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.

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy – Classic Russian Literature – A Post a Day in May

Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilych was published in 1886, roughly thirty years after War and Peace and twenty years after Anna Karenina.

I have read this before but felt it was time to reread it. I didn’t realize when starting it, what an excellent companion piece to Flaubert’s A Simple Heart this is. Both novellas tell the story of a life. One the story of a simple, uneducated woman, the other the story of a highly educated, successful man. Both stories are tragic.

The Death of Ivan Ilych starts with the discussion of a few lawyers, one of which just read their colleague, Ivan Ilych, has died. This intro chapter sets the tone. The reaction of the men tells us everything about them, their way of life, and Ivan Ilych’s life. Not one of them is saddened. They are only upset because it briefly reminds them of death. They soon console themselves though.

The very fact of the death of someone close to them aroused in all who heard about it, as always, a feeling of delight that he had died, and they hadn’t.

Only one of the men feels he should pay the widow a visit. Seeing the dead man makes him feel uncomfortable. He’s glad when he can escape again and go back to his life, his “friends” and playing bridge, a game Ivan Ilych had enjoyed and been very good at.

After this intro chapter follows the story of Ilych’s life. This is how it begins:

Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.

This is so short and cruel and tells us in one sentence everything that we need to know about Ivan Ilych. It condenses what we will read in the next chapters in more detail.

Ivan Ilych was a successful lawyer. He made a stunning career, even though he wasn’t always happy with the developments, especially not after he got married. What at first looked like a good idea, settling down with someone who had a bit of money and was nice to look at, soon proved to have been a mistake. She was jealous and never happy with what they had, always pushing him to make more and more money. He did so, not only for her and domestic peace, but because he, too, measured success in terms of financial and professional success. And he also liked power.

In his work itself, especially in his examinations, he very soon acquired a method of eliminating all considerations irrelevant to the legal aspect of the case, and reducing even the most complicated case to a form in which it would be presented on paper only in its externals, completely excluding his personal opinion of the matter, while above all observing every prescribed formality.

After living in provincial towns for many years, he finally gets offered a very good position in St Petersburg. He buys a house and furnishes it the way he always wanted. In his eyes it is perfection. But the author tells us otherwise.

In reality it was just what is usually seen in the houses of people of moderate means who want to appear rich, and therefore succeed only in resembling others like themselves: there are damasks, dark wood, plants, rugs, and dull and polished bronzes — all the things people of a certain class have in order to resemble other people of that class. His house was so like the others that it would never have been noticed, but to him it all seemed to be quite exceptional.

Ivan Ilych, who has never done any manual thing in his life, enjoys decorating his new home but then something happens. He has a minor accident and feels some pain in his side.

Soon after this, he notices that the pain won’t go and that he has other symptoms. He knows he’s seriously ill, even fears he might die.

Over the next months, Ivan Ilych deteriorates more and more, is misdiagnosed and misunderstood and dies a lonely painful death.

Ilych’s illness and death are slow and agonizing and give him time to think about his life. He realizes that something had been missing, that he had measured success in the wrong way.

‘Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,’ it suddenly occurred to him. ‘But how could that be, when I did everything properly?’ he replied, and immediately dismissed from his mind this, the sole solution of all the riddles of life and death, as something quite impossible.

The tragedy is that the doctors who are incapable of empathy, are just like he was with the criminals— pompous and condescending. His entire world, he discovers is full of falsehood.

What tormented Ivan Ilych most was the deception, the lie, which for some reason they all accepted, that he was not dying but was simply ill, and that he only needs keep quiet and undergo a treatment and then something very good would result.

The Death of Ivan Ilych is an upsetting story. It’s dreadful to see how much he suffers and how nobody cares. I think one can also feel that Tolstoy didn’t like his character and that might be the biggest difference to Flaubert’s story. Flaubert didn’t judge Felicité. He felt compassion. Tolstoy doesnt feel compassion for Ilych as he seems to stand for everything Tolstoy abhors – bureaucracy, nepotism and arrivistes.

As I mentioned before, I read this twice and it feels like I’ve been reading two different stories just because my own life has changed so much. The first time, I’ve read it right after my dad’s death. This time around the sections on illness got to me more because the doctor’s reminded me so much of some of the doctor’s I’ve seen in the last couple of months. They just didn’t listen and had their idea about why I was in pain but very clearly they were wrong.

