Ludmila Ulitskaya was born in the Ural Mountains in 1943 and spent decades under the massive weight of the Soviet Union, but her gulag is that of humanity–the weight of the past, the lure of sex, the knowledge of death. Sonechka, consisting of a novella and six short stories, acknowledges the old regime as one acknowledges the weather, while life goes on regardless.
And what a sad, valiant life it can be. In the title story, Sonechka is a meek librarian who’s transformed into the beloved muse of Robert Victorovich, a once famous artist whose career ended when he was sent to the work camps. Their life together is hard but loving, and when in his old age Robert takes young Jasia as a lover, Sonechka forbears, finding in fact that the family is strengthened. In these stories Ulitskaya, a geneticist who
didn’t start publishing fiction until the 90s, addresses the lives of women wronged by men who are packed off to war or prison or who vanish into booze, other women, or their work. Domestic details, daily thoughts and chores, form the arcs of their lives, and victory seems to come in surviving these guys and finding some comfort among their own peers, as the three main characters of “Dauntless Women of the Russian Steppe” do in an apartment in Queens. Ulitskaya’s style is rich in colloquial detail, delighting in bawdy wordplay and digs at the powers that be, and Arch Tait’s English translation maintains that spirit nicely. This is not big czarist literature that swallows whole armies, but a quiet manifesto finding its politics in the personal. –Patrick Daily
WHAT DOES MRS. FREEMAN WANT?
This spring the Dalkey Archive Press, as part of its admirable mission to provide the anglophone reader with “the finest works of world literature from the past 100 years,” released two translations of European novel-monologues. Both are pancake slim; each presents a portrait of a garrulous man by letting him ramble about something other than himself.
The Lecture, by Lydie Salvayre, originally published five years ago in French, must have been a handful for translator Linda Coverdale. It’s a transcript of a pithy and scintillating yet down-to-earth lecture on the dying art of conversation that’s written for a town assembly in Bumblefuck, France. Within pages of the opening the digressions of the speaker make clear that he’s mourning his wife, Lulu; by midbook he’s wondering to himself whether Lulu died from neglect while he went about finding people to talk to. It’s true that thanks to her pension he can concentrate on his dying art–“a specialty that is most eminently French”–instead of working. But the subverbal Lulu is sketched too cartoonishly to make her death seem real, and the narrator, though indignant about bad conversation, seems a bit too good-humored for even passive-aggressive murder. C’mon, could advice like “Anger at a mean or foolish person must never last longer than three minutes and forty-six seconds” come from a manslaughterer? Salvayre uses the sacrifice of Lulu to make a noble point about the hard row artists have to hoe and the desperate measures they’ll take to do so, but it isn’t convincing. The book peters out, leaving epigrams, a bit of flash, and a whiff of ugly mystery.
Though not as flashy, Petros Abatzoglou’s What Does Mrs. Freeman Want?, a classic of postwar Greek literature, works better as a novel–perhaps because the themes are less ambitious, the discourse and main characters better defined. A man named after the author lies on a beach drinking ouzo and forcing his female companion to sit through the long life story of his nonagenarian friend Mrs. Freeman, who in her turn had regaled the narrator with the even longer version. Nothing zany happens to Mrs. Freeman: in college she seduces a renowned linguistics professor; they marry, have kids, have affairs and rediscover tepid love, and then he dies. The fun is in the telling, particularly during the mating dance between the coed and the scholar. Toward the latter our sauced narrator, who announces he’s a writer (but also claims to have won the Nobel Peace Prize), seethes with the ever amusing hatred of creative dudes for the nebbish academics by whom they hope one day to be studied. It’s a modest statement about the artistic personality, and most of Abatzoglou’s points, though amusing, are similarly piddly. But, unlike Salvayre’s, they stick. –Ann Sterzinger
EUROPEANA: A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
First published in the Czech Republic in 2001, Patrik Ourednik’s Europeana is now available to English readers thanks to Dalkey and translator Gerald Turner. An absurdist history with no chronological narrative, the book strings together the big ideas and facts of the century impressionistically, mixing up periods and sprinkling real events with painful little anecdotes that may or not be fictional: “And one young Jewish woman survived the war thanks to playing an aria from The Merry Widow on the violin on the railroad platform at Struthof concentration camp.” The historian/narrator’s disembodied voice rambles dispassionately between the theoretical (“And among philosophers the opinion increasingly spread that the twentieth century has marked the end of the era of humanism and a new era had commenced, which they called post-humanist”) and the childlike (“And airships and airplanes flew through the sky and the horses were terribly frightened”).
The patchwork highlights the similarities among promises made by different movements in art, religion, science, and politics. The young people who went to live on communes in the 1960s, for instance, are described in the same terms as those who went to live on the Monte Verita commune in 1906 and later joined the Nazis “because the Nazis preached natural harmony and the coalescence of the individual with the Earth.”
As in a history textbook, phrases are pulled out of the main text and put in the margins to highlight “key points.” These notes are willfully obtuse and show the inevitably reductive, repetitive ways we make sense of history. They invoke certain recurring themes of the century (“SOLDIERS LAY IN WAIT,” “FASCISM UNIVERSAL”), but also the century’s obsession with determining what invisible parasite–whether scientific or metaphysical, the “millennium bug” or the contagion in the blood of “inferior races”–people were blaming for their problems at any given moment.
Time and again we see that the cures are worse than the disease: the truth of one particularly horrible tale is that soap made from humans gassed and boiled in the name of “hygiene” doesn’t make you cleaner. Yet we also see how society refuses to grow up, clinging to its differences and stereotypes. Ourednik tells the story of a concentration-camp survivor and the ex-lover of a Nazi, both with shaved scalps: “They danced together with their heads against each other and other people found it improper and almost in bad taste.”
In a recent interview in the online journal Context, Ourednik explained that his goal was “to find a form that would enable the narrator–like History itself–to be terribly banal, while pretending to be original.” The book’s terrible banality–like the inappropriate appropriateness of a concentration-camp Barbie or an assassination manual written in Esperanto, two souvenirs from his century of violence–will make you laugh hollowly at the idea of progress. –Ryan Brooks