Ludmila Ulitskaya is one of the major Russian writers of our time. She began writing rather late: her short fiction began to be published in 1990; her first novel, Sonechka, came out in 1993 when she was fifty years old. Over the next thirty years she has produced ten more novels and ten collections of short fiction, the most recent being The Body of the Soul, which was first published in Russian in 2019. She has been awarded a long list of international literary prizes, and in 2013 was made a Officier of the French Légion d’honneur. She has also been an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin ever since he came to power, and a defender of those his regime has persecuted. She published a strong denunciation of the war on Ukraine two days after it began, and since March 2022 has been living in Berlin.
“Russia has always seen itself as an intrinsically literary country . . . ” she said in an interview published in Le Monde on May 2, 2022. “I realize today how much Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Chekhov protected me from sad Soviet propaganda, which is everywhere in today’s world.” There is nothing overtly political or ideological in her stories. Her vision takes in both the ordinary and the extraordinary, and she narrates them in the same straightforward way. The extraordinary does not depend on rhetorical enhancement; it is extraordinary because it happens.
About the relations of her generation with the writers she mentions, Ulitskaya quotes Bernard de Chartres of the twelfth century in Le Monde: “We sit like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants . . . ” And she adds, “We contemporary writers see a tiny bit further along the horizon compared to our predecessors, precisely because we have been nourished by their words, because we have assimilated their teaching.” One thing she gained from that nourishment was a vision of the many-sidedness of existence and what Masha Gessen, in an essay on Ulitskaya entitled “The Weight of Words,” (The New Yorker, September 29, 2014), called “a sort of wondrous optimism, which comes across in all her writing . . . The coincidences and twists that populate her books fill her with the joy of discovery.” That is as true of the stories in The Body of the Soul as of her earlier work, only here, as she herself has said, she wanted to express herself in a still more laconic way. Preserving that laconic style in English has been our main task as translators.
Ludmila Ulitskaya (b. 1943) is an internationally acclaimed Russian novelist and short story writer. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are an award-winning team of literary translators who have translated over thirty works from Russian.