“This is what happened…” Suddenly, we’re transported into a warm, cramped kitchen. We wrap our hands around a mug of coffee, move our faces over the rim and breath in the steam. Close your eyes for a moment. Then lean forward with eager anticipation. That is the kind of intimacy Ludmilla Petrushevskaya conjures with just four words. “This is what happened.” Her newest short story collection There Once Was A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, And He Hanged Himself: Love Stories is about what happened to who, where so-and-so ended up, and you will not believe what I heard. In a way, these are the stories that we tell each other everyday. Only Petrushevskaya’s narrator is telling them to us from the Soviet Moscow.
In reality, life doesn’t stop with a wedding, with a heroic action, or with happy coincidence, as in films, when a certain person misses his boat (Titanic) or, as in this case, when an unmarried woman of thirty-five decades decides to keep the child born of a random tryst with a boy of twenty.
That is where Ludmilla Petrushevskaya was born in 1938. Events from her life could easily be confused with the plots of her stories. Cramped, communal apartments; abandonment; hunger; death; poverty; and the constant, daily struggle to survive with soul intact – these are the dioramas she constructs for us out of her own experiences.
Polina’s life reached its final, happy phase when her aunt died and left Polina an inheritance.
And (as the title tells us) there’s also love, though mostly of the maternal variety. Despite (or perhaps because of) Petrushevskaya’s familiarity with the hardships of the men and women – mostly women – who she writes about, the stories aren’t depressing. Just the opposite. Like all “good” gossip, they contain both irony and the desire to entertain. The storytellers are devoid of malice, speaking with the sing-song cadence of a nursery rhyme. And while not all her characters find happiness, I believe they do achieve their fair portion of fulfillment.
At an age when most girls are sensitive to beauty and look for it everywhere, Clarissa was a primitive, absent-minded creature who stared openmouthed at trivial things, like the teacher wiping off the blackboard, and God knows what thoughts ran through her head.
There Once Was A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, And He Hanged Himself opens with Loving Petrushevskay, an introduction written by the translator Anna Summers. All stories need to stand on their own merit but having context can rewarding, particularly with this author. Because many of these stories contain the seed of autobiography. For a time Petrushevskay and her mother lived under a desk belonging to a madman (who happened to also be her grandfather). Though it’s not central to that story, one of her characters does the same. That can’t be an isolated occurence.
A mother brought her girl to a sanatorium for sickly children and then left. I was that girl.
Ludmilla’s 2009 collection of short stories: There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby (which I have not read) was subtitled “a collection of scary fairytales”. It made the New York Times bestseller list. I wouldn’t be surprised if this book did the same. Everything about this second collection is designed to engage and entertain… to draw the reader in and keep him.
Now pay attention. This is what happened…
Publisher: Penguin Books, New York (2013)
ISBN: 978 0 14 312152 7