There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby
translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers
Penguin: 206 pp., $15 paper
Her stories begin “there once lived a girl who was killed” or “there once lived a young man named Oleg who was left an orphan when his mother died.” All that is to say, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya fashions fairy tales into something sinister. Anything but dull, the stories twist and peak in odd places. They create nooks in which the reader can sit and think: What does this mean? What if I were dying? Can this story get any sadder?
In the fairy tale tradition, her characters face peculiar circumstances, but unlike old women living in shoes, these often-Russian characters are challenged by plagues, ghosts, gangs and bad dreams. For her, there is no goody-two-shoes, singalong sort of slap-happiness veiling a darker message. Her tales are always, unmistakably dark. Akin to Poe, she evokes haunting images and superhuman powers that often don’t save her characters but rather show their weakness, set them back or torture them just a bit.
Take a read, and really, after about two stories, you’ll want a couple of shots of vodka. Petrushevskaya, with a translator, answered questions about her new book, the sources of her stories and the writer’s life.
Where do your story ideas originate? Do you take them from people you know, or are they imagined?
I take them from life. But if we’re talking about the mystical stories, then most often they’re imagined or from dreams, mixed with reality. Part of the story “The Fountain House,” which appeared in the New Yorker, came from a dream I’d had about a wonderful house where the dead live.
Do you consider yourself a “dark” person or writer?
Official Soviet criticism and its higher-ups thought I was, which is why I was banned. And there are critics and readers who still think so. Recently, one librarian burst out: “I love you! But I can’t read you.” But I work in different genres: At my plays, people laugh; I have hundreds of funny nursery rhymes and tales for kids; and poems and essays. But there is one genre that is definitely tragic, and that is the short story, what we call “novellas” in Russian. It must create a shock in the reader, so that she will remember. You can say that of some of Joyce’s stories in his “Dubliners,” or Nabokov’s stories, including “Spring in Fialta.” So I’m following this general path.
How old were you when you began to write stories?
I managed to write my first real story when I was 30, when I already had a son. He opened up a whole new world for me -- the world of the suffering and fears of another human being. I was able to understand a lot from that. The story was about a family in which the father was raping his daughter -- it wasn’t published until 20 years later.
How did the changes in the political and social structure of the Soviet Union affect your writing?
My work was finally published. My first book came out when I was 50.
In “A New Soul,” which is in this new collection, the character Grisha has an extra eye in his neck that cries tears. What does that represent? Is the story about renewal?
I don’t know. It’s a mystical story. In reality, I knew a woman who had a tear duct in her neck. I used that detail to tell the story of a man who was lost between two worlds.
What is it about your everyday life that inspires you?
It can be the story a friend tells me, or some memory, or a walk in the park. Or it can be because Russian Vogue asked me to do something (as happened not long ago). They want a Christmas story. I like this genre very much, and I write a New Year’s tale every year -- with a happy ending.