By John Dolan
Everything Here is Better
I didn't spend fifteen years in the corridors of Berkeley, where death (or at least severe disapproval) lurks behind every half-open door, without developing a Deerstalker-like sense of ideological peril. And this sense has been whispering to me that I've been reviewing books by men--not a single woman. So this article, which covers two Russian women's story collections, should satisfy the Gods of Equal Time.
Besides, they're both pretty good, in very different ways. Ulitskaya's collection Sonechka and Other Stories consists of the title story and two other shorter stories. All are written in precise, traditional third-person narration, and all focus on the traditional female career: finding a husband, having children, growing old. Sonechka, title character of the long story, is Cinderella with several twists. A shy, dumpy girl, she grows up detesting the coarse, cruel Soviet reality (a trait shared by all Ulitskaya's heroines) and hiding from it in books, especially the nineteenth-century Russian classics. The fairy-tale element enters in the form of Robert Victorovich, a middle-aged painter who was foolish enough to return to his homeland after becoming a legend in Paris. Sonechka has been sent to Sverdlovsk to work in a library; Robert Victorovich is exiled there after a term in the camps. Taken with Sonechka's resemblance to a young camel, he marries her. They are exiled together to a mud hut in the steppes--and Sonechka lives in bliss. Ulitskaya manages to make this bliss convincing without glossing over the physical misery of their existence. In fact, her recasting of the Cinderella story gains much of its pathos from the modest circumstances of the happy ending. Sonechka has a husband she adores, a healthy child, and a place to live; and Ulitskaya implies that this, in Stalin's time, is a very great deal.
The fairy-tale ends when those circumstances improve. Sonechka and her family return to Moscow, where Robert Victorovich becomes famous again, and their daughter Tanya brings a school friend home. Husband and daughter's friend begin a sexual relationship, which Sonechka accepts as an inevitable stage of marriage. Her husband dies, her daughter emigrates, and she ends up alone with her books again. But it's not an unhappy ending. As Sonechka sees her life, she's been given far more than her prospects ever seemed to suggest, and she returns, at the end of her life, to the happy reading-trance in which she began.
Ulitskaya's other two stories, "Bronka" and "The Daughter of Bokhara," share a lot with "Sonechka." "Bronka," the most interesting, is told as a mystery--the mystery being the father of the four sons which Bronka, a schoolgirl in a Moscow slum, produces one after the other despite the constant surveillance of her enraged mother. "Bronka" is a delightful story, but I can't say too much more about it without giving away its secret. "The Daughter of Bokhara" is, like all Ulitskaya's work, a stoical depiction of the very modest happiness which women may find in fulfilling their obligations to their children even when betrayed by their husbands and even their own bodies.
Ulitskaya's prose is straightforward narrative, and her perspective too is direct, solemn, intelligent--almost Roman. She assumes that most women's lives are focused on creating a family, and that the odds are against doing it successfully--and that even when one can manage it, the odds are that it won't last, betrayed as it must be by infidelity, disease and whatever extra hardships the State can think up. But there is no whining against fate in these stories. They take it for granted that women are tougher than men, and share a grimmer, less dream-driven version of the world. In that rather flat and limited world, Ulitskaya's heroines manage to survive with dignity, and her depiction of their quiet, stoic endurance is in the end very moving.
Nina Sadur is a much flashier storyteller. She's famous as a playwright, but her short stories, gathered in Witch's Tears, are tight, fast and funny. The world of Sadur's stories is full of magic--but it's not very nice magic, and really shouldn't be called "magic realism," because there's nothing of the flaccid wishful-thinking that characterises that moribund genre. Sadur's magic hurts. The title-story, "Witch's Tears," tells what happens when a young woman goes to a witch to have a curse put on an unfaithful boyfriend. What follows is a bit like an old joke, a bit like a folk-tale, and a bit like Beetlejuice. Not a bad set of parameters. The witch, a tired old woman who lives in a casual clutter of spirits and potions, tells the girl to walk backwards to the river...you can guess what's coming, can't you? After all, the best cure for a broken heart is a pair of water-filled lungs. The girl drowns; the witch goes home. The girl's ghost, sopping wet, appears to the witch to complain--reasonably enough--that she wanted her boyfriend cursed, rather than herself drowned. Here's the witch's response:
"Go back, your place is there, in the river," said the witch. "You will be the light of the river, you will fly over the lighthouses, you will steer the ships, frighten the buoykeepers. That is your place. That is your freedom."
