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Books & the Arts.

Dread and Wonder


William Deresiewicz is a Nation contributing writer whose Excellent Sheep: The

Miseducation of the American Elite and the
Way to a Meaningful Life is forthcoming in
August from the Free Press.


e 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
Russias leading dramatist by wide agreement, she is also its leading author of fiction,
the mother of contemporary womens 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
twenty 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 Moscows 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 thats regarded as her masterpiece,
was published in an execrable version twenty
years ago, she forswore further translation
into English. More recently, through Summerss efforts, she has been persuaded to
relent. A first selection, There Once Lived a
Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbors Baby,

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

appeared in 2009; a second, There Once Lived

a Girl Who Seduced Her Sisters 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
Sisters Husband, concerns a girl who grows up
in a house of unrelenting squalor and conjugal
hatred. Everything that happened to her
afterward, the story endsand everything
means homelessness, to start withall this
adversity she considered happiness, and not a
shadow of doubt or despair ever touched her.
The tale provides a clue to Petrushevskayas

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
shelterand 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, Petru-

The Nation.


shevskaya 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 audienceRussias ordinary struggling
urbanites, and in particular its impoverished
intelligentsiawith 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.

he following decade saw a new turn in

Petrushevskayas 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 Slavspieces that
partook of parable and allegory, of folktale
and mysticism and myth. It is these that were
selected from for Neighbors Baby, the first of
the recent collections, but its with the second
volume, Sisters 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 Petrushevskayas prose, but because the liberating
irrationality of Neighbors Baby is best understood in relation to the world they depict.
It is not a jolly world. Whether lateSoviet or post-Soviet, the overwhelming
note of Petrushevskayas Russia is scarcity:
of work, food, spaceespecially space. A
mother and her adolescent daughter sleep in
a corner, underneath the grandfathers 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 bitchthat is,
her sons wifewanted to sue Olga
and her husband for housingagain!
I keep telling that son of mine,
Whatever you get through the courts
will eventually be hers; shell divorce
you as soon as you have a place of
your own!

Books Discussed in This Essay

There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried
to Kill Her Neighbors Baby
Scary Fairy Tales.
By Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.
Translated by Keith Gessen and
Anna Summers.
Penguin. 206 pp. Paper $15.

There Once Lived a Girl Who

Seduced Her Sisters Husband, and
He Hanged Himself
Love Stories.
By Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.
Translated by Anna Summers.
Penguin. 171 pp. Paper $15.

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, doesnt stand a
chance. In Revenge, the story where the
woman tries to kill her neighbors 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
theres 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 womens 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, faithlessand 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
abortionput Alla in a cab and directed the driver to the same hospital.
Theres 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 its 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 fiance, or else it

March 24, 2014

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 artists
great heartlessness, Petrushevskaya doesnt
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. Thats it now,
ends another, about a lonely, aged seamstress
named Milgromshe doesnt even get a first
namewhose only love is for a grown-up son
she hasnt seen since he was small. The day
is burning its last, and Milgrom, eternal Milgrom, sits in her little pensioners 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 youve got.
Sisters Husband includes The Story of
Clarissa, Petrushevskayas first published
piece. The title is representative. Clarissas
is a story in the story, toothe 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 collectiveof neighbors,
relatives, co-workersthe voice of suspicion
and envy, of people getting in each others
business: another way that Petrushevskayas
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 effectthe sense that were
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 overwhos the villain,
whos 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 its the
middle of the day. In the third, we discover
that the womans 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.

The Nation.

