Archive for the ‘Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’ Category

The New Adventures of Helen

February 17, 2022

The brutality of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s stories can be seen in the titles of her previous collections such as There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby and There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself. Even here, however, we can see the influence of the fairy tale, and, in her latest collection, The New Adventures of Helen (translated by Jane Bugaeva) she takes this one step further, leaving behind the frequently distressing realism that has characterised her work to write a series of ‘magical tales’.

The title story, for example, concerns the return to earth of Helen of Troy which, according to Petrushevskaya, happens once every thousand years. Fearing that “Helen’s rebirth was always followed by long, brutal wars, not to mention unpleasantries like the annihilation of entire nations” a wizard has crafted a magic mirror which renders any user invisible. Like a number of the stories, while it may not exactly be ‘feminist’, it certainly contains a commentary on the way women are viewed both in fiction and society. This begins when Helen, shortly after stepping from the sea like Aphrodite, decides that a prostitute she encounters is “the epitome of beauty,” going as far as using a piece of foil to replicate her gold tooth. The wizard, meanwhile, has planted the mirror at the market because:

“For a woman not to be drawn to a market was inconceivable.”

Naturally, he is correct, and Helen soon makes her way to the market where her beauty has every stall owner chasing after her – until, that is, she looks in the mirror:

“And instantly the golden light went out, and everyone lost interest in her.”

But, as Helen soon discovers, while “being beautiful wasn’t easy,”

“…being completely unnoticed was no picnic either.”

The story ends happily for Helen, who finds love without starting a war, just as it does for Nina, the protagonist of ‘Nose Girl’. Like Helen, Nina is very beautiful – apart from her large nose. She begs a wizard to rectify this, which he does at the price of her thumb. The way she is treated instantly changes, as evidenced on the train journey home:

“…she was offered a bottom bunk and gifted lemonade, bouquets of roses and several boxes of chocolates.”

But all she can think about is the young man she met on the train on her way to the wizard, so much so that she loses another digit asking the wizard to locate him, only to discover he is dying (and you will soon guess the price for saving his life…). Both Helen and Nina may be vain, but they are also resourceful and good hearted. The same is true of the (seventeen-year-old) queen in ‘The Prince with the Golden Hair’ who finds herself expelled from the palace because her son is born unexpectedly blonde. His hair is, of course, real gold, and also glows in the dark, qualities which, alongside her own quick wits, allow her to survive a series of adventures including a sea journey, a traveling circus, and a prison break.

The elderly Queen Lir (from the story of the same title) also undertakes, more voluntarily, a series of adventures. Here, more than ever, Petrushevskaya places her fairy tale characters in a contemporary setting, with cardboard pasta boxes, garbage trucks and walkie-talkies all mentioned on the opening pages. The Queen has no practical skills or knowledge having, for example, never cooked anything in her life, and asking at one point for “a phone that can make calls.” The comedy is, at times, slap stick, as when she decides to keep her clothes on when washing so they are washed too, and then proceeds to tip the wrong bucket (one she has been using as a toilet) over herself. Yet, although she is obviously the butt of the joke on this occasion, it feels as if Petrushevskaya admires her ability to survive against the odds – a trait that all her female characters share, including the sisters in ‘Nettle and Raspberry,’ who are rivals in love, and ‘Two Sisters’, who find themselves transformed from elderly women into children.

The final story, ‘The Story of an Artist’, initially feels a little out of place as it tells the tale of a penniless painter “so poor he couldn’t afford pencils or paper, let alone paint or brushes.” Here there is a genuine pathos to the poverty as the artist lives in “a small corner under the stairs” (a cupboard) having been swindled out of his apartment, and is harassed daily for the rent he owes for this tiny space. Petrushevskaya describes his existence with a detail that feels earned:

“The artist wandered the streets, resting on random stoops and retreating into stores for warmth…”

Here, too, though, an element of magic will come to his aid with echoes of the opening story as he discovers that what he paints immediately disappears.

