Jacob’s Ladder: A Novel by Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Polly Gannon

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I feel that if I don’t write this down it will all evaporate, disappear into oblivion. 

Man Booker International Prize nominee, Ludmila Ulitskaya’s novel Jacob’s Ladder tells us the story of Nora Ossetsky and her family, as far back as her grandfather (a third generation Swiss watchmaker) Pinchas Kerns, who moved to Kiev in 1873 to open a branch of watchworks and instead opened a watchmaking-and-repair shop. Despite his lack of interest in communism, and capitalism “he placed a high value on his craft, and viewed commerce almost with contempt” and “the watchmaker never read the Bible of communism” his children assimilated the ‘progressive ideas of humanity’. The family is one of close knit siblings, educated, happy until October of 1905 and a pogrom against Kiev’s Jews alters the course of their lives.

Fast forward to 1974: Nora is with her married lover, renowned theater director Tengiz where she is working as an artist in theater set design. Their days are filled with creative work, love and undying passion for each other. Seldom does Nora take an interest in her mother Amalia, whose own life seems to orbit around Andrei Ivanovich. The two seem nothing alike at times, and this exchange really moved me, as it seems Nora is irritated by her mother Amalia’s joy and it’s telling of Nora’s more cynical nature.

‘Amalia had positively bloomed from country life, and she laughed constantly”…

“What are you smiling about?” Nora asked.

“About everything,”Amalia answered, suddenly very serious, her smile gone. “Learn now, Nora, before it’s too late.”

Abruptly, the Chekhov play Nora and Tengiz are working on is shut down on the eve of its premiere, he flees back to the arms of his wife and child in Tbilisi, “the love cloud had vanished.” This is their sixth parting, and Nora can’t moon over losing him for long, after all going away ‘forever going away’ is what he is best at. He always finds his way back to her. For now, she has a new project and she turns to Vitya Chebotarev and here a fork, the story reaches back to their meeting and the link between them, one that fires up his mother Varvara’s hatred for Nora.

The characters are complex, Yurik ( Nora’s child) and his wonder often tickled my heart as I pondered ‘where do these beings we birth come from, similar to us in some ways carrying their ancestors in their DNA with similar features of those long departed and yet the things their strange little hearts think and say, their longings so different from our own?’ We try so hard to understand each other while sometimes not even fully aware of ourselves. Of Nora: “Nora was pitiless to everyone, not least to herself.” Of Vitya: Despite his unusual memory and his innate abilities in logical thought, he was emotionally rather backward , and had not an iota of a sense of humor. 

The family saga includes Nora’s grandfather Jacob Ossetsky’s diary entries, a man of musical passions, and desire for a beautiful girl named Maria (Marusya). The pair will join together, and spend their love in a life of letters, separated for so very long. Later those same letters collecting time in a willow chest, ignored, nearly forgotten. Simply another link in a tangled family chain that goes back and forth between the past and present. A heavy sorrowful tale of separation, isolation.

Nora becomes a single mother to her son Yurik, a strange child whom sometimes seems more her equal than her little boy. Of course Tengiz is always on the periphery of Nora’s life and Yurik’s. There was theater, now there is film! He always has something on the horizon. Vitya too is an important player, but half in and half out. He seems led about by Nora, resigned to whatever plans befall him, for a time anyway. Like an echo from past, Jacob’s love of music is birthed anew in Yurik’s very cells, a lifelong passion. Where will it take our strange little fellow?

With Vitya’s ‘trained mind’ and interest in the computer revolution, it is through his mathematical brain and the whims of fate (or his mother Varvara’s fervent hopes) that he is invited to a conference in the United States of America, where life finally blooms, maybe even love is in the stars? So too Nora and Tengiz find themselves in America when Western audiences become ‘ecstatic’ over their work, but only for a visit.  How changed Vitya is!  Back home, Nora worries about her son and how he needs something to occupy his heart and soul fully.  Time flows, death has come to her door as it must for us all, teaching her things she didn’t understand about her mother and father. Yurik finally makes it to America, is ingesting more than music, and changes his life, but is it for better or worse?

