A Partially Realistic Novel, Yet One Full of Conundrums and Mysteries: Ludmila Ulitskaya’s “The Kukotsky Enigma”
The title of this novel at the start prepares the reader for something out of the way and curious, yet it doesn’t come up to the actual novel itself in strangeness and states of compositional alienation. it’s a 2001 novel, hence still fairly recent, translated into English in 2016 by Diane Nemec Ignashev. It is in fact the translator’s afterword which adds part of the mystery to the novel, as it is her word that is the only explanation of some of the outré, bizarre, and fantastic elements of the book itself. And her explanation in at least one particular seems a little off-center. But to begin at the beginning:
“Since the end of the seventeenth century all of Pavel Alekseevich Kukotsky’s male ancesters on his father’s side had been physicians.” As with many a traditional Russian novel of family dynasties, The Kukotsky Enigma proceeds to give some family back history, and then leads into the immediate history of Pavel’s own childhood fascination with his father’s manuals, books, and charts of the human body. The young boy is particularly drawn to the fold-out flap anatomy book, wherein there is a “naked lady” with a fold-out womb and other organs. As a child, he is half-afraid that if he is discovered looking at the book, that he will “get his ears boxed,” but as it turns out, his father actually gives him the gift of a better anatomy book, one with two hundred forty-five drawings, and leaves him to examine it. It is a book by Leonardo da Vinci, “one of only three hundred hand-numbered copies.” From here, the boy spends “his happiest hours” in his father’s study, looking not only at anatomy books, but at books on natural history, zoology, and comparative anatomy. His father’s next munificent gift is a microscope, and from that point on, the course is set for a life in the medical sciences.
One of his father’s friends in obstetrics and gynecology takes the student on when he reaches university age, and though his father dies and his spendthrift mother uses her time trying to retain her former state of elegance in the reduced circumstances of their 1920’s living space being “consolidated” to include three more families, Pavel retains his position and goes on developing his medical skills. Something strange happens to him, however–the first enigma to bear the name Kukotsky. He realizes on examining a patient that he is able to see a “full-color schematic image” of tumorous cancers inside her body without ever opening her up, and this gives him pause. This is a gift which comes from somewhere unknown, which neither his ancestors nor his generous father could have controlled. He calls it “intravision” and never speaks of it to anyone. It has a price, however: even though it improves and increases over the years, he has to live the life nearly of an ascetic in order to get it to operate. Too much food, or physical contact of an intimate nature with women could temporarily disrupt his gift. He, however, in order to further his gift, is willing to abide by ascetic conditions, and misogynistic ones. At this point, he meets up with his future wife, Elena Georgievna Flotov, though he doesn’t recognize her as this at first.
The difference seems to be that she appears on his operating table as a patient, and it is necessary to remove most of her female organs; thus, she is a woman and yet not a woman, a delicate, womanly presence of grace and femininity, yet without the key things that might cause her to get pregnant again. Quickly, he arranges for her, her tiny daughter Tanya, and her servant Vasilisa to come and live with him, and when news arrives that her husband Flotov has been killed in war, he immediately marries her and adopts Tanya.
From here on, the novel progresses for a while as a family novel, not only of this family, but of another family, Ilya Iosifovich Goldberg (a wayward genius geneticist) and his twin sons, Vitaly and Gennady. Ilya is in and out of prisons because of his stated views, not even so much about politics, but about genetics issues which the powers that be believe can affect political things and people. The twin sons, as they grow up, are in friendly competition with each other over Tanya. And then, due to a tragedy amongst other, poorer people known to Pavel and Elena slightly, another little girl, Toma, is adopted into the family, which causes a permanent schism between Pavel and Elena, though they still live together. Tanya enters training in medical research and then due to stresses in her family and society, leaves without warning, staying out all hours of the night and worrying her family. Pavel takes to drinking too much, a habit which stays with him for the rest of the novel. At this point, the realistic quality of the novel breaks off, and Part Two begins.
