Ludmilla Petrushevskaya: There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In: Three Novellas About Family, transl. Anna Summers
I had heard of Petrushevskaya and her bleak, almost allegorical tales of striving and surviving against all odds, with no hope of redemption, no greater purpose. My Russian friend, who often has a similarly dark and cynical outlook on life, does not like her – perhaps because she cannot come to terms with the way Petrushevskaya pokes fun at the sacred subject of motherhood. Additionally, there is also perhaps a certain ‘tough love’ approach in Russia to the down-and-outs of society – why have they not helped themselves, why are they not resilient enough? – and it’s precisely these people that the author chooses to feature in her stories. The ones that Soviet society refused to acknowledge even existed (and Petrushevskaya’s work was banned for most of the Soviet period), the ones that have now been forgotten or abandoned by the new Russia. The author has often described herself as simply ‘taking down the stories’, a ‘documentary writer’, capturing the essence of everyday life, particularly for women, in Russia.
This collection features a longer novella The Time Is Night and two shorter ones, Chocolates with Liqueur and Among Friends. They are all not just acidic portrayals of domestic violence, betrayals and dysfunctional families, but also an indictment of social services (or lack thereof) and the housing situation, for example, in cities like Moscow, which give rise to such unbearable situations.
In Chocolates with Liqueur, Nikita abandons his wife Lelia and their two children, but they all have to continue to live together in their two-room apartment, because they have nowhere else to go. No wonder that Nikita starts harbouring murderous intentions so he can free up the space for himself and his new lover, or else his own mother and sister. The poisoned chocolates are merely the culmination of years of abuse, which the neighbours all knew about but refused to get involved. The story was deliberately written as an homage to Edgar Allan Poe, but there is something jarringly off-hand, even jaunty, in the way the poisoned chocolates are discussed.
The friends in Among Friends have been meeting for years and years every Friday in the flat of one couple whom they all admire. They deliberately try to stay away from discussing politics, because they know that one of them is an informer. As the years go by, people fail to achieve their initial promise, while relationships between couples are dissolved and new couples are formed, sometimes, awkwardly, from within the same circle of friends. The narrator spares no one with her acerbic comments, especially not her good-for-nothing husband, who has finally divorced her. She is convinced she will die soon, everyone in her family has died young, and she is afraid that no one will look after her son.
My parents had raised him [her son], surrounded him with love and care. And how he is to remain completely alone, for I am going to leave soon, too, and as for Kolya, I can’t rely on him to take care of our son. Kolya, so generous and kind to the otehrs, quickly gets bored and irritable at home and yells at Alesha, especially at mealtimes. In addition, Kolya was preparing to leave us…
Despite her criticism of all of her friends, in the end she has no one else to turn to when it comes to deciding her son’s future, although the action she takes may strike most readers as rather extreme.
The novella that relies less on sudden shocking scenes but more on a steady drip-drip-drip of grimness is The Time Is Night and it is also the one that speaks most to me, describing the constant struggle and contradiction between art and life. Anna is the heroine of the story, but we are reading the diaries she left behind after her death. She is caught in that horrible bind of middle-aged carers – between her senile mother, her young grandson, her grown-up but demanding and parasitic children. She does all sorts of hack jobs to make ends meet, a poet who struggles to turn the rotten straw of her daily life into the gold of poetry, and whose family despises her writing. She is not a likable person, at times she brings her bad fortune upon herself, is often bitter and cruel, has no doubts that she is always right and the others are weak sops.
Only at night could I experience the joy of motherhood. I’d creep over to their beds and listen to their breathing, inhale their scent, adore the in silence.
The misery is not quite unrelenting: there are extracts from the daughter’s old diaries with the typical teenage whingeing; there is a ridiculous conversation with a ‘bard’ when Anna gets invited to give a poetry reading at a children’s winter camp. But the monologue gets more and more frenzied, following a mad dash to stop the schizophrenic grandmother from being shipped off to an asylum out of town. Finally unable to keep the various strands of her life together, we assist in Anna’s comprehensive, spectacular unravelling. There is no safety net other than family and friends, but they are also the ones most likely to let you down.
I can’t say I ‘enjoyed’ these tales of everyday suffering, but I respected what the author was trying to achieve. It is high time these stories are made visible, the stories we usually tell ourselves in whispers, horrified that they can happen to anyone we know well. There is an extreme, almost performative element to these stories, the very opposite of the restraint we typically associate with English literature. The style of storytelling is imbued with Russian fatalism and vicious exchanges of dialogue, yet I am sure that many of these tales are as universal as folk tales… and just as dark and scary.