Excerpt

Jacob’s Ladder

Ludmila Ulitskaya (translated by Polly Gannon)

November 16, 2020 
The following is excerpted from Ludmila Ulitskaya’s latest novel, Jacob’s Ladder, a family saga spanning a century of recent Russian history. The director of Moscow’s Hebrew Repertory Theater, Ulitskaya is the author of more than a dozen works of fiction. She has won Russia’s Man Booker Prize and twice won its Big Book Prize. Gannon (translator) is the director of cultural studies at the New York-St. Petersburg Institute of Linguistics, Cognition and Culture. She lives, teaches, and translates in St. Petersburg.

They had had been together for eleven years. Tengiz said it was time to close Chekhov. Nora was surprised: Why all of a sudden, why now? What was a Russian theater without Chekhov? But Tengiz said that he had wanted to for a long time already. And he began picking apart Three Sisters, scene by scene, line by line, with unexpected, pitiless trenchancy. He raised his beautiful, very beautiful hands, held them up in the air while he talked, and Nora didn’t hear his speech as single, separate words, but soaked it up whole, in strings of words, strange phrases it would have been impossible to recount. His Russian wasn’t quite perfect, it must be said, but he spoke with intense, expressive eloquence. He had a rather strong Georgian accent, which sometimes garbled the meaning. And sometimes even deepened it. Though Nora could never understand why this should have been the case, she always felt glad that it wasn’t only about the language, but about the whole cast of thought of a person from another place and culture . . .

“Just tell me one thing, why did they shut down Efros? He staged Three Sisters the way it should be performed! Poor things, it’s so unfortunate. I feel so sorry for them, it brings me to tears. Since 1901, they’ve been elevating this play to the skies, higher and higher it goes. Right? I just can’t bear to see it anymore! Enough is enough, right?” His drawling, ascending “right” wrapped around Nora and drew her in.

“Nora, Nora! Tolstoy said about Three Sisters that it was a ‘dreary bore’ of a play! Did Leo Tolstoy know a thing or two, or not? Everyone is bored, full of gloomy longing! No one works! No one works in Russia; actually, in Georgia it’s no different, no one wants to work. And if they do, it’s reluctantly, with disdain. Olga is the director of a school. This is an excellent position at the beginning of the century: they’ve started teaching the women students science, and not just embroidery and Holy Writ, and they are educating the first professional women. But Olga’s bored, and her strength of will and her youth desert her, drop by drop. And, out of pure boredom, Masha falls in love with Vershinin, very noble, but very stupid. He’s pathetic! What kind of man is he? I don’t understand.

“Irina works in an office—at the telegraph, or God knows where. Her work is dull, tedious; everything is bad. She doesn’t want to work; she wants to go to Moscow. They complain—all they do is complain. And what are they going to do in Moscow when they get there? Nothing! That’s why they’re not going!

“Andrei is a nobody. Natasha is a coarse animal. Solyony—a real beast! And poor Tusenbach—how can you marry a woman who doesn’t even love you? It’s a rotten life, Nora! Do you understand who the real hero is? Do you? Think—it’s Anfisa! Anfisa is the true protagonist! The nanny who goes around cleaning up after everyone. She is the one with a meaningful existence, Nora. She has a broom, a mop, rags; she washes and wipes things down, she picks things up, makes things smooth and shiny. All the others—they’re just layabouts, idiots who sit around twiddling their thumbs. They’re bored! And what is it that’s all around them? The turn of the century, right? The industrial revolution is under way, capitalism. They’re building roads, factories, bridges. But they want to go to Moscow, and they can’t even make it to the station! You understand me, right? Right?”

They had had been together for eleven years. Tengiz said it was time to close Chekhov. Nora was surprised.

Nora was already way ahead of him: she already knew what she would draw now, how she would design the set. She knew how glad Tengiz would be that she had immediately hit upon it without even moving an inch from the spot—the entire play! She already saw the Prozorov home, open, exposed, pushed far out into the foreground—and on the left and on the right, everywhere, building sites, cranes rising to the sky. Freight trains are carrying goods, and life is on the move; there are loud screeches (of metal), and some whistles and signals . . . But in the Prozorovs’ house they don’t notice a thing; the activity and transformation completely pass them by. They wander around the house drinking tea, conversing. Only Anfisa is busy, lugging around buckets, rags, pouring out basins . . . Excellent. Excellent! All the characters are shadows, shades; only Anfisa has substance. They are all dressed in muslin, like smoky mist, and the military men also seem to be only half there. Anemia. A suspended space. A garden of nearly insubstantial souls. And she will clothe everything in sepia, like the faded, colorless garments in old photographs. True historical antiquity. Yes, of course, Natasha Prozorov is plump; she inhabits her body. A deep-rose dress, with a green belt. The background will be sepia all over, drained of color, beiges and browns . . . Brilliant!

