Sometimes a Small Redemption: On Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
"Russian literature has been a kind of religion in this country--a religion based on the moral position of writers, on their suffering," Ludmilla Petrushevskaya once told Sally Laird, her British translator. "All our greatest writers have been sufferers and saints." It was May 1987, and Immortal Love, Petrushevskaya's first collection of short stories, would be published the following year, just in time for her fiftieth birthday. If suffering really could be considered a legitimate qualification for literary greatness, Petrushevskaya had more than earned her due. A year after she was born in 1938, her father abandoned the family, leaving her in Moscow with her mother, the daughter of an eminent linguistics professor. Stalin's Great Purge was under way, and her mother's relatives, old-time Bolshevik intellectuals involved in the revolution, were summarily rounded up for arrest and execution. Though the surviving family members managed to escape during World War II to Kuibyshev, the temporary capital on the Volga River established by the USSR in the face of Germany's advance, they--like everyone--starved through the war years. Petrushevskaya was sent away to a children's home, where her ragged compatriots were impressed enough by her particular deprivation to nickname her "the Moscow matchstick."
This brief exile proved to be a blessing. Food and clothes, so hard to come by elsewhere, were in ready supply. Attended to by a group of kindly female teachers, the children could shrug off the twin wartime burdens of fear and adult responsibility. Play, not survival, had once again become the essential business of childhood. (Decades later, Petrushevskaya would recall a performance of a gypsy song and dance that had given her an early taste of the theater, undoubtedly a momentous experience for an author who would initially make her name as a playwright.) But soon her mother and grandfather, who had relocated to Moscow, called on her to join them, forcing her to trade the happiness of a carefree child's world for a claustrophobic domestic arrangement.
Postwar Moscow was flooded with itinerants who had abandoned the ravaged countryside for the city, and housing, chronically in short supply, had reached an unprecedented degree of scarcity. Petrushevskaya's family shared a twelve-square-meter room--a cubbyhole carved out of the family's subdivided former apartment. Indoors, Petrushevskaya watched her grandfather--fired from his university position, stripped of his pension, isolated from his students and colleagues--lurch toward insanity without the dignity afforded by solitude. Outdoors, in the building's yard, she kept to herself, an intelligentsia-bred pariah among working-class children well versed in the lessons of the streets.
Petrushevskaya's adulthood was marked by tragedy: her first husband died at 32 after an illness that had paralyzed him for six years, leaving his widow as the sole provider for their young son. But Petrushevskaya would always remember her Moscow childhood and adolescence as the apogee of misery. The overcrowded apartment, seething with tension between toiling parents and ungrateful children, frustrated spouses and suspicious in-laws, stands at the heart of her unrelenting, often acerbically funny depictions of Soviet life. In The Time: Night, Petrushevskaya's first novel, published in 1992, the poet Anna shuttles with her young grandson between her friends' flats, calculating that the owners of "a nice postwar apartment" will lend her money, barging in on another family just in time to scrounge a meal. Such episodes are not so much personal visits as conscious invasions meant to flout the protocol of a society obsessed with hard-won privacy. Anna's willingness to force her way through others' doors exposes the hostile stinginess of daily life in Moscow, even as her ill-concealed envy renders her ridiculous; it would be difficult to say whether she or her reluctant hosts, who guard their kitchens and bedrooms as greedily as misers, come off as more petty.
If Petrushevskaya's litany of mid-century suffering seems routine--what, after all, is less remarkable than tales of Russian misfortune--that's part of the point. Petrushevskaya insisted on locating so much of her work in the "mini-Gulag" of the Stalin-era home rather than on some more specific personal hardship precisely because she recognized that, lonely as she felt in the yard or at the library, another frequent haunt, "there were thousands of children in my position." The housing shortage forced residents living cheek by jowl to retreat into whatever seclusion they could manage to secure, and much of Petrushevskaya's fiction engages in breaking through this barrier to imagine the kind of lives that might have transpired within a hairsbreadth of her own, perhaps heard in fits and snatches through the wall of the adjoining flat. The stories and first-person monologues of Immortal Love are, for the most part, realistic accounts of small lives that gain a degree of dignity by being singled out for recounting: a girl crosses a field in the rain with another woman's fiancé and realizes that no further connection between them is possible; a naïve young woman offers her co-workers details of her family life and fails to notice their discomfort at being made privy to so much information. But an eerie existential undercurrent runs through much of the collection, surfacing, for instance, in the tale of a mother who claims that she has had a virgin birth, or that of a woman who doesn't realize her stomach pain is the result of pregnancy until she miscarries.
It is this startling, dark stream that Keith Gessen and Anna Summers have asked us to fathom in their new edition of Petrushevskaya's work. The stories collected in There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby, many of them translated into English for the first time, cover the familiar domain of domestic conflict and urban despair, but the situations are infused with a strong dose of the supernatural that lends them extreme, often ghastly, consequences.