness with Robert Victorovich, a free-spirited artist who has spent five years in the labor camps. Though their meeting coincides with the start of World War II, they manage to shape a life amid the difficult circumstances and produce a daughter, Tanya, who gives them great joy.

In most of her stories, Ulitskaya confines social and political observations to casual asides. She lightly skewers a character in "The Orlov-Sokolovs," for instance, as "a good-looking, ill-natured idiot ... [who] could scent blood in a way that any personnel section could only dream of"; in "The Queen of Spades," she dismisses Anna's book- and dust-laden apartment as "the intelligentsia's usual mix of luxury and penury." Anti-Semitism crops up often, but matter-of-factly: "Live and let live, of course," the Queen of Spades pontificates to her ex-son-in-law, who, as Ulitskaya goes on to remind us, is Jewish: "She certainly didn't want them sent to the gas chambers. But really, the thought of marrying one!"

Filtered through the sardonic remarks of Robert Victorovich, the political commentary in "Sonechka" is much more explicit. When Sonechka dreams of postwar happiness, her husband sharply corrects her: "As regards winning," he states flatly, "you and I will always be losers, whichever of those cannibals wins the war. ... I have never been interested by whose horse comes in first. It is of no importance for us. In either case the human being is destroyed, private life is forfeit." In fact, Sonechka and Robert Victorovich preserve their private life even after returning to Moscow in the 1950s, moving into one of the last remaining wooden houses in the city and finding a circle of like-minded artists. Tanya grows up to share her father's independence of mind and heart, spurning the straitjacket of Soviet schools and experimenting uninhibitedly with sexual partners.

Ulitskaya relies on an entirely accessible and rather traditional narrative form, enriched -- though never overwhelmed -- by an abundance of intriguing literary references. Sonechka displays the kind of selfless devotion typical of Sonya Marmeladova in "Crime and Punishment," while the use of the diminutive form, Sonechka, recalls Anton Chekhov's far more ambiguous heroine in "The Darling," or "Dushechka." And, like Anna Karenina en route from Moscow to St. Petersburg after meeting Vronsky, Sonechka loses herself in fiction until real life offers more entrancing possibilities.

Less successful, to my mind, are Ulitskaya's many self-conscious remarks, which create a distance between the reader and the characters by drawing attention to her role as manipulator of events. Of Tanya's friend Jasia, the author writes: "She invented herself a new past, complete with aristocratic grandparents, a family estate in Poland, and relatives living in France (who will indeed be appearing like a deus ex machina at just the right moment)." I wish the publisher had taken a similarly bird's-eye view on Ulitskaya, situating her in her cultural context through an introduction and notes as to when each story originally appeared in print.

These are trivial objections, however. Ulitskaya, whose novel "The Kukotsky Case" was deservedly awarded the Russian Booker Prize in 2001, will win new readers with this volume, while those who already know her work can enjoy the opportunity to read or reread her subtle, satisfying prose.

Josephine Woll is a professor of Russian at Howard University and writes on Russian film and literature.

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