AUGUST 30, 2016
I. THE LIMITS OF THE TENT
The popular Russian author Ludmila Ulitskaya’s latest novel, The Big Green Tent (originally published in 2010 and now available in Polly Gannon’s crisp English translation), opens and closes with two iconic deaths — the first political, the second literary. In between lie nearly 600 pages of teeming, bewildered life during an era encapsulated by a visual metaphor that comes to one of Ulitskaya’s many alter egos in a dream:
One evening, Olga told Tamara about a dream she had had the night before. In the middle of an enormous carpet of meadow, a large green marquee rose up into the air. It was like a huge tent, and there was a long line of people waiting to get in, ever so many people.
Ulitskaya’s most ambitious work of fiction to date is an extended elegy for the generation of liberal Soviet dissidents who came of age in the 1960s — people whom the author, herself born in 1943, knew intimately. Her characters are either stylized refractions of her own social circle or historical figures (notably, the nuclear physicist and peace activist Andrei Sakharov), who all live — and, on occasion, die — for the illegally circulated texts of Vladimir Nabokov, Boris Pasternak, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Joseph Brodsky. Indeed, Ulitskaya’s novel itself is that big green tent where “all the people in the line are people I know — girls from Pioneer camp that I haven’t seen since we were kids, teachers from school, friends from college, our professor … it was like a demonstration!”
Ulitskaya’s novel is suffused, in equal measure, with the light of nostalgia and with unmistakable, if only implicit, warnings for our own historical moment. The author’s choice of temporal boundaries speaks for itself. The “Prologue” (the novel is tamed into 32 manageably sized chapters, some suggesting short story origins) opens with the news of Stalin’s death as it is processed by three very different schoolgirls: Tamara, Galya, and Olga. Each anecdote illustrates the political consciousness of their households: secret celebration by Jewish dissidents; confused chaos among the uneducated; real mourning by Party true believers.
The novel ends with the line: “That night, the poet died.” The poet in question remains unnamed, but the date of his death (January 28, 1996), the names of his wife and daughter (Maria and Anna), and, especially, the status he occupies among the Russian intelligentsia leave little doubt as to his identity. The so-called “master” is none other than Joseph Brodsky. And even if the last chapter were not entitled “Epilogue: The End of a Beautiful Era” (the title of one of Brodsky’s poems and, not incidentally, a 2015 Russian film), the message would be clear. Not one man but an entire branch of Russian poetry died in 1996.
The generation that bloomed and withered between those two deaths experienced an interdependence of politics and literature nearly unimaginable in the post-Soviet world. (For instance, Ulitskaya, who, despite her 200,000 print runs and ubiquitous presence on the Moscow metro, is no favorite among the patriotically inclined, stepped on dangerous toes through her vocal opposition to the war in Ukraine, not through her fiction.) For the Soviet dissidents, writing was a dangerous pursuit. A slip of the typewriter could spell the Gulag, as suggested in Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1975 film The Mirror. The clicking of the machine next door could mean your neighbor was preparing a denunciation; at any moment, your bookshelves could be used against you. But the flip side of this fear was a sense of extraordinary importance and power. Once upon a time, the secret trade in self-published samizdat and smuggled tamizdat — the very currency of The Big Green Tent — made the repressive regime presiding over one-sixth of the world tremble.
II. BRODSKY’S DAUGHTER
Ulitskaya’s novel ends with a portent of doom not only for Russian lyric poetry and all it represents to her generation, but also, by extension, for the Word itself. After the whirlwind of repression, immigration, cancer, and the national epidemic of spiritual immaturity carries off much of the rest of the cast, the surviving émigrés Sanya and his platonic friend Liza (classical musicians, pure, childless) visit “the master” in New York. The exchanges and observations are mostly trivial, but the denouement comes as they witness him putting his sick child to bed: “My god! This child doesn’t speak Russian! Liza thought.”
The line struck me with particular force as I had the opportunity to meet Anna Brodsky in St. Petersburg in May 2015, at an academic conference and general jubilee celebrating what would have been her father’s 75th birthday. Amid the expected academic talks, exhibits, and presentations of the year’s prizes by the Brodsky Memorial Fellowship Fund, the master’s daughter was trotted out to an explosion of camera flashes and a forest of raised smart phones.
The literary princess, appearing at the occasion with dramatic red hair, spoke in English. But the use of a translator didn’t lessen the impact of her speech — an impassioned, direct, and quite radical denunciation of copyright, the restriction of access to information, and the monetizing of intellectual property. The hosting representatives of the Brodsky estate reeled, the audience exploded with applause, and Anna’s face and speech monopolized Russian social media over the following days. The first person to recover her wits after Anna spoke was Elena Fanailova, one of the featured poets and a former recipient of the Brodsky Memorial Fellowship. Fanailova (born 1962) — whose own verse is often avowedly political and exhibits an unflinching documentary instinct — exclaimed that Anna had just reminded us all of whose daughter she was. This show of spirit, of anarchic rebellion and defiant courage, was pure Brodsky.
