Ludmilla Petrushevskaya has something to say about happy endings. The 74-year-old Russian storyteller, who begged in the streets as a child, who once lived under a desk with her mother, who grew up to have a husband who became paralyzed and died in his early 30s, whose young son was sent away due to illness, and who was charged with a felony for criticizing Mikhail Gorbachev, is clearly not predisposed to crafting tales that swell and swoon toward a “happily ever after.” Yet with her new collection of short fiction, There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories, Petrushevskaya explores suffering, sexual desire, folly–and, ultimately, satisfaction–in equally loving measure.
The collection spans a period of work beginning in 1972 and continuing through 2008. Not surprisingly, Petrushevskaya had a difficult time publishing her stories during the Soviet years. To be sure, her fiction is not polemical; it never uses the words “communism” or “Soviet,” nor does it offer characters who are direct victims of any regime’s oppression. Her work is far more dangerous than that: by showing the abject loneliness and the scarcity present in her character’s lives, by inhabiting Moscow’s cramped and noisy apartments, by unraveling the twisting family dramas of the time, Petrushevskaya exposes far more about the conditions of Russian life than any overtly political work.
“Sometimes they laughed in my face,” Petrushevskaya said, in an email via her translator, of her experience trying to publish her work during those years. “In the best of cases, I was politely advised to come up with happier endings.” (To read the complete text of Petrushevskaya's responses, click here.)
Petrushevskaya, however, forged on with her devastating stories of women who seek love from drunkards, from strangers on a beach, from superiors in the workplace, from their own husbands, grown abrasively old and unresponsive. In the story “Give Her to Me,” she refers to the “local elite–prominent alcoholics and their girlfriends in various states of decline.” Without saying anything of rations or jail, forced labor or mass starvation, her stories sharply condemn the society they reflect.
What makes the work truly compelling, though, is that the daily humiliations and sufferings of her characters, as evocative of our collectively imagined Russia as they may be, are unexpectedly universal. Petrushevskaya, a child of war and an intimate of hunger, also happens to be a great fan of Susan Boyle, the unlikely singing contestant who rocketed to stardom on British television. Her notions of romantic fantasy and desire should also be familiar to American readers. The story “The Fall” describes a “blue-collar Carmen” who dresses in heels and a bad perm in search of “a little womanly happiness (as imagined in soap operas).”
Like characters in an Almodóvar film, then, Petrushevskaya’s women find rescue in the temporary relief of noncommittal sex, in brief glimpses of hope that occur even as a romantic partner is walking out a door for good.
“When we are rescued and suffering ends,” she says, “this is when we experience deepest happiness. That is why suffering has value.”
Petrushevskaya’s life now strongly hints that some semblance of a happy ending has taken hold. In addition to writing stories, she has also written for the theater, painted, and created animated films. While she has long had good relations with her neighbors, though, she recently moved and is no longer building new friendships.
“Common people treat celebrities with irony and contempt, as accessible clowns,” she explains.
In an enchanting stroke of artistic growth, Petrushevskaya has also become a much beloved singer in venues ranging from nightclubs to concert halls. Taking the stage in large hats and chunky turquoise rings, Petrushevskaya is simultaneously a grande dame and a village eccentric. Her voice is sly and soaked in thick Old World smoke. She is also known to alter the lyrics to well-known songs, making them her own.
“Why would a poet use someone else’s verse?” she asks.
That she has survived the brutality of the last century and become revered as a giant of European letters, that she enchants fellow Russians with song and with her very presence–perhaps this, finally, is a fitting response to those who demanded a happier ending.
David Garza lives in New York City.