Boats to other shores, love letters, loneliness, diary entries, Russian theater, progressive single mothers, here we feel the ravages of time and place upon one family. It may not engage everyone, as we spend time with each generation the history is rich, the letters feel genuine with details some may find mundane, but what are days of life spent absented from all you desire if not mundane? The shackles of politics don’t often give us the freedom for fun and thrills. The characters are all wildly different from one another, as people are. The “storms of love” between Nora and Tengiz are imperfect and yet fitting somehow for this creative pair. The love story of her mother Amalia and Andrei is beautiful, yes even old folks can have sweet stories, even if it comes late. Where you live alters the course of your life, how can it not? But the promise of a new place, say America, isn’t always fruitful for everyone either. There are traps we can all fall into, even if the true obstacle is ourselves. We carry on, that is our only true job. The past has its tragedies through revolutions, upheavals, politics, and with the demands of the fatherland breathing down your neck how can any one person fulfill their future hopes? How can love and family ever be together, in their right and proper places, nice and safe and free? Must we look to the future, instead, our children and their children after them, even if we never meet them? Can our descendants carry on our desires? For one family, yes and no.

Old age comes for Nora “youth ended, never to return”, for those of us lucky enough to live full lives into our ‘dotage’ so to speak, that is a given. Will she finally find happiness in ways her ancestors could only hope for in the Russia they knew? You must read.

Publication Date: July 9, 2019

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 

 

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A Double Life by Karolina Pavlova, translated by Barbara Heldt

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Madame Valitskaia had decided that Cecily must become Dmitry’s wife so that she would not somehow become the wife of Prince Victor, and she was proceeding toward her goal.

Karolina Pavlova was a Russian poet and translator born in 1807, who had left Russia due to “hostile criticism of her poetry and her personal life”, can you imagine? It lends meaning to the character Cecily, living a passive existence as others arrange her entire future. What else created a life for a woman, particularly of the privileged class, than who she married? Her best friend Olga’s mother is a schemer, she wants to push Cecily in the direction of one Dmitry Ivanchinsky so that Prince Victor is free to marry her girl. Olga is prettier, but Cecily has her own charm and that’s a threat. Olga isn’t much better, she wants the Prince for herself but we are told she isn’t quite as skilled as her mother in deception, instead relies on her mother for ‘directions’. Ha!

Cecily is often described as pale, needing rest as she has been ill. I wonder if the illness in part is an ailment more of the soul. The novel is titled Double Life, where in her dreams her true desires take flight, the writing beautiful poetry.  Is it because the ‘claims of the earth’ on some psychological level take a toll on her body, it is said a woman’s body rejects that which it doesn’t desire. So we get these ailments, headaches, fatigue… Upon waking, all around her is smiles and flattery, all her nearest and dearest convincing her to fall in love with Dmitry. It is done so convincingly, a perfect dance of charlatans, that even his poverty is romanticized by Cecily! Poverty as a more noble choice? This from a young woman given everything, looking down from great heights of society that the happenstance of birth has placed her and thinking how impossible it is to imagine poverty so terrible one cannot even afford to order a beautiful dress. You poor little fool!

Women as pawns, that’s all I could think of the time and place. Sacrificial lambs, because once the excitement of this new life wears off and the celebrations fall by the wayside the truth will be revealed by a long life with an unworthy spouse. We know throughout the tale she has nothing to compare this with, so sheltered her world, reliant on her mother “The first obligation of a mother,” remarked Madame Valitskaia. “We should always be able to read into the souls of our daughters, in order to foresee any harmful influences and keep them safe in their childlike innocence.” Kept in a bubble of ignorant bliss, and afterwards once settled and fooled, it’s too late.

