There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories

This slender, uncanny volume—the second, best-selling collection of stories by Russian author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya to appear in the U.S.—has already received considerable, well-deserved praise from many critics and high profile publications. Its seventeen short tales, averaging ten pages each, are grouped into four sections: “A Murky Fate”; “Hallelujah, Family!”; “My Little One”; and “A Happy Ending.” But there is little in them that readers might associate with true love or happy endings. Instead, Petrushevskaya delivers a smoking, cast-iron skillet upside the head: promiscuity, serial mendacity, domestic violence, dangerous liaisons, ineptitude, ignorance, geriatric romance, and cringing fear. Love stories? Seamy debacles. Hookup sagas set in a grim Moscow and environs. Coupling stories fraught with meanness, misery, and egregious misunderstanding. Workaday women sharing sour, collective apartments and tawdry, loveless lives. Young women who flower, suffer abuse, and wither. Collision stories: hapless women, old before their time, thwarted by brutal men. Though the men hardly fare better.

In “A Murky Fate,” an unmarried thirty-something living with her mother engineers a drab tryst with a man who services her with perfunctory courtesy and patronizing affection. But in her sterile office-life world, this confers a blissful memory: “There was nothing but pain in store for her, yet she cried with happiness and couldn’t stop.”

“The Fall” offers a dry comedy of manners at a state-run seaside resort where vacationers escaping the rainy north come together only to multiply one another’s misery. A gaudy temptress attracts a mooning pack of suitors before efficiently selecting her tall, confident “Number One.” They find the sex lovelorn travelers yearn for, only to fall prisoner to their coveted exclusion and inevitable teary separation: “Our golden couple has departed. The delicate Carmen and her faithful husband, Number One, are jetting through the frozen air away from each other, back to their children and spouses, back to the cold, and to hard, grim work.”

In “The Goddess Parka” a schoolteacher called A.A. goes to summer in the country, rents a porch on a cabin, and falls sway to old Aunt Alevtina who plays Yentl to his bachelor, setting him up with young Nina, but it’s a hard sell: “Nina didn’t impress A.A. She was heavy, very shy, with large pale eyes. But he did notice her casual, almost indifferent manner when she was examining some old prescriptions of Alevtina’s—the manner of a true expert.” Only Alevtina’s funeral provides the maudlin catalyst the shy couple requires to find one another and fall into what promises to be a mechanically indifferent relationship.

Alcoholism, an exposed nerve throughout the collection, drives the story of Ali-Baba, a scheming addict who hocks her mother’s first edition volumes of Russian symbolist poet Alexander Blok for drink and drug money. One of Blok’s own poems speaks perfectly to Ali-Baba’s dead-end existence:

Night, street and streetlight, drugstore,
The purposeless, half-dim, drab light.
For all the use live on a quarter century—
Nothing will change. There’s no way out.

You’ll die—and start all over, live twice,
Everything repeats itself, just as it was:
Night, the canal’s rippled icy surface,
The drugstore, the street, and streetlight.1

-10 October, 1912

It’s a tale of misery masquerading as self-preservation, as Ali-Baba attempts to escape from her so-called “life partner”: “[He] had tossed her over the railing of his balcony for stealing his booze. She hung four floors above the ground, clutching at the railing, until two truck drivers forced their way into the apartment and rescued her.” Ali-Baba’s own weird magic is that of a strange survivor; her Cave of Sesame is state-mandated rehab to which she gravitates, but only on her own sick terms. This involves a tryst with the drunken Victor, who is as crocked as Dostoyevsky’s Marmeladov from Crime and Punishment. When Victor pisses the bed, she ODs on sleeping pills and wakes up in the psychiatric hospital to fresh sheets and three squares a day.

“Two Deities” offers the awkward mismatch between thirty-five-year-old senior editor Genya and Dima, a simple, office courier of twenty. A single drunken encounter—on her mother’s sofa—after an office party, produces a child, and they become reluctant, embarrassed parents: ordinary failures in the public eye, but gods to the child who has, unlike so many, a reliable mother and father.

Sweet, virtuous Oksana in “Like Penélope” (as in Cruz) faces the common, nearly impossible challenge of finding love while trying to eke out some kind of modern life: “Oksana studied forestry in a third-tier college—the only one she could attend for free. Upon graduation she could expect to get a clerical job in a state agency tallying birches and firs on paper. She and her mother shared a two-room apartment in a standard concrete building.” Their drab, nondescript warren of misery is a standard location for these tales:

“In one respect their housing situation stood out: right below them, on the third floor, lived an incredibly noisy family of violent alcoholics. Every night the floor shook with screams, banging, and knocking; the lady of the house regularly interrupted her partying to stumble outside and yell “Murder!” and “Help!” Oksana tiptoed past their ravaged door; outside she dressed in dark clothing and wore her hat low over her face.”

Her mother, Nina, holds a thankless job editing textbooks, but she is a charitable soul. She takes in Klava, an old Ukranian friend hiding from “shakers”—violent loan sharks pursuing her son, Misha. Nina’s charity, vexing to her daughter, eventually brings Oksana face to face with Misha, and the hint of a dangerous, derailing passion.

