Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, May 26, 2017

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, _There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself_ (tr. Anna Summers)

AS FAR AS I can find out, this collection of Petrushevskaya's short stories does not correspond to any Russian language collection of hers. The selection and arrangement are those of the translator--as is, I think, the somewhat tarted-up title. In the story to which the title seems to refer, we read:

3. there were two sisters: one was married, the other was just fifteen, and she got pregnant by her brother-in-law, who hanged himself while she gave birth to a daughter she hated.

So, how did the word "seduced" get in there? The story, it turns out, is not even really about the sisters or the husband/brother-in-law; that sentence is about the only appearance they make in it, and it has none of the femme-fatale-ish flavor hinted at in the volume's title. The story is really about the "hated" daughter (Elena), and that daughter's daughter (Alla), and the daughter's daughter's daughter (Nadya), and how (to vary Larkin's phrase) woman hands on misery to woman, deepening like a coral shelf.

The stories, are short, dry, crisp, brilliant, and they do tend to be about misery.  Not precisely the misery readers of Soviet lit will remember from Nadya Mandelstam's Hope Against Hope or Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, although Petrushevskaya's family was apparently often on the regime's shitlist, but more the routine miseries of dispiriting work, cramped quarters, and disappointed expectations.

Not much goes right for Petrushevskaya's characters, but she does not pity or condescend to them, and she is not at all given to melodrama or any kind of overstatement. An odd thing, though--often the stories end with a just-slightly-upbeat note. Not any kind of last-minute redemption or reprieve, nothing Hollywood-like, just a hint that even with all that has gone wrong for them, the characters have a capacity for survival.

For example, the last sentence of "Like Penelope":

Mama Nina observed her daughter and wondered where this new slow grace in her movements had come from, the twinkles in her laughing black eyes, the wave in her hair, the gorgeous dress.... Of course: she made it herself.

Or of "Milgrom":

The black dress [of Milgrom's daughter Sasha] shimmies down Little Bronnaya [Street], which is filled with light, underneath the setting sun, and that's it now, the day is burning its last, 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.

Both these moments are hedged with irony, and the overall outlook is still bleak, but these people seem able to keep going.

Wouldn't you know, the ending of the story titled "Happy Ending" is the one that seems unrelievedly bleak. A tragically under appreciated wife finally gets away from her husband at last, but just when you think she is in the clear, she returns just for a last look and is snared again for keeps.

Petrushevskaya deserves a wide audience--which is probably what they were hoping for with that tarted-up title. Well, I hope it works.

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