Love and Fate: Are They Prisons We Can Never Escape?
By Ludmila Ulitskaya
Translated by Polly Gannon
In 1905, the Kiev pogrom set off a wave of anti-Semitic violence that killed more than 2,000 Jews across the Russian empire. Afterward, Russian Jews faced a choice: either emigrate or assimilate. In Ludmila Ulitskaya’s sprawling novel “Jacob’s Ladder,” a newlywed Jewish couple, Jacob and Maria Ossetsky, eventually choose assimilation, moving from Kiev to Moscow after the Russian Civil War.
Despite their exceptional love, they aren’t together for long. First away serving in the military, then repeatedly arrested, Jacob lives much of his life in the gulag archipelago while Maria stays in Moscow, stigmatized as the wife of an enemy of the people. The novel begins years later, in 1975, with her death and her granddaughter’s discovery of a chest containing letters exchanged by Maria and Jacob. From there, alternating story lines unspool: One follows Maria’s life raising her son, Genrikh, and her postage-stamp relationship with Jacob, and the other follows her granddaughter Nora’s life raising her own son, Yurik, and maneuvering through an erratic relationship with her elusive lover, Tengiz. Like Ulitskaya herself, both women work in the theater and bring up their children alone. (Ulitskaya has said that she considers single motherhood to be the quintessential experience of her country’s women.)
Nestled within one another like Russian dolls, the stories of these characters unfold over a hundred years of roiling Russian history. Drawn from letters in Ulitskaya’s family archive and the K.G.B. file on her grandfather, “Jacob’s Ladder” weaves a web of personalities connected by love and blood. Like her novel “The Big Green Tent,” which was also admirably translated by Polly Gannon, it shows how Ulitskaya continues the tradition of prerevolutionary Russian literature and demonstrates why she’s one of the most popular novelists in today’s Russia. Yet, as with real letters, much of the material can be rather mundane, and while wading through it I often wondered whether she hadn’t gotten carried away with all this spinning of documentary threads. In one letter, Jacob writes that an argument Maria makes is “incoherent and puzzling,” and the same could often be said of the novel.
Sometimes, though, Ulitskaya’s lines jump out and resonate, sharpening the reader’s vague impressions. This might be the very reason we turn to serious literature — not for information but for transformation. And it’s these lines in “Jacob’s Ladder” that hint at what Ulitskaya is circling around: the idea that love is an “illness” that makes you “defenseless and vulnerable.”
Both Maria and Nora fall into a love so deep it’s frightening. Before marrying Jacob, Maria worries that her abundance of happiness “might all suddenly disappear.” Admitting she will do or be anything for Tengiz, Nora is “terrified that she would scare away the happiness that swept her up and held her afloat.” To both women, falling in love is like jumping into a river of irrationality: You surrender control to the current, despite knowing you will likely encounter rapids and might even plunge off a waterfall. In one of her letters to Jacob, Maria writes: “The meaning of love, its power and happiness, consists in the fact that, in loving one person, you are liberated from others, from attraction and longing for them.” In the next line, she laments that for them this is no longer the case.
By prying into the nature of love, Ulitskaya suggests even deeper forces that shape our lives. At one point, Nora and Tengiz are commissioned to stage a Russian classic. Nora’s theater teacher suggests they adapt Nikolai Leskov’s story “The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” and here, like the sun peeping between clouds, Ulitskaya sheds light on the idea behind her book. Leskov’s story, about a woman blinded by passion, is above all about sudba — fate. Agreeing to stage the play, Tengiz declares he wants “it all to be about fate,” a Russian fate. “Horrible fate thrusts its finger into the genitals of an ordinary woman,” he says, colorfully capturing the essence of “Jacob’s Ladder.” Both Nora and Maria are tormented by fate as a variety of troubles — anti-Semitism, communism, cancer, addiction, infidelity — thwart their lives.
“Jacob’s Ladder” dramatizes this Russian concept of sudba, the understanding of fate as a kind of prison we can never escape. But at a subtler level, it’s about the essence of life itself, particularly the essence of our ancestors that’s manifested through us. Essences that, like the angels climbing Jacob’s ladder, live on forever.
Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard University, where he is also an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.
By Ludmila Ulitskaya
Translated by Polly Gannon
546 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $35.
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