I still haven’t quite decided whether the title of this novel is an oxymoron or a clever play on words. The Funeral Party is about the last days of an artist in a New York apartment, and he spends it in the company of an extraordinary collection of characters. So there is a party of people, but also a party atmosphere, because that’s the way these people are.
Like his friends, Alik is a Russian émigré who abandoned his homeland for a better life in America. He loves America and so do they even though not all of them have achieved the American dream. Language has been a barrier for some, and others have been victims of chicanery, bad luck or their own personal inadequacies. Nonetheless they gather at Alik’s place to mark his passing, so that there is a constant flow of people in and out all through the hot summer days and nights.
There are some arresting images: some of the women can’t bear the heat and unashamedly divest themselves of all their clothes. While most of the men seem to take this innocent behaviour in their stride, the visitors who arrive to take part in the tussle for Alik’s soul are not so sanguine, especially not the rabbi from Israel who has never even seen his wife naked, much less anyone else. It is Nina, Alik’s wife who has invited them: she’s keen for him to have the last rites, but since Alik has no religious faith, he demurs, and agrees only on condition that both the Catholics and the Jews can have a go. Alik has a droll sense of humour, but religious tolerance also matters to him at this critical stage of his life. He will submit to Nina’s eccentric whim, but only on his terms.
Alik’s also been a bit of a ladies man, which is why Irina is there too. She was his lover in America before Nina arrived from Moscow and the intricacies of his relationship with Nina show the sort of fatalistic attitude that Alik has towards life. He also has a compassionate side to his nature, and his charismatic personality is what draws all kinds of people to his final days. (Though you also get the sense that some of them are enjoying the theatricality of it all).
All the women have some sort of nurturing role, feeding, bathing, soothing him or making love to him, not to mention redeeming his soul, but they are all strongly drawn and have distinct personalities. There is also a strong-willed child called Maika who needs to make her peace with Alik (and most of the other adults) as well.
The book is only 156 pages long but it took the best part of the week for me to read it because of its episodic structure, the disjointed sequences and the chaotic relationships of the characters. This is clearly intentional: it mirrors the last few days of Alik’s life as he drifts in and out of dreams and consciousness, participates in some conversations and not others, overhears snippets of conversation and song. But there are also allusions to aspects of Russian culture and also to the Yeltsin putsch against Gorbachov which may not make sense to those who don’t remember it.
The Funeral Party makes an interesting contrast with Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich. Ulitskaya is a more generous moralist than stern old Tolstoy was with Ilyich’s grim demise. Tolstoy punishes his character for the shallowness of his life with monstrous pain and an indifferent wife in his dying days, and he sanctifies the manservant Gerasim who undertakes the sordid task of cleaning up after Ivan. In Ulitskaya’s novel Alik’s genial nature is rewarded by a near-painless death and people who anoint him physically and spiritually. I bet Russian students write earnest essays comparing these two deathbeds!
Ludmila Ulitskaya was shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize and she is a multi-award-winning author whose books are increasingly available in English.
I was none too impressed by the typos in this edition. ‘Funeral rights‘ on the dust-jacket and ‘icy-cubes‘ on one page and ‘ice-cubes’ on another. And from the long-established English publishing house Gollancz, too. They should be ashamed of themselves.
Author: Ludmila Ulitskaya
Title: The Funeral Party
Translated from the Russian by Cathy Porter
Publisher: Victor Gollancz, 1999
Source: Personal library, purchased from the Book Depository