Another major conundrum of the book, Part Two, opens with a woman lying in a sand dune, and progresses with her joining a group of unknown people without names, who are going from someplace unknown to someplace else equally uncertain, led by a man known as “the Judean.” This part of the novel reads very much like a fantasy novel, and yet it seems to me to be an approximate vision of the afterlife, as it might be. It is this part of the novel which most closely suggests the original title that Ulitskaya, according to the translator’s afterword, had originally given the novel: Journey(s) to the Seventh Dimension. It is all very impressionistic, and yet after a while, one begins to recognize a few of the previously appearing characters in these strange new beings with odd names. Some of them, however, don’t even appear in their realistic guise until the next more realistic section after Part Two, which continues the family saga(s). Though the translator explains that some of the book is supposed to intimate characteristics of Alzheimer’s (which illness Elena gradually develops, particularly in Part Three), I stick by my impression that this section, with all its mystery, is quite like a fantastic version of the afterlife, perhaps Limbo or Purgatory, though without the religious connotations. Then comes Part Three.
Part Three progresses with the family sagas again, until there is a sudden dislocation to talk about the murderous career of a former violent guard named Semion Kurilko. The story follows him for several pages, without explanation, until suddenly he makes contact with one of the characters we’ve been following, and tries to murder him. But then, Kurilko is hanged; still, we don’t follow the other character anymore, and the section ends. Another compositional enigma!
Finally, the book ends with a short Part Four. The subject is of two parts: one is a picture of Elena as “Granny” to her granddaughter Zhenya, after Pavel’s death. Though Granny lives with Toma (the poor adopted child) and her husband in another tiny apartment, it is Zhenya (heavily pregnant) who comes to bathe and take care of her. Elena seems actually to have Alzheimer’s in this section, which was prefigured in earlier Part One and Part Two by some of her moments of disorientation and the odd journal entries she made at those times. So, actually, I suppose, it hasn’t been entirely unprepared for. The second part of the last subject is not of age, senility, or death, but of birth. The book ends with the two sides of the united family grouping around the new birth, and Ilya Goldberg planning to come back from America to see the baby. Thus, Pavel’s original interest in treating the diseases and ailments of pregnant women (not totally to exclude the major subject of his securing abortions for women who desperately needed them, amidst much societal animosity) circles round again in his posterity, though the male line of doctors which was followed at the beginning is at the end replaced by the female line of women giving birth and tending to their own.
I have made much of the curiousness of this book, and I have to say that this does not indicate that I did not thoroughly enjoy it, which I did. It is a fine novel. The puzzles come in when one considers the method of construction of the novel itself, and the sometimes abrupt switches from subject to subject following the divisions into sections. Also, the two major characters in the novel, Pavel and Tanya, both die before the end of the novel, and Elena, a distant third major character in the course of the realistic sections, receives much of the emphasis if one considers that original title about “the seventh dimension” as a synonym for Alzheimer’s, and the fact that she outlives the other two.
All in all, this is quite a major achievement, and it is obvious why it won the 2001 Russian Booker Prize. Such questions and ponderings about the structure and the substance as I have raised are meant not to denigrate its quality, but to emphasize just how much there is here to think about, how much about life we can stand to reflect upon. And it is a rich contribution to literature about Russian life in particular, inasmuch as it locates the characters in their times and traditions in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and some areas around the Black Sea. It is rare to come across a novel which can not only paint the picture of family relations in a complex situation, locate those families with respect to the professions and trades, and finally put the whole in a societal framework which makes the entire book more comprehensible to readers from cultures all around the world. This novel is such a novel.
Borrowing and altering the phrase of the American Revolution “No taxation without representation,” this poem comes up with a different type of rebellion, sort of, against representational art in some of its manifestations. Representational art, as you probably know, is art that’s made to resemble what it’s “about,” or “realistic” art, so-called. This poem takes up only one issue of representational art; that is, whether or not it’s always convenient and pleasant to see something realistically portrayed. Non-representational art has its disadvantages too, as the poem mentions. The adage referred to is the one symbolic by now of Philistine, or plebian taste everywhere, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” Unless memory deceives me, the phrase was first used, or at least occurred, in William Dean Howell’s novel The Rise of Silas Lapham.
