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.”