“Father and Mother” is a short study in Dostoyevskian madness wherein young Tanya longs to escape from her endlessly warring parents; the father a carefree soldier, the mother a negligent harridan with an unwashed brood:

“The squalor of that household was beyond description, because the mother did her housework sloppily, saving her energy for the high point of her day: for eleven at night, which bled into midnight and later, so the children got no sleep and couldn’t get up in the morning for school. The mother went further in her sacred rage, appearing at the officers’ mess with the little one and kicking her husband as he walked out the door, as if to disprove the conventional wisdom that such methods never brought anyone’s husband back (quite the opposite). Leaving behind her children unfed, she’d chase her husband through town, screaming the most horrible things—that, say, she had found bloody rags tucked in a hole in the wall and that Tanya had had a miscarriage by her father.”

This passage eerily echoes the wrenching battles between Crime and Punishment’s Marmeladov and Katerina Ivanovna Marmeladova:

“Ah!” she cried out in a frenzy, “he has come back! The criminal! the monster! … And where is the money? What’s in your pocket, show me! And your clothes are all different! Where are your clothes? Where is the money! Speak!”

And she fell to searching him. Marmeladov submissively and obediently held up both arms to facilitate the search. Not a farthing was there.

“Where is the money?” she cried—“Mercy on us, can he have drunk it all? There were twelve silver rubles left in the chest!” and in a fury she seized him by the hair and dragged him into the room. Marmeladov seconded her efforts by meekly crawling along on his knees.

“And this is a consolation to me! This does not hurt me, but is a positive con-so-la-tion, ho-nou-red sir,” he called out, shaken to and fro by his hair and even once striking the ground with his forehead. The child asleep on the floor woke up, and began to cry. The boy in the corner losing all control began trembling and screaming and rushed to his sister in violent terror, almost in a fit. The eldest girl was shaking like a leaf.

“He’s drunk it! He’s drunk it all,” the poor woman screamed in despair —“and his clothes are gone! And they are hungry, hungry!”—and wringing her hands she pointed to the children. “Oh, accursed life!”2

The most experimental tale of the bunch—inspiration for the collection’s macabre title—is “Hallelujah, Family!,” a complicated, multi-generational, matriarchal tangle of several daughters born out of wedlock, written as a chain of 45 numbered paragraphs, confusing enough to sometimes require embedded reference numbers:

36. [Victor had] accumulated several notes from Zhanna as well as a number of letters from Alla with pictures of little Nadya, who was a replica of Victor plus dimples and curls. His mother also wrote—that Alla’s life with her mentally ill mother (2–5) was becoming unbearable, that the crazy woman had put washing detergent in Nadya’s cereal and wouldn’t let Nina Petrovna see her own granddaughter.”

All this collective madness finds balance in Petrushevskaya’s superb narration: clever, sardonic and maternal, a terse, almost breezy, delivery with spare, tasteful description, and an economy reminiscent of other masterful meditations on troubled relationships: Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and Thomas Farber’s Who Wrote the Book of Love? Praise, too, for translator Anna Summers who renders these blunt tragicomedies with crisp phrasing and textured color appropriate to their wretched situations: “The baby was covered with a septic rash—his whole little head felt like a cactus due to the tiny bumps.”

These unsparing, unbearably human stories would kick their way through a Las Vegas wedding chapel like a regiment of angry Spetsnaz, their ethos being that the brutal disappointments of modern life are simply unexceptional; shreds of love and companionship are small triumphs; a squalid affair is better than a spiteful marriage. But a few of these tales, at least, harbor shades of love, tenderness, affection, resolution, and forgiveness, the nitty gritty workaday side of living together that is part and parcel of redemption. I had to read the book twice to zero in on this fact because the first pass, despite Petrushevskaya’s sardonic flair, brought only a wave of depression, an impression of wicked, gleeful anti-love stories with unbelievable twists of suffering no one should have to live through. One especial example is the tale of “Milgrom”:

“Her husband dumped her, literally kicked her out of the house, and took away her child, a little boy. First he took Milgrom out of her Lithuanian village—she was a rare beauty, sixteen years old, but she didn’t speak any Russian, just Yiddish and Polish—and then he divorced her; you could do that then—with total freedom he went and divorced her. And he brought another woman to live with him and told Milgrom to leave. So she left. She was eighteen years old. She nearly went crazy; she spent all her days and nights on the street across from her old window so she could see her child.”

Yet Milgrom—years later an old crone and expert seamstress—is able to bring happiness to a clumsy, unskilled girl who is starting to feel her own beauty for the first time. Milgrom sews her a garment worthy of her young spirit:

“The girl puts on her dress; looks in the mirror; escapes from that sweet-musty smell, out into the street, the sunset; and walks by countless doors and windows, behind each of which, she thinks, live only Milgroms, Milgroms, Milgroms. She walks in her cool new black dress, and she is seized with happiness, filled with joy.”

It’s those rare gems of happiness that illuminate, and sometimes ennoble, these mad stories, the silver linings to their gray, leering cloudscapes.

1 Translation from Russian by Alex Cigale (as published by Offcourse at http://www.albany.edu/offcourse)

2 from Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Pocket Books, 2004; trans. Constance Garnett).

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