Review: There Once Lived A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories by Ludmila Petrushevskaya

This is a book that's hard to pin down.

It's a collection of 17 stories by Russian writer Ludmila Petrushevskaya and it falls a little short what I would have wanted to see, as far as editing collections goes. We are given no useful information about these stories. We are told in the introduction that they span the whole of Petrushevskaya's life, but it's unclear if they're the only short stories she's written (they are not). There are no dates attached to any of the stories, beyond a statement in the introduction that the first of them was published in 1972 and the last in 2008. Why is this important, though? After all, we're only here for the literature, right? Well, it's important because the translator, Anna Summers, is the one who selected the stories and organized them in sections. The theme for each section is transparent and their interplay is sometimes clever. Nonetheless, there is a meta-story being told here and it's Summers' story, not Petrushevskaya's. Or perhaps it is Petrushevskaya's after all, and this is the most natural order for these stories, but we have no way of evaluating that. This lack of basic tools is even more frustrating when you realize that it's not something Google can fix for you if you don't speak Russian (and perhaps not even then). 

All that being said, I don't dislike the story Summers is telling and there are nice touches running throughout. For example, in the very first story, "an unmarried woman in her thirties implored her mother to leave their studio apartment for one night so she could bring home a lover." The night is unsatisfactory and, as the man leaves, "skipping off happily, unaware of the catastrophe," she decides the affair is over. And yet, the very next day, reminded of the humiliating loneliness of her divorced coworker, she decides she loves him and "tears of joy welled up in her eyes." The very last story is that of an old, married woman who discovers her independence away from her family when she inherits an apartment. Her life thus reaches "its final, happy phase." I appreciated this contrast.

The juxtaposition in the book's title becomes clear from the very first story: these are love stories, yes, but they're sad and cruel. Though perhaps those are not the right words. They require something more than Petrushevskaya's narrator allows for. "This is what happened." is the sentence that opens the volume. "This is, in short, what happened" answers another opening sentence further on, from the story whose storyline gives the name for this volume (Hallelujah, Family!). That story is told in the form of a numbered list. There is a sort of ruthless narrative efficiency reminiscent of folk tales at work here. (I was at times, in fact, put in mind of Angela Carter's Bloody Chamber while reading this.)

There are a couple of exceptions to this style. The most striking one - and one of the best stories of the volume - is Young Berries. Its opening paragraph sets the narrative mechanism in place. "A mother brought her girl to a sanatorium for sickly children and then left. I was that girl." The story alternates between the first and third person as it unfolds and, partly as a result, it reads more personal than the rest. There is this wonderful moment when the narrator is going on in third person about how the girl kept losing her things: her handkerchief, her mittens, her scarf and one of her stockings. And then a parenthesis: "(One lies there by the bed; the other God knows where.)" and with this we know how small the gap between narrator and the events is, even in third person. The narrator is reliving the frustration of the child in the present. 

This is also the only story, I think, that addresses communism directly. We're told explicitly that the system in the sanatorium is a reflection of Soviet society, and the bullying the girl initially receives is framed as the reaction of this communal society to anyone who stands out or doesn't conform to its rules. This alleviates a bit my annoyance with one aspect of Summers' introduction, which I felt tried too hard to push the "These stories take place in the grim, depressing world of Soviet Russia and because of it." interpretation. I think that for most of these stories this is not true. The setting is specific, but the actions and feelings that populate it are not unequivocally tied to it. If I believed in the Great Russian Soul, I'd say that what these stories show, if anything, is that whatever was up with Russians before communism continued to be the case during communism. As I don't believe in the Great Russian Soul, I will say that whatever is up with people in general continues to be up with people in Soviet Russia as well. And that's reason enough for the communist authorities not to like Petrushevskaya. You don't have to say "You caused the human condition." for the communists to hate you. It suffices to say "You haven't overcome the human condition." to be in trouble.

Then again, Young Berries is explicitly tied to its context and I would be tempted to read it as a sort of key to the rest of the collection (as the one where the author shows her hand, if you want), if only this volume had been put together by Petrushevskaya herself, so perhaps I'm pushing too hard on this.

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