Censorship has always been a boon to an artist’s reputation. It has been particularly beneficial to Soviet artists.
At home, censorship was a badge of honor, proof of one’s uncompromising artistic authenticity. Abroad, it secured lucrative publishing deals. If an artist was lucky enough to be forced into exile, then the United States, the land of the free and the brave (take that, Khrushchev), would make you their poet laureate (Brodsky), or at least offer you a Harvard Commencement address (Solzhenitsyn).
Either way, he was bound to win a Nobel. Today, almost 20 years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, little has changed. While the official, state-sponsored Socialist Realists have all but been expunged from history, it is these formally banned artists of the Cold War that have been christened the true artists of Russia.
So it is no surprise that when a translated collection of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s “scary fairy tales”, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby, was published by Penguin Books last October, it was met with resounding reviews. At 72, Petrushevskaya is a relatively late émigré to the English literary scene, but she arrives carrying the requisite overstuffed suitcase of hardships: familial losses to the Great Terror of the ’30s, starvation throughout the Great Patriotic War of the ’40s, followed by early widowhood in her 30s and, of course, decades and decades of censorship.
Surveying these hardships, quizzically, like souvenirs from a distant, enchanted land, The Nation concludes that yes, indeed, Petrushevskaya has the “legitimate qualifications for literary greatness”. Immigration granted. Similarly, Dissent traced “the arc of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s life,” an arc which “stretches over seven tumultuous decades of Russian history” and concludes with her becoming “one of Russia’s boldest and most versatile writers.”
In case you, shrewd, discerning reader, still had reservations, the editors and translators of the collection, Keith Gessen and Anna Summers, assure in their “Introduction” that Petrushevskaya’s “stories have entered university curricula in Russia and in the West;” and that, really, truly, without “exaggeration…Petrushevsakaya is Russia’s best-known living writer.” Never mind that this collection is her first English book in 20 years, indeed her first-ever release by a mainstream English publisher.
Reading all this, how could I not too trumpet a triumphant review of this work, especially as a young, ‘budding’ reviewer, with water between my ears and zero trackbacks to my name (not to mention anything of retweets). If I do not also promote Petrushevskaya, am I not siding with the Soviet henchmen that kept her under wraps for so many years? Or worse, am I philistine, unable to appreciate the subtleties of her craft?
Furthermore, when only three percent of all books published in the United States are in translation, isn’t it my duty, as a citizen of the international republic of letters, to do everything I can for those miserly three percent that are published? Such is the predicament of humble, lowly reviewers. What follows is one reviewer’s attempt to work through this predicament.
There Once Lived a Woman… is not a collection one would immediately describe as a work of a dissident. The short stories within do not confront the Gulags or Stalinism, do not openly criticize Soviet ideology, promote the West, or feature inept Soviet apparatchiki. Politically, Petrushevskaya is no Solzhenitsyn. Aesthetically, though, she stands directly opposed to the Soviet Union’s strict diction of acceptable literature, in ways that Solzhenitsyn never did.
Focusing on the lives of ordinary Soviet citizens, Petrushevskaya transforms their daily frustrations into fantastically gothic stories. Thus, the routine food and supply shortages that haunted the Soviet Union since its earliest days are re-imagined as a post-apocalyptic survival tales (“Hygiene”, and “The New Robinson Crusoes”); and, in “Revenge”, the close quarters of communal apartments breed murderous contempt between two old friends.
So whereas Solzhenitsyn is, ultimately, both a socialist (he is concerned with society-at-large, with the big ‘social problems’) and a realist (he writes in a natural, realist mode inherited, like his beard, from the 19th century), Petrushevskaya is neither socialist nor realistic. Or rather, she uses her individual protagonists (often denoted simply as “woman”, “mother, “ father”, “man”) archetypically, as stand-ins for the Soviet man —- the true drunk, cruel, negligent, miserly Soviet man, not the sober ideal one of Socialist Realism — and fantasy to better illustrate the sheer unreality in which this Soviet man finds himself.
The results are a kind of urban fairy tales (or “real fairy tales”, as Petrushevskaya prefers to call them) that, like all fairy tales, reveal an elementary truth about the world we live in. Certainly it was this mixture of the quotidian and the quixotic, the personal and the universal that made Petrushevskaya such a controversial figure (as Gessen and Sommers point out, the same editors that serialized Solzhenitsyn refused to print Petrushevskaya). It certainly is her strength.
A writer’s greatness, though, is not measured by her strengths but by her weaknesses, and Petrushevskaya has her share. Much has been made of her artistic range by her editors and reviewers: aside from short stories, she has also written novels, poems, plays, and staged solo cabaret performances. Unfortunately, such diversity is absent from There Once Lived a Woman…. There are 19 stories in the collection, divided into four sections, but most follow a standard formula: the loss of a beloved leads the grieved to acquaint oneself with the supernatural before resuming his or her ordinary life.
Such is the premise of “The Arm”, about a colonel who is visited by his recently deceased wife; of the “Incident at Sokolniki”, about a widow whose dead husband comes back from the war; of “A Mother’s Farewell”, about a young man aided by his long-dead half-sister—and this in just the first 20 pages. In all instances, the rendezvous with the dead provides closure to the living; they resume their normal life, having accepted their fate. These may be dramatization of the resignation of the Russian soul, but in their repetitiveness they are the resignation of the reader.
Additionally, though the collection spans 30 years, including work from Petrushevskaya’s Soviet and post-Soviet days, it is nearly impossible to determine which were written when. On the one hand, this consistency, if you prefer, testifies to the timelessness of the Russian condition. On the other hand, it reveals an aging writer’s inability to grapple with a post-Soviet reality uniquely, to appreciate the new in new terms. (Admittedly, this paralysis is common to most Russian intellectuals over 40; again, see Solzhenitsyn for the quintessential example of a Soviet-era dissident unable to adjust to the present situation.)
Some variation is had in the last section, “Fairy Tales”. The pieces here are generally the longest in the book, allowing Petrushevskaya to spin her imagination freely. Yet by indulging her imagination, she loosens the thread between the real and the fantastical that made her work so poignant. For the appeal of her best stories is how they, through a dash of enchantment, uncannily estrange a historical moment. Stories like “The Cabbage-patch Mother”, about a woman who finds a tiny girl in her cabbage and “Marliena’s Secret”, about two sisters cursed to live as one fat woman by a jealous wizard, are devoid of this mirror-effect. They do not reflect or refract a specific reality but renounce reality wholesale, and with it their political edge.
Ultimately, these stories were not intended to sustain such critical scrutiny. Condense in form and plot, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby is best approached as an assortment of appetizing little vignettes, best enjoyed compulsively, in one gulp, rather than chewed over. For in their plain, colloquial language, they evoke, in Petrushevskaya’s own words, the urgent hastiness of bus conversations, with the speaker “making sure you come to the point before the bus stops and the other person has to get off.” As everyone from the U.S.A. to the U.S.S.R. knows, the important thing is to make sure to get off the bus before the old babushka grasps your thigh with her horny, wrinkled palm, turns her withered face to you, and starts spinning one of her ole yarns.