And Nora said, “Right.” Tengiz put his arms around her and crushed her to him. “Nora, we’ll do something that no one has ever seen before! And never will! They’ll destroy us completely, of course, but we’ll do it anyway. It will be the best thing we’ve ever done!”

For two months, they were together constantly. Tengiz rehearsed the play. Chekhov’s text, mundane, down-to-earth, laconic, always packed with subtle directorial subtexts, heightened significance, was transformed into mechanical chatter. The viscous familial space became dreamlike, as though the dreams and unrealized plans were the reality of life—the transparent patterns of the imagination. Theater of shadows! Shadow puppets. And in this illusory, volatile space, only two people do any real work—Anfisa with her rags, and Natasha, taking in hand all the substance of life—the rooms of the sisters, the house, the garden, the local municipal officials, all the world available to her.

Tengiz did not divulge his killer plan to the actors, and over and over again they repeated the hackneyed text with bored indifference. Which was precisely what Tengiz wanted of them.

Tengiz lived with his Moscow aunt, Mziya, a widowed pianist who worshipped him. Nora, at Tengiz’s request, moved into her apartment, which was a strange, two-story structure in back of the Pushkin Museum that had by some miracle been spared demolition. Mziya gave them two tiny rooms on the second floor, and lived herself on the first, in a large room with an ancient, cavernous ice cellar under the floor. At one time, ice from the river had been kept there for the entire summer. Now it held only a damp, hollow, ringing emptiness, covered with a lid of wooden slats.

Yet again, Nora was carrying out this ritual, mounting this celebration with Tengiz, as she had countless times before. All ordinary boundaries and routines were swept away by the pressure of work and love, and by an astounding surge in their strength and capabilities. The fullness and intensity of life were remarkable. Nora lost all sense of the past and future, and all other people—relations and friends—seemed to evaporate completely. She called her mother only two or three times during those two months.

Chekhov’s text, mundane, down-to-earth, laconic, always packed with subtle directorial subtexts, heightened significance, was transformed into mechanical chatter.

Calling her was complicated. It was usually done through the post office, where she had to order the call, then wait for the call to be returned, most often with a poor connection. Amalia had to trudge three kilometers to the post office to receive it. Inevitably, she would be offended that Nora called her so seldom, and chide her timidly.

In fact, everything had fallen into place long ago. Since the moment he entered her life, Amalia Alexandrovna had adored her Andrei Ivanovich, and she had pushed her daughter away. This passion of old age, as Nora viewed it, was a fire that consumed the entire world around it. The couple had left for Prioksko-Terrasny Nature Reserve, the birthplace of Andrei Ivanovich, where he began working as a park ranger. They bought a house, and started building their own little paradise, which Nora found unendurable. This time, her mother invited Nora to come to visit them in the countryside “with that director of yours,” and Nora promised they would. She usually didn’t stoop to lying, but now she didn’t feel like wasting time on superficial conversation.

It took Nora a week to make her preliminary sketches and to assemble a maquette of the stage. When he saw the building cranes, hanging virtually over the roof of the Prozorovs’ home, and the structures drawn on the backdrop resembling skyscrapers or Gothic cathedrals, Tengiz moaned with delight. The play seemed to stage itself. Anfisa enters and walks along in front of the closed curtain, wiping the floor; then the sounds of the construction site start blaring. The curtain opens, and the entire stage is thrown into an exaggeratedly industrialized mode of existence: the screech and thunder of metal, of pneumatic hammers, ring out, and the cranes start to sway. Then the commotion dies down, evaporates into air, and the Prozorovs’ home seems to materialize from behind a curtain of light. It is morning . . . The table has been set . . . “Father died exactly one year ago, on this very day, the fifth of May . . .”

Everything unfolded of its own accord, naturally, like grass growing in the yard, only very swiftly. Svistalov, the arrogant and influential production manager of this hallowed, distinguished theater, treated Tengiz with uncharacteristic respect, getting him a bit confused with Temur Chkheidze. He gave the green light to all the theater workshops and departments, and they got right down to work—there had never been a light so green! Everyone knew Svistalov’s character; he loved to throw his weight around. He had argued with Borovsky, had put obstacles in the way of Barkhin, and had even set the dogs on Sheintsis—in other words, he had played dirty and interfered with all, all of Nora’s favorite set designers . . . A miracle, it was just a miracle! Perhaps the administrator really was touched by Tengiz’s appearance, by outward considerations; for some reason, people in Russia did like Georgians, in contrast to Jews, Armenians, or Azeris . . .

