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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

It isn’t always this appalling. Sometimes the gossips get it wrong. “The Fall” rewrites “The Lady With the Little Dog,” one of Chekhov’s greatest tales. A man and woman strike up an affair at a Black Sea resort—one that turns, improbably, into a lasting love—but in Petrushevskaya, as usual, we see it from the outside, with full frontal sarcasm. “There they are, trying to dance…our golden couple…the delicate Carmen and her faithful husband.” But slowly the lovers withdraw from the crowd, into a privacy it cannot besmirch and a felicity it cannot comprehend. Happiness is possible in Petrushevskaya, but it is always an aberration, always a mystery.

It is also always a conquest. Those like Ali-Baba and her consort, who try to find it on their backs or in a bottle, their creator regards without mercy. “At night the couple relaxed in the company of select neighbors,” she says about another pair. “Their room filled up with the local elite—prominent alcoholics and their girlfriends in various stages of decline.” But the steadfast and the selfless and the strong—those she is willing to grant a reprieve. In “The Goddess Parka,” a couple find their way to one another through a labyrinth of circumstance and city streets, guided, like sleepwalkers, by a kind of providence that gives us glimpses of their destiny. “He was too cowardly to ask his future wife for directions.” “The unborn child also waited in the dark.” At last, “he took the heavy bag from her unfeeling hand, like all husbands do, and they walked off together.” The title refers to the Parcae, the Roman Fates, but the deity at work is no one other than the author.

The writer as master of fate: the notion gets a very personal interpretation in the most remarkable story in Sister’s Husband, “Young Berries.” The piece is Nabokovian, though not in the usual sense. As in Ada or Ardor and elsewhere, we read of an enchanted world of adolescent eros on a Russian estate—only this estate has been repurposed (it’s the early 1950s) as a children’s sanatorium, and the heroine’s beloved is a sadistic youth named Tolik: “unspeakably beautiful,” a kind of little prince, his eyes “alive with indolence and lust.” The story is semiautobiographical in the strictest, strangest sense: in a sort of rainbow edge of double-consciousness, memory recalled and re-inhabited at once, the narrator refers to the protagonist as both “she” and “I.” “A mother brought her girl to a sanatorium for sickly children,” the piece begins. “I was that girl.”

A story of love, it is also a story of survival. The girl is a misfit, an outcast. Ejected from the group (“Excreted was the word for such children…. Anyone could abuse them in any way”), she risks destruction by the boys who roam the schoolyard like a pack of wolves. What saves her are her gifts: her voice, her intellect, her talent, but most of all, her self-control. Unlike those other girls in Sister’s Husband, she understands the difference between reality and romance, and she keeps the latter in its place, along with her predatory dreamboat. Back in Moscow at her communal apartment (she’s the one who sleeps under the desk with her mother), she gets a call from Tolik, who says he wants to take her to the movies. But she can hear his comrades hooting in the background, and her uncle Misha is standing there eavesdropping in his “blue army long johns,” and she knows that the world of “undying love” cannot co-exist with neighbors and bedbugs. “I” is not “she.” “She” is someone else, someone safely locked away.

The story gives a clue to Petrushevskaya’s approach in the pieces collected in Neighbor’s Baby. Allegorical, fantastic, they nonetheless take up the same material as those in Sister’s Husband, the same constricted lives. Imagination functions as escape, a means of access to a world that lies beyond the quotidian. A world of art and feeling, it is also a world of collective or cultural memory, the archaic world that’s buried underneath those office and apartment blocks, along with all the things it knew. One story draws on the Orpheus myth; another on the myth of Christ; a third employs the figure of Poseidon. There’s a wizard, and a fairytale house in the woods, and an old monk out of Russian legend, and a ghost who appeals to the living for burial, like a character from classical epic. There are resurrections, and transmogrifications, and underworld descents.

But none of this is done pedantically. With consummate skill, Petrushevskaya deploys her motifs with a phrase, with an image. A flick of the wrist, and the story jumps its tracks. Suddenly we’re somewhere else, in physical and literary space, or maybe we’re in both locales at once. We start with realism—that same realism, that same reality, that in Sister’s Husband crushes all—but then, before we have a chance to mark the change, we’re in the realm of dreams. And yet, uncannily, the daylight world remains in place. The protagonists have still to deal with hospital rooms, draft boards, lines at the post office. This isn’t magic realism, fantastic elements within an otherwise familiar setting. It is the simultaneous presence of two distinct worlds: in contact, interpenetrating or even somehow superimposed—real and surreal, rational and irrational, coming in and out of focus as we turn our heads.

“The Miracle” begins like this:

There once lived a woman whose son hanged himself.

Which is to say, when she returned home from the night shift one morning, her boy was lying on the floor next to an overturned stool underneath a length of thin synthetic rope.

He was unconscious, but his heart still beat faintly…

Already the story is split. The first sentence tells us that the woman’s son is dead. The third, that he is still alive. The second mediates between the two. As the tale proceeds, both alternatives are kept in play. Maybe she refuses to accept her loss, so he remains alive to her. (Another story works with such denial quite explicitly.) Maybe he really is still alive, but he might as well be dead, we learn, because he’s throwing his life away, a spoiled, lazy, foolish, feckless child, “tumbling further and further into the abyss.”

Either way, his mother sets out to rescue him. A strange old woman tells her that she needs to see a certain Uncle Kornil. Another lets her know that she can find him in the basement of a local hospital, but she has to follow the procedure: spread a towel for a tablecloth, put down a bottle of vodka, bring shot glasses, bread and pickles, a little money. This is Odysseus, visiting Tiresias in Hades for a prophecy, preparing him a meal of blood. As for Uncle Kornil, he turns out to be another Christ, the resurrector—arms outstretched, wounds on his hands—but like the offering, a very Russian one: a bum, a drunk, on the verge of death, with a mother Mary from a Moscow nightmare, who offers us a different version of the empty tomb. “What’s he need a coffin for?” she asks. “We’ll sell his body to the med school.”

“The Miracle” is typical of Neighbor’s Baby, not only in its palimpsest of modes, but also in imagining the traffic of the living with the dead. Liminal figures and spaces, spectral visitations, visions of the afterworld: these are the materials in which the volume trades. The realm of the fantastic is nothing other, for Petrushevskaya, than the realm of spirits. And not just those of the departed; other stories give us intimations of the abode of souls before their birth. Does Petrushevskaya really believe, in the manner of so many classic Russian authors, that there is something that exists beyond our earthly plane? Anna Summers, her English translator, reports that the writer herself is not sure. Maybe yes, maybe no—a lot like the stories themselves.

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