Frustration With Representation Two wooded winter snow scenes hang on opposite walls, One painted by a friend's former daughter-in-law, Better, really, in its way Than the larger one across from it, Bought at an art sale. The daughter-in-law Painted from a fenced-in backyard High atop a mountainside, (Pioneer-style split log fence) Looking over a frozen lake down below. Water, other than snow, wasn't left out of the other painting either, Only it was a scene of flatland In the woods With a stream and rushes meandering through. High and low, snow everywhere, And yesterday was the near-middle of March, When we expected The biggest storm of the season. Why no flower- and sun-lit meadows to look at, Why no autumn foliage, Why no spring daffodils? Isn't it enough that we have to see it outside This late in the season, Without seeing it inside as well? Some things are more beautiful only at a distance, But painful reminders up close. Or, how about gazing in bewilderment But also with fascination At the field of yellow, Yellow alone, Painted by another friend, Entitled simply "Blue." Why that? Why not "Blues," in justice To the bright yellow blare Of horns and saxophones The mellow ochre of a clarinet, Or was yellow A state of contrary sadness? Who knows what it meant, But it's better than snow-for-snow, However good the art, At least from the perspective Of knowing what one likes, As the old adage phrases it. Today, though, the sun is bright, Yellow indeed, When representation is true, And not blue, except for sky, And I listen to a little jazz (not blues), In the spirit of the day: We all have our representational moments. ©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 3/15/17
A Masterful Job of Novel Construction, as Proven By a Mistake–Anna Quindlen’s “Still Life With Crumbs”
Normally when reviewing someone else’s work, I delve around into all the many thoughts I had about the book while reading, put together my sense about the book and what my experience of it led to in a general way, and then commence writing my post about it. But in the case of Anna Quindlen’s novel Still Life With Crumbs, what happened was that my experience was what you might call a “nouveau” reading session, unintentionally taken on through a mistake in the website, while the book itself, though masterful, was more or less a straightforward read. There were small flashbacks and flash forwards, but the flash forwards predominated over the flashbacks and were nearly always heralded with the tantalizing phrase which I came to look forward to, “but that was later,” or “that happened later.”
Here’s what I thought happened the first time through: I started with a novel chapter entitled “A Young Agent, An Old Photographer,” which was fairly self-explanatory. As I read forward from that chapter title, I was occasionally puzzled by references to characters and events that I didn’t recognize, but was able to piece together enough of the elliptical story to follow where the author was leading. Things were clear as they developed from that point on, though I felt adrift from moment to moment, and had to stop and remember a few things more than usual in order to understand what was happening. When I got to the last chapter, I was thoroughly startled: this was simultaneously one of the best novels and absolutely the shortest one I’d ever read. It was rather more of a skeleton of a novel, charming as that technique and difference from others was, than it was a full-fledged development. Nevertheless, at that point I did what I usually do, and keyed into the website to go back to where I had started in order to write down names, plot formations, and details in order to revive the experience of reading for this post.
Imagine my surprise (and also a strange sense of letdown, oddly) to find that through some glitch in the library website, the book was actually much longer at the beginning than the point at which it had originally situated me! In fact, the point where I had begun is roughly three-fourths of the way through the novel! Dutifully, I read through the actual first three-fourths of the novel, and found that to my delight I had managed to get almost all of the story correctly as it had developed from the real first page! When I thought about it, that gave me my topic, my new topic, for this post–how many novels you’ve read can you say were actually so well put together that you could follow the storyline that late in the novel and not be totally at sea, all the while feeling still excited both by the shorter storyline and the original true full length novel?
