Fairy Tales, Russian Style

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

At the same time as I was writing the recent blog essay about older artists, I was meeting for the first time a 79-year-old Russian writer, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, through the pages of her short story collection There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Babies (U.S. publication 2009). If that title holds appeal, odds are you’ll enjoy her follow-up collection, There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories (2013).

I had not heard of Petrushevskaya until recently tripping over a reference to her work, not to mention her name. Since the late 1980s her work has been published in more than 30 languages and received many awards. She has become better known to American readers over the last decade as translations were published in the U.S. The collection I just read became a New York Times Book Review bestseller.

As her titles suggest, she possesses an imagination drawn to the macabre and grim. Yet her work is also leavened with a rueful recounting of our bumbling efforts to find love and meaning admidst bleakness, a frequent quest in Chekhov’s stories and plays. Of course, seeking is not the same as finding.

The more I learned about Petrushevskaya, the more impressed I was. In the first part of her career her writing was banned. Its excessive bleakness didn’t exactly accord with communist ideals. That early work included plays, which were sometimes shut down by the Soviet authorities. (I was so struck by her voice that I hunted down an English translation of several plays and ordered them. I’m eager to hear her voice in the theatrical medium.) She eked out a living with television and radio scripts, journalism, translating and editing.

After glasnost in 1979 her work started being published and quickly gained favor. The worm had turned. Her seventieth birthday in 2008 was a government-sponsored national celebration. Petrushevskaya is now Russia’s best-known living writer, according to Keith Gessen and Anna Summers, the English translators of There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Babies.

Gessen and Summers selected the 19 stories in this volume for their mystical and fantastical tone, one of the keys Petrushevskaya composes in. Bleak, astringent, and compact, these stories are filled with magic, mystery, the supernatural, dreams descending to nightmare. The protagonists are women living in despair or on the far side of its border, lost in grim, surreal states.

The translators locate this style in the tradition of nekyia, a Greek word for a genre of literature and drama that involves visits to the underworld. In classical nekyia characters travel to the underworld and commune with the dead (in the original nekyia, Odysseus drinks human blood so he can speak with them). Modern nekyia, like Alice in Wonderland and The Turn of the Screw, involve near-death experiences and other borderline states. In this volume most every story is a nekyia. I spent much of my time with them trying to figure out where exactly was reality and being fascinated with the journey the author was taking me on. Some of the tales have the dimension of allegory or parable and make a moral delivery.

It’s unclear how much her stories are wholly invented and how much she’s been a good listener. She has explained to one of her translators, “Russia is a land of women Homers, women who tell their stories orally. . .They’re extraordinarily talented storytellers. I’m just a listener among them.”

Petrushevskaya has written a great deal but that’s not all she does. In her late sixties she started a singing career, and then began to write some of her own songs. Since 2008 she has been performing in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia, in venues ranging from nightclubs to large venues. I found a video of her singing (the song’s title translates to “Don’t Get Used”). She exhibits a fondness for big hats. Writing and music must not be enough to satisfy her artistic impulses because she is also a painter, with her work having been shown in major Russian museums.

If your reading of late has been spent in conventional lands and you are ready to travel someplace delightfully eerie, you could do worse than go in the company of this remarkable Russian artist.

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