Ljudmila Ulitskaya – The Funeral Party (1997)

I am one of those readers who have a tendency to jump from one new-to-me author to the next. I wasn’t always like that though. When I was younger, especially while studying French literature, I would often stick to one author and read one of their book after the other. When you like an author, it’s such a marvellous experience. You will see how their style developed, which themes and topics they are drawn too, recurring imagery and style elements. Lately, I feel like I don’t have the time, that there’s just too much to discover, so that I can’t do that anymore. But then I return to an old favourite and remember how rewarding it can be.

This finally brings me to Russian author Ljudmila Ulitskaya, an author whose writing I fell in love with when the first translations appeared in the 90s in German and French. I quickly read the first two, Sonechka and Medea and Her Children, and declared her one of my favourite authors. But then the third, The Funeral Party, came out, which I bought as well, but never got to. If it hadn’t been for a wonderful review of Jacob’s Ladder on Julé’s blog (here), one of Ljudmila Ulitskaya’s latest works, it might still be languishing on the piles. Returning to her work was like meeting an old friend you haven’t seen in ages. Even though an eternity has gone by, so much is familiar and it’s all very exciting.

The Funeral Party is set in the 90s, during a hot sweltering summer in New York City. The protagonists, mostly women, are Russian émigrés, gathered around the sick bed of Alik, a famous painter. Alik lives in a big loft, where a small corner has been portioned off and serves as his sleeping room. Even before Alik became ill, the place was always full of friends and people who just passed through. Parties went on for hours and days. Now that he’s ill, and it’s obvious to everybody but his wife that he will die, there are even more people there to watch over him, entertain him, and care for him. Among these people are five women. They are lovers or friends of Alik. In the novel each woman gets her turn to tell her story. How they came from Russia to New York and what Alik meant to them. Some of them knew him already in Russia, others met him in the US. Those stories are so rich that each of them could be a novel in its own right.

It’s not often that you read a book about death and dying that is profound but at the same time uplifting. The end alone is worth reading this book. It will make you smile.

The Funeral Party is also about change. What will become of his entourage after his death? What will become of the émigré community since Alik’s death coincides with the fall of the Soviet Union?

This isn’t one of her longer novels, but the beginning was still a bit confusing as all the women’s names sound similar – Valentina, Irina, Nina, Joyka. Once it’s clear who is who, it’s a wonderful reading experience. The characters are so colourful and there’s a richness and generosity to this tapestry of Russian émigré life. Reading it was like going to a party where everyone is interesting.

I hope I could convey how much I enjoyed this book and how happy I was to rediscover Ljudmila Ulitskaya’s work.

Last year I reread Tolstoy’s famous The Death of Ivan Illych, such a sad and depressing account. I thought of it while reading The Funeral Party. These two books are great companion reads, like two sides of a medal, one black, one white.

If you haven’t read this important modern Russian writer yet, this is a good starting point. And so is her first, the novella Sonechka.

28 thoughts on “Ljudmila Ulitskaya – The Funeral Party (1997)

  1. Wonderful review, Caroline! I have wanted to read a Lyudmila Ulitskaya book for a long time. After reading your review, I want to start with this one. Glad you got back to one of your favourite authors and enjoyed this book. Thanks for sharing your thoughts 😊

  2. I haven’t read her but I’m pretty sure I have at least one of her books in the stacks. The comparison you make with the Tolstoy is interesting – I’ve read “Death…” twice and it’s gruelling so if this is a positive counterpoint to it, I need to read her!

    • I think you will like her. I found it so interesting to compare how the final days and weeks unfold in these two stories. One is so bleak, the other one almost cheerful. I’m curious to see which one is on your piles.

  3. Oh, Caroline, do I REALLY have to buy yet another book, in spite of the tottering pile of a hundred books that I must read next, hahaha? This sounds so much like my kind of a book, a book that I wish I had written and perhaps will, yet. I am ordering this one. Hope you are well.

    • Ha, that’s so true. This is your kind of book. As a reader and as a writer. And I do remember having read at least one of your stories that was similar. About your childhood. So, I think you’ve got this kind of novel in you. I’m very curious to see what you make of this. It’s very nice to see that her books are available in book shops here.

  4. I love the way you’ve described your return to this writer, reconnecting with an old friend you haven’t seen in ages. It’s a lovely feeling, isn’t it? Especially given some of your disappointments from last year’s reading.

    As for Ulitskaya herself, she sounds excellent, strong on character and the richness of life. (I recall making a mental note of her name from Julé’s review, so it’s good to see that you’re a fan too.)

  5. I was so happy to see that you enjoyed this and found your way back to Ulitskaya, Caroline! I’d really like to read this one, I’ve just read her big, sweeping novels. This especially appeals because of the setting which I know somewhat from my years in NYC. A wonderful post about a favorite author!

  6. This is a lovely review, Caroline. Thank you for sharing. While reading your review, it occurred to me that I haven’t been going back to my favourite authors nor do I read their books one after the other. I should try that sometime, and see their works take many shapes. Recently, I read Susan Abulhawa’s latest book, and she has been one of my favourite authors. I have read all the novels she has written. So, when I picked up her latest book, something shifted in me, and it seemed sweet. I wish that feeling could be evoked by more authors. And I am definitely adding this to my list.

    • Thank you, Deepika. I enjoyed it so much. It has a special kind of magic to read all the books by one author, one after the other. I’m always tempted to do that with Neil Gaiman. I would have to reread a few. I don’t know The author you mentioned. I will look her up. Thanks. I hope you will enjoy this should you read it.

      • Thank you, Caroline. Neil Gaiman is a favourite, and when I discovered him, I went on a marathon with his books. I haven’t read ‘American Gods’ yet, and I am thinking of reading it this year. But I want to reread ‘The Graveyard Book’, and ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ as well. So many books, and so little time, and so much distraction.

        • I also need to read American Gods but there are others I haven’t read yet. I probably read half of his books. Did you know he teaches a Masterclass at Masterclass. I started it and find it fascinating. I’m not contributing, just reading the booklet and watching the videos.

          • That sounds fantastic, Caroline. I haven’t explored Masterclass yet. I am glad to hear that it is fascinating. Maybe, this year, I should aim to manage my time better, and learn something that’s not related to my work.

            • Masterclass is wonderful. So many writers teach courses. I have an all-year pass. It’s a bit pricey but allows you to try everything. There are some great chefs teaching cooking. Interior designers . . . An individual class is cheaper and guarantees lifetime access to that class.

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