The stories in The New Adventures of Helen are thoroughly entertaining, often funny, but still retain a vein of darkness (like all good fairy tales). While the contrast between her royal characters and the poverty of their subjects is generally used for comic effect it is also accusatory. Her heroines are far from paragons, but they are always admirable in their determination to survive and prosper. Above all, it is a treat to have more of her work available in English.

The Girl from the Metropol Hotel

January 29, 2018

Reading Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s memoir of her childhood, The Girl from the Metropol Hotel, I found myself thinking of J G Ballard. Like Petrushevskaya, Ballard’s family had a sudden fall from grace, from a position of privilege to one of day-to-day survival, when they were interned by the Japanese after the invasion of Shanghai. Yet as a young boy Ballard found many aspects of his new life suited him:

“Lunghua camp may have been a prison of a kind, but it was a prison where I found freedom.”

Petrushevskaya, born on the cusp of the same war, existed in the equally precarious Soviet Union of Stalin. Her family, pre-revolution Bolsheviks (her great-grandfather, Dedya, joined the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party in 1898), were privileged enough to live in the Metropol Hotel, as translator Anna Summers explains in her introduction:

“After the October Revolution, the famed building was designated the Second House of Soviets. For many years it housed the Party government and prominent revolutionaries, like the author’s great-grandfather.”

In an interview in the New Yorker, Petrushevskaya has described the misfortunes visited on her family during her childhood:

“Until the age of nine I had nothing—just one ancient dress. I went hungry, ran around barefoot from April to October, even begged. We were a family of “Enemies of the People.” That was what they called those who had been accused of political crimes and sent to the camps. Three of my relatives had been accused of spying for the Japanese, and were executed. Later, my great-grandfather was assassinated in the middle of Moscow, pushed under a car.”

The Girl from the Metropol Hotel covers this period in her life, beginning when her grandmother, mother and aunt return to their apartment at the Metropol to find it sealed:

“If they had returned an hour earlier they would have been taken. But my family is always late.”

Such moments of ‘good luck’, perhaps precisely because of the relentless poverty which follows, are scattered throughout Petrushevskaya’s story, for example the luck of the train’s guard choosing to travel with them in the cattle car they occupy as they are evacuated from Moscow, bringing with him a small stove. Even her mother being able to return to Moscow where she has been offered a place at the Institute of Theatre Arts (“It was a miracle”) is presented as good luck (she is offered a lift on a train and must leave immediately without any chance to say goodbye):

“I waited for my mother day and night. She returned four years later.”

Life is hard. Petrushevskaya runs barefoot through the summer, but this is not possible in winter and so she cannot attend school. At night she is sent to search through her neighbour’s rubbish for food.

“During the day, like many unsupervised children, I begged in the street. I tolerated hunger reasonably well; we’d been starving for a long time.”

Eventually her grandmother becomes so concerned about her roaming the streets she locks her in her room, but she manages to get onto the neighbouring balcony and down the fire escape:

“I could tolerate hunger, but I couldn’t tolerate lack of freedom.”

In 1947 she returns with her mother to Moscow and the Metropol but, as she says: “A new life was beginning. There was no room in it for me.” and soon she is packed off to summer camp, “a place I couldn’t escape from”:

“The rules of the wild courtyard where I grew up were simple: run, grab, swallow, hide; meet a punch with a punch; if someone calls you, don’t go. Camp regulations couldn’t be more different.”

In the years which follow Petrushevskaya struggles to settle in any institution, summer camp or school, on every occasion expelled from the Young Pioneers. She refuses to be confined, describing the “terror” she feels when locked in a room: “I screamed and threw myself at the door for hours.” Like Ballard she finds it difficult to return to ‘normal’ life. As she tries it fit in Petrushevkaya writes about herself in the third person:

“I cannot describe the girl’s appearance. Appearances cannot reveal inner life, and the girl, who was twelve at the time, led a constant inner monologue, making decisions literally each second – what to say, where to sit, how to answer – with a single purpose: to be like the other children, to avoid being kicked and shunned.”