They floated arm in arm, the two of them in a cloud of love, through the staff-only entrance. The doorman and the buffet servers smiled at them, and their happiness wove such a lovely cocoon around them that Nora felt, as they moved along in harmony with each other, that they were like figure skaters, or ballet dancers, and they were flying, flying . . .

The play was shut down on the eve of the premiere. They managed only to perform the dress rehearsal, all the sets in place. When their own people in the audience, relatives and close friends, began to disperse, and only the administrators and Party bigwigs, thirsting for blood, remained (they had come intentionally one day earlier than they had promised), it became clear that a scandal was brewing, and Tengiz went out onto the stage and requested that the dear members of the audience stay for a discussion of the play. But the ministerial special forces, the Party hacks, only grew more incensed at this, and it took them just fifteen minutes to kill the play.

Everything unfolded of its own accord, naturally, like grass growing in the yard, only very swiftly.

Tengiz mounted the stage again, together with Nora, whom he led, very respectfully, by the hand, and said, in a loud voice livid with rage: “Respected guests! You allowed Efros to play his Three Sisters thirty-three times! Is our Three Sisters really that much better?”

Nora accompanied him to the airport. A gloomy spring, without a single sunny day, and a gloomy Tengiz. He seemed not to see Nora at all; no one smiled at them anymore; the love cloud had vanished. He was flying to Tbilisi, back to his wife and daughter, in a heavy metal airplane. He stood there dejected, unshaven, graying at the temples, with his sloping Neanderthal forehead, reeking of stale alcohol, sweat, and, surprisingly, tangerines. He took a tangerine out of his pocket, thrust it into her hand, winked, gave her a peck on the cheek, and hurried to the boarding area.

*

From the airport, Nora went straight to Mziya’s and collapsed onto the bed that still smelled of Tengiz. She didn’t budge from the little second-floor room for two weeks. For about ten days, all her bones hurt; then they stopped. Mziya brought her tea in the mornings. Nora pretended to be asleep, and Mziya would put the cup on top of a checkerboard tabletop next to her. Then she left, closing the door behind her. Almost every day at around noon, the sound of scales being played would drift upstairs: piano students had arrived. There were beginners, who played Czerny’s études; several advanced students; and one boy who came in the evening twice a week and played wonderfully well. Mziya devoted longer lessons to him. He had learned some Beethoven sonata, but Nora couldn’t recall which one it was. Definitely not the Tempest, and not any of the three final ones . . . Nora had quit music school when she was in the sixth grade. Though her abilities weren’t exceptional, she had inherited a good ear for music from her father.

Mziya’s instrument was adequate, but the sound was weak and muted. Nora didn’t feel the pain so much when she could listen to music. When she woke up, she told herself, Today I can’t get up; maybe tomorrow I’ll manage. But the next day she couldn’t make herself get out of bed, either. Sometimes Mziya came to the door and invited her to have something to eat. On the fifth day, Nora went downstairs. Mziya didn’t ask anything, and Nora was very grateful to her for that. Only now did she really perceive the cultivated expression on Mziya’s face, which was covered in tiny lines, her cheeks rouged. Her hair was dyed in the Caucasian style with thick henna and gathered into a bun at the back of her neck; her tiny feet, in their slender high heels, tapped out rhythms. While Tengiz was here, Nora had barely noticed his silent aunt. She hadn’t even paid proper attention to Mziya’s idiosyncratic, fancifully adorned apartment. Now she sat downstairs, at the table covered with wine-colored velvet, and Mziya put a plate before her with two sandwiches and an apple, peeled and sliced into small pieces.

“Since my husband died, I have never cooked a real meal,” Mziya said apologetically, and Nora felt that they were, most likely, kindred spirits.

I’ve never in my life cooked anything for my husband, Nora thought. She smiled for the first time in all those days and said, “Forgive me, Mziya, for dumping myself on you like this.”

“You can stay for as long as you wish, child. I’m used to living alone. I’ve been alone for a long time. But you don’t disturb me in the least.”

“I’ll just stay a few days longer, if that’s all right with you.” Mziya nodded, and they didn’t talk anymore. About anything.