A lot has been speculated about Ivan Ilych’s illness. It’s never said what he has and might not be important. There are also many theories about the meaning of this story. To me, it is the story of a man who wanted only pleasant things in life, who hated change, and let himself drift until he hit a major obstacle, which he was incapable of overcoming. In that, and verything else, he is indeed mediocre.

Vasily Grossman: Everything Flows (1961) Literature and War Readalong October 2013

Everything Flows

Would you inform on people to save your own life? Sign papers knowing very well it will send people to the Gulag? Would you? If you are like me, you are unable to answer this question. You will hope that you wouldn’t but how can you be sure. It didn’t take a lot for people to be sent to the camps. Anything would make the state suspect subversiveness.Some were sent because others signed a paper, some were sent because they didn’t sign papers. According to the afterword Grossman did precisely that, he signed a paper which served to arrest a group of doctors. He must have felt guilty all of his life, resented his own weakness. Exploring why people would do such a thing, is one of the themes in Everything Flows. It’s not always out of fear or cowardice.

A friend of Ivan Grigoryevich is responsible that he is sent to the Gulag for thirty years. He is released after Stalin’s death in 1953. At first he visits his cousin Nikolay, in Moscow. Nikolay is a scientist who has made a remarkable career, due to some extent to his betrayal of others. When he sees Ivan again, he’s incapable of showing compassion of listening to Ivan’s story. All he does is talk about his own hardships. How very cynical. No deprivations endured outside can be compared with what those in the camps had to go through. These are poignant scenes, which show the selfishness and faulty thinking of so many, the struggle between a bad conscience and the aim to refuse any responsibility. Ivan then moves on to Leningrad where he hopes to meet a former lover. He meets Anna Sergeyevna instead and shares a room with her and her little son. Her husband has been sent to a camp. She blames herself for having taken part in the Terror famine of 1932-3.

The story of Ivan is the only coherent storyline. It is interrupted by stories of other people and many non-fiction parts – on the terror against the Ukrainians, on Lenin and Stalin, on their terror regimes, on the way the Soviet Union worked. This made me wonder often whether Everything Flows can really be called a novel. Where is the borderline? How much non-fiction elements can a book contain and still be called fiction? Grossman didn’t see the publication of Everything Flows and it is possible he would have altered it, still, according to the afterword, it’s finished the way it is. He would not have removed the nonfiction parts, although it seems obvious that they were added to the manuscript later.

Until WWII Grossman was loyal to the Soviet state but after having witnessed the war, having been in Stalingrad, that changed completely. From then on he was focussing in his work on writing about everything as truthfully as possible, on not embellishing and buying into the state’s way of distorting the truth. This cost him almost everything and I’m surprised he was never sent to the Gulag himself. One of his most traumatic experiences was when his novel Life and Fate was confiscated. What further contributed to his critical view of the Soviet state was Stalin’s antisemitism.

In his best parts Everything Flows is an amazing testimony of compassion and humanity. In other parts it is a masterful depiction of the human condition and an open criticism of totalitarianism. Some of the non-fiction parts were a bit heavy going, as I was not familiar with many of the names and with Soviet history in general. I think he rendered the atmosphere of being unfree and the paranoia very well.

I’d like to read a biography of Grossman. He served 1000 days during WWII, was present in Stalingrad and his The Hell of Treblinka was the first eyewitness account and was used during the Nuremberg trials. Has anyone read the Gerrard’s biography The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman or Grossman’s The Writer at War?

Other reviews

Andrew Blackman

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Silver Seasons (Silver Threads)


Everything Flows was the tenth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The next is the WWII novel Death of the Adversary aka Der Tod des Widersachers by German writer Hans Keilson. Discussion starts on Friday 29 November, 2013. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Literature and War Readalong October 28 2013: Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman

Everything Flows

I’m very late in announcing this month’s readalong title. Vasily Grossman’s Everything Flows isn’t a war novel per se. It’s a post war novel. I found it’s about time to have a look what state countries, which had participated in WWII, were left in after the war. Russia is decidedly one of the most interesting places when it comes to the post-war era and Grossman is famous for the way he captures this time. Like many other Russian authors Grossman’s novels were forbidden during the Soviet era. Everything Flows was written after his major work Life and Fate.  I have seen a few of his books reviewed on various blogs ( Silver Threads on Life and Fate –  A Work in Progress on Armenian Sketchbook –  Caravana de Recuerdos on Life and Fate) and the feedback was always more than favorable.