Just to clue you into the gist of the novel, it’s about a late middle-aged photographer, a woman, who is supporting both her aged parents to some extent and also contributing some money to her talented son’s well-being, in addition to supporting her own career in two different homes. Money troubles as well as a curve in the nature of her subjects cause her to rent out her New York City apartment, which she loves, and rent a small cabin in upstate New York, a place with which she has no initial innate sympathy, lacking country roots. Gradually, she starts to shoot new subjects and to become aware of an entirely different lifestyle and group of friends. She is touched as an individual not only by the newness of it all, but by all the incidents which involve her friends, both old and new. I won’t spoil the ending for you by telling you how it ends, except that it develops in a way which seems totally natural to real life, as people call it. Though there are no improbable leaps of the imagination called for, however, the pace never lags, the interest never wanes, and the whole is a tour de force of full blown fictional creation in very simple words and sentences. Once one has read the whole in its proper order, the last fourth of the novel, which I had at first assumed was all of it, clearly and cleanly concludes all of the foregoing material and tops it off very neatly and happily. Yes, it has a happy ending, after various trials for the characters, and a few unhappy internal events. And what’s more important, the happy ending is neither soppy nor improbable. The whole gives the impression of having been written by someone well-versed with the particular sort of life lived by the heroine.
Though I’d never read Anna Quindlen before, she is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, and her writing shows quite obviously why she was given this award. She has written both fiction and non-fiction. Another book of hers which I’ve heard of before but never read is One True Thing, a title which may well be as familiar as you as it is to me. I think I’ll look for it on the websites soon, because as curiosity provoking as her title Still Life With Breadcrumbs is, One True Thing is, as a title, equally enticing.
It’s been a little more than a week now since I’ve had the opportunity to put up another poem of my own, and while I understand that one can’t always be inspired to work on specific things or in specific ways, there’s still that sense of frustration that arises when a “dry spell” occurs. So, I decided to write a poem about that; one gets one’s topics where one can, after all!
The Formula "Sit and think for a bit, It'll come to you; It always has before, Why should now be any different?" And yet, now is now And then was then, And poetry Is not made to order. Unresponsive to logic Even in its most rhetorical form, It follows a line and melody All its own, Declines to be summoned Except with most respect; Stays only to hear Its own self speak, Though it insists on Not being thought A pompous twit, a prig, But a voice from a heavenly aether, Or a cloud. What a put-up job! Attributing itself To a series of unknowables Or unmeasurables, in the course of things, Like muses, twilit nights, the moon, Sorrows, radiant sunshine, Genius or capacity for self-deception, Anyway-- Really, what has ever been More uncompromising than poetry? More querulous, hard to please, Stubborn, self-dramatic, Quick to anger, Slow to compromise, And all-in-all Difficult to compose And call one's own? Yet, I suppose If I wait for just a bit, Give it a chance to seem humble As if dropping in on me unawares, Uninvited and unheralded, Then I won't have to threaten it With becoming prosy, With writing a short story instead. ©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 2/28/17
Who knows if I will be able to continue poetry posts in the near future? Yet I couldn’t resist sharing this wry expression of frustration at an at least mild case of writer’s block. Shadowoperator
This is a poem which is mainly factual, within the limits most of us can assign to our own self-awareness and self-knowledge. It’s about a time in my life when I was fairly naïve and unknowing, and I’ve written it for two friends of mine who were, I think, concerned when they read another poem I’d written and wondered if it were true. This one is.
