Lyudmila Ulitskaya was born during her mother’s evacuation to the Urals in 1943. From the age of two she was brought up and educated in Moscow, where she studied Biology. For two years she worked as a geneticist at the USSR Academy institute in Moscow, but was dismissed in 1969 for illegally printing and distributing Samizdat literature. Ten years passed before Ulitskaya found a new post, not as a scientist but as assistant to the Jewish Chamber Theatre, for which she wrote articles, programmes and synopses. Unlike her great-grandfather, who was a devout Jew, Ulitskaya did not identify with Judaism, but the many official taboos on the issue of Jewish consciousness during the Brezhnev era cramped her artistic style considerably. After two years she left the theatre and earned a living as a freelance writer, authoring theatrical works, screenplays, newspaper articles, items for exhibition catalogues and translations. Soviet literary journals rejected her submissions for a long time. Only a detour via France, where some of her stories were first published in the late 1980s, won Ulitskaya recognition in her own country. She won the Prix Médicis in 1996 for her short story ‘Sonechka’, which constituted her international breakthrough in 1992; in 2001, she was awarded the “Russian Booker Prize”.
Ulitskaya writes stories from everyday life, mainly situated in Russian artistic and aca-demic milieus. Her heroes and heroines are usually unspectacular, but not shallow. Critics like to emphasize her characters’ positive attitudes, but the lives of these people are seldom as easy and carefree as the narrative style suggests. Crises and strokes of misfortune form the nucleus of stories in which fun-loving wives unexpectedly become autistic, or in which mad, helpless people ultimately turn out to be lifesavers. When asked how she discovers such figures, the author smiles and replies, “You just have to know how to see through the eyes of a woman who is no longer in the first flush of youth.” Although she is treated as a young author in Russia because of her relatively short literary career, the 58-year-old often focuses on ageing, sometimes providing quite unusual perspectives. The short story ‘Die Glücklichen’, for example, portrays an old couple mourning the premature accidental death of their child, with which they were unexpectedly blessed late in life, when both were well over 40. Ulitskaya often weaves biblical and mythical threads and motifs into her work. Perhaps this is why readers, as Sabine Brandt explains, often “[feel] fascination welling up inside them like they used to when listening to grandmother telling fairytales.” The oft-awarded author lives in Moscow.
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