Pale, headaches due to her nights of restless sleep, there lives within her poetry like a song that has been circling her head and at the end she whispers the words and Olga after asking her what she is saying responds “What nonsense”, but she is really going forth as if sentenced, which speaks volumes about what Pavlova felt about such marriages, such lives for women.  On some level, Cecily is aware of walking the plank, so to speak. She smiles along with the fools by day, playing her part in this quiet tragedy and is only truly alive in her night escapes. Very much a young woman of the times, what choice than to go along with those who are older, wiser, and love her so? They all want what’s best, right? What else is there for her, anyway?

Fascinating literary fiction, a 19th Century Russian classic by a female author that is far heavier than it seems. Do take the time to read the afterword and the introduction.

Publication Date: August 6, 2019

Columbia University Press

The Red Daughter: A Novel by John Burnham Schwartz

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She survived her life, which maybe under the circumstances is maybe sort of heroic.

John Burnham Schwartz takes liberty with his fictions, imagining the life of Josef Stalin’s daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva, as she defects from the communist state to America in 1967, leaving behind her son and daughter, carrying with her the stain of her father’s infamy. Always thereafter to be ‘a foreigner in every sense of the word’ having left her homeland, a terrible mother to the two children she abandoned, that even Americanizing herself through marriage, now Lana Peters can never remove the blood that runs through her veins. Though there is an electric current that runs between Svetlana and her young lawyer Peter, loosely based on the author’s own father, the meat of the novel is in the tragedy of being Stalin’s daughter, it is a poisonous legacy. The cruel truth behind her mother’s erasure, the rest of her people ‘exiled or in prison by her father’s decree’, aunts and uncles arrested and executed, even her own brother Yakov captured by the Nazis wasn’t worth a prisoner trade. Her father controlled her life, who she was permitted to fall in love with, the state too ever a watchful eye reporting back to Stalin, there wasn’t an emotion felt, a movement made that wasn’t under scrutiny. A caged child, fed a diet of lies, not even knowing the truth behind her mother’s death. Daring to fall in love with a Jewish filmmaker, which her father forbid it seems no shock he was sent to labor camps. There was an arranged marriage, producing her daughter Katya. There was a deep love for an ill Indian man, whom she met while in hospital for her own treatment, of course she wasn’t allowed to marry him. Within the novel as in life, she journeys to India to scatter his ashes upon his passing. With her father’s death, the only release was to make a new home, to become someone else and remaining in her homeland was an impossibility.

“Svetlana’s entry into our marital orbit was something neither Martha nor I ever recovered from. Our own personal Cold War, you might say…”  of course the story fictionalized a romance between Peter and Svetlana, their intimacy a window into her unsettling life in America. It would be a spot of happiness were it true too. Here, she will never escape being her father’s daughter, not even by marrying Sid and giving birth to an American son. We follow her tortured path, living with rumors about her Russian children, Katya and Josef who have forsaken their mother (were barred really from speaking to her, as she was a traitor to the Motherland) and wonder will they ever reunite but knowing that if the ‘future has defected’, then the past keeps its grave hands upon her feet. We suffer with Peter, who can’t help but wonder at the woman behind the eyes and fall in love with her. A love cultivated in letters and visits. In 1984, Svetlana appears as a star of the international press conference at the Moscow offices of the Soviet Woman’s National Committee. With her son Yasha, she shockingly renounces her American citizenship. She was ready to unite her family at last, return to her now grown children, who needed her. It wasn’t to last, tumultuous winds were always blowing through her life and again she leaves her homeland.

It would do one good to research the real story behind Svetlana, but this was a fascinating novel regardless of how true to facts the author leaned. She did seek political asylum and she was invited by Frank Lloyd Wright’s widow to visit the studio in Scotsdale, she did marry an architect and have a child with him, but it was a daughter named Olga not a son. Looking her up, she seems like a very fascinating woman too. John Burnham Schwartz tells us in his author’s note that he used his father’s ‘expansive Svetlana file’ with original material as his father ( lawyer Alan U. Schwartz) did travel under CIA cover to escort Svetlana Alliluyeva, the only daughter of Josef Stalin into the United States. She was a part of his family, that much is fact, but it is a fictional novel and his father did not have a love affair with her. Living in the shadow of such a father as Stalin (undeniable monstrous) , one can only wonder at what went on inside of her, stuck between cultures, unable to shed the horrors of her father, removed from her children… it’s a hell of a life.

