Women on the Verge - Love Stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

For years, acceptable portrayals of Soviet women in art were limited to the ideal proletariat, a strong-jawed woman with flashing eyes and scythe in hand, or the fairy tale Snow Queen in furs.

It’s no surprise that the realistic short stories and pessimistic plays of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, who began writing in the 1960s, were banned until glasnost. Her bleak fictions depicted Soviet women as the human workhorses they were. They did not live in castles or picturesque garrets but in mini-gulags, subdivided apartments, which deprived the generations of families and strangers forced to cohabitate of any sense of privacy. (As a child, Petrushevskaya and her mother lived under a desk in her mentally ill grandfather’s room.) Her work was suppressed because she matter-of-factly described the horrors of domestic life in a society that abolished the self.

Many of Petrushevskaya’s stories can be considered fantastic. Her breakout book in America, “There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby,” was cheekily marketed as “Scary Fairy Tales.” These stories teemed with grotesque and supernatural elements that masked the real terror: how unrelenting misery transforms human beings into monsters.

The new collection, “There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself,” is slyly subtitled “Love Stories.” These 17 tales, selected and translated by Anna Summers, who herself grew up in those “cramped, ghoulish blocks of apartments,” follow Petrushevskaya’s writing career from her first published story in 1972 to one published on her 70th birthday in 2008. They are deeply unromantic love stories told frankly, with an elasticity and economy of language. The characters are often pathetic, incomprehensible. “Doctor Zhivago” this ain’t.

The first lines of the first story, “A Murky Fate,” establish the tone and themes of the book: “This is what happened. An unmarried woman in her 30s implored her mother to leave their studio apartment for one night so she could bring home a lover.” The lover turns out to be her co-worker — a slovenly, narcissistic married man. The next day she discovers that despite their dispassionate and perfunctory encounter, she is madly in love. Is it possible that she truly desires this toad? Or does she just want to enter the kingdom of tragic women who have loved and lost? Does it matter? Is it so wrong to want to have a love story?

A few stories capture a character in a Chekhovian moment of clarity; some read like family lore, recounted without fanfare or urgency; others echo the gossip women exchange like currency. What is consistent is the dark, fatalistic humor and bone-deep irony Petrushevskaya’s characters employ as protection against the biting cold of loneliness and misfortune that seems their birthright.

Even when a story ends with the narrator suggesting that a couple lived happily ever after, it rings false. We suspect the teller has tired of the story and is deliberately concluding on a mawkish note. What one can cling to is reward enough — a home, even if shared with a host of other miserables; children, even if they are scheming to steal your money and your home; a man, even if he is unfaithful, abusive and unpredictable.

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