Dread and Wonder
Her subject, we might say, is the conditions of happiness in contemporary Russia—and in particular, of women’s happiness. Her protagonists are mothers, daughters, wives. They go to school, or work in offices, or scrape a living at the local market. The men are callous, selfish, faithless—and those are the good ones. Others are brutal or worse. Women, for the most part, they treat like so much Kleenex:
Little Nadya had a father, but he lived with Alla only sporadically, considering her used-up material. He had made her pregnant twice, and when it happened the third time, Victor—who saw himself not as a future father but simply as a facilitator of another abortion—put Alla in a cab and directed the driver to the same hospital.
There’s hardly even any sensuality in these encounters, let alone any tenderness. Mostly it is just “our plain human filth, in and out, in and out, and it’s over.” And while the women insist on confusing the motion with love, for the men, there always seems to be another victim in the wings: another underling, another mistress, another temporary fiancée, or else it is back to the wife. Mothers tremble as their daughters mount their teenage years. Then, of course, it happens anyway. The mothers bemoan their fate. The daughters spread their legs and start the cycle once again.
Upon these characters, with a great artist’s great heartlessness, Petrushevskaya doesn’t waste a drop of sentimentality. The narration is unflinching, brusque, as sharp and as cruel as the world that it tells of. “This is what happened,” a story begins: just the facts, hitting like blows, with now and then a simile that slips in like a shiv. “That’s it now,” ends another, about a lonely, aged seamstress named Milgrom—she doesn’t even get a first name—whose only love is for a grown-up son she hasn’t seen since he was small. “The day is burning its last, and Milgrom, eternal Milgrom, sits in her little pensioner’s room like a guard at the museum of her own life, where there is nothing at all but a timid love.” Fashioning her figures, Petrushevskaya is prodigal with nothing: not luck, not looks, not brains, not even ink. Her stories are as short as half a dozen paragraphs and never more than twenty pages. As in those apartments, there is hardly any room: for breath, for breadth, for escape. You get one chance, or even less. The prose is spare, spare, spare. No luxuries, no frills: make do with what you’ve got.
Sister’s Husband includes “The Story of Clarissa,” Petrushevskaya’s first published piece. The title is representative. Clarissa’s is a story in the story, too—the story others tell about her. Everything is witnessed from without, as by a pair of prying eyes. “God knows what thoughts ran through her head,” we read, and further on, “Clarissa disappeared from sight, and no one knows just how she resurfaced.” The pieces in the volume are monologues, so to speak, but the speaker is rarely specified or individuated, and it is almost never the protagonist herself. It is the voice of the collective—of neighbors, relatives, co-workers—the voice of suspicion and envy, of people getting in each other’s business: another way that Petrushevskaya’s stories mimic the conditions of her figures’ lives, in those overcrowded buildings and apartments. “How do you like that?” the narrator will interject, or: “imagine the smell.” This is the orality that makes her prose so difficult to translate but that also does a brilliant double duty. The language characterizes itself, even as it characterizes the characters.
Nor is this effect—the sense that we’re immersed within the stories’ world, gossiping across the table in a kitchen or a cafeteria—confined to the narrative voice. Petrushevskaya unfolds her tales the way our knowledge of each other unfolds in life, haphazardly and unpredictably. She keeps us guessing, keeps us lurching, forces us to shift our emotional allegiances and recalculate our moral evaluations. The timid prove strong; the noble, base; relationships flip over—who’s the villain, who’s the victim now? “Ali-Baba” consists of eight paragraphs. In the first, a man and woman check each other out on their way into a bar. In the second, we learn that it’s the middle of the day. In the third, we discover that the woman’s latest partner tried to pitch her off the balcony, and the binge is meant to “mark a new beginning.” And so it goes, turn, turn, turn, every paragraph another step along a winding staircase down to hell, every one a tour de force of irony, a miracle of shock.
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