Ludmila Ulitskaya’s ‘The Big Green Tent’ Is the Year’s Only Novel That Deserves a Dickens Comparison

For whatever reason, the fall literary calendar has seen more than its share of post-Soviet literary dissidence. Or, if not dissidence, oppositionism. Or, if neither of these, at least we’ve seen the publication (or celebration) of authors who are not on friendly terms — or maybe any terms — with the Kremlin.

It all began on October 8, on the 45th anniversary of Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Prize, when Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich followed suit, much to the (intended) consternation of the Kremlin. And it will continue later this month with the publication, by NYRB Classics, of A School for Fools, a slim novel from the Nabokov-approved, under-translated writer Sasha Sokolov, who apparently spent much of his youth trying to flee the Soviet Union. He now lives in perpetual exile in Canada, where, to be fair, he was born.

This month, too, we’re treated to the blockbuster release of Ludmila Ulitskaya’s big green book, The Big Green Tent, translated (pristinely) by Polly Gannon and published by FSG. Perhaps the most outspoken, the least consensual, the most dissenting of the three writers I’ve mentioned, Ulitskaya nonetheless did not, in the past, consider herself a Soviet dissident. “I wasn’t a dissident,” she told Masha Gessen last year, “I was a girl who washed the dishes in the kitchen while they talked.” These days, according to Gessen, Ulitskaya is a “voice of moral authority for differently minded Russians.” I’ll confess that this statement confuses me, makes me suspicious. Can all Russians be grouped according to their like or different minds?

Judging by The Big Green Tent (which was written five years ago), the answer seems, at first, to be “probably.” Or at least Ulitskaya tracks a basic, even familiar schism that may have prevailed for Soviet/Russian citizens who lived between the death of Stalin and the death of Joseph Brodsky — the twin deaths that bookend the novel and set its thematic parameters. This is to say that Ulitskaya has written a paradoxically humanistic yet entomological novel about the intransigent violence of the state and the (comparably) flexible intellects who suffered it.

I call the novel “entomological” because the lives of its characters, as Gessen also pointed out last year, are “reduced to plot” — the characters are like insects pinned to a board and viewed from a treetop. Or, to put it in another way, it is as flat as a piece of paper. And it proves once and for all that it’s possible to create a page-turning fiction by applying Knausgaardian depthlessness to third-person narration. It brings together distinct literary modes in what may become an accepted, even time-honored literary recipe. You no longer need to “make it new,” in the sense of Ezra Pound’s Modernism. Instead, you can “make it crack,” especially if you “make it flat.” Flat is crack.

After the news of Stalin’s death ends the prologue, The Big Green Tent unveils its narrator (so to speak), a figure who is perhaps unduly fascinated with the abstract fates, the “trajectories” of its character, yet one that is not itself coldly scientific (Ulitskaya was a scientist, after all) or estranged. The narrator is, we should say, a storyteller, and the story she begins to tell is one of “those wondrous school years” — of the education of dissidents.

More to the point, the novel begins with the three male students — Mikha, Ilya, and Sanya — who eventually become friends. They are all, by different degrees, sensitive souls disposed to culture, a fact that, following the novel’s rubric, predestines them for a collision against the harsh, culture-dumb authority of the KGB. In the meantime, while they’re young, the three must diversify according to the Sorting Hat logic of contemporary fiction. Mikha, then, writes poems. Sanya is a talented young pianist, at least until his hand is unmendably injured. And Ilya, who inherits a pre-war camera, is an intrepid photographer.

Soon enough, the three boys come under the sway of Victor Yulievich, a handsome, charismatic teacher of literature, and they begin to call themselves, rather innocently, the LORLs, or Lovers of Russian Literature. If this sounds like the makings of a textbook bildung, just remember that in Ulitskaya’s hands everything is flat, so it really becomes more of young dissident’s reading list, a bibliography, albeit a warm one that just came out of a mimeograph — you’ll want to press your face against it. On the list: Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, Herzen’s My Life and Thoughts, and, further down the line, Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. And many others.

Because the novel is flat and fast, it’s difficult to describe the next several hundred pages. I’d rather given you an example of how it reads. But first I will say that it does not just dutifully work out the fates of our three young men, their sexualities, marriages, educations, occupations, travels, interpersonal struggles, and deaths; rather, it undutifully resolves these things. The plot meanders. The narrator ice skates along the novel’s surface. And as the book expands, it does become a big (green) tent, one that deals the fates of assorted minor characters, of what the narrator bafflingly calls “C-list extras.” The problem, though, is that any extra would be thrilled to be on the C-list; accordingly, the novel’s minor characters are always clambering in the limelight. (“Vera Samuilovna was crazy about endocrinology,” for instance.) Sometimes they ruin the shot.

Still, the book is often a joy to read. It is, if you will, crack. (Reminder: crack is bad for you.) But at least it is book crack and not TV crack. By this I do not mean that books are better than TV, although this is something I do believe. (I write about books.) What I mean is that The Big Green Tent, unlike some other big works of realism published this year, does not rely too much on TV tropes. Instead, it wins the reader’s attention with narrative art and (sometimes) ingenious language. And on the rare occasion that it loses the reader’s attention, it regains it with passages like this:

The house on Potapovsky Lane had known hundreds of residents. Its walls had been covered in silk, then empire wallpaper, striped, or scattered with roses, later in crude oil paint, green and blue, then layers of newsprint, and cheap porous wallpaper again, repeatedly torn. Having gone through its century and a half of wealth and poverty, birth and death, murder and marriage, densification and communalization, remodeling that only made things worse, trifling fires and petty floods, the house had begun to adorn itself in the 1960s with Czech furniture and three-cornered tables. The house existed in its own slow, incremental, virtually geological time; and only one room — the yardkeeper’s storeroom under the stairwell on the first floor — had preserved its primordial aspect and purpose…

Now, I’ve heard over and over this year that this or that new novel is “Dickensian,” but until I read this passage, I had yet find even one page of one book reminiscent of the opening to Bleak House, to name a famous example. But this chapter opening — and there are others: Ulitskaya’s greatest skill seems to be kickstarting chapters and sections — is familiar, too, in a different way. The way thought and matter and history move here dialectically — you might even call it historical or dialectical materialism.

This is to say that The Big Green Tent, with its justifiable jabs at Stalin and Khrushchev (and even Putin), seems to be arrayed and disarrayed, organized and muddled by its own Soviet pre-schooling. This, to my mind, is a good thing. It means that it undercuts its own message. For all its samizdat, for its dissident curriculum, it is still somewhat beholden to its past, to a pedagogical regime it can’t quite scratch from history. You might say, then, that it isn’t singularly or “differently” minded at all. It is something else: a novel worth reading.