Nora lay around on Tengiz’s sheets until his scent had nearly faded away; only sometimes the pillow would still yield a hint of his body, and Nora would feel convulsed with pain.

It’s simply a molecule, a molecule of his sweat, Nora thought. And I have some sort of illness, a hypersensitivity to his smell. What is this unfortunate condition? Why do such momentary chemical transmissions leave such long, deep traces, such scars? What if he were just an ordinary lover, the sort you go on vacation with to the Crimea for a week, or an affair you have while you’re on tour? There was that wondrous young boy last year in Kiev, or even old Lukyanov, the actor, a skirt chaser, a connoisseur of niceties and detail, nearly twenty years her senior. Would I hurt just the same? But there was no answer.

She didn’t budge from the little second-floor room for two weeks. For about ten days, all her bones hurt; then they stopped.

This was the sixth time Nora and Tengiz had parted, and each time it was worse than before.

She sniffed the pillow, but his scent had disappeared; it was redolent of dampness, dust, and whitewash. She dozed off, then woke up. From downstairs she heard scales and Mziya’s voice: “Misha! It’s a third! The right hand begins with E! When it’s a tenth, the right hand begins with the E, but an octave above! Misha!”

The scales ran up and down. Nora dozed off, started awake, then dozed off again.

I can’t fall out of love with him; I have to bury him. I just have to think how to do it. So that it happens suddenly, right now, not after a slow decline from illness! Let him drown, or tumble down a mountain. Better yet, die in a car crash. No, we’ll die together in a car crash. Two closed caskets side by side. His wife will come from Tbilisi, wearing black. My mother will be sobbing. Vitya will come with his crazy mother, Varvara. And Varvara will weep, too! At that point she smiled, because her mother-in-law couldn’t stand the sight of her, and would most likely be thrilled on the occasion of Nora’s funeral. Poor, poor things . . . Both of them mad . . . Oh, this is all horrible. I’m being ridiculous.

Half asleep, Nora imagined receiving a telegram about Tengiz’s death, or tearing up his passport, or she saw herself taking his jacket out to the garbage and stuffing it into the dumpster—and she was free of him. During the second week, she began inventing a new life for herself. She had to leave the theater; that was the first thing. The second was to hit upon something completely new—not teaching drawing to children, which they had been urging on her for a long time, but something unprecedented in her life. Getting another degree of some sort: becoming a chemist, or a biologist. Or becoming an ace dressmaker. No, she didn’t want to be that kind of woman. In short, for the time being, she couldn’t quite find what she was looking for. But one amusing thought came to her all of a sudden, and she began to get used to it, very gingerly. This would definitively be all her own . . . Nothing like this had ever occurred to her before . . .

Three days later, Nora crawled out of her now finally deserted bed and went downstairs to say goodbye. Mziya kissed her, told her not to forget about her and to come back to visit. The aunt was a marvel. She didn’t say a single word about Tengiz. Nora was grateful for this.

From the closed yard, she went out and crossed over Znamenka toward Arbat Square. Everything was nearby. Nora walked slowly, because, as she discovered, she was extremely weak. A rainy mist hung in the air. She crossed Arbat Square, then turned toward her home. At the entrance, she met a neighbor, Olga Petrakov, pushing a baby carriage, which she helped her squeeze into the elevator. The neighbor was no longer young, certainly over forty, and she had a fairly grown-up daughter, about fifteen years old—and here she had a new baby.

“Why do you look so surprised? This is my granddaughter. My Natasha had a baby. You didn’t know? The whole building knows.”

Oh, so that was the story. The slutty schoolgirl got knocked up. In ninth grade, was she? Curious. In ninth grade, I found a superman, too. Nikita Tregubsky. Because I was shameless and daring. And proud. But having a baby? No, back in those days I would have had an abortion.

Half asleep, Nora imagined receiving a telegram about Tengiz’s death, or tearing up his passport, or she saw herself taking his jacket out to the garbage and stuffing it into the dumpster—and she was free of him.

Nora glanced into the baby carriage at the offspring; only the nose poked out of a little pink cap.

“Cute!” Nora said approvingly. She nudged the carriage into the lift. “You go on ahead. I’ll take the stairs.”

“What’s so cute about her? Spit and image of the father. Look at that nose! It’s Armenian!” And, propping the door open with a hand, she added, “The baby’s got the whole family wrapped around its little finger. That’s Armenians for you.”

Nora went up the stairs to the fourth floor. By the time she reached her apartment, she knew for certain that she was going to set her life to rights, and that it would be more interesting than she could ever have imagined before.

