Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s stories are not about dissidents or defectors. They are about something far more dangerous to the Soviet ideal: ordinary people. The short stories in There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories confront the farce of a system that took away more than it ever gave.
In Petrushevskaya’s stories the communal living situations—grown children squeezed on cots in hallways, couples having sex in the same room as a grandparent—reflect the characters’ lives as they try to find space to develop in a stunted society.
Written between 1972 and 2008, these seventeen stories are haunted by the legacy of communal living. The Soviets abolished private property and divided and re-divided apartments that once housed single families until generations were living on top of each other. It is in this setting that a mother in “The Goddess Parka” sends away her grown daughter’s suitors because “where would the newlyweds sleep — under mama’s bed?”
Despite the book’s subhead, these are not love stories. They are snapshots and stolen scenes of the heartache of everyday life, painful interactions played out in public. Their intimacy leaves the reader both embarrassed for the characters’ desperate acts and feeling guilty for our own unfettered view. And yet, like gossip overheard on the metro, we lean in closer, as these private scenes are forced onto the public under Soviet leadership. The characters are stripped of self-respect and modesty, just as they are stripped of the space to develop and grow, wasted by a system that sacrifices individuals for the sake of a forced community. The desperation Petrushevskaya describes is matter of fact and accepted. It is weighty, but the words she uses are light and the sentences short.
In “A Murky Fate,” a single woman in her 30s has an affair with an unattractive and inattentive married man. She sees him for what he is and their tryst for what it is, and understands the future will bring her pain. But she also finds a sliver of happiness in the present, and the day after their encounter “she cried with happiness and couldn’t stop.”
The fate of this woman and Petrushevskaya’s other characters is all the more devastating because they are true, based on real people’s lives. Born in Moscow in 1938, Petrushevskaya has worked as a journalist as well as a playwright and author. She has been described as a contemporary Russian voice comparable to past heavy-weights like Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov. Although the Soviet system she grew up under disintegrated more than two decades ago, it lingers in her pen and in the mindset of her characters. In describing the little injustices, she offers not an excuse, but an explanation for human failure. The young girl in “Milgrom” can never raise her hand in school because of the sweat stains on her second-hand dress. The country men in “The Goddess Parka” quit work to become full-time alcoholics after being “tormented by rumors about fabulous Moscow wages.” It is no wonder her writing was banned until 1988.
The story from which the book’s title is drawn is actually called “Hallelujah, Family!” It reads like a fable, a series of unfortunate events that cannot be altered. Petrushevskaya recounts the dire circumstances in a series of numbered paragraphs, further emphasizing the unavoidability of the story’s conclusion. Petrushevskaya’s prose is sparse, and it is in the space between her words, the space her characters were never allowed, that one sees the truth of what is not said.
Happiness in these stories is bittersweet: a sixth suicide attempt that leaves the character feeling “fresh as a daisy” in “Ali-Baba”; a relationship all the more deep because it is doomed in “The Fall”; a happy girl who cannot see the loneliness of her future in “Milgrom.” And yet these characters are survivors, people who have been hurt so badly that their expectations have been diminished. And for that they are lucky, because in Petrushevskaya’s world that means they may just be able to find contentment. The mother and father of Egor in “Two Deities” have been hardened by life but spare their son so “little Egor grew into a soft hearted boy without will or ambition.” In “Father and Mother,” the daughter Tanya grows up to find happiness despite adversity because all her hardships are nothing compared to the hatred she was exposed to as a child.
Anna Summers, who selected and translated the stories, describes Petrushevskaya’s childhood as unsettled and unhappy. Petrushevskaya was left with relatives and then dragged around Moscow with her mother who had no home of her own. Her fables are heartbreaking, but they are also beautiful and touching in describing how, if not love, at least companionship, can save the most lost souls.