The Girl from the Metropol Hotel takes us to the point where Petrushevkaya’s writing career is just beginning, encouraged, as so often, by one teacher. Despite the frequently bleak circumstances of her life (and the bleakness of her fiction) it’s difficult not to see her story as one of hope, where survival and art are inextricably entwined. As she says herself: “one needs to study life – before writing about it.”

There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In

August 3, 2015


August is, once again, Women in Translation month, an opportunity to highlight some great women writers but also acknowledge the particular difficulties faced by women in being translated into English. While the gender barriers facing women writers who write in English have diminished (though inequality often remains as to how their work is perceived once in print), an unreasonably low percentage of literature translated into English (and that’s already an unreasonably low percentage of what is published) is by women. If you’re looking for a piece of literature which demonstrates the difficulties faced by women writers, however, you would be hard-pressed to beat Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s novella ‘The Time is Night’ which is the centre piece of her newest collection from Penguin Classics, There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In.

The narrator of The Time is Night, Anna, is a poet who spends most of her time surviving poverty and her troublesome family rather than writing. The pram in the hall for her is the grandson, Tima, abandoned to her care, but, as she tells him, she remains somehow responsible for her mother and two children as well:

“But I must work, my little one – your Anna needs to provide for you, and for Granny Sima; Alena at least is using your child support and doesn’t bleed me for more. But Andrey, my beloved son, what about him? I must give him something, mustn’t I? For his injured foot (more on that later), for his life ruined in prison.”

To say ‘the story is narrated by’ doesn’t convey the experience of the reader: Anna’s narrative reads like an inner monologue, sometimes addressed to Tima, at other times simply to herself, moving back in time to recall the misfortunes’ of her family (Alena’s pregnancies and Andrey’s prison sentence) as well as detailing the difficulties of the present. While her own resilience is in evidence, there is plenty of vitriol to go with the love she feels for her children:

“Breaking into sobs, my daughter enumerated the sums she lived on, as if to say that we, Tima and I, were living in luxury while she was homeless. A home for her, I told her calmly, should come from the dick that knocked her up and then skipped off because no-one can stand her two days in a row.”

Men receive particularly short shrift: abusive, drunken, and with a tendency to disappear when needed. Anna nicknames Alena’s husband ‘the dud’:

“For god’s sake, my darling girl, kick him out! We’ll manage! What do we need him for? To stuff his face with our food? So you could humiliate yourself night after night begging his forgiveness?”

If this sounds rather desperate (it is) and bleak (it is), I can also say that it is riveting. Partly this is a kind of jaw-dropping astonishment at the pile up of horror upon horror, but it is also the vitality of the voice (credit to the translator Anna Summers) even in its moments of hate and anger. Strangely, it’s not without humour, for example when Anna reads her daughter’s diary with her own bracketed asides. The final section, where Anna attempts to prevent her mother being moved hospital and bring her home, becomes a kind of grotesque comedy.

‘The Time is Night’ is accompanied by two short stories, ‘Chocolates with Liqueur’ and ‘Among Friends’ (they’re described as novellas but neither is long enough). The first tells the story of a failed relationship (Petrushevskaya seems to allow no other kind). As in all three stories, living space is at a premium, and who is registered to live where is of enormous importance. In the story’s first chapter, the husband, Nikita, returns every night at seven to spend two hours in ‘his’ room. The second chapter returns to the beginning of their relationship, Nikita’s courtship, and the marriage which follows:

“Nikita needed a slave who would cost him nothing and whom he could kick whenever he wanted.”

The story is apparently a tribute to Edgar Allan Poe and ends in suitably gothic fashion.

The final story tells of a group of friends who meet every Friday for many years, their relationships slowly deteriorating. Initially it seems as dispiriting as everything that has gone before, but ultimately it is about a dying mother’s desire to safeguard her son – though in such a way as to suggest little faith in humanity.

I loved the stories in this volume: through their cynicism and despair some desperate but irrepressible life force still shines; it’s that force which continued to write.