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Dread and Wonder

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Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby
Scary Fairy Tales.
By Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.
Translated by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers.
Buy this book

There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself
Love Stories.
By Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.
Translated by Anna Summers.
Buy this book

We are likely to hear a lot more of this woman. Some October, perhaps, from the Nobel Prize committee. She certainly has the stature. Translated into many languages, the winner of multiple major awards, not only is she Russia’s leading dramatist by wide agreement, she is also its leading author of fiction, the mother of contemporary women’s writing in the country. In the words of Anna Summers, her English translator, “She is the only living Russian classic. No one comes near.” Students study her in high schools. Scholars write their dissertations on her both in Russia and abroad. Her seventieth birthday was marked by an official national celebration. As for her plays, which are staged around the world, a handful are typically running in Russia at any given time, and one, Moscow Choir, has been a staple of the White Nights cultural festival in St. Petersburg for over twelve years. Still going strong at 75, an accomplished singer, performer and painter to boot, she is also co-scenarist of Tale of Tales, repeatedly selected as the greatest animated film of all time. In The Cambridge Introduction to Russian Literature, only two post-Stalinist writers are given sections of their own. One is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The other is Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.

That we are still so unfamiliar with her in America is partly her own doing, in several senses. Her writing is insistently colloquial and conversational, a record of the voices that she hears around her on the streets and in the subways, in Moscow’s arid offices and overcrowded flats. Her prose, as a result, is highly idiomatic, and therefore highly problematic for translation. When The Time Is Night, the novella that’s regarded as her masterpiece, was published in an execrable version twenty years ago, she forswore further translation into English. More recently, through Summers’s efforts, she has been persuaded to relent. A first selection, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby, appeared in 2009; a second, There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself, in 2013. This fall will bring a third: a trio of novellas, including The Time Is Night and Among Friends, her most controversial work of prose.

“Father and Mother,” one of the pieces in Sister’s Husband, concerns a girl who grows up in a house of unrelenting squalor and conjugal hatred. “Everything that happened to her afterward,” the story ends—and “everything” means homelessness, to start with—“all this adversity she considered happiness, and not a shadow of doubt or despair ever touched her.” The tale provides a clue to Petrushevskaya’s resilience, vitality, even optimism. Nothing she would face in later life could measure up to what she dealt with as a child. Conceived out of wedlock (a huge taboo back then), denounced by her father before she was out of the womb, Petrushevskaya was born to a prominent Bolshevik family that was in the midst of going under in the Great Purge. Some were shot or exiled; the rest were classified as enemies of the people, which meant that they had no official right to food or shelter—and Petrushevskaya grew up during the war, when it was hard enough to survive even with official right to food and shelter.

Widowed young and with a child, Petrushevskaya did not begin to write until about age 30. A couple of stories were published in 1972, another handful in the decade and a half to come, but for the most part she was banned. Her pieces were too dark, too frank, too much of a challenge to the authorized picture of Soviet life. She turned to the theater instead, staging performances with student groups, at factory clubs, in makeshift rooms. Gradually, her reputation grew. In 1988, with glasnost, she was finally allowed to publish the prose that had been accumulating for twenty years. The resulting book, Immortal Love, became a signal cultural event, greeted by her audience—Russia’s ordinary struggling urbanites, and in particular its impoverished intelligentsia—with a shock of gratitude and recognition. All this time, as Summers puts it, all those years, someone had been writing down what they were going through. Someone had been bearing witness to their lives.

* * *

The following decade saw a new turn in Petrushevskaya’s fiction. A strain of fantasy and surrealism, already present in some of her dramatic work, was added to her realistic mode. She composed a set of cycles: “Fairy Tales,” “Requiems,” “Songs of the Eastern Slavs”—pieces that partook of parable and allegory, of folktale and mysticism and myth. It is these that were selected from for Neighbor’s Baby, the first of the recent collections, but it’s with the second volume, Sister’s Husband, that we should start to think about her work, not only since the unrelenting realism of its stories represents the older and more persistent strain in Petrushevskaya’s prose, but because the liberating irrationality of Neighbor’s Baby is best understood in relation to the world they depict.

It is not a jolly world. Whether late-Soviet or post-Soviet, the overwhelming note of Petrushevskaya’s Russia is scarcity: of work, food, space—especially space. A mother and her adolescent daughter sleep in a corner, underneath the grandfather’s desk. A student, four months pregnant, rents a cot in the kitchen of a pair of florid alcoholics. Grown-up children wait around for their parents to die, so they can have enough. Domestic life consists entirely, it seems, of a Hobbesian struggle for resources:

Olga related that “the bitch”—that is, her son’s wife—wanted to sue Olga and her husband for housing—again!

“I keep telling that son of mine, ‘Whatever you get through the courts will eventually be hers; she’ll divorce you as soon as you have a place of your own!’”

It was the righteous rage of a person who fought a long and dirty battle to be alone in a huge apartment.

Love, in such conditions, doesn’t stand a chance. In “Revenge,” the story where the woman tries to kill her neighbor’s baby, the characters are friends, a pair of single women sharing an apartment. But when one of them gets pregnant, the other is consumed with hate. The sense, in Petrushevskaya, is that there’s only so much life to go around: so much stuff, and therefore so much life.

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