The door to the apartment had two locks, and both were locked. Her mother must have been here: Nora usually only locked the lower one. Mama and her husband, Andrei Ivanovich, rarely came to Moscow. There was a note on the kitchen table: “Nora, you got calls from Anastasia Ilyinichna, Perchikhina, and Chipa. Call me. We’ll be here on Friday evening and leave again on Saturday. Hugs, Mama.”

The only thing she couldn’t figure out was which Friday she meant—last Friday, or the Friday before that. The days of the week, and the dates, had all run together for her.

Without even stopping in her room, she went to take a bath. She soaked for a long time, even drifted off for a bit. Tengiz kept trying to break into her semi-sleep, to let her know he was still there, but Nora chased him away. Then he sent Anton Chekhov, with his sepia sisters—and that was his mistake, because the three sisters, doleful and unhappy, pushed her toward life, with all its harshness, without sentiment, life with its problems and solutions. She hurried to get out of the water, which was cooling off quickly, and to turn on a steaming-hot shower.

I have a new project, she told herself. She sprang from the bathtub and wrapped herself in a terry cloth robe, because she had forgotten to bring in a clean towel. She suddenly felt famished.

It can’t possibly be Friday. It must be Wednesday. I’m going to run down to The Gut (a nearby grocery store by the Nikitsky Gates that had a long hall lined with food counters) to get some food, and then I’ll call Vitya. Good old Vitya. A joke of a husband she had not lived with for a single day. And it would have been impossible, anyway. He was a genius—autistic and crazy. They had married right after high school. And there was no love in it—only calculation. To take revenge. But on whom, and why? Nikita Tregubsky. She had run into him five years later, in a café, the Blue Bird. He had walked up to her, swinging his shoulders nonchalantly, with a rangy, athletic gait, as though they had just parted ways yesterday, as though nothing at all had happened. My God, what an idiot! A plastic mannequin! Was this the person she had been in love with? What a fool she was! But she couldn’t seem to change her ways: Tengiz also looked like a superhero! Just a different one. Damn hormones. A new project! Vitya!

She called him. Varvara Vasilievna picked up and handed the phone directly to Vitya, without bothering to talk to her. Nora’s mother-in-law hated her with blunt intensity. They were both quite mad—mother and son. Just in different ways.

“Could you come over, Vitya? This evening?” 

“Okay.”

Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea? But I married him for something, didn’t I? I’ll give it a shot. It is the right thing to do; maybe my baby will be a genius. And it will redeem that childhood mistake.

The rain grew stronger toward evening. Nora put on a jacket with a hood and ran to The Gut to buy frankfurters. For her husband.

*

More than a year had passed since Tengiz had left. Nora had changed everything in her life, turning it upside down and setting it right again. She didn’t want a trace of the past to remain. She didn’t want any more conflagrations, or floods, or earthquakes, because she had to live. She had to survive, and Tengiz was always going away, going away for good, with his unshaven face, his sculptural hands that resembled the hands of Michelangelo’s David, with his overbite, his smell of cheap country tobacco, with his narrow hips and his lanky, doglike legs. Tengiz was gone; and their own magnificent smash-hit show for two would never be performed again . . .

The door to the apartment had two locks, and both were locked. Her mother must have been here: Nora usually only locked the lower one.

They were not in the habit of writing letters to each other. There were just one-way phone calls from time to time—from Tengiz to Nora. This could have been because he wanted to protect his Tbilisi life from her, or because their long-term relations were put on hold, bracketed off, like something especially valuable that wouldn’t mix with the quotidian flow of Tengiz’s Tbilisi life, which Nora didn’t know, the life in which he had women, and family ties with some big-shot criminal who sometimes rescued him when he was in trouble . . . The only letter that Nora had received from Tengiz came a year and a half after he had left her, after his monthlong stay in Poland at the Laboratory Theatre of Jerzy Grotowski. The letter was clumsily written on what seemed to be a piece of wrapping paper, brownish and old-looking. He informed her that he had converted, changed religions, that everything from the past was shattered, and that the shards were better than the original whole had been . . . “We need to talk,” he had scrawled across the bottom. But it would be two whole years before she would see him again.

Yurik was already walking, tottering around, and falling down on his little bottom.

__________________________________

“Closing Chekhov (1974)” and “A New Project (1974)” from Jacob’s Ladder by Ludmila Ulitskaya, translated by Polly Gannon. Translation copyright © 2019 by Mary Catherine Gannon. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.




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