Fanailova’s rhetorical move was brilliant: her comments pulled Anna Brodsky’s personal manifesto back into the conversation about Brodsky and suggested a radical departure for the Brodsky legacy. During his lifetime, Brodsky, like so many other émigrés scarred by their experiences of state socialism, remained deeply suspicious of anything resembling leftist politics. By contrast, post–Cold War Russian poets and artists are more likely to have been traumatized by the brutal transition to neoliberal capitalism, the rise of 21st-century nationalism, and the overnight abandonment of secular internationalist ethics and aspirations toward a more just society. If Brodsky’s is the poetry of timeless rebellion — rather than temporally bounded liberal dissidence — then it can belong to the new post-Soviet left as well, and to dreams of futurity. After Anna Brodsky and Fanailova issued their challenge, the festivities resumed at a higher pitch.
III. LITERATURE IS AGAINST US
Futurity is mostly absent from The Big Green Tent. For all the optimism, charm, and evident pluck that come across in Ulitskaya’s interviews, whatever heroism we find in her work seems inevitably bound to the stylized past. Subjected to constant suffering by the secret police, by each other, and by the implacable forces of age and poverty, her characters find solace and honor in the knowledge that they have walked the same streets as the historical — that is to say, literary — greats: the great 20th-century poets, like Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam, and the Romantics, like Mikhail Lermontov and Aleksandr Pushkin, with whom the modern Russian literary tradition began. Ghosts lend gravitas. Poetry and friendship, expressed in the form of shared texts and cultural memory, make life bearable.
Ulitskaya has been accused of many things by her detractors, including of being on the US government’s payroll. Her fiction has been nastily labeled “women’s prose” or “Jewish prose.” Critics have faulted her crude characterization and her flattish, plot-driven, not-quite-highbrow style. To the extent that categorization is useful, it is perhaps most fair to call her work “dissident prose.” Indeed, Ulitskaya — one of Russia’s most popular novelists, winner of nearly all the top national prizes and a bounty of European honors — writes about the plight of her generation’s intellectual elite in plain, accessible language. Her work speaks to her generation’s anxieties and limitations; her characters, like her contemporaries, are gripped by repetition compulsion, nostalgia for the significance guaranteed by persecution, and a profound terror of cultural change.
The three main heroes of The Big Green Tent, Ilya, Mikha, and Sanya, are all dissident intellectuals of one kind or another, whose stories intersect with those of the schoolgirls introduced in the prologue. (Ulitskaya’s characters seem to come in threes and in types.) A gifted schoolteacher “awakens” these boys early on with his genuine love of Russian poetry:
They were ordinary kids — in class, they cut up, threw paper wads and spitballs, sprayed one another with water, hid one another’s book satchels and notebooks, and grabbed and pushed and shoved like puppies. Then they would suddenly freeze in wonder, and ask him real questions. Unlike the country lads, they had had a real childhood, which they were now leaving behind once and for all. Besides pimples, there were other signs, in a higher register, of their maturing: they asked the “accursed questions,” agonized over the injustices in the world, and listened to poetry. A few of them even wrote something that vaguely resembled it. The first one to bring the teacher a neatly copied page of verse was Mikha Melamid.
Ilya and Mikha grow up to publish the underground journal Hamayon, promoting the works of such recognizable historical figures as that new “fellow from Kharkov” — Eduard Limonov, the grandfather of post-Soviet protest culture. The young men’s literary adventures allow Ulitskaya to feature reams of Russian verse in her novel, ranging from Pushkin to the poems of her recently deceased friend, Natalya Gorbanevskaya (1936–2013). Instantly recognizable in the original, the poems require more decoding in English translation and are unlikely to give most Anglophone readers the pleasurable sense of recognition — of a shared cultural past and, perhaps, even of pride and superiority — that they do for Russian readers.
It is precisely this pleasurable sense in the Russian original that reopens the door to an essentialism as tired as it is dangerous. Strikingly, in a text where the networks of dissidents and informers are interwoven so tightly as to overlap, precious little suspicion is cast on the familiar romance of Russian poetry. What Adorno has called the “unrestrained individuation” of lyric poetry, which at its best paradoxically refracts the shared agonies of modern societies, is here reduced to clichés and plaster busts. In Ulitskaya’s novel, individuation is the unproblematic ideal, Russian verse is the realm of immortal giants, and any dream of larger communitas is merely a propagandist trick.
