Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

“The collection’s subtitle, Love Stories, is apt not in the sense that many people end up with love and happiness, but in the sense that the characters — uniformly underpaid, underhoused, underappreciated, and low on groceries — have nothing to hope for but love, the one resource that can’t be rationed. They live in cramped city apartments, assigned to them by the state, with one or two generations of their family, and work in thankless jobs. The most depressing love affairs — emotionless, unrequited, exploitative — shine with promise in these settings.”

Today, Janet Potter reviews Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's There Once Lived A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself for us.

 There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories
Author: Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Genre: Romance, general; contemporary fiction
My Rating: ★★★ (specifically, 2.5 of 5 stars)

Short stories possess a kind of magic that novels sometimes do not have. The worlds in them seem smaller because of their length, but I came to realize that this is nothing but a hypercritical verdict: the worlds in them are in truth so much bigger, as there is a plethora of possibilities hanging at the ledge of every tale’s abrupt end. The readers often get to be the mind-pilots when they reach the said ledge, imagining what would happen past the borders. These tales are like tiny pieces of a universe pulled apart and made to stand alone. The very good ones are strong enough to make a reader believe they do not need to be a part of something bigger in order to do what volumes of others could, from something as small as scraping the reader’s heart to something as large as totally changing someone’s life.  Imagine what an anthology of these kinds of stories would be like!

But let us keep in mind that a tale’s power is directly tied to its effect to the audience. In the end, it is still a matter of preference and taste—what can reduce you to tears may only be able to make me arch an eyebrow; what can make me laugh like there is no tomorrow may only make you shrug.
Considering this, I believe that Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s ’s anthology There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories may be regarded as a powerful collection, but one whose clout does not quite hit my heart’s bull’s eye nor grabbed at my interest for long. (The title did arrest my curiosity, I’ll admit, but it was its contents that I have a few concerns with.)

Don’t get me wrong: the stories have a lot to offer. They bring forth a blend of bittersweetness, hope, desperation, grit, heartbreak. They flash facets of histories of women who sought, found, and lost love in a variety of places and situations: seedy apartments that witnessed infidelities, hasty and messy one-night stands, hesitant romances in corporate bubbles, trysts crutched by temporary bliss, and label-less relationships. They feature an assortment of women, too—there are strong ones, “weak” ones , and those lodged in between. But even though there is a lengthy list of rave reviews for this anthology and the one that preceded it (There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales), I cannot seem to find a concrete element in it that will make me cherish it as something that is utterly remarkable.

I think my main concern with the whole thing is that even though the stories are meant to be stand-alones, the characters (and in effect, the situations they are in) seem to bleed into each other. And I am not talking in a seamless, spin-off-like Venn Diagram way either. It was as if there is a handful of templates for characters that get recycled for the individual tales, as though there is a lone element that make them identical in voice and demeanor.

The result, for me, is that there is no character that stood out. Well-written characters are vital for short stories because they often drive the whole tale with them. Like what I said in the beginning of this review, there might be a bigger universe outside a short story’s concrete margins when it reaches the end, but the space where characters could establish themselves as beings worthy of being remembered is very small. The process of character creation and/or development should happen here—it could not extend to those unseen margins.

I liked how each story unfolded, though. The successions of every scene hold a flavor of honesty and simplicity; their undemanding messages could be conveyed to their audience effortlessly. Remembering these bits as something notable could be a lot easier if their anchors—the characters, of course—are as strongly knitted as they are.

Cross-posted to my blogspot.

I dropped into the library on a whim and found this - since reading Petrushevskaya’s short story collection There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby a couple of months ago I’ve wanted to get my hands on more of her work. This is her newest collection, There Once Lived A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself. I love these books for their titles if nothing else (but there’s plenty more to love. Trust me. Just read them.)

(Go on.)

July far

For the past week, I’ve been moping around covered in Icy Hot and slightly high off of pain killers due to a weird back injury so I’ve been reading like a champ. Let’s see if I can keep this up for the rest of the year, minus the crippling back pain.

#15: There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill her Neighbor’s Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. So, this was really weird. It’s a collection of “scary” fairy tales. They are stark, simple and genuinely kind of horrifying. Beware.

#16: The Collected Stories of Carson McCullers. Carson McCullers is a god to me since she gave the world The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and changed my love of literature forever. Her stories are equally as beautiful. If you’re a fan, these stories are essential to your life.

#17: When You are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris. I’m like 40% sure I read this book already so I don’t know if it’s a good thing that I couldn’t really remember? Either way, I always enjoy Sedaris for some light, entertaining writing and he does it well.

#18: When a Woman Loves a Man by David Lehman. I’ve been on a poetry binge for the past week and this was satisfying. I’m definitely on the hunt for more of his work.

#19: The Trouble with Poetry by Billy Collins. Billy Collins is my favorite poet currently alive today so I’ve never read anything written by him that I didn’t love. This wasn’t my favorite collection but it was still perfect.

The cycles are written in very different keys, making them difficult to classify, but a subtitle Petrushevskaya used for one of her longer fantastic tales, “The Possibilities of Menippea,” points to a common source. The ancient Greek Menippus once visited Hades, and since then the satirical genre named after him has often been said to include visits to the literal or social underworld. These visits are called nekyia, a night journey. …In this collection, nearly every story is a form of nekyia. Characters depart from physical reality under exceptional circumstances: during a heart attack, childbirth, a major psychological shock, a suicide attempt, a car accident. Under tremendous duress, they become propelled into a parallel universe, where they undergo experiences that can only be described allegorically, in the form of a parable or fairy tale.
—  Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Introduction to There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby, trans. Keith Gessen & Anna Summers.

Final sentences: 

It was in a dream, though, that it happened, and dreams don’t count.

From “The Fountain House

[She walked lightly and happily, not crying, not thinking about the future, not worrying about anything.] As though she’d passed the hardest test of her life.

from “The Miracle

And here, on the face of the dying woman, she saw a smile slowly dawn.

From “Revenge

‘She didn’t even want to run into that army regiment again, and in fact she didn’t want to see anyone again, or if she did see someone she didn’t want to know who it was, hoped she be unable to distinguish between the young, pale, calm faces in the circle dance, flying free like her - and hoping not to meet anyone at all anymore, in this kingdom of the dead, and hoping never to learn just how much they grieved in that other kingdom, of the living.’

Once upon a time I thought Angela Carter’s work was dark, then I picked up this book and realised that things could get a whole lot worse. 

Most of the stories centre around death in all its forms and they’re just so strange and eerie, I want to read Petrushevskaya’s newest book, There Once Was a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself, but I have to wait arghHhh.