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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.

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

What is certain is that Petrushevskaya employs the mystical as a mighty source of psychological metaphor. As fine as are the tales in Sister’s Husband, those in Neighbor’s Baby are incomparably finer: in their literary complexity, in their quality of dread and wonder, above all in the intensity of feeling that their methods allow them to reach. “A New Soul” is about a kind of reincarnation. “Two Kingdoms” is about the afterlife. But both, we realize, are also about the experience of emigration: the splendors of the West, but also its repellent strangeness; the chance to live a second life, but one that forces you to leave your heart behind. With a sorcerer’s art, Petrushevskaya conjures up her spiritual symbols. A father searches for his children; he doesn’t know their names or what they look like, because he hasn’t met their mother yet. Marilena, in a different story, is an obese careerist and materialist. Each night, she splits into a pair of thin young ballerinas who dance and cry together, remembering the home and parents Marilena left behind, the feelings that she’s buried in her flesh.

But if there is a single emotion, in particular, on which the tales in Neighbor’s Baby dwell, it is grief. As in “The Miracle,” it is the loss or threatened loss of a child—or a spouse, or a parent, or the self—that propels the stories into the surreal. These are narratives of derangement and projection. A protagonist disassociates, to escape the hopelessness and horror, and the story disassociates as well. It passes through a door; it passes out and dreams, and what it dreams of is an exit. Whatever one makes of the ensuing events, whether one accepts them on their face or only figuratively, they embody the irrationality that attaches to great feeling. We speak of being bewildered by love or grief or driven mad by envy or hate. The maze of unaccountable occurrences through which the protagonists wander—lost, helpless, in the dark—is itself a metaphor for such a state.

They wander, and we wander. All the technical accomplishments that Petrushevskaya displays in her realistic stories she exhibits here: the control of tone, the purity of line, the compression of language to the point of combustion, and, most of all, the ability to bend a narrative at unexpected angles. Only here, the possibilities are three-dimensional, as it were, up or down to other worlds as well as side to side. We are made to feel as ignorant and helpless as the characters themselves. Is this a nightmare? Will the girl come back to life? How on earth do we get out of here? We hasten on from page to page with shallow breath.

But the escape these stories ultimately offer does not lie in the realm of the fantastic. Two of them are allegories of civilizational collapse. “Hygiene” is a plague narrative in the tradition of Thucydides and Defoe, though told within the confines, once again, of one of those communal apartments. In “The New Robinson Crusoes,” subtitled “A Chronicle of the End of the Twentieth Century,” the causes of the breakdown are more general, as well as more vague. “When it began,” the second sentence starts. “It” need not be specified; we all know what “it” is. The only question, as in “Hygiene,” is how are people going to deal with “it.”

What proves so terrible, in the plague story, is just how readily, how matter-of-factly, the characters adopt the savage mode, as if they had been practicing and waiting all along. The father grabs a knife and goes outside to fight for food. The sick are locked inside their rooms without appeal. First the daughter is suspected of exposure, then the grandparents, then the mother. Soon the apartment is a cacophony of desperate knocking, each character immured in their solitary disaster.

In the other story, matters are more mixed. A family seeks refuge in the countryside, learning to garden and gather, husbanding their resources, and entering into a wary partnership with a few of the locals, with whom they finally form a makeshift household. “They’ll come for us” eventually, the Crusoes know—that “they” requiring no more explanation than did “it”—but in the meantime, amidst the “cold desolate space spread out around us on all sides,” this new extended family becomes a spark, an ark.

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In either story, two contrasting moral logics battle for supremacy. “Hygiene” is so powerfully disturbing just because we expect to see compassion, generosity and concern—the values of love and family—and what we see instead (with a tiny, vital exception) are the values of the wasteland: selfishness, brutality, indifference. In the Crusoe tale, the two do constant battle, as family and locals renegotiate their modus vivendi under ever-evolving conditions of scarcity and threat, until at last there comes a kind of trust. What is at stake in both stories, as in so much apocalyptic fiction, is not just physical survival but the survival of the human group, of cooperation and sympathy and mutual care, the things that made us human in the first place.

Recall the gesture of domestic decency that ends “The Goddess Parka,” where the husband-to-be takes the burden from his future wife. In “Incident at Sokolniki,” a widow goes out of her way to bury her husband’s body, even though she’d never loved him very much. Even in “Revenge,” the neighbor whose baby the woman tries to kill forgives her. For all of their darkness, almost all the stories in the volume show a ray of light, and always of the same variety. Petrushevskaya’s highest value, finally, is not imagination but lovingkindness. That’s the real magic, the real miracle. It blooms, in her fiction, like flowers in a weedy lot: the only stay against “it,” the only hope in the face of “they.”

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