Publication Date: April 30, 2019

Random House

The Goose Fritz by Sergei Lebedev, Translated by Antonia W. Bouis

 

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Something happened with her that Kirill had never seen. It was as if ghosts of terrible unimaginable catastrophes, wars, fires, floods, were nipping at her heels.

Russian born Kirill is the last member of his family, descendant of Balthasar Schwerdt who came to Russia from Germany in the 1800’s. An author who collects other’s people’s life stories, fearfully avoiding his own. It is time to tell the story of his family, with papers, archives he will chase the ‘threads of memory’ and ‘preserving the misunderstood and the unseen.’  It is the only way  Kirill can flee the fate of the family. As a child he sees a stone book in the German cemetery where his family plot lies, chosen as he is to be his grandmother’s constant companion on these visits. Naturally the visits isn’t something any of them talk about outside the confines of home. The book, blank as if an omen of what he must one day fill, is always waiting there for him as he comes of age.

Why, he wondered, was his Russian great-grandmother buried in the German cemetery anyway? With the adults ‘omissions about the past’ he learned to create stories as explanation. It isn’t until his grandmother Lina reveals, speaking in German, the name of his great-great-great grandfather while at his headstone, that he knows the bold truth of their German ancestry. Vile German blood, much like the Goose Fritz symbolized to the villagers, strangled to death by the harmless old Seargant in his drunken rage on the anniversary in July when he was wounded in the Battle Kursk. The goose, in the old man’s war ravaged mind, a German soldier. German, the stuff his family is made of.

Why did they not carry the surname Schwerdt, what fate befell his ancestors, a ‘scattered people’ bones buried in soil far from their fatherland? It’s always been easier for him to dig into stranger’s families than disrupt the rest of his own, and what would revelations mean for his own blind future? Is he destined to walk a path forged by those who came before him? Why can’t he guide his own future, be no one’s son, grandson? A crack in the headstone of his beloved, deceased grandmother, separating surname from birth name, birth date from death date seems to beg from the beyond their stories be told.

Balthasar’s life took a strange turn from that of medical doctor, working as his father’s assistant, to that of practitioner of homeopathic medicine, a ‘heretic’s career’. Thwarting his father’s plan, trembling with his newfound passion, Balthasar left his fractured world for a larger one, with the knowledge of his ‘travels’, Kirill needs to understand the why of it all. Pieces in museums and visiting cities doesn’t always lend an emotional landscape to history, it’s hard for him to imagine being born in the cities of his ancestors. There were seven daughters, and a son- there were wars, assassins, disease, even an early feminist who ‘excited men’s strife.’ Worse the strangest fate of all will befall the brilliant boy when as a man he encounters cannibals.

Kirill is blind to his own future but revisionist of his family’s past, able to look upon it with a godlike eye, see the impending doom as well as lucky escapes that his ancestors couldn’t. With one family member a migrant to Russia, they cannot be native nor accepted as such, forced to hide their German blood as if a stain, as evident by Kirill not even realizing he wasn’t fully Russian, born under the hammer and sickel, loyal as the rest of his family to their country.

This novel is about political history as much as family history, how it affects us all. Are you allowed to be a nationalist when your ancestors were enemies? There are many stories about all of the characters but it is rich in history, perfect for historical fiction lovers. I adored the relationship between Kirill and his beloved grandmother Lina. It’s incredible to think about what our ancestors suffered through, how they could still cling to hope, love and laugh. Personal history too can give birth to strange fears and rituals. The deepest shame is having to hide our blood for fear of persecution. Yes, read it.

Publication Date: March 19, 2019

New Vessel Press