Ulitskaya’s Funeral Party.

I’ve finished Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s Весёлые похороны (The Funeral Party; see this post), and it sure was a different experience from the Makanin I’d read just before: shorter, lighter, less demanding, less likely to stick with me or be reread. I was trying to think how to describe it, and then I realized it resembles a television series — perhaps Six Feet Under, which is set in a funeral home and, like Ulitskaya’s novel, features stories of love, betrayal, and family chaos with death as a constant background. The Ulitskaya series could be called Alik’s Still Alive; the central character, the painter Alik (short for Abram), is slowly dying of some ALS-like disease in his Chelsea loft, which he’s had since the early 1970s at a rent-controlled $400 (and thus the landlord is eagerly awaiting his death so he can jack up the rent). The action is set in the summer of 1991; at one point the TV is turned on and there is news of the coup d’état attempt, so everyone is glued to the screen for days. There is much coming and going — Alik’s former Moscow friends and acquaintances, the new ones he’s made in New York, and various former wives and girlfriends, not to mention his current wife, the childlike Ninka, are constantly reminiscing, drinking, and trying to keep him comfortable — and many flashbacks to earlier times. You get the idea.

It’s by no means a great book, and I might have been harder on it except for its setting: the NYC of the ’80s and early ’90s is my town, and Ulitskaya — who clearly spent a lot of time there — gets it just right. It ignores the standard tourist sights but name-checks many of the beloved downtown hangouts of the day: Katz’s Deli! CBGB! the Knitting Factory! McSorley’s (not named but unmistakably described)! People order out for pizza and Chinese food; at one point there’s a bravura description of an all-night visit to the Fulton Fish Market (then at the east end of Fulton Street near the East River, since evicted to the Bronx) that’s worth reading for its own sake. It gave me intense and pleasurable nostalgia.

One thing that did bother me was the plot line involving Ninka’s insistence on baptizing Alik (thanks to the babblings of an itinerant “healer” brought over from Russia to help a guy who had died by the time she arrived and now earning a sub rosa living with her folk remedies). I realize this is part of Ulitskaya’s “theology of inclusiveness” and desire to bring Christianity, Judaism, and Islam together, but it grates on me — I can’t help but think about how my late friend Allan would have hated it (he despised Jews for Jesus and suchlike). See the last paragraph of my animadversions on Doctor Zhivago for further grumpiness along those lines.

A bit of linguistic fun:

— Ребята, я не могу вам сказать спасибо, потому что таких спасиб не бывает.

“Guys, I can’t say thanks to you, because there is no such thank.”

(The original creates a nonexistent genitive plural to спасибо, treating it as a neuter noun rather than an indeclinable particle; Cathy Porter renders the sentence “My friends, I can’t thank you, because no such thanks exist,” which ignores the fun and gives an absurdly high-flown translation of “Ребята.”) And in the penultimate chapter there’s a passage on chastushki in which a sax player asks a Russian character what they are, and she says “Это русский кантри” [It’s Russian country music]. Gave me a chuckle.


  1. David Marjanović says

    I realize this is part of Ulitskaya’s “theology of inclusiveness” and desire to bring Christianity, Judaism, and Islam together, but it grates on me —

    — but we all love chicken.

    Peace and chicken.

  2. John Cowan says

    A subscription to New York magazine would account for all the details you mentioned. Or even going to a library and looking them up.

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    Is it alluding to the *original* Knitting Factory on E. Houston or the second and longer-running location further downtown on Leonard St.? Or is there not enough obsessive detail to be sure.

  4. No genitive plural of спасибо exists in formal grammar, but it rolls off the tongue a little more easily than „thank“ for me (still a good translation though). Definitely sounds jocular, sort of like using „plussed“, „couth“, or „chalant“ work in English.

  5. Yeah, that’s how I see it as well. Fun with words!

  6. Fun with words!

    There was a skit I don’t remember how long ago, 30 or 40 years maybe, where the artist—suitably Caucasian-looking—in responding to his interlocutor, said (something along the lines):
    “Ты сам хорёк, и всегда был хорёком!”
    Which was the most fun part.

  7. “Because no such thankyous exist”?

  8. No, “thank you” (with or without a space) can be used as a noun in normal English: “Lucy planned a party as a thank you to the nurses”; “The surprise gift is a thankyou for our help.”

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    Probably nothing here that would be particularly new to students or alumni of the relevant time and pace but this talk given by Ulitskaya just last year (in Odessa, as it happens) about coming across and reading texts of questionable licitness when growing up under Soviet rule has lots of amusing anecdotes about how she came across such questionable texts as the Gospels, the Decameron, and various works by Nabokov.

    It also includes a shout-out to the benefits of having had access in the bad old days to the excellent personal library of Fr. Alexander Men (almost certainly St. Alexander, but it may take another century or two for the church politics to be sorted out), who was as it happens a baptized Jew (at least in the Soviet ethnic sense of what it said in the “nationality” box on his identity papers) who baptized plenty of other such Jews as a subset of his vocation as (in one famous formulation) “The man sent from God to be missionary to the wild tribe of the Soviet intelligentsia.”


  10. I love the genitive plural of спасибо, I laughed immediately. I’ll have to find this book in Russian and give it a try.

  11. Great, I think you’ll enjoy it!

  12. ktschwarz says

    “thank you” (with or without a space) can be used as a noun in normal English

    I have a strong feeling that it must have a hyphen when used as a noun. Have any stylebooks issued a ruling?

  13. If you click on my link above you’ll see that Collins considers it a single word. Presumably some style books have it one way, some another. It is a mistake to rely on one’s own feelings in such matters, however strong.

  14. John Cowan says

    It’s a mistake for a copy editor or a lexicographer to rely on their own feelings, but an author can certainly do so. Despite being an American, I write any more and would certainly object to it being changed to anymore, no matter what the style sheet might say. (I don’t know if any style sheet actually imposes this.)

    Speaking of Katz’s, I just got an email from them suggesting that I order a reuben sandwich for St. Patrick’s, on the grounds that it is equivalent to the traditional corned-beef-and-cabbage. Unfortunately for this conceit, I prefer pastrami reubens (which they do also offer), which are (normally) made from either deckle or navel rather than brisket.

  15. My father’s favorite sandwich is a tongue ruben. It’s unlikely to be on the menu, but any proper deli can make you one.

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