Dread and Wonder The unflinching fiction of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

We are likely to hear a lot more of this woman. Some October, perhaps, from the Nobel Prize committee. She certainly has the stature. Translated into many languages, the winner of multiple major awards, not only is she Russia’s leading dramatist by wide agreement, she is also its leading author of fiction, the mother of contemporary women’s writing in the country. In the words of Anna Summers, her English translator, “She is the only living Russian classic. No one comes near.” Students study her in high schools. Scholars write their dissertations on her both in Russia and abroad. Her seventieth birthday was marked by an official national celebration. As for her plays, which are staged around the world, a handful are typically running in Russia at any given time, and one, Moscow Choir, has been a staple of the White Nights cultural festival in St. Petersburg for over twelve years. Still going strong at 75, an accomplished singer, performer and painter to boot, she is also co-scenarist ofTale of Tales, repeatedly selected as the greatest animated film of all time. In The Cambridge Introduction to Russian Literature, only two post-Stalinist writers are given sections of their own. One is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The other is Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.
That we are still so unfamiliar with her in America is partly her own doing, in several senses. Her writing is insistently colloquial and conversational, a record of the voices that she hears around her on the streets and in the subways, in Moscow’s arid offices and overcrowded flats. Her prose, as a result, is highly idiomatic, and therefore highly problematic for translation. When The Time Is Night, the novella that’s regarded as her masterpiece, was published in an execrable version twenty years ago, she forswore further translation into English. More recently, through Summers’s efforts, she has been persuaded to relent. A first selection, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby, appeared in 2009; a second, There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself, in 2013. This fall will bring a third: a trio of novellas, including The Time Is Night and Among Friends, her most controversial work of prose.
“Father and Mother,” one of the pieces in Sister’s Husband, concerns a girl who grows up in a house of unrelenting squalor and conjugal hatred. “Everything that happened to her afterward,” the story ends—and “everything” means homelessness, to start with—“all this adversity she considered happiness, and not a shadow of doubt or despair ever touched her.” The tale provides a clue to Petrushevskaya’s resilience, vitality, even optimism. Nothing she would face in later life could measure up to what she dealt with as a child. Conceived out of wedlock (a huge taboo back then), denounced by her father before she was out of the womb, Petrushevskaya was born to a prominent Bolshevik family that was in the midst of going under in the Great Purge. Some were shot or exiled; the rest were classified as enemies of the people, which meant that they had no official right to food or shelter—and Petrushevskaya grew up during the war, when it was hard enough to survive even with official right to food and shelter.
Widowed young and with a child, Petrushevskaya did not begin to write until about age 30. A couple of stories were published in 1972, another handful in the decade and a half to come, but for the most part she was banned. Her pieces were too dark, too frank, too much of a challenge to the authorized picture of Soviet life. She turned to the theater instead, staging performances with student groups, at factory clubs, in makeshift rooms. Gradually, her reputation grew. In 1988, with glasnost, she was finally allowed to publish the prose that had been accumulating for twenty years. The resulting book, Immortal Love, became a signal cultural event, greeted by her audience—Russia’s ordinary struggling urbanites, and in particular its impoverished intelligentsia—with a shock of gratitude and recognition. All this time, as Summers puts it, all those years, someone had been writing down what they were going through. Someone had been bearing witness to their lives.
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