Dip into these short stories with humility. And stay open. Russian author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s 17 stories collected under the heading of “love,” are liable to expand if not revise an American’s understanding of love; of life, even. These short, contemporary stories of late- and post-Soviet Russia are a wonder of candor, brevity and assertion.
“There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories,” by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. Selected and translated with an introduction by Anna Summer. Penguin Books. 171 pages. $15.
Dip into these short stories with humility. And stay open. Russian author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s 17 stories collected under the heading of “love” are liable to expand if not revise an American’s understanding of love; of life, even.
These short, contemporary stories of late- and post-Soviet Russia are a wonder of candor, brevity and assertion. They are fearless and devastating, hard on the outside, with stunning glimpses of vulnerability throughout. Called “macabre” by some critics, the stories are, rather, grim and dark and wry. Petrushevskaya’s voice is observant, critical and as unsympathetic as it is wise. She is said to be among the great Russian storytellers. Only in 1988 were her stories allowed to be circulated in Russia. She is now in her 70s.
Stories with titles like “A Murky Fate,” “The Impulse” and “A Happy Ending” describe conditions that are nearly unendurable — a mother and child who live under a desk; a husband who throws his wife, the mother of his child, out of the house and into the street and leaves her to stalk her beloved child from the side of the road till she is found half dead; a young student who uses her voice and her brains to elevate her own sense of self-worth in the face of dangerous and daily harassment.
The characters in these stories are educated, they have expectations of love and family, they prepare themselves for worthwhile jobs. But they are up against severe housing and job shortages. Whatever hopes they begin with evaporate with time. They succumb to one-night stands. They drink. They pitch loud fits of pique. On the other hand, they make allowances, accept the flaws, in hopes of love. Love, we find out, is a privilege, like the hothouse orchid that is way too fragile and needy of attention and resources to survive in such dire, bereft conditions. The love these characters accept, finally, is primal and unglamorous.
Two of my favorite in the book are “Milgrom” and the last story in the book, “A Happy Ending.” Milgrom is an old housekeeper and seamstress, once beautiful, whose abusive husband deprives her of her home and her son. She throws herself into her grief and nearly dies. She is rescued by a wealthy woman who employs her. Milgrom’s son Sasha has a daughter and Milgrom’s tiny room displays her small family’s photographs. Petrushevskaya writes “…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.”
In “A Happy Ending” Polina lives with her well-educated, unfaithful husband. He brings home a venereal disease, and from that moment on Polina hates him. They fight, she complains regularly to a patient friend, and the husband reciprocates. “After each screaming match they would crawl into their respective lairs, shaking with unspent tears, to pop heart pills…” Polina has a leach of a son and daughter-in-law. Even her grandchild disappoints her with his cruelty. When she inherits a small house from her aunt, she moves in, plants a tiny garden, and lives happily for a few months. When she returns to Moscow to collect her pension, she visits her husband and finds that he is addled, filthy and hungry. She cleans him up and feeds him cereal and he, in turn, offers her a bite.
Page 2 of 2 - We read of daunting hardship that dulls love’s glamour as it tests the strength of one’s humanity. What is left is what Petrushevskaya comes to in her stories.
In “There Once Lived a Girl,” the balance between the need to love and the need to survive creates a brutal, sometime humorous world. Petrushevskaya, according to Anna Summer, her translator (who lives in Boston and wrote the introduction), says that the author was once a journalist and an esteemed playwright. She has observed the people she writes about and she has captured them.
Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in bookstores. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or follow her @RaeAF.