I’ll leave you with the b blurb and the first sentences.

Ivan Grigoryevich has been in the Gulag for thirty years. Released after Stalin’s death, he finds that the years of terror have imposed a collective moral slavery. He must struggle to find a place for himself in an unfamiliar world. Grossman tells the stories of those people entwined with Ivan’s fate: his cousin Nikolay, a scientist who never let his conscience interfere with his career, Pinegin, the informer who had Ivan sent to the camps and Anna

Here are the first sentences

The Khabarovsk express was due to arrive in Moscow by 9 a.m.. A young man in pyjamas scratched his shaggy head and looked out of the window into the half-light of the autumn morning. He yawned, turned to the people standing in the corridor with their soap boxes and towels and said, “Well, citizens, who’s last in line?”

I will be reading the German translation Alles fliesst. I have this idea that Russian works better translated into German.

Alles fliesst



The discussion starts on Monday, 28 October 2013.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2013, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

From Australia to Russia via the US – A Few Challenges/Events in 2013


I have decided to be less active this year when it comes to challenges, readalongs and other events but there are still a few things I want to do or rather challenges I’d like to sign up for again.

All the Australian books I read last year were wonderful books and I want to explore more Australian literature. That’s why I singed up again for The Aussie Author Challenge at Booklover Book Reviews.

These are the possible choices

Secret River

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River

That Deadman Dance

Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance


Alex Miller’s Lovesong

American Revolution Reading Challenge 2013

I will also participate again in Anna’s and Serena’s War Through the Generations Challenge. The topic this year is the American Revolution. I haven’t read anything about this period yet and don’t know any books at all. Suggestions are very welcome.


Last but not least I’m planning on joining Richard (Caravana de recuerdos) for one or two of his 2013 Russian Reading readalong titles.

Here is the list.

Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (c. 1960)
Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls (1842)
Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov (1859)
Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1877)
Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (c. 1940)
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955)

Please visit Richard’s site for the details.

Andrei Gelasimov: Thirst – Žažda (2003)

Masterfully translated from the original Russian by award-winning translator Marian Schwartz, Thirst tells the story of 20-year-old Chechen War veteran Kostya. Maimed beyond recognition by a tank explosion, he spends weeks on end locked inside his apartment, his sole companions the vodka bottles spilling from the refrigerator. But soon Kostya’s comfortable if dysfunctional cocoon is torn open when he receives a visit from his army buddies who are mobilized to locate a missing comrade. Through this search for his missing friend, Kostya is able to find himself.

I owe the discovery of  Thirst by Andrei Gelasimov to literalab, my go-to blog for Central and Eastern European literature (if you don’t know it, you need to have a look). While French and German publishers are usually much faster in discovering foreign language authors this time they are lagging behind big time. That’s probably a reason why I had never heard of Gelasimov before, although Thirst isn’t his only book, not even his first. When I saw the review I realized that I havent read any contemporary Russian literature. One more reason for reading Gelasimov.

Thirst is a taut, short novel about a young veteran of the Chechen war. He was trapped in a vehicle and almost left for dead, burned beyond recognition. So badly in fact that he looks like a monster. There is nothing to escape this truth. He is confronted with it while still in the hospital wearing bandages. Maybe it is typical for Russians, I’m not sure, but it’s typical for the people in this story, they tell the truth in such a direct way, it’s like a shot in the gut.

“So what about you?” he asked me. “Do you have a girl back home?”

I said I didn’t.

“That’s good. Other wise she’ll leave you. Have you seen what you’ve got under the bandages?”

“No. There is no mirror in the bandaging room.”