The Traitor (A True Story, for Della and Tom) I can remember what was once the new grade school From when I, too, was new; I remember the high, tall trees behind it, No good for climbing, because the branches Were so far up from the ground, Like a prince's cleared forest, And no underbrush. There was picking up acorns to put in piles, One acorn I recall, And wondering if I should take a bite As I had seen the squirrels do. And then the teachers shushing us to the hallway again, In a line, And we filing back into the long, low, brick building. Now there are times When I think of being one of many, Mostly the same to others looking in from outside, Our biggest difference who was rowdy, who was quiet. I was quiet, except that I talked in class To others, whispering, getting caught, But having no close friends Until a few years had elapsed. A test divided us into two different groups, One "more gifted," one "less gifted," To make two sections of each grade From one to six, And I furrowed my brow over the test And was deemed more gifted, While some happier-go-lucky souls, Probably just as quick, Were destined for the "slow" group. The second year, We were supposed to be grateful Because the big trees had been cleared away To make the boys a basketball court And the girls a volleyball court, Although I still preferred the round games And ring games we girls played Down in the dell below where the trees had been; There was at least still grass down there. For that, "I was going to Kentucky, I was going to the fair, I met a señorita with sparkles in her hair--" And "Round, round, round she goes--" Third year, fourth year, fifth year, We grew and grew, And for one year, at least I had a little double chin, Which promptly disappeared the next, Due to parental diligence. Sometimes, there was occasion To get punished: Being paddled in front of the class. In those times, it was allowed Just for laughing at a teacher's quavery voice when she sang with us, For unkindness used to merit Strict measures. And then, getting taken To the principal's office For not doing a homework assignment, "Because if you don't do it, And you're a good student, What will the other students think?" Helping keep up the side for the teachers, Clearly, was an important matter. Or, maybe, being stood out in the hall Outside the classroom For using the word "lackadaisical" In a poem, a word the teacher didn't know, And which he suspected therefore Must be copied from somewhere, Stuck out in the hall for when the principal, Who often strolled by on his rounds, Would come by and demand an explanation. No fodder that time for punishment, however, Since despite suspicion, I was able to give A dictionary definition. I knew they thought I was a smart ass, and normally I cared. All of these small adventures, And having my mother hear me recite Required memorizations at night, And doing previously forgotten projects With her help at the last minute, Getting frustrated because She made me come up with the answers myself, All lead up to the year Dad got sick, the fifth grade continuing to the sixth; And there was the slight accident With me in the car and his blind spot In the forefront of the matter, For then he was allowed to drive No more. It was, as I recall, in the middle Of a Saturday afternoon, maybe, Or early before dinner on a weeknight, Or maybe even some midmorning when she had taken a break That my mother called me into the basement And said, "I think Daddy's going to die. But don't tell your brother; he's too little To understand." I didn't understand either, Though "cancer" was a word I'd heard often enough, And "brain tumor" sounded lethal too, Since I had been taught so early To respect my brain and all its works and days. There were no tears, And "separation anxiety" wasn't a thing I would've known about either, Because it was a term from later on, A thing people discuss now. I think I felt a blank, no anxiety, And the blank continued to function. Not denial, really, But just a space Where other things might have been. I even think I stopped loving him then, sometimes, And was callous sometimes, in the way of children, Angry at him, perhaps, Dissatisfied that now I had to be one of those Who were different. There was a day before the end When someone, perhaps him without permission, Took me out to the lake where we had a lot, And he and I walked in the woods, Which I know now to him meant peace. And looking for signs and symptoms, I noticed not his sudden slenderness as we walked, His wan face and occasional stumble, But his arm, where the veins stood so prominently. Whether it was vicious of me to say, I know not, But I touched his arm and asked, "What's wrong with your arm, Dad?" He just looked at it, then at me, and said, "Nothing, I don't guess." Maybe that was a child's way Of asking after his health, Or maybe it was a way of acknowledging things better not spoken of out loud, Or maybe he felt glad to be able to deny Any culpability or wrongdoing On the part of that limb. I fought with myself at the funeral, But after, I had no tears, To my mother's fear and upset, So one night in the kitchen, Only female relatives sitting around In a circle, I was gently ambushed, Forced to cry by overdone sympathetic gestures and words, And then I think they were satisfied, And left me to myself. For the years afterwards, There was the hardening of my heart In adolescence, A necessary thing, by some accounts Of experts we read now, But it was the end of childhood True and proper At my mother's frustrated words, "Honey, you can cry, He's your father!" Refusing To sanction the traitor who had left us, My heart at almost twelve retorted, "No, he's not! Not anymore!" And as with that of others, Life went on. ©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 2/18/17
This poem is self-explanatory, not particularly complex, perhaps, but others may be able to compare their own younger selves with it.