I am tempted, perhaps unfairly, to contrast Ulitskaya’s stance with the insight and unflinching self-awareness of a much younger female writer, the American poet Anne Boyer (born in 1973, and, like Ulitskaya, a survivor of breast cancer — a pivotal event in both women’s literary biographies, as political imprisonment might have been for male writers of an earlier era). In an interview provocatively titled “Literature is against us,” Boyer explains the paradox of writing against power:
When I say “literature,” I mean something with historical specificity, seen with all of its brutality intact […] by “us” I actually mean a lot of people: against all but the wealthiest women and girls, all but the wealthiest queer people, against the poor, against the people who have to sell the hours of their lives to survive, against the ugly or infirm, against the colonized and the enslaved, against mothers and other people who do unpaid reproductive labor, against almost everyone who isn’t white — everyone who has been taken from, everyone who makes and maintains the world that the few then claim it is their right to own. And by “against,” many of us know this “literature” contains violent sentiments toward us, is full of painful exclusions, but that isn’t even the core of its opposition to us. How “literature” is also against us is that it is a magic circle drawn around the language games of a class of people — the rich and powerful and those who serve or have served them. It gives (or appears to give, like any mystification) these words a permission and a weight, dangles the ugliness in our faces and names it beauty, gleefully shows off stupidity and claims it as what is wise.
Writing, for Boyer, has been as vital to her survival as it has imperiled it, materially and psychologically. From this position of paradox, she begins the difficult search for new forms.
Lest the reader conclude that the contrast is national or linguistic, rather than generational, I would like to cite from the Moscow poet Kirill Medvedev’s (born 1975) manifesto “Communiqué,” translated with great verve by Keith Gessen in the English-language volume It’s No Good (n+1 and Ugly Duckling Presse, 2012). Writing in 2003, Medvedev describes the post-Soviet Russian literary marketplace in the following terms:
[A] clique of half-literate publishers […] hardly managing to slap the price tag on each book in time before shipping it, employing, for commercial gain, the most unprincipled tricks and provocational strategies, flirting with what are to me the most monstrous and disgusting ideologies. You have a brutal scramble for the top literary prizes and endless set-pieces of literary pseudo-events. You have what are in effect a few cultural lobbies, waging a nasty and primitive battle for cultural influence; the disgusting speculation of critics and journalists, earnestly serving their masters; or other critics, forcing their half-developed, half-conscious cultural viewpoints down readers’ throats, or propagating their cultural or other types of xenophobia and pseudo-religious quasi-fascism.
Medvedev has explicitly defined himself against the backdrop of the Russian literary intelligentsia and against the generation of Brodsky and other literary fathers. He has founded the independent Free Marxist Press, publishing exclusively under its imprint and in venues run by like-minded collaborators, like the St. Petersburg journal Translit. Boyer and Medvedev alike shock us by being so fully in and of the present; by once again dreaming openly of social alterity; by seeing so clearly outside of their immediate cultural contexts; and, perhaps more than anything, by rejecting the notion that poets occupy an exceptional, elite status. “Poet,” in their usage, suggests “citizen” rather than solitary “prophet.”
Moscow grows less and less welcoming to its wildly popular author, and Ulitskaya spends part of every year in Italy. In 2014, she wrote in Der Spiegel about the “crushing defeat” that culture had suffered in Russia: “Goodbye, Europe. I’m afraid we will never be able to join the European family of nations.” What Ulitskaya appears to miss, and what these younger poets do not, is that there is no going back, no going away. One cannot escape today’s terrors — be they political, economic, or ecological — by crossing borders. There is no longer any “abroad” or “over there.”
IV. THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT
One wonders what audience Ulitskaya’s The Big Green Tent will find among English-language readers. Some may enjoy the familiar vision of Russia this long novel offers — its droves of characters with difficult names, the threatening shadow of the Lubyanka secret police headquarters, too many denunciations to count, a fair amount of drinking, anti-Semitism, and a suicide.
Perhaps The Big Green Tent will share readers with the newly translated documentary fiction of Belarusian, Russian-language author Svetlana Alexievich, whose Nobel win in 2015 brought her to sudden prominence in the West. The Russian media regarded the award as a political gesture; the news triggered comparisons to the scandal surrounding Boris Pasternak’s win in 1958, at the height of the Cold War. If Alexievich’s polyphonic, interview-based prose reads as a fragmented, unexpected double of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, Ulitskaya’s aspires to a more straightforward repetition. Like Pasternak’s novel, hers ends with children raised without poetry, robbed of what they should have inherited from their fathers, whose verse they may never understand. Pasternak’s and Ulitskaya’s texts openly reflect their authors’ fears that the audience for their kind of literature is on the verge of disappearing. Ulitskaya’s popularity may well wane after the death of the generation that recognizes itself in the sorrows of Ilya, Mikha, and Sanya. The master’s child knows no Russian.
But Anna Brodsky is doing just fine.