I was lying. There was a mirror in the bandaging room. For the nurses. In a military hospital where it’s all guys lying there, girls have to keep up with those things. “L’Oréal Paris. After all, I’m worth it”. Who knows where you’re going to meet your destiny? Though we weren’t much to write home about. If you really tried, you might make one normal guy out of three of us.

The novel which is told by the first person narrator Kostya, is told in small episodic chapters that move back and forth in time. At the beginning of the novel Kostya fills his refrigerator with Vodka bottles. Drinking Vodka, watching TV and scaring children is all he does at present.

Kostya’s life before joining the army was the typical life of a young boy, coming from a poor family. The father left the mother when Kostya was just a little child, he cannot stand his step father and school is a drag. One of his teachers discovers that he has a rare talent. Kostya is amazing at drawing. While his teacher downs one Vodka bottle after the other, young Kostya spends his time with him instead of going to school and develops his rare gift. After the teacher is fired, Kostya starts to drift, joins up, gets trapped in the APC and is maimed. He still occasionally meets his three army buddies who were with him that day. Seryoga, who got out and saved them; Pashka and Genka, trapped with him but saved earlier because they still moved.

While Kostya is on a binge, Pashka and Genka appear and want him to follow them to Moscow and look for Seryoga who has disappeared.

If I hadn’t had the chance to meet quite a lot of Russians in my life, I might have thought this constant Vodka drinking was a cliché. Well, it’s not. And it’s very hard to say “no” because, drinking is a sociable thing. You’re only considered to be an alcoholic when you start drinking on your own. Saying “no” to a glass of vodka in public makes you look unsociable and unfriendly. Very often a glass is accompanied with a toast, mostly to some dead relative. That’s where it gets tricky. Saying “no” to the Vodka is saying “no” to the toast is not acknowledging people’s dead relatives…

There is a lot of drinking going on in this novel, a lot of pain gets swallowed down with the Vodka. The society depicted here is very patriarchal, with very strictly defined roles for men and women. Little Kostya remembers how he was told not to cry as a little boy when he had to have his appendix removed.

“What’s this, are you going to cry now?” The voice under the surgical mask was different now. “You’re our future soldiers. Soldiers don’t cry. Do you like to watch war movies? What? Speak up. Why are you whispering?”

I repeated , “I like them.”

“There you go. And you know how soldiers sometimes get hurt? But they don’t cry. They have to be brave. Will you be brave when ou go to war?”

The war and becoming a soldier is mentioned all through the novel. Even during Kostya’s childhood it is clear, he will be a soldier once, like his father was and that he will fight in a war as well. His father fought in Afghanistan, he will fight in Chechnya.

The characters in this novel are very lonely, the way they treat each other is honest but brutal. A lot is left unspoken. Despite all this, the book isn’t only bleak. There is hope as more even than the novel of a veteran it’s the novel of an artist. Art transforms the way Kostya sees the world, it will eventually transform him as well.

What I liked a lot is Gelasimov’s writing and the voice. The cuts, the shifts, the breaks which reminded me sometimes of the nouveau roman without the experimental feel. Each and every episode is very well executed, highly expressive, realistic and to the point. They are like short sketches that capture the characters and say more about them than a lot of words. One of Gelasimovs novels, Gods of the Steppes won the 2009 Russian National Bestseller literary award. It will be available in English this September. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Do you have any modern Russian literature recommendations?

Fyodor Dostoevsky: Poor People/Poor Folk – Бедные люди [Bednye lyudi] (1846)

Presented as a series of letters between the humble copying-clerk Devushkin and a distant relative of his, the young Varenka, Poor People brings to the fore the underclass of St Petersburg, who live at the margins of society in the most appalling conditions and abject poverty. As Devushkin tries to help Varenka improve her plight by selling anything he can, he is reduced to even more desperate circumstances and seeks refuge in alcohol, looking on helplessly as the object of his impossible love is taken away from him.

Poor People – or Poor Folk, depending on the translation – was Dostoevsky’s first novel. Published in 1846 it was highly acclaimed by fellow writers and critics alike. At only 24 Dostoevsky became a literary celebrity. It is generally not considered to be his best book, his masterpieces were still to come, but it already contains many of the elements that made Dostoevsky famous.

I must admit this was not an easy read. The style is simple and descriptive but the story was unsettling and depressing and it did ring unbearably true.