Let's Be Good Don't ever let the flag touch the ground, They told us. A good Girl Scout Never lets the flag touch the ground. And so all of Alice Wright's tears The day she dropped the neatly folded bundle Entirely in the mud hole were mostly explained, Except that she and Lisa Donner Had had a fight that same day, fisticuffs and all, Over a boy indifferent to both of them As all of us knew, Unfortuitously named Billy Hunney. But on the bus rides to and from the camp, We all made up and were the best of friends, Finished taking sides in one another's quarrels, All with amicable and overdone kindness, As we had seen our mothers do. We sang "Dem Bones Gon' Rise Again" At the top of our lungs, though our abilities Were less than perfect, And some silly song called "Nothing"-- "Nothing, nothing, we sing nothing, We sing nothing all day long"-- Of course getting riotous just to annoy the driver, "Second verse, same as the first, Little bit louder and a whole lot worse!" Arriving home with flushed faces, Gatorade sticky hands, messy tops and shorts From the wilderness hike, And some, more than not, with headaches From the extravagant singing and shouting, All of us climbing into mothers' vehicles At the drop-off point, in the days before fathers Were at home often enough or early enough (Or could even be thought responsible) For picking us up. We at that time Knew all the words to "The Pledge of Allegiance," Nor were we confused about "The Star-Spangled Banner," Sure it meant something important to someone Who had our fate in hand, And therefore we knew the words, While what they meant, That bit may have eluded us a little. Our badges were a source of pride to us, Though we weren't above fudging our accomplishments Some, just in order to keep up with Emily Bartley, The record-holder in our troupe, Whom we tolerated because She couldn't help having buck teeth. Jennifer Allen, on the other hand, We knew to cheat and swear, And her we accepted for the sake of Her rich father and raven hair, Her tall, cute brother And her jokes about the counselors, Made just rarely enough to keep it funny. But it all fell apart, for us, The year we reached fifteen, And Sam Hunney, Billy's wild and wayward older brother, Invaded the camp in secret One afternoon rest time, While most of us were snoozing on rocks And towels by the lake, And tied up and raped Emily, Who had been alone in a cabin with a headache; Who, as Jennifer pointed out later, Wasn't even pretty. There was much talk then, after Sam got his just deserts, And Emily was sent to a private mental hospital To recuperate, which as far as we knew she never actually did, But then we all lost track. But the talk, the vows and threats, Were all about keeping our children safe, our daughters and wives, And somehow, the thought shifted from Sam Hunney, Who was white, to the supposed violence of the black community, And it was the time, the time, of race riots suddenly, And brutal policemen whereas before they'd been our friends, And we no longer thought it was cool to sing "Dem Bones" at the drivers of the bus. Instead, we listened to our mothers and fathers, some of us, And some of us took drugs and went with long-haired boys To our parents' despair, And others of us took to reading "Ms. Magazine" and "Playgirl," In the days before "Playgirl" started playing to gay men, Each in her own way carrying the flag as she was meant to carry it, In terms of her own freedom, rights, and rites, Strange as some of them were, Because a good Girl Scout Never lets the flag touch the ground, Or hardly ever, anyway, No, a good Girl Scout Never lets the flag touch the ground. ©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 2/14/17
(N.B.: I know that for some people, the race riots were much earlier, but in the area where I lived, they happened in general later.) Shadowoperator
This poem came about because of frustration I felt with getting the creative juices flowing. It’s not much in and of itself, but it did help to get me writing something else.
The Caesura I cannot write a poem today, I know; It's cold outside, though sunshine's streaming in And all my saddest thoughts are round about Defeating brightness and restoring murk. There's snow, there's mud, there's water on the street, And ice, and I in short am disinclined To search for topics that would repay work Or reach for words that pictures paint when writ. My thoughts are either foggy or are blank Ideas won't come right, no matter how I stretch, condense, and weave my syllables And it's sheer foolishness to try so hard. Perhaps I need a day, perchance a week Of emptiness and not of diligence In which to rest and twist some new wry words And make my concepts fitter to put down. For note well! These few words are not a verse But show my lack and demonstrate the curse Of being tired of all the subjects terse Or long and tedious; so much the worse! © Victoria Leigh Bennett, 2/14/17