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 eliteprominent alcoholics and their girlfriends in various stages
of decline. But the steadfast and the selfless
and the strongthose 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
t isnt always this appalling. Sometimes the dark. At last, he took the heavy bag from
gossips get it wrong. The Fall rewrites her unfeeling hand, like all husbands do, and
The Lady With the Little Dog, one they walked off together. The title refers to
of Chekhovs greatest tales. A man and the Parcae, the Roman Fates, but the deity at
woman strike up an affair at a Black Sea work is no one other than the author.
resortone that turns, improbably, into a
The writer as master of fate: the notion
lasting lovebut in Petrushevskaya, as usual, gets a very personal interpretation in the most
we see it from the outside, with full frontal sar- remarkable story in Sisters Husband, Young
casm. There they are, trying to danceour Berries. The piece is Nabokovian, though
golden couplethe delicate Carmen and her not in the usual sense. As in Ada or Ardor and
faithful husband. But slowly the lovers with- elsewhere, we read of an enchanted world of
draw from the crowd, into a privacy it cannot adolescent eros on a Russian estateonly
besmirch and a felicity it cannot comprehend. this estate has been repurposed (its the early
Happiness is possible in Petrushevskaya, but 1950s) as a childrens sanatorium, and the
it is always an aberration, always a mystery.
heroines 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
out of this world & out of time & out
at once, the narrator refers to the
of love & out of mind & out of the
protagonist as both she and I.
A mother brought her girl to a
pan & out of butter, out of anger
sanatorium for sickly children, the
& out of mother, out of the cradle
piece begins. I was that girl.
A story of love, it is also a story
& out of pocket, out of space & out
of survival. The girl is a misfit, an
of cash & out of change & out of sight
outcast. Ejected from the group
& out of range & force of habit
(Excreted was the word for such
children. Anyone could abuse
& out of oil & out of whack & out
them in any way), she risks destruction by the boys who roam the
of water & Damascus, out of courtesy
schoolyard like a pack of wolves.
& out of shock & out of duty
What saves her are her gifts: her
& out of turn & out of tune & out of line
voice, her intellect, her talent, but
most of all, her self-control. Unlike
those other girls in Sisters Husband,
& out of the ground & out of his gourd
she understands the difference be& out of all the possible solutions,
tween reality and romance, and she
out of the ashes & conviction
keeps the latter in its place, along
with her predatory dreamboat. Back
in Moscow at her communal apartANNA MARIA HONG

I, Diet

March 24, 2014

ment (shes 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 Petrushevskayas
approach in the pieces collected in Neighbors
Baby. Allegorical, fantastic, they nonetheless
take up the same material as those in Sisters
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 thats
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. Theres 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 were somewhere
else, in physical and literary space, or maybe
were in both locales at once. We start with
realismthat same realism, that same reality, that in Sisters Husband crushes allbut
then, before we have a chance to mark the
change, were 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 isnt magic realism, fantastic elements within an otherwise familiar setting. It
is the simultaneous presence of two distinct
worlds: in contact, interpenetrating or even
somehow superimposedreal 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

March 24, 2014

Already the story is split. The first sentence

tells us that the womans 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 hes 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 resurrectorarms outstretched, wounds on his handsbut 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. Whats
he need a coffin for? she asks. Well sell his
body to the med school.
The Miracle is typical of Neighbors
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
noa lot like the stories themselves.

hat is certain is that Petrushevskaya

employs the mystical as a mighty
source of psychological metaphor.
As fine as are the tales in Sisters
Husband, those in Neighbors 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

The Nation.

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 sorcerers
art, Petrushevskaya conjures up her spiritual
symbols. A father searches for his children;
he doesnt know their names or what they
look like, because he hasnt 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 shes buried in her flesh.
But if there is a single emotion, in particular, on which the tales in Neighbors Baby
dwell, it is grief. As in The Miracle, it is
the loss or threatened loss of a childor a
spouse, or a parent, or the selfthat 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 wanderlost, helpless, in
the darkis 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 threedimensional, 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-offactly, 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. Theyll come for us eventually,
the Crusoes knowthat they requiring no
more explanation than did itbut in the
meantime, amidst the cold desolate space
spread out around us on all sides, this new
extended family becomes a spark, an ark.
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 familyand 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
husbands body, even though shed 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.
Petrushevskayas highest value, finally, is
not imagination but lovingkindness. Thats
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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