There Once Lived A Girl
Who Seduced Her Sister’s
Husband, And He Hanged
Himself: Love Stories
By Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Translated by Anna Summers
171 pages, $15 (paper)
By Karen Brady
News Book Reviewer
Love – without sentiment or romance or any of the usual accoutrements – fuels a newly translated story collection by Russia’s remarkable Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.
Timeless and succinct, hers are glum but droll fables that go straight to the point – as does the collection’s title, “There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself.”
This is not the name of a story, but the spirit of several (under the apt heading “Hallelujah, Family!”) – each a cautionary tale of love in all of its contradiction.
Women are the focus here, women of late- and post-Soviet Russia, women who live in cramped quarters in and around Moscow, often with extended family, always without privacy.
“This is what happened,” begins “A Murky Fate,” the first story in the collection. “An unmarried woman in her thirties implored her mother to leave their studio apartment for one night so she could bring home a lover …”
This is Petrushevskaya’s style, unfettered but jam-packed with information – and always on target. There is no meandering, not with Petrushevskaya – who is brought to us here by the wonderful translator Anna Summers, herself born in Moscow.
In a beautiful introduction to this collection of Petrushevskaya’s love stories, Summers tells us that they are the result of Petrushevskaya paying attention to her countrywomen, listening “on crowded subway platforms, on playgrounds, in apartments, and in other locales of ordinary life. All the stories in this collection have happened. All these sad and strange characters have real counterparts.”
The “ordinary life” or (in Russian) “byt” that Summers speaks of is key here.
“In Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s love stories, byt means waiting in line for basic goods, from potatoes to winter shoes,” Summers says. “It means inflation that robs old people of their savings … it means an ambulance that takes an hour to come to a dying woman … it means alcoholism, obsolete ideology, anti-Semitism, poverty, inhumane laws – all the follies and cruelties of late- and post-Soviet society. Above all, byt means a shortage of housing.”
It takes strong women to survive byt – and that is what Petrushevskaya gives us in story after story, each tale peppered with such expository sentences as, “And there you have the background to the midnight call,” or “Is that it? Not quite,” or “This Christmas story has a sad beginning and a happy ending.”
One tale, “The Adventures of Vera,” suggests that Petrushevskaya’s women become strong early:
“Vera turned sixteen, and nothing but scenes followed, one after the next … She quit school, without asking anyone, and apprenticed herself as a junior salesgirl at a department store. Often (Vera’s co-workers) said to her, ‘Greetings from Ivan the Fool!’
“They were referring, of course, to love, for what else could girls of eighteen talk about? They discussed other things, naturally: books, weather, terrible accidents in the city, injustice and deceit, their childhoods, the constant ache in their feet, and problems at work. But mostly they spoke about friendship and love, tried to analyze their feelings, applied intuition or simply closed their eyes to everything and cried their hearts out, and gradually, in the course of these conversations, acquired a protective layer of hardness that sealed their mouths and left them to fight their grown-up battles alone, wordlessly.”
There is a universality here, rarely put so concisely. And there is, in a mere 171 pages, almost too much life to bear. But there is, in each and every tale, a saving grace – and that is Petrushevskaya’s wonderful wit, a wit, one could argue, against all odds.
In “Give Her to Me,” the story of a married songwriter and his unmarried lyricist, Petrushevskaya refers to their general manager: “Tartiuk liked his women fat; on every heavy derriere he commented, ‘What a centaur!’ ” In “Tamara’s Baby,” a curious but most rewarding tale about a homeless writer taken in by a wealthy older woman, the writer debates early on about whether he will attend a free health resort for the poor, deciding, “October wasn’t so bad. Pushkin liked October.”
Chance plays a big role in these stories, selected by Summers. So do children, particularly newly born children – who seem to give many of Petrushevskaya’s women a raison d’être. When one of them, Clarissa, finds a third husband, an airline pilot of some means, we are told her life begins “to flow toward a peaceful, healthy maturity, with its rotation of summer vacations, children’s illnesses, and major purchases.”
“The Story of Clarissa,” Summers tells us, was Petrushevskaya’s first, published in 1972. Another tale, “Like Penélope,” was brought out initially in a 2008 Russian collection marking Petrushevskaya’s 70th birthday. In this fable, a girl named Oksana dons a dress sewn for her by an 80-year-old, the mother of her mother’s first husband, who deems Oksana, “Like Penélope like Cruz.”
“Young Berries,” among the strongest and surely the most moving in this collection, deals with pubescent awakenings and the cruelty of youth. It is apparently autobiographical – for, like its protagonist, Petrushevskaya and her mother once lived under a desk in her grandfather’s room.
All is, therefore, never lost in her stories – for with strength comes endurance, and with endurance resilience. Petrushevskaya herself has risen from childhood of near-homelessness to become a national treasure, a playwright as well as a novelist and short-story writer and, in her later years, an artist and songstress as well.
Summers, who grew up in an apartment on Moscow’s outskirts, was introduced to the life and work of Petrushevskaya, she tells us, by her own mother “who adored Petrushevskaya’s fatalism as lived reality and taught me to read her in the same spirit.”
Thus, Summers has read Petrushevskaya in three phases of her life – as a girl, as a student and as a wife and mother, learning “to read her with a smile, to delight in her humor, her irony, her steadfast refusal to save her characters, or her readers, from themselves.”
Currently literary editor of the Cambridge, Mass.-based journal The Baffler, Summers was also co-translator of a 2009 book of “Scary Fairy Tales” by Petrushevskaya, “There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby.”
If, as it’s said, God created man because he loves stories – how pleased he must be with Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s.
Karen Brady is a retired Buffalo News columnist.