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

  • Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, selected and translated by Anna Summers
  • Penguin Books
  • 192 pp.

The author’s newest collection of short stories follows women as they live out dreams and illusions in their pursuit of Cupid.

Reviewed by Maria Kontak

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s new collection of short stories has been skillfully translated for the English reader by Anna Summers under another of her trademark eye-popping titles. The 70-plus-year-old Russian author and playwright — widely lauded for an earlier collection There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby — whisks her readers into intimate cramped spaces, amidst domestic shuffles and scents. There Russian women put bread on the family table and a roof over their heads as they live out dreams and illusions in their pursuit of Cupid.

The love theme winds about the reader like yarn into a ball. Compact, compressed, tidy words and plots emerge, whether inside a Russian communal apartment or barebones Black Sea resort. The love that Petrushevskaya’s heroines lavish is not always carnal. It is squandered on faithless, often alcoholic mates, street con-artists, and ungrateful offspring alike. The cast of characters, predominantly female, ranges from young to old, homeless to dirt poor to modestly well-to-do. Fierce lovers, a heroine does not shrink from collecting refuse from vegetable vendors to make stew for her beloved. For the most part the heroines are struggling wives and mothers but include a landlady or two, conjuring up both Dostoevsky and Gogol.

But if the author’s forerunners coalesce against the grim reality that defines Petrushevskaya’s heroines’ lot — and fate is never far away from a Russian heart — it is Chekhov’s shadow that flits across the page, principally in the author’s use of irony. Unlike Gogol, whose irony alternates between pathos and the absurd, Petrushevskaya’s irony stays on the human plane, never absurd, sometimes playful and often humorous. Irony is never far away. Sometimes dramatically announced at the beginning of a story — and beginnings are among the tastiest morsels in this collection — irony colors each story.

The telling of the story is compressed. No expansiveness in exposition or dialogue, reminding the reader that Petrushevskaya spent much of her life in the theater. Like a well-structured play, her stories, with their weighty and sometimes dark subject matter, unfold briskly, tersely or as in ‘Like Penelope,’ fancifully, poetically. “Like Penelope” opens ironically: “There once lived a girl …” like a fairytale. The allusion to this literary genre, purportedly among the oldest, is not accidental. Petrushevskaya knows how to craft fairy tales, on her own terms of course, as shown in her story “I’m Here,” from a collection of new fairy tales featuring dozens of authors (My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, edited by Kate Bernheimer). It was, after all, Petrushevskaya’s most famous fairy tale, “Skazka skazok” (“Fairy Tale of Fairy Tales”), which was made into a film by Yury Norshteyn and broadened the author’s fame.

In addition to fairy tales, fables and Greek myth filter into Petrushevskaya’s stories. The classical allusion to Homer’s Muse in the Iliad at the beginning of “Father and Mother” is hard to resist: “Where do you live, light-footed Tanya?” But Petrushevskaya’s craft is not static. Dramatic shifts in tone and point of view crop up frequently. In the course of “The Fall,” for instance, the “we” becomes “they”; in ‘The Adventures of Vera,” the “I” becomes “the girl.”

Petrushevskaya’s endings are often baffling and unpredictable, and love for Petrushevskaya remains elusive, confused or frustrated. As the title suggests, these stories are not for those who prefer happy endings. And yet, once in a while, Petrushevskaya pleasantly surprises her reader.

A master craftsman, Petrushevskaya is also a master portraitist. Her heroes, even if they are not provided more than initials, A.A. in “The Goddess Parka” and “Tamara’s Baby,” and reminiscent of Gogol’s hapless bureaucrat A.A. (Akakiy Akakyevich) in “The Overcoat,” are never caricatures. And even if they are named after classic heroines like Clarissa or Penelope, readers should beware of irony to come.

No two stories are alike, despite the general theme. But one story in this collection of 17 sets itself apart: “Hallelujah Family,” summarized in the collection’s title. It is the only story in this collection to number plot events, a technique popular among 20th-century writers with roots that reach to the Bible’s numbered chapters and verses.

Thus, freshness frames the portraits of tired Russian women who reign and dream to the point of hallucination. Their untiring essence, conveyed in incisive dialogue, terse similes and flawless exposition, fills the page. They are always at the core and at their core is every man’s core. The ungovernable heart with its individual squeaks and moans sets a hypnotic beat for the reader as he flips from page to page. But intense writing just as intense living takes its toll, so when the reader flips the last page of the 17th story he may well echo Petrushevskaya’s observation in “A Happy Ending”: “Polina — and this was her main problem — was tired of people.” At least until the reader picks up another Petrushevskaya gem.

Maria Kontak holds a Ph.D. in Russian literature from the University of Michigan, has a career in international business and is active in the writing community. She has published short stories and is working on a novel.


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