March 2013

Elvis Bego


There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband and He Hanged Himself by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, translated by Anna Summers

The first thing you have to take in is the sprawling title: There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband and He Hanged Himself. It demands a reaction from you. The previous collection of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's stories was called There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales. And there will be more. Here's Penguin's schedule for her forthcoming books:

1.     There Once Was an American Student Abroad Who Fell in Love with Nutella and This Thing Totally Took Over Till She Dropped Out and She Now Sells Umbrellas in Bruges, and Other Cautionary Tales, 2013.

2.     In About 1906 a Man Climbed a Mountain and There Wrestled With the Ghost of his Own Reckless Potency and the Memory of a Weird, Psychologically Ambiguous Childhood, and Other Bergmanesque Sketches, 2015.

3.     There Will Be Jobs, and Other Fictions, 2016.

4.     My American Translators Love Cute Titles, and Other Death Threats, 2018.

The list is fake of course, but flippancy is fun. The actual titles will surely caress some like a new roll of sandpaper. At any rate, they reflect the writer's frivolous, often unpredictable imagination. Before Penguin started putting out her stories, I knew Petrushevskaya by one thing only, and what a thing: she was the co-writer of Yuriy Norshteyn's Tale of Tales, to my mind the greatest animated film of all time. The stories here are less surreal in manner, less elegiac in tone, and more linear in structure. But they have a similar preoccupation with human desire and striking detail.

The seventeen stories in this collection are arranged in four sections. Each story is on average six or seven pages long, so there's none of the formulaic bulk of so much contemporary American fiction and its expository bio-psychology that aches to imply a subtle knowingness. These may be stories of love, but it isn't pink love we are offered. Love is often, as for instance in "The Fall," a kind of creaturely struggle, a mating ritual for the fittest. There are desperate existences here, lovers yearning for connection, but true connection may be elusive. "What awaits them is worse than death. What awaits them is eternal separation." There are more felicitous encounters too, though.

Petrushevskaya's heroines in particular heave with life, and she considers their psyches with unerring fearlessness. They are not anemic constructs; their motives may be deviant as they may be pure. In other words, they are human. In her hands, hilarity lurks below yarns of private catastrophe. Darkness here is painted with brightness. She seems to understand that polar elements are interchangeable. Pure white is essentially the same thing as pure black. The stories seem grounded in overheard anecdotage. Reading them is like hearing a masterful raconteur in some strange bar, deep in his cups late at night. The tone here to my ear sounds Viennese, Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig, that kind of thing. Or Parisian, in the Maupassant line. There is a lightness to the sentences with their urbane descriptions. They are matter-of-factly procedural, swiftly unraveling the tale, always to the point, the linearity of gesture thickening into the arc of story. The hull of her style is barnacled with sardonic wisdom.

Inside that style live both the fancy of fairy tale and the photographic eye of the modernists. She delights in short yet expansive openings in which she seems to reveal too much (at least according to predominant mainstream practices, which, as I've pompously declared elsewhere, mostly proceed from Chekhovian, i.e. slow-moving, precepts): "There once lived a girl who was beloved by her mother but no one else." Or, "This Christmas story has a sad beginning and a happy ending." Or, "This is what happened. An unmarried woman in her thirties implored her mother to leave their one-room apartment for one night so she could bring home a lover."

Many of the stories were written and are set in a recognizable Soviet milieu, but they are not at all concerned with politics, at least not directly. This seems to be merely the accidental circumstance against which human relations are explored. Maybe she was afraid of the censors.

The book has a fine introduction by its translator Anna Summers (whose English reads wonderfully, and doesn't feel like Translatorese), and in it she gives useful biographical material. Useful, as some of Petrushevskaya's life sounds like one of her stories, with hints of the mythic. One detail should suffice: "Petrushevskaya and her mother lived under a desk in her insane grandfather's room." The world of Petrushevskaya's stories does have a persistent sense of teetering on the edge of lunacy, and sex is one of the deranging agents. Reason, as in Bulgakov, seems negotiable, fragile. Summers also rightly points out the stories' preoccupation with maternal matters. But the parent-child love is not pink, either: like everything else, it is a conundrum which humans can hope to merely grope toward in the dark. There is a distinct strangeness to the way her imagination reassembles the known world into prose. Strangeness, I think (as does Harold Bloom, I realize), is one of the necessities of authentic writing.

In the family tree of Russian literature there are many branches and dynasties. One particular line seems to my admittedly non-expert mind to go Gogol-Leskov-Bulgakov-Petrushevskaya. I wonder what the subtitle of the next collection will be: Cruel Tales (check out Villiers L'Isle-adam, a master of short prose), or Interesting (for Once) Vampire Stories, or Bedwetting Anecdotes. I'm sure she could redeem even those ridiculous frames. On the evidence of the two collections available to us, Petrushevskaya is one of the more interesting storytellers of our time.

There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband and He Hanged Himself by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, translated by Anna Summers
Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-0143121527
192 pages