Poor People is an epistolary novel set in St.Petersburg among the very poor. The letters are exchanged between a young orphaned woman, Varenka,  and an elderly distant relative, the copy-clerk Devushkin, who loves her very much.

Those two poor people live very close to each other but have to hide their friendship as it could be misunderstood. The descriptions of Varenka’s past, how her parents died and mean people pretended to take care of her while in reality there was only abuse, are paired with Devushkin’s descriptions of the way he is living. Although he is very poor himself he tries to help the fragile young woman and sends her what little money he has. In order to save money he left his old apartment after his landlady died and moved into another place. In this apartment he lives with a great number of equally poor people together in close quarters. He really only occupies a little corner of the kitchen that is separated from the rest by a piece of fabric.

He doesn’t even mind living like this at first as he can see Varenka’s windows from his room but after a while it gets harder for him. In their letters they try to comfort each other and describe in great detail how they live. The tone is very emotional, there isn’t much they hold back. On some days they are cheerful and will write about nice things they have seen or experienced but on most other days they are in despair and very sad. Varenka is often ill and can’t work while Devushkin has a hard time to hide his poverty at work. His clothes are shabby and would need mending, he loses his buttons, his shoes have holes and the soles are coming off. The poorer they get, the worse they are treated by others, also from those who are as poor as they are.

As if matters were not bad enough, Devushkin spends what little money he has on alcohol. He invariably pays his escapades with fear and shame. One misfortune follows another as they have little or no means to prevent them.

Varenka is a very intelligent young woman. Unlike Devushkin she is educated and likes to read. She loves Pushkin and Gogol. In some of the letters and a little notebook that she sends to Devushkin, she describes her childhood. These are wonderful passages that capture the life in the country, the changing of the seasons. She describes with great detail how golden the autumn was in the country, how wonderful winter could be because they would sit around a fire and tell stories. These passages show how masterful a writer Dostoevsky is.

Devushkin on the other hand tells her what he sees when he goes out in Petersburg. It makes him sad to see beautiful rich women and to know how arbitrary it is to be either born poor or rich.

One of the themes of the novel is the arbitrariness of poverty and how prejudiced the rich are. They treat the poor as if they were contagious. On the other hand they like to see them because it makes them feel superior. For that very same reason they  like to give them alms. The lack of privacy makes matters worse. Living with so many or being stuffed into a tiny office space with many other clerks exposes you constantly to the prying of others.

It seems as if one should never undergo a certain level of poverty, once you fall below there is no getting up anymore. There are numerous little stories of other poor people who fall ill and of children who die because no medicine is available.

Devushkin and Varenka are amazing characters. Despite their destitution they always think of each other first and if they receive just a little bit of money from somewhere they will give to those who have even less.

Reading this in winter, when the days are getting shorter and it is getting colder was really not easy. It’s depressing and sad. I thought of a documentary that I watched not long ago about Russian pensioners and some of those people lived in the same dirty, shabby and unhealthy tiny apartments. I remember one old woman, sitting in a box-like room, crying all through the interview. She had hardly any food, no heating, her clothes were rags. And this in Europe in 2011.

I didn’t enjoy reading this but on the other hand I felt very bad for thinking like this. Those who live under such conditions cannot just decide to walk away from them. Who am I to want to shelter myself from reading about such things?

I accidentally landed in a slum once, in Fort-de-France, Martinique. I felt really miserable, not because I thought it was dangerous, (maybe it was, no clue) but because it felt like prying. By walking between the shacks I could see into the homes of these people, they had no windows or doors and I felt like a voyeur. I was then asked angrily what the heck I thought I was doing but they understood, that I had lost my way and once they realized it wasn’t curiosity, they were very helpful.

It is really in bad taste but apparently it is part of many a guided tour in Brazil to pay a visit to the favelas.

I have read a few of Dostoevsky’s books, Crime and Punishment, The Gambler, Memoirs from the House of the Dead, with the exception of the last, they didn’t seem this depressing and I liked them very much.

I still got White Nights, Notes From Underground and The Brothers Karamazov to read. But not just yet.

I didn’t include any quotes as I’ve read this in a German translation. I like the German cover a lot.