Sunday, 5 October 2014

Dress Down Sunday: The Funeral Party by Ludmila Ulitskaya

published 1999 
translation by Cathy Porter


LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES






The heat was terrible, with one hundred per cent humidity. It was as if the whole of this great city, with its inhuman building, its magical parks, its different coloured people and dogs, had reached the point of a phase transition and at any moment its semi-liquefied people would float up into the soupy atmosphere…

For a long time they hadn’t bothered with clothes, although Valentina wore a bra to prevent her large breasts chafing in the heat… There were five women in the bedroom: Valentina in her red bra, Nina with her gold cross and long hair, so thin that Alik had once told her ‘Nina you’re as skinny as that snake- basket.’… 

Also present was their neighbour Gioia… Irina Pearson, formerly a circus acrobat, now a high-paid lawyer, looked stunning with her waxed bikini-line and a new bust constructed for her by an unwavering American surgeon to look no worse than her old one. With her was her 15-year-old daughter Maika, known as Teeshirt (‘maika’ means teeshirt in Russian).






observations: Ludmila Ulitskaya is a wonderful Russian author, who deserves to be much better-known in the west. I came across her book Medea’s Children (a gift from blog friend JS) and was knocked out by it. This was her next book, a short, terrific novel about a young Russian man, an émigré living in New York, who is dying surrounded by his friends and lovers. It becomes apparent that this is taking place in August 1991, as the friends gather round the television to watch the reports of the attempted coup in Moscow then.

Ulitskaya would seem to have a formidable intelligence – she had a career in genetics and biochemistry before turning to writing, and is active politically in Russia – and that shines through her immensely clever work. But her writing is also very accessible and funny, and she has a brilliant way of describing every kind of person in the most non-judgemental way. She also has an amazing feel for émigré life – she lives in Moscow now, and it is not clear if she ever did live abroad, but you would guess she must have from this book. ‘[They] arrived in this country with 20 kilograms of luggage and 20 words of English, leaving behind hundreds of ruptures large and small – with jobs, parents, streets and neighbourhoods.’ 

I could quote endlessly from The Funeral Party: the death scene that is 'more like a private view' with people milling around; Nina bringing both a rabbi and a priest to the deathbed; Alik’s love for Italian: ‘that happy, glass-clinking language had imprinted itself effortlessly on his mind like a handprint in clay’; the meeting with (real-life) Russian intellectual and writer Joseph Brodsky in the street; the description of Irina’s annoyance when she lends money to Alix and Nina, only to have them squander it on a fur coat.

I love this writer, love this book: it is only 167 pages long, but contains a whole world in it.

Nina later on wears ‘an ankle-length coat of translucent black toile’ – apparently made by the great historical fashion house of Worth. I tried to find what this might have looked like, but failed, and am hoping one of my lovely fashion-expert readers (Daniel Milford-Cottam? Ken Nye?) might know more…

The ladies in their underwear are, again, from a Marks& Spencer advert – they are not quite as fabulous as the one I found for The Rosie Effect last week, but still nice.

9 comments:

  1. Moira - So glad you discovered a new author to love. I always enjoy when that happens. And this writing strikes me as lively (i.e. not ponderous) and interesting. I like the character sketches too. Even in the snippet you shared, one can tell that characters are whole, if I may put it that way. And an interesting concept for a novel...

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    1. Yes exactly, it's so nice to find such a good writer, new to me. And the deathbed setting is very cleverly done - it's never depressing or too sad, and gives a perfect structure for pursuing the lives and stories of the other characters.

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  2. Translucent black toile? I'm guessing this is a hopeless mistranslation - it's either tulle, the silk net material, which Worth certainly loved and used lots of (although I'm inclined to doubt that any Worth tulle coat would be in a wearable state - tulle, particularly black tulle, is super-fragile, especially the super-fine, ultra-frail silk net Worth loved using, and many Worth dresses in museums have had to have their tulle elements replaced or reconstructed.) Alternatively, it could be chiffon, which is a little more credible (particularly with "translucent") or gauze but again, I wonder about the delicacy of the fabric having held up over time.

    It's certainly not toile as in the copperplate printed linen with pastoral scenes in it....

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    1. Thanks Daniel, I knew you'd help - of course you're right, I was a bit mystified about toile, but not to the extent of realizing it would be wrong. I was thinking about the toile (is this right?) as the kind of sample garment made out of calico that designers check the fit with..
      Anyway have checked it wasn't my transcription error (always possible) and it wasn't, so am going to ask Russian translator friends what they think...

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    2. The dictionary definition does say "any of many plain or simple twill weave fabrics; especially : linen" - but that doesn't really tally with "translucent". (I can't quite imagine a translucent twill....) And I think the word "toile" has a very specific general meaning (actually is that a contradiction in terms?) where the average reader is going to automatically think of Toile de Jouy as in period linens.

      There are a LOT of technical/super-specific definitions for various types of fabric called toile in the dictionaries.

      On a tenuously related note, I have a friend who collects dodgy dress descriptions from Regency romances - she's a passionate Heyer fan and fashion historian and loves spotting terrible, clueless fashion descriptions in Heyer-imitators' books - things like "fluted needlepoint vandykes of apricot velvet"

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  3. "active politically in Russia".........that could be a bit dangerous. On a more trivial note, I thought it was an old advert featuring a young Liz Hurley in the top photo!
    Probably not for me thanks.

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    1. I think she's a woman who does what she thinks is right, which always can be dangerous. She sounds formidable. The picture - I think it's the next generation of Liz Hurleys....

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  4. The photos did intrigue me and I wondered how they fit in with a funeral. Initially as I read this I said "not for me" but the time period and the short length make it seem more appealing. I won't add it to my collection right away but I will put it on a list.

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    1. It's a very unlikely book somehow, but I loved it. And despite the sadness of the deathbed, it is full of life and joy. If you ever see it, Tracy, do pick it up.

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