The ghost flies off, the witch sits down and cries. No one comes out of it happily except the young soldier whom the girl wanted cursed. The witch seems to have decided that his safety is more important than the girl's life:
"...[The witch] felt sorry for the poor girl who was so young, but the soldier slept peacefully, knowing nothing. No one would insult him now."
Sadur ends the story with a paragraph explaining the moral of the story--something about kindness and injustice and revenge--but I'm not sure that's what's most deeply embedded in the plot here. Instead, we see two women: the young betrayed lover and the old, weary witch; struggling over the fate of the male lead, the soldier who betrayed the girl. His lover's wish to curse him is overruled by the witch, who kills his girlfriend instead--then goes home to cry. The soldier himself is the naive, if not innocent, homebody whose fate depends on the struggle of the two female characters. He is the beneficiary of a system which protects him even at the cost of the lover he betrayed--a system which apparently will always value the male over the female--but which he doesn't even know exists. This allegorical depiction of the relation of men and women in Russia seems to me to be the true moral of this story, and a very painful one it is.
But Sadur isn't really interested in gloomy sociology. Her stories are full of (and I use the word advisedly, and admiringly) "mischief." Even when they use fairy-tale plots as ancient as that of "Witch's Tears," they tweak the story in surprising, happy ways. "Cold," for example, describes a high-school girl's morbid fascination with a retarded man. There's a very fast turn to the plot, then the girl goes home and tries to tell her mother what happened. The mother goes out on a date, and the girl is left alone with her apparently insignificant miracle. The whole incident just hangs in the air at the end of the story, like the little apparitions in the witch's kitchen.
The most impressive of Sadur's stories is "Star Boy," a Moscow grotesque which is told by a woman who introduces herself as the mother of Yuri Gagarin and who, as the reader soon realizes, is not quite in her perfect mind. She tells how she was brought down from the peaks of the Caucasus by people who were black because they lived so near the sun, and how her son Yura was disappeared because "he [Gagarin] spat in Brezhnev's face for making him drunk." This mythos is superimposed on the pitiful intrigues of a Moscow apartment: it eventually comes out that this woman, though indeed the mother of a Yuri, has raised a rather pathetic son, one Yuri Orlov rather than Yuri Gagarin. Her son is a drunk who shares a Moscow apartment with his mother. This feeble son is involved with a "black woman" from the Caucasus who openly detests both son and mother and only wants a Moscow residence permit and a share of the apartment. Sadur's descriptions, always good, are at their best as her madwoman narrates her pilgrimage to the mountains or describes for the reader the terrible cold that her Gagarin brought back from space. Both levels of the story--the madwoman's grand flights and the sordid facts of the struggle over an apartment--are maintained throughout, and the ending is a sort of vindication of the starry nihilism the madwoman preaches. She may be deluded about the literal details of the cosmos, but she got the tone right.
Toughness and a remarkable good humor are the features of these two books which stay in mind most clearly. Ulitskaya's stoic and conservative tales and Sadur's wild flights are both impressive. The notion that harsh conditions produce good art is a very, very dubious one--and yet I can't help comparing the strength and the almost joyous acceptance of a hard world which come through in Ulitskaya and Sadur with the stylized whingeing which we, graduates of a much softer school, think of as literature.
Or maybe it's just the thought of leaving Moscow which makes me so sad, and so eager to cling to everything that reminds me of this place. A blizzard in Moscow is better than a sunny day in Berkeley. And yet I'm told there are expats who dare to complain about Moscow and would actually rather live in California! Shoot them. Shoot them all.